Spring Postcard: Retooled Red Sox looking for balanced approach
The Red Sox lost offense, but they improved their defense and pitching
David Ortiz can provided a huge offensive boost if he avoids slumping
Numbers didn't show it, but Jonathan Papelbon was off in 2009; he's back
This spring, SI.com's writers will be filing postcards from all 30 camps. To read all the postcards, click here.
1. Stop me if you've heard the one about "run prevention."
The Red Sox players have, and they're not too keen on the label. "Run prevention" is supposed to mean an emphasis on good pitching and defense, but all the Sox seem to hear is what's unspoken: a supposedly weak offense. That's because middle-of-the-order hitter Jason Bay departed without an equivalent slugger signed to replace him, and the key acquisitions are best known for their throwing arm (starter John Lackey) or their gloves (center fielder Mike Cameron, third baseman Adrian Beltre and, to a lesser extent, shortstop Marco Scutaro).
"It's a way to put something negative on this team, to say that we won't score that many runs," first baseman Kevin Youkilis says. Adds second baseman Dustin Pedroia, "No one here listens to that stuff. We're baseball players. That's for the computer guys up in the booth who care about that. They say that because those guys are some of the best at their position defensively, so that's the first thing that comes to mind."
By at least one metric, Baseball Prospectus' Defensive Efficiency, the Red Sox had the American League's second-worst defense last season -- in contrast to their championship 2007 season, when they had the majors' best defense. Their newly acquired position players have won five Gold Gloves. The boon for Boston comes not just from the prowess of the new guys, but also the inadequacies of the players being replaced. Bay was subpar in left field, and Boston's left side of the infield featured three players (Mike Lowell, Julio Lugo and Jed Lowrie) who had surgery either before or during the season, limiting their range. "The years when we struggled," general manager Theo Epstein says, "we tended to have our defense not live up to the standards of our pitching and our offense."
In addition, more than a third of Boston's starts (55, to be exact) last season were made by pitchers whose season ERA was 5.60 or higher (a collection of seven pitchers headlined by Brad Penny, Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Smoltz); by giving about 32 of those starts to Lackey, a former ERA champ, the Sox will undoubtedly be better at -- wait for it -- preventing runs.
The organization's broad goals include being among the league's best in each of the three main areas of hitting, pitching and defense and to win 95 games -- a lofty but realistic total that typically guarantees a playoff berth. Boston has won 95 in six of the last seven seasons after having done so only once in the previous 24 years. The changes, Epstein says, "weren't a wholesale shift [in philosophy]. It was just an attempt to restore balance and fix some of the issues from last year's club."
2. Don't overlook the offense.
The downgrade from Bay to Cameron in the lineup is significant, even if the latter has hit at least 20 home runs in four straight seasons. Otherwise, replacing Lowell with Beltre is essentially a wash, and there are significant offensive upgrades at catcher (Victor Martinez over Jason Varitek) and shortstop (Scutaro over last year's platoon of Lugo, Lowrie and Nick Green). And the 2010 David Ortiz, if he can put together a more consistent season, may be a noticeable upgrade over the '09 Ortiz, who slumped until June.
3. But, really, these guys play good defense.
Rays manager Joe Maddon, who has a mighty fine defensive third baseman of his own in Evan Longoria, still says Beltre is the best in the game. He even has a fancy term for it not found in any sabermetric handbook: "stupid good." Anecdotally, manager Terry Francona says Beltre "takes more groundballs than anybody I've ever seen." Statistically, Beltre has saved 104 runs with his third-base defense in the past eight seasons, according to Ultimate Zone Rating. His UZR/150 -- rated for 150 games of play -- was first in the majors in 2009 and second in '08. Cameron, 37, who barely finished behind Jacoby Ellsbury in all of the Sox's agility and speed drills on the first day of spring training, has led National League center fielders in UZR each of the past two seasons. His playing center moves Ellsbury to left field, where he'll still cover a lot of ground but not be exposed for his weak throwing arm.
Not done yet
On June 5 of last season, Ortiz, the venerable designated hitter for the Red Sox, had just one home run and a .188 batting average. He had been dropped from third to sixth in the lineup two weeks earlier. From that point forward Big Papi smacked 27 homers, the most in the AL, and batted .266 -- still below his standards, but far more respectable than to that point. Ortiz arrived in camp this spring looking more fit, perhaps motivated by the $12.5 million 2011 club option that's at stake. So far this spring Ortiz has only one hit in 11 at bats, not counting his homer against the college kids. That's a troubling lack of results, but the encouraging sign was that the one hit was an opposite-field single. Ortiz didn't go the other way much last year, so that could be a sign that he's more comfortable at the plate.
While it's hard to consider an All-Star closer a sleeper, Papelbon's save and ERA stats (38, 1.85) masked some troubling trends. In 2009 he walked a career high (24, three times as many as in '08) and posted his highest WHIP since his rookie season (1.15). His season ended by blowing a save in ALDS Game 3 against the Angels, allowing his first postseason runs after throwing 26 scoreless innings to start his playoff career. A key reason for those declines was his reluctance to throw anything but his high-90s fastball. But this spring Papelbon has announced a renewed commitment to his splitter, a pitch whose use has steadily declined in the last four years from one in five pitches to one in 10. If he can harness the splitter this season, Papelbon will be as good as his numbers again.
Prospect creating a buzz
The first decision made by Kelly, 20, a first-round pick in 2008, was whether he was going to play football or baseball; in July of that year he signed with the Red Sox rather than accepting a scholarship to play quarterback at Tennessee. His next decision, made a year later, was about a position. He was such a talented pitcher and shortstop that the Sox allowed him to play both in his first year of pro ball, but in December he decided to focus on pitching. He has only thrown three innings this spring (and one of them was against Northeastern University), but he's allowed only one baserunner and made quite an impression in his last outing. "Even the umpire, between innings, was like, 'How old is that kid?'" relayed Francona. "He's very mature. He stays in his delivery, uses all his pitches and he stays down. It's a good combination." Kelly is expected to start the season in Double-A.
Reliever Daniel Bard says the bullpen band fizzled at the end of last year, after key contributors Justin Masterson got traded and Javy Lopez got demoted. "Manny shut it down," Bard says of Manny Delcarmen, but adds that there's hope of a revival tour this season. ... Asked about the adjustment of moving to left field, Ellsbury couldn't really comment for his first two games there, as no flyballs were hit to him. "The scenery has been excellent, though," he said. ... Nomar Garciaparra, who on Wednesday signed a one-day contract to retire as a Red Sox, threw out the ceremonial first pitch in Fort Myers, a perfect strike to old Boston and Georgia Tech teammate Varitek. Upon being announced as "the shortstop, number five, Nomar Garciaparra," he received a standing ovation.
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