By Randy Booth of Over The Monster
Forget the old phrase, "chicks dig the long ball." In Boston now, chicks dig defense.
Theo Epstein, general manager of the Red Sox, set his sights on improving the Red Sox defense for 2010. After watching players like Jason Bay and Mike Lowell struggle in the field, he knew a change had to be made to get the Red Sox over the hump. Epstein acquired players like Mike Cameron (CF) and Adrian Beltre (3B), two of the best players at their positions in the MLB, to sure up the defense. He also acquired the best starter on the market in John Lackey to solidify the rotation.
Despite winning 95 games in 2009, the Red Sox last season weren't very good. You can ask any Red Sox fan what they thought of the team and you'll hear the same response. Ninety-five wins will get you to the postseason, but you need something more to make a deep playoff run. The Sox lacked that and it was obvious all season long.
The good news for Red Sox fans, though, is that this is a new season with new faces. Ninety-five wins will be the goal - just like it is every season - but if it's achieved, it won't be achieved with the longball. Because, well, that's so 2001.
This is the most balanced set of starters the Red Sox have fielded in many years. Everyone is a plus defender at their position, minus Victor Martinez, who some consider below average behind the dish (and they would be right). All these guys also know how to hit, or have hit before (read: Ortiz, David). Essentially, the Sox have great defensive players and not a single Adam Everett to be found.
There are two keys to this lineup, with one being the new, full-time catcher in Victor Martinez. Martinez is in his first full season with the Red Sox after a trade deadline move sent him from Cleveland to Yawkey Way. Some forget that Martinez is one of the best catchers in the game at the plate and now he's right in the center of the Sox lineup. A full season of V-Mart is a lot of added punch.
The other key is David Ortiz. Ortiz's struggles for the first two months of the season were one of the hottest storylines in baseball. He turned it around, though, and finished the season with 28 home runs. (Twenty-seven of those homers came between June and September). If Ortiz can do what he did in the second half of 2009, the Red Sox's lineup is that much more dangerous. If he falls like he did in the first two months, the Red Sox may need to rely on their defense more than they had even hoped.
Boston's outfield looks a lot different than 2009 with the only holdover in the same spot being reliable J.D. Drew. Beside him in center is a new face in Mike Cameron. Cameron essentially replaces Jason Bay (free agent, Mets) who played left field, moving Jacoby Ellsbury to roam in front of the Monster. This outfield is a lot faster and can cover a lot more ground than its predecessor. Ellsbury made highlight catches in center field, but his range and ability to read balls off the bat lacked. Now with a smaller field to cover, Ellsbury and the Red Sox should really benefit.
In the infield may be the best defense in baseball (OK, Seattle, you still get these honors, I guess). Kevin Youkilis and newcomer Adrian Beltre guard the corners while Dustin Pedroia and another newbie in Marco Scutaro form the double play combination. Scutaro is nothing flashy, but he is highly regarded as a solid, dependable player that gets the job done. The Red Sox have gone through a carousel of shortstops that do not need to be named, so having something dependable will be a nice change of pace for the team.
The top of the Red Sox's rotation features the J's - Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and John Lackey. Any of these guys would be the ace of most rotations in baseball, but instead they're playing together and perhaps make up the best 1-2-3 punch the bigs has to offer. The question marks come in the back-end of the rotation. After a solid spring, Tim Wakefield seems destined to make the rotation, but will he be able to stay healthy? Clay Buchholz has pitched all right this spring, but will he be consistent? As of now, it looks like Daisuke Matsuzaka is the odd man out. Dice-K hasn't pitched at all this spring because of various injuries, so seeing him start the season on the disabled list seems highly likely.
The bullpen is where there are a few question marks on this team. The locks are Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez and Daniel Bard. Papelbon is one of the best closers in baseball (despite blowing up in game three of the ALCS versus the Angels) and he's surrounded by sturdy arms to set him up.
