By Jonathan O'Konis, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (98-64) - Second Place (AL East); World Series Champions
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP - Matt Clement, RP - John Halama, RP - Matt Mantei, SP - Wade Miller, OF - Jay Payton, SS - Edgar Renteria, INF - Ramon Vazquez, SP - David Wells
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: SS - Orlando Cabrera, OF - Gabe Kapler, SP - Derek Lowe, SP - Pedro Martinez, 1B - Doug Mientkiewicz, OF - Dave Roberts, RP - Scott Williamson
PROJECTED LINEUP: Johnny Damon (CF), Edgar Renteria (SS), Manny Ramirez (LF), David Ortiz (DH), Kevin Millar (1B), Jason Varitek (C), Trot Nixon (RF), Mark Bellhorn (2B), Bill Mueller (3B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Curt Schilling (RHP), David Wells (LHP), Matt Clement (RHP), Wade Miller (RHP), Bronson Arroyo (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Keith Foulke (RHP)
MANAGER: Terry Francona
Red Sox fans finally got the season they had been waiting for last year, as the team captured their first World Series championship in 86 years. After playing .500 ball in the first half, the Red Sox really got rolling when catcher Jason Varitek planted his catcher's mitt firmly in the face of New York Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez in their much-publicized battle on national TV. Six days later, GM Theo Epstein made a bold move at the trading deadline when he dealt New England icon shortstop Nomar Garciaparra for defensive upgrades and obtained Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. Curt Schilling emerged as the pitcher the Red Sox had been expecting when they traded for him the previous November, as the powerful righthander led the majors with 21 wins. Keith Foulke had been brought over from Oakland to fill a glaring hole in the bullpen and managed to save 32 games with an ERA 2.07.
The Sox made the ALDS and flattened the Anaheim Angels in the first round of the playoffs. In the ALCS, the Yankees bolted to a 3-0 lead in the series before Big Papi, David Ortiz, hauled the Red Sox on his back and won the next two games. In Game Six, Schilling took the mound with blood seeping through his sock and dominated the powerful Yankee lineup. In the seventh game Johnny Damon, Mark Bellhorn and Ortiz gave the Sox all the offense they would need as Derek Lowe shut down the Yankees. By virtue, Boston became the first team in baseball history to rally from an 0-3 deficit to win a best-of-seven series.
In the World Series the Red Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals, behind the starting pitching of Schilling, Pedro Martinez and Lowe, to become World champions.
Gone since the glow of Red Sox victory parade are key pitchers Martinez and Lowe, as well as Cabrera. The Red Sox replaced them with pitchers David Wells, Matt Clement, Wade Miller and shortstop Edgar Renteria. The Sox return the core of their team in Schilling, Foulke and Varitek, along with sluggers Manny Ramirez and Ortiz.
As always the Red Sox enter the season playing second fiddle to the Yankees, who added pitchers Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright and are now favored to win the division. The two teams will meet 18 times this season beginning with the first game of the season at Yankee Stadium on April 3rd. Expect things to be turned up a notch for the ring ceremony during the Red Sox home opener on April 11th, when they will be playing host to the Yankees.
Is it possible for this rivalry to get any more intense than it's been the past two years?
The Red Sox brought in Renteria, a four-time All-Star, to fill the hole left by Cabrera. Renteria is a huge offensive upgrade and is just as good defensively as Cabrera. At four years and $40 million, the Red Sox may have overpaid for Renteria, but at 29 he's a solid player and should be for the entire length of his contract. He may see a rise in doubles and possibly homers thanks to moving to the AL and specifically to Fenway. The Red Sox have to remember that Renteria isn't the same shortstop who had a .390 on-base percentage and a .480 slugging percentage like he did in 2003. He's coming off a season in which his OBP was .327 and slugging percentage was .401.
Kevin Millar, a big presence with his bat and an even larger one in the clubhouse, returns to man first base. Millar had a good season last year with 54 extra-base hits and an OBP of .383. He's not great defensively, but with a .989 fielding percentage last season he's good enough.
