2004 Boston Red Sox Preview

Monday, March 22 2004 @ 09:58 AM EST

Contributed by: Jordan

If angst were apples, the Boston Red Sox would be an orchard. If the franchise were a movie production, it’d be Heaven’s Gate multiplied by Apocalypse Now. If it was a car, it’d be a 12-cylinder super-charged luxury SUV doing twice the speed limit yet convinced the wheels are coming off and the driver is lost. This franchise is wound tight with so much anxiety, frustration, disillusionment and self-esteem issues that it could keep every shrink in New England in Guccis and silk ties for years.

No championship since 1918. More heartbreaks than pennants. An incredibly astute fan base that nonetheless publicly refers to some idiocy called the Curse of the Bambino. A deeply knowledgeable press corps that sometimes appears to actually hate the home team. A legendary yet increasingly decrepit ballpark that opened the same day the Titanic sank. A gigantic hangup about the New York Yankees that passed from obsession to certifiable neurosis years ago. Roger Clemens wearing New York championship rings. Alex Rodriguez in pinstripes. A $100 million payroll that’s still half what the Yankees boast. An avant-garde owner and front office that few people in baseball entirely understand. And let’s not forget Mookie Wilson’s ground ball.

In short, this is one deeply, historically messed-up franchise. But it’s 2004, and a powerful new front office has assembled an even more powerful on-field squadron. The Red Sox have revamped their staff to produce an excellent starting rotation and a solid bullpen, and they’re returning one of the best offensive lineups to hit the AL in decades. This is, by almost any measure, a championship-calibre club, and even with Alex Rodriguez a Yankee, they’re still just a bit better than the Bronx Bombers. In fact, there’s only one thing that can stop the Red Sox this year – but of course, you’ll have to read through to the end to find out what that is.

2003 Recap

95 wins, 67 lossesRuns scored: 961, 1st in AL
Finished 2nd in AL EastRuns allowed, 809, 8th in AL
Lost ALCS to YankeesPythagorean record: 94-68

Off-Season Moves

New SoxOld Sox
RHP Curt SchillingLHP Casey Fossum
RHP Keith FoulkeRHP Brandon Lyon
LHP Bobby J. JonesRHP Jeff Suppan
RHP Matt DuffRHP John Burkett
1B/RHP David McCartyRHP Todd Jones
2B Pokey ReeseRHP Bobby Howry
2B Mark BellhornLHP Bruce Chen
UTL Terry Shumpert2B Todd Walker
UTL Carlos FeblesUTL Damian Jackson
DH Ellis Burks UTL Kelly Dransfeldt
1B Brian Daubauch

Starting Rotation

The Big Two

First, a few words about Pedro Martinez. Serious arm troubles, nagging injuries and a decline from his turn-of-the century greatness have contributed to a sense in some quarters that Martinez is aging, fragile and fading. This view would necessarily overlook his age (32), his average ERA+ of 199 the last three years, and his average outing of almost 6 2/3 innings per start in that time frame. If Pedro is indeed now a 6- to 7-inning pitcher, he provides the best 6-7 frames around. Put it this way: Roy Halladay’s ERA+ last year was 145. Pedro’s was 212.

Taking this comparison another step, I’d like to do a quick show-and-tell with Pedro and the two starters who usually come up in debates over the greatest starter of the past 50 years. Here are the six best ERA+ seasons for these pitchers:

Roger Clemens

1997 226
1990 211
1994 177
1998 176
1992 175
1986 169

Greg Maddux

1994 273
1995 259
1997 191
1998 191
1993 171
1992 166

Pedro Martinez

2000 285
1999 245
1997 221
2003 212
2002 196
2001 189

I should add that in five of those six seasons, Martinez averaged 210 IP. If Pedro were to throw just one more 200-inning season and retire, his career innings total would rival that of Sandy Koufax – and Koufax never broke 190 ERA+ in a season. Pedro has never allowed more hits than inning pitched in a season in his career, and only twice has he failed to strike out more than one batter an inning. All of which is to say that when we talk about the greatest post-WWII pitcher, Pedro Martinez has to be among the first names we discuss.

Martinez’s anticipated 2004 performance is a source of much debate. There are those who think being that paired with a fellow ace like Curt Schilling will be a source of inspiration for Pedro, that he will rise to the challenge of constantly matching his comrade in arm. There are equally those who say that Martinez’s eccentric disposition and famous ego will be aggravated by the purchase of a new “ace,” and that Martinez will sow discord to vent his displeasure at being bumped aside by the new golden boy. I’ll go way out on a limb here and say that Pedro will react to the Schilling acquisition by throwing 195 innings, recording an ERA in the low- to mid-2.00s, striking out a ton of hitters, getting about 20 wins with help from an improved bullpen, and otherwise being the same slightly irascible genius and lethal starter that he always has been. Whatever problems will manifest in Fenway this year, they will not include a lack of chemistry between two great pitchers who have nothing to prove to anyone, least of all each other. Schilling and Randy Johnson had just a little success in Arizona the last few years, after all.

