We are now less than a week from the greatest day of the year, opening day, and our hearts are starting to beat a little faster. It is time to preview the rest of the the Rays divisional rivals. Rather than have us rant about the inadequacies of the other teams and how jealous we are of their payrolls, we decided we would call in the experts. Over the next four days a different guest writer will preview his/her team. We have turned to our favorite team blogs for writers that would provide an entertaining, passionate and completely biased view. (click “continue reading” at bottom for the complete post)

Up next: The Boston Red Sox. Our guest author is Jeff Kuhn of The House That Dewey Built. First off we were initially attracted to The House That Dewey Built because of the name. Jeff is a true Sox fan. He is not part of this new generation of pink hat-wearing Red Sox Nation, that annoys us so much (we are certain it annoys Jeff also). Personally, I have always had an affection for the Sox. The first baseball game I ever attended was a July 4, 19XX game at Fenway Park. It is still my oldest childhood memory. And while Dewey was never our favorite Red Sox (I was a Yaz kid) you have to respect a site that honors Dwight Evans. Unfortunately, my sister who was born in Boston, is still a huge Sox fan, but I don’t hold it against her, because she does not own a pink Red Sox hat (Here she is sitting in Big Papi’s locker). Jeff has a great site that has been around since before anybody knew what blogging was and is the place we hit up first whenever we need to get caught up on all things Red Sox. Enjoy…


2007 Boston Red Sox Preview

Two-thousand six was pretty much a lost season for the Red Sox. A dizzying rash of injury hit in late July, and combined with either the inability or unwillingness of the front office to complement what proved to be a flawed team with some additional firepower, lead to the first sub-second place finish for the Bostonians since before Bill Clinton was impeached.

With almost Swiss-like precision, the Red Sox lost Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Tim Wakefield, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, and Alex Gonzalez to injury of varying degrees (from heart palpitations for Ortiz, to biceps tears for Nixon, to lymphoma for Lester) once July turned into August. Not even their replacements were spared…David Pauley was struck down for the year making a start.

The season was effectively destroyed during a stretch of 17 games in mid-August where the Sox went 4-17, including a devastating sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals in Kansas City. Because of the seemingly centuries-old rivalry with the Yankees, the five game sweep in Fenway at their hands was just the proverbial salt in the earth of the 2006 season. Life was never to grow there again.
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It does warrant mentioning that the beginning of that slide was kicked off losing the last two games of a three game set in Tampa. Jerks.

Due to the 2006 disaster…this really proved to be the most distressing season since 2001, and probably one of the worst since the strike…a pall fell over the fandom of Boston. The Sox have a recent history of having a great deal of national attention foisted on to it, a by-product of fan base size, connection to the Yankees, the World Series win, and a payroll that rivals the GDP of several small nations. Their mistakes seem magnified, with a large amount of local and national discussion placed on things like trading away the National League Rookie of the Year for a pitcher with a 5.05 ERA, and their general manager leaving for three months to tour with Pearl Jam in Argentina. Even Flow indeed.

The 2007 offseason started with claims of the Red Sox oligarchy holding their cards closer to the vest. It took almost everyone by surprise when they were the winner of the Daisuke Matsuzaka closed bidding sweepstakes. They notched signings of Julio Lugo and JD Drew in fairly quick order, with rumors of their agreements not sitting over Boston like previous big-ticket acquisitions, like Curt Schilling. The Drew and Matsuzaka signings did have requisite sideshows, as Scott Boras used the media as the club to increase the Boston offer, and JD Drew took a long time to officially put ink to paper after failing a physical. The fact remains that this concluding offseason was not only more professionally done from the interior than the few previous, but the Red Sox actually significantly upgraded at three positions (shortstop, right field, and starting pitcher), where as in the past, they were content to either tread water or transfer the burden of production to players like Jason Varitek.

Again, the Red Sox have an oldish team, and much like 2004-2006 showed, a team that has a good part of it’s core in their 30’s are susceptible to the injury bug. So the following discussion of the men that will play for the Boston squad this year should have a big, fat asterisk next to them…almost all of them are subject to the whims of that bitch Injury.

