Comments on the Red Sox 2008 season:

Let’s be blunt, this year’s Bosox were not the World Series winners of last year. Many of the big names who had been responsible for last year’s success, did not do as well, this time around. The newer guys who were called upon to fill the gap certainly tried valiantly, but just could not fill it completely.

The 2008 season:

Bay: As a replacement for Ramirez, what a deal! Sure, you give up a home-run machine … but in return you get a decent hitter who can actually field the ball, and who doesn’t fake injuries, mouth off to the press like a whiny kid, or push middle-aged people around (literally). Ramirez did great for the Dodgers, to be sure … but that was in the NL West, not exactly a bastion of challenging baseball. Bay, on the other hand, improved his batting performance when he left the Pirates for the much-tougher AL East. If that doesn’t show you what he’s made of, I don’t know what will.

Pedroia: 2008 may turn out to be his “career season,” but then again, it may turn out to be a sign of much more to come. Either way he excelled all-around. If he isn’t named the AL MVP, there is no justice.

Ellsbury: What happened to this once-promising rookie? He’s a great outfielder, but suffered several long batting droughts. He’s not going to be much good if he keeps that trend up. He’s a future hall-of-famer, if he can be more consistent with the bat.

Pitching — Sox pitching was not what you’d call stellar in the last half of the season. There’s a reason the Rays took the lead in the AL East at mid-season and held it for months, and that reason was the Sox pitchers. While Lester had a no-hitter and ended the season with a great ERA, he had difficulty in the ALCS and ended up the losing pitcher, twice. Something happened to Beckett late in the season; I have no idea what, nor does anyone else, aside from some Sox talk about him sleeping wrong on his arm (huh?). Buchholz fell completely apart and was nothing like the guy who threw a no-hitter last year in his second MLB outing, although like a trouper he endured a “rehab” trip down to the minors and ended up back there. Masterson successfully converted from a starter to reliever and possibly a closer. Matsuzaka won many more games than he had any right to, given the number of hits and walks he gave up.

Injuries/Illnesses — In this department the Sox were a sad tale of woe, although aside from Ramirez’s non-injured knee(s), no one was to blame. (The jury is out on Beckett’s arm, since we don’t know what happened to it, or even if anything did.) The season got off to a poor start when a number of Sox players brought some sort of flu back with them from their early games in Japan. Ortiz’s wrist was a real setback for the Big Papi, he wasn’t quite the same after returning. It turns out Lowell was dealing with a hip problem nearly all season; only in the last few weeks did it prevent him from playing. (That Lowell played hurt only made Ramirez’s injury-fakes all the more reprehensible.) Drew’s back put him out of commission, and Lugo was sidelined from mid-season on by his own injury. There’s no doubt that, had the Bosox not been as banged-up as they were, things might well have turned out differently.

Looking forward to 2009, by functional area:

Catching — Things are rocky behind the plate for the Sox. Varitek is nearly as good a defensive catcher as there is in baseball, but his bat is anemic. He was effective in leadership and in calling pitches, but sometimes the pitchers were not able to deliver what he called. His free agency creates a problem for the Sox; he’s not worth getting into a bidding war over, but the alternative, relying on Cash, is not an attractive option either. Cash is good, but not that good, nor is he experienced enough to replace Varitek as a pitch-caller and leader. The best we can hope for is to keep Varitek another year at a modest salary, have him pick up his batting, and keep grooming Cash to replace him.

Infield — The Sox are looking good here. Youkilis is a great fielder and a very good hitter; moreover, he’s not old enough to be declining in his career. Both of these are even more true of Pedroia, who is younger still and may well even improve. Lowrie had his moments and should do well next year. Lowell, who just had surgery, was out for a few stretches of time in 2008; while his surgery suggests he’ll be back next year, one can only hope he’s as good as he was.

Outfield — Another place the Sox look good. Bay is a much better fielder than Ramirez; Crisp and Ellsbury are true athletes; and Kotsay and Drew aren’t shabby either. Their bats are not consistent, though; they all run hot and cold at times (some more than others … Bay was probably more consistent than the rest). Drew’s back may also be a problem in 2009; we can only guess how much he’ll do.

Pitching — Lester is young and I expect he will prove better in 2009. As for the rest? I don’t know. I really don’t. Matsuzaka’s tendency to load the bases is probably going to get him into trouble next year; Wakefield is getting old; and Beckett … well … I have no idea what the hell happened with him. Masterson and Papelbon are promising and will continue their success. Hopefully whatever it was that derailed Buchholz will work itself out. Aside from a few bright spots like Masterson and Papelbon (and hopefully Buchholz), Bosox pitching in 2009 doesn’t look to be all that great.

Hitting — The Sox have some of the best hitters in baseball and for the most part they promise to do well again next year … with a few exceptions. Ortiz did not crank out the homers like he used to, not even before his injury (he had a long hitting drought in April). And Ellsbury was inconsistent. Hopefully spring training will straighten him out.

Competition — The Sox are in what is easily the most competitive division in the MLB. This doesn’t look to change any time soon. 2008 was an off-year for the Yankees; do not assume they won’t come roaring back in 2009. The Rays had an unusual year, and may not prove equal to it in 2009, but they certainly won’t be the AL doormats again. The Blue Jays had an excellent second half under their un-retired winning manager Gaston; if he stays with them instead of retiring again, expect them to be in the upper ranks of the league, too.

The Bottom Line for the Red Sox in 2009:

The Sox have a great outfield and an even better infield, and they have some decent hitters. But they have problems in pitching and catching, and it’s there, in the battery, that games are won or lost. This is even more of a liability in such a competitive division. Barring an unexpectedly wonderful acquisition, or the miraculous collapse of a competitor or two, don’t expect the 2009 Red Sox even to equal their 2008 record. Their final record will be 83-79 at best.

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