Monday, March 24, 2008

2008 Red Sox preview capsule

Foul tips and other observations: I suppose there will be some lingering effects from the Japan trip, whether it's an extended case of jet lag for a few players or, less likely, a team-wide outbreak of the dreaded Giambi Parasites. And given their hellacious early schedule - they have five games with the Yankees, three with the Angels, three with Detroit, and two with Cleveland in a stretch from April 8-27 during which they have exactly zero days off - they'll be fortunate to escape the season's first full month with a .500 record . . . And you know what happens then: the WEEI banshees and "Francoma"-bashing morons will be screeching in all their miserable glory . . . But to anyone with a shred of patience and a dollop of common sense, it should be apparent that this is a very good baseball team - hell, it's basically the same team to a man that rejoiced in Colorado last October - and the chances of back-to-back championships (and three in five years, as you might have heard) are at the least realistic, even with a slow start . . . The key to it all? Mr. Beckett, of course . . . The new Mr. October may not have been the best pitcher in the majors last season, but he was in the argument, and there's no one else you'd want on the mound in a big moment . . . Beckett's career postseason numbers would make Bob Gibson tip his cap in tribute: 9 starts, 6 wins, 2 losses, 1.73 ERA, 72.2 innings. 40 hits (yes, 40), 14 walks, 82 strikeouts, and two World Series rings . . . But if this back injury lingers, well, let's not think about that right now . . . In some respects, Daisuke Matsuzaka remains as much of a mystery now as he was before he ever threw a big league pitch . . . The consensus seems to be that he will be better in Year 2, but it's mildly alarming that Hideo Nomo wasn't the only Japanese pitcher to peak in his first big league season . . . The expectation here is pretty much more of the same: 15-16 wins, an ERA in the high 3s, 200 or so Ks, and a maddening habit of nibbling against subpar hitters . . . I would not be shocked if Jon Lester surpassed Dice-K as the second starter. John Farrell is adamant that the admirable 24-year-old lefty can win at least 15 games this season, and I've learned it's wise to listen to John Farrell . . . A subtly crucial development that helped the Sox lock down the AL East last season: Tim Wakefield winning 17 games. I wouldn't put it past ol' Knucksie again, though he is on the wrong side of 40 and has broken down at the end of each of the past two seasons . . . Bartolo Colon should be able to collect the 8-10 wins they were counting on from Curt Schilling, though there surely is no comparison between the two when it comes to October. . . I've been watching "Bull Durham" as I write this, and the truth dawned on me: Jonathan Papelbon is Nuke LaLoosh, albeit with a more compact (okay, masculine) delivery . . . It's funny, this is the beginning of Papelbon's third full season with the Sox, yet he's such a staple now, one of the franchise's icons, that it feels like he's been around so much longer. Hard to believe he was in Single A during the '04 season. I tend to think of him as a member of that championship team . . . Count me among those who think Manny Delcarmen will emerge as one of the better righthanded setup men in the AL. The stuff is there, and his confidence should finally be as well. He's been around long enough now to know he can do this . . . It's unlikely that Hideki Okajima will duplicate his staggering brilliance of last season, especially now that the league is familiar with his quirks, but the "Hero in the Dark" will still be plenty good enough. What a find he was . . . I'm starting to think Mike Timlin will be pitching for this team when Manny and Papi's sons are anchoring the lineup. If there were a wing at the Hall of Fame for middle relievers, he'd be a lock for a plaque . . . As for the bats . . . The Sox scored 867 runs last year. Betcha they break 900 this season . . . Why? For starters, probable improvement from J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo, both of whom simply must be better in their sophomore seasons in Boston . . . Also, dynamic Jacoby Ellsbury is almost certain to be a significant offensive upgrade over Coco Crisp once the center field job officially belongs to him . . . But the biggest reason we're expecting a few more crooked numbers for the home team on the Fenway scoreboard this season? A return to form by the one and only Manuel Aristides (Onelcida) Ramirez . . . Yes, I realize he'll turn 36 in May, and baseball logic says there's a reasonable chance his .296-20-88 numbers from a season ago signify the beginning of the decline phase for one of the game's all-time great hitters . . . But Manny sure seems determined not to lose his mojo quite yet . . . He reported to camp in peak shape, and everyone who has seen him, from Peter Gammons (who picks him as the AL MVP) to Curt Schilling, says he will have a monster comeback season . . . Jason Varitek quietly had a quality offensive season - his .788 OPS ranked fourth among everyday catchers in the AL - and his importance to the team can be summed up in these four words: Kevin Cash, starting catcher (shudder) . . . A sophomore slump for Dustin Pedroia? Not according to Bill James, who projects .300-9-57 numbers for the real-life Tanner Boyle . . . How far as Kevin Youkilis come? In the 2002 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, he was ranked the 29th-best prospect in a thin Red Sox farm system, behind the likes of Seung Song (No. 1), Tony Blanco (2), and Rene Miniel (3). Gotta respect a self-made player, especially one who has become close to invaluable . . . In two seasons, Mike Lowell has gone from a salary dump in the Beckett/Hanley deal to an integral part of the ball club, on the field and off. Even if his numbers this season are closer to his '06 stats (.284-20-80) than his fat '07 numbers (.324-21-120), he'll be a bargain at his new price tag . . . For the first time since 1999, David Ortiz didn't improve upon his home run output of the previous season, dropping from 54 homers in '06 to 35 last year . . . Yet in many ways, it was his finest offensive season . . . His OPS+ of 171 was the highest of his career . . . He also set career highs in batting (.332), hits (182), walks (111), doubles (52), on-base percentage (.445), and OPS (1.066) . . . And continues to do it all with a smile . . . Please, please, please remind me never to take Big Papi - or this wonderful time in Red Sox history - for granted.