Signed as backup last season, Bellhorn's bat proved too powerful to leave on the bench, as he smacked 17 HRs, 37 doubles and finished tied for third in the AL with 88 walks. Bellhorn, like Millar, isn't great with the glove, but more than gets by.
Bill Mueller is once again the man at the hot corner. Upon returning to Earth after winning the 2003 batting title, Mueller produced a .287 batting average and 12 home runs. He was as clutch as they come for the Sox last season, twice sending Yankee super-closer Mariano Rivera home with defeats. Mueller is slipping defensively, especially with two knee surgeries within the last year.
Varitek is the captain of the team both on and off the field. Pitchers love to throw to Varitek because of his sharp defensive skills and due to his knowledge of the opposing hitters. Varitek is also one of the best hitting catchers in baseball belting 18 HRs with a career high .390 OBP last year. Varitek will be 33 years old a week after the season begins and catchers typically aren't that productive as they reach their mid-thirties. Before long the Sox will regret the four-year, $40 million deal Varitek inked in December.
The Red Sox return all of their starting outfielders from a year ago. Ramirez is the prime offensive force. Last season Manny led the AL with 43 home runs and an OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) of 1.009. He also finished third with 130 RBI. Since signing with Boston four years ago Ramirez has averaged .316 with 36 HR' and 116 RBI. His defense exemplifies why the AL allows a DH. Ramirez, along with Ortiz, formed baseball's most devastating one-two punch last year.
Trot Nixon returns after a season in which injuries allowed him to play in only 48 games. When Nixon was able to take the field he was still productive having hit .317 with a slugging percentage of .510. Due to his many injuries over the years, Nixon's range isn't what it used to be in right field. If the Red Sox can get 450 at-bats from Nixon he should be able to hit .300 with 30 HRs.
The best outfield defender will continue to be Johnny Damon. The centerfielder can chase down fly balls with the best of them, with his only problem being a weak throwing arm. Offensively, Damon is coming off his best season since 2001, having hit .304 with an OPS of .857 with 20 homers and 94 RBI from the lead-off spot. Although he doesn't show it as much playing for the Red Sox, Damon still has enough speed to steal a few bases after swiping 19 last year. Damon is a gamer and will play through injuries.
The steal of 2002, Ortiz, returns as the Red Sox designated hitter. Since being released by the Twins that offseason, "Big Papi" has produced the following numbers for the Red Sox - 72 HRs, 240 RBI and an OPS of .962. Ortiz proved himself to be one of the best clutch hitters in baseball last season hitting .350 with an OPS of 1.025 with runners in scoring position. He single-handedly carried the Red Sox into the World Series, hitting .400 with five HRs and 19 RBI in the playoffs. He ended last season with 41 homers and 139 RBI. To put it into context how powerful the duo of Ramirez and Ortiz were, the last time an AL club had two teammates both hit 40 HRs in the same season was 1931. Those teammates were named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Who can forget the picture of Schilling taking the mound blood seeping through his sock from his ankle and pitching the Red Sox to victory over the Yankees and Cardinals? This year the Sox will be hoping for more of the same (minus the blood). Schilling finished second in the AL Cy Young voting to Minnesota's Johan Santana after finishing third in the AL with strikeouts (203) and second in the AL in ERA (3.26). Schilling won't be able to start the regular season with the Sox due to surgery on his ankle, but should be back by May, if not earlier.
That gives lefty David Wells the opening day nod against the Yankees. The Red Sox are hoping that the 41 year-old Wells is good for about 200 innings and 30 starts. If Wells can keep his ERA in the low 4.00s he should be OK. He is moving from an extreme pitcher's park in San Diego to the AL and a park that has traditionally been tough on lefties. Epstein did a good job of signing him to a low-cost incentive-based contract.
Fireballer Matt Clement will fill the No. 3 spot. Last season, the righthander went an unimpressive 9-13, but had an ERA of 3.68 with 190 strikeouts in 181 innings. Clement is poised for a big breakout season, and if he can get his walks down (77 last year), he could be one of the best signings of the offseason.
