"There's only one mission harder than having a dream season like '07: to do it again."
The Red Sox build from a baseball blueprint that they believe lends itself to sustained excellence, rather than the typical boom-and-bust cycles common to most teams. Despite playing in a hitter-friendly ballpark, they've resisted the temptation to emphasize power beyond the molten core of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. They rely on winning the small battles of individual at bats -- see as many pitches as necessary to get on base -- and even more on run prevention than on run production. Coupled with the team's resources, it's a plan Boston believes lends itself to perennial contention in the AL East, which means winning 90 or more games annually.
If, to that foundation, you add a third baseman who had a career year at age 33 (Mike Lowell), and good fortune (the top five starters missed only 22 starts last year, and in one of those rookie Clay Buchholz stepped in and pitched a no-hitter), you get the best-case scenario: a second world championship in four seasons.
There is only one mission more difficult than having a dream season like that: to do it again. Four of the past six defending world champs didn't even make the playoffs, and the other two went three games and out. To reverse that trend Boston will roll out virtually the same roster, the major exceptions being Jacoby Ellsbury taking centerfield from Coco Crisp and Buchholz replacing the injured Curt Schilling in the rotation.
By playing the same hand, the risks for the Red Sox are injury and age, especially with more than half its lineup 32 and older. That group includes Lowell, 34, who fits the Boston paradigm (excellent glove, superlative situational hitter) so well that the club ignored its old bias toward dumping veterans too early rather than too late (see Martinez, Pedro; Damon, Johnny). After Lowell hit 44 points better than his lifetime .280 average, the Red Sox re-signed him to a three-year, $37.5 million contract.
Boston's own number crunchers don't expect Lowell to duplicate his career year, but they still believe the Red Sox will match or slightly improve their run production. Why? Ellsbury should create more runs than Crisp, and J.D. Drew, who salvaged a miserable year by hitting .342 after August, can't be much worse.
It's instructive that Boston has hit fewer home runs in four consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history, yet has won two championships during that span. The Red Sox' .362 OBP last year was the team's best in more than half a century. "They never swung at a ball, no matter how close it was [to the strike zone]," says Rockies righthander Ubaldo Jimenez, referring to Boston's World Series sweep of Colorado. "Amazing."
The Red Sox' attention to pitching and defense has been even more critical. Last year Boston allowed 168 fewer runs than it did in 2006, but the front office believes there is still room for improvement, starting with Daisuke Matsuzaka, who contributed more than 200 innings with a better-than-average ERA in his first big league season but wore down in the second half. "We'd like to see more in terms of attacking hitters," pitching coach John Farrell says, "especially the use of his pitches in to righthanders."
Farrell has tweaked Matsuzaka's changeup, a pitch the Red Sox thought would be his best weapon because of its drastic movement. Matsuzaka, however, threw the change with such a pronounced wrist turn that "hitters saw it early and they took it," Farrell says. So he toned down the wrist pronation, sacrificing movement for deception.
If Matsuzaka improves and Buchholz, who will be limited to about 180 innings, emerges as the No. 2 starter behind ace Josh Beckett, Boston is a lock to again lead the league in run prevention. The offense, while it might not outscore the Yankees or the Tigers, is relentlessly good. The question isn't so much whether the Red Sox are as good as they were last year (they are), it's whether they are as healthy. -- Tom Verducci
Issue date: March 31, 2008