Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Bearing Repeating

"Indulgent basking in success must end;
Turn now to spring, and see what it portends."
--Alexander Pope, "Epistle to a Feckless Seamhead"

So, can the Boston Red Sox do it again?

As Peter Gammons often reminds us, the question is frankly premature. In the previous two seasons, the teams that won it all didn't take their final and most effective shape until the July 31st trading deadline. At the very least, however, we can begin identifying the factors that will guide the 2004 world champions as they prepare their first title defense in 86 years.

I'm not going to offer a hard and fast prediction yet. What I'd like to do today is browse, in an anecdotal sort of way, a list of numbers that shed some light on the relationship between what happened last year and what's likely to happen this year

157. This is the number of starts that Boston's top five pitchers made last season. Given that three of the projected starters for this season (Schilling, Wells, and Wakefield) are 38 or older, this seems unlikely to happen again.

48. The number of games Trot Nixon played last year. It's hard to remember, given the exceptional run production of last year's line-up, that for roughly half the season our shortstop was Pokey (574 OPS) Reese and our right fielder was Gabe (701 OPS) Kapler. The Red Sox figure to be better offensively at each of these positions.

37. The number of home runs Johnny Damon and Mark Bellhorn combined to hit in 2004, with Damon recording a career best of 20. The odds are against the Sox getting this kind of production from these two again.

12. This is the margin by which the Yankees exceeded their Pythagorean expectation for wins last year. A lot of people in New England are looking south and seeing a rival that added arguably the greatest left-hander of all time. I look south and see a team that a) overachieved last season and b) chose to get older instead of younger as it attempted to fill its key needs.

3 (going into 2). If the bad news is that the rotation can't be expected to be as consistently durable this year as it was last year, the good news is that the Red Sox have more options should someone spring a leak. Even better, those options don't necessarily include Byung-Hyun Kim, last seen on QVC tethered to a sweetening box of Ginsu knives. Boston doesn't necessarily need 35 starts from either Wells or from Wade Miller. If they deliver thirty-five starts between them, we'll be in good shape. John Halama's around to make the emergency spot-start as needed. No, I am not crazy about John Halama. But, my provisional sanity aside, he's a more reliable stop-gap than anyone the Sox had available to them last year, had a similar situation occurred.

2...1? The number of prominent players in the Red Sox organization named Ramirez. Manny will continue to hold down left field at least through the end of this year. Hanley Ramirez, on the other hand, still has the kind of value that could pry a catalyzing ingredient from another club with the dog days looming.

1...2? The number of players likely to start on opening day who are a product of the Red Sox farm system. Trot Nixon is the definite "1" in question; Kevin Youkilis might become the second against the Yanks if Bill Mueller's surgically repaired knee isn't ready to go. If the Red Sox want to compete beyond, say, 2006, this number has to increase, which means Hanley Ramirez may not be someone they'd want to deal for help this year after all.

-11.5. According to Baseball Prospectus this is Derek Lowe's VORP for 2004 , which is the worst figure for any pitcher who logged enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Take the October heroics (for which I'm grateful of course) out of the equation, and the Red Sox would almost have to improve on this "performance" by default.

What do these admittedly eclectic numbers add up to? Despite a roster with very little wiggle in it as spring training begins, there still seems to be a lot of room for the pendulum to swing among even the known quantities. Perhaps this spring is more like the springs we've known before than a fan of the defending champs would have expected.


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