Saturday, February 28, 2009

Asked and answered: Junichi Tazawa, Red Sox reliever

Junichi Tazawa is almost certainly bound for the minor leagues at the end of spring training. Red Sox manager Terry Francona said as much between games on Saturday: "He's going to go through our system and learn to pitch and play the game the way we feel."

But he's certainly opened looked sharp enough to open some eyes at the big-league level. He tossed a shutout inning last Wednesday against Boston College and looked even sharper on Saturday. He struck out four and walked one -- Nashua's James Donaldson -- in two innings of work. The next question, naturally: Can he do it against major leaguers?

(Angel Chavez is another player who'll be sorry to see college teams disappear off the schedule. the non-roster invitee, who played last season at Triple-A Las Vegas, doubled and homered twice, including a grand slam Saturday, against Boston College and Northeastern.)

Here's a sampling of Tazawa's Q&A with reporters -- through a translator -- after Saturday's 14-0 win over Northeastern:

What has been your impression, after two outings, of what camp has been like?
"When it comes to the hitters, I've only faced college players so far, so it's tough to say. But right now, I'm just trying to figure out which type of batters swing and hit which type of pitches. I've had some early success so far, but there's still a lot of learning left in terms of what types of batters I'm going to face. As for the team and the camp overall, everything is new to me, but I've had lots of support from the Japanese staff here, and I think that overall things are going well."

Are you eager to test yourself against major league hitters?
"Yeah, I certainly want to see how I stack up against major league hitters. But at the same time, I'm a little bit nervous to face them."

What has surprised you the most about spring training?
"I don't know if there's any one thing in particular, but I was surprised by the number of fans that always come out for our games, even during the week. That's been impressive."

People have talked about how comfortable you look. Do you feel as comfortable as you look, and what's making you that comfortable?
"When it comes to the workouts, there's a lot of people that I can talk to, so I feel a little bit relaxed. But when it comes to facing live hitters, whether that's during BP or in the games, I certainly feel pretty nervous out there."

Have you done anything different this spring from what you did in Japan?
"One difference is that, previously, where I would pitch side sessions of 100 to 200 pitches to get ready for the season, now those side sessions are much shorter. For example, they're timed sessions of, say, 12 minutes. So that's one adjustment I've had to make."

Does that feel different so far?
"In Japan, I would often throw 100 pitches every day, day after day, without any rest. But right now, for example, after an outing, I'll get two days off of pitching from a mound. But right now I don't feel I need to pitch more. I feel good where I am, so I think things are going well."

Has it been beneficial to have Takashi Saito and Hideki Okajima around?
"Everything is so new to me that having the chance to speak to them, to both Okajima-san and Saito-san, and to hear their stories has been a big source of confidence for me."

Saito said that because you are so young coming over here, you could be a trailblazer for other, younger Japanese players to come to the United States and assimilating quickly. Can you envision yourself in that role?
"I don't think as myself as a pioneer. I just wanted to play baseball in the U.S., and that's why I'm here. If I can perform well, that might give other Japanese players the opportunity to play over here. In that regard, I would like to play well."

Anderson already one of the guys

Highlight from the morning workouts: Top prospect Lars Anderson, alternating ground balls with Kevin Youkilis at first base, made a nice scoop on a sharp ground ball to his left and threw to second base.

Even as shortstop Jed Lowrie was fielding the throw, though, he was yelling, "Get back, Lars!"

Anderson didn't quite get back, in part because Youkilis was standing on first base. But Lowrie's throw sailed past both and bounced up against the netting in front of the first-base dugout.

"Give him a good throw!" Youkilis yelled out.

"I did give him a good throw!" Lowrie yelled back. "It almost hit him in the face!"

Anderson, who's scheduled to be the designated hitter in this afternoon's game against Northeastern, went through fielding drills with Lowrie, Youkilis and Pedroia -- the three players with whom, it appears, he makes up the future of the Red Sox infield.

And he's taking full advantage of every chance he gets to spend time with those who have been there before.

"Youkilis has been really great," Anderson said. "We were talking today while we were doing our defensive work about hitting, situational hitting, what we're trying to do. He's been great. He's been really helpful. All the guys have been cool."

When it came time for batting practice, though, he hit with fellow minor leaguers Josh Reddick and Zach Daeges.

"Those are the guys you talk to the most because that's where your comfort level is," said Anderson, unaware that Reddick was making faces behind his back.

His batting-practice session itself was fascinating to watch. He started with a couple of slow ground balls to second base with a half-speed swing, and he gradually built up his bat speed and power until his line drives were almost drilling the Northeastern players stretching down the right-field line. And after every set of swings, he had a conversation with hitting coach Dave Magadan.

It's all part of helping him make the adjustment from top prospect to major-league-ready.

"We told him to get as much out of this camp as he can, and I think he's trying to do that," manager Terry Francona said.

Papelbon: "Going year-to-year is no big deal"

Jonathan Papelbon didn't back down when a reporter asked this morning, tongue firmly in cheek, if he was letting down his country by declining to pitch in the World Baseball Classic -- and if he was a Communist.

"I'm kind of like a Marxist," Papelbon said with a smirk.

Political leanings aside, Papelbon did have good reason to turn down the World Baseball Classic. To pitch for the U.S. team, Papelbon would have had to shorten his offseason program and get himself into regular-season shape a month earlier than he normally would. With the workload he assumed last season and the birth of his daughter last winter, he said he didn't feel like he had that chance.

He said he, like all other players, received a questionnaire about his interest in the World Baseball Classic -- and when he said he didn't want to participate, that was that.

"It was hard for me to prepare this offseason, with the baby and everything," he said. "I'm not going to jeopardize anything for my ballclub or myself."

The other factor was his contract situation with the Red Sox, and Papelbon didn't appear to be speaking tongue-in-cheek about that.

"I don't think, with me not necessarily locked in with a long-term deal, I'm going to jeopardize my career to go play in a three-week tournament, or however long it is," he said.

(Papelbon paused noticeably in the middle of the sentence, leaving one to wonder if he pondered an adjective like "meaningless" before opting for the neutral "three-week.")

When pressed about his contract situation, Papelbon reiterated what he'd been saying throughout the winter: He's perfectly happy to go year-to-year if that's what it takes for him to earn what he thinks he's worth.

"I love going year-to-year," he said. "I'm saying this, and I'm being totally, 110 percent honest: For me, I'm a person who is not going to settle for anything less than what I feel like I'm worth, and I'm definitely not going to settle for security when I feel like I'm worth more than what I'm getting.

"For me, going year-to-year is no big deal whatsoever. Let me repeat that. For me, going year-to-year is no big deal whatsoever."

Papelbon made a career-high 67 appearances in the regular season and seven more in the postseason, said he's taking full advantage of this year's stretched-out spring training. He hasn't yet thrown an inning in a game; he'll do so on Sunday.

Had he chosen to participate in the World Baseball Classic, he'd be on the hook to pitch meaningful innings as early as next Saturday.

"My first three years of spring training here have been full throttle ahead, and it's not like that this year one bit," he said. "I'm definitely taking it easy, especially with the workload I had last year and especially the workload I had toward the end of the season. ... If I can get to full-throttle, pedal-to-the-metal by the last two weeks, I'm happy. Right now, it's not even necessary."

Said Francona, "We're going to pains to ramp him up, and that would be a guy that would make you nervous, for sure. ... You want to build guys up, keep them strong and then keep them productive. Health and production go hand-in-hand, and we believe in that a lot. If you do it right, if you're able to do it right, if you stay the course, towards the end of the year, there should a lot left you can go to if need be."

Friday, February 27, 2009

Vrabel trade increases need at linebacker

The Patriots, as reported today by and The Boston Globe, have traded linebacker Mike Vrabel to Scott Pioli and the Kansas City Chiefs. There's no word yet on what the Patriots will receive for Vrabel, but given the way Bill Belichick values his veteran defensive players, you'd have to guess there's at least a third-round draft pick involved. Mike Reiss of the Globe already has speculated that the deal might -- might -- be part of a larger deal involving Matt Cassel.

Then again, after the signings of running back Fred Taylor and tight end Sam Baker, the Patriots might just have needed to clear salary-cap space.

What this means: The Patriots already had a definite need at linebacker. Jerod Mayo found spectacular success in his rookie season, but the late-season signings of Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin demonstrated how thin the Patriots' corps of linebackers had become.

Don Banks of already had the Patriots taking Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis with the No. 23 pick, but the deal for Vrabel might indicate that the Patriots are leaning toward taking more of a pass-rush specialist like USC's Clay Matthews, who generated quite a bit of momentum for himself at the recent combine. The Patriots already needed a pass-rusher to play opposite Adalius Thomas and provide insurance for Vrabel. Now, though, they'll need someone who can make a Mayo-type impact right away.

See you in Fort Myers

I'm about to hop a plane to Fort Myers to do some on-the-scene reporting from Red Sox camp -- for the first time in a couple of months, I'll get to feel like a reporter and not just a guy who holds down couch springs.

Check back every day next week for news, anecdotes and Q&A sessions from City of Palms Park. Should be fun.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wakefield not as "rusty" as he looked

The Boston Herald claimed Tim Wakefield "labors in 1st spring start" and quoted the veteran knuckleballer as saying he "felt a little rusty" when pitching out of the stretch. The evidence: Wakefield allowed three runs (two earned) on five hits and issued two walks in his two innings of work against the Twins on Wednesday night.

Wakefield's start, though, is a good example of why you can't put too much emphasis on statistics -- particularly in a small sample size. Let's look more in-depth at Wakefield's outing:
(^ denotes pitching out of the stretch)

First inning
* Wakefield induces a lazy ground ball to shortstop on an 0-1 pitch to Alexi Casilla.
* Wakefield gets Nick Punto to pop the ball into the middle of the infield on another 0-1 pitch.
* He hangs a knuckleball on a 1-1 pitch to Justin Morneau; the power-hitting first baseman drills it up the left-center-field gap for a double.
*^ He walks Michael Cuddyer on a knuckleball inside.
*^ Jason Kubel pops to third to retire the side.