Speaking of ol’ Scythehands … Schilling is rapidly becoming baseball’s first Internet celebrity. If he wasn’t already a hero to millions of geeks with his Everquest campaigning, Schilling closed the deal when he started hanging out at Sons of Sam Horn, a members-only Red Sox Website where he first announced his intention to accept the trade to Boston. That he’s articulate and friendly in both professional interviews and online conversations only serves to cement his iconic status among the young and Net-friendly. There have been bumps along the way, however. Schilling seems to have the idea that a Weblog, even a members-only one, is somehow akin to a private, off-the-record conversation, which has prompted him to ask that his comments at SoSH remain unreported elsewhere – a stance that might raise new questions in ethical terms, but is certainly naďve in both pragmatic and technological terms. But hey, it’s early days for blogging and the Net, and we’re all still making our way with this new media. If Schilling doesn’t yet fully understand the way Websites do and ought to work, well, who does?

On the mound, Schilling has been masterful the last five seasons – in fact, his peripheral numbers are strikingly similar to Martinez’s: few hits allowed, very few walks, loads of strikeouts. Schilling has a reputation as a workhorse, of course, and his average 214 IP per year over the last five seasons puts him comfortably ahead of Pedro’s 186 annual totals in that time frame. But Schilling has also been erratic: in two of those seasons, he pitched more than 250 innings; in two others, 180 or fewer. The chief difference between the two hurlers, really, has been in home runs allowed: Schilling gives up a passel of long balls. He allowed 17 in just 168 innings last year, and in 2002 gave up more dingers (29) than Pedro has allowed in the last three seasons combined.

By almost every measure, Schilling has been among the very best starters in the game over the past few seasons, and his acquisition by the Red Sox was a masterstroke – one that would have defined their off-season, had it not been for Aaron Boone’s basketball game. The Sox gave up nothing more valuable than Casey Fossum in trade, and they had the resources on hand to accommodate this new salary. Moreover, Theo Epstein and company were smart enough to recognize that although the bullpen was a major problem for this team in 2003, the starting rotation needed help too. While the pen ranked a dismal 25th in the major leagues, according to Michael Wolverton’s Support-Neutral Value Added chart, the starters were just 13th in the majors, a position largely fortified by Pedro’s league-leading SNVA performance. Another ace (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) was clearly required, and the happy circumstance of an overloaded Diamondbacks payroll, the availability of Richie Sexson, and John Henry’s willingness to open his wallet led to that need being met. Schilling and Martinez are admittedly both health risks – neither pitched 200 frames last year – but barring a major injury, both are expected to take the mound 30+ times in 2004 and to form a deadly one-two combination that no one in baseball can match.

The Other Three

Which Derek Lowe will show up for the Red Sox this year? The 21-8, 2.58 converted reliever of 2002 who by many measures deserved the Cy Young Award? Or the 17-7, 4.47 league-average starter who fell back to earth in 2003? The answer depends on which version of the pitcher is closer to reality. Here are some statistics from Derek Lowe’s last five seasons.

Year	IP	H/9	BB/9	K/9	ERA+
1999 109 6.93 3.20 6.60 192
2000 91 8.90 3.59 7.64 194
2001 91 10.18 2.82 8.10 128
2002 219 6.82 2.64 5.21 171
2003 203 9.57 1.52 4.87 105

Granted, these numbers are kind of all over the place, but there are some things you can draw from them. Lowe’s strikeout rate, which had been steadily increasing during his time in the bullpen, dropped through the floor when he moved to the rotation; he now sports one of the lowest K/9 rates of any successful starter (by way of comparison, Jamie Moyer’s K/9 last season was 5.40). As the owner of one of the league’s best sinkers and the most extreme groundballer in the game (a career average 3.46 GO/FO ratio), Lowe relies heavily on both his defence and on plain good luck that a bouncing ball will not find a hole. Consider this: in 2002, his H/IP ratio was a phenomenal 166/219; last year, it was a pedestrian 216/203. In 2002, the Red Sox infield defence scored high marks in Zone Rating but was mediocre in other metrics; in 2003, it was mediocre to bad right across the board (especially at second base). Perhaps most importantly, in 2002, Lowe’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was a sterling .235; in 2003, it was an entirely ordinary .292.

Conclusions? Lowe barely strikes out 5 hitters every 9 innings, and as a result he needs both pinpoint control and few hits allowed in order to succeed; he walks a very fine line. His two worst H/9 seasons (’01 and ’03) were also his two worst seasons overall. In order to return to his 2002 heights, Lowe has to maintain his command so that he’s walking fewer than 2 men per 9 innings, and he has to hope that his defenders can gobble more grounders this year than last. There’s hope in both respects: one, Lowe’s already sharp control improved even more in the second half of 2003 (he had a scare with cancerous growths on his nose earlier in the year); and two, Gold Glover Pokey Reese has an excellent shot at being the starting second baseman, replacing the Todd Walker statue that played the keystone last year.

Will it be enough for a Cy Young revival? Personally, I don’t think so; the BABIP gap looks too wide to bridge in just one season. Expect Lowe’s performance to improve, maybe to a 3.70 or 4.00 ERA. That will make him a solid third starter, but not the third ace that some fans might be hoping for. Lowe’s 2002 season appears to have been more accident than genius.

