Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Opening Day Approacheth

Opening Day, which should be a National Holiday, and will be when I am benevolent dictator of the world, fast approaches. It appears that the Red Sox are pretty close to settling on their Opening Day roster, an ultimately meaningless decision that injuries and performance will make moot within weeks if not days. Nonetheless, meaningless or not, I'll freight it with meaning. There are few surprises. I'll run down the roster position-by-position as The Boston Globe's Tony Massarotti sees it shaping up:

(L) Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
(R) Dustin Pedroia, 2B
(L) David Ortiz, DH
(R) Kevin Youkilis, 1B
(L) J.D. Drew, RF
(R) Jason Bay, LF
(R) Mike Lowell, 3B
(S) Jed Lowrie, SS
(S) Jason Varitek, C

The biggest factors in the success or failure of this lineup will be health, which separates the Red Sox from the rest of the league in almost no meaningful way except inasmuch as the Sox had relatively more vital players suffer fairly serious injuries last year. Another issue will be whether Tek can add anything to the batting order. The Red Sox will hit, and Tek's value comes almost wholly from leadership and running the pitching staff. That said, no American league team can afford a pitcher-size void in the 9-hole in the lineup. The Red Sox will hit and they will score runs. But if they stay healthy and guys play to their best-hope projections, this is a team easily capable of leading the league in runs scored, which is not something most teams can say even if they do not lose a game to injury and everyone has a career year.

(R) Rocco Baldelli, OF
(R) Nick Green, IF-OF
(L) George Kottaras, C
(L) Chris Carter, IF-OF

The Sox chose Carter over Jeff Bailey but Bailey is a guy management and fans foresee a great future for and so he will get time in Boston this year. Kottaras would have been a surprise in February, but once the Sox got rid of Josh Bard, Kottaras had the inside track. If he performs well as Tim Wakefield's de facto personal catcher and can even come close to hitting Big League pitching there may be less need to overpay the Rangers, say, for Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden.

(R) Josh Beckett
(L) Jon Lester
(R) Daisuke Matsuzaka
(R) Tim Wakefield
(R) Brad Penny

Penny is the classic case of paying short money on long odds and hoping the bet comes in. If it does, this might be the best pitching staff, one-to-five, in the Majors. Beckett needs to come back and have something of a redemption year. And until Dice-K gets through a full season and can up his innings and lower his pitch count there will be concerns. But he was lights out in the World Baseball Classic, which is both a great sign for obvious reasons, but is also worrisome because of how Matsuzaka has shown a tendency to break down at the end of a long season even without something like the WBC lengthening his year all the more. His economical start yesterday is a nice portent, I hope. In any case, bank on one thing: Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson are almost certain to get their share of starts, and they probably will not be alone. Repeat after me: There is no such thing as too much starting pitching.

(R) Jonathan Papelbon (closer)
(R) Takashi Saito
(L) Hideki Okajima
(R) Justin Masterson
(R) Manny Delcarmen
(R) Ramon Ramirez
(L) Javier Lopez

The bullpen, at least the middle-relief component of it, was problematic in 2008. On paper this looks like a solid group, and if Okajima returns to his 2007 form, there is reason to believe that the Sox will have a sick Pythagorean rating this year (which is a formula of runs scored to runs given up that is a remarkably good predictor of wins and losses). But expect volatility. The Sox have young arms that will likely not remain in Pawtucket for long, and if guys falter management will have no qualms replacing them. No one sets out, after all, to be a long reliever.

(R) Julio Lugo, SS
(R) John Smoltz, P
(L) Mark Kotsay, OF

Lugo's injuries forestalled a decision on the shortstop fight, but that may well have been Lowrie's slot to lose to begin with. Smoltz represents another gamble, but if he can return in May and is healthy, he will solidify the staff. We'll worry about where he fits in later -- there is lots of time between now and when he will return. Kotsay's return will require a roster move, but we're swapping parts at that point, and in any case, health issues usually mean that when a guy comes up there is someone to hide, and some of the bench guys have options available, so sending them to Pawtucket won't be a problem. And if the Sox have too many Major League bodies, well, that's a good problem to have.

Consider this the first solid Sox talk of the year. Do not expect it to be the last. Opening Day against the Rays in Fenway is six days away and counting.

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