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September 29, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Boston Red Sox

by Steven Goldman, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the league division series, league championship series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski and Kevin Goldstein's farm-system overview.

Today we bid farewell to the Boston Red Sox, who still have a promising future despite an ugly end to the 2011 season.

Signs of hope: Despite losing the first six games of the season and 10 of its first 12, Boston heated up and reached first place by late May. Although the Sox could never quite shake the New York Yankees, as late as Aug. 31 they were in first place and on pace for 100 wins. David Ortiz had his best season since 2007. The Red Sox had three realistic MVP candidates in first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, second baseman Dustin Pedroia and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, the last of whom had the best season by a Red Sox center fielder since the days of Tris Speaker, never mind Fred Lynn.

Signs of disaster: The Opening Day starting rotation didn't survive May. Daisuke Matsuzaka dropped in the middle of that month with an elbow injury that would require him to undergo Tommy John surgery. At the same moment, John Lackey hit the disabled list with an elbow strain. He would miss almost a month, a blessing given that his final 6.41 ERA ranked among the 20 worst ERAs of modern times (min. 150 IP). He belongs to Boston for another three years at $45.75 million. Clay Buchholz went down almost exactly a month after Dice-K and Lackey, succumbing to a stress fracture of his L2 vertebra. Despite extensive rehabilitation, he was not activated until Wednesday and did not pitch again. As was inevitable, July 31 acquisition Erik Bedard missed more than two weeks in September with multiple injuries. Even Beckett and Lester missed the odd start during the season, which wouldn't have been significant if not for all the other injuries. The result was far too many starts for Kyle Weiland, project Andrew Miller and sentimental favorite/has-been Tim Wakefield. When Beckett (ankle) and Lester (1-3, 5.96 ERA heading into his solid final start) struggled in September, there was nobody either good enough or healthy enough to pick them up. Throw in a rough month for Bard that a thin bullpen could not withstand, and the Sox had cooked up the perfect recipe for a 6.35 ERA in the final month and a 7-20 freefall that saw them bow out on the last day of the season.

Signs you can ignore: Sadly, it isn't Carl Crawford, whose inability to catch Robert Andino's season-ending liner was symbolic of the $142 million misfire that was signing an impatient turf hitter to play in a grass stadium. As hard as it will be for Red Sox Nation to accept, the thing to ignore is the September crash itself. A recurrence is unlikelythe degree of failure was nearly unique, but even were it not, either the front office will find more reliable collaborators for Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, Bard and Jonathan Papelbon (should he be re-signed) or the Sox won't be in a position to crash again. Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Red Sox head into the offseason with disappointment and several players coming off their payroll including Ortiz, J.D. Drew, Wakefield and Papelbon. The team will attempt to rebuild its starting rotation and bullpen depth in hopes of preventing another collapse in 2012 while also trying to get younger and more balanced in the lineup with either a right-handed-hitting right fielder or designated hitter if they don't re-sign Ortiz.

The Red Sox will not be pursuing the game's best free agents in first basemen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. However, they'll have to be interested in chasing C.J. Wilson, Jose Reyes, and either Papelbon or one of the other top closers on the market such as Francisco Rodriguez or Heath Bell.

Boston's farm system is not fertile enough to make another Gonzalez or Victor Martinez-type deal, so it is more than likely they once again indulge themselves in the free-agent market.

If I were running the Red Sox, I would sign Wilson and Bell or Ryan Madson (or both). They should stockpile a first-round and sandwich pick for Papelbonand possibly even let Ortiz walk to collect additional draft picksto help rebuild the farm system. The 2011 season is Boston's most disappointing season since 1978, and the Red Sox have to make sure they don't make the same mistakes in 2012. Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 96-66

A historical September collapse culminating with Papelbon's ninth-inning meltdown against the Baltimore Orioles aside, there's no reason to be pessimistic about the team's future in 2012. The five months of the season in which the Sox were one of the best teams in baseball was no fluke, and the core of the team that played good baseball most of the year is guaranteed to return, with the exception of Ortiz. The team has plenty of flexibility in replacing himincluding Ortiz's 2011 pay (some $50 million is coming off the payroll). Arbitration, scheduled raises and extending current players will whittle some of that down, but the team has room to either bring back Ortiz or go after any of the biggest free agents. Either way, the Red Sox have a good shot at avenging their 2011 season.

Worst-case scenario: 83-79
Boston fans don't really need to be refreshed on what the Red Sox going bad looks likethey've lived it for the last month. The Red Sox went 7-19 in September, and while it exposed what can happen to a good team when forced to pitch Miller and Weiland way too often, even an unlucky 2012 Red Sox team is unlikely to repeat that feat. The offense still performed at a reasonable level during September. The problem was the pitching, and it's one the Red Sox need to address in the offseason. Even knuckleballers have expiration dates, and Wakefield's run as the all-purpose sixth starter/swingman should be nearly over. It's unrealistic to carry a lot of spare starters, but the Red Sox will be better if management doesn't repeat 2011's mistake and stand pat while the rotation collapses. If an average starter such as Bruce Chen had been acquired a few weeks ago, the Red Sox might have spent Wednesday resting starters rather than fighting for their lives. -- Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
The Red Sox traded away much of their system for Gonzalez, so if you are expecting the next wave of prospects to bring Boston back to the playoffs, think again. While the Red Sox are loaded at the lower levels, there is no obvious contributor for 2012. But if Kevin Youkilis' health becomes a long-term issue, that could mean a look for third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who is otherwise a valuable trade chip as a prospect with above-average potential both offensively and with the glove. The answers to Boston's problems revolve more around health than new players, which is a good thing considering that the next wave of prospects will take some time to develop. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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