Monday, March 31, 2008

Opening Ceremonies

The Red Sox are in Oakland tomorrow night to restart the regular season. While the A’s were the “home” team for the series in Japan, this game will represent the Oakland home opener. Along with that distinction, comes all the ceremony that goes along with Opening Day. So, thus far, the Red Sox season has included the league-wide regular season opener in Japan, and the ceremony packed game on a Little League field in LA. Tomorrow, they get Oakland’s home opener. On Friday, they open a series against Toronto, with includes the Toronto home opener. And, finally, next Tuesday, they come to Fenway for their home opener and championship ring ceremony. Phew. Is this the defending World Champion baseball team, or Tito’s Traveling Circus? Are the Sox ever going to be able to concentrate on actual baseball? Forget the normal distractions that would come from a three city, three country road trip to start the regular season. The Sox players will have nightmares about lining up along the foul lines for introductions. This is the sort of thing that fans feared when/if they finally won a World Series. I bet the Cubs aren’t asked to make a personal appearance every three days. Wouldn’t it be nice to just play baseball again, and not be the face of baseball? Sox management needs to remember that they’re not in San Diego anymore. In Boston, the baseball sells itself. All you have to do is actually play baseball.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Season Preview: Part 3

The final look ahead, as I discuss the pitching staff.
Josh Beckett - #1 Starter Some teams have a number one starter because somebody has to go first. Last year, Beckett became a true number one. He showed that he was somebody you could count on to win you games. He was one start out of five that you didn’t need to worry about. (He wasn’t ’99 Pedro, but nobody is) He was simply put, an ace. The Sox will need to get another season like that out of him, especially since the drop from #1 to #2 is a little larger than it has been in a few years. That’s why the early back trouble is worrisome. Hopefully he’ll be ready to go with no ill effects. Otherwise, the Sox are in big trouble.
Daisuke Matsuzaka - #2 Starter. Dice-K probably would have been the #2 starter, even with a healthy Curt Schilling. But, the loss of Curt cements it. And, for a number two, Dice-K’s not too bad. He won 15 games last year, while still adjusting to the enormous changes of the move from Japan. He’s a better pitcher than he showed last year, much like Beckett was a better pitcher than he showed in ’06. While I’m not ready to predict a 20 season for Matsuzaka, I’d certainly expect high teens. If you look at some of the numbers, his K/9 innings, K/BB, and HR/9 innings compare favorably to pitchers like Justin Verlander, or Erik Bedard. Not exactly bad company for a rookie. His ERA may have been high, but that’s not exactly a real stat anyway. I’ll take what we got from him last year as a great place to build from. And remember, the Sox only got 9 wins from Curt Schilling out of the 2-spot last year.
Tim Wakefield - #3 Starter The last three spots in the rotation probably don’t mean much. they’re fairly interchangeable. But, I like Timmy as a connection to the youngsters. With any 41-year old pitcher, the big question is health. No matter what people say, a knuckleballer can’t pitch forever. But, can he pitch another year or two? probably. If he recovered properly from last year’s shoulder and back issues, he’s a perfect number three guy. I wouldn’t expect the 17 wins he got last year. But, if healthy, another 10+ isn’t out of the question. Ask around the league and ask if the other teams expect more than 10 wins from their #3.
Jon Lester - #4 Starter Lester’s a big question mark. But, are there any #4 starters that aren’t? Check out the NY teams, for instance. Obviously, Lester has the stuff to be great. The only questions is whether, at 24, he can harness it. And if, again at 24, the Sox let him pitch the innings needed to do so. Simply put, the Yankees #4 starter is probably Mike Mussina. I’d just as soon have Lester.
Clay Buchholz - #5 Starter Can we start out my agreeing that anything you get out of your number five starter is a bonus. If there’s a team out there with an above average number five guy, they’re wasting their money. So, I can’t bring myself to analyze Buchholz too much. Everyone seems to agree he’s an ace in waiting. He’s just not quite there yet at 23. So, how much of the ace will show up? I’ll expect high single digit wins, with decent numbers to compliment them. He’ll probably be on a pitch/inning count, which could limit his starts. Therefore…
Bartolo Colon - #5a Starter Where did this guy come from, and where is he going? I’m guessing that since nobody wanted this guy until the middle of spring training that there can’t be much there. But, then he’s been throwing strong, if not always well, in camp. Is he the number five guy until his arm falls off in July, then bring on Clay? Is he a spot starter? Obviously, he’s not the Colon of old. But, can he be useful? I have no idea what to make of him.
Jonathan Papelbon - Closer He’s the best. If he can stay healthy, like he showed he could do last year, he will dominate. He needs a new entrance song, (once it’s been used in a movie, you can’t use it) but that’s his only flaw. Once he comes in the game, mark it off in the win column.
Hideki Okajima - Set-Up Was the surprise of the year. Thank goodness we got this guy to make Dice-K more comfortable. He may have been the most valuable pitcher on the staff. And, Tito used him enough to prove it. Oki was clearly exhausted come the playoffs. Some of the other relievers will need to be able to take some of the workload, or he’ll burn out by June. If Aardsma or Delcarman can each take 10% of his innings, that will help things out immensely.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Season Preview: Part 2

