While consensus projections will have the Red Sox offense at or near the top of the league, there’s an equally cogent bull and bear case for that offense in 2012 as it relates to the 2011 attack. The bull would tell you that Carl Crawford is a shoo-in to improve off of his dismal 2011. He’d add to his case by explaining that even though neither is a superstar, the productivity Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney figure to chip in will represent a marked improvement over what Boston right fielders contributed in 2011. Kelly Shoppach will offer stability behind the plate, Kevin Youkilis should be healthier and better, and Adrian Gonzalez’s shoulder has healed. That should help Gonzalez’s power numbers, which trailed off late in the season. Boston had the best offense in baseball in 2011, but it could be even better in 2012.
The bear would tell you that Boston won’t be getting as much from breakout star Jacoby Ellsbury in 2012, and that David Ortiz should slip given his age. It would be hard to argue with either contention, and since the two were such important parts of the Red Sox offense in 2011, it’s hard to see any way the Red Sox improve without Ellsbury and Ortiz in top form. In the middle infield you might also consider Dustin Pedroia a regression candidate and, with Marco Scutaro gone, Boston might lose a little pop at shortstop. And while we might all like to think Boston can pencil in more production from third base, Youk isn’t getting any younger.
Wherever you come down on how Boston’s offense figures to fare in 2012, I think somewhere very close to the top of the league in both runs scored and even park-adjusted measures is a reasonable baseline. It’s easy to forget thanks to consecutive Octobers at home, but the Red Sox boast an incredible collection of position players. Gonzalez, Pedroia, Youkilis, Crawford, Ortiz and Ellsbury have all played at superstar levels for extended periods during, or even throughout, the last three seasons. That being the case, the big question marks are on the pitching side.
With the additions of Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, it’s clear that Ben Cherington spent plenty of focus on the bullpen. But given it was Boston’s downfall in 2011, how was Cherington able to take such a hands-off approach with his rotation? “Hands off” may not be a fair characterization since the Red Sox have in the mix retreads like Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla and Carlos Silva, hangers-on like Felix Doubront and Justin Germano, and projects like Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves, but barring the addition of Roy Oswalt it will be these seven guys vying for two rotation slots. The other five will spread out between the bullpen and some sort of depth role racking up miles on the Pawtucket-Kenmore express.
So if Cherington wasn’t hands-off, he certainly wasn’t attacking the high-end of the market the way the Yankees did by adding Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda. The question, with such glaring holes in the rotation, is “why?” The answer is best understood if you can appreciate the idea of addition by subtraction. We’ve covered this here before, but the Red Sox had 75 starts last year in which the five pitchers – John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kyle Weiland – posted a combined 5.89 ERA while allowing the opposition an .829 OPS. It’s hard to overstate just how bad that is.
In fully 46% of the team’s starts, Red Sox starting pitchers turned the entire opposing lineup into a collection of hitters on par with, oh, say someone like Ben Zobrist or Ryan Howard. Only ten pitchers who eclipsed the 100 inning mark in all of baseball managed to allow worse than an .829 OPS. One Major League pitcher – one – and that was John Lackey, allowed a 5.89 ERA or worse in at least 100 innings. His was 6.41. You can set that ERA threshold considerably lower, take it down to a 5.50 ERA and you only get three more names: Edinson Volquez, Danny Duffy and Jo-Jo Reyes. For 75 starts in 2012, the Red Sox sent to the hill some variant of the American League’s worst starting pitcher.
You can appreciate Cherington’s tempered approach when you consider the task before him: he needs to take a 90-win team and tack on another three, five, ten wins in order to make it the contender it ought to be. He needs to do so, too, within the budgetary reality that has nothing to do with Liverpool or anything else concerning external business entities. The Red Sox guaranteed ~$300 million to Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez last season, and in Lackey and Crawford and others have learned painful lessons about the perils of playing at the high end of the unrestricted free agent market. The Red Sox almost certainly will have the second highest payroll in baseball for 2012.
So Cherington and Manager Bobby Valentine have seven options for two slots, and they’re not asking much of the two guys who end up filling those slots, either, in order to improve on 2011. I don’t like to condense this analysis into a single number but in this case it’s illustrative. The Gang of Five who contributed those 75 starts in 2011 tallied a -2.6 WAR (b-ref) combined. For comparison’s sake, A.J. Burnett, the guy Brian Cashman is trying to get Pittsburgh to take off his hands, posted a +1.1 figure in 32 starts. So the mandate for the back end of the rotation is to be merely bad, like Burnett or Brian Duensing or Brad Penny bad. Just don’t be completely catastrophic the way Dice, Wake, Lackey, Weiland and Miller were last season.
Replacing abject liabilities with bottom-tier Major Leaguers actually accomplishes that modest objective. It hasn’t been the sexiest Red Sox offseason, but by eliminating starting pitching that has no business competing in Major League Baseball, and adding players likely to keep them in ball games, it may well have been an effective one.