Written by Robert Democh
Published: 24 March 2009
Boston nearly returned to the World Series for the third time in five seasons last year before an unfortunate encounter with the improbable destiny machine from Tampa Bay. Injuries and the unexpected departure of Manny Ramirez altered team chemistry dramatically (many would argue for the better). Boasting an impressive starting rotation, the finest closer in the known universe and some stalwart position players, Boston will again be a formidable contender for the division title. The Sox will soon learn, however, that losing a bat like Manny’s is a condition not easily remedied. Top Tier:
Dustin Pedroia (2B):
Dustin Pedroia was an unlikely MVP last season.
The 2007 AL ROY amped up his game to unprecedented levels in 2008. Playing with a verve and vigor few knew he possessed, he stiff armed the opposition en route to a unanimous selection as AL MVP. Pedroia saw significant growth in nearly every offensive category. He smoked 17 homers, led the league with 54 two baggers and 118 runs and tied for the league lead with 213 hits. How magical was his season? How about a .952 stolen base percentage (20 of 21). There is room for improvement, as he could coax more walks. Pedroia earned just 50 free passes in 653 at bats last season, a testament to his free swinging ways. He was sidelined this spring with a strained abdominal muscle but is already back in action. Pedroia is a premier athlete manning a position with few of them. Act quickly, as he is unlikely to last past the second round in most mixed league drafts.
Kevin Youkilis (1B/3B):
Much to Boston’s delight, Youk unleashed an unexpected power assault last year. After hinting his upper limit was the 15-18 homer range, he clobbered 29 last year while driving in 115, both far exceeding his career bests. He also quieted critics who complained he was annually MIA during the second half, demonstrating reasonable consistency all season long. Youkilis is particularly valuable in fantasy leagues conferring dual position eligibility (1B/3B) on him. Last season may have been an outlier in terms of power, but his range over the next couple of seasons should be between 20-25 taters with 100 RBI and a .300 average. Given an expected regression in his power, he will likely be overvalued in many drafts. If he beckons to you in the fourth round, welcome Youkilis aboard.
Jason Bay (OF):
Bay must have pinched himself repeatedly after being plucked by Boston from habitual bottom feeders Pittsburgh and thrust into a pennant chase for the first time in his career. Bay acquitted himself admirably in a Red Sox uniform, going 9/37/.293 in 49 games. It represented an impressive turnabout from his injury-riddled 2007 season. Bay finished with a combined 31 homers and 101 RBI. In Boston, he figures to benefit from a superior lineup and should experience a pleasing bump in his RBI total given Boston’s status as reigning AL OBP leader. Bay will start in left and likely bat fifth. He is entering the final year of his existing contract and the Red Sox have already made overtures about retaining him long-term, which should minimize on-field distractions. Bay won’t dial up the raw power quotient of a Manny, but he’ll come reasonably close and do so without any attendant drama.
Jonathon Papelbon (RP):
The standard by which all other closers are measured, Papelbon continued polishing his sterling credentials in 2008. He converted 41 saves while laboring a career-high 69.1 innings, showing no residual effects of the shoulder difficulties occurring in 2006. The man with the golden arm will always be slightly over protected in terms of how often and how much he is permitted to throw but seems accepting of it. Papelbon should nail down an additional 40 saves this year with his usual impeccable peripherals. David Ortiz (DH):
Big Papi was a changed man after Manny Ramirez departed, and not for the better. His batting average and power stats descended to levels not seen since 2003. In fairness, a major contributor was a May wrist injury. Although he returned to action following the All-Star Break, Ortiz continued favoring the wrist to the detriment of his hitting. He turned in a mixed September, cranking six homers but hitting a meager .244. Boston’s inability to land Mark Teixeira probably impacts Ortiz the most, as he enters 2009 again facing the prospect of limited lineup protection. He should be better this year with a return to health, although expecting a return to the 40 homer plateau just isn’t palatable. Papi turns 33 this season and the increasing toll of injuries to his large frame (shoulder, knee and wrist the past two seasons) can no longer be ignored.