And speaking of 2002 outliers … here’s Tim Wakefield:

Year		IP		ERA+
1997 201 110
1998 216 101
1999 140 100
2000 159 91
2001 168 116
2002 163 157
2003 202 115

The best of the few knuckleballers in the game today, Wakefield had a similarly fortunate season in 2002, registering a .237 BABIP; last year, it was up to .285, and as you can see from the chart above, that’s much closer to Wakefield’s usual performance. There’s nothing wrong with Wakefield, a slightly-above-league-average pitcher, but he’s overvalued in many quarters, perhaps based on his sterling 2002 campaign, perhaps on his repertoire. He’ll be the fourth starter for the Red Sox, and deserves no higher rating.

The fifth spot in the rotation will be Byung-Hyun Kim’s to lose. The jury is still deliberating on whether Kim can be a solid starting pitcher, but there is some data to mull over. Here are a few BK stats from 2003:

Role		IP	H/9	BB/9	K/9	HR/9	ERA
Starter 72 7.87 2.87 5.99 1.12 3.38
Reliever 50 7.38 1.80 9.72 0.54 3.22

These numbers (especially the K/9) might suggest that Kim makes a dynamite reliever and a solid but unexciting starter. But of course, it would be silly to let 72 innings in the rotation determine Kim’s status. These are small sample sizes, and it was Kim’s first crack at being a starting pitcher. The Red Sox bullpen has been reloaded in 2004 and should have no need for Kim; assuming he stays healthy, he should be able to give the Sox 30 starts. In many ways, Kim is the wild card on the Boston pitching staff. The front office knows pretty much what to expect from its first four starters, but Kim remains something of an enigma. If Kim can maintain that 3.38 ERA over 200 innings, then the Red Sox will have a starting staff unmatched by any in the American League. But even if he tacks on another run to that ERA, he’ll still be one of the best fifth starters around. If they all pitch up to their ceilings, one through five, this rotation could be utterly dominant.

This just in: inflammation behind his shoulder has sidelined Kim for the latter part of spring training, and will keep him from opening the season in the rotation. Although it’s not expected to be a serious problem, he will be out until mid-April, longer if the problem doesn’t clear up quickly. Kim’s spot in the rotation has temporarily gone to one-time Pirates prospect Bronson Arroyo, who resurrected his career with a solid 2003 campaign in Pawtucket and who contributed to Boston’s stretch drive and in the playoffs.

Really, if the Red Sox starting staff has a weakness, Arroyo symbolizes it very well: it’s shallow. An injury to any of the Top Five will invite a substantial drop-off in quality. The four most frequent starters for Triple-A Pawtucket last season were Arroyo, Bruce Chen (now in Toronto), Dicky Gonzalez (now in Tampa), Ryan Rupe (now in Japan) and Jamie Brown, acquired from Cleveland last summer. Starting depth like Casey Fossum was either dealt to Milwaukee in the Schilling trade or, like John Burkett and Jeff Suppan, bid a less-than-fond farewell. Pawtucket’s roster currently includes luminaries like Frank Castillo, Paul Rigdon and Ed Yarnall. If there are significant injuries to this starting staff, Boston will have to scramble to replace them. The team can always take on more payroll, of course, but they’re rapidly running out of prospects to include in trades, and few people in Boston would want to see a Kevin Youkilis-Livan Hernandez deal.

The Bullpen

The Red Sox wanted to buttress the rotation, so they added Curt Schilling. They saw gaps in their infield defence and lefty-mashing bench spots, so they picked up Pokey Reese and Ellis Burks. But they recognized early on that their single biggest weakness was in the bullpen. And boy, did they fix that.

Some sabrmetric fans held the belief prior to 2003 that effective bullpens could be pulled together pretty much on the fly; last season’s experiences in Boston and Toronto may have gone a long way to dispelling that notion. Only Mike Timlin really did his job in the Red Sox pen, though Alan Embree was more than decent in limited innings. But ex-Sox like Brandon Lyon cost the Red Sox games, and it’s no surprise that many of them are gone (Ramiro Mendoza would also be gone, but for the $3.6M he’ll make this year). But the larger problem is that there was no real ace reliever down there (notice I don’t say closer) to whom the Red Sox could turn when the game was on the line in the late innings.

So the Red Sox went out and bought themselves one of the best. Keith Foulke was one of Billy Beane’s best acquisitions, spirited away from the White Sox in exchange for the remains of Billy Koch. Foulke had one bad half-season with the ChiSox, but that was enough to sour them on him; last year with Oakland, he was as brilliant as he had been in 2000 and 2001. But the A’s couldn’t afford to keep Foulke, and in one of the least surprising moves of the winter, Boston grabbed him for four years at $20M to anchor their bullpen.

