Last week I started looking at the potential of the 2008 Boston Red Sox by comparing them to the 2007 World Series Champions. We began by looking at the infield of Youkilis, Pedroia, Lugo, and Lowell, it appears that we should expect alot of the same. There will be some variance in performance from year to year, but my expectation is that in aggregate this infield will not decline dramatically from it’s 2007 rates.
Today we take a look at the rest of the position players and make a simple judgment; Better or Worse. At the end of our analysis, player by player we will have built the foundation of logic to prove or disprove our hypothesis that the 2008 Boston Red Sox are Word Series contenders.
Let’s start by walking through the outfield (as the roster stands today).
Manny Ramirez didn’t live up to the lofty standards he set for himself throughout his career in 2007. That is, until the post season. For the second year in a row, Manny missed a significant stretch of time playing in 133 games. And also for the second year in a row, Manny saw declines in his home run and RBI totals. Manny ended his season at .296 with the first sub .900 OPS since his second season in the league in 1994. For most of the season, we all waiting for Manny to break out and go on a power binge that would never come as Manny ended up with only 20 home runs.
My gut: Better. People around Manny this offseason are saying that he’s in better shape than he has been in years and with the option year in the balance, I expect Manny to have a more “Manny-like” season in 2008. I think we’ll see a renaissance with numbers more in line with a .320 average, 30 plus home runs, and 100 plus RBI. Manny will be locked in and when Manny is locked in, more than anyone in the lineup, his impact can be felt throughout. He makes Papi better ahead of him, he puts pressure on pitchers by keeping innings rolling for the people behind him. Last year, his true presence in the lineup wasn’t felt until the post season where he was on base more than half the time, hit .348 and hit 4 home runs rediscovering his power stroke. There is variance in the projection systems for Manny, but none are quite as bullish as I am, but all expect a rebound from his 2007 performance.
J.D. Drew‘s first season in Boston was, for the most part, forgettable. But I think Evan summed it up best in his recent column saying;

On October 20th at Fenway Park under the bright lights, he found redemption.
All year, he struggled to find a niche in his new home, with fans already against him being there. It was a long, taxing year for him personally as his son struggled through a malady of issues.

A whole season of underwhelming at bats from the highly touted, yet highly questioned, free agent acquisition was pummeled away with that home run. Drew had significant troubles in 2007 finding his place in Boston and with American League pitching. The big issue coming into the season was would Drew hold up physically? Well, 140 games played says yes. But no one expected Drew would pound one ground ball after another to the second baseman. He hit a measly .270 with only 11 home runs and 64 RBI. Not what you expect from your “#5 hitter”.
My gut: Better. He can’t really be worse can he? I think he’ll learn from his first year in Boston. He’ll likely start in the 6 hole of the lineup, although I think he’s made to bat in the 2 spot. We know he’ll get on base. I think he’ll get more hits this year with an average more like .285. He’ll be more productive with his power as well with about 20 home runs and better run production depending on where he sits in the order. As with Manny, the projection systems agree that Drew will be slightly better than 2007, but once again, I appear to be a little bit more of an optimist than they.
Jacoby Elsbury took the world by storm in the second half of 2007 and in the playoffs. Although he only played 33 games in 2007, it’s hard to imagine the 2007 Red Sox without him seemingly making an impact with every at bat. Elsbury was a hit machine hitting .353 with a surprising burst of power, only 3 home runs, but a .500+ slugging average, and a demon on the basepaths. Elsbury is, however, one of the biggest wild cards for the 2008 season. He can’t hold that pace for an entire season can he? We all assume he’ll take the starting job away from Coco Crisp in center field, but how often will Terry Francona get Coco in the line up to give Elsbury a break in his first full season at the major league level?
My gut: Better (hold your opinion on what “better” in this case means until the end of the explanation). I think Elsbury’s for real. But I don’t think he’s a .353 hitter with .500+ slugging capability over a full season of at bats. I fully expect Elsbury to get about 400 at bats and I think he’ll end up hitting about .290 – .300 with 10 home runs and 30 plus stolen bases. I think he’ll start the season as the starting center fielder and that he’ll begin the season at the bottom of the order before ascending to the leadoff spot in the second half of the season. Interestingly enough, the projection systems are more bullish on Elsbury than I am. I think that there’s a little more power at Fenway Park than the pros do, Bill James projections has Elsbury projected at a .320 average with 42 stolen bases. But how do you compare Elsbury to his 2007 self for a “better or worse” judgment? You don’t. You compare his projections to those of the player he’ll be replacing, Coco Crisp.
Coco Crisp hasn’t been the answer to the departure of Johnny Damon that some people thought he could be when he arrived in Boston. The Red Sox thought there was .300 avg/20 hr/80 rbi/25 sb potential in Coco. Instead he’s been .265/8/60/25. He has, at least, been better than advertised in the field with range that surpasses even Damon’s. It’s still up in the air whether Coco will be with this team this year. He’s got some juice in the trade market on the potential the Red Sox hoped for and the reasonable contract he’s currently signed to. For those still in the market for a center fielder, Coco would seem to be a desirable option. With the Red Sox always looking to solidify spots in the bullpen or trying to secure a catcher of the future and Brandon Moss in the minors ready to take that 4th outfield spot (J.D. Drew backing up Elsbury in CF when needed), you have to think Coco’s still on the table. But you also have to believe that the Red Sox would be happy to have Coco as the 4th outfielder on this team. He may not be the power threat off the bench that Wily Mo Pena was last year or have the versatility in the field that Eric Hinske had, but he’ll serve other uses much better. It’s dangerous to rely on a youngster like Elsbury to be your go to everyday center fielder for an entire season. Coco can pinch run, he can come in and spell for late defense and he can take one or two starts a week in center.
My gut: Better. On many fronts. (1) He’ll be a better “off the bench” option that Wily Mo was last year. (2) He’ll perform better than he has in the past in Boston at the plate. I can’t forecast, because I don’t know how much he’ll play. I think he’s better than a .265 hitter (and so do the projection systems). (3) He’ll serve as trade bait at the deadline should the Red Sox need to fill a hole.
So, will the outfield be more productive than last year? I think so. Manny and J.D. will both rebound from sub-par seasons in 2007, Elsbury will outproduce 2007 Coco, and Coco will be a better 4th option than Wily Mo was.
So far we see the infield as a relative wash and a better performing outfield in 2008. That’s a good start to a World Series contending team.
But is any analysis of the Red Sox offense nearly complete without looking at it’s heart, David Ortiz? Ortiz’s 2007 power numbers were down due mostly to his gimpy knee. But his numbers were just as scary, if not more so across the other categories. Ortiz hit a career high .332 with an OPS of 1.066, his third straight over 1.000. While he only hit 35 home runs, he hit a remarkable 52 doubles. When paired with Manny in the post season, Papi was on base constantly forcing pitchers to make real pitches to the rest of the lineup while under duress.
My gut: About the same. Papi’s health will once again be a question coming off off-season knee surgery, but assuming he rebounds well from that, you can expect more power in 2008. He won’t likely hit .332 again and will regress back towards the .300 mark, but should touch the 40+ home run level with similar 110+ run production (both runs and RBI). That gut prediction is very much in line with the projection systems.
At this point, there should be no question that Jason Varitek performance behind the plate is more important than his performance at the plate. It’s very likely that his career is on the back nine and declines across the board should be expected. In fact, succession planning at the catcher position is quickly becoming a priority and glaring hole in the Red Sox long term plan. I think we saw the Tek we need to get used to last year when he hit .255 with 17 home runs and looked somewhat overmatched at times with clearly diminishing bat speed.
My gut: About the same. With Tek, what you see is what you get. Gone are the days that he could sit in the six hole and provide value in that spot. I think he’s destined for the 7th or 8th spot of the lineup with Lugo and/or Elsbury behind him to turn the lineup over. All the projection systems agree with me on this one, more of the same from the Captain.
As for the bench, Sean Casey, Alex Cora, and Doug Mirabelli will join Coco Crisp as the likely reserves to start the season replacing the likes of Wily Mo Pena, Eric Hinske, and Bobby Kielty. I’ll call this a wash as well. I’ll also say that there is always an addition to the bench down the stretch run that makes an impact and there will be players like Chris Carter and Brandon Moss that play a role this year from the minors.
My gut: About the same. Casey provides a nice option to spell Youk and Lowell at the corners (with Youk spelling Lowell at 3rd when needed). I’ve outlined Coco’s usefulness as the fourth outfielder and we should expect more of the same from Alex Cora and Doug Mirabelli. The Red Sox don’t use their bench to hold that one hitter to come in and pinch hit in a game. You’ll likely never see that out of this team (unless that person is born out of a late call up or deadline deal). The bench is about depth, versatility, and the ability to plug and play players throughout the season to spell others. This group accomplishes that goal nicely. That said, I fully expect others to rotate into this group throughout the year freely. Theo’s finger is always out there on the pulse of available talent and he aggressively fills gaps where he can.
So, there you have it. We’ve made it halfway through the team and so far, 2008 (at least at the plate) looks like it has every bit the potential to rival and surpass the production of the 2007 team. I look to the way this team played during the playoffs from an offensive perspective and I think you’ll see alot more of that type of production throughout the 2008 season. But can the pitchers, both the starting rotation and the bullpen, be as efficient as they were in 2007? That will go a long way towards answering our question; Better or Worse? That answer will have to wait until Friday.