Forget about March Madness. Matsuzaka Madness is in full swing in Florida as the media follows Daisuke's every move. Beyond the off-field fascination that Japan's apparent next great import elicits – not to mention the attention that his big-dollar contact and immense dowry received – Matsuzaka has looked very impressive in his early outings for the Bosox. For a man who has yet to fully learn English and who has to deal with culture shock as well as intense scrutiny and pressure, his composure has been off the charts. Although he's the most interesting, Dice-K is far from the only new face on the Red Sox this season. Let's take a closer look at the Bosox in this week's Offseason Lowdown
. The Skinny
: In 2006, after eight straight years of playing second fiddle to the hated Yankees in the AL East, the Boston Red Sox finally managed to break the streak. That was the good news. The bad news was that lacklustre hitting, poor pitching and an endless run of injuries caused the Bosox to sputter badly in the second half and ultimately fall to third place behind the Jays. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, while I still feel a warm glow from 2004, the pain of having to watch them drop three of four in Toronto in late-September
and fall behind the Jays was tremendously painful. There's no point making excuses, because injuries happen to every team, but the club that the Red Sox trotted out on the field for most of the second half was woefully ill-equipped to compete, and it showed in a 27-40 mark after July 21. So after an unprecedented run of three straight years in the playoffs, Beantown was forced to watch the proceedings last October. But Boston has retooled the squad, made some key additions that should result in an exciting, potent lineup and a very strong rotation, with a bullpen that…err…has a lot of options in it.Strengths
: Getting on base, power pitching. David Ortiz
was a monster, pacing the AL while setting a new club record with 54 homers and also leading the circuit in RBI. The team's on-base skills were among its saving graces, as a .351 mark was good enough for second in the AL. The staff ranked fourth in strikeouts with 1,070 thanks to a nice recovery by ace Curt Schilling
. The bullpen was tied for fourth with 46 saves, as Jonathan Papelbon
was untouchable until his shoulder put a stop to that.Weaknesses
: Shutting down the running game, team speed. Jason Varitek
struggled with injuries last season and even when he returned, he clearly wasn't himself at the plate or behind it, as he threw out a career low 22 percent of baserunners. Doug Mirabelli
, forced to see much more action than normal, was even worse as Boston finished dead last in caught stealing percentage. As usual, Boston was at the bottom of the AL in steals (51), but 2007 may be different with Julio Lugo
aboard and Coco Crisp
supposedly healthy (although, unbelievably, his finger is still
bothering him). Two numbers jump out at you when reviewing the 2006 Sox: 12th in batting average and 11th in ERA. As discussed, Boston's ability to draw walks negated the first number to an extent, but this team was not the feared offensive machine people generally perceived it to be last season. This year, however, the rep will likely be deserved.Key offseason acquisitions
- Much ink has been spilled about Daisuke Matsukaza already, and why not? With talk of the legendary (some suggest mythical) gyroball, separating fact from fiction is half the fun this spring. And of course, the fact that Boston shelled out $51.1 million just for the right to negotiate with Dice-K has only added to the spotlight.
- J.D. Drew wore out his welcome in LA, opted out of the last three years of his contract, signed as a free agent with Boston and took about eight months to finalize the deal. Here's hoping the enigmatic and injury-prone Drew, often criticized for his laissez-faire attitude, can provide the Bosox with the big bat they so desperately need to put behind Manny.
- Julio Lugo takes over at shortstop after being penned to a four-year, $36 million deal. As the new Red Sox leadoff hitter, Lugo adds an element of speed that's traditionally not been a Sox trait. Don't expect a boatload of steals, but Lugo has the potential to be among the AL leaders in runs batting at the top of this order.
- Joel Pineiro landed in Boston for one year and $4 million after being non-tendered by the Mariners. The early book had him as the favorite for saves with Papelbon shifting back to the rotation, but the jury is nowhere near ready to give its verdict on the Red Sox closer case (see below).
- Brendan Donnelly, acquired from the Angels for minor leaguer Phil Seibel, has been floated as a possible closer candidate, but I still believe he's best suited to settle in as a set-up man. However, the volatility of this situation means that Donnelly could emerge from spring training with some serious value.
