Monday, October 20, 2008

Red Sox Postmortem

Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be. John Wooden

Is the glass half empty or half full? The Red Sox went deep into the postseason, but lacked the consistency or the staying power to get to the World Series for the third time in five years. The Tampa Bay Death Rays beat them at what had been their game, pitching and power, blending youth and enthusiasm to outlast the Sox.

What went right? What went wrong? What's next?

The positives. The Red Sox played superior defense throughout the post-season. Even without Gold Glover Mike Lowell at third and the move of Gold Glover Kevin Youkilis from first, the Sox showed why defense matters. Excepting Dustin Pedroia's relay throw up the line last night, for the most part the overall defensive execution excelled.

Much of the bullpen overachieved. Jonathan Papelbon showed why he is among the top postseason pitchers in history, remaining unscored upon. Hideki Okajima came up big repeatedly. Young Justin Masterson raised the stakes as to whether he is the next setup man, or whether his power sinker belongs in the rotation (I favor the latter).

The hitters showed flashes but overall underachieved. Youkilis, Jason Bay, and Pedroia did most of the damage, aside from the key Jason Varitek homerun.

The negatives. At times the Sox seemed overmatched by the hard-throwing youth of the Rays' pitching staff. Yes, Jason Varitek had a game winning homer, but it was one hit in the series, and he left an astonishing number of men on base. Varitek's bat speed seemed to slow down progressively over the season, and he is striking out at an astonishing rate. After striking out 122 times in 423 at bats during the season, he fanned at a forty percent clip against Tampa, and had only 4 hits in 34 at bats against LAA and the Rays. Varitek has an incredible amount of mileag on his tires. Short of a chemical rejuvenation not available to MLB players, he has to be viewed as a high-priced suspect. The Sox will have to ask whether his game management skills compensate for declining production. Do the Sox have a metric for a regular catcher with zero Win Shares offensively?

The Sox got inconsistent pitching from their normally reliable starters during the ALCS. Daisuke Matsuzaka had 1 of 2 quality starts, Jon Lester 1 of 2, and Josh Beckett (injured) and Tim Wakefield none. Quality starts result in wins about two-thirds of the time, and they represent a highly underrated stat. We have to presume that a healthy Beckett, Lester, and Matsuzaka remain a formidable trio. Can the Sox expect 'Meatloaf' (Two out of three ain't bad) from Masterson, Michael 'devoted to greatness' Bowden, and Clay Buchholz? If Buchholz can get the determination that Lester and Bowden have for greatness, then maybe he can be The Man. The benefits from growing your own are multifaceted but the economics are undeniable. One of them will likely have to go for catching help.

Jacoby Ellsbury gets an incomplete, as his ineffectiveness against the Angels got Coco Crisp another life. It might also get Crisp another team, as his value rose with his postseason. Ellsbury will work on keeping the ball down as he became just another popup during the ALDS. Jed Lowrie earned a shot at the starting shortstop job. What a full season of offense from him would be is unknown (.270/.330/.390/.720?).

What's next?

The Sox have to decide how to rebuild the bullpen, particularly if Masterson (whatever did become of Bull from Night Court?) is destined for the starting rotation. Papelbon shouldn't be going anywhere and should get a big raise, Okajima found himself, Delcarmen is still on the uptrend, and after that, who knows. Daniel Bard is a comer and will presumably get a look in the spring. There's always room for an effective LOOGY (situational lefty) and Javier Lopez had his moments.

The Sox owe debts of thanks to aging warriors, Mike Timlin, Paul Byrd, Sean Casey, Mark Kotsay, and maybe Alex Cora and Tim Wakefield. All of the latter will find jobs if they want them, but the Sox need more youth and athleticism.

Who haven't I mentioned? That's a pretty obvious omission....David Ortiz. Will the real David Ortiz stand up? I have to believe Ortiz is hurt. I don't want to believe that he lacked something extra. If he needs surgery, then he should get it sooner rather than later.

Mike Lowell. While Bo Jackson hit thirteen homers one season with an artificial hip, Lowell doesnt' need a prosthesis, but he's not Bo either.

The Sox have hard-charging Lars Anderson coming through the system, but we can't expect him to be ready for next season.

The challenge for management is to rebuild from within, to avoid public relations pitfalls, and put a lineup with more oomph on the field next season.

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