Let’s continue the season preview with the outfield
Manny Ramirez - Left field Manny is coming off a slump year. His homerun and RBI totals were his lowest of his Red Sox career. If he can come back to even close to his career averages, the Sox will be in good shape. Even just the fear of the possibility might be enough. As long as opposing managers think he can hit, they’ll need to pitch to Ortiz. It all just builds on itself from there. Manny is also chasing his 500th career homerun. If nothing else, it should add a little fun to the season. And, expect the Red Sox to fully capitalize on the chase with plenty of merchandise opportunities.
J.D. Drew - Right field Drew was a big offseason pick-up. At the time, many people questioned his personality and work ethic. Was a player often called “Nancy Drew” really a good fit to replace Trot Nixon in Boston? You knew Drew had talent. That was never in dispute. But, when he struggled throught most of the season, even that came under fire. He picked it up in September, and was even better come the playoffs. I certainly think we can expect Drew to bounce back and become a valuable member of the line-up.
Jacoby Ellsbury/Coco Crisp - Center field I still can’t decide who is actually going to be the starting center fielder. Francona says it will be Crisp, and I agree that it should be. But, Crisp has been hurt. So, has Ellsbury been playing because of the injury, or because of a promotion. If nothing else, Crisp has to play to obtain some sort of trade value. But it comes down to expectations. Personally, I would expect them to both perform about the same this year anyway. Crisp is better than he showed last year, and I wouldn’t expect Ellsbury to repeat his World Series performance over a full season. Ellsbury might run more than Coco would, but not much. I might expect Ellsbury to be about 5-10% better than Crisp. Probably not enough to give the rook the starting gig. Send Jacoby down for a bit, and let things work themselves out.

Breakfast with the BoSox

It’s a nice treat to be able to turn on the radio on the way to work and hear a Red Sox game. 99% of morning radio is so awful that I’d prefer a replay of a Red Sox game. This, however, was the real thing. Opening Day in Japan. Admittedly, the point of the trip is a little crazy. How much more money does MLB think it needs? Maybe instead of forcing itself on Japan, it could just not pay Mike Mussina $90 million? But, a Red Sox game under any circumstances is a good thing.

A couple of surprises right off the bat. JD Drew was a late scratch due to back spasms. Replacing him in right field was Brandon Moss…not Coco Crisp. I didn’t know if Coco was still too hurt, or if they just didn’t trust his arm in right. I’m also not sure what to make of Moss. Who is he? Does he have a future with the team? Daisuke Matsuzaka got the nod to start the opener. This was probably only due to the injury to Josh Beckett. I’d have thought about giving him the ball for the first game in Japan anyway, but this was just much cleaner. Dice-K didn’t exactly instill confidence starting off. He had a couple very shaky innings starting off the game. He only gave up two runs in the outing, but looked much worse. His standard control problems popped up as he had base runners all over the place, and his pitch count was soaring into the rising sun. He did settle down and finish off with a couple perfect innings. He even left with the lead, thanks to Manny and Moss. While the bullpen couldn’t hold it, the Sox were able to come back. The big shot in the comeback was a home run by Moss (seriously, how often does that happen) to tie it in the ninth of the A’s closer. It’s amazing how elite closers continue to mean nothing against the Sox. Manny finally put it out of reach with a 2-run double in the tenth. Papelbon was a little shaky, but did his job. Overall, a great win for the Sox. It’s nice to start off the year with a game that everyone contributes in. Manny drove in 4, and Moss drove in 2 including the first home run of his career. Manny, Moss, Youkilis, Ortiz, Pedroia, and Lugo all scored. 

