Monday, March 27, 2006

A Red Sox dialectic

Odds and ends, my responses to some points I've seen in other place. A dialectic on the 2006 Red Sox, 1 week out from opening day.
The Red Sox could win as few as 85 games.

Not without major injuries. They won 95 essentially without Schilling and Foulke last year, and then upgraded.
The bullpen is full of question marks.

How good do the answers have to be to be better than what they got last year? Not very. And Delcarmen and Hansen are available and probably ready to help, which they weren't last year. If Seanez doesn't perform, he'll be replaced.

And Foulke will be fine. He's a year removed from his marital issues, he's had both of his knees repaired - last year was a disaster, this year won't be. I understand people being concerned about him, but I'm not. Not at all. He's been too good for too long to stink for no reason.
First base is a real uncertainty.

Not at all. Youkilis will get most of the at-bats, Snow will get the rest, they'll be better than Millar and Olerud were last year. Upgrade.
3B is a real uncertainty.

3B is a downgrade unless Lowell bounces back. But if he's awful in a month, they'll drop him, put Youkilis at 3rd, Choi and Snow at first, and still be competitive with what they got from the corners last year.
SS is a real offensive uncertainty.

No it's not. It's bad. The offense takes a hit there, no question. But Renteria wasn't great, and at least the defense will be significantly better. Probably a net wash, possibly even an upgrade, depending on whether Gonzalez is putrid or just bad. If he puts up a .310 OBP with 15-20 HR - not at all inconceivable in Boston - as much as I hated the signing, he's an upgrade.
No one knows what to expect in right field.

I do. You expect Pena to face lefties and hit .285/.340/.525, making him an asset. You expect Nixon to play 120 games, hit .285/.360/.480. They'll have good production in right field.
The starting pitching has age and health issues.

Like everyone else's starting pitching. I see no reason not to expect Schilling ca. 2004 this year - he's healthy and there's no sign that he's over the cliff. I see no reason not to expect a standard Tim Wakefield season. Wells will miss a couple of starts, have a couple of disastrous starts, and pitch a lot of really good games where he goes 6-7 innings and allows 2-3 runs. Clement will be alternately brilliant and awful, with a bunch of decent-but-not-great games sprinkled in. Beckett's a question mark, because there are apparently concerns about his shoulder, but Papelbon can start if need be, DiNardo is probably ready to be a league-average starter, Lester may be ready later in the year - they've got options if someone goes down.
The team will suffer because the World Baseball Classic distracted them from having a good spring.

Complete and total non-issue. Utterly irrelevant, and anyone, at any point in this season, on any team, or in any fandom, who points to the WBC and says "hey, that really screwed up our spring - that's why we're losing games," will earn my eternal derision and mockery...

Obviously, something will go wrong during the course of the year. Maybe a lot of somethings. The 2001 Red Sox were the most talented team in baseball, and finished 1 game over .500 when Martinez, Varitek, Garciaparra and Garces all missed most of the season. You get those kinds of issues, you struggle. But there's no reason, other than sheer bloody-mindedness, to expect them.
That sounds like a lot of spring training based optimism.

I'm contemptuous, as people who've read my stuff before well know, of analysis based on spring training performances, other than in really specific cases, e.g., Schilling and Foulke appear to be recovered from previous injuries. No one pitches enough innings or gets enough at-bats to actually make performance analysis legitimate, and that's been my position for a long time (as everyone who was around during the Shea Hillenbrand experiment remembers...)
Maybe the WBC really was a distraction. We'll know if they play good baseball when the season starts.

They will. Or they won't. Either way, it won't be because Jason Varitek and David Ortiz spent two weeks away from Fort Myers. It's just silly.
I'm sure it has been a distraction. The Red Sox have only had patchwork lineups on the field during spring training.

Like everyone else in baseball. Veterans don't travel. No one plays more than 3 or 4 innings until the last couple of weeks (after the WBC ended.)

Not that it matters. I've said this before and I'll say it again - it's not a "team sport." It's an individual sport, with those individuals operating essentially independently, but sharing the field. Some familiarity is nice between the SS and 2nd baseman, and for the other infielders with the first baseman. It's good if the catcher knows the pitchers. But that's all very doable very quickly, and they've had more than enough time.
Francona had a problem in one of his seasons in Philly, where he admitted that he didn't have the team ready to play. Maybe that will happen again.

And if that happens this year, it'll be Francona's fault again. And if he tries to blame the WBC, I'll chortle derisively at him.
Isn't there a lot of uncertainty? Aren't there a wide range of possible outcomes?

Of course there's uncertainty. Of course there's room for a wide range of outcomes. If you look for where I said "I guarantee that the team will win at least 95 games and the World Series" you'll look in vain, because I didn't say that, or anything like it.

What I have said is that this looks to be an improved team over the one that won 95 games last year. That I don't see any reason to expect Schilling or Foulke to perform at last year's bad levels. That I don't see any reason not to think that they've upgraded at first base, 2nd base and center field. That I think they've got options if Lowell's done. That the offensive downgrade at SS has a chance to be offset by the defensive upgrade.

Now, they really didn't have a Lowell-implosion contingency plan until this week, but now they do. Youkilis at 3rd and Choi/Snow at first is probably as good as what they had last year from Mueller and Millar. At least comparable.
Hasnt the competition improved? What about the other clubs that they'll be playing?

They've stayed the same. Some of them are better, some are worse. As a group, unless the talent level in MLB is dramatically different this year than it was last, the rest of baseball is, as a group, about what they were last year.

Will the Red Sox schedule be easier or harder this year than last year's? Probably, but not much, and it's not obvious in which direction. Yes, Toronto may have improved (though I'm nowhere near as impressed by their offseason as many are) but the Red Sox went 7-11 against them last year. Maybe they're actually improved, and Boston goes 8-10 against them this year.
Maybe the "expected" level could be 95 wins, if only an average number of things got right or wrong.

Which is the point that I'm making. I don't assume that everything will be perfect and they'll win 95. I assume that some things will go better than expected, some will go worse, and they'll win 95-100. It's a very talented group.
But aren't there really a large number of things that could wrong this year?

I disagree. I think it's about the same number of things as in any season. Maybe Lowell's decline is permanent and real, but it gets offset by Gonzalez putting up an OBP of .319 (as he did last year) and a SLG of .419 (as he did two years ago.*) Maybe Beckett goes down for a month, but Papelbon takes his spot and pitches great for a month. Maybe Seanez is dreadful, so they cut him and Delcarmen is lights out. There are questions, just like with every team out there. But for just about every question (there are obviously no capable replacements for Ramirez or Ortiz or Varitek, and Schilling going down [or completely losing it, which I think extremely unlikely] would be a problem), they've got a potential competent replacement. I don't think that's cock-eyed optimism at all - I think it's realism.
Aren't you just trying to sell a rosy scenario?

Rosy scenario, for a team with this talent level, is 1998 Yankees or 2001 Seattle Mariners, 114-116 wins. I'm not predicting that. Just that the expected scenario for this team, with this talent level, is somewhere in the mid-to-high 90s in wins, with another playoff appearance.

* - I hated the Gonzalez signing, but if he plays great defense and hits .265/.315/.420 with 20 HR, he's a useful player.

Technorati tags: RedSox, Boston, SpringTraining, Schilling, Beckett, Francona, Foulke, Youkilis



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