A Few Good Questions About The Boston Red Sox

We tend to think in terms of finished products when looking back at past Red Sox teams, but each February that year's team is not yet the narrative we've collectively constructed over a full season. It is, instead, a veritable bounty of questions. In this crazy world with the instant nature of the internet, journalists and analysts from all the corners of the globe can list questions they think the team will have to answer to have success during the upcoming season. And this season being no different, lo and behold, they have done so.

To wit (and a hat tip to Joy of Sox for the links):

  • Michael Silverman of the Herald has nine questions which means it would have been shorter to just list the things Mr. Silverman believes don't require explanation (presumably third base coach, back up catcher, and hot dog vending aren't areas of concern).
  • The Providence Journal's Tim Britton has a more reasonable three questions which concern right field, the back of the rotation, and shortstop.
  • Gordon Edes has ten questions but, wary of overload, he's only asking one a day. Like Mr. Silverman everything is a question but unlike Mr. Silverman, he's just more subtle about it.
  • Finally, Ian Browne at MLB.com has three questions that need answering: starting pitching, shortstop, and Carl Crawford.

The truly strange thing to me is that I have yet to see anyone here at OTM weigh in on any of these topics. Not once. Ever. Totally. For serious*. So, what's say we grab a few off the top and dive right in, eh?

* OK, fine. No. Not for serious.

Here are two of my own and then I'll throw in shortstop since all the "experts" are soooooo worried about it. Sheesh. Calm down, "experts."

1. Back of The Rotation

They have numerous candidates to close and multiple players who can play shortstop but if the Red Sox have any uncertainty going into the season, it's here. I was going to just address just the back of the rotation, but if the Red Sox don't get good innings from Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz it won't really matter how effectively mediocre the production from the numbers four and five spots in the rotation are.

During their last championship season in 2007, the Red Sox got 879 innings, 61% of the team's total, from their top five starters, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Julian Tavarez, and Curt Schilling. Last year, they got 782 innings or 53.7% of the total from their starters. That's a significant drop off.

The Red Sox need to stay healthy at the top and not slip below replacement at the back. The chances of the first part happening are anyone's guess. I hate to be unspecific there, but if you can predict the health of Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz you shouldn't be reading this article, you should be bet'n the ponies. There's a reasonable chance the top three can stay healthy and if so there is no reason they can't be very effective.

The back end is more of a hodgepodge. But the names aren't important. Merely mediocre pitching from the four and five spots will be water to a man wondering the desert. With Bard Plus (that's what I'm calling the back end, Bard Plus) Boston should be in a condition to far exceed last season's volcano of hideousness which exploded from the likes of John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland, etc. This is what is called a low bar to jump over and the good part about that is the lower the bar the easier the jump.

2. Carl Crawford

It has been said that Carl Crawford was only really bad for the first two months of the season, but Crawford only managed to top an .800 OPS in one month of the season (May, oddly enough). Yes, months are arbitrary beginning and end points in the course of the season, but my intention isn't to say Crawford can or can't hit in any specific month so much as to say Crawford didn't hit really at all last season.

And yet, a more concerning point might just be his defense. According to Baseball Reference's Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average, Baseball Prospectus's FRAA, and Fan Graphs UZR/150, Crawford had his worst year defensively in the last four, five, or seven years, depending which stat you look at. True, some of that could have come from playing at Fenway Park's notoriously defensive-metric confusing left field, but to my eyes Crawford wasn't up to his usual stellar defensive play, though I'm perfectly willing to believe he was closer to average here than awful.

Still, Crawford was brought in because he was the total package and he was a total package of bad last season. Even his base running took a step back Fan Graphs has last year as Crawford's worst performance on the bases since 2003, his first full season in Tampa.)

But!

That doesn't mean Crawford will be that bad, or even anywhere close to bad this upcoming season. Players have bad years. The pressure gets to them. They have nagging injuries that throw their delicate mechanics off. They have personal issues which are too much for them to shake at game time. Or, sometimes, they have all three. Mike Lowell had an abysmal 2006 where he hit .236/.298/.360. To that point in seven big league seasons, Lowell had posted exactly an .800 OPS so his .658 was unexpected. Over the next four seasons, Lowell put up an .829 OPS (the Green Monster helped out a bit with that). It was like '06 had never happened.

Crawford's 2011 could be Mike Lowell's 2006. In fact, considering the aging patterns for players with Crawford's skill sets, his age, and the entirety of his career, I'd say it's even likely. I hope it isn't giving too much away to say that BP's most recent PECOTA pegs Crawford for just under an .800 OPS. The Red Sox led the league in runs scored last year effectively without Crawford's help. Imagine what they can do with it.

3. Shortstop

I'm not going to get too deeply into this because, as far as I'm concerned, our own Marc Normandin already did the definitive work on the subject. But in short, the Sox can get perfectly adequate production from Mike Aviles and Nick Punto while helping to maintain some level of financial flexibility. Why should you care about financial flexibility? Because that's what allows the Red Sox to go out and acquire expensive talent, be it in season before the trade deadline, or next off season when the Rockies are trying to give away Troy Tulowitzki. Of course I'm kidding about that last bit, but an Aviles/Punto platoon should be as productive as the 36 year old Marco Scutaro would have been.

So, no, the 2012 Red Sox probably won't be remembered for their shortstop production, but that doesn't mean it has to be a black hole either. The pieces are in place for the Red Sox to have a successful season, whether they're sexy or not, and the players they have at shortstop shouldn't hold them back.

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