Note by Evan: I’d like to welcome Tim Daloisio, formerly of to the Fire Brand staff! He’ll be joining us to cover the Red Sox. Shawn Medeiros will be returning once the regular season starts to do our game recaps. Welcome, Tim!
With football season nearing it’s completion and the NBA All Star weekend nearly upon us, with Tiger Woods running through fields of the world’s greatest golfers on the West Coast and the sun starting to set after 5:00 pm on the East Coast, you start to get the feeling that spring is waiting just around the corner.
About this time, year after year, as I wallow through the bye week before the Super Bowl (a week that can only be described as the longest week in sports), my mind inevitably drifts back to baseball. The questions that I have left lingering in my head since the last out the year before start to percolate. No matter if the season prior ended on a sour note or the highest of highs as we all experienced, my thirst for the drama of a new season starts anew.
The single question that works it’s way from the recesses of my hibernating baseball mind to the forefront of my brain where baseball will occupy the next nine months of the year is always, “how do we look this year?”
As Red Sox fans, we are in the enviable position of not only being defending World Champions, but also putting out on the field what is virtually the same team that took the crown last year. This isn’t 2005, where we saw our heroes depart to all corners of the baseball universe. This time they’ll all be back and for many of them last season just started to scratch the surface of the talent that lies beneath. But if you return everyone, that also means that everyone, both young and old, is one year further along. For the young that signifies growth, but for the veterans it could mean something much different.
So, for my first post here at the Fire Brand of the American League, I thought I would capitalize on the consistency in lineup from last year to this and answer my question of “how do we look this year” by looking at how each player did in 2007 and making a simple judgment; better or worse. I’ll start today going position player by position player through the infield and then on Tuesday looking at the outfield and bench followed on Friday with a look at the pitching staff. Hopefully by the end of our “better or worse” gut check, we’ll have a good feel for whether the 2008 team will in fact be “better or worse” than our defending champions.
The Infield: Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Julio Lugo, Mike Lowell
Kevin Youkilis hit .288 with 16 home runs and 83 RBI in 2007 with an .843 OPS. While a little banged up at times, Youk anchored various parts of the lineup playing in 145 games. Much of the Sox early season success was a direct result of a very hot Kevin Youkilis whose second half wasn’t nearly as dynamic as his first. So, better or worse in 2008? I actually think that these stats are fairly indicative of Kevin’s ability. If anything, I could see his average slipping a hair with the power and production numbers being fairly similar depending on where he slots in the lineup this season.
My gut: About the same (of course I had to add a third option to better or worse just to complicate it a little). As you can see here, many of the expert projection systems agree with “my gut”.
Dustin Pedroia overcame a miserable start to the season to post a .317 average and an .822 OPS. He showed spunky power hitting 8 home runs while driving in 50 and scoring 86 runs. I think we saw an above average Dustin Pedroia in the second half of last season hitting at a pace I don’t expect to see throughout the course of 2008. That being said, I think it’s safe to assume an average that hovers around .300 with a little more power this season. I expect him to actually touch double digits in home runs. Much of Dustin’s value at the plate will be tied up in whether he leads off or bats second behind Jacoby Elsbury. I expect him to start the season leading off and for Elsbury to take over in the second half after another half season at the plate settling in.
My gut: About the same. Once again, the projection systems tend to agree with me here (maybe I am part computer after all?).
Julio Lugo had a rough first year in Boston at the plate. For most of the season he was arguably the least productive bat in the lineup (night’s with Wakefield pitching or at National League ballparks excluded). Sporting a team low (among regulars) .237 average and the only sub-.300 OBP, it’s amazing that (1) he got on base enough to steal 33 bases and (2) he topped the 70 number in both RBIs and runs. Could you imagine what he might do if he hit .260 and was on base 30 more times over the course year.
My gut: Better. I refuse to believe that Lugo’s skills at the plate have degraded as much as we saw last season as quickly as they did. I think he’ll get his 30 additional appearances on the basepaths this year and will steal close to 40 bases with closer to a .260 average reeking havoc at the bottom of the order and being on base for the top of the lineup with much more regularity. The projections: here. Ok, I swear I am not looking at the projections before “my gut” predicts.
Mike Lowell‘s 2007 was about as good as anyone could have hoped for. In fact it was so good that not only did he walk away as the World Series Most Valuable Player, but he was considered by many to be the team MVP and was rewarded with a three year $37.5 million dollar contract extension. Was it just last year that the idea of Mile Lowell at $8 million dollars per sounded like a contract we “had to take” to get Josh Beckett? Lowell 2007 was remarkable in many ways. Not only did he lead the team in games played with 154, but also at bats with 589 on his way to posting team highs in average (.324) and RBI (120). Lowell rounded that off with 21 home runs and a .501 slugging percentage. But at 33 years old, is Lowell still at his peak or is he rounding the back nine of his career?
My gut: Worse. Look, this isn’t an attack on his ability. I just don’t expect similar production from Lowell this season. I think he’ll be a respectable .285 hitter with about 20 home runs and 90 to 100 RBI. He will continue to fill out the five hole and offer Manny Ramirez a little protection while playing a solid third base and being a team leader. That’s all I want or need from him. Anything else, well that’s just gravy. Just like it was in 2007. Well, looking at the projections here, looks like “my gut” nailed the infield. Who needs super computers anyway?
We’ll continue “my gut’s” analysis through the position players on Tuesday with a look at the outfield, but so far so good. While we lose a little production from Lowell, we gain some from a slightly revitalized Lugo and Youk and Pedroia are consistent rocks in the lineup.