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Depth is essential for Red Sox

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  November 13, 2012 11:00 AM

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In 2012, the Baltimore Orioles ranked ninth among the 14 American League teams in starting pitching. The Oakland A's made more errors than all but two teams. And over the last three years, the two-time world champion San Francisco Giants rank 23d in the majors in runs scored.

The point?

There is more than one way to win. And the Red Sox are now in a place where they must examine any new method available to them, because there is no appealing high-end talent easily available to them that will fix their ills.

What that likely means is more signings like David Ross, a veteran backup catcher who reportedly agreed to a two-year with the Sox over the weekend.

And so, for now, those of us on the outside must toss away any preconception we have of winning, particularly as it pertains to the Red Sox glory years of 2003-08, when Boston appeared in four AL Championship Series and won two world titles. For the most part, those Red Sox had David Ortiz batting third and Manny Ramirez hitting fourth, a tandem that qualified as the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of their day.

Ramirez isn't walking through that door anytime soon. And Ortiz is more likely a No. 5 hitter than a No. 3 or No. 4 hitter anymore, though the Red Sox certainly are in no position to be too particular given the shortage of options available to them on the free agent and trade markets. This team won't have either the Curt Schilling of 2004 or the Josh Beckett of 2007 at the front end of its pitching staff, which means the Red Sox must try to assemble their roster the way the Celtics did.

With depth. And with fundamentally sound decisions that get them back to being a respectable baseball team more than an overpaid, underachieving collection of talent.

Ross will help that, at least a little, depending on how many games he plays. With the exception, perhaps, of the second half of the 2011 season, Boston's defense behind the plate has been wretched in recent years - and not solely with regard to base stealing. (The Red Sox have been poor at that for some time.) An inability to control the running game is almost understandable if it comes at the expense of executing against hitters, but the problem with the Red Sox behind the plate and mound now is they don't do either.

Last season for Atlanta, according to fangraphs.com, Ross threw out almost as many base stealers (15) in 34 attempts as Jarrod Saltalamacchia (18) did in 98. With Jose Iglesias currently in line to be the starting shortstop, the Red Sox could have a traditional nucleus up the middle consisting of Ross, Iglesias, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, which is worlds better than most anything they have put out there in, say, the last three or four years. (The Giants excel at this model.)

As much as anything else over the last two years, after all, where the Red Sox have failed most miserably is in the basics. They don't throw enough strikes. They swing at too many bad pitches. They have run the bases poorly and played mediocre (at best) defense, and we can all cite numerous examples of those violations since, say, August 2011.

In that way, the Ross agreement should be revealing. At 35 - he will 36 in March - Ross hardly qualifies as a sexy signing. But what he is for the most part is a fundamentally sound catcher, even on a part-time basis, which is a start. Ross obviously gives the Red Sox flexibility with Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavarnway (or both), and one can only hope he is the kind of player the Red Sox are targeting this offseason as they wait for their next true superstar to emerge from their minor league system.

This is why, as we suggested earlier this offseason, the Sox should be taking a serious look at Nick Swisher, who is as fundamentally sound in the batter's box as Ross is behind the plate. Mike Napoli also has plate discipline. All because there are no superstars who would be a good fit in Boston, the Red Sox this offseason must make their objectives simple and singular, with an obvious emphasis on basics. (Last season, the Red Sox ranked 13th in walks.)

As for the pitching, Hiroki Kuroda is an obvious target (as he should have been last year) not solely because the Sox can get him on a relatively short contract or because he has been durable. For his career, Kuroda has walked an average of just 2.1 batters per nine innings, a paltry number. That is in stark contrast to a Red Sox team that has walked a whopping 1,649 batters over the last three years, a number that is way too high for a team with one of the biggest payrolls in the game.

In 2010, the Sox walked more batters than any other team in the AL. In 2011, they were second. Last year, they were fourth. Talent is one thing. But what the Sox have been doing is playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, which is why manager John Farrell should continue to place emphasis on the idea of attacking the strike zone.

And that is why the Sox should be focusing on strike-throwers above all else, whether the pitcher throws 88 or 94.

The bullpen warrants a similar look, no matter how solid the nucleus Farrell recently spoke of. In this area, the Orioles were the model. Wire-to-wire, Baltimore was not an exceptional team in any area but the bullpen last season - and that strength got Baltimore to the playoffs. Red Sox officials have long suggested that bullpen performance is unpredictable, and that is a copout. The 2012 Sox bullpen wasn't nearly as deep or good as the Sox would like to believe, and they should be looking at every decent reliever on the market.

Again, don't expect any bombshells. The free agent market, especially, is relatively thin, and the Red Sox have a long way to go before they are championship-caliber again. But in baseball, even at the major league level, throwing strikes, working the count and playing good defense can take you a long way, and maybe the Red Sox aren't the only ones who took those things for granted in recent years.

Maybe we did, too.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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