Breakthrough player:
Lester. It just seems like everything is coming together. He's healthy, he's put on 15 pounds of muscle (which should increase his durability), he must be confident after coming through in the World Series clincher, and the opportunity is there to be seized. This is his time.

Honorable mention: Ellsbury. This is where I'd usually mention Brett Butler, but I'm starting to think the prince of Pink Hat Nation's uncommon work ethic is going to lead to him hitting with more power than his minor league numbers would indicate . . .Clay Buchholz. Yes, the No-Hit Kid has a had a fairly rough spring, but he's so supremely gifted and his secondary pitches are so polished that he'll be a consistent and often dazzling contributor before the calendar turns to July . . . Drew. Because he's too damn talented to be so mediocre again.

Breakdown player: Retroactively, we'll cop-out and go with Schilling, who apparently blew his shoulder out signing his new contract.

Dishonorable mention: Lowell. I couldn't have been more wrong about him last year. Might as well make a jackass of myself again, though you do have to wonder how much of his personally unprecedented success in the second half was due to a contract drive . . . Varitek. Well, he is 36.

Completely Random Bill James stat: Varitek was fifth in the AL in batting in close and late situations (.351).

Bonus stat: Ortiz led the league with .700 slugging percentage and a .470 OBP against righthanded pitchers, and his 1.153 OPS in the second half was also an AL best. (Okay, so that's three stats. Just emphasizing what a great year he really had.)

Bonus bonus stat: Dice-K led the AL in pitches per start (108.8) and tied A.J. Burnett for the most pitches in one game (130).

Triple bonus stat: Papelbon held opposing batters to a .146 average, tops among pitchers with 50 or more innings of work.

And what the hell, one more: Wakefield threw 2,194 pitches below 80 mph, far and away the most in the AL. Next on the list was Gagne bait Kason Gabbard, with 908.

. . . and finally, the prediction: 94 wins, 68 losses, 2d in AL East, AL wild card winner, and another suspenseful and very possibly joyous autumn. (Note from TATB management: For, oh, 10 years running, I picked the Sox to win the East. They didn't. Not once. I picked them second last year. You know how the story played out. I'm sticking to the formula that gets me what I want, people.)

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As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

As as I wrap this up, it's t-minus 4 hours and 17 minutes until game time. So tell me again: How do you say "Play ball!" in Japanese?