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What to expect from Twins, Red Sox

Last week, as you might remember, I ran through a list of teams that got worse this offseason, in the sense that the players they added aren't as good as the players they lost. What I wrote must have been self-evident (which isn't necessarily a good thing), because there weren't many complaints from fans of those teams. Here's one, though ...


    Rob,

    With regards to the Twins, yes, losing A.J. Pierzynski is a big deal, but it's not unlikely that Corey Koskie and Torii Hunter will improve enough to offset Joe Mauer. Additionally, what ever happened to supporting the concept of easily available relief pitching? Sure, the Twins lost Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins, but Grant Balfour/Jesse Crain/Juan Rincon/Joe Nathan could conceivably be as good (especially if they use Rincon for 2-3 innings at a time). Honestly, did you have any faith that Hawkins would be worth anything 3-4 years ago? Their worst offseason move was keeping Shannon Stewart, the discussion ought to at least start or end there.

    -- Mathew

The point wasn't what should have happened (with Stewart or anybody else), but what did happen. And what did happen is, the Twins got worse. Sure, it's possible the Twins will magically discover they've got two relievers as good as Guardado and Hawkins were last season. But Balfour/Crain/Rincon/Nathan?

Look, I don't blame you for thinking that way, Mathew. You've got a bad case of PSS (PreSeason Syndrome), but don't worry because it's not fatal and the symptoms go away in early April.

Rather than pick on your bullpen analysis, though, today I want to explore the notion that Koskie and Hunter will improve ...

Yes, they might. But what you have to realize is that while Koskie and Hunter -- well, at least Hunter -- might well improve, it's also true that other Twins might well decline. Actually, we can predict with great certainty that at least one of them will, because that's the nature of statistics, or rather it's the nature of baseball players. The Twins, though, are not a great example of what I'm trying to say, because the Twins actually have a lot of guys who are likely to play better this season (which is why I think they're going to win again).

No, a great example of what I'm trying to say is the Red Sox. I've been told that while a lot of Sox had big years last season, there's no reason to expect their performance to suffer because they're all good hitters. But even if we assume they're all really that good (which they're not), that still leaves aside the fact that even good hitters sometimes have bad years. But was there anybody among the Red Sox regulars who did worse in 2003 than we might reasonably have expected?

No, not unless you count Jeremy Giambi (who opened the season as a semi-regular). So in addition to putting together an excellent lineup, management got lucky last season.

And this season? Well, Todd Walker is gone so the Red Sox don't have to worry about him (and he actually wasn't that good anyway). But that still leaves eight regulars, and is there any particular player who has a good chance of getting better? Here are the eight, along with their OPSs from 2003 (according to our particular plane of reality) and 2004 (according to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA):

2003 2004 Diff
J Varitek 863 799 - 64
K Millar 820 849 + 29
N Garciaparra 870 865 - 5
B Mueller 938 775 -163
M Ramirez 1014 992 - 22
J Damon 750 772 + 22
T Nixon 975 883 - 92
D Ortiz 961 894 - 67

OK, so we'll give them Kevin Millar; in a Baseball Prospectus chat a month ago, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein argued that Millar is the only one of the eight who's likely to improve. We'll give them Damon, too (he's going to justify his salary one of these years, right?). But if you look at the pluses and the minuses, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Red Sox are going to score fewer runs in 2004 than they scored in 2003. The most likely outcome is that somewhere between one and three Red Sox are more productive, and between four and six are less productive. And we haven't even mentioned the switch from Walker to Pokey Reese and (sometimes) Mark Bellhorn.

Epstein realizes all of this. "(W)e are, in our internal planning, not expecting to score quite as many runs as we did last year," he told Baseball Prospectus. "I think it would be unrealistic to expect that out of us. But we're OK with that, because we're going to score a number of runs we're comfortable with and we're going to allow a lot fewer runs."

I'm not going to quibble with Epstein's analysis because I suspect he's thought about this more than I have. But I do think he's downplaying (as he should, publicly) the coming decline.

It's my considered opinion that the Red Sox will score fewer runs than the Yankees. The evidence at hand can point to no other conclusion. But will they allow fewer, too? I hate to cop out, but I don't know and I don't think anybody else knows, either. Why? Because among the 10 pitchers who are supposed to fill the two teams' rotations, only two of them -- Mike Mussina and Javier Vazquez -- might be considered something close to sure things. I know the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has been hyped beyond belief, but once the season starts and we've got actual games, it's going to be great because, like a good novel, we honestly can't know how it's going to come out before the ending.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.