The question marks, though, come with the last four names. Boof Bonser has the inside track to be the Sox's long man, but a shaky spring and hamstring problems may keep him off the Opening Day roster. Scott Atchison, Joe Nelson and Brian Shouse - a handful of veterans - seem to be on the track to win the last bullpen spot. All three have performed well this spring, so it may come down to which pitcher is better in a certain matchup (vs. lefties, righties, etc.). The other caveat revolves back to the rotation: what if Wakefield, Buchholz and Matsuzaka are good to go come Opening Day? That means one will be in the bullpen, taking either Bonser's spot or Atchison/Nelson/Shouse's.
In The System
The Red Sox have some solid prospects in their system, but there are few that are ready to contribute now.
The gems of the system are Casey Kelly, a young, polished right-handed pitcher and Ryan Westmoreland, a very athletic outfielder who, unfortunately, just had brain surgery last week. While Westmoreland's future is unknown at this point, both could be centerpieces of the Red Sox down the line. Not in 2010, though.
A few names that could help out in 2010 include Josh Reddick, a slugging outfielder that has been ripping the cover off the ball in spring training. With Jeremy Hermida and Bill Hall sharing backup outfield duties, if anyone gets hurt long term in the outfield, Reddick could step in from Triple-A Pawtucket and get a lot of at-bats. The biggest knock on Reddick at this point is his ability to take a walk, which is few and far between. The rest of his game is above average.
Michael Bowden is a pitcher that could see time with the Red Sox, if need be. Bowden and Buchholz shot through the system together, but Bowden hit some snags in Double-A Portland that stopped him in his tracks. Many consider this the make-or-break year for Bowden, who has an uphill battle with such talented starters in the MLB rotation.
Junichi Tazawa was an international free agent signing by the Red Sox last season. Tazawa started the year in Portland and shot through the ranks, making his debut against the Yankees last year. Tazawa is a control artist that kept hitters off balance last season. He has struggled this spring, but hopes are still high.
Three more names to watch: Ryan Kalish, outfielder. Kalish is compared to former Sox Trot Nixon quite a bit. He's a scrappy outfielder that has quietly shot through the system. Kalish could see time in the bigs this season.
Jose Iglesias, shortstop. Scouts rave about Iglesias' defense, which many say is "Gold Glove caliber" right now. The Sox signed Iglesias out of Cuba over the offseason with the idea he'll be their shortstop of the future. When Scutaro is done with the Sox (option for 2011), Iglesias figures to slide right in.
Lars Anderson, first base. Anderson was the Sox's No. 1 prospect heading into 2009 but struggled mightily at Portland. Expectations were high - perhaps too high for the California slugger. With the pressure off his shoulders, Anderson could hit like everyone expected him too and find a place on the big league team. With Ortiz on his way out, the Sox would love to see Anderson have a great season and find a spot with the Red Sox in 2011 - potentially at designated hitter.
If the Sox have a problem area this season, it should be offensively. Losing Bay's bat in the middle of the lineup is going to hurt, but it's being replaced with Mike Cameron, who is no slouch there either. Cameron will hit his home runs and rack up his strikeouts, but his great defense in center field should make up for what the Sox will miss with Bay.
The biggest sleeper of this season may be Scutaro, who signed with the Sox early in the offseason and hasn't been a real storyline this spring. Scutaro will be a success if he's consistent and acts as the glue. If he goes out and hits .280 with a .360 on-base percentage from the bottom of the order, the Sox will be happy. If he shows good range and can turn the occasional double play, the Sox will be happy. I envision many Sox fans very happy when the end of the season comes around and Scutaro has racked up a great year.
The Red Sox may find themselves aching for bullpen help toward the middle of the season. They have a lot of arms stashed away in the minors, but consistency may be hard to come by. Arms to keep an eye on are Okajima, Delcarmen and Ramirez - all of them could either have career years or fall off the map. Bard, on the positive side, is a 100-mph flame-thrower who should only get better.
Vegas odds? Meh. Sound good to me. Despite the envisioned lack of offense, this team makes up for it defensively. As long as the pitchers keep it in the park and allow the defense to make plays, the Red Sox should be a good team.
Theo Epstein has one main goal to start every season: win 95 games, get in the playoffs and see what happens. Just like last season, this team is built to do that. But now we just have to see if the 2010 Red Sox can do what the 2009 couldn't: get over that hump.