Second inning
* Wakefield sees Delmon Young go up and get a knuckleball and hit a ground ball between third and short for a base hit -- the type of ground ball that would have been an out had it been hit four feet in either direction.
*^ Brian Buscher hits a hard line drive off the glove of Kevin Youkilis for yet another infield single. Young goes to third.
*^ Wakefield drops a knuckleball in on the hands of Mike Redmond only to see Redmond bloop it over Dustin Pedroia but in front of Brad Wilkerson for a single that scores Young.
*^ Jason Pridie goes after a first-pitch fastball and lofts a sacrifice fly to center field.
*^ Wakefield gets a break when Alexi Casilla chases a 3-0 knuckleball up and out of the strike zone, but Casilla then fists a knuckleball up and over Kevin Youkilis at first base, a bloop hit so awkward that Casilla hesitated a little on his way out of the batter's box.
*^ Casilla steals second.
*^ Punto flies lazily to left.
*^ Morneau walks on four pitches.
*^ Wakefield misses on back-to-back pitches to Cuddyer before the outfielder reaches for one on the outer half and dribbles it to second base to retire the side.

The end result?

Wakefield allowed two hard-hit balls in two innings -- the double to Morneau that didn't hurt him, and the line drive right at Youkilis that put runners on first and third with no outs. That's it. The leadoff single from Delmon Young is going to be an out 75 percent of the time; the RBI singles from Mike Redmond and Alexi Casilla are going to find gloves 90 percent of the time.

Now, Wakefield's inability to find the plate in key spots with two outs wasn't good; you don't want to put any extra runners on base in front of a slugger like Kubel. But that's the knuckleball -- and that's the sort of thing that's going to come along as the spring progresses.

To look at the box score and deduce that Wakefield had to labor through two innings because he was charged with three runs, though, is to miss the point.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The wild and wacky adventures of Josh Bard

It's baseball. It's a long spring and an even longer regular season. It's not fair to put too much stock into any one outing.

But in Josh Bard's second first opportunity to catch Tim Wakefield, things didn't go so well.

He caught his first two knuckleballs, thrown to Alexi Casilla and Nick Punto, but that's when things started to go downhill. Wakefield's first pitch to Justin Morneau was low and inside; it went off Bard's glove and to the backstop. The second pitch to Morneau was low and outside and likewise skipped off Bard's glove. On Wakefield's third pitch, he hung a knuckleball -- perhaps in an effort to keep the ball up and make it easier to catch -- and Morneau drilled it up the left-center-field gap.

Bard then dropped a strike thrown to Michael Cuddyer and a ball thrown to Jason Kubel.

All told, he dropped four of the 12 pitches that weren't hit -- and not all of those pitches were knuckleballs. When he had his first chance to field a throw home (from Brad Wilkerson), he failed to corral a shorthop and saw it bounce past him.

One bad outing isn't going to doom Bard. But he's only going to get so many chances this spring to show he can catch the knuckleball -- and Wednesday night wasn't a good start.

Let the games begin

The Red Sox open their spring schedule in just about 45 minutes with a split-squad game against Boston College; they'll pit the rest of the team against Minnesota at 7 p.m. in a game televised on NESN.

Josh Beckett will start the afternoon game against Boston College; he'll be followed by Clay Buchholz, Kris Johnson and Junichi Tazawa. A year ago, Beckett likewise got the start in the spring opener against the Eagles -- a game the Red Sox won by a 24-0 score.

Tim Wakefield will start the evening game against the Twins; he'll be followed by Justin Masterson, Manny Delcarmen and Javier Lopez. The Red Sox won the spring season series against the Twins a year ago, but the Twins have won the Mayor's Cup 10 times in the last 16 seasons.


Rosters for the World Baseball Classic were unveiled last night; here's a look at Red Sox roster players picked to play in the tournament, which begins Thursday:

Canada: Jason Bay
Dominican Republic: David Ortiz
Japan: Daisuke Matsuzaka
Puerto Rico: Javier Lopez
United States: Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis

Eight other players from the Red Sox organization will play in the tournament as well:

Australia: Mitch Dening
Chinese Taipei: Chih-Hsien Chiang, Che-Hsuan Lin
Netherlands: Dennis Neuman
Panama: Angel Chavez
Puerto Rico: Fernando Cabrera
South Africa: Justin Erasmus
Venezuela: Enrique Gonzalez

Meet the East: Toronto

2008 record: 86-76, 11 games back.
(That record would have won the National League West and kept the Jays in contention until the end in the American League Central and National League East.)

* Roy Halladay, still perhaps the most underappreciated great pitcher in baseball, went 20-11 with a 2.78 ERA (and a 154 ERA+, third in the American League).
* B.J. Ryan (2.95 ERA), Jesse Carlson (2.25 ERA), Scott Downs (1.78 ERA) and Brian Tallet (2.88 ERA) made up the best bullpen in baseball.
* Vernon Wells and Alex Rios each hit close to .300, OBP'ed close to .350 and slugged over .450.

* Dustin McGowan, who had a 2.95 ERA in his first seven starts, didn't throw a pitch after July 8 and isn't due back from shoulder surgery until May.
* No regulars other than Wells or Rios slugged over .450; no one at all hit more than 20 home runs or drove in more than 80 runs.

No team in baseball faces the type of dilemma the Blue Jays face right now: Keep plugging away, or blow it up and start over?

The Jays are a legitimately good team; not only did they win 86 games a season ago, but based on their run differential, they could have won 92 games with a little luck. (They were 24-32 in one-run games.) Halladay is one of the best pitchers in the game. Jesse Litsch threw a pair of complete-game shutouts. But A.J. Burnett (free-agent departure) and Shaun Marcum (Tommy John surgery) both are gone; neither will be part of this year's Jays' team.

Instead, youngsters David Purcey (5.54 ERA in 12 starts last season), Casey Janssen (who missed last season with a torn labrum) and Scott Richmond (whose up-and-down rookie season culminated in a complete-game shutout at Baltimore) are the top candidates to fill out the rotation behind Halladay and Litsch.

Is that enough to compete in the most loaded division in baseball? Probably not.

The Jays had a window; in three seasons with Halladay and Burnett at the top of the rotation, the team won 87 games, 83 games and 86 games. Only five other teams in baseball -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Phillies and Mets -- can say they've won at least 83 games in each of the last three seasons.

But all five of those teams made the playoffs at least once in that span. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, never finished within 10 games of a division title and never finished within eight games of earning a wild-card berth.

Now Burnett is gone, and Halladay is under contract only until 2010. (He'll make $14.25 million this season and $15.75 million next season.) The contracts of Scott Rolen and B.J. Ryan likewise expire after the 2010 season. Same with Lyle Overbay.

No one likes to blow it all up and start over, not with a team that can consistently finish over .500. But the Jays weren't all that close to competing with the division's elite a year ago, and it would be wildly optimistic to give them a chance of doing that this year. With so many contracts set to expire after 2010, the Jays have one last chance to contend this season. If they finish somewhere around .500 yet again, they'll have no choice but to start selling off parts.

The only untouchables -- or, you could say, untradeables -- appear to be Wells and Rios, both under contract for big money until 2014. Wells is owed $12.5 million in 2010 before the numbers skyrocket to over $20 million a year for each of the next four years. (The center fielder can opt out after the 2011 season.) Rios is owed $9.7 million in 2010, $12 million in 2011 and 2012 and $12.5 million in 2013 and 2014.

Unless the Yankees step forward with an irresistable trade offer to fill their void in center field, it's hard to see either Wells or Rios going anywhere. (Would either team do a swap of Ian Kennedy and Austin Jackson for Vernon Wells? Who would blink first?)

Overbay and Rolen aren't going to bring much in the way of top-tier prospects. Ryan might or might not. Halladay, though, is just the sort of trading chip that's could revitalize a franchise.

J.P. Ricciardi has said -- emphatically -- that he's not going to trade Halladay.

"What do you think we'd get for Roy Halladay?" he told's Jayson Stark. "What do you think we could get that could ever replace Roy Halladay? He's the best pitcher in baseball. Who's going to give you a combination of guys that could (replace him)? All these guys you could supposedly get -- they won't become Roy Halladay. So if we think we're going to be good, we're going to be better with him here."

That's certainly true. But the Blue Jays haven't ever been quite good enough even with Halladay -- and teams can get better after trading ace pitchers. Just ask the Mariners, who traded Randy Johnson in 1998 and won 116 games in 2001. Just ask the Indians, who traded Bartolo Colon in 2002 and went to the American League Championship Series in 2007. And just ask the Diamondbacks, who traded Curt Schilling in 2003 and won the National League West in 2007.

In some ways, the Blue Jays face the same dilemma as the Padres, who tried all winter to trade ace Jake Peavy and start over from scratch. But Peavy has more than $50 million left on an extension that takes him through 2012. Halladay, on the other hand, is owed $15.75 million next season but nothing beyond that. If a contending team -- say, the the New York Mets -- decides it needs an ace to get over the hump right now, Halladay might be its best option.

And the Blue Jays might be able to name their price.

On the horizon:
Watch for outfielder Travis Snider, the former first-round pick who hit .301 and slugged .466 in 73 at-bats last September. New Hampshire fans are well-acquainted with Snider; he hit 17 home runs and 21 doubles in 98 games with the Fisher Cats next season.

He'll have a chance to introduce himself to the rest of the baseball world as early as Opening Day.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Meet the East: Tampa Bay

2008 record: 97-65, division champions.

* Pretty much, you know, the entire season.
* Oh, you want specifics?
* James Shields, Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir all posted sub-4.00 ERAs; only four other teams had three starters with sub-4.00 ERAs last season. Of those other four teams, only two (the White Sox and Angels) bring back all three this season.
* Evan Longoria hit 27 home runs in just 122 games.
* Carlos Pena hit 31 home runs.
* B.J. Upton had a fairly disappointing regular season, hitting nine home runs and slugging just .401. but he hit seven home runs and slugged .652 in the postseason.

* Carl Crawford hit just .273 and OBP'ed .319, contributing to his career-low 25 stolen bases.
* Troy Percival didn't allow a run in his first 11 appearances but faded badly down the stretch, accumulating a 6.52 ERA in 23 appearances after June 29.
* Jason Bartlett, no matter what some would have you believe about his intangibles, turned out to be about as mediocre a player as he'd always been in Minnesota.

We heard the comparison all season long: The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays and the 1991 Atlanta Braves. Both teams came out of nowhere, going worst-to-first and landing in the World Series. Both did so on the strength of a talented young pitching staff.

The Braves went on to win 14 division titles in 15 seasons. No one in baseball is expecting the Rays to have that type of run. But could they?

In 2008, 24-year-old Matt Garza went 11-9 with a 3.79 ERA (and 120 ERA+, weighted for ballpark and league average).
In 1991, 24-year-old John Smoltz went 14-13 with a 3.80 ERA (and 103 ERA+, weighted for ballpark and league average).

