Boston Red Sox Preview
April 1, 2002
Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez … Take Two!
Thirteen months ago, my anticipation of seeing those three players, together, in Boston Red Sox uniforms was running high -- then spring training camp opened. The 2001 season had its bright moments, but they were lost amid the illogical machinations of then-skipper Jimy Williams, the chronic whining by veterans oblivious to their eroding skills, and more injuries than any team should have to suffer in one season. It was more than enough to leave the Red Sox once again looking up at the New York Yankees in the American League East standings.
I'm hoping for a much happier summer. Williams is gone, as is his short-term replacement, Boston's former pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan, and many of the veterans (Troy O'Leary, Dante Bichette and Mike Lansing) have been released. It's too early to tell how new manager Grady Little will fare in the hot seat. While he has said some odd things about possible lineups and the over-use of pitcher Pedro Martinez, he has also shown flexibility and a willingness to change his mind. This is a refreshing change for this Red Sox fan. I admit to hating Jimy Williams so much -- he should have been fired after the 1999 season -- that even the slightest whiff of JimyLogic on Little's part will have me unleashing a string of curses at the newspaper or computer monitor.
With any luck, the pall cast over the team by the now-completed sale of the club and the firing of General Manager Dan Duquette has lifted. Many players noted the lighter tone in camp and a few mentioned the passing of the Duquette era as one of the reasons. On the whole, I liked Duquette and wish he had stayed. When he was able to do his job unencumbered by his bosses' demands, he was one of the best GMs in the game.
Unfortunately, John Harrington, the head of the Yawkey Trust, which owned the team, had Duquette make senseless trades in a "win now" frenzy. He also forbid the Duke to fire Williams before the initial bids on the sale of the team were in. Coincidentally, the day after the bids were received, Williams got the axe. Duquette deserves respect for absorbing the media's unrelenting criticism and never passing the buck. I doubt he'll ever write a book about his experiences, but it would be a riveting read. Whoever fills the GM seat will undoubtedly have a better relationship with the media, but congeniality isn't the job's main requirement. As with many aspects of the club this year and beyond, we shall wait and see.
As I said, I've got two years of excitement about this team stored up, and I'm ready to burst. The 2002 Red Sox are a stronger, more talented team with a deeper bench than last year's model.
Most importantly, when the Red Sox take the field at Fenway Park for the first inning of the season's first game, Martinez, Garciaparra and Ramirez will all be on the same field at the same time. That never happened last year -- not even once. Garciaparra returned from wrist surgery for only 21 games in late summer and pain in Martinez's right arm and shoulder limited him to 18 starts.
The 2001 Red Sox, prior to the injuries, were legitimate contenders, considering the Yankees were giving several older veterans another year in the lineup despite below-average production. New York has improved this year, adding Jason Giambi, and cutting away some of the dead weight -- but so has Boston, thankfully, to an even greater degree. Will good health and Duquette's superb winter acquisitions be enough to bridge 13½-game gap that separated the two rivals last year?
Boston's new center fielder and leadoff hitter is 28-year-old Johnny Damon, who signed a four-year contract. Although Damon had an off year in Oakland in 2001, he should rebound and offer more production and cover more ground in the outfield than Carl Everett did last year. Damon claims that part of his 2001 hitting woes were attributable to a clash in philosophies: the A's preached patience and taking the first pitch, and Damon, like his new teammate Garciaparra, has done well when swinging early in the count. When putting the first pitch in play:
1998 68 .353
1999 60 .317
2000 71 .338
2001 36 .167
Damon also brings speed to the top of the Boston order. It's been a long time since the Sox have had anyone capable of stealing 40 bases a year; Otis Nixon was the last player to top 30 bags, back in 1994. The entire Boston club has stolen 43 and 46 bases over the last two seasons. Damon and part-timer Rickey Henderson should change that. Little says he'll give Trot Nixon and Garciaparra the green light more often, too.