Behind the plate, Boston returns their tandem from the last years previous, with Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli seemingly joined at the hip after the Josh Bard Knuckleballing Experiment was ended for a month. Varitek creates a analytical problem because his immeasurable benefit to the team is said to be off the charts. His reputation is that he’s a fantastic defensive catcher, but the problem is that other than throwing out base runners, catcher’s defense is pretty subtle, and beyond the reach of quantization. He has the reputation of being a game caller par excellence, which again is almost impossible to measure. He does beg one question though…the Red Sox pitching staff is said to have under performed recently, and none of that blame has fallen on the man receiving the pitches, despite his lion s
hare of the credit for being the silent, intense yin to the Idiotic yang of the 2004 World Series winner. I don’t know if that’s fair or not, but because of the profile of Varitek’s skill-set (imaginary or not) there is no real way of finding out. The problem lies in that Tek’s bat might be atrophying to the point where he could actually have negative value to the Red Sox, even if he does have the ability to making the pitching staff awesome. Even moreso if that ability is a figment of the imaginations of the pitchers and commentators. The problem is that the organization is thin with catchers, with Mirabelli’s best days far behind him, settling for being Wakefield’s significant other, and prospect George Kottaras being a year or so away from reaching his potential. The Sox made their decision to live or die with Varitek in the 04-05 offseason, and they can only hope that Varitek doesn’t make the choice to die for them.

The infield corners should remain the same from last year, with a thinner, healthier (he was one of the few that didn’t miss much time ;last year, but he played with a pretty serious shoulder injury in September) Kevin Youkilis playing first and an older, and older Mike Lowell playing third. Youks doesn’t have the power potential that most men that ply their trade at first base has, but he gets on base a very high clip, and can occasionally pop one. He’s also on the right side of 30, and is a good bet to stick around before he becomes too expensive to justify his 15-20 HR’s a year at a power position. Lowell started out hot, and fell to substandard levels in the second half of the year. His overall season was a nice little rebound from a disastrous 2005 in Florida, but he was offensively disappointing once the All-Star Game faded into memory. He is solid with the glove though, so he will likely retain some value if he is more Mike Lowell v.05 than Lowell v.06a, but he’s essentially untradable with a $9 million price tag.

Up the middle, the Sox have two newbies, former Devil Ray Julio Lugo and former Sun Devil Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia draws fairly unfair comparisons to David Eckstein because they are both short, and white (‘scrappy’). They really aren’t all that similar, as Pedroia has a pretty good arm, has legit doubles power, meaning he doesn’t just dump a ball in the gap and hope to hell it isn’t cut off, and a more discriminating batting eye. The biggest thing for Pedroia is patience. He’s played beyond his tools at every level so far, so if he doesn’t immediately light the world on fire, it shouldn’t be seen as a failing…he needs at least as much rope as Alex Gonzalez got last year. His keystonemate is newly purchased Julio Lugo, who spurned offers from the Cubs to play center to stay in the infield for Boston. Lugo’s reputation is checkered at best, mostly centering around the accusation of him bouncing his wife’s head off a car hood in an argument while with Houston. He’s kept his nose clean sense then, and finally succumb to the wiles of Boston’s lust of him this offseason. Rest assured that if Lugo doesn’t impress by May, rumblings about his character will surface again, with a not-so-subtle reminder of his previous trouble with domestic violence.

The infield is backed up by Eric Hinske at the corners, and Alex Cora up the middle. Hinske will likely serve as the primary lefty-hitting pinch hitter, while Cora will appear late in games as a pinch runner. Neither is expected to make a gigantic impact on the team, as they are both firmly nailed to the bench, barring the I word. Joe McEwing might win a bench spot out of spring, serving as Willie Bloomquist-lite, which is to say his entire value is tied up in his ability to play different positions.

The Sox historically have had almost larger-than-life outfielders. Manny Ramirez needs no introduction, as he serves as the historical end to the real estate that used to employ Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Jim Rice. And Troy O’Leary. Manny was his normal quirky self last year, alternating amusingly annoying to outright bizarre. Recently, he said that he would play out his contract in Boston and then move on, which is funny having observed the Manny Experience up close. It was news when a player said he would play out his contract. I guess you had to be there.