In 2008, 26-year-old James Shields went 14-8 with a 3.56 ERA (and 125 ERA+).
In 1991, 21-year-old Steve Avery went 18-8 with a 3.38 ERA (and 116 ERA+).

In 2008, 24-year-old Scott Kazmir went 12-8 with a 3.49 ERA (and 127 ERA+).
In 1991, 25-year-old Tom Glavine went 20-11 with a 2.55 ERA (and 153 ERA+).

See the difference? Garza and Shields actually were better last season than Smoltz and Avery were in 1991. But there was a huge gulf between Glavine and Kazmir at the top of the two teams' respective rotations.

Top-end pitching -- meaning elite, Cy Young-caliber, makes-you-catch-your-breath pitching -- is hard to come by. But it's the difference between a contender and a dynasty, a league champion and a World Series champion. Glavine recorded an ERA+ of at least 133 eight times between 1991 and 2002. Once Greg Maddux arrived, he recorded an ERA+ of at least 160 in seven straight seasons, including his breathtaking 271 and 262 in 1994 and 1995.

Nine of the last 12 World Series winners have featured an ace with an ERA+ of at least 140 -- including seven of the last eight. (Josh Beckett had an ERA+ of 138 for the Florida Marlins in 2003.) Twelve out of 12 have featured an ace with an ERA+ of at least 130.

The Rays, meanwhile, had three pitchers -- Garza, Kazmir and Shields -- with an ERA+ of at least 120 last season. But the division in which they'll be playing is far more formidable than the National League East into which the Braves moved in 1994. There's an even smaller margin for error -- and there remains a huge difference between an ERA+ of 125 and an ERA+ of 150.

Then again, when Kazmir went 10-8 with a 3.24 ERA two seasons ago, his ERA+ was 142. He just turned 25 in January. Maybe he still can be that guy.

On the horizon:
Watch for a monster season from B.J. Upton. Check out his numbers from his first two full seasons in the major leagues:

2007: .300 batting. .386 on-base, .502 slugging
2008: .273 batting, .383 on-base, .401 slugging

That slugging number fell by more than 100 points because he hit just nine home runs in the regular season in 2008 as opposed to 24 in 2007. But based on the way he hit in last season's playoffs, expect a return his 2007 numbers -- or even better. Upton slugged .889 in four games against Chicago and .786 in seven games against Boston; he hit home runs in Games 2, 3, 5 and 6.

It's a small sample size, sure. But for a player who isn't even going to turn 25 until August, it's hard to believe it's not a sign of things to come.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Meet the East: New York

2008 record: 89-73, 8 games back.
(Would have won the American League Central, for what it's worth.)

* Mike Mussina won 20 games before he retired.
* Jason Giambi hit 32 home runs before he was replaced by Mark Teixeira.
* Alex Rodriguez hit 35 home runs and drove in 103 runs before, well, you know.
* Joba Chamberlain had a 2.31 ERA in 30 games as a reliever -- and then went 3-1 with a 2.76 ERA in 12 starts.

* Jorge Posada played in just 51 games, forcing Jose Molina (whose slugging percentage of .313 was lower than the batting average of Cristian Guzman) behind the plate full-time.
* Robinson Cano, who hit .342 two seasons ago, hit just .271 and OBP'ed .305, both his worst numbers as a big-leaguer.
* Phil Hughes (6.62 ERA in eight starts) and Ian Kennedy (8.35 ERA in nine starts) both were disasters.

The Yankees face the same question with Hughes and Kennedy that the Red Sox do with Clay Buchholz: How much of last season can be chalked up to not being ready, and how much can be chalked up to not being good enough?

The signings of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett do give the Yankees some breathing room. With Chien-Ming Wang primed for a bounche-back year and Chamberlain looking like the Lester to Hughes' Buchholz, there's no urgency for the Yankees to do any more with their youngsters than send them back to Scranton-Wilkes Barre ("the absolute worst place on Earth!") and give them another year to work out the kinks.

Yankee fans, though, still have to wonder the same thing about Hughes and Kennedy that many Red Sox fans wonder about Buchholz: Are they ever going to make it? Or does a disastrous debut mean they're never going to be the impact pitchers fans have envisioned them as being?

Some pitchers make a huge impact right off the bat. Arizona's Brandon Webb won 10 games with a 2.84 ERA in his first full season in 2003; Florida's Dontrelle Willis electrified the major leagues in his rookie season that same year. Houston's Roy Oswalt struck out 130 and walked just 17 as a 23-year-old in 2001. Curt Schilling, after two seasons pitching exclusively out of the bullpen, had a 2.35 ERA and struck out 147 in his first season as a full-time starter in 1992.

Others, though, don't start off so hot. Here's a sampling drawn from the ranks of Cy Young vote-getters over the past three seasons:

* Roy Halladay, 1999, age 22: 3.97 ERA in 18 starts
Halladay endured an even worse sophomore season in 2000, compiling an ERA of 10.64 and finding himself shipped back to Triple-A Syracuse first in May and again at the end of July. He didn't make it back for good until 2001 but went 19-7 with a 2.93 ERA in 2002. He won the Cy Young Award in 2003 and has finished in the top five of the voting three times since.

* Chris Carpenter, 1997, age 22: 5.02 ERA in 13 starts
Carpenter never really put it together in six seasons in Toronto, the team that drafted him No. 15 overall in the 1993 draft. His best season with the Blue Jays was probably 2001, when he was 26, when he went 11-11 and finished with a 4.09 ERA. But it wasn't until he missed a full season with a torn labrum and got a chance of scenery that he blossomed into one of the big leagues' best. He compiled a 21-5 record with a 2.83 ERA and a 213-51 strikeout-to-walk ratio en route to the Cy Young Award in 2005.

* Bartolo Colon, 1997, age 24: 5.76 ERA in 17 starts
Colon gave up six runs and didn't get out of the first inning in his second big-league start; he gave up at least four earned runs in more than half of his starts. By the end of the season, he'd been bumped to the bullpen -- and he was left off the postseason roster for an Indians team that came within two outs of winning the World Series. A year later, though, Colon cut his ERA to 3.71 and threw six complete games; he then threw a four-hitter he threw against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS.

The lesson here? You can't ever tell right away.

Some ripped the Yankees for abandoning their youth movement with the signings of Sabathia and Burnett this offseason. As is the case with Buchholz, there's almost no chance for Hughes or Kennedy to pitch their way into the starting rotation this spring. But the two remain highly touted prospects -- Kennedy just turned 24, and Hughes won't turn 23 until this summer. Both had a rough start, but both might prove to be late bloomers along the lines of Halladay, Carpenter and Colon. The chance to develop slowly might turn out to be the best thing for them.

On the horizon:
The Yankees will have to make a decision in the next year or so about what to do with Derek Jeter. The consummate Yankee -- and, like it or not, probably the best-known player in the major leagues -- is in the second-to-last season of a 10-year contract he signed in 2001. He'll make $20 million this season and $21 million next season. After that, though, he'll be 36 going on 37 and even farther along the downhill path he's been on for the last three seasons.

Some numbers for you:
2006, age 32: .343 batting, .417 on-base, .483 slugging
2007, age 33: .322 batting, .388 on-base, .452 slugging
2006, age 34: .300 batting, .363 on-base, .408 slugging

And that's not even addressing the issue of his defense, which ranks dead last among shortstops (according to the Fielding Bible's plus-minus stats) over the last three seasons.

The Yankees can't afford to let Jeter walk; Jeter, too, knows he'll never be worshipped elsewhere the way he is in New York. But he's just not an elite player anymore.

Even Jeter's pursuit of Pete Rose's all-time hits record seems overblown. He he finished last season with 2,535 career hits -- 1,721 shy of Rose's record. He'd need to average 215 hits a season over the next eight seasons or 191 hits a season over the next nine seasons; either way, he'd have to stay productive well past his 40th birthday. At the rate his numbers are declining -- he only had 179 hits last season -- it's barely worth discussing unless things start trending back the other way.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Only one real position battle in camp

Terry Francona hasn't put his left hand on the Bible. He's not in any sort of courtroom. He has no obligation to tell anyone the truth.

But that doesn't mean we can't call him on it.

So far this spring, Francona has used the phrase "wide open" when talking about the competition between Jed Lowrie and Julio Lugo to start at shortstop. Francona also has said, about young pitchers Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden, "I'm not saying they can't make the ballclub, but we don't have to rush them and can use them when they're ready to win."

And when reporters asked Francona about the three catchers competing to back up Jason Varitek behind the plate, he responded, "We definitely need to take the six, seven weeks that we have down here and try to get a better understanding of where we are with all three of those guys."

In only one of those cases, however, can we be expected to believe that Francona was telling the truth.

The shortstop job is not wide open.

Buchholz and Bowden, in fact, cannot make the ballclub.

Only at backup catcher -- where George Kottaras has turned down a chance to represent his country in the World Baseball Classic to improve his chances of impressing the coaching staff -- is there a true competition in which the best man will win.

Just look at the evidence.

Sean McAdam of the Boston Herald made the deduction earlier this week that Julio Lugo, barring injury, will open the season as the Red Sox's starting shortstop. His reasoning was fourfold:

1. Lugo isn't comfortable playing anywhere other than shortstop, meaning he can't settle into a role as a utility infielder the way Lowrie can. Francona has said he's going to play Lugo exclusively at shortstop this spring "in fairness to him and Jed," but he's going to give Lowrie some starts at third base when Mike Lowell needs a day off. Out of fairness. Right.
2. If he's healthy, Lugo has shown in the past he's a better player than he's been in his two season in Boston.
3. Lugo will make $9 million for each of the next two seasons, and even the Red Sox aren't going to want to shell out $9 million for 200 or 250 at-bats.
4. Even if the Red Sox wanted to trade Lugo, they have to play him to showcase him.

Lowrie might back the Red Sox into a corner with a sensational spring. But if the Red Sox don't want to turn Lugo into a utility infielder, they have two choices: Start him or cut him. The $18 million left on Lugo's contract makes that a no-brainer.

Here's the thing: In the same way Lowrie is out of luck no matter how he performs this spring, so too are top prospects Buchholz and Bowden. Both have big-league experience; both are at the stage in their development when they should get 20 or 25 starts in the big-league rotation.

