Every year Bill James takes a shot at predicting the season to come. And, as with any projection system, a good few of them end up looking ridiculous come the end of the season between injuries, breakouts, and just the general ebb-and-flow of a major league career.
Still, there's no denying that Bill James knows his stuff, even if he sometimes seems to see himself as much as a facilitator as a statistician, and is a part of the team to boot. With real (or simply not-as-fake, depending on how you see spring training) stats a good four months away, they provide some fun material for the cold winter.
So, with free agency nice and quiet in the time between the November GM meetings and December winter meetings, let's take a look at some of the more interesting ideas Bill James has about the few major league players still on the Red Sox' roster.
1. Daniel Nava: 292 PA, .266/.367/.414
Daniel Nava just refuses to go away, and unlike with some players, that's not necessarily a bad thing for the Red Sox. The best story on the team in years, Nava of course came from baseball obscurity to the majors, and now actually has managed near enough to a full season's worth of plate appearances between 2010 and 2012 with the Red Sox.
Has it always been pretty? No, but a lot of that might have to do with injury. When you're a guy like Nava, it can be tempting to try and play through anything to avoid missing out on a rare opportunity, and this year that included trying to play through a wrist injury that eventually required offseason surgery. It's easy to forget after the last few months of the year, but Nava started the season playing like an All-Star, with an OPS approaching .900 at the end of June.
Does that mean Nava is a top outfielder? No, let's not be crazy. But the fact that he's now finished a second season with an OBP north of .350 even with all that injury time thrown in makes it easier to believe that this is actually the player he is. Nava can hit mistake pitches, and has proven to have a truly impressive eye at the plate, and that's all a player needs to succeed in this league.
Bill James, for his part, seems to be on board with this idea, and even gives Nava credit for a little bit of power lost to the injury. For Nava to live up to these projections, though, he's going to need enough faith from the organization to get that sort of playing time, and to have his wrist heal in a hurry. That's one of those injuries that can nag, and even if it doesn't take away Nava's ability to take pitches, it certainly can take away any fear that pitchers might have of throwing in the zone if Nava can't muscle up more than a single.
It's not a fantastic projection, but it's something Red Sox fans will take every time from a backup outfielder, and certainly a season Daniel Nava would be thrilled to have at the end of the year.
2. Franklin Morales: 122 IP, 38 GP, 17 GS, 7.89 K/9, 3.84 BB/9, 3.98 ERA
Perhaps the most interesting projection of the lot: 17 starts for Franklin Morales.
Morales, of course, racked up nine of them this year before falling to injury, and looked pretty good in doing so. As Sox fans were distracted by the Punto trade and one truly awful September, however, Morales faded from the collective consciousness of Sox fans, who instead began to pin their hopes for rotation fixes on free agency and the trade market.
Of course, Bill James has to go with what he knows about the Red Sox, and right now all he knows is that there's not much to speak of in the rotation. John Lackey is kind of an integral piece, for crying out loud! So maybe that's why he's got Morales pegged to take on a good half season's worth of starts.
What's odd, here, is that James not only exapects Morales to see his walk rates spike higher than they've been in his time in Boston, but also to see a dramatic falloff in strikeouts even though Morales was best with the K when he was starting rather than relieving. It's sort of an inbetween space for Morales which I just don't see. Morales just seems more likely to be a guy who either has a breakout season, or (more likely, to be honest) simply flares out as the innings build up.
For either scenario to happen, however, Morales will have to find some starts first. Ideally the Sox will be able to put together a rotation that doesn't need Franklin Morales except as a 7th option. If Morales finds his way to 17 starts, the Sox probably aren't going to be in the best position to enjoy whatever successes he might have.
3. Felix Doubront: 202 IP, 33 GS, 8.42 K/9, 3.30 BB/9, 3.70 ERA
Simply put, James expects that Felix Doubront will learn how to be a major league starter.
