The Boston defense: so good, so good, so good

This year’s Fielding Bible ratings are out, and the Red Sox infield rates among the best in the Major Leagues.

  • Kevin Youkilis finished in a tie with Todd Helton for 9th place at +6.
  • Dustin Pedroia finished 5th among second basemen with a +15 score.
  • Jed Lowrie was 10th with a +8 at shortstop, despite playing only a fraction of the 2008 season. I’m pleasantly surprised by Lowrie’s fielding prowess; I had thought he couldn’t stick at short for more than a few years, but he’s doing a great job thus far.
  • None of our outfielders cracked the top 10 at their positions, but none of them were among the bottom 6. Not terribly surprising, considering so many of them played partial seasons this year. Mark Kotsay was tied for 3rd worst in center with Vernon Wells this year, but that was in Atlanta. No wonder they played him at first base.

For those not familiar with John Dewan’s Plus/Minus system, a trained committee reviews every fielding chance a player has during the course of the season, then gives a +1 score for an above-average play or -1 for a poor play that should have been made. This kind of system is a far better judge of fielding ability than anything using arcane statistics such as putouts, assists and range factor. They don’t address catcher, because so much of what makes a catcher good is not measurable by these metrics.


Time to explore other options at third base

Now that he’s officially a free agent, Mike Lowell has been offered a number of four-year deals, at least one of which falls in the $55-60M range. It is thought that the Yankees, Cardinals, Braves and Angels have all come calling. The Red Sox have not extended a better offer than their initial 3 years and $36M, and this all but ensures that Lowell will play with a new team in 2008.

It is very sad that we will be without Lowell’s leadership next season, but it’s not all bad. For Boston, this means that:

1) They will receive a first-round pick from the signing team and a sandwich pick for Lowell, who is a type-A free agent. You almost can’t blame Theo for choosing this route, given how well the Red Sox have drafted in recent years. Adding another Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz to the organization would soften the loss of Lowell, yes.

2) We need to explore the free agent market or a trade to fill that hole at third. Here are three possible ways we could choose to fly:

Economy Class
There are a number of options the front office could employ to just plug the hole with what we already have. The Red Sox do not have anyone in their farm system ready to fill this hole. Jed Lowrie, a middle infielder, could be a possibility; but starting a rookie with zero experience AND moving positions on him? Oakland or Minnesota, sure. But I don’t see the Sox taking a risk like that.

The next best option would be to put Kevin Youkilis back at third base, and have Chris Carter and Brandon Moss compete for the first base job. This could work out, but it could also end up flopping big time. I don’t see a World Championship team with our payroll settling for this, either.

There are some third basemen available, but not good fits for our club. Among free agents, there is Mike Lamb (offensive option) and Pedro Feliz (defensive option). Lamb has the stick, but is just barely average at third, and hasn’t played there full-time since being a rookie in 2000. Feliz is a defensive genius and a right-handed batter with some pop, but his lifetime .288 OBP won’t fly in this organization.

Business Class
In a strange free agent year, there are realy no middle-class options at third this offseason, which means that Boston will have to look to trade. With the availability of a lot of big free agents in centerfield this offseason, it may take teams some time to realize that they aren’t going to be able to afford a Torii Hunter or an Andruw Jones. That makes Coco Crisp some mighty tasty trade bait, and he might fetch us one of these middle-of-class guys in return.

Scott Rolen was a perennial All-Star until injury severely limited two of his last three seasons. He’s got 3 years left on his contract at $12M/year (coincidence that this is exactly what the Sox offered Lowell?), which makes him scary to most teams, but not the Red Sox. The Cards are said to be averse to eating any money from his contract, and Theo would oblige if they lower the asking price just a bit. I like Rolen as a good match; he’s a right-handed veteran power bat who plays excellent defense. He’s a bit of a risk, but his lifetime .372 OBP is a nice fit, and he’s actually one year younger than Lowell. The Cardinals want starting pitching in return; would St. Louis take some package including Julian Tavarez, who is locked in for less than $4M, or would we consider dealing Jon Lester?

Some have suggested that Garrett Atkins might be available. While the 28-year old slugger poses an interesting option, at least two writers say that the Rox are not going to trade him this offseason (standard disclaimer here about being blown away by an offer).

The Chicago White Sox have two players who can play third in Joe Crede and Josh Fields, and Crede’s name has come up in trade talks already this offseason. The 30-year old righty plays excellent defense, and has demonstrated some power, though he missed most of last season with an injury. His career .259/.305/.446 line is not that encouraging, but he did have a great 2006 and the White Sox could be interested in Crisp. Crede made about $5M in 2007, is arbitration eligible and under control of Chicago.

