MLB March Report: Boston Red Sox

It’s been two years since the Boston Red Sox have made the playoffs, and when you drop $140 million in coin, talking about how well you played in between your horrifically bad start and your epic collapse won’t cut it. So it’s a new era in the Hub, as Theo Epstein and Terry Francona, a duo who runs second to only Belichick/Brady when it comes to great tandems in recent Boston sports history, are out and the Red Sox look to put together a contender in the ruthlessly tough AL East. TheSportsNotebook evaluates the Sox in terms of their ability get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Epstein, and new GM Ben Cherington believe in the primacy of OBP, and that’s reflected in the lineup. Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia hit 1-2 in the order and are perpetually on the base paths. Kevin Youkilis is the same at third, and even if the hip problems that sidelined him during the end of last season rob him of power, Youkilis can still grind out base hits and walks as well as anybody in baseball. The muscle hitters that we get to in the next section all take their walks and hit for average, hence they don’t drag the lineup down when they’re in a power slump. No matter what way you slice it, the Red Sox can get men on base, and we haven’t even factored in what might happen if Carl Crawford returns to career norms and puts up an OBP in the .350 range and starts creating havoc in the basepaths.

POWER: On the surface all looks good here, but there are some variables involved with everyone that could prevent the Red Sox from having a truly outstanding offensive unit. Adrian Gonzalez posted the highest slugging percentage of his career at .548, showing that we weren’t imagining things in saying he would make a career out of shooting doubles off the wall. But his home runs dropped to their lowest total in five years, as he dealt with shoulder troubles that robbed him of his power. David Ortiz has been comfortably settled in around the 30 HR level for three years, but the big man is 36 years old. Youkilis has the hip problems mentioned and while Ellsbury and Pedroia combined for 53 home runs a year ago, it’s being awfully optimistic to see a repeat happening. Where improvement could come is from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, or if new rightfielder Cody Ross can regain the form he had for the Marlins in 2007-08 and for a shining week in the 2010 NLCS when he was the MVP for the San Francisco Giants.

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STARTING PITCHING: There’s been much lamenting in Red Sox Nation over the instability at the 4th and 5th spots. The former is going to Daniel Bard, whom the Sox are going to try and convert from a setup man. He’s got great stuff, but this is certainly a risky move. It didn’t work for Joba Chamberlain in New York and arguably ruined a great setup career. We’ll see what happens with Bard. The fifth spot is a disaster, as underscored by the fact that the optimum solution is a return to health by Daisake Matsuzaka in June. But these problems shouldn’t overshadow that a top three of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Bucholz can win you a lot of games. Beckett is coming off one of the best years of his career, as his 2.89 ERA was even lower that what he posted in the 20-win season of 2007. Lester is almost boringly reliable—15-plus wins, about 200 IP and an ERA hovering around 3.20 to 3.40. Bucholz is the key. He injured his back last June and was lost for the balance of the season. Bucholz won 17 games with a 2.33 ERA in 2010, and had a 3.48 ERA in 14 starts last year before the injury derailed him.

RELIEF PITCHING: After getting used to the Bard-Jonathan Papelbon run, the Sox are in a new era in the pen. With Bard in the rotation and Papelbon in Philadelphia, Boston made a deal with Oakland to bring in closer Andrew Bailey, and then acquired Mark Melancon to be the eighth-inning guy. Both are outstanding acquisitions. Bailey’s closed 75 of 84 save opportunities over the last three years and did with a 2.07 ERA. His track record is as good as Papelbon’s, with the major caveat that Bailey still has to show he can do it in the heat of big-game situations. Melancon was similarly solid in Houston, with a 2.78 ERA over 74 innings. The new pitchers are 27 and 26 respectively, so this has the potential to be a good core for a long time. It does get a little dicey after that, and new manager Bobby Valentine will have to use his talents to manage through the middle relief corps. What would make Valentine’s life easiest would be if Franklin Morales, who had a 3.69 ERA in 50 games last year, becomes a steadying force. Otherwise, it’s mix-and-match with mediocrities like a Matt Albers, or hoping other up-and-down arms like Rich Hill make it back off the disabled list.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 90.5—This total has nudged up, so the betting forces of Sox Nation must be out and moving the lines. I’m a Red Sox fan myself, and I feel far better about our prospects after really delving into the roster rather than focusing solely on the shortcomings. But getting 91 wins and hitting the Over is not going to be easy, especially if Bard struggles to acclimate himself to the rotation. I think 92-93 is this team’s high-end, and on the flip side, I can see us sinking to 84-85 wins if the realistic concerns outlined here manifest themselves. If I were on Vegas, I’m sure I’d take out a ticket on the Over and for the odds to win the AL East, the AL overall and the World Series, but that would be a loyalty oath, not a reasoned bet.