Monday, March 19, 2007

The Story

My oldest daughter has been agitating for a family trip to IHOP for some months now. I suppose to a 5 year-old, the idea of a house of pancakes holds a certain undeniably literal appeal. Because she was a fairly good little girl last week, I put aside my long-held food snobbery (temporarily - definitely temporarily) and piled the family into our truckster on Sunday morning for some delicious mass produced breakfast products.

As is nearly always the case on weekend mornings, I eschewed a shower in favor of my standard uniform, redolent as it is of arrested maturity. Of note, in this case, is the battered Red Sox cap that I've "owned" since July 2004 when a friend left it behind on a weeklong trip to Tahoe. My best intentions of returning it to him were waylaid first by my laziness and then by pure superstition as the Sox started winning games. After the World Series, there was no chance in hell he was getting it back. I bought him a new one in appreciation of his contribution to the Sox' victory.

As we took our seats in the restaurant, our waiter took note of my lid and asked, "Are you part of the Nation?" After I affirmed my status as a card-carrying member (and cringed just a little bit at how truly grating the idea of the Nation must sound to the unconverted when mentioned aloud in public), he offered me his take on the 2007 Sox.

"You know what the two biggest keys for the Sox are this year?", he asked.

When I demurred, he informed me that the two most critical factors determining the fortunes of this season's Olde Towne Team were Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek.

"Huh", I replied and then got distracted as my daughter fell off her seat onto the floor. I'm sure it was spotless. I never did respond to his analysis, so let me use his thoughts as a vehicle for detailing my own sense of the most important stories to follow in 2007.

Let me start by stating for the record that Wakefield and Varitek - God love both of them - are not among the top five or six things that'll tell the Sox' tale this season. Wake'll most likely take the ball every 5th day, give the Sox 180 - 200 innings of slightly above average starting pitching, and drive me and the rest of the Nation somewhere near lunacy in most of his outings. And if he falls short of that, the Sox appear to have enough pitching depth to overcome a subpar performance by their 5th starter, with Schilling, Matsuzaka, Beckett, and Papelbon lined up in the first four slots, and Lester (mid-summer), Kyle Snyder and Julian Tavarez capable in a pinch. Varitek's on the downside of his career as an offensive performer, so while I'd hope a healthier campaign than 2006, when he only played 103 games, anything significantly better than last year's .238/.325./.400, 12 HR, 55 RBI numbers is gravy.

With that out of the way (and no offense, Mr. IHOP Waiter Dude - I did appreciate the banter, and the kids enjoyed the smiley-face pancakes), the following graphs detail in no particular order the stories I'll be following as the 2007 season kicks off on April 2.

1. Bullpen by...what?

Joel Pineiro was signed in the offseason ostensibly to be the Sox' closer, and he's bounced back from some rough early patches to start to look like he might fill that role. Beyond him, though, things seem wide open at the moment. Mike Timlin's already spent time on the shelf this spring, always a promising sign for a 40+ year-old with a lot of innings under his belt over the past 3 years. Manny Delcarmen continues to flash promise and putrescence in equal measures. Craig Hanson can't seem to get his swagger back and wlll likely open the season in Pawtucket. Brendan Donnelly and Julian Tavarez are adequate but aging. Devern Hansack is...Devern Hansack. Snyder'll probably be the long man/6th starter. And then there's the X-factor, Jonathan Papelbon. Most Sox fans across the blogosphere seem resigned to the fact that he'll reassume the closer role by midseason, maybe after (shudder) the Sox convince Roger Clemens to come back to Boston to break Cy Young's franchise record for wins. Here's hoping that Pineiro and the bullpen by committee (a four-letter word in Sox territory) make both of those moves unnecessary.

2. Whither Daisuke Matsuzaka and J.D. Drew.

If I were choosing two and only two players like my good man from the IHOP, I might settle on the newest big name acquisitions to wear Boston uniforms. Both embody Peter Parker's Uncle Ben's admonition - of whom much is given, much is asked. Wait, maybe it was, "with great power comes great responsibility". Whatever, it works either way.

All Dice-K needs to do is give the Sox 200+ innings of near-dominant starting pitching and manage not to wilt under the relentless pressure of the Boston market. As for Drew, he's got to post a .950+ OPS while playing 140+ games, and, oh yeah, getting his uniform at least a little dirty to make Johnny Burger King forget about the original Dirt Dog, Trot Nixon.

Early returns for both are positive - Matsuzaka's got nasty, nasty stuff that he seems to be able to locate effectively, and he seems typically Asian in his stoicism on the mound. Drew's an obviously gifted ballplayer who'll have a great opportunity to hang out in the shadows cast by Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Curt Schilling and get tons of opportunities to drive in runs batting from the 5th spot. He needs to produce from Day One, though, as the Fenway crowd will have less patience with him than they might ordinarily.

3. The health and effectiveness of the starting rotation.

On paper, the Sox' rotation of Schilling, Matsuzaka, Beckett, Papelbon, and Wakefield is arguably the league's best top-to-bottom roster of starting pitchers. In the real world, two of those guys are over 40, one is entering his first season in the American major leagues, one begins the year as a full-time starter for the first time, and one is coming off an ugly campaign marked by gopher balls and a 5.00 ERA. If Spring Training is any indication, they all look poised to deliver on their promise. Of course, if Spring Training indicated anything, Cesar Crespo would've won the AL batting title in 2004. Of all the question marks, this is the biggest.

4. Can Dustin Pedroia make the Leap?

As an avid observer of Red Sox second basemen, I'm perhaps most eagerly anticipating the diminutive Pedroia's inaugural campaign as the starter. He's been compared this spring with Marty Barrett, and if he can approach No. 17's offensive contributions and play solid defense, Pedroia will be a valuable contributor. If he fails to carry his weight, the Sox don't really have many other options, so the little guy will be a more important cog than many may realize.

5. Coco and the Crispettes

In any successful campaign, a whole bunch of little things need to go right to complement the major players. Manny and Papi are going to get their 80 homers and 250 ribbies. The 2007 Sox will need timely and consistent contributions from the likes of Julio Lugo, Coco Crisp, Mike Lowell, and Kevin Youkilis if they hope to finally get the Yankee monkey off their backs. Crisp's 2006 was highly disappointing, but he's received a pass from Sox fans, most of whom realize how much pressure he had on him to follow in Johnny Damon's shoes, and understand that he was never healthy last year. That pass, however, is not a lifetime version. The enigmatic Wily Mo Pena probably needs an effective 2007 to stay in Boston beyond the trade deadline.

In the annual MLC case bet negotiations, I'm calling for 97 wins from this team. With great luck and perfect health, they could win more than 100. With a repeat of 2007's fortunes, they won't win 90 - which will be a shame, because this is a pretty damn good team. My angst level is at record lows as the season approaches, something that ought to be truly frightening if I spent more than a scintilla of time thinking about it.

2 comments:

G:TB said...

Robert...

The Boston Red Sox are expected to announce Thursday that Jonathan Papelbon will return to his old job as the team's closer this season, ESPN's Erin Andrews reported.

rob said...

huh. well, ignore a big chunk of what i just said.