A Look At The Upcoming Red Sox Season

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com as three separate articles

With about a month remaining before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, it seems like a good time to take inventory of the off-season moves made by the Boston Red Sox and how the rest of the lineup shapes up for the upcoming season. Chances are there will be no additional moves that drastically change the current depth chart for the 2010 roster. In the first of several posts about the Red Sox depth in 2010, I am going to discuss the starting rotation.

The biggest pickup by the Red Sox during the hot stove season was the signing of John Lackey to a 5 year deal right before Christmas, which I wrote about here at Baseball Digest a few days after the deal. Throughout baseball and the media, the deal is considered an upgrade to the Red Sox rotation. With John Lackey, the rotation will look something like this:

Jon Lester

Josh Beckett

John Lackey

Daisuke Matsuzaka

Clay Buchholz/Tim Wakefield

The 2010 rotation looks fantastic on paper, but it does come with a few questions.

The biggest question may involve the status of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Recently the Sporting News reported that Dice K hid an injury sustained during the 2009 World Baseball Classic from the Red Sox and attempted to heal from the injury without missing his turn in the rotation. In hindsight, this proved to be a bad decision on Dice K’s part, as he stumbled to a 4-6 record with an ERA heading towards 6.00 in 12 starts while missing much of the season. Dice K has indicated that he is fully prepared for the 2010 season, but it’s worth noting the Boston Globe interview with pitching coach John Farrell, which summarizes the Matsuzaka situation well. In short, the unknown injury was not the first time the pitcher and the coaching staff were not on the same page. The hope is Dice K is fully healthy and 2010 will show he has returned to form.

While Dice K struggled in 2009, the Red Sox reached the postseason for the third straight season on the backs of their double-barreled aces. Jon Lester continued to show his potential as the new ace of the staff while Josh Beckett regained the form that he showed before his subpar 2008 campaign. Together they combined for 32 victories in 64 starts, spanning over 400 innings with ERAs under 4.00. If the pair can come close to duplicating their 2009 seasons, the Red Sox will undoubtedly be well positioned to make a serious push towards the 2010 postseason.

After Lester and Beckett, the rotation had more questions than answers in 2009. Tim Wakefield and Clay Buchholz combined to go 18-9 in 37 starts, and Wakefield earned his first trip to the All-Star game. However, Wakefield made just 4 starts after the All-Star break and unfortunately his injury contributed to an already large hole that began with the Dice K injury. An attempt to gradually increase Buchholz’s season workload meant that Brad Penny, John Smoltz, Justin Masterson, Paul Byrd and Junichi Tazawa went 14-21 in 48 starts in place of Dice K and Wakefield.

What does John Lackey mean for the 2010 season? Lackey provides an opportunity to limit the number of starts by pitchers like Penny, Smoltz, Byrd and others. Lackey provides depth by allowing flexibility with the use of Clay Buchholz and Tim Wakefield, while avoiding early overexposure to developing players like Junichi Tazawa. The question of who will fill the fifth spot of the rotation will likely sort itself out in the spring, as Wakefield returns from off-season back surgery and Clay Buchholz comes into camp with the chance to win the final spot. The John Lackey signing means the Red Sox have a solid 1-2-3 punch to match up with just about any rotation in baseball, something they severely lacked(no pun intented) in the 2009 ALDS against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

One aspect of the Red Sox roster that may see a few adjustments before opening day is the bullpen. It might be worth revisiting the bullpen once Spring Training is underway before analysing it fully. However, it’s worth noting that even with a bullpen anchored by closer Jonathan Papelbon, there were questions raised about Manny Delcarmen’s ability to remain a reliable option during the late stretch of the season. That said, the emergence of Daniel Bard gives some hope that the ‘pen will be able to bridge the gap from the starters to Papelbon.

Despite the challenges they face in the AL East, It’s a little difficult for a Red Sox fan to be anything but downright giddy when considering the 2010 Red Sox pitching staff.

Where is Mike Lowell going?

It seems like the questions that filled the air the most during this winter involved the 2007 World Series MVP. The same player that does not currently have a position to call his own on the Red Sox roster. The same player involved in a botched trade to the Texas Rangers, and the same player who probably watched a bit of the Red Sox press conference introducing their new everyday third baseman.

Despite this, we haven’t heard much publicly from the soon-to-be former Red Sox third baseman. While there is an obvious chance that Mike Lowell ends up remaining with the team, the reality is he will probably be traded during spring training(or before) along with a bag of cash for a proverbial bag of baseballs. That’s usually what happens when an injury risk player with a big contract needs to be moved.

It appears the Red Sox have been preparing for life after Mike Lowell since the beginning of the off-season when news swirled about that Casey Kotchman could become the Red Sox first baseman, with Kevin Youkilis moving to third. This became a moot point when Kotchman was traded to Seattle and Adrian Beltre was signed to take over the hot corner. What remains is the uncomfortable time remaining for Mike Lowell with the Red Sox before he’s traded.