Yet another player that has been mentioned is Texas’ Hank Blalock. The Rangers are seeking a good return on the 27-year old, who has one year left on his contract at $6M, and a $6.2M option for 2009. Blalock has a .273/.337/.462 career line and has been about league average on defense the past three years. Texas is another team that has shown a lot of interest in Coco.

First Class
Then there are the big names, the ones who will cost us, either now or in the future.

Alex Rodriguez needs no introduction. The guy has said so many things about what he wants and who he wants to play for that I don’t care what he says anymore. The only thing that hasn’t changed is his egomaniacal need to become the highest paid athlete ever. First the Yankees wouldn’t touch him, but then neither would anyone else at $350M, so the Yanks have come crawling back on their hands and knees. Word is he’s nearly ready to sign a new 10-year, $275M deal with a lot of incentives to stay in pinstripes. If the price had come down to 8 years and $225M or so, I think the Sox should have got him. But, I’m also kind of relieved he won’t be playing here.

Then there’s Miguel Cabrera, the 25-year old phenom who hits everything and eats everything in sight. He’s got two more years under control (at about $11M and $15M), and then would become a free agent. The Marlins are asking for four premium prospects in return for Cabrera, and they’re likely to get two and a half or three from either the Angels or the Dodgers. Cabrera is a butcher at third, and would play at first base if he came to Boston. However, with the Fish asking for Buchholz, Ellsbury AND Lester, I am not optimistic.

Outside the box
If the Sox choose, they could pursue first basemen with the idea of shifting Youk to third. This opens up a huge realm of possibilities, including Richie Sexson, Carlos Pena, Conor Jackson and some old Epstein favorites, including Todd Helton and Ryan Shealy.

UPDATE: Could Lowell come back?
Multiple reports have surfaced suggesting that all those four-year offers never really were offered, and with the Yankees ready to re-sign A-Rod, Lowell could indeed come back to Boston. The Yankees say that they would consider putting Lowell at first base if they sign him, but I don’t see why they want him that badly. I think they are just trying to up the price for the Red Sox.

2007 World Series Game 3: Sox squash comeback bid, 10-5

It all started off right. Daisuke Matsuzaka looked pretty sharp, turning in 5 1/3 innings of scoreless ball. The tablesetters kept getting on base, with Josh Fogg just unable to get either Jacoby Ellsbury or Dustin Pedroia out (or much anyone else, for that matter), the offense exploding for six runs in the third, and even Dice-K contributing an RBI single.

The thick infield grass contributed a lot, starting from the first ball in play, a swinging bunt by Ellsbury that just stopped down the third base line. I think Mo Vaughn could have run that one out, even today. BTW, what is Tim McCarver talking about? He said that the Sox have great speed on the bases with Pedroia at first.

Fogg went on to get David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell on fly balls. At Mile High, you have to forget the HR, go opposite field, and just hit it where they ain’t. A lot of balls went for doubles that would be singles in many other parks (like Julio Lugo‘s 2nd inning double), because the outfielders have to play so far back to cover all that real estate.

Top of the 3rd, the Sox mount a six-run rally. Fogg doesn’t even last 3 innings, and I’m not surprised. I’m not sure I would have walked Manny to load the bases with no outs, but Lowell made sure Clint Hurdle paid for that one. BTW, Manny was safe on that play at home. I don’t know how Ted Barrett could have seen it from behind him.

Dice-K was cruising, not giving up hits or walking people. He opened the bottom of the 3rd by nearly beheading Garrett Atkins. That’s most likely due to the long offensive inning and the cold. It was in the mid-40s at the time of the first pitch, and dropped into the 30s by the end of the game. This was a factor for the pitchers for sure.

Bottom of the 6th, Kevin Youkilis is in the game, and Big Papi is out. Could be a little early, but it was a six-run lead, and Ortiz had just been to bat in the top of the frame. Matsuzaka got one more out. then he walked Todd Helton and Atkins back to back, and Francona chose to go to Javier Lopez to face Brad Hawpe. The whole time, I’m thinking, WHY? He’s a LOOGY who has been awful against lefties, and Hawpe can’t hit the fastball; it’s too early for Hideki Okajima so I’m thinking Manny Delcarmen here. I don’t mind using Lopez in a new inning, but with inherited runners?