Helping bridge the gap to Foulke, the Red Sox will have two solid righthanders. In addition to Timlin, one of the most reliable setup men around, the Sox have Scott Williamson, acquired from Cincinatti during the 2003 stretch run. The former NL Rookie of the Year has recovered all the way from arm surgery, and has now struck out 10.53 batters per nine innings in his career. But his strike-zone command, never his strongest suit, has gotten to the point where he’s walking a batter less than every two innings. If that doesn’t improve, the Red Sox might be reluctant to use Williamson in tight spots. Embree returns as the top left-hander in the pen. If the Sox decide they want a second lefty, they can choose from a rogue’s gallery of southpaws currently in camp, including Tim Hamulack, Bobby M. Jones, last-minute waiver claim Frank Brooks, and Mark “Baked” Malaska. For middle and long relief, there’s Mendoza, spring-training acquisition Matt Duff (just obtained from the Cardinals for Tony Womack), righty Reynaldo Garcia (acquired from the Rangers, but also had arthroscopic surgery) and Arroyo, if he’s not in the rotation. It’s a stronger pen than the one that Sox ran out there last year, but there are depth issues here, too: after the solid Top Four of Foulke, Timlin, Williamson and Embree, the quality falls off in a hurry. An injury or two in the pen could be equally problematic.

The Hitting

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s where the Red Sox finished 2003 in the American League’s offensive rankings:

BA	1st
OBP 1st
SLG 1st
Runs 1st
RBIs 1st
HRs 1st

It wasn’t particularly close, either: Boston’s 851 team OPS was comfortably ahead of New York’s 810 and Toronto’s 803. Their slugging percentage (.492) was an all-time American League record; their 238 home runs set a club record. The Red Sox were an offensive juggernaut last year, thrashing opponents with a lineup that had no holes. The obvious question is: can they do it again?

Here’s one way of answering the question: a look at the variance between the 2003 and career OPS+ totals of the eight returning regulars in Boston’s lineup:

Player		Career OPS+		2003 OPS+	Difference
Garciaparra 135 121 -14
Millar 122 110 -12
Damon 99 94 -5
Ramirez 157 160 +3
Varitek 100 120 +20
Nixon 121 149 +28
Ortiz 116 144 +28
Mueller 111 140 +29


As you can see, three players had OPS+ totals slightly below their career norms. The largest differential, belonging to Nomar Garciaparra, should be qualified by noting that since his devastating wrist injury in 2001, Nomar’s OPS totals have dropped from the 1000s to the 800s; his 869 last year was about average for the post-injury Nomar. Kevin Millar’s numbers actually dropped somewhat, surprising for a player going from a pitcher’s park to a hitter’s park. Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez pretty much nailed their career average totals.

Then we have our four outliers. Jason Varitek has the best full season of his life. So did Trot Nixon. So did David Ortiz. And so, it hardly seems necessary to say, did batting champion Bill Mueller. Is it enough, then, to say that the 2003 Red Sox batters played over their collective heads and are bound for a letdown? Not entirely.

The Infield

At the corners, we have the Mue(i)ll(e)ar Brothers. Kevin arrived with greater notoriety than Bill: he was on his way to Japan, as part of a deal between the Florida Marlins and Chunichi Dragons, when an angel of light appeared to him in the first-class cabin and told him he was actually meant to play for the Red Sox. Or something like that. Many negotiations, payments and “apologies” later, Millar signed a two-year, $6.2M contract with Boston, and that was that. Millar ranked fourth among AL first basemen in OPS and played most of the Red Sox’ innings at first base (although Ortiz and the departed Shea Hillenbrand played there too). Considering that the three guys ranked ahead of him earned a collective $30M or so, Millar has to be regarded as a very solid acquisition at a very reasonable price.

But whatever accolades go to Epstein and company for snaring Millar, they pale in comparison to the evident genius behind the acquisition of Mueller. Previously known only as a fine third baseman with a good eye and a decent stick, Mueller had not hit above .300 since his 55-game rookie trial with San Francisco in 1996; he hit .326 last year. His .540 slugging percentage shattered his previous high; his 19 home runs matched his two previous best HR seasons combined; same for his 45 doubles. Mueller was not particularly a creature of Fenway (969 home OPS, 909 on the road) or a hot half (956 before the Break, 916 afterwards). Defensively, Mueller came to Boston with a good-field reputation, and Defensive Win Shares ranked him 5th among all AL hot corner handlers; but according to FP, ZR and RF, he was one of the worst fielders in the league. Choose your favourite stat and draw your own conclusions.

Mueller’s offensive heroics wouldn’t have come as a complete surprise to those like Epstein who knew what to look for; his lifetime 416/432 BB/K rate demonstrated his knowledge of the strike zone. But if the Red Sox front office could see this coming, they should be playing the stock market. Mueller was 31 last season, and it’s hard to look at this performance as anything but a career year. Nonetheless, although Mueller must inevitably drop from these heights, I don’t think he’ll come crashing down to his previous levels; leveling out at .300/.380/.450 or so seems about right.

The other great surprise on the infield was part-time first baseman David Ortiz, given up for dead by the Twins, perhaps another case of Tom Kelly Syndrome afflicting a young player (his ex-infield mate Todd Walker, now with the Cubs, doubtless could relate). Like Mueller, Ortiz’s stellar performance was not a complete shock: indeed, one member of the Cabal thought that 500 at-bats in a new organization could turn Ortiz into an Andujar winner. (In fairness, I also thought John Halama and Jose Hernandez were headed for breakout years.) After starting off slow and recording only 100 ABs through May, Ortiz really caught fire in June and went nuclear starting in July: 27 of his 31 home runs came after Independence Day.

