With just one month left until pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla., I thought we’d take stock of the state of the Red Sox after an extremely busy winter. There are new faces at many of the positions — shortstop, third base, left field, center field — and yet there still remain controversies about the roster. Like, for example, what the Sox plan on doing with Mike Lowell once he recovers from thumb surgery. But the good news, whatever the state of the team, is that baseball is within reach. With the Patriots done for the year, it’s now time to look forward to a new season full of promise, a season that starts against the Yankees, finishes against the Yankees, and in which the Yankees will figure prominently overall.
So we’ve got questions about the concept of defense and run prevention as a strategy for winning, questions about the new rotation, and questions about Daisuke Matsuzaka’s communication issues. And we end with yet another question about the relationship between the Red Sox and Lowell.
Also, in case you noticed the Mailbag didn’t come out on Friday, we have a new schedule. We’ll be running the Mailbag every other Tuesday this season, and hope you’ll welcome it into your Tuesday routine. So, until next time, please fill my in-box with questions — about the upcoming season, about baseball as a whole, about whatever. I’ll try to answer as many as I can. If I didn’t get to your question in this edition of the Mailbag, please feel free to resubmit it for the next one.
Until then, the countdown to spring training continues…
Patrick from Farmington, Me. asks: Ms. Benjamin: Is there some controversy brewing about the infield surface at Fenway? I heard some second-hand remark that Dustin Pedroia thought it was too hard or produced funny bounces. As someone who worships the ground(s) the Red Sox walk on, I’d be surprised that Theo and the Trio would drop the ball…no pun intended…on this essential game-condition detail. What do you hear? And yes, I really enjoy your contributions to the Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox.
Answer: Thanks, Patrick. The comment from Dustin Pedroia came after the Red Sox were swept by the Angels in the American League Division Series last season. To repeat it, Pedroia said of a grounder, “It took a bad hop. Our infield [stinks]. It’s the worst in the game. I’m not lying about that. That is true. It took a bad hop and I just tried to put my body in front of it to get an out.” He didn’t stop there, adding, “I think about those things too. That stuff upsets me. My job is to take 1,000 ground balls a day, and other guys’ job is to get the field perfect so we can play baseball. It happens. That’s the way it goes.” This isn’t the first time we’ve heard something negative about the Fenway Park infield, though head grounds keeper Dave Mellor declined to discuss the issue after the end of last season. Edgar Renteria complained quite a bit about the quality of the infield in his brief, 30-error, one-season career in Boston. It will be interesting to see how Marco Scutaro likes (or doesn’t like) the infield in his new home.
Ron from Newton, Mass. asks: Back when Theo joined the Sox, the competitive advantage was all “Moneyball,” then-obscure offensive stats like OPS, and pitch count per at-bat. Now that everybody understands these, the playing field is level. Are Theo’s moves this year about his thinking he can get a new competitive edge using defensive stats?
Answer: Getting a competitive edge using defense certainly isn’t a new concept. In fact, we’ve seen examples of it in recent years, including with the Rays in 2008 and the Mariners in 2009. Both teams made significant signings to improve their defense and, in the case of the Rays, it helped them to a season in which they reached the World Series. “When that ball’s hit, if it ends up where it’s supposed to, it makes a big difference,” manager Terry Francona said last week. “I look back, not so much last year, but the year before with Tampa. It was very glaring. [Jason] Bartlett came over, [Akinori] Iwamura played a heck of a second base, they put the kid [Evan Longoria] at third, and they were difference. We used to talk how athletic they were, and how when they got some pitching they could give you a good game — and all of a sudden they were winning 95 games. And that was a big part of it.” So the defensive improvement is not something out of the blue, but it is something that can improve a club, and that’s why Theo Epstein went in that direction this offseason.
Ken from Veazie, Me. asks: Amalie, I know that the Sox have a solid rotation but we all know that injuries have a way of thinning out ones depth. With that said, do you see any chance that the Red Sox will sign a low risk-high upside veteran pitcher as depth such as Chien Ming Wang or Ben Sheets (if he comes down on his current contract demands)? Or would they utilize Michael Bowden, etc. from their minor league system if the need arises?