And both, barring at least one disabled-list-caliber injury, are going to start the season at Triple-A Pawtucket.

The Red Sox have three Cy Young-caliber starting pitchers in Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Those three, in a to-be-determined order, will start the season-opening set against the Tampa Bay Rays.

After that comes Tim Wakefield, to whom the Red Sox have committed $4 million this season. And after that comes Brad Penny, to whom the Red Sox have committed $5 million as well as performance bonuses that could earn him another $3 million should he pitch 200 innings.

Neither Wakefield nor Penny is going to end up in Pawtucket. Neither Wakefield nor Penny is going to end up in the bullpen. The Red Sox have the same two choices with Wakefield and Penny -- and John Smoltz when he returns from his surgery -- that they do with Lugo: Start them or cut them. Wakefield is far from dominant, but his recurring $4 million option remains one of the best bargains in baseball so long as he can pitch 150 innings and deliver an ERA south of 4.75 or 5.00.

The Red Sox aren't averse to eating contracts; they did so when they released Julian Tavarez less than a year ago. But it doesn't make much sense to cut a player and still have to pay him unless the team know for a fact it's going to get more value from that player's replacement. Buchholz was a disaster last season; Bowden has all of five big-league innings under his belt. There's no way of knowing if either would outperform Wakefield.

Even Lowrie, for all of his successes last season, can't be considered a sure thing at shortstop until he proves he can hit better than .222 against lefties. The Red Sox would have to eat so much money if they released Lugo they have no choice but to play him,

Josh Bard, Dusty Brown and George Kottaras all have an equal chance to win a roster spot; Brown appears to be the underdog simply because he can be optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket without having to clear waivers. The other two, however, have to make the roster or be designated for assignment -- and that means the best man really will win the job.

Hey, look: An actual competition! What a concept!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Meet the East: Baltimore

A week from today, your trusted Union Leader reporter will be en route to Fort Myers to file on-the-scene reports from Red Sox training camp. In the meantime, though, here's a glance at what's been happening this offseason and this spring elsewhere around the American League East, suddenly the most formidable division in baseball.

First up: Baltimore.

2008 record:
68-93, 28 1/2 games back

* Nick Markakis hit .306 with 20 home runs and OBP'ed .406, continuing his development into one of the American League's top young players
* Luke Scott, acquired from Houston in the Miguel Tejada trade, hit 23 home runs.
* Jeremy Guthrie won 10 games to go along with a 3.63 ERA.
* Aubrey Huff inexplicably hit 32 home runs at the age of 31, doubling his previous year's total.

* Adam Jones scuffled in his first year as a full-time player, OBP'ing .311 and slugging .400. (For perspective on those numbers: Jason Varitek OBP'ed .313 last season.)
* George Sherrill, who went to the All-Star Game, had a 6.93 ERA after June 13.
* Non-Guthrie starting pitchers combined for an ERA of 6.03.
* That's worth saying again: Baltimore starting pitchers not named Jeremy Guthrie combined for an ERA of 6.03.

There's one easy place to start when examining the Orioles, and it's not at the plate. In terms of runs per game (4.86), they finished right in the middle of the pack -- right in between Tampa Bay (4.78) and New York (4.87).

Pitching, though, was a different story -- and that's what needed to be overhauled this winter. Perennial disappointment Daniel Cabrera turned in a 5.00-plus ERA for the second straight season and was nontendered. Youngsters Garrett Olson and Radhames Liz were disasters; Olson failed to get out of the third inning in three of his final eight starts, and Liz walked 51 batters in fewer than 100 innings.

Guthrie is back. He'll be the ace. He's not exactly Jon Lester at this point, but he's got an ERA of 3.66 in two full seasons as a starting pitcher and gives the Orioles at least some chance to win just about every time he pitches. Beyond Guthrie, though, it still looks like a mess. Japanese import Koji Uehara had a 3.01 ERA and a 6.7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 10 seasons in Japan, but there's no way of knowing what he'll do when the season begins until the season begins.

Free-agent signee Mark Hendrickson and trade acquisition Rich Hill figure to fill two of the other rotation spots. Hendrickson had a 5.45 ERA in 39 appearances (16 starts) with Florida last season; his ERA was significantly better (3.03) when he came out of the bullpen than when he started the game (6.24). Hill fell into Lou Pinella's doghouse in Chicago and was dealt for a player to be named. He issued 18 walks in 19 2/3 big-league innings last season, but if he can recapture the form that saw him win 11 games with a 3.92 ERA in 2007, the Orioles will take it.

And here's what's really telling about the Orioles' rotation: David Pauley, designated for assignment by the Red Sox this winter, has a pretty decent shot at winning a job as the fifth starter. All he has to do is beat out Brad Hennessey, who was let go by the Giants after a season in which he had a 7.81 ERA in the major leagues and a 4.83 ERA at Triple-A Fresno.

Uehara could be a huge addition if he can bring with him his ability to throw strikes. But that still leaves the Orioles with just two dependable starting pitchers -- and Chris Tillman, who was 11-4 with a 3.18 ERA in 28 starts at Double-A Bowie last season, is still probably a year away.

On the horizon:
Watch out for Matt Wieters, who Baseball America's Jim Callis said this week would be the best catcher in baseball by 2010. He could have the same type of rookie season as Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria a year ago.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Red Sox are good at defense

Tony Massarotti says defense is more important to the Red Sox than ever before. With so many question marks surrounding the team's bats -- David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Mike Lowell, J.D. Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury and whoever it is that ends up playing shortstop -- the Red Sox might have to win a few games on the strength of their defense.

Some snippets from Mazz:

* What we could see, from start to finish, is one of the best defensive Red Sox clubs of all-time. Last year, after Lowrie replaced Julio Lugo at shortstop, the improvement in the Red Sox' defense was considerable. Through July 11, when Lugo served as the starter, the Sox ranked ninth in the league in fielding percentage. From that point forward, after Lowrie took over, the Sox ranked first. After the trading deadline, when the Sox effectively swapped Ramirez for Jason Bay, the Red Sox had an average or above-average defender at every position on the diamond.

* "I think Ellsbury in center field grew last year into being a pretty good defender," manager Terry Francona said. "I think that'll only get better as he learns the league and gains confidence. It's something we talked about today. Go around the outfield, J.D. and Bay are both good. Rocco is very good. Youk and Pedey are Gold Glove-caliber. Lowell's Gold Glove-caliber. And we think our catcher's really good."

* The 2006 club that featured Alex Gonzalez at shortstop set club records for fewest errors (66), highest fielding percentage (.989) and most errorless games (106). The Sox now could be very much in the same class, though the club refrains from evaluating its capability in traditional ways.
Example: Let's say 10 balls each are hit to Lugo and Lowrie. The former gets to all 10 and makes one error, producing nine outs and a fielding percentage of .900. The latter gets to only nine and handles them all cleanly. Though Lowrie's fielding percentage would be 1.000, Epstein would view them as equals based on the fact that each produced nine outs in 10 chances.
"Basically, what we're trying to measure is how often fielders' chances turn into outs," Epstein said. "As a whole, our teams have been good about turning balls in play into outs and that's an important part of run prevention
, which makes it important in terms of winning."

Massarotti doesn't take a look, though, at those nontraditional stats -- meaning pretty much everything other than fielding percentage. Fielding percentage can be very deceiving; if a shortstop stands in place for 162 games and only goes after anything hit directly to him, he'd finish the season with a fielding percentage of 1.000.

Bill James and the Fielding Bible have come up with a system to measure overall defensive ability in a plus-minus format. It's still not totally scientific, but it's far better than the archaic system that still doesn't charge an outfielder with an error if he misses the ball entirely.

Here's the system: A player gets credit (a "plus" number) if he makes a play that at least one other player at his position missed during the season, and he loses credit (a "minus" number) if he misses a play that at least one player made. The size of the credit is directly related to how often players make the play. Each play is looked at individually, and a score is given for each play. Sum up all the plays for each player at his position and you get his total plus/minus for the season. A total plus/minus score near zero means the player is average.

This is the type of measurement Theo Epstein is talking about; Epstein and the Red Sox, after all, hired James as a special advisor in 2003.

And what that measurement shows is, if we look at defensive statistics from 2008 and apply them to projected lineups for 2009, the Red Sox do, in fact, have a pretty good defensive team -- but that not everyone is quite as good as Francona is making them out to be.

(Note: Catchers aren't measured on the plus-minus scale and thus are disregarded here.)

Red Sox
1B -- Kevin Youkilis, +6
2B -- Dustin Pedroia, +15
SS -- Jed Lowrie/Julio Lugo, +8/-2
3B -- Mike Lowell, +8
LF -- Jason Bay, -13
CF -- Jacoby Ellsbury, +6
RF -- J.D. Drew, -4
Total: With Lowrie, +26. With Lugo, +16.

* Bay, statistically the team's worst defender last season, turned a minus-19 in 2007 but a plus-12 in 2006. The downward trend isn't a good sign, but a full season with the Monster might help.
* Drew had a plus-12 with Los Angeles in 2006 and a plus-5 in his first season in the American League in 2007 before slipping last season.
* In case you're wondering how Ellsbury, based on his reputation, was only a plus-6: Those numbers only count his time in center field, where he split time with Coco Crisp. He was a plus-7 in left field and a plus-9 in right field, too.

Compare that to the:

2006 Red Sox
1B -- Kevin Youkilis, +9
2B -- Mark Loretta, -15
3B -- Mike Lowell, +6
SS -- Alex Gonzalez, +4
LF -- Manny Ramirez, -31
CF -- Coco Crisp, -7
RF -- Trot Nixon, +2
Total: -32.

* Surprised about Gonzalez's relatively average number? He earned a +12 when going to his left, according to the video scouts, but evened it out with a minus-11 when going to his right.
* Crisp turned in a plus-26, tops in baseball, in 2007.
* Look at the upgrade Pedroia has been over Loretta -- 30 points on the plus/minus scale between 2006 and 2008. No wonder Gonzalez had to spend so much time going to his left.

And, just for the fun of it, a look at the projected lineups for the Yankees and Rays, too:

1B -- Mark Teixeira, +24
2B -- Robinson Cano, -16
SS -- Derek Jeter, -12
3B -- Alex Rodriguez, +2
LF -- Johnny Damon, +7
CF -- Nick Swisher/Melky Cabrera, -9/+6
RF -- Xavier Nady, -4
Total: With Swisher, -8. With Cabera, +7.

