2011 Record: 90-72, 3rd AL East
2011 Prediction: 98-64, 1st AL East
Impact Player: 2B Dustin Pedroia
Impact Pitcher: LHP Jon Lester
Best Reliever: RHP Mark Melancon
Top Prospect: SS/3B Xander Bogaerts
The Boston Red Sox were by far the best team in baseball for four months of the year in 2011. Between April 16th, when they entered their game against the Blue Jays with a 2-10 record, and September 1st, Boston went 81-42 for an astounding .659 winning percentage; the best in baseball during that span. Enter chicken-gate. The Red Sox crashed down the stretch with a 7-20 record in September, allowing the Rays to sneak into the playoffs as the AL Wildcard. The collapse was historic; as were the events that culminated it on the last day of the regular season. The fallout was even more surprising.
The media, looking for answers, blamed the entire thing on some of the starting pitchers eating fried chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse on off days. Then they smeared manager Terry Francona by calling out his apparent personal troubles and addiction to painkillers. Francona, the most decorated manager in franchise history, stepped down. Days later, the architect of two World Series titles, GM Theo Epstein left for his new job as President of Baseball Operations with the Cubs. Assistant GM Ben Cherington was promoted as Epstein’s replacement, while the infamous Bobby Valentine took over as bench-boss.
There is a problem with all of this: The Red Sox collapse had nothing to do with fried chicken or painkillers. Injuries hit many key players and Boston did not have the depth to compensate for it. If those injuries don’t happen, we aren’t talking about the biggest collapse in Major League history, we’re talking about another successful playoff season for one of baseball’s best franchises.
When Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett and John Lackey all succumbed to injury last September, the Red Sox were woefully short on suitable replacements. Kyle Weiland, now fighting for a spot in the Houston Astros’ AAA rotation made several key starts for the team while ace Jon Lester struggled down the stretch. Although they haven’t made any headlines with key rotation acquisitions this offseason, they have improved their depth greatly.
Lester, Beckett and Buchholz will head up the rotation with Lackey recovering from Tommy John surgery after a terrible 2011 and Daisuke Matsuzaka battling his own injury problems. Beckett bounced back from a sub-par 2010 to post numbers more in line with his career marks and is still just 32, while Lester is a legitimate ace. His September swoon cost him better numbers in 2011, but he was seventh among all starters in fWAR between 2008 and 2010.
Relief ace Daniel Bard will get a shot at the rotation after another terrific season setting up now-departed closer Jonathan Papelbon. The last time Bard started a game was at High-A in 2007 when he had a walk-rate of 14.58 BB/9. Switching him to the bullpen in 2008 saved his career so the Red Sox need to be careful here.
Boston made a concerted effort to improve upon their back-end rotation depth by signing a number of experienced pitchers to minor-league deals. Swing-man extraordinaire Alfredo Aceves should get a shot at a rotation spot, but there is also Vicente Padilla, Carlos Silva, Andrew Miller, Clay Mortensen, Ross Ohlendorf, Aaron Cook, and Will Inman; all of whom will provide much-needed depth.
The Red Sox seemed to show no interest in re-signing Papelbon, who by a lot of measures was the best reliever in baseball in 2011. Considering he ended up signing perhaps the worst deal in baseball this offseason in Philadelphia, that move will probably turn out well for Boston. Instead of overpaying on the market, the BoSox traded for two pitchers who were closers last season on their respective teams. First, they dealt infielder Jed Lowrie and the aforementioned Weiland to Houston for Mark Melancon, then two weeks later traded outfielder Josh Reddick and some prospects to the A’s for Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney. If Bard falters as a starter, he, Bailey and Melancon form a potentially frightening back-end along with a hopefully healthy Bobby Jenks (who could miss the first half recovering from back surgeries) and other intriguing pieces such as Michael Bowden and lefty Franklin Morales.
The Red Sox were not a great pitching team last season, allowing the sixth-most runs in the AL, but their offense was easily the best in the game. Boston led the AL in runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging, while finishing third in home runs. Centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury led the AL in fWAR at a rather ridiculous 9.4 while second baseman Dustin Pedroia continues to annoyingly be one of the very best players in baseball, recording a .377 wOBA and continuing his trend of elite defending.
First baseman Adrian Gonzalez enjoyed a terrific, albeit perplexing first season in Boston. His walk-rate dropped, as did his home run production, but his batting average (fuelled by a .380 BABIP) skyrocketed. Still, his 6.6 fWAR was the best mark of his career and he ranks behind only Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera among first basemen over the last three years in that category. David Ortiz is back as the DH and continues to be very productive well into his 30s, while Kevin Youkilis is back at third. He is still a very productive hitter when healthy, compiling a .366 wOBA last season, but health is an issue. He has played only 222 games over the last two years and questions remain about his ability to play third base over a full season.
Carl Crawford can’t be as bad as he was last season when he posted a disdainful 83 wRC+ and stole just 18 bases. He may not reach the value he produced in Tampa, but he should be an above-average leftfielder. He could, however, start the year on the DL with wrist problems. In the other corner, the underrated J.D. Drew will be replaced by a combination of Sweeney and Cody Ross. Sweeney posted a 108 wRC+ against righties and is only two years removed from a 4.2 fWAR season; if he can figure out how to improve against southpaws, he’ll be a passable everyday player.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a pleasant surprise for Boston in 2011, producing league-average offense while greatly improving his ability behind the plate. If for some reason he falls off a cliff like he did while he was in Texas, the Red Sox have veteran Kelly Shoppach to step in.
Finally, the curious salary-dump-trade of Marco Scutaro to Colorado leaves a potential platoon of Nick Punto and Mike Aviles at shortstop. Aviles is a decent hitter who had a .317/.340/.436 slash line after being acquired by Boston last season, while Punto is a very good defender who surprisingly posted a .350 wOBA last year with St. Louis. Cuban prospect Jose Iglesias is bananas on defense, but he has yet to figure out how to hit a lick at the upper levels; if he does start to hit, he could end up supplanting the platoon.
The bench will consist of Shoppach, the off-day shortstop and the off-day rightfielder, while the 25th spot could go to any number of infielders such as Pedro Ciriaco, Brad Emaus and Nate Spears.
It’s important not to get too drawn in by small sample sizes. The Red Sox 2-10 start and 7-20 finish were horribly-timed blips on an otherwise brilliant season. Lackey and Daisuke missing time due to injury may actually make them better than they were last season and the offense is still extremely impressive. I trust that the team with the .659 winning percentage for four months of the year is closer to the real Red Sox than the apparently fried chicken-infused one down the stretch.
2012 Prediction: 94-68, 1st AL East