Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Monday, February 18, 2013
Offseason report card: Red Sox

By David Schoenfield

2012 in review
Record: 69-93 (74-88 Pythagorean)
734 runs scored (5th in AL)
806 runs allowed (12th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agents Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Koji Uehara and David Ross. Re-signed free agent David Ortiz. Acquired Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt from Pirates for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus and Stolmy Pimentel. Lost Cody Ross, Daisuke Matsuzaka and James Loney.

After suffering their first losing season since 1997 and their worst record since losing 100 games in 1965, the Red Sox rebuilt the old-fashioned way: They spent money. Oh, they didn't hand out $100 million contracts like they did two years ago to Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, but they did commit $126.5 million to sign eight free agents, including $26 million for two years to bring back Ortiz. (Napoli can earn an additional $8 million if he stays healthy.)

According to Baseball-Reference, Boston's estimated payroll for 2013 comes at just over $151 million, which ranks fourth behind the Dodgers, Yankees and Phillies. Still, that's less than last year's $175 Opening Day payroll and less than 2010 and 2011. The Red Sox hope that spending money across the 25-man roster will give them the depth needed to get back into the playoff race.

As for the moves, I like most of them. They acquired Hanrahan without giving up much in value, and while he's a bit risky after having some control issues with Pittsburgh last year, he has saved 76 games in 84 chances the past two years. Uehara is a good risk at $4.5 million; over the past three seasons he has 183 strikeouts and just 17 walks. He does give up a few home runs and pitched just 36 innings last year, but he gives depth to the bullpen.

The Dempster signing came with mixed reviews. He's been a solid innings-eater for the Cubs in recent years, although he posted a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts with the Rangers after a late-season trade. Projection systems have his ERA around 4.00, which would be a huge improvement over, well, everybody from last year's rotation.

The only questionable move was giving $39 million to Victorino over three years (the only one of the free agents signed for more than two years). Considering Cleveland ended up signing Nick Swisher at $14 million per season, giving Victorino $13 million per after coming off a mediocre .255/.321/.383 year seems an overpay, although he does provide center-field insurance in case Jacoby Ellsbury is injured again.

Position Players

I wouldn't be surprised to see the Red Sox lead the league in runs scored. They finished fifth a year ago and did that even though they played mostly a Triple-A lineup the final two months. It's possible they'll have league-average or better performance at every position ... assuming everyone stays healthy. Ortiz, Ellsbury, Drew and Will Middlebrooks all missed significant time last year, and Napoli's contract had to be restructured because of potential issues with his hip.

This lineup will destroy left-handed pitching, however, with Pedroia, Napoli, Gomes, Victorino (much better from the right side) and Middlebrooks. Against right-handers, that puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Ellsbury to hit somewhere closer to the .321/.376/.552 line of his MVP runner-up season of 2011 as opposed to the .271/.313/.370 line of 2012, as well as the 37-year-old Ortiz to hit like he did last year before he went down with an Achilles injury. He has said he's not 100 percent yet but expects to be by Opening Day.

Surprisingly, the Red Sox ranked fourth in the majors in 2012 with 43 Defensive Runs Saved. But they've lost the two players who rated highest -- shortstop Mike Aviles (plus-14) and Gonzalez (plus-13). Drew has been about an average defender at shortstop over his career, although rated minus-7 runs last year as he returned from a broken ankle. While the only liabilities would be Gomes in left field and Napoli at first, I don't see the Red Sox repeating that plus-43 DRS.

Overall, it's a group that should produce offense. I'm downgrading just a bit because of injury history and concerns about how they'll hit right-handed pitching.

Pitching Staff

Believe it or not, the Red Sox didn't finish with the worst rotation ERA in the AL -- Cleveland and Minnesota were worse. But Red Sox starters went 48-72 with a 5.19 ERA and the lowest ERA of anyone who started a game was Franklin Morales, who had a 4.14 mark in nine starts.

To have any hope at the postseason, the Red Sox will need a bounce-back campaign from Jon Lester. On Sept. 6, 2011, his record was 15-6 with a 2.93 ERA. But in 37 starts since he's gone 9-18 with a 5.12 ERA. There was nothing wrong with his fastball velocity last year (92.6 mph, down from 92.8 in 2011), so all signs are that he's healthy and just had a bad season.

There's also reason to be optimistic about Clay Buchholz. Through nine starts a season ago his ERA was 7.84, a stretch that included a five-homer meltdown against the Yankees. But over his final 20 starts, he went 7-6 with a 3.41 ERA and 102-37 strikeout-walk ratio. Don't expect him to have a 2.33 ERA again like he did in 2010, when he was extremely hit lucky, but he's a good bet to improve on his overall 2012 numbers.

Felix Doubront impressed at times last year in his first season in the rotation, striking out 167 in 161 innings. He has the stuff to win at the major league level, but walks and home runs were a big problem last year. And then there's John Lackey, coming back from Tommy John surgery. He's lost a lot of weight, but his last good season was 2009 (before he came to Boston), so I'm not expecting a big comeback here.

The Red Sox bullpen tied with the Angels for the most blown saves at 22 and Boston lost eight games when leading after eight innings. On paper, the 'pen could be dynamite. The Red Sox have a new closer and maybe they'll get a full year out of Andrew Bailey. But it's the depth that should make this one of the best 'pens in the league. I mentioned Uehara, but another sleeper is Junichi Tazawa, who had a 1.43 ERA in 44 innings, striking out 45, walking just five and allowing only one home run. If his splitter is as vicious as it was last year -- and reports from spring training are already saying it is -- he could assume an even more prominent role.

Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller provide quality left-handed help -- Breslow has a 3.20 ERA over the past four seasons and is more than just a LOOGY -- and Daniel Bard will head back to the bullpen and attempt to rediscover the fastball/slider combo that made him one of the game's top power relievers before his career went off the rails last year when he attempted to convert to the rotation. The bullpen depth is good enough that John Farrell doesn't need a lot of innings from his rotation. If he can successfully manipulate the 'pen and get a bounce-back year from Lester, the staff should be much improved.

Heat Map to Watch
Lester's fastball velocity was OK, but the results weren't. Right-handers hit .313/.388/.539 off his fastball in 2012, with 34 walks and 27 strikeouts in 298 PAs ending with a fastball. Compare that to 2010, when he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting: Righties hit .285/.390/.445, but Lester also had 60 punchouts in 325 PAs. His swing-and-miss percentage against all batters on his fastball has dropped from 18 percent to 14 percent in two years. He used to throw the pitch more often up in the zone, whereas the heat map shows he tried to focus on that outside corner in 2012. Maybe he needs to go back to more variance of location on the pitch.

Lester
Jon Lester went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA in 2012.
Overall Grade

If everything clicks, I can easily see the Red Sox winning 90-plus games and bouncing back from 69 wins to a division title.

Of course, everything rarely clicks, so you have to weigh the potential downside here. With Boston, I expect the offense to be productive and the bullpen to be terrific, so it's all about the starting pitching. While I like Lester's potential to have a better year, it's no guarantee. Same thing with Buchholz and Doubront. Still, I'm pretty sure the rotation won't have an ERA of over 5.00 again.

I would predict maybe 85-87 wins. I think I like the Red Sox better than most, as I'm chalking up 2012 to the Valentine's Day Massacre and expect the Red Sox to once again be in the thick of things.