Unlike Mueller, however, Ortiz seems unlikely to fall off precipitously in 2004, at least in his percentages. Ortiz’s Achilles heel in 2003, as it has been his whole career, was lefthanders, as he posted just a 674 OPS against portsiders. The Red Sox took note and in January, brought former Red Sox centerfielder Ellis Burks into the fold to DH against southpaws. Freed from 100 or so at-bats against lefties, Ortiz could very well post stronger percentage numbers this year than last, although his final counting numbers may be less impressive. Ortiz will be 28 this season, and his prime years still lie ahead of him. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that with Frank Thomas on the wrong side of 35 and Edgar Martinez on the wrong side of 40, Ortiz could be the best DH in the league in 2004 – just as he was in 2003.

Behind the plate, Jason Varitek is considered one of the best all-around catchers in the league: his strengths in pitch-calling and pitcher-handling make him popular with the staff. Although his final 2003 numbers (25 HRs, 85 RBI) eclipsed anything he had accomplished previously (.273/.351/.512), it wouldn’t be entirely fair to call it a career year. Varitek was having a breakout 2001 campaign (.293/.371/.489) when he broke his elbow diving for a popup, ending his campaign after just 51 games. Varitek turns 32 next month, which is the usual plunging point for catchers’ production; but he got a late start to his career and has played fewer than 700 games. Although the Red Sox have a solid young catcher coming up in Kelly Shoppach, Varitek ought to have at least one more good season in him, and possibly two; don’t expect a big drop-off here.

Up the middle, the Red Sox have two interesting stories. The first is at second base, where a position battle is brewing that sabrmaticians and traditionalists should enjoy. In this corner, flashing Gold Glove leather and a lifetime .310 on-base percentage, is former first-round draft pick Calvin (Pokey) Reese. After two injury-plagued years in the wilderness with Pittsburgh, Reese has signed on with his second tour of duty in Boston (you might not recall the first one: it lasted two days. Acquired from Colorado for Scott Hatteberg in December 2001, Pokey was dropped to waivers two days later, in what was altogether one of stranger transactions you’ll see). And in this corner, Ken Phelps All-Star veteran Mark Bellhorn, an iron-gloved walks-and-power machine whose magical 2002 season with the Cubs (.258/.374/.512; 27 HRs and 76 BB in 445 AB) stands as a glorious outlier in an otherwise mediocre career.

Scouts loved Reese; sabrmaticians loved Bellhorn. Which one will get the nod from the ultra-sophisticated Red Sox front office? It was up in the air at the time of writing, but don’t be surprised to see Reese get the majority of starts. More offence is not what the Red Sox need; instead, they need a truly great glove man up the middle, especially for extreme groundballers like Keith Foulke and Derek Lowe. Pokey will be the closest thing to an automatic out for Boston this year, but the Red Sox need his defense.

And at shortstop, of course, we have Nomar Garciaparra. Pause for a moment and take a look at these three stat lines.

Player A
1999 .349/.438/.552, 37 2B, 24 HR, 91 BB, 19 SB
2000 .339/.416/.481, 31 2B, 15 HR, 68 BB, 22 SB

Player B
1999 .285/.387/.586, 25 2B, 42 HR, 56 BB, 21 SB
2000 .316/.420/.606, 34 2B, 41 HR, 100 BB, 15 SB

Player C
1999 .357/.418/.603, 42 2B, 27 HR, 51 BB, 14 SB
2000 .372/.434/.599, 51 2B, 21 HR, 61 BB, 5 SB

If you were told that these three players were all shortstops and all in their 20s, wouldn’t you have had a hard time choosing among them? Well, maybe not a hard time: it would have been like choosing among a BMW, a Jaguar and a Mercedes. You can perhaps see why people talked seriously four years ago about Who Was The Greatest Shortstop; the fact that time and circumstance have rendered the question almost laughable shouldn’t detract from the delight these numbers offered.

You probably already know which one is Derek Jeter, which one is Alex Rodriguez, and which one is Nomar (A, B and C if you don’t). We know about A-Rod’s steady rise and Jeter’s gradual decline, but Nomar’s sudden fall was shocking. After compiling those two great seasons, Nomar’s 2001 campaign was ruined by a split tendon in his wrist that he apparently suffered in a 1999 HBP; he hit .372 with the injury in 2000, but he aggravated it in spring training and underwent surgery, returning only for 80 August at-bats. The injury couldn’t have been in a worse location: Garciaparra generated much of his offensive production from his incredible bat speed, and the wrist injury robbed him of a lot of it. Today he’s merely a very good shortstop (great bat, decent glove); in 2000, he looked like he was on his way to the Hall of Fame. Last year, Nomar’s stat line (.301/.345/.524) represented the new normal and the kind of production that Boston should probably expect over the next few seasons.

With the trade and position shift of Alex Rodriguez, an argument can be made that Garciaparra is the best shortstop in the American League right now. While his .350 BA days appear to be behind him, Nomar is a flat-out great hitter with moderate to strong power; he could walk a little more often, but that really wouldn’t be Nomar, who consistently sees some of the fewest pitches per at-bat of any successful hitter. Garciaparra has had a tumultuous off-season: not only did the Red Sox seem uninterested in extending his contract (he’s a free agent after 2004), he had to endure chatter about his supposedly surly attitude towards corporate sponsors and was almost traded to the ChiSox for Magglio Ordonez (had the Ramirez-Rodriguez deal gone through). He then had to listen to Kevin Millar prematurely celebrate the “upgrade” at shortstop from Nomar to A-Rod, knowing that Millar wasn’t the only member of the ballclub who felt that way (just the most thoughtless). Compared to all that, getting married (to Mia Hamm, no less) was a piece of cake.

