Are The Boston Red Sox Punting The 2012 Season?

A year ago the Boston Red Sox were often named as the World Series champions before a single game had even played. Acquiring one of the best free agents in Carl Crawford and trading for Adrian Gonzalez will do that for a team. However, as we look back on the 2011 season we can see that the Red Sox were a deeply flawed team, despite their 90-72 record. Pitching, especially starting pitching, was a huge weakness for the Red Sox. Several key players including Kevin Youkilis were very injury prone, and the team lost out on the final day to Tampa Bay.

Flash forward to 2012, and it looks like the Red Sox have taken several steps backwards. With Lackey & Dice-K not expected to pitch until the latter part of the season, Boston needed to upgrade their rotation. Clay Buchholz should be healthy enough to pitch, and it’s expected that Daniel Bard will take one of the spots at the back of the rotation. While he’s been dominant as a reliever, he’s never had success at any level in professional baseball as a starter. In fact, his struggles in the minors as a starter, with ERA ranging between 6.42 and 10.12, is what prompted Boston to make him a reliever in the first place. So it’s not expected that the conversion to the rotation will go as smoothly as it did for pitchers like CJ Wilson or Alexi Ogando.

Interestingly enough Bard’s 1.8 WAR ranked fourth amongBoston’s pitchers last season, which is not a positive sign. Boston’s lack of pitching depth was exposed, and the set up man was effectively their fourth most valuable pitcher. If he throws 150 or so innings, he’ll probably be worth about 2 WAR. Bard will likely be on an innings limit, and it’s not expected that whoever throws the additional 50 innings will be better than replacement level.

Unless the Red Sox sign a player like Roy Oswalt or Edwin Jackson they will be relying on one of the players they signed to a minor league contract to fill out the rotation. Some of these options include Carlos Silva, Aaron Cook and Vincente Padilla. While these pitchers have had success in the past, it is unlikely that they will provide much value in the back of the rotation. At this point Edwin Jackson remains one of the biggest bargains in baseball, and if the Sox are fortunate enough to sign him he might turn out to be one of their best free agent signings in years. Jackson might be the perfect fit for the Red Sox, as he’s healthy, durable, and consistent. He’s one of the few difference makers available in free agency.

The bullpen has also taken a step back as Jonathan Papelbon left via free agency and Daniel Bard was moved to the rotation. Boston did trade for Andrew Bailey to be their new closer, but given his injury history and the fact that he’s moving from one of the best pitchers parks to Fenway, it’s unlikely he’ll come close to reproducing the 3 WAR earned by Papelbon. It’s also interesting to note that Papelbon’s 3 WAR ranked 3rd among Boston pitchers, with only Josh Beckett and Jon Lester being more valuable. Even if Clay Buchholz pitched a full season, he was only on pace to earn 2.6 WAR and still wouldn’t be considered as valuable as Papelbon.

Mark Melancon was another quality reliever acquired by the Red Sox, but he’s a slight downgrade when compared to former set up man Daniel Bard.

Making matters worse is that Josh Beckett isn’t a durable option at the top of the rotation. He’s coming off a fantastic season which saw him post a 2.89 ERA while accumulating 4.3 WAR. However he did miss time, and is very inconsistent as he often posts a good year followed by a bad year. The Red Sox can’t afford to have the injury prone or ineffective Beckett show up, as their rotation depth is already compromised. If Beckett misses any significant time the Red Sox will likely miss out on another postseason.

If these were the only problems Boston was facing, they would still have a realistic chance at making the playoffs. However, their lineup has some significant issues as well, and given the lack of pitching depth the Red Sox could be looking at one of their worst seasons in quite some time.

The addition of Adrian Gonzalez was extremely helpful to the offence, giving the Red Sox another elite bat at first base. However, it forced Kevin Youkilis to play third base, and the physical demands of the position cost him some time due to injury. As one of the Sox best hitters, Youkilis needs to remain healthy and it’s unlikely this will happen if he’s playing third. Youkilis hasn’t played in over 120 games since 2009, so there’s a very real chance the Red Sox will be forced to use Mike Aviles and Nick Punto in the lineup at the same time.

Speaking of Aviles and Punto, that’s another issue altogether for the Red Sox. While the general consensus was that the Red Sox have struggled at shortstop since 2004, Marco Scutaro actually was providing quality production at the position. That is, until Boston salary dumped Scutaro and left themselves with two veterans who shouldn’t be counted on to start for a team with playoff aspirations. Aviles can’t hit, and he’s not good enough to play defence at shortstop. Meanwhile Punto can field, but he shouldn’t be expected to hit even in Fenway. So unless the Red Sox find a way to upgrade their shortstop they’ll be looking at another year with below average production.

The outfield isn’t looking that good either. Carl Crawford is expected to miss time due to his wrist surgery. Wrist injuries often sap players of their power for some time, so even when Crawford comes back he shouldn’t be expected to produce like he normally would. All things considered, the Red Sox would be happy with anything that was better than last year. Meanwhile Ryan Kalish is also injured, so Cody Ross will fill in until he gets back. Ross is great against lefties, but he’ll likely be overexposed against right handed pitching. Jacoby Ellsbury isn’t likely to produce like he did in 2011, so the Red Sox offence could take a step back even if everybody else remains healthy.

