This is the third in a series of previews of our division rivals, written by those who know them best. They will be posted in reverse order of their finish last year.
by Randy Booth of Over the Monster -
While the Red Sox did not make any wallet-busting moves this offseason, it's hard to argue that this team is worse than its 2008 version - with or without Manny Ramirez.
The Sox avoided some big contracts (you know the guy named Mark Teixeira? Sox were interested in him, I guess) and instead took some gambles this offseason. They signed future Hall of Famer John Smoltz to an incentive-laden contract while also nabbing talented stars like Rocco Baldelli and Brad Penny. None of these guys are groundbreaking signings, but they are pieces to a puzzle the Sox needed to fill.
The Sox lineup looks solid, with no major changes from 2008. Jason Varitek should still man behind the plate (after a very lengthy contract dispute over the offseason), while '08 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia starts at second and Kevin Youkilis, who placed 3rd in MVP voting, at first base. A healthy David Ortiz will DH with Mike Lowell at third. The only question in the infield is shortstop: will it go to the young-buck Jed Lowrie who filled in admirably for Julio Lugo with a bad wrist, or Lugo, the overpaid veteran with a lot to prove?
The outfield is a replica of the second half of 2008, minus Coco Crisp, who was traded to the Royals this offseason. Jason Bay will start in left, Jacoby Ellsbury will be the full-time center fielder and oft-injured (yet clutch) J.D. Drew will be in right field again.
The only new face in the starting rotation is expected to be Penny, who should slot into the No. 4 or 5 spot near Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Smoltz, who won't be ready until May or June, will most likely see some time in the rotation as well.
The bullpen, however, has had a facelift. Arguably the best closer in baseball, Jonathan Papelbon, returns with setup men Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen, but they have a couple new faces to join them in the ‘pen. Takashi Saito was signed to help in the 7th and 8th innings and the Sox received Ramon Ramirez in the Crisp deal, who should also see late-inning work. Justin Masterson should also be a fulltime name in the bullpen.
Randy answers five questions...
Who will be the surprises of your team, both good and bad?
Masterson proved he is a solid reliever late last season, and he'll only continue that trend into 2009. Masterson, with the names mentioned above, will help anchor the best bullpen in baseball. I also expect a pretty good season out of Baldelli, who has battled fatigue in previous years but is reportedly doing better.
As far as bad surprises, you always have to keep an eye on players like Lowell, Ortiz, Penny and Smoltz. Who knows what can happen with their injury history.
Final standings and number of wins?
96-66, 1st place (I can't bet against this team now.)
What offseason acquisition(s) will have the most impact?
I'll go out on a limb and say Ramon Ramirez. He's not going to have to deal in high-pressure situations for the most part, so he should be a great middle reliever that will earn more innings late in the year.
What offseason 'loss' will have the most impact?
Here's a wacky idea: Alex Cora. He was just a backup middle infielder that couldn't really hit in pressure situations, but he was a great player to have off the bench. He could fill in at any position and play well. I think there will be a time or two where we'll be saying, "I wish we still had Alex Cora."
Strengths and weaknesses of your team?
The biggest strength is definitely the bullpen. It's the best in baseball, in my opinion. The biggest weakness might be power in the lineup. Guys like Youkilis, Bay and Drew should help Ortiz mash, but if any of those guys see significant time on the disabled list, the Sox won't be able to power past opponents.