Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The 2007 AL East Division Winning Boston Red Sox.

Last March I correctly surmised that the Yankees would win the division once again barring a lot of major injuries. They did win, and they even won taking into account some big injuries. I also thought the Blue Jays would easily win 90 games, with the Red Sox right in between the Yankees and them in a close race. The Jays only won 87, but things played out generally how I expected save for the Red Sox “collapse” late in the season, with collapse in quotes since it was more a regression to their expected win-loss than a result of some external unluckiness. The key thing to take from how the season played out though was how closely matched the top three in the AL East were, so close that the performance level from a few select players were enough to drive the Red Sox and Blue Jays out of the race.

Conversely for 2007 I think the Red Sox are so well positioned in the AL East that it would take a massively disappointing season-long underperformance or an avalanche of injuries to prevent them from winning the division. In fact as much as I think expecting playoff success is faulty, anything less than a trip to the ALCS would really be a disappointment as well. I’m not going to go player by player trying to project their baseline 2007 performance level because for one, it is tedious and takes a while, two, I did that last year and now it is plainly recorded how far off I was on Beckett’s performance, and three, I don’t think it’s necessary.

The lineup is stacked up and down with above average expectations, along with a middle of the order in Ortiz, Manny, and Drew which, if/when healthy, is the best in baseball. I think they’re even the best if Drew does his normal “80% effort is good enough for me” thing. The sole lineup spot where minimal production is expected would be out of Dustin Pedroia. As powerful as the offense will be, the starting pitching is definitely the strength of the team. No other team in the majors has 4 possible ace type pitchers, who if nothing else will get you into the 7th inning most nights. That’s not even counting the innings eater Wakefield or the talented Lester who would both be 2-3 starters on many other teams. I look at a rotation like this (and don’t tell me Papelbon is a question mark as a starter because there has never been an inkling of reason to suggest he shouldn't excel as a MLB starter immediately) and just wonder where the losses are going to come from. It’s the kind of rotation that could string together long winning streaks over and over.

This leaves out the bullpen, which is sooooo bad that the doomsdayers are saying it could rival the epic bullpen collapse of 2003. You know, that 2003 bullpen which was so horrible, so ineffective, that the team only won 95 games and brought a 3 run lead into the 8th inning of the 7th game of the ALCS. Ninety-five wins with a comparable lineup on paper to the 2007 version and an inferior starting rotation, and a bullpen that was obviously worse than anything that could happen this year. Think about the 2007 bullpen this way: it’s the same group of pitchers from last year except minus an average sometime-contributor Keith Foulke and minus Jonathan Papelbon. The bullpen was pretty good last year as a result of the dominating closer, by which I reason the bullpen this year is also 1 good closer away from being good. And there is no way anyone in management will allow 5 blown saves a month with a team this talented. Either someone will emerge or someone will be acquired. The closer is the easiest “important” position to fill on a team, and there are always plenty of bad teams in June and July willing to part with relievers enjoying career years. I haven’t been this sure the Red Sox would win the division since 2004, when they somehow ended up missing the division by 3 games, but hey they did win 98 and the World Series.

But why am I so excited about winning the division that I wrote a blog on it? It’s because in a game like baseball winning over a full season is much more representative of a team’s ability and also much more in the spirit of the game. Having 2 dominating starters steamroll through October is not in the spirit of the team game of baseball, as effective as it is in the playoffs. I would love the Red Sox beating the Yankees in the regular season as much as I loved them beating them in the playoffs since it would mean so much.

If it happened this year, it would also accomplish the task at hand in stopping the Yankees division winning streak at 9 consecutive years, leaving them well short of my beloved Braves 14 year streak, and would make the Braves streak pretty much untouchable for all intents and purposes. I say that because to win the division over 5 years in a row you need both a very strong group of young players all reaching star or superstar status at the major league level (which is a rare and largely luck-based proposition), and you need nearly unlimited resources to fill in all the holes that come up. The Yankees had Jeter, Williams, Rivera, Posada, and to a lesser extent others leading the way from the mid 90s to the mid 00s along with Steinbrenner’s bank account. The Braves had Glavine, Smoltz, Jones, Jones, and others leading the way for over a decade along with Ted Turner’s bank account.

There are few owners out there who will spend with no regrets (I can list them on one hand), and for a team to win a division every year for 14 years again will take one of these major market teams developing a superstar core group of players themselves to build around. It is just not that likely to happen again anytime soon, to the tune of 14 straight years at least. Of course the Yankees could pull off number 15 in this streak if Steinbrenner is able to keep bringing enough new players in to hold the division as the old stalwarts slowly breakdown. Translation: someone needs to beat them to keep the Braves record safe, and soon.

My Red Sox expectation for 2007: 100-62 record, 6 games ahead of the Yankees, 10 games ahead of the Blue Jays. ALCS playoff exit.

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Anonymous Bee said...

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2:25 AM  
Blogger ben said...

oh my god our first case of blog censorship!!

5:43 PM  

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