A perfect opening statement for the defense.

The Teammates - By David Halberstam

This is not a book about baseball. It’s a book of life, which just
happens to involve ballplayers. It explores relationships between friends, and how those relationships are formed and evolve. It shows how one life can affect so many others over time, and how so many others can affect it. This could have involved any four guys the author wanted, and still worked as well. The fact that they were baseball players was a happy addition.

This book was even better the second time I read it. As a fan, I knew many of the stories that were discussed, but they were written in a way that brought them to a whole new light. In the end, it made me wish I could have a relationship like these four teammates had. I can only hope that I will have friends like that when my time comes.

I’d give this book 3 bases.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Season Preview: Part 1

With the season nearly upon us, I felt this was a good time to look ahead and see what I think we can expect from the team this year. The easiest way to go about this, is simply a position by position breakdown of how I think the starting line-up will do. Let’s get started with the infield.
Catcher: Jason Varitek Jason’s not getting any younger these days. I think it’s fair to say that offensively, the numbers he put up from 2003-2005 are long gone. But, that’s doesn’t mean he’s a hole in the line-up. Sitting at the seven or eight spot in the order, his .250 batting average with double digit home runs will do just fine. He’s not going to win any more silver sluggers, but he doesn’t need to. Most of his value was always behind the plate anyway. If he can keep bringing along Becket, Dice-K, Lester, and Buchholz as they become reliable pitchers, he will have done everything we need. It wouldn’t hurt the Sox to start thinking about his replacement, and I don’t think it’s Cash. But, that search can take a year or two to make sure they get the right guy.
First Baseman: Kevin Youkilis Kevin has been making steady progress the last few years. He’s still getting on base as much as he ever did, and his power is increasing each year. Now, at 29, he’s firmly entrenched in the prime years of his career. It would be nice to see a jump in power, as a first baseman. However, if he’s going to be in the 2-hole where he belongs all I ask is that he gets on base in front of Ortiz and Manny as often as possible. That may be one of the few instances where a walk really is as good as a hit. Although, a double would be even better.
Second Baseman: Dustin Pedroia Dustin is coming off a Rookie of the Year season, so it’s tempting to overrate his performance. Truth be told, Pat Listach and Marty Cordova both have ROY awards on their shelf. Clearly, it isn’t a guarantee of greatness. Nor does it mean that the season itself was spectacular. They were better than the numbers Loretta was giving us, but he’s not exactly Chase Utley or (gulp) Robinson Cano. So, while he’ll be a solid player, he won’t be making an All-Star team anytime soon. But, plug him into the top of the Red Sox order, and he’ll do a fine job getting on base for the big boys. Hi batting average is almost always above .300, and he’ll walk just enough. I worry about big league pitchers finally finding a hole in that big swing of his. But, I’ll assume he has the ability to adjust when that happens.
Shortstop: Julio Lugo Julio had a disappointing first season in Boston. He was brought in as the end to the revolving door at shortstop, and wasn’t exactly impressive. But he showed a little bit of what he can do. He’s a much better career hitter than he showed, so I assume that will come back up to the norm. He showed that he can still run, which will be even better if he gets more hits. Assuming he’ll have a lock on the 8-spot in the order, he should do just fine there. He’s not expected to drive in the runs, only to help out when he can.
Third Baseman: Mike Lowell Lowell was the biggest off-season signing this year. The Sox not only expect him to repeat the numbers he had last year, but are relying on it. Those numbers are a big reach though. He hid his career high in RBI to lead the team. You have to expect Manny and Papi to trim a few more of those off this year. It’s tough to imagine that at his age, he’s returned to be the player he was 5 years ago in Florida. I would certainly expect Mike to return to his 2006 numbers, if not a little lower.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sox take a stand