* Cano's defensive stat line over the last three years looks like a yo-yo -- minus-4 in 2006, plus-17 in 2007 and minus-16 in 2008.
* Jeter, on the other hand, is no yo-yo -- he was minus-22 in 2006 and minus-34 in 2007.
* Damon has turned in a pretty consistent minus-2 or minus-3 in center field over the last three years, but left field seems to fit him better.
* Cabrera was a minus-21 in 2007 before bouncing back in 2008; odds are that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

1B -- Carlos Pena, +14
2B -- Akinori Iwamura, -3
SS -- Jason Bartlett, -1
3B -- Evan Longoria, +11
LF -- Carl Crawford, +23
CF -- B.J. Upton, -9
RF -- Matt Joyce, +3
Total: +38.

* Crawford, who has the speed to play center field but who apparently is more comfortable in left field, had an even zero in 2007 before making a gigantic leap forward last season.
* If Bartlett didn't merit even a plus-1 on the defensive scale, with his hitting stats, in what way was he the Rays' Most Valuable Player last season?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More fun with OPS+

Remember the Lions, Tigers and Bears game we played back in January to compare the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays?

We all knew there was a better way to compare lineups in the East Division than just by awarding arbitrary point values like that. And after playing around with OPS+ totals in the last post to figure out how much the Red Sox would miss J.D. Drew, it seems like we have it.

None of it is absolutely scientific, of course. For one thing, we're just using last year's OPS+ stats, and there's no way every player in the division is going to perform at the same level he did last season. For another, OPS doesn't tell you anything about situational hitting or stringing hits together or doing all the other things it takes to score runs.

But it's a fairly good indicator of a player's ability to get on base and hit for power, and thus it does tell you something about the general strength of a lineup if you add up the adjusted on-base percentage and slugging percentage numbers of an entire lineup. It also gives you a sense for how much one star player can make up for another weak player -- as well as how a handful of weak players can drag down one or two star players. One or two 150s are not going to compensate for a lineup full of 75s.

(At some point, I'll figure out how to do columns in this blog. Until then, though, you'll have to bear with me as we run these lineups one after another rather than next to each other.)

Red Sox
Pedroia, 2B -- 122 OPS+ last season
Drew, RF -- 137
Ortiz, DH -- 123
Bay, LF -- 134
Youkilis, 1B -- 143
Lowell, 3B -- 103
Lowrie, SS -- 90
Varitek, C -- 73
Ellsbury, CF -- 87
Total: 1,012
If Drew is replaced by Mark Kotsay (91), that number drops to 966.

Let's compare that with the projected lineups of the other four American League East teams:

Damon, LF -- 118
Jeter, SS -- 102
Teixeira, 1B -- 151
Rodriguez, 3B -- 150
Swisher, CF -- 92
Nady, RF -- 128
Posada, C -- 103
Matsui, DH -- 108
Cano, 2B -- 86
Total: 1,038

Iwamura, 2B -- 92
Upton, CF -- 107
Pena, 1B -- 127
Longoria, 3B -- 125
Crawford, LF -- 87
Burrell, DH -- 125
Navarro, C -- 98
Joyce, RF -- 116
Bartlett, SS -- 82
Total: 959

Blue Jays
Hill, 2B -- 83
Scutaro, SS -- 87
Wells, CF -- 121
Rios, RF -- 111
Rolen, 3B -- 107
Overbay, 1B -- 107
Lind, DH -- 99
Barajas, C -- 86
Snider, LF -- 112
Total: 913

Jones, CF -- 85
Roberts, 2B -- 117
Markakis, RF -- 134
Huff, 1B -- 135
Scott, DH -- 109
Mora, 3B -- 114
Pie, LF -- 64
Zaun, C -- 87
Izturis, SS -- 67
Total: 912

What this tells us is that the Red Sox are right there with the Yankees and well ahead of the Rays if they have their lineup intact -- Teixiera and Rodriguez are the two best hitters in the division, but there's nothing in their supporting cast that compares to Pedroia, Youkilis or a healthy J.D. Drew.

Should Drew need to spend significant time on the disabled list, though, the gap grows bigger -- and the Red Sox end up with a lineup-wide OPS+ closer to that of the Blue Jays and Orioles than that of the Yankees. Same goes for the health of Lowell and Ortiz or the career year of Youkilis. Should any of the three regress, the gap between the Red Sox and Yankees would grow bigger still. Jason Bay and Dustin Pedroia are about the only two 100-plus bats in that lineup who could be considered locks to replicate their numbers of a season ago.

There's a very fine line between championship contention and mediocrity. The Red Sox have the pieces to make a run to the World Series, but they're walking that fine line. It wouldn't take much for a lineup of six 100-plus bats to become a lineup of three or four 100-plus bats -- and that's not the type of lineup that's going to win the division.

What if Drew can't go?

One of the "Countdown to spring training" posts made a point about how elite of a hitter J.D. Drew is and how, given 150 or 160 games, he can put up OPS numbers that rival the best players in the American League.

That's the key, though: 150 or 160 games. Here's what happened at Red Sox training camp on Sunday when Drew was asked how his back felt:

"Not bad," he told reporters in Fort Myers. "It's still pretty stiff. I've fought it all offseason. It's been one of those injuries that's kind of lingered. I've been able to hit, run and do all kinds of stuff. Some days I wake up stiff. Some days it doesn't seem to be too bad, so I'm just in the maintenance stages. Talked with [strength and conditioning coach Dave Page] for a while during the offseason, worked on some stuff to continue to keep it strong. Everything is well enough to perform and play. ... Just trying to isolate it and keep it from flaring up too bad."

As many already have pointed out, he sounds like it's already mid-August. Players should be coming to camp -- as Julio Lugo and David Ortiz say they've come to camp -- in the best shape of the year, if not the oft-asserted "best shape of my life." But Drew is coming to camp feeling just as uncomfortable as he did at the end of last season.

What happens now?

If Drew can't play every day, Rocco Baldelli and (gulp) Brad Wilkerson are going to start the season getting significant playing time in right field. Mark Kotsay, once he returns from back surgery sometime around the end of April or early May, seems a prime candidate get the majority of the time Drew doesn't get.

But the Red Sox would lose quite a bit in that situation.

Drew finished last season with an OPS+ -- adjusted for park effect -- of 137. Because OPS+ involves adding on-base percentage and slugging percentage together, we can say that Drew roughly produced about 18 percent more offense than the average player. The right fielder's career OPS+ is 129; he twice has topped 140 since 2004.

(For the sake of establishing the scale: 100 is considered to be average, 125 is considered to be good, 150 is considered to be outstanding. Albert Pujols has a career OPS+ of 170. Barry Bonds retired with a career OPS+ of 182. Babe Ruth is the all-time leader with a career OPS+ of 207.)

Baldelli hasn't played in more than 100 games since 2004. But even in 2003 and 2004, he delivered OPS+'s of 99 and 100, respectively -- right at the league average. Wilkerson last season turned in an OPS+ of 70 -- an absolutely abysmal number. The year before that, it was 104 -- slightly above average. The year before that, it was 86 -- well below average.

Kotsay's OPS+ was 91 last season, 57 in an injury-plagued 2007 season, and 88 and 97 in the two seasons before that. Not since 2004, when he hit .314 with 15 home runs (and, strangely, garnered the same MVP consideration as Alex Rodriguez), has he turned in an OPS+ of better than 100.

The Red Sox have a handful of warm bodies ready to take Drew's place. But it becomes very obvious very quickly that none of them come even close to Drew. Should Drew not be able to play every day, the Red Sox lineup -- already with three lineup spots with the potential to make below-average contributions -- could get even thinner than it already is.

Consider this lineup:
Pedroia, 2B -- 122 OPS+ last season
Drew, RF -- 137
Ortiz, DH -- 123
Bay, LF -- 134
Youkilis, 1B -- 143
Lowell, 3B -- 103
Lowrie, SS -- 90
Varitek, C -- 73
Ellsbury, CF -- 87

And this one:
Ellsbury, CF -- 87
Pedroia, 2B -- 122
Ortiz, DH -- 123
Bay, LF -- 134
Youkilis, 1B -- 143
Lowell, 3B -- 103
Kotsay, RF -- 91
Lowrie, SS -- 90
Varitek, C -- 73

Yes, there's potential for fluctuation in most of those numbers. Ortiz could bounce back. Lowrie and Ellsbury could hit better. Youkilis could hit worse. Lowell could go in either direction. Varitek could go in either direction.

But look at the difference between those two lineups. The first one already has just six players who had an OPS+ better than the league average last season -- and that's including Mike Lowell, who's no guarantee to replicate even the 103 he turned in last season.

The second lineup, on the other hand, has pretty much four guys who could be considered locks to deliver an OPS+ better than the league average -- Pedroia, Ortiz, Bay and Youkilis. That's it.

And here's a look back at the Red Sox lineup in 2007, their last World Series winner:

Crisp, CF -- 83
Pedroia, 2B -- 112
Ortiz, DH -- 171
Ramirez, LF -- 126
Lowell, 3B -- 124
Youkilis, 1B -- 117
Drew, RF -- 105
Varitek, C -- 103
Lugo, SS -- 65

That's seven players with an above-average OPS+ -- and a lineup-wide total of 1,006.

A Red Sox lineup with Drew this season would combine for an OPS+ of 1,012. A Red Sox lineup without Drew, meanwhile, would have combined OPS+ of 966 -- which, while not so drastic that you start to worry about the team's ability to contend, is a significant drop-off.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Counting down to spring training: Designated hitter

David Ortiz (turned 33 in November)
2008: .264 batting/.369 on-base/.507 slugging
2007: .332 batting/.445 on-base/.621 slugging
2006: .287 batting/.413 on-base/.636 slugging

Roses are red,
Rubies are, too;
If Big Papi sees his power production keep dwindling as he gets older until he's suddenly no longer useful a big-league hitter because nagging injuries are robbing him of his power,
Sox fans will be blue.

Or something like that.

Some fans worry about Ortiz's wrist. Some worry about how he'll fare without the protection of Manny Ramirez for a full season. (Then again, Ortiz OBP'ed .360 and slugged .498 before Ramirez was traded on July 31; he OBP'ed .381 and slugged .519 after the trade. Take that for what it's worth.)

But many fans have to worry about something else: Mo Vaughn.