The loss of catcher Jason Varitek, who broke his right elbow in early June last year, hurt the 2001 Red Sox tremendously. Varitek says everything is fine, but he also peppers his comments with phrases like "going to be an ongoing battle" and "there are days when there is more soreness", so who knows? Doug Mirabelli is a much better backup catcher than last year's Scott Hatteberg and he's also got some pop in his bat, so if necessary, Varitek could be eased into the everyday lineup over the first few weeks of April.
If a healthy Tony Clark can produce at the level he did several years ago in Detroit, Boston will be much improved at first base. Last year, several players filled the hole, among them Brian Daubach and Jose Offerman. Daubach may now platoon between DH, first base and one of the corner outfield spots. Offerman started 38 games at 1B last year, which was about 37 too many. Since Boston is already on the hook to pay Offerman $6.5 million this season, why not eat his contract and use that roster spot for someone who offers more than below-average offense and minimal defense? New owner John Henry says he's not opposed on principle to dumping a contract, and Little has stressed the need for defense at second ... but Offerman is the starting DH today.
Baseball Prospectus estimates that Rey Sanchez saved his team 43 runs more than an average second baseman last year, claiming that if any player should play every day solely for his fielding, it is Sanchez. Apparently, as a Red Sox, he will be. A few days ago, Little remarked that Sanchez may bat second in some lineups because he wants to move Trot Nixon down to #6 in the order. Many in Red Sox Nation -- myself included -- detect a hint of JimyLogic, whereby crappy hitters bat high in the lineup and/or in crucial situations for no discernable reason. Everything in the Sox order will have to be clicking to carry Sanchez's wet noodle of a bat; Shea Hillenbrand had a horrid rookie season at third base last year and Daubach has had trouble with his swing all spring.
Art Martone of The Providence Journal -- hands down the most insightful writer covering the Red Sox, although we only see his online notebooks several times a week -- offered a possible explanation of Little's thinking. If Little is intent on moving Nixon down, then who is a better candidate to bat second than Sanchez? As Hillenbrand, Daubach and Varitek are the only other choices, there really isn't one.
Now, why Little believes Nixon should bat lower in the order is a mystery. As one of the better hitters on the team, Nixon should get more opportunities to come to the plate, not fewer. I'd rather move the trio of Garciaparra, Ramirez and Clark up from the 3-4-5 spots to 2-3-4 and keep Sanchez at the bottom of the order.
As for the infielders on the bench, Lou Merloni and Carlos Baerga fought for a spot during spring training, and with a last-minute injury (and DL stint) to reserve outfielder Michael Coleman, both players are heading north. Once Coleman comes back, Little will have a tough decision to make.
If this seems like a lot of discussion on what appears like a minor point in a pre-season preview, I offer three explanations: (1) Jimy Williams's inability to construct a decent lineup (or even to start his best 9 players) held the Red Sox back tremendously in 2000 and 2001, (2) Red Sox fans know virtually nothing about Grady Little's managerial style, and (3) Little served as a bench coach under Williams in Boston in 1999. I've been watching every Little decision this spring carefully before I overreact and dub him Jimy II.
Last year, Jimy Williams handed Shea Hillenbrand the third base job after a hot spring. After two productive weeks in April, Hillenbrand hit the skids. But Williams continued to pencil him into the lineup -- Manny Ramirez got a day off before Shea -- as Hillenbrand quickly became one of the game's worst run producers. Hillenbrand batted what looks like a respectable .263, but thanks to his inability to lay off anything but a pickoff throw to first, he received only 10 unintentional walks (only one of those came on a count that began 0-1) and finished with a .291 on-base percentage. Hitters with OBPs that low don't belong in the major leagues, let alone in the starting nine of a team hoping to play in October.