There are two schools of thought on Nomar v. 2004: that he’ll be hurt and exhausted by the off-season turmoil and will have a miserable year, or that he’ll be energized to prove the Red Sox wrong in his walk year and to make them regret their dalliance with A-Rod. Personally, I haven’t a clue what will happen. I think Nomar is a professional who’ll do his best, which these days, means an average in the .300 range and 25-30 HRs, along with moderately good defence. The Red Sox could do worse at shortstop; after this season plays out, they should expect to.

This just in: Nomar has been suffering from Achilles’ tendinitis the last several days, and there’s a possibility he won’t be ready to start the season. In that event, Reese would slide over to shortstop and Bellhorn would become the starting second baseman for as long as Garciaparra is out. Consider that to be a defensive wash, at best.

The Outfield

Manny Ramirez

It says a great deal about the Boston Red Sox that they took the most dangerous hitter in baseball and turned him into a liability. To start with, they gave him too much money (and although that wasn’t entirely their fault – it was the style at the time – Ramirez was basically a self-pity purchase after the Yankees got Mike Mussina, and they paid too much and went too long for him). But more seriously, they mishandled his personality, which to say the least is a delicate one.

Ramirez, from most accounts, is not an actively disruptive presence; under Jimy Williams, he survived the poisonous tension in Boston’s clubhouse by wearing his headphones 24/7 and tuning it all out. He’s evidently one of those players who just wants to play ball in the evening, go party all night, and enjoy being immensely talented; he’s not a bad guy. But he’s apparently also very sensitive, his judgment is questionable, he’s always been on the wrong side of immature, and he has a temper that can get ignited by slights real and perceived. Basically, he’s a passive-aggressive George Bell – except that he’s a simply tremendous hitter:

1999 522 .333/.442/.663 174
2000 439 .351/.457/.697 185
2001 529 .306/.405/.609 162
2002 436 .349/.450/.647 190
2003 569 .325/.427/.587 160

Let’s put those numbers in perspective: Alex Rodriguez’s career-best single-season OPS+ total is 168. Ramirez has the American League’s most potent bat, and the value he adds to a lineup is staggering. He has his faults, of course: he’s a terrible left fielder, last by a wide margin in almost all defensive metrics, which might be related to a fundamental indifference to fielding. If he’s in a huff about something, he’ll fail to run out a ground ball or do something else silly that gets him more boos than he needs. And his muscle-bound body regularly breaks down with minor things like hamstrings, such that he’s missed more than 40 games twice in the past five seasons. Blemishes, to be sure; but nothing that you’d think couldn’t be solved by a good trainer and a full-time DH assignment.

Ramirez should be the Red Sox’ most valued asset. Instead, they tried to swap him to the Rangers; and before that, they placed him on irrevocable waivers in what was either a gambit to get the Yankees to pick him up, or an attempt to “send a message” to Ramirez that his behaviour won’t be tolerated. The former move might make sense as a cost-containment measure, assuming the team really has cut the cord with the player. But the latter is just silly: teams try this stunt fairly regularly, punishing a player publicly and noisily in an attempt to “show them who’s boss.” It never works. The team always suffers, and sometimes the player does too: George Bell was never the same after the DH fiasco of 1986. When your players are your only assets, why abuse them? These may be very young and often spoiled men, and they may not always be the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they’re smart enough to know when they’re being treated like wayward children and rich enough not to have to put up with it.

For some reason, the Red Sox brass decided that Manny Ramirez is one of the team’s biggest problems, instead of recognizing that properly handled, he could be their best asset. So how should they handle Ramirez? It wouldn’t be hard for the Red Sox to adapt their organizational attitude somewhat to suit the unique characteristics of their best player – major-league players already understand that there’s one set of rules for the superstars and another for everyone else. I can’t tell you exactly how to manage him to maximize his effectiveness – but I can tell you how not to handle him, and that’s to go about it the way the Red Sox have. Terry Francona has an extremely demanding job with the Red Sox this year, but his to-do list must include starting the fence-mending process with the proud young New Yorker whose bat can carry this team to a World Series.

Johnny Damon

You may have seen photos of Damon coming into camp this spring looking like Tom Hanks’s character in Cast Away, right down to the suntan and untamed beard. It’s a far cry from the young, fresh-faced cadet with the Captain America name who broke in with the Royals in ’95 and showed all the promise in the world (.343/.437/.534 as a 21-year-old in the Texas League, with 16 HRs and 26 steals in 111 games). He has the reputation as one of the game’s premiere centerfielders and leadoff hitters, though it hasn’t always been that way. He didn’t really hit his stride until his last two years in Kansas City (.307/.379/.477 in ’99, .327/.382/.495 in ’00, 82/15 in the SB/CS column combined), and he disappointed the A’s terribly in his one season in Oakland (.256/.324/.363). Since coming to Boston, though, he’s settled into a comfortable and valuable groove, consistently close to his career average numbers of .284/.347/.425 and about 30 steals a year. Defensively, the numbers (ZR, RF) says Damon is surprisingly average – but they say the same thing about Vernon Wells too (his defensive metrics track Damon’s closely), and neither Boston nor Toronto pitchers have been heard complaining about their centerfielder.