Vaughn, like Ortiz, was one of the American League's most ferocious power hitters for the better part of a decade. His numbers leading up to his 30th birthday look eerily similar to Ortiz's over the same time span:

Ortiz: .283/.374/.550, 231 home runs, 763 RBI, 622 runs scored
Vaughn: .304/.394/.542, 230 home runs, 752 RBI, 628 runs scored

Vaughn, at that point, cashed in on his third MVP-caliber season in four years and signed an $80 million contract with the then-Anaheim Angels. His ankle injury in his first game with the Angels has been well-chronicled, but he still hit 33 home runs and drove in 108 runs in 139 games that season. A year later, in 2001 at the age of 32, he played in all but one game and hit 36 home runs with 117 RBI.

He then missed the entire 2001 season with a ruptured tendon in his left arm and subsequently was traded to the New York Mets. He had to fight an assortment of nagging injuries -- the type of injuries 34- and 35-year-old players often have to fight -- and hit a combined 29 home runs in two seasons with the Mets before hanging it up for good.

Cecil Fielder, another player with a body type in the Ortiz mold, hit 39 home runs at the age of 32 -- his highest total in five years -- but saw things go rapidly downhill after that. His slugging percentage dropped from .484 in 1996 to .410 in 1997 and .401 in 1998, and he retired after the 1998 season. Fielder was a slightly different type of player -- he never hit for average like Ortiz and Vaughn -- but his career trajectory is another warning flag.

Ortiz has seen his slugging percentage dwindle in back-to-back seasons since turning 30. His wrist injury contributed significantly to that; all indications are that he's healthy and ready for a bounce-back season. But he'll be 33 this year, and 33-year-old power hitters often find themselves hampered by a new injury every time they recover from an old one.

Big Papi certainly could have a big season this season. Jason Giambi, after a rough year at the age of 33, hit 32 home runs at age 34 and 37 home runs at age 35. Carlos Delgado, who appeared to be finished as recently as last spring, finished last season with 38 home runs at the age of 36.

But once a power hitter gets to be 33 years old, history says he's living on borrowed time. The Red Sox certainly know that. Ortiz is under contract for this season and next season with a $12.5 million team option for 2011 -- an option that is unlikely to be picked up.

The Red Sox can't afford to be nostalgic with Ortiz, who almost singlehandedly turned around the fortunes of the franchise five years ago. Vaughn hit a grand total of 29 home runs after his 33rd birthday. Fielder hit a grand total of 31 after his. George Scott, the predecessor to both Vaughn and Ortiz, hit 33 home runs at the age of 33 but a total of just 18 after that.

Once it starts to go, it goes in a hurry -- and the Red Sox are going to have to be prepared when it does.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Counting down to spring training: Left field

Jason Bay (will turn 31 in September)
2008: .286 batting/.373 on-base/.522 slugging
2007: .247 batting/.327 on-base/.418 slugging
2006: .286 batting/.396 on-base/.532 slugging

First things first: Jason Bay is not Manny Ramirez. The two were involved in the same trade. One is playing the position the other played at Fenway Park for almost a decade. But Jason Bay is not Manny Ramirez.

Here's Ramirez in his eight seasons with the Red Sox:
Age 29: .405 on-base/.609 slugging
Age 30: .450 on-base/.647 slugging
Age 31: .427 on-base/.587 slugging
Age 32: .397 on-base/.613 slugging
Age 33: .388 on-base/.594 slugging
Age 34: .439 on-base/.619 slugging
Age 35: .388 on-base/.493 slugging
Age 36: .398 on-base/.529 slugging*
* until trade to Los Angeles in July

Here's Bay for his career:
Age 25: .358 on-base/.550 slugging
Age 26: .402 on-base/.559 slugging
Age 27: .396 on-base/.532 slugging
Age 28: .327 on-base/.418 slugging
Age 29: .373 on-base/.522 slugging

There's a huge gap there. It's unmistakable. Bay's most impressive season in the last five years still doesn't touch even the worst season Ramirez had between 2001-06.

The thing is, the Red Sox don't need Bay to be Ramirez. To do that, he'd have to turn himself into one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time. He isn't that, and he's never going to be that. But he can be an awfully good hitter, an anchor in the lineup, a guy who can hit fourth behind David Ortiz and make pitchers pay if they put the designated hitter on base.

And Bay looks quite a bit better if you compare him to a few other Red Sox outfielders not named Ramirez. (OPS represents on-base percentage plus slugging percentage; OPS+ is a way of measuring OPS against the league average for each season to account for things like park factor and the Steroid Era. The higher, the better.)

Ted Williams (through age 29): 1.128 OPS/196 OPS+
Manny Ramirez (through age 29): .900 OPS/153 OPS+
Carl Yastrzemski (through age 29): .869 OPS/138 OPS+
Fred Lynn (through age 29): .882 OPS/136 OPS+
Jim Rice (through age 29): .885 OPS/135 OPS+
Jason Bay (through age 29): .891 OPS/131 OPS+
Dwight Evans (through age 29): .808 OPS/119 OPS+

That list tells you two things:
1. If you thought it was fun to watch Ramirez rake over the last eight seasons, imagine what it would have been like to watch Williams in his prime. Wow.
2. Bay certainly holds his own with anyone on the bottom half of that list -- franchise cornerstones all.

If you're looking for Bay to be Manny Ramirez, you're going to be disappointed. But if you're willing to settle for Dwight Evans -- a .390 on-base percentage every year to go along with 30 doubles and 25 home runs -- you're going to have no problem with the Red Sox keeping him around for a while.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Countdown to spring training: Center field

Jacoby Ellsbury (will turn 26 in September)
2008: .280 batting/.336 on-base/.394 slugging
2007 (in majors): .353 batting/.394 on-base/.509 slugging
2007 (in minors): .323 batting/.387 on-base/.424 slugging

There's no longer any question about who's going to play center field on a regular basis for the Red Sox. Coco Crisp is gone, shipped to Kansas City in a deal for power arm Ramon Ramirez. There's no platoon anymore, no reason to wonder if Terry Francona is going to yank Ellsbury from the lineup to help him get over a 10-day slump. Rocco Baldelli and Mark Kotsay both will see occasional starts in center field, but Ellsbury is the guy.

Where, then, is he going to hit in the batting order?

Baseball Prospectus, in its Red Sox projections released this week, puts Ellsbury where everyone else puts him -- right at the top of the batting order. That seems to be the consensus. He's the fastest guy on the team, right? Stick him right up top and let him "wreak havoc," as we writer-types love to say, on the psyche of opposing pitchers. He'll single to center to open the game and immediately steal second base. The pitcher then will be so frazzled he'll walk Dustin Pedroia, and, in a panic, he'll throw a get-it-over-fastball to David Ortiz that ends up in the bullpen in right field.

There's no reason that can't happen on occasion, of course. A version of the above scenario -- Ellsbury steals a base and scores a run in the first inning -- happened eight times last season. Five other times, Ellsbury walked or singled to lead off the game and then stole a base but was stranded.

Ellsbury, however, had a .336 on-base percentage last season -- lower than that of any Red Sox regular except Jason Varitek. When he was the first batter of the game -- as he was 114 times last season -- he hit .284 with an on-base percentage of .316. When he was the first batter of an inning, he hit .279 with a .305 on-base percentage.

That means that, when Ellsbury led off an inning, the Red Sox started the inning with an out almost 70 percent of the time. Compare his on-base percentage when leading off to a few other players who might be candidates for his spot in the batting order:

(Numbers from the 2008 season)
* Kevin Youkilis: .283 (.390 overall)
* Jacoby Ellsbury: .305 (.336 overall)
* Dustin Pedroia: .372 (.376 overall)
* J.D. Drew: .394 (.408 overall)
* Red Sox team average: .321 (.358 overall)

To put it a different way, here's how it works out if each of the above players hit leadoff for 162 games:
* Youkilis would get on base to lead off the game 46 times
* Ellsbury, 49 times
* An average Red Sox player, 52 times
* Pedroia, 60 times
* Drew, 64 times

It becomes a philosophical question: Do you want a guy who gets on base less but can steal more bases when he does? Or do you just want your leadoff hitter to get on base as often as possible?

Should you prefer the latter, a pitch-grinder like Youkilis would seem like a natural fit based on his style. The more you can get a pitcher to throw seven or eight pitches to the first batter of the game, the better off you'll be. But based on his numbers and his personal comfort level, it doesn't seem to be an option.

“For me, I don’t care where I hit except for leadoff,” he told the Boston Herald on Tuesday.

So Youkilis is out. But look at those numbers for Pedroia and Drew. Those aren't necessarily uncharacteristic, either. Pedroia OBP'ed .350 when leading off an inning in his rookie season, and Drew's career OBP when leading off an inning is .388.

You give Ellsbury extra credit because he can steal 50 bases a season and get caught less than 20 percent of the time. But Pedroia stole 20 bases last season and got caught just once. (Drew stole four bases and got caught once; he's stolen more than 10 bases four times in his career, but just one time since 2002.)

Ellsbury is a phenomenal talent. But there are plenty of questions surrounding his ability to hit and get on base the way a World Series contender needs its team to hit and get on base. Once he can do that, his ability to steal bases and put pressure on pitchers will make him a big-time weapon at the top of the batting order. But until then, it might make some sense for the Red Sox batting order to look something like this:

Pedroia, 2B (.376 OBP last season)
Drew, RF (.408)
Ortiz, DH (.369)
Bay, LF (.370)
Youkilis, 1B (.390)
Lowell, 3B (.338)
Lugo/Lowrie, SS (.355/.338)
Varitek, C (.313)
Ellsbury, CF (.336)

You could hit Ellsbury seventh, based on the fact that he's a better hitter than Lugo, Lowrie and Varitek. But if he hits ninth, he'd still have a chance to be a catalyst in front of Pedroia, Drew and Ortiz in every at-bat except his first.

It's not the most conventional way of doing things. But the Red Sox aren't the most conventional team, either.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Countdown to spring training: Right field

J.D. Drew (turns 33 in November)
2008: .280 batting, .408 on-base, .519 slugging
2007: .270 batting, .373 on-base, .423 slugging
2006: .283 batting, .393 on-base, .498 slugging

Oh, J.D. Drew.

No one divides Red Sox fans quite like Drew. To many, he's a fragile, lazy, dispassionate outfielder who just happens to have Theo Epstein as the president of his fan club. To others, he's an on-base machine with an ability to hit for power, too, a perfect weapon in the middle of a lineup already including David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis.