Coco Crisp enters his second year as Johnny Damon’s replacement, hoping to rebound to his past level after suffering a particular nasty bout of kidney stones, and having a finger broken in the second game of the year that didn’t heal over six months, and eventually had to be operated on. Crisp is locked up for the next three seasons, with the specter of Damon hanging over him (the insult was that while Crisp failed to reach almost all projections, Damon exceeded his) and top prospect Jacoby Ellsbury standing right behind him. He would probably be the best bet for a trade this season, even if he rebounds to his 2005 level.

Trot Nixon’s eight year tenure as Red Sox right fielder ended fairly unspectacularly, as he again was injury prone, and was sent away without fanfare. Ironically, he’s the one Sox player that could probably make his replacement, JD Drew, look durable by comparison. Drew is another Sox player who’s off-the-field persona is under attack, as his on-the-field contributions are ignored. He’s seen as soft, a player that won’t play through pain. The more clever among us see call him “Nancy Drew”. National ESPN columnist and Red Sox fan Bill Simmons went so far as to declare the signing a failure because he didn’t care. The problem with this kind of analysis is that it lends itself to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Drew is replacing Nixon, who doesn’t play baseball as well as Drew, gets hurt with a higher frequency, but is a fire-and-brimstone type. Drew is more quiet…reserved. The obvious perception is that Nixon just cares and Drew doesn’t. Nixon gets to be an Indian, and revered when he comes back. Drew gets to be a Red Sox and will be vilified if he tears his hamstring and misses a month. The end result of Drew likely still playing more and better than Nixon will be a casualty of people’s own perceptions of what a baseball player should be.

Wily Mo Pena will back up all three outfield spots. If you haven’t had the opportunity to watch him play, it’s really an adventure. He’s a big muscle, swings at everything, can’t play the field, but hits the ball a long, long way if he makes contact, which is not often enough. He’s only 25, and he’s already Glenallen Hill Redux. He’s another one that just can’t stay healthy, but if he gets 500 ab’s in a season, look for 45 HR out of his 110 hits. I personally enjoy calling him Wiley Meaux Pena, over the more obvious and much, much worse nickname, Weapon of Mass Production. I don’t know if that nickname really exists.

The Red Sox offense should bounce back to the high 800-low 900 run levels of the mid-aughts seasons, which puts the burden of competition on the pitching staff. The Red Sox have an odd rotation, anchored by two 40 year olds, two 26 year olds, and a fictional character that kills children as they sleep. This rotation really could be one of the best in the American League in the last decade, or they could mire in the bottom half of the AL in the face of some performance questions that need answering.

Curt Schilling will have to bounce back from a lethargic second half to a normal decline phase from a Hall of Fame peak for the Boston rotation to even get off the ground. An outright collapse essentially makes the Red Sox dead in the water, so a lot is riding on his 40 year old ego. The carrot at the end of the stick is that Schilling is playing for his last professional contract. Money and pride are a great dual motivator, particularly in athletics.

Josh Beckett’s second time around the American League was a rough experience, but before the Yankees fluffed him up in late May and down the ironically named stretch run, he showed the level of production that has had almost everyone drooling since he was drafted in 1999.; Much of the problem came with him hemorrhaging home runs, which does bad things to ERA, DIPS or otherwise. On the very positive, Beckett missed no time due to blister/arm problems that plagued his career in Florida. The biggest question is Beckett’s adjustment to the American League, and whether or not he can regain his awesomeness without leaving 60-70 innings to the DL.

I don’t care if he throws a gyroball, or if the gyroball is a figment of anyone’s imagination. Daisuke Matsuzaka throws three pitches, a slider, changeup, and fastball, that I can only describe as ungodly. His two-seamer and curve are works in progress, but still good enough to use them in a pressure situation. His big questions, in a rotation full of them, are if his slight build and familiarity with the six-man rotation (standard in Japan) can withstand the American baseball season, and if the adjustment period coming across the Pacific is short enough that his rookie year isn’t a lost season.

