The fourth of a five-part series looking at the biggest questions facing the Red Sox leading into spring training:
4: Do the Sox have enough star power?
On a single afternoon last August, the Red Sox traded away three players who among them had been named All-Stars 11 times and won four Gold Gloves, a World Series MVP and an ALCS MVP. Among them, they hit .300 or better eight times, won four stolen-base titles, led the league in triples four times, hit 30 or more home runs four times, and won 20 games in a season.
Those are the kinds of credentials that usually make general managers swoon. Theo Epstein did. And Ben Cherington freely admits he championed Carl Crawford as a great fit for the Red Sox.
But the Red Sox, their season awash in disappointment and unmet expectations, sent a message with last summer’s shedding of Crawford, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez: Simply collecting stars, especially at the top-of-market rates they paid for Crawford and Gonzalez, was no longer their idea of a workable business model. Going forward, they intended to surround the core group of stars they had -- Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury -- with players of complementary skills who bought wholly into a team-first concept.
Only time will tell, of course, whether this is just a short-term change of direction, born of a desire to achieve financial flexibility in the years ahead, or a permanent sea change. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Sox would shirk from bidding for the top free agents, or why that would be the smartest way of doing business, given the resources at their disposal. Picking the right stars, especially for this market, would seem to be the desired goal, and the Sox don’t need to hire a market research consultant to tell them that.
But for 2013, the question centers on the star power the Sox have retained. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll leave out pitcher Jon Lester, whose prospects already were addressed in the second installment of this series. Here, the issue is what the Sox can expect from Ellsbury, Pedroia and Ortiz. There is reason, entering spring training, to be bullish on the prospects of big seasons for Ellsbury and Pedroia, while throwing up a caution flag on Ortiz.
Ellsbury is entering a season that will greatly determine whether he will be paid at the top of his profession for years to come or settle for lesser rewards, a powerful incentive to return to the form that made him one of baseball’s most dynamic players in 2011. Yes, there are players who crumble under that added pressure to perform, and there’s no science that can accurately pick which players will thrive and which will falter. But when healthy, Ellsbury has been an elite player since his spectacular 2007 debut, and as Jonny Gomes pointed out in a recent conversation here, it’s ridiculous to call Ellsbury injury-prone. He had two “car accidents,” in Gomes’ words, which would argue that Ellsbury has been more unlucky than prone to breakdowns. Ellsbury is in his usual phenomenal shape, and at age 29, there’s no reason not to expect anything but a big bounce-back season.
Pedroia, too, is 29, and while his numbers dipped across the board last season -- his OPS of .797 was his first below .800, and his WAR of 4.7 dipped significantly from the 7.8 in 2011 that was fourth highest in the league -- the dropoff almost certainly can be attributed to the strained abductor muscle in his right thumb, an injury he played with for much of the season. From Aug. 1 on, Pedroia posted a .330/.392/.519/.911 batting line, and won the enduring admiration of the Baltimore Orioles for his decision to play with a broken finger in a season-ending series against the Yankees, because he knew those games could affect the playoff chances of both teams.
The fact that the Sox have already opened up discussions with Pedroia about a contract extension -- he’s signed through 2014, with a team option for 2015 -- demonstrates the justified regard with which he is held by the organization. Reunited with John Farrell, with whom he developed an unusually close relationship for a position player, and freed from having to answer to the chaos fostered by Bobby Valentine, Pedroia should be primed for a big season.
That brings us to Ortiz, who finally achieved his goal of procuring a multi-year deal from the Sox -- a two-year contract that guarantees $26 million, with the possibility of earning as much as $30 million. That’s a remarkable payoff for a 37-year-old, but at age 36, Ortiz was putting up historic numbers for his age group until a strained Achilles tendon sidelined him for all but one game after July 16.
How historic? Ortiz posted an OPS of 1.026. In the 20th century, only six players had an OPS at least that high, and all six were Hall of Famers: Henry Aaron, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. In the steroid era and its purported aftermath, Ortiz became the sixth player in the last dozen years to do so, joining Barry Bonds (cough), Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Manny Ramirez (cough), and Mark McGwire (cough). Ortiz was having his best season since 2007, and these days, any player putting up age-defying numbers hears whispers, the legacy baseball has brought upon itself. Ortiz, who showed up in camp last spring in his best condition in years, credited a new, all-natural diet regimen that honed in on food “intolerances.” The regimen worked wonders, at least until his Achilles crumbled while he was circling the bases ahead of a home run by Gonzalez.
The Sox insist Ortiz will be ready for the start of the season, but no one will know for certain until he arrives in camp and tests the Achilles in a baseball environment. There were many reasons for the Sox to give Ortiz a two-year deal. He has been the team’s foundational player for a decade, a force both in the middle of the lineup and in the clubhouse, one showing no signs of slippage. It is hard to conceive that the Red Sox would have given him two years if their medical staff had grave doubts about his ability to perform. But until he’s back in uniform and producing, the Sox will be fretting this one.
NEXT UP: Will we get a view of the “next great wave” of Red Sox players?