- Japanese veteran Hideki Okajima signed with the Sox for two years and $2.5 million and will likely become Boston's top lefty in the pen, but he could be a sleeper candidate for the closer gig.
- J.C. Romero, signed as a free agent for one year and $1.6 million after the Angels declined his option, is one member of the Sox pen who isn't being talked about as a closer candidate. As usual, he was tough on lefties last year, but his overall results were horrible. Romero should become the team's lefty specialist.
- RHP Nick DeBarr was acquired from Tampa Bay in the Rule 5 draft after enjoying a solid season at High-A Visalia. He'll battle for the final spot in the bullpen, but faces some tough competition.
: I first wrote about it several weeks ago
, but really the question of who will close for the Bosox has been an issue since the team wisely opted to shift Papelbon back to the more structured environment of the rotation.
Are we any closer to an answer now?
Not really. Joel Pineiro
has lost steam, but he needs time to adjust to the role, and still has to be considered a serious candidate. However, Mike Timlin
is suddenly being touted as the most sensible closer by some, but thanks to an oblique cramp, he hasn't even made his spring debut yet (that's scheduled for Saturday). Craig Hansen
, cited by many as the best long-term solution (with Bryce Cox
as the other closer of the future candidate), is also battling injury, as his back has prohibited him from making his first appearance, although that's supposed to happen today. He's probably best served beginning the year closing for Pawtucket and growing into the role. Donnelly got off to a nice start this spring, fanning talk that he'd be the best man for the job, but his last couple of outings scuttled that notion for the time being. Let's not forget about Julian Tavarez
. Although he'd prefer to start, he'd do whatever the team wanted and it wouldn't shock me if he enjoyed some success if given the closer gig.
Failing any of these options, a trade is a possibility, but whatever happens, I sure hope that when GM Theo Epstein suggested that Papelbon is still a candidate
, he wasn't being serious. As fantastic as Papelbon was last year, I'd hate to see Boston take a risk with his long-term health by switching him back.
It's clear, however, that asking anyone to duplicate what Papelbon did it 2006 is silly. That's just not going to happen. The only other sure thing we can extract from the current situation is that the Boston pen that breaks camp likely won't have the same look and order come October. This is definitely a work in progress.Fantasy sleeper
: Coco Crisp
's first year in Boston was a lost cause thanks to a finger injury that bothered him all season. Not that anyone on Boston tends to fly under the radar, but Crisp could be had for cheaper than normal, and he's capable of bouncing back to the 12-15 homer range with 25 steals and a .300 BA. If you're looking for a deeper sleeper, try betting on Devern Hansack
emerging as the closer. I was lucky enough to witness his major league debut, and was very impressed with what I saw.
. Projected Opening Day Lineup
SS Julio Lugo
1B Kevin Youkilis
DH David Ortiz
LF Manny Ramirez
RF J.D. Drew
3B Mike Lowell
C Jason Varitek
CF Coco Crisp
2B Dustin PedroiaRotationCurt SchillingJosh Beckett
Daisuke MatsukazaJonathan PapelbonTim WakefieldBullpenJoel Pineiro
/pick a name out of the hat, closerMike TimlinBrendan DonnellyKey Bench
: Wily Mo Pena, Alex Cora
, Doug Mirabelli
, Alex Cora
.On the Horizon
- After a big season split between High-A and Double-A, OF Jacoby Ellsbury has established himself as the centerfielder and leadoff hitter of the future for the Sox. The 23-year-old, a first round pick in 2005, has drawn interest from other teams, but Boston wisely seems inclined to keep Ellsbury. The organization's minor league defensive player of the year is an excellent athlete with the tools to man CF and he has fantastic speed and great on-base skills. Give him one more year in the minors and he should be ready for a job in Beantown in 2008.
- RHP Clay Buchholz took a major step forward last season, going 11-4, 2.42 with 140 K/33 BB in 119 IP between Low-A and High-A. His performance earned him spot No. 51 on the Baseball America Top 100 prospects list and No. 45 on Matthew Pouliot's Top 150 prospects list. The 22-year-old righty has a fastball that sits in the low-to-mid-90s range, although he dialed it up to 97 as the season progressed. The heater is only a small part of Buchholz's arsenal, however, as this kid has the potential to pitch near the top of a big league rotation soon.