It’s kind of a myth that knuckleballers can pitch effectively forever. It mostly started with Hoyt Wilhelm pitching until he was in his late 100’s, and the Niekro’s hanging around also. The truth is that the hauls of the season affect them as much as their traditional brethren. Tim Wakefield is coming off one of his worst seasons as a full-time starter, and one where he suffered a bizarre stress fracture in his rib cage to boot. He creates roster problems because the backup catcher needs to be able to catch him, cutting the sample of backup catchers to Doug Mirabelli and Bob Uecker (you know, without the learning curve). However, he’s been an organizational solider, in a good way, since he was cut loose from the Pirates over a decade ago. And he decided to sign his career away in perpetuity, with the Red Sox holding an endless string of $4 million a year options. Is Wakefield worth it? In today’s market, his warts are easily worth overlooking as long as he can pitch 180+ innings of league average baseball.

With Jonathan Papelbon being ticketed to end games this year, Wakefield was bumped up from the last spot in the rotation to the fourth, leaving the presumptive favorite for the most skipped-over starter to be one of the ugliest pitchers ever, Julian Tavarez. Tavarez’s story is a sad one, having been abused as a youngster, leading him to a life that has caused nothing but tragedy, from the murder of countless children, to killing his wife, and only being allowed to roam the earth once being caught due to a legal technicality. The towns people trapped him and murdered him by igniting the building, and he swore vengeance. Later, Tavarez was spoofed by Groundskeeper Willie, and was the subject of a tedious, long-drawn-out joke by yours truly. The source for Julian Tavarez’s life can be found here: Julian Tavarez on Wikipedia

The Boston bullpen has been the greatest Achilles’ Heel of the Theo Epstein era, with it being a major weakness of three of the previous four seasons, as well as a pretty big problem for the now thrice mentioned World Series champs of 2004. This year, there are nothing but question marks for the men that will be middle relieving for the Red Sox. Can Joel Piniero be effective in relief, despite being a few seasons removed from his last good year as a starter? Can Mike Timlin continue to give the finger to father time? (No, he’ll be starting on the DL, and wasn’t good last year anyway). Can Manny Delcarmen develop as a solid reliever? Can Brandon Donnelly have one more good year? Can JC Romero actually go 2 consecutive innings without walking someone? Can Hideki Okajima translate Japanese success to the U.S.? Why is Kyle Snyder in the majors? Will Craig Hansen ever get it together? Who the hell is Bryan Corey? Will they have to rush Bryce Cox? You know, unimportant stuff like that.

Coming down the news pipe the other day was that Jonathan Papelbon is officially being named the Closer for Life. To make a metaphor, if Rivera is the Darius of the modern relief ace, than Papelbon would be named his Xerxes. Hopefully for Red Sox fans, Papelbon more closely resembles the historically accurate Xerxes (with out the being assassinated thing) moreso than the one from 300. To show how sabermetrically based analysis has evolved in the last few years, on
e only has to look at the “starter vs. reliever” debate. To sum up, first it was believed that it was black and white…starters were more valuable than closers. Then there was an attempt to quantify leverage, which evolved into Leverage Index, which basically postulates that a closer posting a 2.00 ERA over 70 leveraged innings, is equal to a starter with a 3.80 over 200. These are just my own estimates, not real numbers. Anyway, this applies to Papelbon because of the move from the rotation, and how it affects the Red Sox in real terms. Is the team better off with Paps in the rotation with Taverez closing, or reversed? My gut is that Papelbon has the skills to be a better starter (using leverage…the 3.80/200 inning guy) than reliever, without considering that the team is going to artificially monitor his workload to help him not develop the shoulder tightness he had in September last year.

The Red Sox outlook is rosier now than it was even at the beginning of last season, as the holes just seem smaller, and the Sox ownership has pretty much killed the worries that they were going to be cheap that came out of them buying the team in 2002. However, there are a ton of questions revolving around the team, and how they answer them will obviously determine where they will fall in the cosmic order of Major League Baseball. They can contend, and be the subject of hundreds of Yankee-Lite columns, or they can be another $140 million disappointment. The American League should start regressing a little bit, which can only help the Red Sox as they are a better team than last year.

In a way, the 2007 Red Sox are like the TV show Lost. There are many more questions than answers, and there are enough characters and characterizations involved to lead to hundreds of different predictions and conclusions. The team needs a majority of the bounces to go their way to win another World Series, and that brand of lightning rarely strikes twice in four years.

Prediction: 93-69, AL Wild Card, Lose in the ALCS.



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