Even his career comparisons on seem bipolar. His career comparisons include stars like Vernon Wells and Al Rosen as well as comparatively mediocre talents like Glenallen Hill and Aubrey Huff. Heck, even Trot Nixon is on that list.

So what is he, really?

Among American Leaguers with at least 450 plate appearances, he ranked third in on-base percentage behind only Milton Bradley (.436) and Joe Mauer (.413). He ranked 11th in slugging percentage, right behind Josh Hamilton (.530) and Vladmir Guerrero (.521).

And in on-base-plus-slugging (OPS), here's the American League leaderboard:
* Milton Bradley, .999
* Alex Rodriguez, .965
* Carlos Quentin, .965
* Kevin Youkilis, .958
* J.D. Drew, .927

Among those behind Drew on the OPS leaderboard from last season: Hamilton, Guerrero, Miguel Cabrera, Grady Sizemore, Evan Longoria, Justin Morneau and Magglio Ordonez.

Now, Drew hasn't been healthy enough to do that on a consistent basis. He's had 500 plate appearances just three times in his career -- including the 2007 season in which he managed just a .796 OPS, good for 47th in the American League.

But he had an awfully impressive season last season, and way under the radar, too. Ask your average Red Sox fan to name the two players on the roster who were among the top five hitters in the American League last season, and you're going to hear them mention Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia most of the time. You're not likely to hear Drew's name very often -- and, in many ways, for good reason. He only played in 109 games and only hit 19 home runs and only drove in 64 runs.

If you consider that a hitter's job is to get on base and hit for power, though, few did their jobs better than Drew last season.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Countdown to spring training: Third base

Mike Lowell (will turn 35 in February)
2008: .274 batting, .338 on-base, .461 slugging
2007: .324 batting, .378 on-base, .501 slugging
2006: .284 batting, .339 on-base, .475 slugging

Remember that old Sesame Street song? "One of these things is not like the others..." (Yeah, that's right: We went Cookie Monster on you. You don't get that from your ordinary Boston pro sports blogs.)

Let's go back even farther:
2005: .236 batting, .298 on-base, .360 slugging
2004: .293 batting, .365 on-base, .505 slugging
2003: .276 batting, .350 on-base, .530 slugging
2002: .276 batting, .346 on-base, .471 slugging
2001: .283 batting, .340 on-base, .448 slugging
2000: .270 batting, .344 on-base, .474 slugging
Career: .279 batting, .343 on-base, .467 slugging

When statisticians compute averages, they often get rid of outliers -- statistics that don't fit with what otherwise is a fairly reasonable patter. That 2005 season, for example, probably isn't fair to hold against Lowell; he's since shown that, for whatever reason, it was just a lousy season. It wasn't indicative of any sort of trend.

But that's not the one that's not like the others. That's not the one that doesn't belong. Can you guess which one is not like the others before I finish this song? (Yes, you'll have that stuck in your head all day. Yes, I'm a little bit sorry.)

Look at the numbers Lowell put up in 2007, his second season with the Red Sox. He hit .300 for the first time. He slugged .500 and drove in more than 100 runs for the first time in four seasons. He reached base at a career-best .378 clip -- his previous best was .365 in 2004, the only other time he'd OBP'ed over .350.

He electrified Red Sox fans. He finished fifth in Most Valuable Player voting. He earned his second World Series ring -- and won World Series MVP honors in the process.

And in doing so, he earned himself totally unreasonable expections from fans. Check out this note from an informal season preview on

"For the Red Sox to recreate the 2007 season, it is imperative for Mike Lowell to return to his 2007 form. Lowell is hoping to be ready for spring training at the moment, after a surgery this winter on his hip, which he injured in the ALCS against Tampa Bay. Lowell's 2008 numbers weren't bad, though the Red Sox would obviously love if he posted numbers similar to his '07 numbers. Lowell finished the '08 season hitting a respectable .274, with 17 home runs and 73 RBI."

Even Tony Massarotti of the Globe is looking for a return to the glory days:
"Two years ago, Mike Lowell and David Ortiz finished 1-2 on the club in RBIs, combining to knock in 237 runs while slugging .559. In 2008, they produced just 162 RBIs and a slugging percentage of .484. Obviously, both Ortiz (wrist) and Lowell (hip) had significant injuries along the way, though that only heightens concern about the ability of each to regain his prior form. Both men are a year older, too. Minus Ramirez, the Sox might be able to get by with an average performance from one of these players. But if both slip? Look out."

(We're going to assume here that an "average performance" from Lowell means anything markedly different from that 2007 season.)

Everyone knows that with Jason Varitek on the decline and whoever plays shortstop a potential wasted at-bat, the Red Sox need to do as much damage in the heart of the order as possible. David Ortiz and Jason Bay should hit 3-4 and, if healthy, put up great numbers. Many fans, though, might not be satisfied unless Lowell, J.D. Drew and Kevin Youkilis all hit .300 with 25-30 home runs of their own.

Lowell isn't that type of player. He never has been. He'll hit .280 and walk 50 times. He'll hit somewhere between 20 and 25 home runs. He'll drive in 80 or 90 runs. He'll hit 35 or 40 doubles. His top comparables for his age are Ken Caminiti, Paul O'Neill, Mike Sweeney and Vinny Castilla -- solid players all, but certainly not franchise-carrying cornerstones.

If Lowell is healthy, it's unreasonable to expect a stat line much better than .280 batting/.350 on-base/.450 slugging. That's about what Atlanta's Kelly Johnson, San Francisco's Fred Lewis and Los Angeles' Matt Kemp did last season.

If Lowell is healthy, he's going to contribute to the Red Sox in a lot of ways this season. But those fans expecting him to hit .300 and hit 30 home runs probably are going to be disappointed. If it's "imperative" for him to recapture the glory of 2007, well, the Red Sox might be out of luck.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Counting down to spring training: Shortstop

Here's where things get interesting. Pitching will work itself out; it always does. Eight of the nine positions on the field -- save for a possible platoon situation at catcher -- are set. Kevin Youkilis will play 150 games at first base. Jason Bay will play 150 games in left field. J.D. Drew will play 140 games in right field -- something he's done in three of the past five years, contrary to what some would have you believe.

But no one -- possibly not even Theo Epstein or Terry Francona -- knows yet who's going to play shortstop for the Red Sox next season.

The combatants
Jed Lowrie (will turn 25 in April)
2008 (majors): .258 batting, .339 on-base, .400 slugging
2008 (minors): .268 batting, .359 on-base, .434 slugging
2007 (minors): .298 batting, .393 on-base, .503 slugging
2006 (minors): .262 batting, .352 on-base, .374 slugging

Julio Lugo (turned 33 in November)
2008: .268 batting, .355 on-base, .330 slugging
2007: .237 batting, .294 on-base, .349 slugging
2006: .278 batting, .341 on-base, .421 slugging

Those hitting numbers tell a bit of a story -- the fact that Lugo's slugging percentage is trending downward isn't a good sign if the Red Sox are expecting him to be anything more than a Mike Lansing- or Adam Kennedy-type middle infielder.

But this decision might not come down to hitting. It might come down to fielding. Presuming Mike Lowell is healthy, the Red Sox will open the season with above-average infielders at first base (Kevin Youkilis, plus-6 last season in the Fielding Bible's plus-minus stats), second base (Dustin Pedroia, plus-15) and third base (Mike Lowell, plus-8). They'll have a chance to have one of the best defensive infields in the game.

Here's the catch: Lugo is a 20-error-a-season shortstop. He's averaging 25.7 errors per 162 games at shortstop in his career. A year ago, he made 16 errors in 81 games at shortstop. For comparison, only two shortstops in the major leagues made more than 17 errors last season. Those shortstops, though, played 153 and 150 games, respectively. Also, one of those shortstops was Hanley Ramirez, who hit 33 home runs and stole 35 bases.

In 2006, Lugo's defensive plus-minus at shortstop was minus-10 -- which ranked him 30th among all big-league shortstops. In 2007, he had a plus-1 -- which ranked him 18th. In 2008, before he got hurt, he was a minus-2 -- which ranked him 22nd. (For comparison, Derek Jeter had a minus-22, a minus-34 and a minus-12 in thos years. Lugo isn't that bad. But he's certainly not good.)

Lowrie, in his small sample size (386 innings at shortstop in 49 games), made zero errors and finished the season with a plus-8. Had he played an entire season, he would have ranked 10th in the majors -- well behind Jimmy Rollins (plus-23) and Yunel Escobar (plus-21), but not too far behind Omar Vizquel (plus-9).

Lugo is not Alex Gonzalez or Pokey Reese. He was brought to Boston more for his bat than for his glove. Even while he was accumulating 20 errors in 2003, for example, he was hitting 15 home runs and driving in 55 runs. And if he can hit almost as many home runs as he commits errors in the field, the Red Sox can live with that -- especially since he's still on the books for $9 million for each of the next two seasons.

But there's been no indication he can do that. He hasn't hit 15 home runs since that 2003 season; he's only hit double-digit home runs once in that span, and his slugging percentage hasn't even come close to .400 in his two seasons in Boston.

Lowrie, meanwhile, slugged .400 in 81 games last season. He hit 25 doubles, for example; that's more than J.D. Drew, Coco Crisp or Jacoby Ellsbury had despite significantly more at-bats.

The switch-hitter's biggest issue was the fact that he didn't hit right-handed pitching (.222 last season) even close to as well as he hits left-handed pitching (.338). Lugo, a pure right-handed hitter, has a career .271 batting average against righties and .269 batting average against lefties. His on-base and slugging numbers likewise are a little better against righties than lefties.

Francona and Epstein are going to have quite a few numbers to crunch -- and they'll probably keep doing it straight through spring training, too. Lowrie appears to have the better glove and more upside with the bat, but he looked almost useless against right-handed pitching last season. Lugo appears to be a liability with the glove and is no lock to do much with the bat, but he at least can hit right-handed pitching.

A platoon might be the answer. But if Francona and Epstein choose to play Lugo full-time against right-handed pitching and use Lowrie as a utility infielder and full-time shortstop against lefties, well, they'd better hope that the offensive production they get offsets what they lose defensively.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Is A-Rod report the tipping point?

Maybe this is it.

Maybe the report that Alex Rodriguez used steroids in 2003 is going to be the tipping point. Maybe a report of steroid use by Rodriguez -- hands down the best player in baseball for the better part of a decade -- is going to the point that we all come to an inevitable realization.

Everyone was doing it. Everyone.

