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February 7, 2013

Out of Left Field

Shorting the Red Sox

by Matthew Kory

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One of the difficult parts about fantasy baseball is dealing with perception. When a player hits a home run, it feels like that’s what they’ll always do. Put another way, do you take a guy who just homered out of your lineup? No, of course not. He just homered. Therefore he’ll continue to homer. That’s a good way to lose. I know because that’s what I do best in fantasy sports. The way to do it, so I’ve been told, is ignore that homer. Let your understanding of the player’s value over the course of the season dictate your decisions. A single event, in this case the homer, shouldn’t enter into it. Yet it always does and I always pay the price.

This is also true of real baseball, especially preseason predictions. With Spring Training around the corner, we’re getting into prediction season. Read the predictions and look at how closely many of them mirror last year’s standings. Most years they’ll look pretty similar to what happened the previous season. This year might be a bit of an exception because of the seasons had by the Orioles and, to a lesser extent, the A’s. To pick a better example, we know the Reds just won the NL Central. It just happened. We saw it and everything. So it’s easy to pick them to win again, even if a closer inspection reveals that maybe things aren’t quite as they were this time a year ago.

So it is with the Boston Red Sox, who, when last we saw them, were buried in last place. But it’s not only last year’s finish that is creating this perception. A year ago the Red Sox were coming off one of the worst meltdowns to close a season that a team can have. Sept. 1, 2011 dawned with Boston in first place by a half game over the Yankees. From then on the Red Sox went 7-20. Their starters posted a helpful 7.08 ERA that month. They topped it all off by blowing the last game of the season in the bottom of the ninth while the Rays simultaneously beat the Yankees in equally spectacular fashion to snatch the Wild Card.

The Red Sox made prominent changes during that offseason, but it’s fair to say, specifics aside, they didn’t work. While the 2011 Red Sox were one of the best teams in baseball until September, the 2012 variety couldn’t make that claim, or indeed anything close. They muddled along while new manager Bobby Valentine tried desperately to ignite a stick or two of dynamite in the clubhouse. Eventually it become clear that the 2012 Red Sox weren’t working and GM Ben Cherington signaled change was coming by dealing stars Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers for prospects and salary relief in late August.

Those events—the end to 2011 and the entirety of 2012—and the fact that they happened one after the other created the perception that the Red Sox as an organization are a last-place mess. The star players failed to play like stars, the big-name manager failed to manage, and the front office couldn’t put a glass of red wine down without spilling half of it on the white table cloth. Right or wrong, the perception has been that the players, manager, and front office are varying levels of incompetent, and like my fantasy baseball team, that perception is carrying onward whether it’s correct or not.

That is the perception and you can easily see where it came from, but that isn’t necessarily the way things are now. Bobby Valentine’s particular brand of self-satisfying team destruction is out, replaced by the basic competence of former Blue Jays manager and ex-Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. Farrell may not be the next coming of Earl Weaver, but he doesn’t have to be. To be an upgrade he just has to not actively sabotage his own team. That’s a bar I feel comfortable saying he can clear.

The rest of the roster has undergone significant change since last September, much of it the proverbial addition by subtraction. When last we saw them, injuries and the Dodgers trade had destroyed the Red Sox roster. Boston was starting pitchers like Aaron Cook, Zack Stewart, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Their lineups featured not just one but many of Mike Aviles, Scott Podsednik, James, Loney, Pedro Ciriaco, and Jose Iglesias. Not one of those players, with the possible exception of Iglesias, will start a game for Boston this season.

Some basic level of health will keep the replacement level monsters at bay and keep the Red Sox from drowning in negative WARP. Many talk about the Blue Jays and their injury troubles last season, a legitimate topic to be sure, but Red Sox players missed over 1,500 man-games to injury last season, the most of any team. Returning starters David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Will Middlebrooks, and Jacoby Ellsbury all lost significant time to injury last season. It’s fair to wonder what that means for the 2013 team, one which will depend heavily on those players. Judging by the PECOTA playing time projections and health reports from the Boston media, a normal level of health and thus production seems achievable.

It’s unclear if Mike Napoli (possibly minus a hip or two), Ryan Dempster, and a platoon of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava can better what Crawford, Beckett, and Gonzalez would have produced, but it seems clear they can improve on the 3.0 WARP those three produced last season. Swapping out Stephen Drew for Mike Aviles and Shane Victorino for Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross might not be the world’s largest upgrade either, but when your standard is mere competence, the less Ryan Sweeney* and Mike Aviles the better.

*After designating him for assignment, the Red Sox did re-sign Sweeney and invite him to Spring Training, but should he make the team is role would be fifth outfielder, not starter.

I said on Effectively Wild last week that the 2013 Red Sox will win 114 games. That was a joke (and clearly a hilarious one at that; I’ll give you a moment to compose yourself… there) but like Boston won’t win 114 games, they’re not going to do the opposite and lose 114 either.

Over the last two seasons the Red Sox have had horrible injury luck and terrible performances by All Star-level players. They’ve undergone huge trades, public firings, media firestorms, and Bobby Valentine. But look at their roster. This Red Sox team isn’t that team. This Red Sox team isn’t a giant pile of suck. This Red Sox team isn’t even all that bad. It likely isn't great either, but with a bit of health and a smidge of luck, Boston could surprise people whose preseason predictions consist of perception and a glance at last year’s standings. 

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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