Underdogs

by Sully on January 14, 2012

in AL East,Red Sox

Is the sun setting on the Red Sox?

Coming off of a 97 win, 101-Pythag win season in which the New York Yankees ran away with the American League East, the Bombers last night added Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda. They did so, too, by giving up almost nothing from the roster that buried the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox last season. They did give up a major part of their future in Jesus Montero, but his explosive September debut aside, Montero did very little for the 2011 Yanks. Montero’s is an impressive bat that was poised to make an impact in 2012, but in parting with the youngster the Yankees have turned a patchwork rotation into a very good one, all in a night’s work. The Yankee optimist, factoring improvement from Mark Teixeira and health from Alex Rodriguez, could hardly be blamed for dreaming of a 105-win 2012 campaign.

Elsewhere in baseball’s toughest division, almost all along during Tampa Bay’s impressive four-year run, 2012 has been the season for the Rays where everything seemed to be lining up. Studs Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore are now in the mix full-time, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist have settled in as superstars, and they bring back a rotation that boasted the lowest ERA in the American League in 2011 – a rotation that Moore stands to improve in the upcoming campaign. The Rays window isn’t necessarily closing, but if you had to pick their year this one would probably be it.

For good measure, add to this backdrop that the Toronto Blue Jays are now a fully functioning baseball operation and the fact that, two years running, the Red Sox have finished in third place. In 2011, they descended sharply into third after as dominant a 120-game stretch as the team experienced in a long time, famously collapsing in September. The impossibly idiotic hysterics of Boston’s media climate in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 season aside, one can understand the Red Sox fan’s concern for both the 2012 season and beyond. Their AL East foes, Baltimore aside, are all making one move after another to get better.

The narratives and projections for 2012 in the AL East are becoming just about as ingrained, repetitive and familiar this offseason as they were last offseason, when everyone with a keyboard had the Red Sox running away with the division. In the immediate aftermath of last night’s trade, the Yankees became the “favorites” to win the division according to SI writers Cliff Corcoran and Joe Sheehan. After the Matt Moore extension, it was just one more example of how super-duper Andrew Friedman is. Days later, Jonah Keri even felt compelled to remind the Oakland Athletics that they’re at no competitive disadvantage at all since the Rays are like good and stuff. And Rany Jazayerli, also on Grantland (the site that was to elevate long-form sports writing as we know it…heh), wrote a piece so negative about new Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington that he needed to insert a sentence assuring readers that he didn’t mean to imply Cherington was “a dolt or incompetent.” What a difference a year makes.

So where do the Red Sox stand? They’re clear underdogs, or so it goes, and here’s what being an underdog looks like. It means returning baseball’s best offense with a chance to make significant improvements. Boston’s bats managed to accomplish all they did while lugging around the least productive right field in either League, with very little from Kevin Youkilis and a .289 on-base percentage from Carl Crawford. In 2012, Ryan Sweeney enters the mix in right field to form a decent little platoon with Darnell McDonald and/or Mike Aviles, Youkilis is healthy by many accounts and Crawford, humiliated by 2011, is as determined as ever. Improvement is no shoo-in when you’re atop the league, but these aren’t exactly stretches, even if you’d care to forecast some regression for Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz.

Of course it’s not the offense that accounts for the consensus bearish outlook on the Red Sox. It’s the rotation and, to a lesser extent, the bullpen. Let’s focus on the rotation. In 2011, the Red Sox had an “awful at baseball” problem. John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kyle Weiland contributed 441.2 innings of 5.89 ERA pitching over 75 starts. They were awful at baseball. So, Cherington’s trick this offseason is to turn his potent offense into a luxury, or a means of creating meaningful separation, not the necessity it was in 2011 that had to pick up an awful run prevention unit in order to win games.

