Ten years, ten winning records for the Red Sox. The difference this year is that for the first time in ten years Theo Epstein is no longer at the helm. Of course, that won't make much of a difference for this year's version, which was mostly assembled by Epstein, and I'm not trying to suggest the Sox' fate will necessarily change for the worse with Ben Cherington at the helm, especially since Cherington has actually been with the organization since before Epstein arrived and has had plenty of experience observing one of the best decision-makers in the game (and probably contributing positively towards many of the Sox' moves over the years), but it will certainly be interesting to see what direction the new front office takes when it comes time to make some big decisions.
Regardless of the future, though, the 2012 team is very good. Let's dive in.
A cursory look at the Red Sox' position players seems to reveal some flaws. Ryan Sweeney in right? Mike Aviles at short? Jarrod Saltalamacchia as starting catcher? A closer look, however, reveals that none of these guys is a true black hole and all of them, in fact, are passable enough players.
Both Sweeney and Aviles are former part-time players who have spent significant time at multiple positions. It just so happens that their best defensive stats by far have been compiled at the positions they are to play for the Sox. Neither sample is huge, and I would be concerned particularly about Aviles considering his poor defensive stats at second base, but there is reason for optimism for both players.
Catcher, meanwhile looks like it has the chance to be an extremely effective platoon. Salty is a career .265/.331/.441 (116 OPS+) hitter against righties while Kelly Shoppach boasts an insane 147 OPS+ against lefties (and 77 against righties.) That combination of hitters would work out to be one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball.
In summary, the Red Sox had some holes this winter and already has a massive payroll, but still plugged the holes on the cheap very effectively. The Red Sox have a really good front office. Still.
Of course, we haven't yet talked about the studs in the Sox' lineup. To understand why the Bostons are so good, look no further than Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury. In 2011, the trio combined for more fWAR (24) than any other trio of hitters (quickly scanning the leaderboard, I think the next-best would be Kinsler, Beltre and Andrus at 17.8) and it's easy to build a powerhouse when you can surround three bonafide superstars with average players.
Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz are also still hanging around and are still effective players though both are no longer at their peak. All in all, the Lineup Analysis Tool thinks this lineup will score about 850-870 runs, not accounting for the catcher platoon or any mixing and matching that might happen in right field (or days off/injuries, to be fair.) Last year's squad scored 875, and there have only been minor changes, so this makes sense.
Here's what ZiPS thinks of the lineup.
Pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Oh right, and there's also Carl Crawford. What to make of Carl Crawford? It's tempting to think 2011 was just a total aberration, considering how good Crawford has been throughout his career. On the other hand, he just plain played worse in some fundamental and non-luck-based ways in 2011 - his K rate went up, his BB rate went down, and though he didn't get on base often he stole bases less prolifically when he did. This edition of the Sox doesn't need to worry too much about Crawford's offense seeing as they scored the most runs in the majors last year with a replacement-level left fielder, but if he doesn't recover the contract is quite an albatross going forward.
The one true question mark on the 2012 Sox is the back end of the rotation. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are solid at the top and Clay Buchholz, if healthy, should be fine as the #3. The 4 and 5 slots at this point are between Daniel Bard, Felix Doubront and Alfredo Aceves, none of whom is a proven major-league starter. Bard, of course, has been very good in the bullpen but hasn't started since 2007 - this isn't exactly a Brandon Morrow situation where he can step right back into a starting role. Things could get ugly fast if Lester or Beckett goes down for an extended period of time. Next in line would be... Kyle Weiland? Andrew Miller? That experiment didn't go too well in 2011. Partway through the season the rotation will get one reinforcement: Daisuke Matsuzaka. If you can call that a reinforcement.
Once again, let's see what ZiPS thinks:
*note: Aceves' projection is as a reliever
The bullpen lost its ace when Jonathan Papelbon signed with the Phillies this offseason. The Red Sox certainly had the money to keep him, but are also too smart to give $50 million to a reliever. They chose instead to trade a mediocre outfield prospect (Josh Reddick) and some other filler to fill their closer void: along with the aforementioned Ryan Sweeney, Oakland sent along Andrew Bailey, a bonafide major league closer in his own right. Once again, Boston has a good front office.
On the whole, though, the bullpen doesn't actually look that good. According to the MLB.com depth chart it will include some combination of guys like Mark Melancon, Matt Albers, Franklin Morales, Scott Atchison, Michael Bowden, and some of the starter-types previously mentioned (Miller, Aceves, Doubront, Bard.) Both Aceves and Bard project well as relievers, so the bullpen would get a big boost from the addition of one of those guys, but this could be a minor weakness for the team.
The Sox allowed 737 runs in 2011, which was roughly middle-of-the-pack. Their pitching, once again, is mediocre though not terrible, but the team defense (aside from possibly Aviles) is very good and should mitigate some of that.
The Sox haven't changed much from the team that had the 4th-best Pythagorean record in baseball last year. With the roster as it stands they're once again one of the best teams in the game, though they're somewhat top-heavy and if one of Gonzalez, Ellsbury, Pedroia, Lester or Beckett goes down it could spell trouble. As I did in the Record Prediction Contest, I'll pick them for 92 wins and taking the AL East.