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The Red Sox struck out on three blue chip free agents last season in Mark Teixiera, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett and instead, tried to wring value out of three ailing veterans. John Smoltz and Brad Penny were coming off surgeries and each agreed to incentive laden contracts in the hopes that at least one of them would return to their past productivity and become an enviable fifth starter. Of course, neither lived up to expectations and were released in the second half. The Red Sox tried the same tactic with Rocco Baldelli, a player with star potential who could never dodge the injury bug long enough to live up to the hype. As a fourth outfielder, he managed to stay relatively healthy and be productive in the role. General Manager Theo Epstein will have similar dilemmas this offseason with Jason Bay’s free agency (with early interest from the Giants), with Matt Holliday a possible replacement target.
Before moving forward, we must take a look back. Which players earned their paychecks in 2009? Which group performed the best? Sports of Boston has all the answers in the 2009 Red Sox Report Card.
The left side of the infield was plagued by injuries and questions all season. Lowell missed significant time at third and targeted replacement Lowrie appeared to come back too soon or re-aggravated his wrist injury, forcing Youkilis over to the hot corner, opening up first base, where eight different players started games: Youkilis (77), Martinez (22), Jeff Bailey (19), Kotchman (19), Mark Kotsay (12), Ortiz (6), Adam LaRoche (4), and Aaron Bates (3). When Green got hurt and Lugo jettisoned out of town, the Red Sox turned to Alex Gonzalez, who helped solidify the infield.
After all the offseason controversey with Varitek, his start gave the Red Sox hope with 10 of his 14 home runs in the first two months of the season, however, he faded badly as the season wore on, finishing with a .125 average in August and .135 in September, to end the season at .209, the worst of his career. Martinez’ acquisition was a huge upgrade over Varitek and his ability to play first made the team more flexible as well. Ortiz was the opposite of Varitek in that he started slowly, sitting on .185 with only one home run through May after dodging steriod rumors, bringing calls for him to sit and he was dropped in the batting order. With a strong second half, he finished the season with a .238 average and 28 home runs, modest given his history, but a victory considering the hole he was in entering the summer.
Grade: C+. The infield was unsettled for the first half with injury and lack of production. Pedroia and Youkilis (whether at first or third) were down a little from their MVP seasons of last year (but still very good), but shortstop and catcher were not resolved until the second half trades filled those gaps.
While the infield was inconsistent, Terry Francona’s outfielders were the same almost every day on the lineup card. Bay and Ellsbury each started 150 games and Drew started 131, with Baldelli being the primary fill in. Pushing Drew to play every day is asking for injury, so working in the fourth man regularly seemed to maximize his output and keep the rotation fresh. Bay and Drew combined for 70 home runs and 187 RBI while Ellsbury hit .301 with 70 steals and his usual spectacular defense.
Grade: A. Exactly what was expected out of the outfielders: solid defense in all fields and three productive spots in the lineup comprising the skill spectrum in average, power, and speed while playing almost every day together.
Beckett and Lester came as advertised, striking out over 400 while going 32-14 with each managing an ERA below four. Buchholz tore up AAA before coming up in July as potential trade bait to land Roy Halladay. He started slowly, but finished strong and looks like he will be a strong third starter next season. Wakefield got off to an All-Star start, but his injured back sapped most of the second half while Dice-K got off to a terrible start, but came back surprisingly strong late in the season. Penny and Smoltz failed to deliver, even given the low expectations, but they bought time until the Red Sox had the faith to bring Buchholz up.
Grade: B+. The front of the rotation was stellar with what should be a big three next season, and possibly four if Dice-K’s finish carries over. However, the rest of the rotation was inconsistent when not injured. Lester (23 QS) and Beckett (20 QS) had more quality starts than the rest of the staff combined (43-39).
The bullpen was the story in the first couple months as an absolutely lights out unit, however, they were a little shaky in the second half, but still finished with the second best ERA in the American League. Papelbon was locked in, as usual, as the closer and Francona had plenty of viable options to set up matchups or take an inning at a time to save a starter.
Grade: A-. A good group last season improved to become one of the best in the game. The Ramirez pickup was key all season and Wagner was a late season shot in the arm.
When looking back on the season, some major failings come to the front of the mind. Firstly, there was the sweep in New York that dually propelled the Yankees, who never looked back, and unwound the Red Sox. That was actually the culmination of a very slow start to the second half. More importantly, the team limped into the playoffs after really struggling down the stretch. However, the Red Sox did win 95 games and began the season with eight straight victories over the Yankees. The core of the team delivered as they were expected to, but they flamed out of the playoffs because the complementary players never seemed to gel to complete the team. The Red Sox seemed to have one leak after another; when one player got healthy, another got hurt or when one finally got on track, another went off the rails.
Grade: B-. The Red Sox of 2009 were a good team, as evidenced by those 95 wins and Wild Card playoff berth, but seemed to be lacking something. Most of the key players remained from last season’s ALCS team (Bay, Pedroia, Youkilis, Beckett, Lester, and Papelbon in particular), but were hit hard with injuries and inconsistent play they just could never seem to resolve. Of course, the Yankees improved greatly in the offseason, leapfrogging the Red Sox, but that does not excuse the Red Sox finish, which precluded them from a higher grade.
Beckett was the consummate No. 1 starter and gets the nod by a slight edge over Jon Lester (who was last year’s winner). Beckett was 17-6 with 20 quality starts, 199 whiffs (he has never had 200 in a season), a 3.86 ERA, and a 1.19 WHIP. Lester’s line was similar and looks better in quality starts and K’s: 15-8, 23 QS, 225 K, 3.41 ERA, 1.23 WHIP. However, Beckett was simply dominant in one area, going 7-1 in starts after a Red Sox loss, while Lester was a great 7-3. That ability to end losing streaks defines an ace and Beckett was that this season. Lester was a close second and Jacoby Ellsbury gets my third place vote. Though many regulars like Pedroia and Youkilis had good seasons, they came down from last season’s high water marks while Ellsbury was about the only regular to improve: OBP up from .336 to .355, steals up from 50 to 70, and his defense is stellar.
With the contract and expectations, Dice-K really failed to deliver. His injury and subsequent disagreements with the Red Sox over treatment made his absence longer than expected. He came back strong at the tail end of the season, so perhaps brighter days are ahead in 2010. Some could argue for Varitek, but the expectations were lower, so that mitigates his performance woes when it comes to this “award.” Ortiz could also be in the picture, but with his drop-off actually coming last season, Papi managed to improve his power numbers this season, but this level of production could be the new normal for the DH. His strong second half helped him here as well.