Answer: With six major league starters — assuming that Tim Wakefield is healthy and ready to start at the beginning of the season — it appears that the Sox are going to stick with what they have, bolstered by Michael Bowden and Junichi Tazawa if anything should happen to their major league talent. Having already spent quite a bit on a huge contract for John Lackey, and with talks likely to start with Josh Beckett on an extension, it would be surprising if the Sox would go out and spend more on a guy like Ben Sheets. The former All-Star will be throwing for teams today at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, and it’s been reported that up to 10 teams might be in attendance. He missed last season after undergoing flexor tendon surgery.
Andy from Reston, Va. asks: Amalie, just read the piece on John Lackey — what a terrific story and one that hadn’t been told! In regards to Dice-K, how fractured do you see the relationship being between him and the team? And would this be a situation where cultural differences have led to this miscommunication or do you feel this should also be pinned on Dice-K’s dedication to the World Baseball Classic over the Red Sox? I want to believe the former but suspect the latter.
Answer: Thanks so much. I enjoyed working on the Lackey story — seems like he’ll fit in well here in Boston. I do think that the communication (or lack thereof) between Matsuzaka and the Red Sox is a problem. If this had happened once, I could see it being a misunderstanding, but this is the second time that Matsuzaka has talked to a media outlet, telling a reporter something that he hadn’t told his organization. Hiding an injury is not a good idea for any player, both because it can further impact his health and because it can impact his performance on the field. Had Matsuzaka told the Red Sox about the groin injury and pulled out of the World Baseball Classic, the season might have gone entirely differently. He might have been healed by the start of the regular season, and taken his regular turn throughout 2009. But he didn’t, and that’s cause for concern. The Sox — specifically Francona and John Farrell — were extremely frustrated during the season when the report about Matsuzaka’s dissatisfaction with his training regimen came out. And, in talking to Farrell this week, he was again frustrated by Matsuzaka’s decision to keep the team out of the loop on the groin injury. This doesn’t not make for a relationship built on trust. There have been allowances made for the cultural differences, and there is an understanding that the WBC is extremely important to Matsuzaka’s honor, but that doesn’t take away the fact that he should have told the Sox.
Michael from Avondale, Ari. asks: I’ve noticed that Jacoby Ellsbury is listed as No. 2 and not No. 46 i have not seen anything explaining this change. Was wondering what Jerry Remy thinks about this?
Answer: Not sure what Jerry Remy thinks of the change, but Jacoby Ellsbury did change his number this offseason. So all those with No. 46 Ellsbury jerseys might need to trade in for a more updated model this season. No. 2 was held by bench coach Brad Mills previously — until Mills departed this offseason for the Astros managerial job.
Jack from Essex, Vt. asks: I’ve read a lot about the dynamics of moving Jacoby to left field in lieu of Cameron playing center but I’m curious as to what Jacoby has to say about it. Is he playing the party line or has he made any specific comments about it? My general feeling is that it strengthens the overall outfield defense and if it helps his offense production then it’s better for the team overall.
Answer: We haven’t yet heard from Ellsbury himself about the switch from center field to left field, but Francona did let us in on his reaction to being told of the change. “I think he was a little disappointed, a little concerned that it was like a demotion,” Francona told me last month. “We explained that it’s not. Again, we’ve got a guy with longer strides. Jacoby can be a force in left, kind of like a Carl Crawford in Tampa. We’re going to have an outfield where not a lot of balls hit too much ground.” I’m not surprised that he was disappointed, and I’m sure he still thinks of himself as a centerfielder playing out of position. I know that he takes pride in his defense — and that defense is good, not great. Personally, I think it was the right move. If Mike Cameron is healthy and as good as he’s been in the past, it’s hard to match his centerfield defense, and I do think that this might motivate Ellsbury in areas in which he needs to improve. It also will be less wear-and-tear on his legs, something that’s huge for a base stealer like Ellsbury.
Jared from Busan, South Korea asks: I know Tim Wakefield is as about as ‘team-first’ as it gets, but I’ve also read a number of times that he is pretty keen to get a crack at becoming the Sox all time wins leader. Assuming that Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Dice-K, and Buchholz enter the season healthy, do you see Wakefield as coming out of the bullpen for long relief and spot starts?