So how do you go about replacing 75 starts of 5.89 ERA pitching? The good news is that there’s no need to blow out the budget. We’re not setting the bar very high here, remember. First, you hope Clay Buchholz returns healthy and the reports so far on that score are terrific. Next, you see who else you have in-house who might be able to help. Dan Bard wants to try his hand as a starter? No problem, go be better than Weiland. Alfredo Aceves? Why not? Try to improve on Lackey. And then you need insurance. Aaron Cook and Carlos Silva come to Fort Myers with battle scars and some shitty peripherals but with Boston’s solid defense and explosive offense, strikes and innings will do just fine, thanks, if it turns out one of the two is needed. Finally, the offseason is not over. Maybe Roy Oswalt, Joe Saunders or even Edwin Jackson (at the right price) can offer some help. These aren’t big splashes, but Boston did big splashes last season. Really, they’re no guarantee at all. Remember scoffing at Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia before both pitchers made significant contributions to a Yanks squad that dusted Boston by seven games in 2011?

Each name mentioned in the preceding paragraph is meant to slot in after the team’s top two of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. Both are known as big-time competitors and both have to answer for some serious character questions that surfaced last season. If you accept that they’re both proud and serious professionals, it’s no leap to hope, or even expect, strong performances in 2012. As established as the two may be, they have something to prove again this season. That works in Boston’s favor.

Given the hyper-competitive American League East, Ben Cherington’s first offseason posed daunting challenges on the one hand. On the other, he needed to take a 90-win team laden with stars and simply replace his closer and a lot of dead weight. Andrew Bailey, Mark Melancon, Sweeney, Aviles, Kelly Shoppach, Ryan Lavarnway, Cook, Silva and I imagine more to come, in aggregate, just need to offer below average contributions instead of devastatingly awful ones in order to help the Boston Red Sox stay in the thick of things. And if they get lucky with a couple of them the way New York did with Colon and Garcia, the consensus prognostications of this offseason may look just as silly as last offseason’s.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Ian January 14, 2012 at 9:00 am

I commend the optimism, but the Yankees will need to give 30 starts to a terrible Kuroda, have Girardi stop managing, get nothing from Teixeira, have Sabathia and Pineda get hurt, have Rivera blow the save on the last day of the season, and probably some other stuff to approach the level of disappointment the Red Sox had last year.

There’s a group of people who are saying they’re glad to be the underdogs again. I don’t get it. Give me the shoo-in favorites every year because the 2011 Red Sox only happen once every thousand times.

Reply

Sully January 14, 2012 at 9:07 am

I think NYY and TBR both look great, and I think the Red Sox are right there with them. That’s all I meant to express here.

Reply

Jace January 14, 2012 at 10:06 pm

The Sox are not right there with them. That is the problem. Our pitching stinks compared to them.

#1 Yankees
#2 Rays
.
.
.
#3 Red Sox
#4 Blue Jays
#5 Orioles

Reply

Jeb January 14, 2012 at 9:31 am

Best take on the off-season thus far and 2012.

Reply

Cristian January 14, 2012 at 11:29 am

Great take.
It’s good to read you again!

Reply

Louie January 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm

thank you, i’ll step away from the ledge now.

Reply

Jake January 14, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Well said, Sully.

Reply

MikeD January 14, 2012 at 4:13 pm

You lost me at the “ben zobrist is a superstar part”. Hard to take anything else seriously

Reply

Jake January 14, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Ah, the old “you said one thing I disagree with; therefore, everything you said must be wrong” argument. Keep up the good work, MikeD. The Internet needs you.

Reply

doctorogres January 20, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Also you’re totally wrong. Last 3 seasons cumulative fWAR:

Dustin Pedroia: 16.2
Robinson Cano: 16.3
Ben Zobrist: 19.2

Reply

clam.chowda January 14, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Haha I love how u boston mouth breathers even think your crappy team team is not garbage. If this that and this happens, hahaha enjoy fighting toronto for third place losers.

