Commentary

Bill James projects bright Sox future

Updated: December 21, 2012, 7:30 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

Will MiddlebrooksAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesHow about a combined 61 home run celebrations for David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks?

Just taking a shot here, but I suspect most Red Sox fans would feel much better about the team's 2013 chances if they thought they'd have a club with three 30-home run hitters, two 30-base stealers, four players with an OPS of .800 or better, and five -- count 'em -- five starting pitchers with ERAs lower than the league average.

Better than the collection of past-their-prime jamokes Ben Cherington has assembled, all at top dollar, right?

But wait -- Exhibit A and Exhibit B are one and the same, at least according to the projections offered in the 2013 Bill James Handbook, authored by the Red Sox statistical analyst and the folks at Baseball Info Solutions.

James writes that his forecasts are hardly perfect, but he's proud of his batting average and the number of players whose performance he predicted with uncanny precision last season.

"We're serious people," James writes. "We're not fortune tellers, and we're not always right, but we're not idiots, either. We're right about a whole lot of things every year."

Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, lamenting that the Red Sox had underutilized James in recent seasons, vowed that the deep-thinking Kansan would be restored to a prominent place at the table this winter. And in examining his '13 projections, you wonder whether James's voice did indeed carry more weight. That's not to diminish the work of the scouting side, which was focused on unearthing players whose value to the Sox transcended their stats and extended to their impact on the clubhouse culture, but it's notable that the '13 lineup appears to bear James' stamp of approval.

Projections, of course, cannot account for the way injuries can undermine a season, which has happened to varying degrees in every year since the Sox last won the World Series. Nor can it factor in personal problems, adjustment issues, media harassment, managerial melodrama or plain dumb luck. But the Red Sox lineup, from top to bottom, offers considerable hope seen through the James crystal ball.

He predicts, for example, that David Ortiz will resume his slugging ways, hitting 32 home runs while posting a team-best .919 OPS, just below his career mark of .927. But Ortiz said the Sox could not win without adding some thunder, and James projects 29 home runs for newcomer Mike Napoli, assuming his contract issues are resolved, and another 29 for third baseman Will Middlebrooks, whose rookie season was cut short by a fractured wrist.

By James's reckoning, all nine players in the Sox lineup will hit 10 or more home runs, with newcomer Jonny Gomes hitting 16 in a platoon role in left field, with Ryan Kalish adding another 10 from the left side.

James projects a solid, but not spectacular, bounce-back year for Jacoby Ellsbury, with 100 runs scored, 37 stolen bases, 15 home runs and a .781 OPS. Those numbers are only slightly better than the ones he sees for newcomer Shane Victorino (.755 OPS, 14 home runs, 29 stolen bases), which may suggest to the trade-Ellsbury faction that the Sox wouldn't lose as much as some fear if Ellsbury were traded.

James predicts 19 home runs and a .752 OPS, slightly better than his career average, for catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and 45 doubles, 17 home runs and an .825 OPS for Dustin Pedroia, which would be slightly below his career numbers but still an All-Star caliber year. James is less bullish on new shortstop Stephen Drew, projecting a .736 OPS that would be a sharp drop-off from his best years in Arizona, but still a major upgrade on rookie Jose Iglesias and his .569 projection.

Maybe the most surprising component of the Jamesian view of Boston's future in 2013 is his expectation of the Sox rotation. Tampa Bay's starting rotation had a league-best 3.34 ERA, followed by Detroit at 3.76. James projects four Sox starters to beat Detroit's number next season -- Clay Buchholz (3.64), Felix Doubront (3.70), Jon Lester (3.71) and newcomer Ryan Dempster (3.74). And he sees better things for John Lackey, who has been defined by ineffectiveness and injury during his years in Boston. James has Lackey winning a dozen games with a 4.05 ERA; there'll be fireworks over the harbor if Lackey comes close to those numbers.

James grants that projecting pitching remains an elusive art, with more big misses than generally occur when dealing with hitters. But taken as a whole, this Sox team bears little resemblance to the one dubbed by Bobby Valentine the worst September roster in history.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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