LONGSHOTS: Red Sox Nation springs back to life
by Dave Long
Opening day arrived this week after sneaking up in a way I can not remember ever happening before. Maybe it was the intrusion of the uninspiring World Baseball Classic. With Manny gone and no one like Wade Boggs around to will himself invisible, maybe it was the lack of controversy. Or maybe it was the economic meltdown that had many in Red Sox Nation under the desk in the fetal position for the last nine months. But it was something.
But that’s over with and it’s time to start talking baseball as the Sox begin what looks to be a very interesting three-way race in the AL East. Joining Boston and the Empire in pre-season chatter about who’ll win and who’ll get the wild card is Tampa Bay. Yes they won the division last year, when the Yanks were out of the money for the first time in 14 years. But most thought they were a year away from making serious noise. Thus it’s their first time in this particular conversation.
The Sox enter with what most of us feel is a formidable club, though I think there are enough things that could go wrong to let them be the one left without a chair when the music stops playing in September. So here’s a look at the storylines to play out and a few predictions for what may happen as well.
Will Varitek bounce back? Many believe after hitting just .220 overall and .201 left-handed he will. But history says he won’t. Only Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza among top catchers have been productive hitters at 37 — which he turns Saturday. On his side are players today. As evidenced by the puny bodies on display in the 30th-anniversary TV re-play of the famous Michigan State – Indiana State 1979 college basketball final this weekend, today’s players are more physically developed and thus likely to last longer than earlier models. And he did have four lefty homers in the spring, so we’ll see. Prediction: Since, with a divorce in progress, he had a lot on his mind, he’s a little better, but not much in hitting .237 with 13 homers and knocking in 51.
Will eight starters work? I like the approach. It’s Patriots-like in spreading the money around to build depth at the expense of laying out enormous dough for a couple of guys as the Yankees did. The last several years have shown you need more than five guys sooner or later to weather the storm. Plus they also have the formula for post-season success with three who can dominate when hot in Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and two-time WBC MVP Dice-K. And while it’s not certain what John Smoltz will do after missing most of last season, if right, he’s 15-4 in the post-season. Brad Penny is a believe-it-when-I-see-it gamble who doesn’t look in great shape. Ditto for Clay Buchholz for different reasons, although his spring work was encouraging. And Tim Wakefield is what he is — a reliable guy who takes one for the team whom many clubs would like as their fifth guy. Wakefield vs. Buchholz: This depends on whether Buchholz continues as he did this spring — a big if. But if so, he should get the fifth spot when ready. For all the nice things I just said about Wake, he’s a supposed innings eater who’s done 200-plus once since 2003, who needs his own catcher and is 5-7 in the playoffs with a gruesome 6.75 ERA. Prediction: It’s all moot if Smoltz is healthy and Penny is close to what Theo hopes.
Injury risk: The roster is a disaster waiting to happen and is the biggest negative issue they have given the recent injury history of Smoltz, Penny, Wake, J.D. Drew, Rocco Baldelli, Julio Lugo (already hurt), Mark Kotsay (on DL), Mike Lowell and David Ortiz. Throw in the Varitek question and age issues and it could be 2005 or 2006 all over again, when Wade Miller, David Wells, Wake, Varitek, Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke and others hurt (’05) or decimated (’06) them. On the good side, they do have depth everywhere, outside of catcher, to withstand it. Prediction: Half of these guys do time on the DL — which challenges them.
Will it be the 2007 or 2008 Josh Beckett? Injuries were also an issue for him, as they’ve been in all but two years of his career. That track record makes you wonder. But he seemed injury-free in the spring and looks poised to get back on track. Prediction: 17-9, 3.46 ERA.
Will Jacoby Ellsbury take the next step? When last we saw him he was on the bench in lieu of Coco Crisp as they were eliminated in Tampa. That followed an uneven year that started OK, fell off the cliff in June and July and closed with a rush in September when he hit .340 and scored 20 runs. Maybe he’s just a good September hitter, as ’08 was like the September 2007 that had everyone agog. At the root of his problem was an inability to hit/lay off the low inside fastball and a .336 OBP that was exactly 100 points lower than league leader Milton Bradley’s. Both need to improve. On the good side — despite his low OBP he led the league in steals, was very good and versatile in the field and played through a shoulder injury that affected his June, July hitting. Prediction: I love the guy, so my judgment is probably clouded, but after seeing the OBP was just .329 in the spring I’m wary. So while he’ll be a bit better to around .285 with more consistency and improved power numbers, he won’t make a big leap until he gets greater control of his at bats.
Will age start to show? Yes. So don’t expect 50 and 140 from Papi or the Lowell you saw in 2007. But still, they’ll be productive. Prediction: Oritz’s projected full-season homers and RBI numbers during his injury-riddled ’08 would’ve been 32 and 127. Expect something similar. For Lowell, 20-83-.280.
The five hole? I just don’t get the fascination with J.D. Drew. Whether he’s brittle, soft or just has bad luck, to quote Coach B — he is what he is. A guy who plays 135 games and has been over 90 RBI twice. Take out his two contract years, the number drops to zero and his per-year average is around the 64 he’s had each year in Boston. So why in the name of Trot Nixon is he batting fifth? The 3-4-5-6-7 in the order should be this: Youk, Ortiz, Jason Bay, Drew and Lowell. Prediction: If Mother Francona makes the adjustment to be stronger in front of Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia they score more runs than in 2008.
I have a few more, but no more space. So I’ll have to work them in as we go along through the year.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.