Monday, April 04, 2005

The Sky Isn't Falling

The 2005 Boston Red Sox marathon has begun, with the Sox stumbling across the starting line. Randy Johnson outclassed David Wells in a battle of forty-one year-old starting pitchers. This probably shocked most Sox diehards, who naturally presumed that the acquisition of Wells would guarantee the continuation of the Sox critical four game win streak over the Bombers. The good news was that Wells didn't waste (waist?) a quality, but non-winning start.

As I've written on www.uwritesports.com , one of my favorite aspects of baseball is the near certainty that each game you will encounter something that you rarely see. Sadly, the battle of the Ancient Mariner and yet another Yankee Double Agent fulfilled that criterion. Watching Jason Giambi floundering around first base like a walrus also reminded me of how grateful we are to have such a slick-fielding first baseman (that was a joke).

The Yankees' lineup looked generally pretty good, particularly with Jeter setting the table. Sheffield, one of the Yanks' 'juice brothers' just scares me. Posada's on my fantasy team, so what can I say? Matsui's robbery of Millar almost duplicated Manny Ramirez' theft of Miguel Cairo's shot last year. The Yankee Faithful certainly came well oiled for the opener.

It's far too early to make any generalizations about the 2005 Sox. From an objective standpoint, offensive players who likely exceeded their 'mean' performance last season were Damon and Mirabelli. Those whom we might expect to produce similar numbers include Ramirez, Ortiz, Bellhorn (fewer Ks would be nice), and Millar. Opportunities for improvement come from Nixon, Mueller, and Varitek. Speculating about Renteria's adjustment to the American League is just that.

Concerning the pitching, Schilling can't be expected to win twenty coming off surgery, but Arroyo, with any luck, could win 12-15 games. If Clement, Wells, Wade Miller, and Wakefield can win 40-45 games, then another playoff appearance is likely. The better they pitch, the less likely that we have to worry about Theo dangling uber-prospect Hanley Ramirez for pitching.

Strengths:
Productivity up and down the lineup. The 'pitch count' strategy makes a tremendous difference over a long season, as patient hitters force starting pitchers to work harder, allowing access to most teams' cookie jars, middle relief. If most of these middle relievers were that great, they wouldn't be middle relievers.

Bullpen depth at the back end. If Matt Mantei has regained his health, the Sox have a power setup guy and backup closer to complement Foulke.

Terry Francona deserves credit for managing a bunch of 'idiots'. Really.

Weaknesses:
Defense is mediocre at best, with limited range for both Nixon and Ramirez, and a weak throwing arm in center. Renteria is the best infield glove, with below average defense at first. Mueller and Bellhorn are competent. Varitek and Mirabelli have suffered from pitchers' inability to hold runners.

I'm not entirely sold on the middle relief. Halama didn't become dominant because of laundry, Timlin and Embree are aging, and Blaine Neal is an unknown. I'm not going to try to judge his command based on one appearance during an ice storm.

Question marks:
It always boils down to pitching. Schilling, Wells, and Wakefield are greybeards. Miller and Mantei have health histories. Baseball always involves more than a little bit of luck (formerly always bad), and the difference between the playoffs and golf season usually ends up with the 'little things' that translate into winning close games. Although the Sox were only 16-18 in one-run games last year, that was still a big improvement from the abomination of bullpen by committee.

Predictions (AL):
Most of the mainstream press have the 'chalk' with the Yankees, Twins, and Angels to win the divisions and the Sox to capture the Wild Card. Both the Sox and the Yankees have questions, with the Bombers also with pitching that could be stronger on paper than on the mound. What the Sox and the Yankees have that allows them to compete annually is payroll 'flexibility'. They can buy what they need, when they need it. I can't disagree.

Best race: AL West with the rebuilt Angels, the 'Moneyball' A's, and Texas to inflict suffering on any pitching staff.

Surprise team: Baltimore. The Orioles' young pitching staff complements a surprisingly stout offense (sixth in AL in 2004 in runs - 23 behind number three Chicago and seventh in OPS of .776) that adds Sammy Sosa. Ray Miller ("throw strikes, work fast, and change speeds") adds unseen value. I think that Miller outweighs the Cleveland hitting in giving the Orioles a chance to compete for the Wild Card.

Cy Young: Johan Santana

MVP: Alex Rodriguez (adjustment completed to the Big Apple)

AL Pennant Winner: Minnesota

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