Sunday, December 04, 2005

2005 Red Sox Wrap-Up

Where to begin? The 2005 season was pretty disappointing, so let’s address that and get it out of the way, so we can focus on the real work at hand, which is to build for next year. There are positives that need to be remembered, which need to serve as the foundation for a better year in 2006 and beyond.

Isn’t it interesting that after I wrote the paragraph above, I realized it could be used for either of the two season wrap-ups I’m writing, one for the Royals and one for the Red Sox? I ultimately decided to do just that, use it to open both articles, because, despite the obvious differences between the two clubs, they are both currently in the same boat. They each need to evaluate the 2005 season, determine which parts need to be kept, which need to be replaced, which youngsters are future regulars, and which are expendable. They then must go forth and spend or trade to fill their many holes.

The only difference is the level of expectations and the resources available to each GM. There are currently 29 other teams who are in the exact same position.

But this is about the Red Sox, so let me start being specific. Having started writing this late, I’ll try to avoid making obvious predictions like, “the Red Sox should dump Theo Epstein and trade for Josh Beckett”. Here are the clearly recognizable failures and successes from 2005:


The Bullpen. A complete disaster, from Keith Foulke’s refusal to get his gimpy knees fixed before the season, to Alan Embree’s implosion, to the hideous Mike Remlinger Era. The Sox bullpen had the worst ERA (5.15) in the American League and allowed the highest opponents’ OPS (.805). That means that the Sox’s pen turned the average hitter they faced for the entire season into Johnny Damon. They struck out fewer hitters per nine innings (6.25) than every other AL team except the Devil Rays. Only Mike Timlin distinguished himself over the entire season, though Mike Myers filled his limited role well. Help is on the way (Jonathan Papelbon, Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen), but it was too late to keep the ’05 pen from being a collective train wreck.

Second Base. In 2004, the second basemen for the Red Sox, primarily Mark Bellhorn, combined for a .794 OPS, the best mark in the league and sixth in all of baseball. That included power (.434 SLG, 3rd in AL) and plate discipline (.360 OBP, 1st in AL). All of that went to hell in 2005. Bellhorn was so bad he was released outright at the All-Star Break. The acquisition of Tony Graffanino helped, but there was still a massive overall drop in production. The OPS from that position dropped almost 70 points, to .725. That mark was very middle-of-the-road (8th in the AL, 17th in baseball), and ordinarily that would be acceptable production from second base. But one of the strengths of the Boston offense in’04 was that there wasn’t a hole in the lineup. That couldn’t be said for much of 2005, and second base was a major reason for it.

Shortstop. Production from shortstop was essentially flat from ’04 to ’05 – OPS of .716 in 2004, 9th in the AL, down to .708 in ’05, 7th in the AL), but once Edgar Renteria’s defensive struggles and mammoth contract are factored in, the position has to be notched as a disappointment.

First Base. Despite all of the well-publicized struggles of Kevin Millar to find his power stroke, it’s only fair to note that the Red Sox’s first basemen didn’t really drop all that much in combined OPS. They posted a mark of .813 in 2004, 6th in the AL, and fell to .795 in 2005, 7th in the league. The problem was that the drop came entirely in power (their collective OBP actually rose from .346 to .358), and that power loss was damaging on a team that already lost power at catcher, second base, shortstop, center field and right field. First base is supposed to be one of the few spots that should reliably produce power. A team can get by without it if they find it somewhere else, but when the defense-first positions fail to come through with some pop, first base power becomes crucial. The Sox’s first basemen didn’t have that in 2005 (.436 combined SLG, 9th in the AL, 20th in baseball), a failure that proved costly in the end, when the offense unraveled in September and the playoffs.

Right Field. If first base is going to be thrown under the bus, then right field, particularly Trot Nixon, must be called a failure, too. In fact, the production drop from right was even more pronounced than the first base drop. In ’04, Nixon, Gabe Kapler and a bit of Dave Roberts combined for a .823 OPS, 5th at that position in baseball. In ’04, with yet another Nixon injury to cope with, no Roberts, no Kapler for most of the year, and a disgruntled Jay Payton, the right fielders dropped to an OPS of .772, just 8th in the AL and 21st in baseball. I love Trot, but either he or the Sox need to do better.

Team Defense. The Red Sox’s defense, a point of such emphasis in 2004 that it prompted the trade of Nomar Garciaparra, reverted back to the franchise norm of mediocrity in 2005. Actually, that would be overstating the club’s defense. In reality, they were below mediocre, 11th in the AL and 23rd in baseball in defensive efficiency, according to the Baseball Prospectus guys. Jason Varitek’s Gold Glove and Edgar Renteria’s reputation notwithstanding, there really wasn’t an above average defender at any position until John Olerud arrived to platoon at first. Perhaps, with the acquisition of Mike Lowell, the team is now moving in that direction.

