“We talked about this a lot at the end of the year, that we’re kind of in a bridge period,’’ he said. “We still think that if we push some of the right buttons, we can be competitive at the very highest levels for the next two years. But we don’t want to compromise too much of the future for that competitiveness during the bridge period, but we all don’t want to sacrifice our competitiveness during the bridge just for the future. So we’re just trying to balance both those issues.’’
-Theo Epstein, as excerpted in Amalie Benjamin's December 9th Boston Globe report
John Henry and Theo Epstein are preparing you for the Big Slide. While they continue to raise ticket prices and drain every dollar out of Fenway, they are telling you to put your expectations on the shelf. No more “championship-driven’’ campaign for your Red Sox. The Sox are building a “bridge’’ for the future. They are giving up on competing with those big, bad Yankees.
-Dan Shaughnessy, December 10th Globe column
The Sox still need a couple of bats. They still need one or two guys like Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Adrian Gonzalez, or Miguel Cabrera. But Boston’s loyal fans should be happy that the Sox are spending money and going for Lackey. It demonstrates that the brass is still trying to compete with the Yankees, still willing to commit big dollars in the quest for a championship.
-Dan Shaughnessy, December 15th in the Globe after Boston reportedly added John Lackey and Mike Cameron
Boston was due for a good old-fashioned Red Sox media sh*tstorm. After all, things have been pretty quiet over years around here. What is there to say about a team that has qualified for the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, including two World Series titles and two ALCS Game 7 losses? There are only so many times the fan base can bitch about J.D. Drew when the team they're rooting for is winning 60% of the time. But, you know, Theo Epstein had the audacity to use the word "bridge" and if you think Dan Shaughnessy was going to show any sort of restraint or understanding or maturity or sobriety in handling that remark, well, you're not a Boston sports journalism enthusiast.
If you read the first quote above, it's pretty evident what Theo was saying. The Red Sox front office is really excited over their low-minors talent and, according to John Sickels, with good reason. Having graduated Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Bard and others over the last few seasons, the high-minors cupboard, understandably, is looking somewhat bare. This means that the Red Sox need to be thoughtful about how they operate as they look to link up their current core to the 2011 and 2012 ETA's.
Maybe he could have worded Boston's situation differently or better anticipated the backlash that might ensue from the word "bridge" (really, you can't imagine how up in arms folks here were over the comment), but all Epstein said was that he would not compromise the Red Sox bright future for short-term gains. There would be no ridiculous package being sent away for Roy Halladay, no long-term free agent signing that might hamper the team down the road and/or block a better, cheaper option that might emerge in 2011 or 2012. While Shaughnessy might prefer a press conference jointly announcing the additions of Matt Holliday, Jason Bay, Adrian Gonzalez, Lackey, Cameron, Halladay, Jim Rice, Nick Esasky and a new book deal for a certain curly haired Boston scribe, as a fan, I'm thankful for Epstein's approach.
With regard to the third quote listed above, let's leave aside for a moment that Shaughnessy convinced himself that Boston's brass succumbed to pressure he applied in the December 10th column. Rather, let's focus on his assertion that, even after the additions of Lackey and Cameron, Boston needs "one or two guys like Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Adrian Gonzalez, or Miguel Cabrera." The specific contention is obviously nuts - that a team that won 95 games last year and just added two very good baseball players NEEDS two of the 20 best hitters in the game - but I think a more tempered iteration might go something like this; "Who's gonna hit for this team?". It's a fair question.
Offensively, replacing Bay with Mike Cameron will hurt. Bay hit .274/.380/.534 as a Red Sox, while Cameron turns 37 soon and has managed a .350 on-base just once in the last eight seasons. Mike Lowell hit .290/.337/.474 in 2009, a batting line his replacement in the 2010 Red Sox lineup at this point, Casey Kotchman, will in all likelihood struggle to match. Kevin Youkilis will be 31 and is coming off of a career year. Will Drew be able to play 137 games again? You get the picture. There are some questions surrounding the Red Sox offense.
There also is some good news. Marco Scutaro, however much regression you factor in for him coming off of a career year in 2009, will serve as an upgrade at shortstop. In 2009, Red Sox shortstops combined to hit just .235/.297/.358. In addition, Victor Martinez will play a full season in a Red Sox uniform. Most of that time will be behind the plate, but the Red Sox also have a nifty little platoon option at their disposal. Jason Varitek, who OPS'd .807 against southpaws last year, could move Victor to first base against lefties, spell Kotchman and give Martinez a break from behind the dish. Thankfully, CHONE projects significant improvement for David Ortiz.
Losing Bay is a big hit, so you net it all out and I think we can expect some regression for the Red Sox offense. The question is, does it matter? Wins are wins, and if you can make up for a spotty offense with top-notch pitching and defense, maybe you can keep enough runs off the board to grade out as a better overall team. So let's look at the run prevention side of the ledger for the Red Sox.
In looking at the offense, we started with swapping Bay out for Cameron so we'll start there defensively, too. As David Cameron's prescient analysis pointed out, the gap in their defensive ability makes up for Bay's significant edge at the plate. If UZR is to be trusted, the Red Sox could be looking at a 20-run defensive improvement simply by playing Cameron instead of Bay. Cameron's been one of the best outfielders in the game over the last decade. Bay is one of baseball's very worst.
Elsewhere on the defensive side, Mike Lowell and Jacoby Ellsbury showed as two of the worst defensive players in baseball last season. Kevin Youkilis should be an upgrade over Lowell while Ellsbury, whether he is in left field or center, figures to improve considerably. There seems to be a consensus out there that his 2009 defensive performance was anomalous. Even if the Red Sox decided not to make one change on their pitching staff, by virtue of defensive improvements alone, I think the Red Sox might have made up for their lost offensive output.
But of course the Red Sox HAVE made changes to the pitching staff. Cliff Corcoran summed it up nicely in his recent piece for SI.com:
The Red Sox rotation behind Jon Lester and Josh Beckett struggled mightily in 2009. In the 98 games not started by Lester or Beckett this past season, Red Sox starters went 36-36 with a 5.40 ERA, and 1.57 WHIP. With Clay Buchholz having emerged as a legitimate mid-rotation starter in August and Daisuke Matsuzaka having made a strong comeback in mid-September, the Red Sox already had hope for improvement in their rotation heading into 2010, but the addition of Lackey, easily the best starting pitcher in a weak free agent market, ramps that improvement up from modest to drastic.
If you want a model for how the Red Sox can succeed without "one or two guys like Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Adrian Gonzalez, or Miguel Cabrera", just look to 2007. Listed below are where the Red Sox ranked in 2007 and 2009 in a bunch of different offensive and defensive categories.
RS OPS+ RA ERA+ DER BABIP UZR
2007 3 3 1 1 1 2 4
2009 3 3 3 3 13 14 7
*DER is Defensive Efficiency Rating, BABIP is batting average on balls in play, UZR is ultimate zone rating.
With their pitching and defense improvements, the Red Sox look like the 2007 run prevention unit once again. Fans waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of a deal for Adrian Gonzalez might be disappointed, but the Red Sox could wrap for the off-season, take this team to Fort Myers and have every reason to believe they will once again be in the thick of things. If their offense can hold somewhat steady from 2009 to 2010, the pitching and defense improvements should be more than enough to help them blow right through their annual goal of 95 wins.