The 2009 Boston Red Sox are in the final stages of preparing for what is certain to be an entertaining and exciting season.  The spring is finally behind us, the roster is set and the team is moving northward to christen Citi Field with some Major League talent.
Now all the roster moves are behind us and the questions move from the “who” of the offseason as they shift to the analysis of performance and the “what” of baseball.  This past week has been spent looking at the competition in the American League East, and stiff competition it is.  In most cases, the Red Sox had the position by position edge over each team from the Yankees to the Orioles and it should come as no surprise, in that light, that the staff here at Fire Brand gives the Red Sox the edge to win the AL East in 2009.
Today we summarize much of what we’ve talked about in our “For Better or Worse” series this offseason as we go player by player through the Red Sox roster and prepare for live baseball next week.

Predictions: Joe, Tim, Shawn, Pat and Evan all picked the Red Sox to win the AL East (no inherit bias here, really….look away).  Zach picked the Yankees and has been banished to the netherworlds of the Fire Brand archives for a solid month as punishment.
After all the drama surrounding Jason Varitek and the catcher position at large this offseason, we head into 2009 in much the same place we did last year and every year for the better part of a decade, with Jason Varitek donning the mask.  There are subtle differences in 2009 however with George Kottaras not only taking a swing as Wakefield’s caddy, but likely filling in for Varitek on a more regular basis.  But let’s not be disillusioned here, this is still Varitek’s job. 

I know, it is a little depressing to be getting excited about seeing a .230/15/50 line out of a starter in your lineup. But to be fair, offensive production from major league catchers isn’t far off of that mark across the league. League average for catchers over 162 games in 2008 was .255/.324/.389 with 15 home runs and 74 RBI. While Varitek is below average, he’s not hurting the team too drastically compared to league average for his position.

AL EAST BEST: Jorge Posada, NYY
In many ways Kevin Youkilis has become the rock of the Boston Red Sox.  Where there are questions in many places of the lineup, questions of injury or age or ability, there aren’t questions about Kevin Youkilis.  You know that you’ll get solid performance both at the plate and in the field as well as 100% (and plus if mathematically possible) effort across the board. On top of his consistency and dependability, Youk’s position and lineup flexibility create tremendous organizational value for the Red Sox.

We’ve mentioned Youk’s power explosion in 2008 and given that we can trace it back to his approach at the plate, I do think that a .550 SLG next season is reasonable to expect with 40+ doubles and 25 or so home runs.

AL EAST BEST: Mark Teixeira, NYY
What can Dustin Pedroia do to top his 2007 AL Rookie of the Year and his 2008 AL MVP in 2009?  There isn’t much more for this All-Star to accomplish is there?  Don’t tell that to Pedroia.  Known for his insatiable appetite to be better, better than he was before and better than anyone else in the game, I am confident Pedroia won’t be resting on his recent past successes.

Look, will Pedroia challenge for another MVP this season? I would be surprised if he finished in the top five again. But will he be one of the best second baseman in baseball? I think that’s very much in his reach.

AL EAST BEST: Dustin Pedroia, BOS
Julio Lugo’s injury late in the Spring along with Jed Lowrie’s good showing cemented Lowrie as the Opening Day shortstop.  If he continues the development he has shown this spring, as he is clearly less hampered by his hand injury he battled with last season, it will be hard to move Lowrie off short.  That said, Julio Lugo was in the midst of a solid spring of his own right before injury set him back and there were rumblings that Terry Francona may be considering Lugo as the de facto starter with Lowrie bouncing around the infield in a more advanced utility role.

Is it fair to assume that Lowrie will improve on a .268, 2 HR, 59 RBI season in 2009 if he wins the starting SS job? Throw in 100 at bats of Julio Lugo and I think the aggregate SS values of the 2009 team are still likely to beat out that groups 2008 production.

AL EAST BEST: Derek Jeter, NYY

If healthy, Mike Lowell is a great fielder and an above average hitter.  On top of that, he’s a leader and a clubhouse presence.  In this week’s podcast, caller Dylan from CA makes a compelling case that “if healthy”, Mike Lowell could be the surprise player in 2009.  In fact, Will Carroll intimated as much and expressed optimism in Mike Lowell’s recovery from the torn labrum in his hip last year.

In this case it all comes down to health. If Lowell is still hampered by a recovering hip and/or other nagging injuries in 2009, I would agree with their overall assessment. But, if healthy, I look to the Mike Lowell of May and June of 2008 and see reason to think that he could better those stats in 2009.

AL EAST BEST: Evan Longoria, TB and Alex Rodriguez, NYY
Last season provided Red Sox fans a taste of Jason Bay.  This season, we get to see if the main course lives up to the expectations set by the appetizer.   Personally, he seems to be in every way possible, the Anti-Manny.  But to weave that thread into his ability at the plate, maybe instead he should be considered Bizarro-Manny.  Let’s be clear, Bay is not Manny Ramirez at the plate, nor are any but a handful of right handed hitter in baseball.   But he isn’t as steep a drop off as many might expect.

