This is my first BoSox column of 2010. Future ones will be posted irregularly and not on a weekly basis until the regular season begins.
For the first time in over a decade, I am generally unenthusiastic about the upcoming Boston Red Sox season. They have solid pitching and defense, but its offense is the weakest it's been in years. So get ready for a bunch of 4-2 games. Still, they’re a potential playoff team on paper, but not championship-level at this point.
This is a by-product of the mere fact that this past offseason was perhaps GM Theo Epstein’s worst in free agency/trades in his eight seasons at the front office. The names (SP) Boof Bonser, (OF) Mike Cameron, (3B) Adrian Beltre, (OF) Jeremy Hermida and (IF) Tug Hulett (who?) are okay but not by any means, great signings.
The revolving door at shortstop continues, as versatile infielder Marco Scutaro, coming off a career year offensively in Toronto, takes over for the defensively superior but offensively inferior Alex Gonzalez. It’s a good signing, but he’s 34-years old, just now peaking and should be seen as a stopgap while potential Cuban defensive phenom Jose Iglesias develops in the minors (and in training camp).
Epstein’s only big score was the acquisition of former LA Angels ace John Lackey ($82.5M/five years), the day after contract talks with LF Jason Bay broke down for good. Could the Sox have afforded both? Not likely, but I didn’t expect the Lackey signing, as much as I like it. He now is a potential third ace of the staff, joining Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. As far as Jason Bay goes, I haven’t been this frustrated about the Red Sox not being able to retain a valuable player since the Pedro Martinez talks broke down after the 2004 championship season. And both players ended up with the same team: the New York Mets.
Theo Epstein Treated Jason Bay Like J.D. Drew
I think Epstein is the best Sox GM of my lifetime (maybe ever), but I’ve never been more upset at him and the Sox than when I read Rob Bradford’s January 21 piece on how the Jason Bay negotiations broke down over the course of the summer and fall of 2009. To put it succinctly, Bay and the Sox agreed to a four-year $60M/year deal in July but the Sox brain trust pulled it off the table because of medical concerns (knees and shoulder) stemming from the results of his physical.
It wasn’t until late August and October that two independent doctors saw no such longterm health concerns with Bay, who has no major injury history or time spent on the disabled list in his six full seasons with Pittsburgh and Boston – only shoulder surgery in 2003, where there’s been no problem since, according to Bay himself.
But Epstein, apparently ignoring these facts as well as two independent doctors, went ahead with contract offers to Bay, an MVP candidate in 2009, contingent on health and productivity, as if he was the often ailing outfielder J.D. Drew. And one of them included mandated knee surgery in the 2009 offseason as part of any deal. Ridiculous, I know.
Bay never got offered more than three years guaranteed from the BoSox again, and thus left for the Mets, who gave him $66M over four years, plus an optional fifth year potentially worth $17M. Who could blame him?
Now, the Red Sox have .250-hitting, 37-year-old Mike Cameron patrolling center field, where he’s won 3 Gold Gloves, while GG contending-speedster Jacoby Ellsbury moves to left. With Drew in right, that’s an impressive outfield, defensively. Offensively, it’s average. In fact, for the first time in ages, there’s no true reliable power hitter in Boston’s everyday lineup, just a handful of potential 20-25+ home run hitters, maybe one of which (David Ortiz or Kevin Youkilis) could hit 30+ in 2010.
Mike Lowell: Not Wanted In Boston Anymore
Third baseman Mike Lowell is being a true pro right now about his plight. His hip and body is in much better shape this spring than it was all of last year, but with the Beltre signing, there’s no room for him in the everyday lineup, and manager Terry Francona has been up front with him about this very fact.
The Red Sox just don’t believe he can make it through a whole season anymore, that his defense has suffered as a result of his unstable health, and have twice in two offseasons tried to replace him, first with Youkilis while in pursuit of 1B Mark Teixeira, then recently via a trade with Texas for (weak-hitting) young catcher Max Ramirez. Again, Lowell’s health problems stopped the trade. And here he and his $12 million contract are: still in Boston, for now.
The former 2007 World Series MVP may play some first base (when Youk needs a night off, now that Casey Kotchman is gone), could DH a few games, and still see some time at third base this season. His .301 average vs. lefties in 2009 should also entice Francona to get him some valuable at bats in 2010. But come May or June, he will likely be traded (successfully), barring a major injury to Youk, Ortiz or Beltre (who is currently dealing with a “twisted” right ankle). So for now, the Sox have a solid veteran bench in the making: Jason Varitek (now a backup for the first time, to Victor Martinez), Mike Lowell, and Jeremy Hermida (replacing Rocco Baldelli as fourth outfielder) for starters. For Sox fans, all this may take some time getting used to.
Deceitful Dice-K Needs To Redeem Himself
In early January, Daisuke Matsuzaka quietly told the Japanese media that he hid a leg injury – hurting the right inner thigh/groin area – from the BoSox. Suffered while training for last year’s World Baseball Classic, it forced him to alter his pitching mechanics and led to the shoulder injury that put him on the disabled list during the 2009 season. Until then, everyone following Dice-K assumed his injury was the result of being out of shape coming into Spring Training. He says it was the result of him pushing his training for the WBC too hard.
Dice-K ended up pitching in the WBC and was named MVP for the second time. But he should have told Sox trainers and the Sox front office about his leg injury afterwards and started the season in rehab, thereby making room for young guns like Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden in the rotation until the leg healed. Instead, he did the most irresponsible thing possible by pitching through an injury, risking further harm to the body (hence, the shoulder injury), and not telling his bosses the truth about any of it.
If it wasn’t for the fact that Matsuzaka’s in the fourth year of his mammoth six-year $52M contract, I would say trade his lying ass out of town. But the front office is closely monitoring Dice-K’s training now and is willing to forgive, forget and give him fresh start – he is currently recovering from a sore upper back. Will the Fenway faithful? Only time will tell.
Of the faces returning from the 2009 team, I am most looking forward to seeing Victor Martinez for a whole season catch one of the strongest rotations in the big leagues (Beckett/Lester/Lackey/Dice-K/Buchholz, with Tim Wakefield as sixth starter if needed). 'Tek will likely catch Dice-K, but we’ll see.
V-Mart is in his contract year, making $7M and is looking for an extension. So far, Epstein has not offered one to him or Beckett, who is also in his contract year. With Lackey here for the foreseeable future and Beckett being inconsistent in years other than 2007, I won’t lose much sleep over losing him to free agency. But V-Mart is the Sox catcher of the future. After screwing up the Bay negotiations, he’d better re-sign V-Mart or I’ll really start to lose faith in him and his ability to put together another World Series-contending team.