It’s hard to predict exactly how good these Red Sox are. At their best they could win 90 or so games. But it’s unlikely that everybody stays healthy and productive, and if some of their key guys go down again they could be looking at a fourth place finish. It might sound crazy to suggest this, but the Red Sox as currently constructed are a deeply flawed team. They are stronger than Toronto at their best, but if Youkilis and Beckett miss significant time again the Red Sox might not be strong enough to hold off the Blue Jays.

While Toronto hasn’t made any major moves this offseason, their midseason acquisitions of Kelly Johnson and Colby Rasmus combined with the infusion of prospects such as Henderson Alvarez and Brett Lawrie and a rebuilt bullpen means that they’ll be a fairly good team next year. Red Sox Nation is praying for the collective health of Beckett, Lester and Buchholz, because another year of injuries and ineffectiveness out of the rotation will sink the Red Sox season.

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  • Matt Sullivan

    Really? Punting the season? Boston should still try to sign a starting pitcher, but even without doing so, they have nearing the same playoff odds as the Rays and betting lines on them winning the AL Pennant are equal to those of Tampa Bay, Detroit, Texas, and LA.

    The team has effectively replaced Papelbon and Bard in the bullpen with Bailey and Melancon. Daniel Bard and Clay Buchholz don’t need to be worth much more than 2-2.5 wins to improve the rotation and if one of Alfredo Aceves, Carlos Silva, Andrew Miller, Aaron Cook or Felix Doubront can’t be better than Tim Wakefield and Kyle Weiland were last season, I would be shock. This team won 90 games with a Pythagorean record good for 94 wins, with no viable fourth or fifth starter from June on. Even if you believe Beckett will not be able to repeat his excellent 2011 season, Jon Lester should be able to make up some of the difference, since he is close to a 5 WAR pitcher talent-wise.

    Boston will also likely be employing a platoon in RF that almost certainly will improve on their last in the league production from that position. While CC might be out until May or June, his performance last season was so bad that he is almost certain to improve. And the downgrade from Scutaro to Aviles/Punto is less than a single win.

    Punting the season? That’s laughable, especially since, under the new CBA, the Sox only have to post the second best non-division winning record to get at least a shot at the playoffs. They are in as strong a position as the Rays, Rangers and Angels right now since only the Yankees and Tigers look to be a certain division champ.

    • Mark Hock

      If they don’t sign a pitcher they’ll be running out a replacement level 5th starter. Meanwhile I don’t expect Bard to be very effective in the rotation. So they’ll be relying on Buchholz who has a grand total of one season with > 100 innings in the majors, the inconsistent Beckett (in both performance and health) and Lester. I said there’s still time for them to sign Jackson or Oswalt, and if they do the rotation will be a bit better. But as of right now, it’s a glaring weakness.

      I don’t agree that they have the same odds as any of those teams. Betting lines aren’t the way to go to evaluate a team, if I’m reading your argument correctly. Tampa gets a full season out of Moore/Jennings and should be much improved via Scott/Pena over Kotchman/Damon. Did the Red Sox even come close to improving to the degree the Rays did? Or the Yankees? So far, no, and all they’ve done is downgrade at short and in the bullpen.

      No, they didn’t effectively replace Papelbon or Bard in the rotation. Papelbon is significantly better than Bailey in both ERA, IP. WAR, K/9, FIP etc. I understand why they let him go, and I would have too, but it’s a clear downgrade. Especially given Bailey’s home/road splits. Melancon is a good reliever as well, but not nearly as good as Bard was.

      Keep in mind Buchholz earned 1.1 WAR last season and was on pace for 2.6. So it’s not like a full season out of him is a huge upgrade. I don’t expect Bard to do well in the rotation, as he’s never done well at any level outside of the bullpen. You’re welcome to disagree, of course. We’ll have to wait on that one.

      I’d be shocked if any of the guys you named were better than Wakefield. Aceves has a career 4.94 FIP as a starter vs 3.87 as a reliever and those splits were pretty much the same in 2011. The FIP was better, but the XFIP was 6+, so I wouldn’t expect much out of him in the rotation. Miller showed similar splits this year as well.

      The problem with the rotation is that it’s all if’s and but’s outside of Lester and Beckett. Which is why I argued if one of them goes down, the Sox season is pretty much over. We can debate over which 5 FIP fifth starter goes behind Bard, but without Beckett/Lester there’s really nobody there outside of Buchholz who’s had any success as a starter in recent years.

      The RF platoon of Sweeney (a 750 OPS vs RHP) and Ross isn’t that strong. Especially if both of them have to play the corner spots while CC is recovering from a wrist injury. Not to mention Sweeney has barely been worth more than 1 win per season in both 2010 and 2011, so expecting any meaningful production out of him is wishful thinking.

      I would not argue the downgrade from Aviles/Punto to only be one win. Punto is a good fielder, but the defence isn’t enough to keep him at 2 wins. Aviles can’t field, and can’t hit for power, doesn’t walk, and is basically reliant on his BABIP. So he’ll either be sub replacement level or great, but which one is anybody’s guess. Both are very injury prone, and when Youkilis goes down for 30-40 games (as he’s done every year since 2009) they’ll both be in the field, which isn’t something anybody wants to see.

      You’re welcome to believe that they’re as strong as the Rays (or Texas for that matter), but I don’t believe that to be the case. I think they’re very top heavy, have little room for error, and have too many key players who are injury prone and will end up costing them over the full season.

      Obviously if they add a shortstop or a pitcher they’ll be much improved, but my argument is based on the roster as is. I admitted there’s time to make the improvements.

      Thanks for your comment though.

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