Second Tier:Jacoby Ellsbury (OF):
Ellsbury hit the wall mid-season last year while coping with minor wrist and back ailments and was eventually dropped in the batting order. The shake-up proved therapeutic, as he rebounded nicely in September. His superior speed and quality defense never wavered, but Ellsbury grew less patient as a hitter, drawing fewer walks. There will be added pressure without having Coco Crisp around as a security blanket. Ellsbury will bat leadoff and contribute a .295 average and 50 steals this season. Josh Beckett (SP):
Following his 20-win 2007 season in which virtually everything clicked, Beckett reverted to injury-prone Josh in 2008. Both his wins (12) and innings pitched totals declined sharply. He stayed healthy until August, then injured his right arm and was never right thereafter. As of March 23, he had tossed 18 spring training innings without discomfort, indicating he’s ready to go. He is the probable opening day starter for the Sox and if he can keep the arm serviceable, Beckett is 16 wins and 175 whiffs waiting to happen. Daisuke Matsuzaka (SP):
Dice-K inadvertently made 2008 the year of living dangerously due to an elevated walk rate. He developed a knack for accumulating base runners (a league high 94 walks) before snuffing out potential rallies aided by an AL low .211 BAA. It’s doubtful he can continue playing with matches without getting burned. Expect a larger percentage of base runners to score this season, meaning he’ll win 15 games but see a rise in ERA and WHIP. Jon Lester (SP):
Lester was an unlikely candidate for staff ace last spring. Yet as the season progressed, it was Lester who emerged as the club’s most reliable starter. A big enhancement to his game was vastly improved control, as he threw more strikes and his walks diminished. Although Lester’s stamina never deserted him, the 210 innings he tossed eclipsed his previous high (81) by a sizeable margin. He enters 2009 as a popular second tier fantasy option, often chosen in the 10th round of mixed league for the potential 15 wins he’ll deliver. Third Tier:J. D. Drew (OF):
Drew’s introduction has become an all too familiar one. He again showed flashes of greatness but injury again led to a disappointing season. Drew burned white hot during June, launching 12 homers and accumulating 27 ribbies. Any hope of building upon that brief flourish were dashed by an August back injury that effectively stifled his offensive contributions. Tossing out his explosive June, Drew‘s yield was a less than robust seven homers and 37 RBI. Because the Sox inked him to a long-term deal, he‘ll again cover right field until overcome by injury. He’s simply too inconsistent to warrant a spot on draft day. Grab him off the wire, exploit his hot streak, then unload him on another unsuspecting owner. Question Mark:Brad Penny (SP):
After serving as a quality second starter with the Dodgers (16 wins in both 2006 and 2007), this Penny lost its shine last year. Limited to just 95 innings due to shoulder problems, he won a mere six games with a mind-numbing 6.27 ERA. The Red Sox signed him in the off-season and are projecting him as their fifth starter. Will it happen? Penny turns 31 in May and with last year’s shoulder discomfort lingering, his Grapefruit League debut was pushed back to March 23. When sound, Penny is an accomplished hurler who hangs around long enough to garner wins but seldom dominates. He has surpassed 200 innings just twice in his career and is unlikely to make it three times in 2009.
Great Debate: Jed Lowrie (SS):
Lowrie proved to be a defensive stopper last year when stepping in to replace the injured Julio Lugo. He shone brightest in August, driving in a team high 24 runs. Then September arrived and Lowrie began storing his bats in the freezer, batting an anemic .195 over his final 37 games. He’ll never erase memories of Nomar Garciaparra but is an efficient hitter and provides added value by qualifying at multiple positions. Lugo is again injured this spring and unavailable until the opening week of the season. Lowrie has made clear his intention to permanently replace him, leading the Grapefruit League with a .462 BA and a soaring .872 slugging percentage through March 20. He represents a sleeper end of draft selection at middle infielder with some upside. Prospect Watch:
Lars Anderson (1B):
After a slow start at Single A, Anderson started heating up last May, eventually earning a promotion to Double-A in July. Just 20, Anderson raised the hopes of the Boston brass with his 18 round trippers and 80 RBI in 439 at-bats last season. Scampering up the depth chart, he’s become Boston’s top hitting prospect. Anderson is a hacker and his continued upward mobility is contingent upon improved plate discipline. He hit .182 this spring before the Red Sox optioned him back to Triple-A. Realistically, his ML ETA is 2011 but if he continues to shine down on the farm, he could earn a place next year.