Answer: I agree that Tim Wakefield is impressively unselfish, but I do think — as you mentioned — that a big part of the two-year deal that he signed with the Red Sox was to ensure that he passes Roger Clemens and Cy Young, who are currently tied for the Sox career wins lead. It appears that the Sox are not going to be using Wakefield out of the bullpen, at least not according to what Francona said last week. Asked whether the bullpen was an option, Francona said, “I hadn’t thought about that a lot. He’s a starter. I think what we need to do is — what’s happened the last three, four years, is we haven’t had him at the end of the year. It’s probably harder for Wake to understand, I mean he sees us signing guys, that’s a normal human reaction. But what we’re trying to do is have our guys stay healthy and productive. You hear us saying that all the time, all year, and I think this is the best way we can do that. How that slots out, we really don’t know yet. I couldn’t tell you.” So while it appears that Wakefield won’t be coming out of the bullpen, I certainly wouldn’t rule out the Sox using him as a spot starter. We know at this point that it’s unlikely he’ll be able to bear the burden of being a full-time major league starter, but the Sox would like to get as much out of the 2009 All-Star as they can.
Wayne from Wells, Me. asks: No one seems to be addressing this question. What are the Sox going to do with all the first rate starters they now have on the roster? No trades are in the works so it appears that what they have they will go with. Someone is going to be odd man out, what to the minors, and whom? Any of them could be a number one or two starter on any other club. I know they like to say it’s a good problem to have however, it could be a major distraction. I look forward to your comments on TV before games with the boys!
Answer: Thanks, Wayne. This certainly relates to the answer above, but I think that’s something the Sox still need to figure out. They are going in with the theory that they’ll need more than five starters to get through the season, a theory that has a deep basis in reality. It appears that they are also going into the season with the understanding that they might not be able to count on Wakefield to take a full starter’s slot. This is what Francona had to say the other day about Wakefield, in particular: “He’s on a normal schedule. I think until we see him on the mound, though, we won’t know quite what his schedule is. What we know is that we have a really good pitcher. We feel like we have six bona fide major league starters, and that’s not counting guys like Michael Bowden, things like that. We have six guys that have pitched in the big leagues, have had some success. Wake’s probably not that 200-inning guy that he’s been. So how that slots in, that’s what we’ve got to figure out. Does he start off slow? We don’t know that. And we won’t know that until we see him throwing down in spring training.” He did say that the team hasn’t considered Wakefield out of the bullpen, but could be used as a spot starter to begin the season, as I mentioned above. Just remember that the Sox went into spring training with a plethora of starters last year too, and finished the season barely able to find five men to fit into their rotation.
Dave from Concord, Mass. asks: Hi Amalie, and happy new year. It’s been projected that Sox improvement defensively and addition of Lackey could get us an additional 8 or 9 wins this year. That said, I still have lingering concerns about power and RBIs given loss of Jason Bay and questions about what offense we might get from Papi and Lowell. Your thoughts? Also, Peter Gammons suggested we might be exploring acquisition of Andre Ethier from LAD. Any fire with that smoke? Cheers!
Answer: I agree that there are some concerns with this offense. Despite the front office and coaching staff arguing that they ended up with enough last season — and that their pitching was more of an issue — there was a definite inconsistency with their offense. There were many times when unknown pitchers or average pitchers dominated the offense, times when their star offensive forces (Jason Bay, David Ortiz) couldn’t hit at all, and it was difficult to know what you’d get from them on a day-to-day basis. I still think that this team will be among the best in the American League, but I do have reservations about how the offense will perform. They upgraded at shortstop offensively, plus they’ll have a full season of Victor Martinez behind the plate, but the Sox also downgraded in the outfield, and came out about the same at third base. As for the Andre Ethier mention, I haven’t heard much about that. I’d be surprised if the Dodgers were willing to deal one of their young stars, especially with their inability to go out and get much talent at the moment because of their financial situation. Ethier is arbitration eligible, and has reportedly been discussing a two-year deal with the Dodgers after earning a relatively modest $3.2 million last season.
Marcus from Milton, Mass. asks: This was more of my dad’s idea after the Lowell trade went south….Any chance that the Sox brass considered playing Mike Lowell at first base? He has great hands and I wonder if it’s ever been considered. I realize that now with Beltre it is a bit of a non-issue but just curious. Has Lowell ever worked out at first?
