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Red Sox Preseason Report Card

The 2008 Red Sox were a deep and balanced team that fell just shy of the World Series.  If it weren’t for some big-time pitching from Matt Garza and David Price in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Rays, the Sox probably would have hung their third pennant in five years.

Understanding how close they had come, the Boston front office entered the offseason with the intention of shoring up the gaping hole in the middle of the lineup left by Manny Ramirez.  They dutifully pursued Mark Teixeira, only to be dissed at the last moment.

With the big prize off the market, Theo Epstein took a page from the Patriots handbook, signing a handful of veterans (John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Takashi Saito, Rocco Baldelli) — undervalued by their former teams for various reasons — to modest and incentive-laden deals.  These new faces have fortified the established nucleus from last year’s 101-win team.

As Opening Day 2009 inches closer, the Red Sox will begin the season with an even deeper squad than a year ago.  Let’s hand out some preseason grades.

Starting Pitching: A-minus

Led by the emergence of Jon Lester, the starting pitching was solid last year, with two caveats: Josh Beckett was not the Cy Young-caliber ace he had been in 2007, and there was never an established fifth starter.

As everyone knows, Beckett battled a strained oblique that dogged him repeatedly late last season.  That injury appears to be old news, as Beckett started more games (7) and logged more innings (27 2/3) than any other Sox hurler this spring.  He says he feels good, and his spring numbers (2-0, 3.25 ERA) back up the claim.  Beckett will be the Opening Day starter and looks poised to regain his status as staff ace.

As for the fifth slot in the rotation, there is nothing short of a logjam, which is excellent news.  Brad Penny is set to get the nod on April 12, the first day the team will need a fifth starter.  Penny is fresh off his best outing in a year, having repeatedly exhibited the mid-90s heat that propelled him to consecutive All-Star games in 2006-07.  If Penny returns to form, the Sox will have the best starting staff in baseball.

To illustrate the quality and depth of the Boston rotation, consider these points: Justin Masterson is fully capable of starting, Clay Buchholz gave up a total of seven earned runs in 25 innings this spring (and will begin the season in Triple-A), and John Smoltz is anxiously waiting in the wings.  If all goes well, let’s just say the team is fortunate that Tim Wakefield is such a good sport.

Bullpen: A-minus

Top closer in the game?  Check.  Dominant setup man capable of closing?  Check.  Multiple middle and long relief options?  Check.  Situation-specific matchup relievers?  Check.  Roger that.  Bullpen is a go.

While it all begins and ends with Jonathan Papelbon, technically it only ends with him when talking about the myriad arms that will be available to Terry Francona this year.  Given the rocks in the rotation, it’s fair to assume Tito will be consistently bridging no more than the seventh and eighth innings to Papelbon.  And on the rare occasion that a starter gets lit up, a mop-up man will not be necessary.

At his disposal will be mainstays Masterson, Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen, each of whom can fulfill a variety of roles — including long relief.  Add to them newcomers Ramon Ramirez (likely a matchup guy) and Saito (who, if healthy, will be among the filthiest setup men in baseball), and toss in a lefty specialist (Javier Lopez), and voila!  Quite a dynamic stable out in the ‘pen for Tito to mix and match at his discretion.

Offense: B

It’s no secret that the Red Sox will find it difficult to approach the 845 runs they scored last year, third-most in baseball.  While fans have become accustomed to watching them cross the plate in droves (they’ve averaged 892 runs a season over the last six years), the ’09 Red Sox offense will revolve around smart baserunning and timely hitting.

And of course, health.

Assuming David Ortiz plays something close to a full season, and Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew avoid long stints on the DL, the lineup will have sufficient pop.

The evolution of Jacoby Ellsbury will continue and Dustin Pedroia should post similar numbers to his MVP season of a year ago (with a slight decline in the power categories).  Concerns have been voiced about the bottom of the lineup, but as it stands now, Jason Bay, Jason Varitek and Jed Lowrie will round out the lower third of the batting order. Bay is a five or six hitter in most lineups, and Lowrie tore it up this spring (.349, 11 extra-base hits).  That leaves Varitek as the only easy out in the order.

Again, operating under the assumption that the offense can avoid a catastrophic blow, this should be a unit that can plate something in the neighborhood of 800 runs.

Defense: A-minus

With a .986 team fielding percentage, the 2008 Red Sox tied for tops in the league with the Blue Jays and Yankees.  They committed 85 errors, two more than New York and one more than Toronto.

This year the defense projects to be even better.  In the outfield, Ellsbury now has a full year in center under his belt, and an entire season of Bay in left will be an obvious upgrade from Manny (notably on the road).

Every infielder has captured at least one Gold Glove, except for Lowrie, who committed only two errors in 97 games last year while boasting a sterling .992 fielding percentage.

Overall Preseason Grade: B-plus

As shown, the 2009 Red Sox are a loaded team.  There are indeed concerns about the middle of the order, but in this day and age, it’s all about pitching, pitching, pitching.

Considering the number and quality of arms on their pitching staff, the Red Sox should have no problem winning 90-plus games and returning to the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years.

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