The Red Sox held a little boycott this afternoon at their final spring training game of the year. Apparently, all the players are receiving a cash bonus for agreeing to play two games in Japan. They were told that the coaching staff would receive a similar bonus. Apparently, they found out yesterday that would not be the case. So, in order to get the coaching staff the money they were promised, they threatened to boycott today’s game. If the issue wasn’t resolved, they even threatened to boycott the trip to Japan. The Oakland A’s even agreed to join them in the boycott if it came to that. Finally, after a long delay, the game got underway after an agreement that satisfied the players. It was an impressive show of support by the players to the coaching staff. Naturally, the players weren’t really giving up much personally by skipping the game. It was just an exhibition. But, they knew it meant a lot more to MLB that they go to Japan. So, MLB had no choice but to agree to the demands. I especially liked that the Red Sox players arranged to sign autographs for the fans at the game if they didn’t play. They wanted to make sure that nobody, from the Blue Jays to the fans, was hurt by their stand. And, I think that was huge. They can mess around with major league baseball, they can cut out their batting practice, and they can do anything else. But, they showed that their heads were on straight when they didn’t forget the fans. Imagine if during the lockout all the players had shown up at games as planned, and just signed autographs for three hours? Things may have been different. Kudos to the Sox for remembering the fans

Monday, March 10, 2008

Beckett's Back

Josh Beckett had to be scratched from his last start due to back troubles. Naturally, news such as this leads to two possible reactions. The reasonable reaction is that it’s Spring Training, so the Red Sox don’t want Beckett throwing any more than he has to. They understand that even I get a sore back periodically and a little bit of rest makes it feel better in a couple days. The other reaction is: OH MY GOD! HIS BACK! He could be out for the SEASON with a bad back! This is horrible! The season is ruined! The Red Sox may not win a game this year! Luckily, so far, that reaction has been kept in check. Perhaps the afterglow of the 2004 and 2007 championships has given Red Sox Nation a little bit of perspective. I sure hope this sort of reason turns out to be the norm.

One thing the Sox have done about the injury is drop hints that it might jeopardize the trip to Japan. So, the injury is either a little more on the serious side, or the Sox are looking for a way to keep Beckett in the country. Personally, I think half the team should “tweak” their backs to keep them home from Japan. Let’s send Daisuke and Snyder out to start the two games, and keep the rest of the rotation here to avoid the jet lag. Wake can still have lingering effects of last October’s injury. Lester and Buchholz can come up with some tenderness they need to rest. Let’s keep the team home if we can, and not face the April slump that the Yankees and Tampa faced when they played in Japan. The first 15 games for the Sox this year are against Oakland, New York, Detroit, Toronto and Cleveland. These aren’t exactly teams you want to be sleepwalking against. Not only are they quality teams that could win anyway, but the games could have tiebreaker significance. A couple years ago, the head-to-head record gave the division to the Yankees. And, last year, head-to-head record gave home field advantage to the Sox instead of Cleveland. That certainly came in handy. Do we want to play any of those teams in April with a disadvantage?
So, keep them all home. Manny must have another sick grandmother to tend to. Papi can still be rehabbing that sore knee. I’d rather give up the first two against Oakland than the first month against everyone else.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Papelbon signs

You can cross off one more distraction from the Spring Training list. Jonathan Papelbon signed his contract yesterday. Even this “distraction” was really a non-issue. Papelbon wasn’t going to hold out, or become a free agent, or anything like that. He just wanted to get a little bit more money than the Sox were planning. And, really, who can blame him? He was, apparently, looking for something around $900,000 for next year. The Sox were haggling over that? They can’t pay the best closer in the game as much as they give Schilling for not being fat? I understand there’s a pay scale structure with younger players. I’ll even go along with the moneyball belief that closers are overvalued. But, sometimes it’s not about the money. They need to sew up Pap for a “long” term deal soon. I can only assume that a three year deal is at least being floated out there. If the Sox can’t find Alex Cora money somewhere to give Papelbon, there’s something gravely wrong with their system.

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