The acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez highlighted an offseason that has most pundits now calling the Boston Red Sox the best team in baseball. But are we being too optimistic about a team that was projected by many experts to win the AL East last year, only to finish third and out of the playoffs? Let’s take a look.
Projected Starting Lineup
1 CF Jacoby Ellsbury*
2 2B Dustin Pedroia
3 LF Carl Crawford*
4 1B Adrian Gonzalez*
5 3B Kevin Youkilis
6 DH David Ortiz*
7 RF J.D. Drew*
8 C Jarrod Saltalamacchia**
9 SS Marco Scutaro
Prettay, prettay, prettaaaay good. It’s not easy to lose Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre and actually get better, but that’s what the Red Sox figure to do. With all due respect to Crawford and his improving offensive game, Gonzalez is the prize here. His power plays to all fields, such that a season with a Green Monster-assisted 80 extra-base hits is well within reach.
The bigger source of upside, though, would be better health for lineup linchpins Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia. Mr. Laser Show put up a strong .377 wOBA last season, but played in just 75 games. Injuries also hurt the Jewish God of Walks, as Youkilis played in just 102 games while posting a stellar .411 wOBA. If both players replicate those rates of production over a full season, the Red Sox would get a huge boost.
There are question marks at the bottom of the order. J.D. Drew took a step back last season, and even his most ardent defenders (I’m one of them) have to wonder if injuries might finally get the best of him. Marco Scutaro’s numbers were way down from 2009 levels, and the Red Sox have little reason to expect anything special from their shortstop either. On the other hand, Boston’s minor league depth produced two potentially worthy replacements in Ryan Kalish and Jed Lowrie, should the incumbent starters get hurt or fail to produce. Boston’s stuck at catcher if Jarrod Saltalamacchia doesn’t meet the expectations set forth a few years ago. But Theo Epstein has shown a willingness to aggressively make moves if needed. As is, an absolutely stacked two-through-six should hide many of the ills that might befall the lineup’s lesser hitters. The defense should also be strong, with Crawford and Gonzalez adding two Gold Glove-caliber defenders to the lineup; well, one glove anyway, with those two signing on and Beltre leaving.
Let’s start with the bullpen, where you might not see a right-handed hitter get a hit off these guys in the late innings of a close game all season. Righty-eraser Dan Wheeler and portly but effective former closer Bobby Jenks join a late-inning combo that was already well-armed with Daniel Bard setting up and Jonathan Papelbon at closer. Papelbon is almost certainly gone after this season given his rising salary and Bard’s emergence. Until then, though, he could save 40-plus games as the third-best arm in the bullpen. The Sox could use a power lefty to complement that group of four with Hideki Okajima on the downside of his career, but that’s mostly small beer. This should be one of the strongest pens in the game.
The starting rotation is a bigger question mark. The Yankees get all the criticism this year for having one Cy Young candidate lefty at the top of the rotation, one good arm at number two, and a big mess thereafter. That’s not a bad description of Boston’s plight too, though, after Josh Beckett struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness last season (his 4.54 FIP was a lot more respectable than his 5.78 ERA at least) and John Lackey saw his strikeout rate continue its gradual fall, with a corresponding rise in his walk rate. It’ll be a battle of long-term track record vs. recent performance. If the latter prevails, the Sox could be in a bit of trouble.
Beckett. The Sox need the rotation to go at least three deep in quality pitchers. Failure to do so could bring the shaky-bullpened Rays and shaky-rotationed Yankees back into the mix as AL East title contenders.
The Red Sox deserve their spot as AL East and even World Series favorites, especially with the Phillies’ lineup looking severely diminished with Jayson Werth gone and Chase Utley a big question mark. Whatever holes do spring up in Boston, count on the front office to patch the rotation, upgrade at catcher, or whatever else it takes. The Sox will be an extremely tough out this season.
Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.