You guessed it — we’re picking the Red Sox to repeat as American League East Division Champions. Coming off a World Series, the Red Sox will look to repeat and make it three titles in five years (shades of the Patriots). The Red Sox have a strong team which will rely on its youngsters improving upon seasons of the past. It should be an intriguing storyline to watch.
Fire Brand Quote of the Team: “Boston should come out of the gates fast in the AL East and put a big burden on the other teams to catch up. Watch for them to slump a little down the stretch, but the veterans will carry them to back to back AL East Division champs.” (Shawn Medeiros)
Statistics code: AVG/OBP/SLG for hitters. W-L, ERA, WHIP for starters. ERA, WHIP, IP for relievers.
C: Jason Varitek (2007 stats: .255/.367/.421) | Kevin Cash (2007 stats: .111/.242/.148)
Varitek rebounded from a poor 2006 to at least be adequate with the bat in 2007. However, he still remains perhaps the most elite catcher in the name (Russell Martin be damned!) as he’s off the charts as a catcher and offensively ranked as the fourth best catcher. He’s said he wants to play until he’s 40 (he’s 36) and with the dearth of any immediate catching help in the minors, he may continue to be our starter for a good long while — and we’ll benefit from it. Cash is an offensive liability but is a defensive upgrade over Dougie Parm.
1B: Kevin Youkilis (2007 stats: .288/.390/.453) | Sean Casey (2007 stats: .296/.353/.393)
Youkilis was tremendous for us last year in the first half, but tailed off in the second. Hopefully the addition of Casey can defray some of Youk’s wearing down and he can contribute with an even stronger season. (Casey is out forOpening Night with a stiff neck.) Youkilis may or may not hit at the top of the order. Once Jacoby Ellsbury orients himself as the leadoff man, there will be a decision on our hands on which of Pedroia or Youk to send to the bottom of the order. Youk has more power while Pedroia constantly puts the ball in play and rarely strikes out, so I’d advocate Youk hitting behind Mike Lowell.
2B: Dustin Pedroia (2007 stats: .317/.380/.442) | Alex Cora (2007 stats: .246/.298/.386)
Pedroia, the Rookie of the Year, will be back for another go-round at second base, giving us security at the position for the first time since Marty Barrett. Is a sophomore slump on the way? We can only hope not, but the possibility exists. Cora shined in April as he helped Pedroia orient himself, but ended the season with subpar stats as usual. We may be looking at Cora’s last year as a Red Sox with Jed Lowrie backing up next year — and don’t discount a trade midseason for Lowrie, either. Either way, Cora brings a steady glove and has always been a professional in his time here.
3B: Mike Lowell (2007 stats: .324/.378/.501)
Lowell had a season to remember in 2007 and got paid handsomely for it. He comes back for three more years and is reportedly in great shape. We’ll find out, but if he can stave off his second-half decline for a second straight year, that will be tremendous. He’s expected to start the season batting fifth.
SS: Julio Lugo (2007 stats: .237/.294/.349)
Yeah, Lugo hit .280 after the All-Star Break. Geez, how bad his first half was to end up with that line. He’s apparently shown up dedicated and determined to get back to past levels of success. If he can, we have a weapon we never quite had all year. Hopefully the Lugo of old shows up or we’ll be looking for yet another shortstop.
LF: Manny Ramirez (2007 stats: .296/.388/.493)
Will he bounce back? All the reports say yes. His contract year says yes. (It really bugs me that it takes a contract year for baseball players to crack down. You make millions of dollars already!) Throughout this recap of the team so far, I keep running across instances of people doing better (Manny, Lugo, et. al) or maintaining their seasons (Lowell) — and we won the World Series last year with this team? My goodness. We could be even better this year with minimal interference.
CF: Jacoby Ellsbury (2007 stats: .353/.394/.509) Coco Crisp (2007 stats: .268/.330/.382)
Coco ain’t getting that starting job, not if he keeps riding the pine due to injury. Ellsbury hasn’t exactly lit it up, but if you slot him in the No. 9 slot to relieve the pressure on him, I think he could cobble together a solid season and compete for the Rookie of the Year award. His slow start this spring has tempered expectations for him, which is probably a good thing. Bobby Kielty wins the fifth outfielder job and will travel to Japan. When we go to a 25-man roster, we’ll likely lose Kielty to another team, meaning that we’ll go through at least three outfield backups this year: Kielty, Crisp and whoever replaces Crisp.
RF: J.D. Drew (2007 stats: .270/.373/.423)
We’ve covered Drew exhaustively this past off-season, so suffice it to say that we all think Drew’s in line for a huge season. He’s always been a personal favorite, so I’ll be rooting for the guy. Even though he turned in a poor power season, he was very strong in the field and rarely made any mental mistakes and displayed a solid arm. He should play out just fine this year.