Damon’s total package on the open market might cost you up to about $8M these days, which by coincidence is what Damon will make this year ($8.5M in 2005). He’s a solid B+ player: above average in all aspects of the game, a superstar in none, steady and reliable. The frightening head injury he suffered in the last post-season appears to have had no long-term effects, which is good for the Red Sox, who have no one in the majors or high minors ready to adequately replace him. Damon is quietly one of the most important cogs in this team: think Bernie Williams on the late ‘90s Yankees.

Trot Nixon

Nixon finally had the breakout year everyone in Boston was waiting for – or did he? Nixon had a terrific season, posting a .306/.396/.578 line that included 58 extra-base hits in just 441 at-bats, far exceeding anything he had managed before in the majors or the minors. The reasonable assumption is that he’s finally reached his potential. I’m not so sure.

Nixon has always had two problems at the major-league level: hitting for a high average and hitting left-handers. On the first point, Nixon’s BA had never cracked .280 before last year’s .306; and even after his solid 2003, his career average remains at .277.

On the second point, consider these batting splits:

Year		vs LH (AB)			vs. RH (AB)	
2001 .210/.309/.295 (105) .298/.393/.556 (430)
2002 .233/.303/.353 (116) .262/.348/.508 (416)
2003 .219/.296/.375 (96) .330/.423/.635 (345)
Career .216/.302/.339 (416) .291/.380/.529 (1,931)

Nixon still can’t hit lefties: his final 2003 numbers were purely the result of a monster performance against right-handers in relatively few ABs (345). Not only that, but Nixon’s power explosion appears to be largely of the round-tripper variety: his 2B/AB rate actually dropped, from 1 in 17.25 in 2001 and 1 in 14.77 in 2002 all the way down to 1 in 18.35 in 2003; it was his 3B and HR that leaped, and I’m somewhat suspicious of power numbers that aren’t supported by doubles.

Let’s also take a look at Nixon’s 2003 numbers in their OPS+ context, and play everyone’s favourite parlour game, Spot The Outlier:

Year		AB		OPS+
1999 381 106
2000 427 108
2001 535 129
2002 532 114
2003 441 149

What all this amounts to is my contention that Trot Nixon didn’t have a breakout season; he had a career one. He didn’t improve against lefties (save for a slight power spike), and his improvement against righties, even from his solid 2001 season, was so huge as to raise the spectre of lightning in a bottle. Nixon’s 2001 and his career numbers paint what I think is a more realistic picture of the production we should expect: .295/.385/.535 in around 400 or so AB against righties, and another dismal 100 ABs against lefties he’s unable to duck. Combine this with the fact that Nixon is actually a pretty average right fielder (and Win Shares says he isn’t even that), and you have a final package that isn’t too much different from Frank Catalanotto, at more than twice the price.

This just in: a naggingly sore back turned out to be more serious for Nixon, who has been diagnosed with a mid disc herniation and will be out until early-to-mid-May. The injuries keep piling up for this team. Luckily, the Red Sox have far more depth in their outfield than they do on their pitching staff. Gabe Kapler and Millar are expected to see regular duty in right field for the first four to six weeks of the season, while David Ortiz shifts from DH duty to first base. This may also mean more offensive and defensive opportunities for McCarty and even – yikes – Burks. These are not defensive upgrades, folks.

The Rest

The Red Sox bench, still sorting itself out as this preview was written, should be a stronger unit in 2004. Ellis Burks and Mark Bellhorn will be valuable right-handed bats on days they don’t get the starting assignment. Brick wall Kapler played exceptionally well after his acquisition from Colorado last summer and should now see a lot of time in the Fenway outfield, especially against lefties. Brian Daubach returns to the fold after one year in Chicago, providing a powerful left-handed bat and filling in at first base and in the outfield as needed. One-time Royals prospect Carlos Febles is trying to catch on as a utility infielder, while former uber-prospect David McCarty is hanging around and hoping to become a two-way player like Brooks Kieschnick – well, okay, better than Brooks Kieschnick. Handyman Terry Shumpert was also signed to a minor-league contract and invited to Florida to strut his stuff. Doug Mirabelli returns as Jason Varitek’s backup and Tim Wakefield’s personal chase-the-knuckler-to-the-backstop guy.

