Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 16, 2001
BASEBALL: 2001 Red Sox Preview Part I
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
Pitchers and catchers ... pitchers and catchers ... pitchers and catchers ...
It’s time to start preparing for 2001. I’ll start by looking ahead to the 101st edition of the Boston Red Sox, the 90th season at Fenway Park, and the Sox’ 83rd season in pursuit of their sixth ... well, you know.
Introductory note: For each player with significant major league exposure in the past three seasons, I will run an “established performance level.” EPL is a very simple way of combining the past three seasons into a weighted average that gives the past season greatest weight. For example, Manny Ramirez smacked 45, 44 and 38 homers the last 3 years, so his EPL is ((38 x 3) + (44 x 2) + (45))/6 = 41 (rounded off). In other words, Manny enters this season as an established 41-homer guy. Pretty simple.
I prefer to look at EPL rather than the “projected stats” from outfits like STATS Inc. or the Baseball Prospectus, since an EPL is a historical fact while projections sometimes fool you into thinking that they are scientific. The events most likely to occur in the future can be predicted, after all; the actual future is always unknown. Also, the BP projections in particular tend to assume that young players won’t have an adjustment period entering the majors, and I was stupid enough to rely on those projections in drafting Eric Chavez for my rotisserie team in 1999 and Matt LeCroy in 2000. Keep tinkering, guys.
For Part One of this preview -- the offense -- I’ll run age, batting/slugging/on base percentage for each hitter, plus whatever else fits the particular player. (I’m only running totals for a few players because for some of these guys this includes seasons, like Varitek’s 1998, when they didn’t play regularly. In those cases the low G/AB totals should indicate that the player’s experience is limited).
If Boston's goal was to maximize the number of veterans in their prime – guys between 27 and 31 – this roster certainly gets them there. Of the 15 major everyday and bench players, none are younger than 27, one (Offerman) is 32, and three of the four guys over 32 are likely to ride a lot of pine. Of the 13 pitchers with significant big league experience, only one (Okha) is younger than 28 while three (Wakefield, Cone and Saberhagen) admit to being over 32.
In other words, this is a team designed to be ready to contend now but have just a 2-3 year window to win before everyone is on the wrong side of 30.
Varitek’s second-half flameout was one of the single largest reasons why the 2000 Sox missed the playoffs. As you see from the numbers above, his 3-year picture shows someone who's a decent enough hitter for a catcher... but not among the league’s elite like Jorge Posada and Darrin Fletcher (Pudge is on another level). Varitek’s defenders point to injuries as the reason, but catching injuries tend to recur; the pounding behind the plate doesn’t let up. Varitek might still have a .280-20 HR season in him if he stay healthy, but it seems like his role is to hit at the bottom of the order and prevent a hole from opening at catcher – still a valuable role, but not a starring one.
It makes sense to work Hatteberg into the lineup more often, since Hatteberg is basically a known quantity at this point (and a slightly better hitter than Varitek). The knock on Hatteberg has always been his throwing, but Varitek was a disaster on that front as well; only the Mets were robbed blind by base thieves worse than the Sox last season. The pitching staff didn’t help that; Hideo Nomo's arrival will only make the problem worse.
Varitek was one part of the failure of guys who the Sox counted on; Offerman was the other. At 32, Offerman basically lost it as a base thief and he’s no longer an elite leadoff hitter. But he IS the Red Sox’ leadoff man -- they need at least a .375 OBP and a full season of at bats from Offerman. I suspect he has one more solid year left.
Offerman’s defense has never been as bad as it looks. With Mike Lansing in the latter stages of rigor mortis, the Sox don’t really have another option here, anyway.
Baseball’s second-best shortstop must be thinking about the $19 million a year salary for baseball’s third-best . . . I may get to the raging debate on the Three Shortstops soon, but SG more than covered it for this week.
The consensus – supported by his defensive stats – was that Nomar had slipped a bit in the field last season. He’s still a good shortstop, and sometimes guys suffer an off year in the field just like at the bat. Declining home run power is another issue, but Nomar’s 51 doubles last year suggest bad luck more than anything else; he certainly hit the ball well enough.
Nomar led the AL in intentional walks last season; if he bats ahead of Manny -- which he should -- that's extremely unlikely to happen again. One of the funniest lines of the offseason had to be when Jimy Williams said that he hadn’t decided where Everett, Garciaparra and Ramirez would bat, but once he made up his mind, he felt it was very important that they get used to batting in the same place every night.
Yup, that’s Jimy Williams, a man who hates to mess with the lineup card . . .