Jason Bay’s numbers will come very close to his collective efforts between Pittsburgh and Boston last season; mid-.280’s, 30 home runs and both 100 RBI and runs scored while hitting primarily out of the five hole next season.

AL EAST BEST: Jason Bay, BOS and Carl Crawford, TB
If our Red Sox Madness tournament proved anything, it reinforced the responsibility placed on the shoulders, er…legs, of the Red Sox young centerfielder.   When asked the following question, “who’s success is more critical to the success of the Boston Red Sox in 2009?”, more of you thought that the answer was Jacoby Ellsbury than David Ortiz.  Is Ellsbury up to the challenge set by the successes of lineups past as lead off by Johnny Damon?  This is his year to prove it.

Enter Jacoby Ellsbury. We know that this offense needs the pop in the middle of the lineup from David Ortiz and that a healthy Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew will add the depth and production that is needed to field a well rounded and complete one through nine. But there may not be anyone who will dictate the overall efficiency of the Red Sox offense in 2009 than their young leadoff hitter.

If healthy, he’s extremely productive, just think back to last June where he hit 12 home runs and slugged .848.

If gimpy, ground ball to second, ground ball to second, k.

OK…that’s overly simplifying things, but I think you get my point.  Unfortunately, he’ll be both healthy and gimpy at times over the course of the season.  That much you can bank on.

When you look at the numbers that he has put up in Boston, you come away slightly underwhelmed. For a player who came with expectations of 20 home runs and 90 RBI while consistently anchoring the five spot in the lineup, J.D. Drew’s performance hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.

AL EAST BEST: Nick Markakis, BALT and Alex Rios, TOR
The quote below pretty much sums things up for David Ortiz.  On the bright side, people that spent time in Fort Myers came away saying that David Ortiz looks as fit and trim as ever coming into the season.   From his pre-Red Sox days scouting reports, his abilty was rarely in question, more his conditioning and health.  If healthy and if in the shape that he looks, we could be in store for a season of Papi being Papi.

I’d love to sit up here and give you some concrete evidence that all is well with David Ortiz and you have nothing to worry about in 2009. Truth be told, I do think that is more likely the case than not. For my part, I see a .287, 38 HR, 128 RBI year ahead of him; not uber-dominant Papi, but better-than-most Papi. But there is an air of uncertainty around what has been the most certain thing in a Red Sox uniform this decade heading into the spring for the first time this year.

AL EAST BEST: David Ortiz, BOS.
As a whole, and whole being defined 1-7. there isn’t a better or deeper starting rotation in baseball.  Even when confined to the five that will take the mound every five days, I would put these guys up against anyone and feel confident.

If you are one to get drawn in by superstition, the fact that it is an odd year should have you bullish on Josh Beckett’s chances to be a Cy Young contender.  He looked brilliant this spring and I couldn’t think of a better pitcher to set the tone for the season against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday at Fenway Park.

Jon Lester looks to build on his tremendous second half last season and continue his ascension to the elite ranks of left handed starters in baseball.  Could his workload from last year cause him trouble in 2009?  It is certainly feasible to assume so.  If, however, Jon Lester has proven anything over the last three years it is that you would be foolish to assume what he is or is not capable of achieving.

Daisuke Matsuzaka will continue to leave us astounded, shaking our heads, appearance after appearance this season.  For the most part it will be met with great success at the longest of odds as he magicly weaves his way out of jams as his pitch counts climb.  After two seasons with the Red Sox, does anyone think that he is anything other than what he has shown on the mound thus far?  For me, he’s an enigma…and one that I love watching every fifth day as much as it frustrates me at times.

Between the old, Tim Wakefield, the young, Clay Buchholz, and the recovering, Brad Penny and John Smoltz, you have to believe that the Red Sox 4th and 5th starters will put up collective numbers that rival most teams 3rd and 4th starters.  Many of these guys could actually be a solid #2 starter on some rotations.  It will be interesting to see how this group manifests itself as the season progresses.

AL EAST BEST: Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees
The Red Sox bullpen has the potential to be straight dominant this season.  When you have 3 guys you would trust in the 8th inning, a young flamethrower, a sidewinding lefty and one of the more effective late inning relievers in baseball asked nothing more than to bridge the

starters to the others, you have a great bullpen.

It will be interesting to see how Terry Francona uses these weapons early in the season.  He clearly has more arrows in his quiver to choose from than ever before.

AL EAST BEST: Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays
Is there any better feeling than a one run lead heading into the ninth inning at Fenway Park knowing that #58 is about to stroll across the right field grass to the mound to do his thing?  Personally, I think he’s the best closer in baseball.
AL EAST BEST: Jonathan Papelbon, BOS and Mariano Rivera, NYY
CONCLUSION: Play Ball!!!!