Barry Bonds was doing it. Mark McGwire was doing it. Sammy Sosa was doing it. Roger Clemens was doing it. Roger Clemens was doing it. Alex Rodriguez was doing it. Rafael Palmeiro was doing it. Mike Cameron was doing it. Jay Gibbons was doing it. Jose Guillen was doing it. Neifi Perez was doing it. Jason Grimsley was doing it. Matt Lawton was doing it. Rafael Betancourt was doing it. Juan Rincon was doing it. Alex Sanchez was doing it.

Everyone was doing it. Everyone.

Maybe this report will help us put the last 15 years of baseball history into perspective. Maybe this actually will salvage the reputations of players like Bonds and McGwire and Clemens, players who appeared to have no shot at ever reaching the Hall of Fame. The players who have become outcasts in the game weren't exceptions. They were doing what everyone else was doing. They just happened to be big enough names that they got caught.

Just look at the Rodriguez report. More than 100 players tested positive for steroids in 2003. Only one name -- A-Rod -- has been released. More than 100 other names still are out there, and we have no idea who they are. We might never know who they are.

Baseball has had a tremendous steroid problem. Maybe it still has a tremendous steroid problem. We don't even know if we can trust the new testing policy, particularly as it comes to high-tech enhancers like human growth hormone. But if steroid use was so rampant that even Rodriguez -- who some have used as a prime example of a clean superstar -- was using, how can we assume that anyone in the game wasn't using? Given how difficult it is to vault yourself from Triple-A to the majors, from the bench to the starting lineup, from mediocrity to the All-Star Game, wouldn't it have been stupid not to keep up?

Some are saying that A-Rod's reputation will be ruined by this report. That's probably true.

But this report also ought to make us look a little harder at what really was happening in baseball over the last 15 or 20 years. It also ought to make us look a little harder how quickly we've condemned Bonds and McGwire and Clemens. Are we really going to wipe out an entire decade or two of baseball history? Or can we finally start to judge that era in the context of what was happening rather than trying to pretend its biggest stars never even existed?

Counting down to spring training: Second base

Dustin Pedroia (will turn 26 in August)
2008: .326 batting, .376 on-base, .493 slugging
2007: .317 batting, .380 on-base, .442 slugging
2006: .181 batting, .258 on-base, .303 slugging (in 89 big-league at-bats)

There's no question Pedroia will be entrenched in the Red Sox lineup for years to come. Based on his comparables through age 24 -- Mickey Cochrane, Joe Mauer, Bill Dickey and Rod Carew -- he'll have a chance to be an MVP candidate for years to come, too.

So let's ask a different type of question here: How did the Red Sox end up with Dustin Pedroia?

Pedroia hit .393 and reached base at a .502 clip in his junior season at Arizona State. He hit .404 with a school-record 34 doubles in his sophomore season. He hit .347 his freshman season and finished the year on an 11-game hitting streak. He earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors three times. He started all 185 games of his college career. He was just as 5-foot-8 as he is now, but he flat-out hit every time he pulled on the Arizona State jersey.

While he did that with an aluminum bat, he didn't do it against slack pitching: Ian Kennedy, Tim Lincecum and Jeremy Guthrie were among those pitchers doing work in the Pac-10 while Pedroia was there.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox weren't drafting until the middle of the second round thanks to their free-agent addition of Keith Foulke -- what seemed to be a worthwhile tradeoff since he, you know, pitched them to the World Series and all.

And yet Pedroia slid all the way to the second round, right where the Red Sox were waiting. He had to hear the names of 64 other players called before his. The 5-foot-8 factor certainly played its part -- but it wasn't as if Pedroia played catcher or first base. He played shortstop (and some second base) in college. Before Cal Ripken, all shortstops (and second basemen) were 5-foot-8.

Here are some of the teams who could have snatched up Pedroia before the Red Sox got to him late in the second round -- and who they did end up picking. Scouting reports are from

No. 60: Michael Ferris, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals
"Strong arms. Broad shoulders. Some thickness to midsection. Strong, muscular legs. Similar to Ryan Klesko. Straight-up stance. Bat held behind left ear, flat. Short stride. Easy stroke with near-level plane swing. CF to opposite field, line-drive power. Selective. Keeps head on ball. Steady glove, good hands, adequate range. Playable arm. Won't clog bases. Strong kid with lots of strength. A power hitter, content with making easy contact now. Some wrist quickness."
What his team said: "He's a strong kid that we believe is going to hit."
College numbers: Hit .361 with 21 home runs and 62 RBI in his junior season at Miami (Ohio); hit .360 with five home runs as a sophomore at Miami, and hit .228 with four home runs as a freshman at Kentucky.
Results: He has never hit over .230 in a full minor-league season; he has hit more than 10 home runs just once. His best stats came in Single-A in 2005, when he hit .230 with 16 home runs and 26 doubles.

No. 61: Anthony Swarzak, RHP, Minnesota Twins
"Medium build. Athletic frame. High waist. Long legs. Round shoulders. Body type similar to former major leaguer Orel Hershiser. No windup, 3/4 arm. Smooth delivery. Clean arm on back side. Explosive FB with downward plane. Solid movement. 12 to 6 CB, tight rotation, sharp break, deceptive changeup, good arm speed. Likes to pitch inside. Good mound presence. Smart kid. Good pitcher's body. Throws 3 solid pitches. Aggressive on mound. Goes after hitters. Works fast. Knows how to pitch. Has body and ability to continue development. Wants the ball. Big game pitcher."
What his team said: ""We realized this guy was improving and maturing and developing at a rate that would put him in the upper mix. We got very good reports on this guy."
College numbers: Drafted out of high school.
Results: Just 18 years old when he was drafted, he had a 2.62 ERA in his short-season debut and has made steady progress through the minor leagues. He was 5-0 with a 1.80 ERA in seven starts after a promotion to Triple-A in 2008 -- and he just turned 23 years old.

No. 62: Jason Jaramillo, C, Philadelphia Phillies
"Compact build. Solid legs. Strong shoulders. Tapered down. Quick release. Accurate arm with carry. Soft hands, handles self well. Sets up and frames. Switch hitter, better bat as left-handed hitter."
What his team said: "He's a switch-hitter, and we think he has a chance to be a very good big leaguer."
College numbers: Hit .350 with eight home runs and a team-best 57 RBIs as a junior at Oklahoma State. Hit .385 with nine home runs as a sophomore and .327 with three home runs as a freshman.
Results: He's hit .271 and .266 in back-to-back seasons at Triple-A in 2007 and 2008, but he's never hit double-digit home runs in any season. He was traded to the Pirates in December and will have a chance to compete for a backup job behind Ryan Doumit.

No. 63: Erik Cordier, RHP, Kansas City Royals
(His predraft scouting report on describes how he has the power potential to play the corners and improve defensively in the outfield; it's the wrong one.)
What his team said: "We've seen up to 96, tremendous life on the fastball. Very, very fresh arm, obviously, because of where he comes from he hasn't pitched a lot of innings."
College numbers: Drafted out of high school.
Results: He had a 2.68 ERA in seven Single-A starts in 2006 but missed the entire 2007 season after Tommy John surgery and had a 5.17 ERA in nine Single-A starts in 2008. He's now with the Atlanta Braves; he was traded for Tony Pena before the 2007 season, a couple of months after his Tommy John surgery. He's still a highly regarded prospect.

No. 64: Hunter Pence, LF, Houston Astros
"Very tall, slender torso. Long arms. Large legs. Slightly open, crouched stance. Good strength and arc in swing for power. Swings bat with authority. Undresses infielders. Power to all fields. Adequate arm. Athletic actions in outfield. Different-looking athlete, but has strength and extension to hit and hit with power. Plays hard. Leaves it all on the field."
What his team said: ""He's a plus runner, has plus power, but his bat has a ways to go. He has a below-average arm, so he's limited to left field. He has a combination of speed and power that is somewhat rare in the draft. He's a corner guy and we feel like he can be a corner guy in the big leagues."
College numbers: Hit .395 with eight home runs and 10 stolen bases as a junior at Texas-Arlington. Hit ..347 with eight home runs as a sophomore, and hit .395 with 12 home runs at Texarkana Junior College as a freshman.
Results: He hit .322 with 17 home runs in 108 games in his first big-league season a year ago, and he hit .269 with 25 home runs playing every day with the Astros last season. He might or might not ever be an All-Star, but he's a keeper.

No. 65: Pedroia.
"Physically maxed out. Small, scrappy frame with average strength for size. Similar to David Eckstein. Even stance with flexed knees. Small load and weight shift. Steps in bucket. Average bat speed. Even plane bat control with consistent contact. Hits where pitched. Lots of doubles to gaps. Instinctive defender with soft hands, works ground-up, ball disappears. Plays well above tools. Headsy baseball rat with plus instincts. Knows how to play the game. Guy you want on your team. Does what it takes to win."
What his team said: See below.
College numbers: See above.
Results: Rookie of the Year in 2007. Most Valuable Player in 2008.

We've all read "Moneyball." We've all heard about the trend away from cattle-call scouting and toward using past performance to project future performance. But while that book made Kevin Youkilis the poster boy for ignoring body type, it's his partner on the right side of the Red Sox infield who might be an even better example.

Look at some of those scouting reports:
"Won't clog bases."
"Undresses infielders."
"Strong, muscular legs."
"Athletic actions in outfield."
"Strong kid with lots of strength."

And from the comments of team executives after the draft:
"He's a strong kid who we believe is going to hit."
"Improving and maturing."
"We think he has a chance."
"He hasn't pitched a lot of innings."
"His bat has a ways to go."

Meanwhile, here's what Red Sox scouting director David Chadd said about Pedroia on the day he was drafted: "Dustin is a tough, smart ballplayer who will fit nicely into the Red Sox organization. He is an accomplished middle infielder with an equally solid approach at the plate. We all admire his work ethic and ability to be a leader."

What's the key word there?


One of the five players drafted ahead of Pedroia has turned into a useful major leaguer so far. Another has a chance to make a big-league roster for the first time this season.

Pedroia, meanwhile, has a Rookie of the Year award and a Most Valuable Player award on the shelf along with a World Series ring on his finger.

Sure, in a lot of ways, the draft is a crapshoot. But it's become obvious in recent years that it doesn't matter whether a guy has "strong, muscular legs" as much as how he's produced on a consistent basis against tough competition. Pedroia, even more than "Moneyball" icon Youkilis, might be the best example of that in the major leagues.