Around Thanksgiving, former two-time Red Sox shortstop Alex Gonzalez signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, leaving the Red Sox with a new void to fill. A few days after Gonzalez departed for Canadian pastures, All-Star second baseman Dustin Pedroia petitioned for his own move to the shortstop position for the betterment of the team. The front office dismissed the noton, and signed Marco Scutaro to a two year deal. The move puts the onus on Jed Lowrie to prove his ability to stay healthy and become a legitimate option at shortstop for the team. If Lowrie displays in spring training that he has fully recovered from his wrist injury, Scutaro could become a super utility player who fills in at several positions. Scutaro has played most of the infield positions, and might serve as a great backup option for Pedroia at second base. Truth be told, the Red Sox currently do not have a viable backup for Pedroia.

The trade of Kotchman impacts the backup option for first base, though it is expected that Victor Martinez will see time at first base. While there might be a concern that Martinez could end up with a heavy workload between catching and playing first base, it’s worth mentioning that he has played in over 140 games in 4 of the last 5 seasons. David Ortiz may see time at first base as well, though he has only started a handful of games at first in recent years. Jason Varitek assuming the role as backup catcher may open the door for a number of double-switches in 2010 that include first base and designated hitter.

As we head into the beginning of spring and the team starts putting together lineups, it will be a lot easier then to determine exactly how all of these moves will shape the lineup on any given day during the regular season. The infield may have more questions than any other area of the roster, and most of them won’t have answers until the team begins playing. Such as whether David Ortiz’s prolonged 2009 slump is something we’ll see in 2010, or if Adrian Beltre will rediscover his offensive stride despite an injury riddled 2009 season.

The most important answers are here though. We have a solid idea as to who will be playing which position, something not every team in MLB can claim.

In 2009 Jason Bay turned in a career year at the plate for the Red Sox, helping fans to easily forget the mammoth offensive shoes of Manny Ramirez that he was filling when acquired from the Pirates during the 2008 season. Bay’s offense was a key component to As a result of his superb season, Bay entertained offers from several teams when he became a free agent. Early on in the free agency period, the Red Sox made it clear that there would be a limit as to how far they were willing to go to sign the All-Star left fielder. Instead of waiting for the hot stove to heat up on Jason Bay, the Sox made a move and signed Mike Cameron to a two year deal. I wrote about Cameron signing a few hours after the team signed John Lackey.

During the press conference introducing Mike Cameron, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein indicated that no changes to the outfield lineup would be made before discussions with all players were had. About a week later, the Red Sox announced that Jacoby Ellsbury will move to left field to make room for Cameron in center. The move makes a lot of sense, because Cameron is considered defensively superior to Ellsbury, and ranked third in all of MLB for defense by FanGraphs for center fielders.

In 2009, Rocco Baldelli filled in as the backup outfielder for 62 games but struggled to stay healthy enough to be a solid option. Prospect Josh Reddick provided defense off the bench during the stretch run in August and September, but his poor offensive numbers indicate he will need more time at the minor league level before he will be considered a major league option. Also at just 22 years old, Reddick’s future is likely as a full time player.

With the signing of Adrian Beltre, the Red Sox determined their projected 2010 infield(sans the Mike Lowell situation) and Casey Kotchman became expendable. Kotchman was acquired at the July deadline and could have been slotted at first base if the Red Sox traded Lowell and inserted Youkilis at third. Lowell’s thumb injury put the kibosh on that. Instead, the Red Sox traded Kotchman to the Seattle Mariners for veteran utility player Bill Hall. Though Bill Hall is coming off the worst season of his career, he slugged 14 homers in a season as recently as the 2008 season. In 2009, Hall spent time in left field, right field, and third base with the Mariners and Milwaukee Brewers. His versatility will provide the Red Sox with the ability to rest J.D. Drew as necessary, and shift Ellsbury to center when Mike Cameron needs a breather. Hall’s defense is much better in right field and he may see most of his time there since J.D. Drew has not played in more than 140 games per season since joining the Red Sox. It’s worth noting that Fenway Park’s small left field will be a welcome sight for Hall. He will likely see time at third base and in pinch hitting spots throughout the season.

The acquisition of Bill Hall raises more concerns for the one piece of the outfield puzzle that has not been addressed, which is Jeremy Hermida. Hermida was the first pickup for Theo Epstein during the off-season, and his status since then has evolved quite a bit. He could just as easily slide into the 4th outfielder position, and likely be a better offensive option than Bill Hall. The guess here is the battle of the utility players will be the highlight of the Red Sox spring training.

Perhaps left out of the discussion because of the free agency of Jason Bay is the consistency that J.D. Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury provided in 2009. In Drew’s case, this included slugging more home runs(24) than in any of the previous 5 seasons. En route to a great followup to his rookie season, Ellsbury broke the 35 year old team record for most stolen bases by a Red Sox player, previously held by Tommy Harper. Moving Ellsbury to left field may also lessen the wear and tear that he may otherwise encounter by playing center field every day.

Though there is a question about the offense of Mike Cameron in 2010, he has maintained a remarkable level of consistency. In each of the last four seasons, he has slugged at least 20 home runs and hit over 30 doubles in three of the last four seasons.

As the 2010 baseball season approaches, the Red Sox outfield shapes up to be a trifecta of outstanding defensive ability and an offense with both speed and power.

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