--John Valentin (34) - .252/.406/.323
I'm assuming that Stynes probably has the everyday third base job, with Valentin coming off the bench as the utility infielder (now that Manny "the Body" Alexander has been given his walking papers). Stynes hit .348, .254, .239, and .334 the last four years; while it's impressive to hit over .330 twice in any context, he is obviously neither a .330 hitter nor a .250 hitter. The EPL above is probably a fair estimate of what he can do in 400 at bats, and another way of saying the same thing is that he hit .288 in 545 at bats in 1997-98 and .312 in 493 at bats in 1999-2000. Playing everyday may wear him down further - Stynes is a hustling, aggressive player, the type that sometimes burns out over a full season. And he can actually do a little of everything else besides hit for average - he runs well, will hit a ton of doubles in Fenway, and draws the occasional walk. As long as they keep his legs fresh, Stynes should give them what Bill Mueller gave the Giants last year - no star power, but a guy who fills a key gap. And a vast improvement over Wilton Veras.
Valentin? I'm not so optimistic about him -- he was on his way down even before the injury. But he remains popular and can at least nominally fill in at several positions. Even playing a declining Valentin everyday would be an improvement over last season.
The best hitter in baseball, period. I’m assuming Ramirez plays right, although since 1) he’s a constant adventure in the field (his defensive stats were atrocious last year, although he was playing on a bad leg) and 2) he's going to be around until he’s old and slow, it would probably make sense to wean him on left field from Day One. If I were an optimist, I’d say he will outlast the Green Monster... but don’t bet on it.
By the way, am I the only one who noticed this? Compare Manny’s 2000 to “Player X”:
Player X is Babe Ruth, 1922... the following season, Ruth batted .393, drove in 131 runs, scored 151 and set the walk record. The year after that, he won the batting title and smacked 46 home runs. What’s funny in this comparison is that Ruth didn’t draw a single MVP vote even though his team won the pennant, while Ramirez drew significant support (granted they had some odd rules then; Ruth may have been ineligible or the voters were upset at his early-season suspension for barnstorming).
Anyway, Manny Ramirez isn’t Babe Ruth, but anyone who can play hurt and post numbers that stack up to a a healthy Ruth in his prime... well, that’s a hitter. And it wasn’t even Ramirez’ best year.
Range factors aren't always as reliable a defensive measure for outfielders as infielders -- because of the as-yet-undetermined extent of park effects -- but a guy who finishes at the bottom of the league just isn’t making many plays. Carl Everett was dead last among major league centerfielders in making plays last season; in 1999 (playing in the Astrodome in front of a totally different pitching staff), he finished ahead of only ESPN analyst Brian McRae. Everett runs well, but he’s a powerfully built guy who’s likely to slow down in his thirties; if the Sox had another option he’d be better suited for right. An outfield with Ramirez in right and Everett in center is going to give up a lot of singles and doubles.
If you are looking for the Achilles heel of the 2001 Sox offense, look at the EPL in Games for Offerman (missing 28 games), Garciaparra (missing 23 games), Ramirez (missing 29 games) and Everett (missing 30 games). This offense looks wonderful on paper, but so did the Sox in the 70s who never seemed to keep Lynn, Fisk, Evans and Hobson healthy at once. It’s also why they need a deep bench, which they only sort of have (and the bench will suffer even more if one of the outfielders gets dealt).
Sometimes you get the breaks; Bernie Williams suddenly got healthy in 1999 after years of nagging injuries. But the Sox need to have their four best hitters change their injury-riddled (and Jimy-benched) ways all at once. And they need it with the luck of the Red Sox, not of the Yankees. That’s a tough act.
LEFT FIELD/ FIRST BASE/ DESIGNATED HITTER
--Troy O’Leary (31) - .269/.454/.327
--Dante Bichette (37) - .302/.507/.352
--Morgan Burkhart (29): .261/502/.401 last year between Pawtucket and Boston (including 16 HBP)
--Izzy Alcantara (28) – .300/.658/.365 in 380 AB's at Pawtucket in the last two years.
Here’s where things get sticky. Daubach and O'Leary represent the best side of Dan Duquette - a GM who liberates veteran minor league hitters and uses them as low-cost alternatives to proven mediocrities. Alcantara and Burkhart are these kinds of players too, although Burkhart's minor league track record is hard to figure.
The problem is this: good hitters who are stuck in the minors are often there for a reason, and if you load up your roster with guys who can't hit lefthanders, can't run, can't field, have no common sense, and/or have attitude problems, pretty soon you have a chronic problem on your hands. Also, if (as with O'Leary) you keep these guys around too long, they wind up turning into the same expensive mediocrities they were hired to replace.
In my opinion, both Daubach and O'Leary should be platooned at this point in their careers. Both have established beyond any doubt that they can't hit lefthanders. Last season, both were ineffective overall, but Daubach's averages were .257/.468/.326 against righthanded pitching (closer to being useful, and his 1999 was great), and even O'Leary's were .265/.429/.331. (Unfortunately we have Duquette telling the media that O’Leary has “proven” his ability to play everyday and Nixon hasn’t).