The Front Office. The defection of both Theo Epstein and Josh Byrnes at the very outset of the off-season, followed by Peter Woodfork joining Burns in Arizona, leaves the Sox with egg on their face and holes on their staff. The contributions of these guys cannot be overstated, and now they are gone. There seems to be a competent group working in their absence, evidenced by the Beckett trade, but that may not last long, as many of them may also ask to leave for greener pastures. And the manner in which all of this has been handled has prompted many viable, desirable GM candidates to withdraw themselves from consideration, most before even interviewing, leaving the Sox with a pair of undistinguished retreads, Jim Bowden and Jim Beattie, as the most likely candidates. Ugly, ugly, ugly.


The Bash Brothers. Even with reduced contributions from five lineup spots - center field, right field, first base, second base and catcher – the lineup of recent years was so deep that it still managed to lead the AL in runs, tallying over 900 for the third consecutive year. David Ortiz became a force, and Manny Ramirez remained his potent self, a tandem that intimidated every pitching staff in the league. And, even though their production actually dropped off from 2004 levels, Jason Varitek and Johnny Damon remained at the top of the league at their respective positions. In fact, only at second base (8th) and right field (also 8th) did the Sox fail to finish in the top half of the league in positional OPS. That’s quite a feat, and indicates exactly how much the Sox have figured out how to put a deep offense together.

The Rotation. Believe it or not, the Sox should be fairly satisfied with the production they got from four-fifths of their rotation. As a group, the rotation certainly dropped off from 2004 levels, but they remained in the top half of the league in ERA, WHIP, K/9IP, K/BB ratio and OPS allowed. Put a healthy ’04 version of Schilling in his rotation slot and the group would have come close to replicating their overall ’04 numbers, when they were in the top-3 in the league in each of those categories. Add in Josh Beckett and a (hopefully) healthy Schilling, plus the possibility of a full-time starting role for Jonathan Papelbon, and the 2006 rotation appears flush with options.

The Draft. Anytime your first round draft pick reaches the majors in the same year you drafted him, things are looking up. With five first-round or sandwich picks, the Sox grabbed a lot of guys who look to be the real deal. Craig Hansen was so impressive that he cracked the big league bullpen in September, and showed pretty well there with the exception of one poor outing. And he didn’t even have his good slider at the time. Impressive. Fellow first-rounder Clay Buchholz posted remarkable numbers at Rookie League Lowell, including a 2.61 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 5.00 K/BB ratio and 9.80 K/9IP. Jed Lowrie, a switch-hitting shortstop/second baseman from Stanford, tore Lowell up, to the tune of .328/.429/.448/.877. Fellow Pac-10 standout Jacob Ellsbury, who has been billed as a future replacement for Johnny Damon, posted similar numbers in the same Lowell lineup (.317/.418/.432/.850). Other successes included 6th-round center fielder Jeffrey Corsaletti, who lit up A-Ball at Greenville to the tune of .357/.429/.490/.919, and 10th-round pitcher Kevin Guyette, who posted a combined 2.30 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 5.43 K/BB ratio and 7.95 K/9IP at Lowell and Single-A Greenville. There were pleasant finds in the 11th round (Ismael Casillas, 11.25 K/9IP) and all the way down in rounds 32 (Trinity College second baseman Jeff Natale, .368/.474/.557/1.031) and 39 (center fielder Bubba Bell, .317/.363/.457/.820). Overall, it was an impressive haul, and the front office staff should be commended for yet another year of solid work in rebuilding the farm system.

The Farm System. An absolute, unqualified success. The Red Sox farm system has evolved into a prototype for how a team can build at the big league level by leveraging good, young, cheap, homegrown talent. Bullpen in disarray? No problem, we have a few stellar young arms that can help immediately (Hansen, Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, Lenny DiNardo). Third baseman injured and aging? That’s okay, we have another waiting in the wings (Kevin Youkilis). In need of a second baseman at the trading deadline? Well, we just happen to have an extra outfielder at Triple A (Chip Ambres) that the Royals can use, and we can afford to give him away with an anonymous Single-A arm for a rental on Tony Graffanino. Need some veterans in the off-season to plug holes? Fine,we’ve got enough farm depth to trade away four prospects without giving up a single guy who figures in the club’s near- or long-term future.

The Sox have so much depth in the minors that five of their six affiliates had winning records. Once a team filled with acquisitions from other teams, the Sox might go into 2006 with a dozen or more players from their own farm system ready to play major roles or at least contribute with the big club. They will come from a group that includes Hansen, Delcarmen, Papelbon, DiNardo, Youkilis, Ellsbury, Lowrie, Jon Lester, Edgar Martinez, Dustin Pedroia, Abe Alvarez, David Pauley, Chris Durbin, Kelly Shoppach, David Murphy, Brandon Moss, Randy Beam, Matt Van Der Bosch, and Cla Meredith. Almost all of these guys would already be major league regulars on lesser teams like Kansas City or Pittsburgh.