Lopez comes in, doesn’t record even one out, and allows two men to score. Tito has to go to Mike Timlin to end the frame, but not before a really, really long out by Ryan Spilborghs to deep centerfield and a near hit by Jeff Baker that Lugo leapt and just manged to snag in the webbing of his glove. 415 ft to the fence seems kinda ridiculous, but it really saved us here. This is one honkin’ big ballpark.

Bottom of the 7th, Timlin allows two singles, and is lifted for Okajima, forcing a double switch: Coco Crisp goes into center, and Ellsbury replaces J.D. Drew in right. Matt Holliday smacks the first pitch he sees (a heater right over the plate) WAY past the centerfield fence, and suddenly it’s a 6-5 game. This inning seems to last forever, but Okajima finally manages to get the third out. It looks like he just needed some more time to warm up.

Top of the 8th, the Sox answer. No Ortiz? No problem. Lugo walks with one out, Crisp singles, and Ellsbury and Pedroia follow up with doubles of their own against a tough lefty in Brian Fuentes. Ellsbury’s pop fly hits right down the right field line, and the sliding Hawpe just can’t quite get to it. That’s a lot of speed on the basepaths (minus Pedroia), and they all get home. 9-5, Sox.

Delcarmen starts the 8th, but gets into a bit of trouble with 2 outs, so they go to Jonathan Papelbon early. One pitch to Holliday, fly ball, inning over.

Top of the 9th, give credit to Lowell for making a great heads up baserunning play for the second game in a row. After Alex Cora moved him up to second, Lowell used an opportunity to steal third base uncontested. This is big, slow, lumbering Mike Lowell. And with one out, Jason Varitek is able to bring him home with a sac fly to center. Paps closes the door in the bottom of the 9th, and it’s now 3-0 Sox.

Ellsbury ended 4-5 with three doubles. He didn’t pound the ball so much, but used the lines and his speed to his advantage. I am really enjoying seeing Ellsbury/Pedroia hitting 1-2, as they could conceivably be in those spots for 2008 and beyond. The skill, determination and spark that they bring is really exciting after the failed Lugo leadoff experiment.

Now Jon Lester gets his chance to seal the deal tomorrow, in Game 4 of the Series. I really hope he does it, but if not, I don’t worry too much with Beckett on the mound Monday. Sorry, Denver. The rally towels didn’t work for Cleveland either, BTW. I guess it’s time for you guys to throw them in now.

2007 World Series Game 1: Sox, Beckett dominate 13-1

Pedroia slams a leadoff HRMake that 21 of 23 games, thank you very much. Josh Beckett and the Red Sox came out wanting to make a bold statement, but it came out more like an air raid siren. And it had the Rockies running for cover. Beckett struck out the side in the top of the first on 15 pitches, and Dustin Pedroia kicked off the bottom of the frame with another Monster shot, his 2nd HR in as many games. You could see the dread and the fear on the Rockies’ faces even then. I think Jeff Francis must have been pretty nervous, because he proceeded to allow four more hits, making it 3-0 after just one inning. Not to be outdone, Beckett comes out and strikes out Todd Helton before giving up a long double to Garrett Atkins. Then he strikes out Brad Hawpe, making him look very, very bad. In fact, Hawpe went 0-4 on the night with four strikeouts. Looks like somebody needs to spend more time in the batting cage. Beckett does leave a fastball over the plate to Troy Tulowitski, allowing a run, but it’s all clear sailing from here. He almost doesn’t need anything but fastballs until around the fourth inning to mow down the Rockies one by one.

Beckett Delivers in Game 1Welcome to the American League, boys. You see, the last time the Red Sox ace faced the Rockies on June 14, he was 9-0 and on the way to setting some serious records. A couple of weeks after coming back off of a finger avulsion (read: blister-like thingy) and trip to the DL, he gave up a grand slam to Atkins and another HR to Matt Holliday in his first loss of the year. 5 innings, 6 runs, and only one strikeout (Willy Taveras). Some players get intimidated by stuff like that. Not Beckett; he feeds off that, and grows stronger. He wants to show you who you’re dealing with. And last night, he did, going 7 really strong innings, striking out 9, and walking just one.

The Red Sox offense battered starter Francis for 6 runs on 10 hits and 3 walks over four innings, and continued the punishment on rookie reliever Franklin Morales, who balked once and gave up seven runs in just 2/3 of an inning. To be fair, big righty Ryan Speier walked in three of those runs with the bases loaded; that was painful to watch. Everyone contributed in some way, with all the regulars getting at least one hit, save Jacoby Ellsbury, who still walked in a run and also scored. David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Julio Lugo had three hits each, and accounted for 5 runs and 5 RBI combined. It was that kind of night. In all, Boston scored in four of the first five innings, and left 17 men on base in this game. They set a World Series record for a Game 1 blowout, and are the first team to score 10+ runs in three consecutive postseason games. The Rockies have a pretty good offense, but they will have some trouble coming back if the Sox get another big lead in this Series. They need to string hits together to win, because the HR power is somewhat lacking.

