|Will They Hit? A Look at the New (Current) Red Sox Lineup||12.17.09 at 1:15 pm ET|
Gone are the Days of Thunder at Fenway Park … at least for now.
The newly reshaped Red Sox will not be confused for the group that typically bludgeoned opponents into submission in previous years, most notably from 2003-05, when the team cleared 900 runs a year with seeming ease. Nor will next year’s bunch — as currently constructed — be confused for the 2009 edition of the Red Sox. As of this moment, the Sox have effectively replaced Jason Bay, Mike Lowell and a revolving door at shortstop with Mike Cameron, Casey Kotchman and Marco Scutaro.
As general manager Theo Epstein articulated Wednesday, this has been part of a strategy in which the Sox have focused over $100 million this offseason in an effort by the Sox to shut down other teams’ offenses.
John Lackey is a big part of that. So, too, is outfielder Cameron — long viewed as one of the best defensive outfielders in the game — and shortstop Scutaro, who even if a tick below Alex Gonzalez defensively, is still likely an upgrade over what the Sox fielded at the position over the full course of 2009 (Nick Green, Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, Gonzalez).
“I know a lot of emphasis, a lot of talk, was centered on our offense last year. What’s lost in the mix is our run prevention needs to improve as well. We were one of the worst defensive clubs in baseball last year and we think Mike is a very important piece [in improving],” said Epstein. “I think there are a couple of parts that will allow us to throw a really good team defense out there which will help our pitching staff, help our run prevention.”
Even so, defensive upgrades aren’t helpful if you can’t outscore your opponent. Even Zack Greinke, the best pitcher in the majors in 2009, went just 16-8 due to non-existent run support from the Royals. All of that raises the question: what can be expected from the Red Sox offense in 2010?
Barring a move to add a bat — and by all indications, Adrian Gonzalez isn’t walking through that door anytime soon, at least this offseason — there is little question that the Sox’ offense will take a bit of a hit. The move to replace Jason Bay with Cameron in left is a defense-first move. So, too, is the team’s willingness to move Mike Lowell to Texas so that Kevin Youkilis can cross the diamond from first to third, thus resulting in Casey Kotchman — at least for now — being penciled in as the Sox’ starting first baseman.
Cameron hit .250/.342/.452/.795 last year with the Brewers, almost perfectly in line with his career line of .250/.340/.448/.788. He has, in the words of GM Theo Epstein, “serious juice” in his bat, resulting in 20-25 homers almost every year. The he strikes out about once a game, Cameron works deep counts, meaning that he plays into the Sox’ typical gameplan of driving starters out of games early.
“We think he’s an underrated offensive players,” said Epstein. “He gets his 20 to 25 home runs a year, a very consistent performer. He’s a threat out there. He’s not somebody that pitchers can take lightly. He’s got serious juice. Primarily a pull guy, he fits perfectly into Fenway Park and as he said could put some dents in the wall or over. And he sees a lot of pitches. Mike takes his walks, and I know he strikes out a lot but that doesn’t scare us. We have a lot of productive hitters here who have struck out a lot. Strikeouts are OK as long as they come, as they often do, with walks and home runs. And in Mike’s case, they certainly do.”
The Sox also feel that Kotchman has potential to be a solid if unspectacular offensive contributor. In 2007, at the age of 24, he hit .296/.372/.467/.840, numbers that resulted in him being the centerpiece of the Angels’ deal for Mark Teixeira the following year. He is still just 26 and entering his prime years.
Even though he struggled in a part-time role with the Red Sox last year, and his power is not what you would ordinarily expect from a first baseman, Kotchman has been a tough at-bat in the past, and the Sox believe that he can build on his career .269/.337/.406/.742 line. The Sox are comfortable with the idea of having him be their starting first baseman next year.
“He’s a good example of a player who has a chance to go out and build some value by playing,” said Epstein. “He didn’t get an opportunity to play here, but he’s outstanding defensively, he’s somebody who’s a tougher out than the numbers indicate. He can hit really good pitching. He’s really tough to get to swing and miss. We think there’s a lot of offensive potential there. If we end up with him playing a lot of first base against right-handed pitching, we have a chance to duplicate or build off what he did in 2007 for example, that’s a great solution.”
Even so, there is no doubt that a lineup featuring Kotchman and Cameron rather than Bay and Lowell will take a hit. Even so, any offensive decline for the Sox might be softened by the addition of Scutaro, who — even if he fails to replicate his 2009 career year (.379 OBP, .789 OPS) with the Blue Jays, and instead comes closer to his career norms (.337 OBP, .721 OPS) — will represent a huge upgrade over the Sox’ offensive struggles from the shortstop position in 2009.
Last week, before the agreement to trade Lowell (still waiting to be finalized) and the signing of Cameron, we looked at what the Red Sox lineup might look like in 2010 with or without Bay. Plugging Cameron into the lineup reveals a fairly similar outcome — that the Sox, if Kotchman, Scutaro and Cameron can perform at their career average levels, will be a slightly but not significantly worse offense club in 2010 than they were in 2009.
Assuming that every Red Sox lineup holdovers — Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and J.D. Drew — performs at his 2009 level next year, and that Cameron, Kotchman and Scutaro performed at their career averages, the Red Sox starting nine would project (according to the amazing baseballmusings.com Lineup Analysis tool) to score 5.646 runs per game. Over a full year, that would project to a whopping 915 runs.
That is not quite the production that the Sox would get with Bay, Lowell and the team’s season-long shortstop output. Such a group would project to score 5.735 runs a game, or 929 runs over the full year, according to the same Lineup Analysis tool. (Note: this total is greater than what the Sox actually scored for a couple reasons: 1) It features a full season of Victor Martinez behind the plate, rather than the Sox’ actual team, which featured Jason Varitek and George Kottaras for two-thirds of the season. 2) It assumes that the Sox regulars all play 162 games; days of rest and time on the disabled list will push this expectation down.)
If the Sox remain unchanged, then it would seem fair to expect some drop in run production. The team, which scored 850 runs, might be conservatively estimated to score about 850 runs (though there is a decent chance that, with a full season from Victor Martinez, some improvement in David Ortiz’ year-long totals, and continued improvement from Jacoby Ellsbury, that number could be higher). The lineup would still feature a bunch of tough outs, and would likely be one of the best handful of offenses in the American League.
That, the team believes, would be more than enough to win given the improvement in the team’s run prevention.
And if it doesn’t? Then the team feels like, after preserving all of its top prospects, it would be in a position to add a bat once the season is underway.
“I think we like the pieces that we have right now,” said Epstein. “I think generally speaking it’s easier to add a bat during the season, so I think our pitching staff is going to be extraordinarily deep, so if we do go into the season with a mix similar to what we have right now, and if the need for a bigger bat does develop, I think that’s something we can address during the season. By no means am I saying we’re done, but I also don’t feel so rushed to go out there and do something dramatic.”
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