There has been a curious hesitancy in recent years to rely on platoons, particularly with these types of players. Fifteen years ago platoon arrangements were all the rage, with Bobby Cox, Sparky Anderson and Davey Johnson platooning at multiple positions (remember Mulliniks/Iorg and Backman/Teufel?) Today Cox and Johnson hardly platoon at all. I haven't studied the issue but it seems that very few teams anymore use fixed righty/lefty platoons at any position. When they do, it's often to platoon younger lefthanded hitters, like Trot Nixon, Corey Koskie, and Brian Giles (in Cleveland). This may be a decent strategy for rookies, but young, developing players, particularly those with star-quality hitting talent, need and can benefit from the chance to be everyday players. We've seen many examples of guys like Giles, Paul O'Neill and Lenny Dykstra who became stars when they were traded to teams that played them every day.
It's hard to explain why this has happened, particularly at a time when most managers are obsessed with left/right matchups in the way they use relief pitchers and pinch hitters. Perhaps the very fact that everyone has effective counter-measures available has frightened managers into thinking they could be the next Cox after the Blue Jays' platoons were decimated by Dick Howser's right-left-right switches in the 1985 ALCS. Perhaps, with more teams carrying 12 pitchers, managers are more determined than ever to divide their teams into everyday players and flexible bench players, rather
My preference would be to see Daubach and a righthander platoon at first, and Nixon play every day in whichever outfield corner Manny Ramirez doesn't occupy. An O'Leary/Bichette platoon at DH would probably be a good baseball decision, but it would seem that the Sox have fallen into the trap of thinking that Bichette is actually a good everyday player (he's really quite similar to O'Leary as a hitter at sea level) and in any event his ego has had too many 130-RBI seasons to accept being the righthanded half of a platoon.
The other problem is, who platoons with Daubach? From what I understand, Burkhart is a better hitter lefthanded than righthanded, and the only other alternative is to play either Bichette or Izzy at first base. (In theory you could do a 2-position platoon with Lansing playing second against lefties and Offerman at first, but Casey Stengel's success with the 50s Yankees notwithstanding, you need a really clear benefit to the offense to make a 2-position platoon worth the cost in defensive instability, and Lansing looks like he's just plain finished.)
Given the need for a righthanded bat to match up with the lefthanders (including Nixon - there's always the possibility that you reach August and he's hitting .150 against lefthanders, in which case his future development has to take a back seat to the pennant race), it seems like a great idea to bring back Alcantara for another spin - IF AND ONLY IF Jimy Williams has agreed to it. Izzy's minor league stats are pretty convincing – in addition to his AAA stats, Alcantara has hit well at every stop since 1996, and if you can slug .658 at Pawtucket (never a hitter's haven) you can hit major league pitching.
The problem, of course, is that Dizzy Izzy doesn't hustle, can't play the outfield and is a hazard on the basepaths; Jimy's refusal to play him last season almost led to his resignation while Alcantara's presence on the roster badly undermined Jimy's authority. This can still be a positive situation if Jimy agreed to it, because Izzy will be coming into spring training knowing he has to prove himself to a skeptical manager to win a roster spot. And he should obviously be kept out of the outfield at all costs.
The best way to break the logjam and fill the gaps is probably to trade Bichette for a righthanded first baseman so that O'Leary and Izzy can platoon at DH. This won't happen, since nobody wants Bichette's contract, so the Sox instead are actively shopping O'Leary (reportedly the Mets, who have about 12 relief pitchers and two outfielders, have been in talks about O'Leary). That probably spells doom for Alcantara and everyday jobs for Bichette and either Daubach or Burkhart.
Burkhart, I'd love to see get a shot - he's patient, has power, and gets hit by lots of pitches. He MIGHT be better than any of the others except Nixon. But it's hard to say if he's going to pan out as a major league regular... and the Sox aren't really in a position to be patient.
I didn’t mention him above, but Lewis hit lefties well last season and can still cover some ground, albeit not the way he used to. But giving him 300 at bats is lunacy, and at 33 he’s on the way down.
If the Duke wants to send the players a message that he’s serious about winning, he should cut Lansing and admit that the team was willing to eat his salary to help the rotation all along. Whoever bats behind him will lead off a lot of innings.
And there are a handful of health questions; there isn’t one guy here I could be sure will play 150 games, with the exception of Bichette. The Sox will score at least 100-200 more runs than last year’s 12th place finish; they should outscore the Yankees as long as the big guns stay reasonably healthy. But that defense looks scary. And I’m not sure the offense can carry all the holes in the pitching staff.
But that's another story for another time. Until next week...
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK'S TRIVIA QUESTION