The Colorado bullpen did a good job the rest of the way, but with a cushion like that, you know the Sox hitters must have let up just a bit. Clint Hurdle had to use five of his seven relievers last night, which should lead to interesting results, should rookie starter Ubaldo Jimenez leave early tonight. The Red Sox just need to be patient and take a lot of pitches with him, as control has been an issue for him in the past.

Mike Timlin and Eric Gagne each provided an inning of scoreless relief, striking out three batters between them. It was nice to see Gagne go out there and throw strikes (8 of 11 pitches) and work an easy inning.

As expected, Coco Crisp came into the game as a defensive replacement, Manny sat down and Ellsbury shifted to left. Good to see that the catch to end the ALCS didn’t cause an injury.

I don’t think that we should necessarily consider this Series to be in the bag yet, but this game should inspire a lot of confidence. The Sox players are saying all the right things in their interviews, and I don’t see them getting too cocky and letting this one slip away. Like I said, I think confidence is a huge factor for a young team like the Rockies. If they think they can, they could actually pull it off, given the right circumstances. But take away their hope early, and it ain’t gonna happen. If Curt Schilling dazzles them tonight, I do believe that it’s all but done, with Josh Fogg taking the mound in Game 3. The Rox will need him to pull a Jake Westbrook if they are going to survive.

I’ve heard some people wondering why the Red Sox went with Kyle Snyder on the roster rather than Julian Tavarez. While Tavarez is more of a groundball pitcher, which seems more suitable for a place like Mile High Stadium, it’s important to note that batters hit only .223 against Snyder this year, while they hit Tavarez at a .281 clip. Neither of them had a good second half, it’s true (Snyder 5.24 ERA and Tavarez 5.48 ERA), but Snyder’s BAA was actually even better post-ASB (.207) than the first half (.233). His problem was the longball; he gave up 5 of his 7 HR in August and September. While Mile High is a great hitter’s park, the HRs are not as much of an issue as they used to be, thanks to the Humidor. I think what the Sox want to do is minimize the number of balls in play, and rely more on strikeouts and softly hit balls.

2007 World Series Preview: The Colorado Rockies

Schedule of games:

Game 1: Wed Oct 24 8:35PM (@BOS); Jeff Francis vs Josh Beckett
Game 2: Thu Oct 25 8:30PM (@BOS); TBA
Game 3: Sat Oct 27 (@COL)
Game 4: Sun Oct 28 (@COL)
Game 5: Mon Oct 29 (@COL)
Game 6: Wed Oct 31 (@BOS)
Game 7: Thu Nov  1 (@BOS)

The Red Sox have yet to announce the starting rotation for the Series, because they have to decide whether it’ll be Curt Schilling or Tim Wakefield in Game 2, with the other pitcher likely starting in Game 4 in Colorado. Schilling is 4-4 with a 5.51 ERA lifetime in Colorado, and Wakefield is 0-2 with a 9.31 ERA in two career starts there, not a fun choice to be making. Should he start a mile high, the thin air at Invesco should cause his knuckleball to lose a little bit of its movement. The Rockies could be taking batting practice on Wake if that happens. On the other hand, Wakefield dazzled the Colorado lineup at Fenway back in June, and could do it again.

There is a little more story line between these teams. Apparently, the rumored deal of Todd Helton for Mike Lowell and Julian Tavarez earlier this year was a done deal, but the Sox balked at the last minute when Dan O’Dowd asked for one of Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz or Manny Delcarmen to be included in the deal. What a different season that would have been.

My prediction? Sox in 6.

Setting the Roster

I don’t expect any changes to the roster for the World Series. Personally, I wouldn’t mind swapping out Javier Lopez with Tavarez, but it’s tough to remove a guy at this point, when he’s contributed to the team’s success. Taking away his shot to play in a World Series is a tough one. Call me crazy, but I actually think Eric Gagne could prove useful against a National League team, though I wouldn’t ask him to hold a pressure situation any time soon.