Reply

Craig Maduro January 20, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Are they a World Series contender right now? Maybe not, but they’re certainly one of the six best teams in the league or at least damn close at this point. All you have to do is make the playoffs for some crazy shit to happen (look at what the Giants did to the Pats in 07/08).

The offense should still be strong and the rotation will be better simply because Lackey won’t even sniff the mound in 2012 and Dice-K will be on the shelf for much of the season as well. As much as I’d love ‘em to just take a dive into a dumpster, I can’t say that the Red Sox are anything close to garbage.

Reply

MikeD January 14, 2012 at 8:11 pm

Jake, I would argue zobrist not being a superstar isn’t an opinion I disagree with, but rather just factually wrong. I a post is written on a faulty premise then it is appropriate to dismiss it.

Go me a schoolmarm somewhere else.

Reply

Jake January 15, 2012 at 1:38 pm

MikeD, see Dale’s comment for an argument about why Zobrist being a superstar isn’t “factually wrong.” And even if you still don’t agree, what’s more important is that Zobrist being a superstar isn’t the “premise” of Sully’s post. I mean, it OBVIOUSLY isn’t. It’s one very, very small part of his argument. Remove all mention of Zobrist and larger points go entirely unchanged.

If you’re going to be an asshole on the Internet, at least own up to it and don’t pretend like you’re making sense.

Reply

Gerry January 15, 2012 at 2:26 am

Finally some common sense. Thank you. Some more data to support your well reasoned piece:
1. Offense will also be improved by a platoon of Salty/Shop hitting to their strong sides…35 HR/35 2B? Lavarnway could hit them himself. PD has gotten rid of a very bothersome, protruding screw. Aviles is a good hitter.
2. Defense is also improved by Sweeney, Salty/Shop/Lava who will stop aggressive running games with 30+% throwing out thr Rays, Angels, mfy, etc. Iglesias’ bat is near age level and he hits well near age level, meaning his glove should be available in 2012; ditto Lin, maybe Middlebrooks.
SP. Not mentioned is that Doubront and Tazawa appeared MLB-ready in Sept, are in great shape after their injuries and could win #4or 5 slot in ST, and at the very least provide the depth th Sox lacked in 2011; and Wilson is immediately behind them. The rotation is deeper than credited and Ben is still building.
RP. You didnt cover this but a Pen ending in Bailey, Melancon, Morales whose curve isnt at Coors any more, Acevas or Bard,a recovered Jenks &
Hill, and a half dozen good options is also worthy and deeper than most.

This team promises improved defense and pitching with an even more potent offense. We should worry because of missing out on Kuroda or Maholm (much as I would value the insurance they provide)????? I trust this talented highly motivated team and would prefer they re–start the luxury tax cap,

Reply

Craig Maduro January 20, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Definitely a lot of talent on the roster – on the pitching staff and in the lineup. I like Bard as a starting pitcher and Aceves too if they decide to run him out there.

To be fair though, you did name a lot of slop in this comment. Iglesias is Rey Ordonez, I see/saw nothing from Tazawa that led me to believe that he is a Major League caliber pitcher and Franklin Morales can’t throw a strike no matter where he is – Colorado, Boston, New York, Mongolia, wherever. Every team has slop, but I was just trying to balance out the optimism a bit.

Reply

Dale Sams January 15, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Who has averaged the higher OPS+ over the last four years? Zobrist, Pedroia or Cano?

Who is the better defender, Zobrist or Cano?

Better on the basepaths, Zobrist or Cano?

Just because Zobrist doesn’t play on a team that’s won the AL East more times in the last four years than the Sox have in some 15 years doesn’t mean he isn’t a superstar. Oh, wait he does and is.

Reply

Craig Maduro January 20, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I agree with the post in general. Despite the collapse, the Red Sox are still in a prime position to contend for the division in 2012.

I can’t agree with any optimism surrounding Ryan Sweeney though. That dude is barely a tier above garbage.

Reply

Ricardo January 20, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Gerry- you can remove your rose-colored glasses anytime now.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: