When “Guest Columnist”, er… I mean, Bottom Line Rob wrote a great piece this week on the five reasons that the Red Sox were favorites to repeat as World Series Champions in 2008, I found myself nodding with nearly every point, then kicking myself that I hadn’t thought to write a nice neatly organized list driven column like that.
My next thoughts led me down two paths; (1) What are the reasons that might prevent the Red Sox from winning the World Series in 2008? and (2) Why can’t I just steal Bottom Line Rob’s format to answer question #1?
Before I start, I want to preface this all by saying, I am extremely bullish on the Red Sox prospects this year. As you have read in my “For Better or Worse” columns, I expect the Red Sox to be over the 95 win mark on the season and go deep into the playoffs. But, even with that confidence and bravado, the difference between 95 wins and a repeat chance at post season glory and 85 wins and the disappointment of sitting at home when it counts is a slim and fickle margin at best.
So what could in fact keep the Red Sox from their appointed rounds?
1. The Bullpen
Even with Jonathan Papelbon at the tail of the pen closing doors on teams before they can turn their caps inside out and belt a rally cry, the Red Sox bullpen enters the season as a question mark. Realistically, the Red Sox bullpen seems to enter every year as a question mark and even when it’s perceived as being a team’s strength, heroes seem to step out of the shadows, Hideki Okajima, instead of live up to their anointed position, Eric Gagne.
Just because the bullpen more often than not has worked its self from a question mark to a positive, doesn’t mean that it isn’t something that could keep the Red Sox from fulfilling on their 2008 destiny. There is no question that the potential for a great bullpen is there. But for as much potential as there is, there is only one sure thing, Jonathan Papelbon.
I don’t think that Hideki Okajima will be the dominant set up man we saw early in 2007. I do expect that he’ll be the very good but still mortal set up man we saw coming down the stretch. Even if he’s very good, I think he’s potentially two and possibly three wins short of last season’s impact. He was just that good last year.
The rest of the pen is full of potential in Manny Delcarmen and David Aardsma and age and experience in Mike Timlin and Julian Tavarez. While all of them can do the jobs required of them, how confident are we that they will? The same questions about the bullpen that gave Theo Epstein pause last season come the trading deadline as he dealt away a good haul of major league ready prospects in Kason Gabbard and David Murphy for Eric Gagne still exist today.
In my opinion, this is the year that we see some of the arms that have toiled in the minors as near prospects, Craig Hansen and Edgar Martinez, step up and contribute in a big way as Manny Delcarmen did in 2007 or we watch them get dealt during the season for a pitcher with a lower ceiling but a much dependable contributor to the major league club.
2. AL Central
Let’s face it, the Detroit Tigers got significantly better this off season. And we can’t forget that the same Cleveland Indians that took the Red Sox to seven games in the American League Championship Series have a year more experience under their youthful belts. What does this mean for the Red Sox?
Outside of the thirteen games they play against the two teams, the very real possibility exists that one of these teams could bump the American League East out of the Wild Card spot this year. And if the Red Sox take the division, they may have to roll through one or both of these teams on their way through to the World Series.
Bottom Line Rob does bring up both of these teams in his comments about the competition being good, but not better. I think he discounts Detroit’s pitching a tad and the Tigers’ offense is nearly Yankee-like which we have seen is an ample enough formula for competition at the top of the American League.
The Indians get some props from Rob and I think they’ll ride or fall on the performance of the top of their rotation with C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. Realistically, the Red Sox were a little lucky that the post-season versions of the Indians’ studs didn’t approximate the regular season versions.
3. Age
The word “age” often has negative connotations, while the word “youth” is full of potential. The Red Sox have both ends of this spectrum covered and while the experienced youth and grizzly veterans are a good mix, they represent a potential risk as well.
According to Baseball Reference, the average player age last season was 28.4. The Red Sox average age in 2007 for batters was 30.1 and for pitching 31.1. The only older team across both categories last year was the New York Yankees. Looking at their current roster, the average age according to ESPN is 29.8, the oldest average age of any team in baseball. The interesting thing as it relates to this data point is the distribution of age across the spectrum.

As you can see, the dots don’t hover around the line meaning the Red Sox are full of “age” and of “youth”. If the negatives associated with each crop up more often than the positives, can the Red Sox react? If injury or attrition strikes at those above the line and/or inexperience and adjustment strike those below the line, can the Red Sox persevere?
4. New York
If the 2008 baseball season were compared to the 2008 primaries with the Red Sox as Barack Obama and the Yankees as Hillary Clinton duking it out against each other tooth and nail to represent their party/division in the general election/World Series, then the New York Mets may be John McCain waiting in the wings as a bigger threat to take the presidency than anyone from their own party.
While Red Sox Nation silently rejoiced when Johan Santana went to the Mets instead of the Yankees, what may go overlooked is how good of a playoff team that makes the Mets. They have all the pieces in place to make a run through the National League and challenge the American League champion whether it be the Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, Indians, Angels, or Mariners.
No argument for a Red Sox defense can go without serious mention of those two little annoying words, New & York.
5. Luck
So much can go right or wrong over the course of a baseball season that is not predictable nor fair. Good luck might help you out, bad luck may beat you down. But in that variability is the difference between missing the playoffs and a World Series championship.
While the Red Sox are in great position heading into the 2008 season, there are still questions and unknowns that hang out there waiting to bite. So for every reason there is for the Red Sox to be favorites to repeat, there are just as many that may cause them to not.
That, I guess, is why they play the game.