The Manager

Terry Francona was one of my favourite Expo players when I was growing up; I have no idea why. Having gotten that full disclosure out of the way … Francona is in his second stint as a manager, having flamed out in his first trial in Philadelphia. Granted, Philly is a rough place for managers, especially rookie skippers, and it could be argued that Francona didn’t get a fair shake with an organization that seems to change its strategy every year or so. That said, he picked up a reputation as a manager with questionable in-game strategic instincts who caved in too easily when starting pitchers insisted they could go another inning (especially Curt Schilling, who openly campaigned for Francona to get the job even before he was traded from Arizona). Considering the Red Sox own perhaps the most fragile important arm in the game in Pedro Martinez, many people questioned the hiring.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot to be said in favour of Francona. If his game-calling skills are below average, his interpersonal skills are reportedly off the charts: he handles a clubhouse well, from the biggest millionaire ego down to the scrappiest 25th man. He managed Michael Jordan during the latter’s aborted minor-league baseball career, keeping the club on an even keel during the media circus and even helping Jordan improve his game. He’s an intelligent guy who, since his dismissal from the Phillies, spent time in two of the game’s smartest organizations, the Indians and Athletics, earning rave reviews. Boston’s front office is not short on brains either, and if Theo Epstein & Co. think Francona’s the right guy for this volatile club, that bodes well.

But Terry should suffer no illusions: no other manager will face such tremendous pressure. Francona’s player-friendly reputation may spring from using a light touch in the clubhouse and letting the players police themselves: on a team this dangerously volatile and with so many idiosyncratic individualists on the roster, that could be a disaster. If the team starts slowly, or if he gives a starter a Grady-like late hook, or if the Sox lose a game to the Yankees at some point, or there’s even a suggestion that he’s losing this combustible clubhouse, the local press, phone-in shows and fans will zero in on him. And that won’t be fun.

The Trade

No discussion of the Red Sox of 2004 would be complete without raising The Trade – both the one that happened and the one that didn’t. Everyone knows by now that the Red Sox and Rangers were this close to swapping multi-millionaires Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, that the trade fell through when the Red Sox wouldn’t pick up more of Manny’s contract (though the union’s veto of the deal helped cover that up), that the Rangers later turned around and dealt A-Rod to the Yankees, and that therefore the Red Sox will spend all season seeing a third baseman in New York that they could’ve had at shortstop in Boston.

It’s hard to know what effect this will have on the 2004 Sox. As mentioned above, there will almost certainly be some repercussions with Nomar Garciaparra. Even if he puts it all behind him as I expect him to, that won’t mend every fence in a clubhouse that’s probably divided over the club’s treatment of its star shortstop. But there’s also the more widespread psychological element to consider. After the Red Sox acquired Curt Schilling, capping a very successful off-season to that point, there was great joy in Beantown, even elation. There’s an argument to be made that maybe just maybe, this elation went to the Red Sox’ head, that they started dreaming too big, and they got a little too greedy.

I mean, look: the Red Sox won 95 games last year with one ace pitcher and a Band-Aid bullpen. They went and got Curt Schilling, who posted a 5.3 Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement score in an off-year. They went and got Keith Foulke, whose +26.5 Adjusted Runs Prevented performance in 2003 almost single-handedly cancelled out the miserable –27.1 posted by the Sox bullpen last year. Do the math; even assuming some fallback from the hitters, the 2004 squad could be expected to clear 100 wins with little difficulty. But that wasn’t enough, apparently; Boston’s eyes were bigger than its stomach, and its eyes were set on a shortstop in Texas.

In theory, it seemed like a masterstroke: exchange a malcontent left fielder for the best young player in the game, and follow that up by dealing the incumbent shortstop for another brilliant outfielder. The war between the Red Sox and Yankees would be over before it began; New York would be utterly vanquished; 2004 would be a season-long victory lap. In practice, the deal went from promising to questionable to bad in a matter of days, and to nightmarish shortly thereafter. Put it this way: if you had asked John Henry in the middle of the Red Sox-Rangers trade talks, “What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen right now?” he might have jokingly replied, “Oh, I don’t know – the trade falls through, harsh words are exchanged, we’re stuck with Manny, Nomar is pissed, the fans’ huge expectations are dashed, and the Yankees end up with A-Rod while the Rangers pay part of his salary.” I hope John has a copy of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, because that’s what happened. Maybe it was ambition gone awry; maybe it was just bad luck; or maybe it was a lesson about flying too close to the sun.


Will the Red Sox be able to recover their momentum, put The Trade behind them and take the pennant they’re capable of capturing? I really don’t know, because as I said off the top, there is no other franchise and no other fan base quite like this one. There is a unique and fascinating co-dependent relationship at work here.

Think about this: diehard Red Sox fans chant “Yankees Suck!” at college football games and other community gatherings. The two things Red Sox fans talk about more than anything else are the “Curse of the Bambino” and Bucky Dent’s home run. John Henry spends more than $100 million in payroll, yet he complains about the $190 million that George Steinbrenner shells out and calls for a salary cap. The first spring-training game between Boston and New York is front-page news in Red Sox Nation. The team president calls the Yankees the “Evil Empire” without a trace of a smile.

Can you see a pattern here? The Red Sox are the Bizzarro Yankees. They’re the twisted, imperfect image of something they hate, forever self-defined in terms of the inescapable object of their loathing. And they seem to like it that way.

You’re only as good as you think you are. This truism applies in spades to the Boston Red Sox, a team and a franchise that might only lose its shackles and break into the light of redemption when every player, executive and fan associated with the club is finally ready to admit that the Curse of the Bambino is a pile of crap, and that their destiny has always been in their own hands. The Yankees aren’t the real enemy, and they haven’t been for decades. Only one thing can stop the Boston Red Sox in 2004: the Boston Red Sox.