DH: David Ortiz (2007 stats: .332/.445/.621)
Big Papi is just unbelievable, isn’t he? He just hits and hits and hits and hits. (And then he hits some more.) If he put up this line last year with the maladies of injuries he had, imagine what he’ll put up this year now that he’s reportedly healthy. He had no problem knocking a ton of doubles last year, and I expect now that he’s healthy and can drive the ball, some of those doubles will turn into home-runs. Could this be the year he finally snags the MVP?
SP: Josh Beckett (2007 stats: 20-7, 3.27, 1.14) | Daisuke Matsuzaka (2007 stats: 15-12, 4.40, 1.32 | Tim Wakefield (2007 stats: 17-12, 4.76, 1.35) | Jon Lester (2007 stats: 4-0, 4.57, 1.46) | Julian Tavarez (2007 stats: 7-11, 5.15, 1.50)
I’ve projected Tavarez to win the No. 5 job although Bottomline Rob says that should probably be Kyle Snyder. Beckett will see his first start skipped, something that doesn’t really matter too much. Dice-K will draw the opening start in Japan and look to build upon his rookie season. Wakefield’s knuckler is dancing and Lester looks primed to break out and realize his potential. The No. 5 slot likely will be a revolving door all year. (Wakefield has been declared inactive for Opening Night.)
RP: Mike Timlin (2007 stats: 3.42, 1.08, 55.1) | Hideki Okajima (2007 stats: 2.22, 0.97, 69.0) | Manny Delcarmen (2007 stats: 2.05, 1.02, 44.0) | Kyle Snyder (2007 stats: 3.81, 1.42, 54.1) | Javier Lopez (2007 stats: 3.10, 1.33, 40.2) | David Aardsma (2007 stats: 6.40, 1.73, 32.1) | Bryan Corey (2007 stats: 1.93, 1.07, 9.1)
Timlin looks to be on his game in what will be his final season. (He’s declared inactive for the Opening Night game.) I can’t possibly imagine the Red Sox these last few years without Timlin — he’s always been a rock out there and will be sorely missed. He’s one of the most underrated signings of the recent past for the Red Sox. Okie-dokie is starting again where he ended last year and looks on pace to dominate again. Delcarmen also looks great and could be the closer-in-waiting for days Papelbon can’t go. Snyder and Lopez are average pitchers — good days, bad days.
I’ve projected Aardsma and Corey to grab the final two spots in the bullpen. I’m intrigued by Aardsma’s potential, and he’s turned in solid seasons in the past. A friend of Fire Brand raved about Aardsma after seeing him in person, and I’m excited to see this guy. Corey has always piqued me ever since we picked him up at the trading deadline in 2006, and with a ton of scouts on hand buzzing about him, it’s time to see what he can do.
CL: Jonathan Papelbon (2007 stats: 1.85, 0.77, 58.1, 37 SV)
Cincho-Ocho had a great 2007 but we saw the ugly side of him this off-season when business was the principal story. Papelbon felt he had to pave the road for future closers and wanted a ton of money. He wanted Ryan Howard money — $900,000. He got $775,000, which is a large sum for a second-year closer. During all this, I couldn’t help but think of his response to my interview question three years ago:
Fire Brand of the American League: If you end up making it to the majors and being lucky enough to become a highly-coveted free agent, are you going to place more emphasis on money, or surroundings, or family, home-team, etc. In other words, are you going to be one of those people that give hometown discounts to the team that you came up with, etc.?
Jon Papelbon: My decision will be made based on what is best for me at the time, what is best for my family, my lifestyle and won’t be based solely on the money. Yes, I would love to stay with Boston my entire career and that will play into my decision.
Anyways, he’s an elite closer.
MGR: Terry Francona
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. I think Tito is one of the best managers in the game. Joe Torre tends to agree. I’m thrilled we have some continuity in the position and look forward to him helming the Red Sox.
GM: Theo Epstein
I think a lot of Theo’s value comes behind the scenes, not in the trades and free agent acquisitions, which he’s proved to be hit or miss on. He’s put together from top to bottom perhaps the most cohesive and talented organization in the major leagues. That’s saying something.
Fire Brand‘s Favorite Move: Not trading Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz. I like Johan Santana, I really do, and I understand Sean O’s position that he was the best player available and we should have got him. But I really think we need to stand behind the two pitchers, especially with Santana wanting a massive commitment. I think this was the right move.
Fire Brand‘s Least Favorite Move: Standing pat. Look, I understand why we did it. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to stand pat. I mean, we basically substituted Sean Casey for Eric Hinske and called it a day. We need more depth than that; we need more players for the future. If we can get a good return for Coco, then I’ll be satisfied. But I’m leery of a 2008 with a roster exactly the same as 2007. Yes, our young guns are older and more experienced. So are our old guns, and unlike the young guns, that’s not good.f
Fire Brand‘s Division Projection: First place. The Red Sox will start their mini-streak of division titles, winning their second in a row as the Yankees fight to make the playoffs and the Rays put everyone on notice. The Red Sox are a good team. We know this. They have flaws. We know this. But they’ll finish first.