During Hillenbrand's struggles, I noticed an inexplicable hatred of walks among players and coaches, and sometimes in the print media, too. (Alfonso Soriano of the Yankees was also allergic to walks last year so it was a topic for awhile.) A base on balls was looked upon as somehow effeminate ("Swing the bat, be a man!") or even dishonest. Since the object of a baseball game is to score as many runs as possible before making 27 outs, and since scoring runs requires getting on base, walking should be encouraged and those who walk a lot should be praised. Power hitters who draw a lot of base on balls, such as Giambi and Barry Bonds, are noticed, but that's about it. I don't get it.
Most of the Red Sox had very little patience at the plate last season. Several times, after an opposing pitcher would walk two consecutive batters, the next few hitters would swing at the first pitch and make outs. When Kerrigan took over for Williams in mid-August, there seemed to be a change -- Kerrigan met privately with the most egregious hackers -- but ultimately, it did little good.
In 2001, Boston's infield was among baseball's worst in terms of run production. That should change this season because (a) it would be hard to get much worse, and (b) Garciaparra's healthy and playing, and (c) they've added Clark and Damon. Last year, Boston scored 772 runs, middle of the pack in the American League. They should score at least 100 more than that this season.
The one player I haven't mentioned yet is the team's best hitter, left fielder Manny Ramirez. In the early part of last season, with Troy O'Leary on-deck, waiting to make an out, Ramirez still managed to hit over .400 with power. His numbers tailed off in the second half, but his final totals -- .306, 41 HR, 125 RBI, .405 OBP -- were still impressive. With stronger players around him in the lineup, he should be able to relax more, stop pressing, and stop swinging at pitches he can't hit.
Despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, most fans and media believe the Red Sox have a chronic shortage of pitching. Yet, for the past four years, Boston has ranked among the top four teams in preventing runs, and in 1999 and 2000, they had the lowest team ERA in the American League. Even if we subtract Martinez from the rotation, Boston had the top staff in 2000. Dan Duquette may not have pursued well-known pitchers -- trading for Pedro Martinez being the huge exception -- but I'd rather have decent, low-profile pitchers than household names with outdated reputations.
Martinez returns after an abbreviated 2001 season (7-3, 2.39), and the status of his right arm remains the most important question for Boston. Pedro arrived in camp early, saying he felt better than he has in years. An off-season regimen added about 10-15 pounds to his upper body and the troubles he had in the spring (22 hits in 17.2 innings, 6.62 ERA) apparently stem from getting used to pitching with the added weight, along with his fear of reinjuring himself.
Little says that Martinez will likely throw fewer pitches per game this year -- Pedro agrees that 130-pitch games are history -- and be given extra days of rest as the schedule permits.
Derek Lowe moves from the closer/set-up role to the #2 spot in the rotation. Among the top relievers in the league in the past, Lowe had a dismal 2001 season. After the club acquired Ugueth Urbina from the Expos, Lowe was allowed to start three games in September. Lowe says he would rather start than relieve and he's added about 25 pounds to his 6-6 frame, hoping to increase his durability. He pitched very well in spring training (24 hits and 6 walks in 26 innings).
Free agent John Burkett and Dustin Hermanson (acquired by trade) are new to the rotation. Both right-handers can pitch a lot of innings if healthy, taking some of the burden off Martinez. Burkett began the season on the disabled list, but Boston has no shortage of possible replacements. Darren Oliver, Rolando Arrojo and Tim Wakefield, all former starters, begin the year in the bullpen, and can start if necessary. Frank Castillo has the edge as the fifth starter. Young left-hander Casey Fossum, who pitched well as a starter in the latter half of 2001, will be in the bullpen. Urbina, Willie Banks and a somewhat slimmed down Rich Garces round out the staff.
Most predictions I have seen leave Boston out of the playoff picture completely, but I'm more optimistic: the offense has improved tremendously; the infield defense is tighter; the bullpen remains strong; and there are plenty of starters to step in if Pedro has to miss a start or three. Then, when I notice the sizable list of minor injuries the Yankees have already suffered, I'm confident the American league East will be neck and neck all season.
My forecast: 94-68, and either first place in the East (by no more than 2 games) or the wild card.