Bronson Arroyo had a breakthrough season last year, winning 10 games and sporting an ERA of 4.03. Arroyo may be in for a few rough situations if he doesn't get his AL-leading 20 batters hit down this season.
That leaves reliable Tim Wakefield in the number five slot. Last season Wakefield went 12-10 with an ERA of 4.87. A knuckleballer, Wakefield has proven to be the perfect swing man for the Red Sox able to start, relief, and pitch a lot of innings.
Wade Miller could also join the rotation, and like Schilling, Miller isn't expected to be ready for the first month of the season, possibly two due to a shoulder problem. If he can pitch anywhere near the way he was before being injured last season the Red Sox will have an impressive weapon. From 2001-2003 Miller went 45-24 with 488 strikeouts. The only question is if he was still able to pitch like that, why would the Astros have let him go?
This year's bullpen will once again feature ace closer Foulke putting an end to opponents in the ninth and sometimes eighth innings. Foulke was dominating last year, saving 32 games with an ERA of 2.07 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5:1 (79-15). He did manage to blow seven save opportunities, but the Red Sox's willingness to use him early in games to protect leads more then makes up for that. What's more impressive was Foulke's performance in the postseason when he was all but untouchable, posting an ERA of 0.64 in 14 innings.
Mike Timlin and Alan Embree will once again set up for Foulke and each hopes to put up numbers similar to last year. Timlin went 5-3 with an ERA of 4.03 in 76.1 innings and Embree went 2-2 with an ERA of 4.13 in 52.1 innings. An early report out of spring training had Embree topping out at 94 mph, a speed he hadn't reached since 2002.
The Red Sox have yet another low-risk high-upside guy in Matt Mantei. Mantei, like Miller, signed a contract with a relatively low base salary with incentives, so if they don't work out the Red Sox won't spend a great deal of money. Reports out of spring training also have Mantei reaching the mid-90s with his fastball. Mantei missed considerable time in 2001, 2002 and 2004. During his healthy 2003 he had an ERA of 2.62 with 29 saves. The Sox still have Byung-Hyun Kim hanging around, but are looking to deal him now that his fastball is topping out around 85 mph. John Halama was brought aboard to serve as the Sox long-man and spot starter.
Doug Mirabelli returns as Varitek's backup and Wakefield's personal catcher. Last season Mirabelli put up an OPS of .893 with nine homers in 160 at-bats. He and Varitek form the best catching one-two punch in all of baseball. Jay Payton comes over from the Padres to fill the role vacated by Gabe Kapler. After hitting .260 with an OPS of .693, Payton will be glad to leave spacious Petco Park. There have been some rumors that the Red Sox may trade Payton and give the reserve spot to Adam Hydzu after he hit 29 homers for Pawtucket (Triple-A) last season. Ramon Vazquez slides into Pokey Reese's role as backup second basemen and shortstop. The Sox had wanted Roberto Petagine as their back-up first basemen, but he left spring training to get arthroscopic surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in his left knee. The former Japanese League All-Star could be back by June.
The defending World Series champs have plenty of questions entering this season. The keys to the Red Sox season could very well be Clement and Miller. If Clement can develop into the ace everyone seems to think he can be, and if Miller could put up a healthy June-October the Red Sox should still be able to make the playoffs. The Sox also have to hope that Wells' back problems, which have caused him to miss time in the past, don't crops up. The Yankees have improved themselves by adding a quality starter in the Big Unit, and have overloaded their bullpen, fixing two of their main problems from last year.
The wildcard in all of this may be Epstein. Since taking over the Red Sox, he's been decisive and bold in making any move that he thinks may help the club. Unlike the Yankees, he has the prospects in the minors to make trades during the season. With three starting pitchers over 38, Epstein, at some point, will have to add more starting pitching to go far in the postseason. Give the Red Sox the edge in the division defensively, setting the stage this year for another dogfight between the two AL East powerhouses.