Last year, Doubront was a very interesting pitcher. He wasn't the sort of guy who suffered from having the ability to throw pitches but not knowing how to pitch any given at bat. He was simply the guy who wasn't quite sure how those at bats fit together to form a game of baseball. Combined with an arm that had never had a full season's load on it before, Doubront's inexperience led to a late-season fade that left him with a hefty 4.86 ERA.
If Doubront is going to find sustained success as a starter, he has to find a way to get that pitch count down, and that innings count up. Part of that needs to come from simply building endurance, but part of it needs to come from Doubront actually learning how to make it in the majors without having every at bat become a battle. It's one of the trickiest lessons to learn in the game, since it's hard to find the balance between pitching smart, and simply "pitching to contact," which for a guy like Doubront who doesn't excel at ground balls is tantamount to pitching poorly.
Even if Doubront does manage this, though, there's another important part to James' projection which might not come true: a 1.07 HR/9 rate, down from 1.34 in 2012. It doesn't seem like that huge a difference, but it's the difference of seven or eight homers in a season, which is around the difference between a 3.70 and a 4.30 ERA. Now, Doubront's 1.34 in 2012 did come with an unusually high 15.9% HR/FB rate, but that's maybe not entirely unexpected when you consider the fact that he's a lefty pitching in Fenway Park. Simply put, so long as he stays in Fenway, this is likely to be a problem throughout Doubront's career.
4. Junichi Tazawa: 57 GP, 65 IP, 9.00 K/9, 2.63 BB/9, 2.49 ERA, 2 SV
Junichi Tazawa clearly isn't the closer yet, and Bill James doesn't think that time is going to come in 2013 either. But with a performance like this, can it be that far off?
This isn't the most interesting of the projections, but it might be the most fun of them. If Will Middlebrooks was the team's rookie of the year with his impressive power performance, Junichi Tazawa didn't end nearly so far behind as anyone might have expected heading into the year. Coming to the team halfway through the year (after a brief, impressive glimpse in April), Tazawa was nothing short of dominant. At first getting some work as a long reliever, Tazawa eventually worked his way up to more important innings. Finishing with an incredible September where he struck out 15 batters, walked one, and gave up just the line run in 11 innings of work, Tazawa has emerged on the scene as one of the game's best young relievers.
The funny thing about James' prediction is that it might honestly be conservative of all things. At no point did Tazawa look fluky, lucky, or in any way false. Clearly all-the-way back from his Tommy John surgery, Tazawa's fastball hit 97 and sat noticeably higher than it had before (especially in 2009--the only time we'd ever seen him get significant time in the majors), and his splitter played excellently as a second pitch. A drop in K, a significant spike in both walk rates and ERA...James is going the conservative route here. In could certainly happen. It might even be probable logically. But after watching him pitch in that excellent September, it's just hard to see Tazawa any other way.
5. Will Middlebrooks: .277/.316/.490, 29 HR
It's a bit silly to look at that and feel...disappointed. 29 homers from a sophomore third baseman with a great glove? Still, James expects Middlebrooks to take a step back from the .288/.325/.509 line he put up last year, and it's hard not to be disappointed by a sophomore slump rather than an improvement.
Then again, looking at his season splits, it might also be seen as an encouraging show of faith. Middlebrooks faded some in July, and then heavily as he played through injury in August, and with an always-concerning wrist injury being the problem, there's plenty of reason to be concerned. For all that you could see Middlebrooks developing as the year went on--figuring out his problem with discipline and curveballs, fighting back against pitchers who sought to take advantage of his inexperience--he never did get back to the heights of his early-season numbers.
If Middlebrooks were to provide the Red Sox with this sort of production, Sox fans really couldn't complain. It would put a very solid floor on Middlebrooks, probably in the neighborhood of 3.5-4.0 WAR assuming his glove is as good as we think it is. Still, with prospects who show such promise it's hard not to dream on the possibilities of true All-Star performances, so we'll have to guard ourselves against inflating expectations too high for Middlebrooks to match.