Okay, so where does all of this leave the team?

Well, in the short term, it leaves them without a clear direction until a new GM is brought in. I want someone who isn’t going to come in with the idea that, as the new guy, he needs to put his stamp on the organization, even if it means ritually violating the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” dictum. That is a common failing among new managers in all forms of American business, and baseball is no exception. There seems to be a prevailing “look at me” attitude with these guys that prevents them from rationally saying, “You know what? None of the stuff I inherited is broken. Let’s stay the course.”

Neither of the Jim B. retreads excites me. In fact, each scares me more than a little because I think they will be exactly the kind of crappy manager described above. That’s why I’m rooting for Jed Hoyer, Craig Shipley, or Ben Cherington to get the job full-time. Coming from within the organization, each of them will be more likely to appreciate the good strides already made, continue the philosophy that built the farm system and resist the urge to do something flashy but stupid.

Once the GM issue is settled, there are some obvious steps that need to be taken:
  1. Find a center fielder and lead-off hitter. These are linked because Johnny Damon has filled both of those roles for the last four years. He is now a free agent and his agent, the hateful Scott Boras, has already set the contract demands so high that Damon is almost certain to be wildly overpaid. The thin free agent market makes that even more likely. The Sox don’t have many options here. There is no one on the team who is a likely lead-off replacement unless Dustin Pedroia is ready to take over at second base. If he is, the course of action I recommend is to let Damon go. I don’t think Damon is going to be anything like his current self in year four (or, God forbid, year five) of his next contract, and by year three he will be blocking Jacob Ellsbury from taking over. I simply love building from within, so if Pedroia is ready, I’m okay with giving him the lead-off role and trading for a temporary center field alternative to Damon (Torii Hunter anyone?). The problem is that I’m getting the vibe that the Sox don’t think Pedroia is ready yet. That narrows their options even more. They could still let Damon walk away, trade for Hunter or someone else to play center, and also deal for a temporary second baseman who can bat lead-off (Ray Durham? Luis Castillo would have been a perfect fit also). Or they can deal for Juan Pierre. Or they can re-sign Damon. Frankly, re-signing Damon, for the dollars and years he’s going to command, is the least appealing of those options.
  2. Find an everyday second baseman. I’m hoping it will be Pedroia, but if he’s not ready to go, a reliable veteran like Graffanino or Mark Grudzielanek should do nicely for now.
  3. Find an everyday right fielder. Like I said, I love Trot Nixon. But he’s finally proven to me that he can’t hit lefties, he’s regularly injured, he’s aging (32 next year), and his production has dropped off steadily. His last three years, his OPS has dropped from .974 to .887 to .803. Since the farm system doesn’t really have anyone ready to assume that large a role in the outfield, they’re going to have to make a deal or sign someone.
  4. Find an everyday first baseman. Kevin Millar, mercifully, is gone, and as much as I like Olerud, I don’t think he can be replied upon given his age and recent health. Lyle Overbay’s name keeps coming up, as does Adrian Gonzalez. Either is fine with me.
  5. Assign bullpen roles. I have no idea how healthy or effective Keith Foulke will be next season. I have no idea if either Delcarmen or Hansen is ready to be a major league closer. I have no idea if Guillermo Mota can rebound from a bad year and fill that role. But I do know that someone from that group has to step forward and close, or else the club is going to have to go get someone (Trevor Hoffman? Todd Jones?). For whatever reason, bullpen guys seem to perform better when they know their role, so determining them quickly is key fixing last year’s problems.

Those are the gaps I see. The team has a variety of chips to play in filling them, from prospects, to veterans who can be trade bait, to large amounts of cash, to even larger amounts of cash if Damon is let go and someone from the Well-Clement-Manny group is traded away. I won’t insult the front office by offering my own thoughts on which combination of moves should be made to fill those gaps. Unlike the Royals, where even my meager observations are probably startlingly revealing to the fools running that team, the Red Sox have earned a pass, even with Theo and his minions now gone. I have no doubt that these gaps will be filled, to some degree of satisfaction, long before Spring Training.

I will offer this one piece of feedback to Sox leadership, from a fan who pays attention – stop embarrassing us. I don’t mean on the field, those results are wonderful. I mean in the media, where flaps like Theo’s departure, and the lawsuit over the Mientkiewicz ball, and “Evil Empire” potshots at the Yankees, and the declaration that you can’t be a real member of Red Sox Nation unless you pay $9.95 for a plastic card, are all humiliating. You’re better than that, or at least you should be.

Start acting like professionals and maybe your GM options will suddenly be greater.

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