Keys to the Series

The Rockies come in as hot as humanly possible. Everyone knows about them winning 21 of their last 22 games; that’s an amazing streak, especially to continue that in the playoffs is unheard of. And if you thought Cleveland was a young team, get ready for a shock. You might not recognize a good 3/4 of their team, unless you follow fantasy baseball. So how are they doing it? As a team, they scored the second most runs, led the NL in batting average at .280, tied for the league lead with a .354 OBP. The Rockies boast a very young rotation that has just come together in the last months of the season, and a solid bullpen with a lot of power arms. They came in 8th in the NL with a team ERA of 4.32, which is not bad, considering they play at altitude, where balls tend to carry well. They have taken to storing all of their baseballs in a Humidor, which ensures that the balls do not dry out and carry even further in the thin mountain air. While they do have good stuff, their pitching staff is not a strikeout staff; they rely on getting ground balls from their sinkerball pitchers. Having swept the NLCS about a week ago, Colorado is very well-rested, and we have to count on them having gotten a little rusty in the mean time.

This young rotation has been on fire in the playoffs, with everyone contributing. Jeff Francis is a really tough lefty who I predict will give Sox hitters fits. He’s got great command of a low 90s fastball and a biting curve that’s tough to gauge. Their #2, Aaron Cook is a fireballer, and he throws perhaps the heaviest sinker in the majors right now. Then there’s 23-year old Ubaldo Jimenez, who throws high-90s and has a nasty curveball to go with it. He also throws a pretty decent changeup. Josh Fogg is a journeyman, really, and a control/finesse pitcher who we should be able to hit well, should they use him. Franklin Morales is a quality lefty that they will likely move to the bullpen, with the return of Cook.

The Colorado pitchers are used to facing NL lineups, not David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. You can not get past a good AL lineup with just a good fastball, as Josh Beckett learned in 2006. They do have a lot of young arms with very good stuff, but with youth comes control problems and inconsistency. The Rockies pitchers need to be able to throw their secondary pitches for strikes, or else this patient lineup will take them apart. We have to rely on their youth and inexperience to work against them; if they get into trouble, I think their youngest pitchers will fall apart pretty quickly. Advantage Boston.

The Rockies feature a pretty deep bullpen, hard throwers with good stuff. They are inexperienced also, but I don’t think it matters here as much as it does in the rotation. Their closer, Manny Corpas, has had a phenomenal rookie campaign, and tough lefty Brian Fuentes is also there to back him up. Look for them to bring him in to face Big Papi in key at-bats. Jeremy Affeldt and LaTroy Hawkins are hard throwers. They have some big guys here. Jason Hirsh and Darren Clarke are both 6’8″, and Ryan Speier is 6’7″. Apart from the closer, I’d say these two bullpens are about even.

The Rockies offense is led by All-Star Matt Holliday. Holliday is the real deal, a very dangerous hitter who can make contact, drive the ball, and even run a little on the basepaths. Besides him, there is Todd Helton, who is an on-base and doubles machine, and Garrett Atkins, a good hitter with a great power stroke. Troy Tulowitski and Brad Hawpe both hit .291 and had at least 24 HR this season. The Rockies have a couple of pesky hitters in Kazuo Matsui and Willy Taveras, who between the two of them stole 65 bases in 2007. Their bench is stocked with good depth at every position. Like the Indians, they feature a nice balanced lineup. Still, they lacked the power numbers you’d expect of a team that plays at Mile High Stadium. If they’re going to succeed against Boston, they’re going to have to do it by manufacturing runs and getting key hits. Boston has a slight edge here.

This Rockies defense is very good. Their infield is led by shortstop Tulowitski, who as a rookie already has filled the highlight reels with his goodies. Tavarez covers a lot of ground in center, and Hawpe is pretty good in right. One pitfall for the Sox is that when we play in Colorado, Ortiz is going to be manning first base. That’s the only way to keep his bat in the lineup. Ortiz took some practice there before the last series, so hopefully he’ll be up to the task. Look for Kevin Youkilis to come in as a defensive replacement late in these games. Also, the outfield at Mile High is a mile wide. Manny will have to really pay attention not to mess it up there. Getting Ellsbury in left late in games would be a very good idea.

Terry Francona and the Boston team gets an edge here just because of playoff experience. This team knows how to rally once we’re down; the Rockies have had yet to face a serious challenge in the postseason. What if they go down 0-2 games? I think it’s over at that point.

Final Thoughts
Boston has the edge here, and is expected to win. The Rockies have a big advantage when were playing in Denver, but we also have a big advantage when we play here in Beantown. The Rockies are definitely talented, but they are just a bad play away from losing their confidence in themselves. Just as Cleveland clearly buckled in the last three games, Colorado runs the same risk because of their collective inexperience. If they get off to a great start, the Sox could be in trouble; but if we start well, it is over.