Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Red Sox Poised to Counter with 1-2 Combo

It was a busy day for the Boston Red Sox. Never a good sentence for the Yankees fans among us.

First it became apparent that Rocco Baldelli, the exceptionally talented mitochondrial-disordered former-Rays outfielder, will likely be joining Jason Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew in a very talented Boston outfield.

And then it popped up that the great John Smoltz also is packing for Beantown. He will join Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Brad Penny and Tim Wakefield in a crowded veteran rotation.

Their outfield still has question marks, but the skill level is undeniable. J.D. Drew only had 368 at-bats, but for part of the year he looked like an MVP candidate until Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis went on cruise control and carried the team. As usual, he was injured, but still finished with a .280 average, 19 home runs and 64 RBI, or roughly on track for 30 home runs and just about 100 RBI had he had a healthy 600 AB year. Health is his persistent question mark. When on the field, he can be one of the better lefty mashers in the AL. Jason Bay is always a beast. He hit .281 with 31 homers and 101 knocked in between Boston and Pittsburgh. Expect those numbers to rise over a full season at Fenway. Ellsbury is a key to this team. He hit .280/9/47 last season, but stole 50 out of 61 bases and scored 98 runs in 550 AB. His OBP was an unimpressive .336 and slugging percentage a paltry .394. That leaves his OPS almost 50 points lower than Derek Jeter's last season during a down year, and at a much more important offensive position in center field, and over 100 points below Johnny Damon's. If it wasn't for the steals, it would be safe to say Ellsbury flopped last season. What is he going to produce next year? A chimpanzee with a bat could probably score 100 runs leading off for the Sox, so I'll bet he gets there, but as for production, who knows?

And what does Baldelli bring? Well, a ton of skill. He is either a humongous steal or a completely irrelevant signing. I love this move for Boston, and hate it for the Yankees, but both Drew and Baldelli are significant injury risks, and I'm not sure that the Sox have much any organizational depth to back them up. That's the only thing I can say to feel better about his playing for them. Well, and let's be honest, Bay and Baldelli are good, but at least Manny ain't comin' back.

And when it comes to the pitching, the group is again talented, but there are definitely still some signs of hope for the Yankees Faithful. Jon Lester is a stud. His control got better and his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) dropped significantly last year and not surprisingly, his ERA dipped. I expect him to do about equally well next season, and don't see him as a huge injury risk because he held up alright last season and his body seemed to have filled out a good deal.

As for Beckett, you can't put too much stake in this kind of thing, but his career ERAs (starting in 2002 when he first started over 20 games) go in order as follows: 4.10, 3.04, 3.79, 3.38, 5.01, 3.27, 4.03. He seems to go good year/off year every two seasons, and he was off last season at 12-10 with a 4.03. His WHIP was still low at 1.19, and his strikeouts still high at 172 (in 174.1 innings), so I definitely don't see him as done. His ERA was freakishly high for his other numbers.

Matsuzaka is headed in the other direction. The rats started jumping off of his back at the end of the season. I can hear the talk radio/bleacher animals among you now: How are you going to say that a guy with a 2.90 ERA and a record of 18-3 is headed south? Well, it's simple really. As unlucky as Beckett was, Matsuzaka was lucky. In 2007, Matsuzaka gave up 191 hits in 204.2 innings. In 2008, he gave up 128 in 167.2. That's almost a hit less every four innings, or accountable for as much as .25 in WHIP, which is roughly the difference between Johan Santana and Tim Redding. Now, I do think he learned how to pitch more effectively to Major Leaguers in his second season, but his strikeout rate actually decreased. He had 201 in 204.2 innings in '07, 154 in 167.2 in '08. So the difference wasn't that he started to blow people away. They put the ball in play slightly more this year, but only got 3/4 of the hits. That is very improbable in baseball. And even with that, his WHIP was still on the high side at 1.32. Add in that extra .25 he seemed to be in line for and we would have someone slightly better than Daniel Cabrera. Also not helping his case is that Matsuzaka walked 94 people last year, or just about five per nine innings. That was up from just above 3.5 in '07, when he walked 80 men in forty more innings. You don't walk that many people, have that many balls put in play, and have a sub-3.00 ERA. That is absurdly lucky, but it doesn't tend to last. I wouldn't be shocked to see him around a 4.50 next season. He's an average (possibly below?) pitcher, with strikeout stuff but bad control on a great all-around team who had a Kevin Federline moment that lasted for a whole season.

Wakefield's a knuckleballer, so his arm is rubber, and it is almost irrelevant that he is turning 43 next August. We know he's good for a 4.00-4.50 ERA, but he can be beat when the wind isn't stirring and the ball has ceased to Fred Astaire on the batter. I have already expounded on Penny's health questions and I don't feel like I have anything more worth adding on the subject. I see what they were thinking a lot more on the Smoltz gamble.

In a sense, John Smoltz becomes the key to this rotation. He could be the second coming (of a slightly better, in my opinion) Curt Schilling, or he could blow his shoulder out and retire. If he's good and healthy, its gonna be a gutwrenching season.

They weren't going to let the Yanks play leapfrog over them. There was going to be a response. This is just an unusually high upside, high risk, annoyingly nebulous one. What these guys will contribute next year is as mystifying to me as the appeal of the new hanging socks hat.

But I know I will hate them whether they are good or bad. Which is comforting.

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