Answer: The Sox were clear in their belief that Lowell wasn’t going to move across the diamond for them. As Francona told ESPNBoston earlier this offseason, “I’m not for it. The guy has played third base his whole life. He could do it, but I don’t know if it’s as easy as people think, and I don’t know if it’s in his best interests.” But, with Lowell saying that he’d be OK with the move, it’s not out of the question for him to move to first base with another team. I think it’s certainly a selling point for teams wary of Lowell’s defense at third base, given his age and injury history. As you said, with the Red Sox it’s now not an issue, but with Lowell going to be on the trading block as soon as he proves he’s health, you might just see him at first base this season.
Mike from Kansas City asks: Hey Amalie… enjoy your mailbox and your perspectives! Quick question – given the Red Sox focus on defense this year and the weakness we have defensively at the catcher position, do you expect the Sox to stand pat with Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek at that position? Or do you expect them to try and add a better defensive option through signings/trade? If so, who do you think they might look at?
Answer: Thanks! The combination of Martinez and Varitek isn’t exactly a dynamic defensive duo, but I doubt that the Sox are going to make a change at catcher, at least this season. There’s a lot of confidence in Martinez — who, it should be noted, had caught two straight Cy Young award winners before this season — even if much of that confidence stems from his offensive contributions. The Sox are happy with the way that he learned and handled the pitching staff, including his work with Clay Buchholz at the end of the year, when Buchholz truly blossomed as a starter. The big question about the catcher position really is about 2011, as the Sox have no major league catchers under contract for next season. When I spoke with Martinez’s agent, Alan Nero, at the winter meetings, he said that he expected the two sides would sit down to discuss a possible new deal in late January or February. An extension might be a possibility, especially if it appears that the Twins are making progress in their negotiations with Joe Mauer, the true catcher prize of the offseason. Varitek, meanwhile, appears ready to ride into the sunset. Bottom line, though, is that the Sox still need to work on who their catcher will be, just in 2011 not 2010.
Von from Nashua, N.H. asks: Hey Amalie, I really enjoy your work. It really seems like the Red Sox have dropped the ball on the whole “catcher of the future” thing we saw last year. I know Martinez is filling a big role for them right now, but with the departure of Kottaras isn’t there a hole in the organization?
Answer: Yes, we’re piggy-backing on the last question with this one. George Kottaras was never going to be the catcher of the future. The Sox really regarded him as a backup, letting him get some time with Wakefield and behind Varitek. But once Varitek proved that he wasn’t really going to be the starting catcher anymore, the Sox needed to add someone. That, of course, was Martinez. Beyond re-signing Martinez, or finding a prize on the free agent market, let’s examine what the Sox actually have in the organization. The three most highly rated catchers in the Sox system are Mark Wagner, Luis Exposito, and Tim Federowicz. Wagner is the oldest, at 25, and struggled this season once promoted to Pawtucket. But he has good upside, including defensively (with a great arm). I’ve heard quite a lot of good reports on Federowicz, who impressed in his first full minor league season. Wagner is the only one anywhere close to the majors, though.
Craig from Preston, Md. asks: Why are the Saux so eager to get rid of Mike Lowell? First of all, they desperately need a bat, which he has: second they are picking up three fourths of his salary in a trade anyway so he’s not costing them much: third there is nothing the Saux can pick up in a trade at this time that is nearly as good as he is: fourth he is at least insurance possibly at both corners, as a pinch hitter, and at DH in the event that Papi bombs out: fifth, trading him later in the season when some significant player may become available makes more sense.
Answer: Honestly, it’s a good question. Here’s what we know: The Sox clearly believed that Mike Lowell wasn’t going to be an every day player at third base, even before it was revealed that he needed surgery on his thumb. They had made the decision that he wouldn’t be the starter — which was when they began to be vocal about their comfort with the since departed Casey Kotchman at first base. That, though, was clearly not their preference, leading to the signing of Adrian Beltre. But, to get back to Lowell, they seem to believe that paying $9 million of his salary and getting a prospect is worth more to them than having him on the bench. Even though the deal to Texas didn’t go through, it appears likely that the Sox will do as much as they can to rid themselves of him. That might be a good thing for them and him — or it might not. As you mentioned, it’s entirely possible that Ortiz might look more like the Ortiz of the beginning of the season than the end, and in that case, it might not be a bad idea to have Lowell waiting in the wings as a DH possibility. Honestly, I’m not so sure shoving Lowell out the door is the best idea, but I think it’s what will happen once he proves his thumb is healed in spring training.