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April 3, 2005

2005--Setting the Stage

The Champs

by John Erhardt

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Under normal circumstances, drawing the preseason writing assignment would be great news for he-who-is-not-good-with-deadlines in Red Sox Nation. For decades the Boston preview columns seemed to write themselves: this might be the year, last year was tough but we learned from our mistakes, and boy, that new kid is wicked good. Yep, looks like we'll win our first World Series in 20 years...40 years...70 years...86 years.

For the first time since 1919, though, Red Sox fans have a present tense to dwell in. Fans are no longer burdened with the knowledge that the remaining memories of 1918 were gradually moving from memory to history with each new season. Fans aren't just left with pointless spring training optimism, the kind that hangs around camp like an underaged Baseball Annie in a brand new team cap with no bend to the brim. Yessir, how 'bout that Brian Rose? We just need to give Lee Tinsley some at-bats. He'll be fine.

No, there's a now now. Sox fans are looking forward to Opening Day, but wait, not so fast: remember the sound Mark Bellhorn's home run made when it hit the foul pole? Like a heavy screen door slamming shut?

The Sox open the season with a three-game series in The Bronx, then play some other non-Yankee team for a few days, then continue The Rivalry That ESPN Likes with a series in Fenway. And while Sunday night's opener will feature enough drama by itself (requisite revenge storyline, two lefties throwing their first pitches for their respective teams, the long-awaited end to winter), most Sox fans will be watching two games at once, not quite fully concentrating on either one.

On Sunday, Randy Johnson will throw his first pitch at the same time that the ghostly figure of Kevin Brown does, as Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS kicks off again in a kind of baseball harmony. Yankee fans will be trying hard to ignore this second game being played behind the first one, and they'll pretend not to see it when you point it out but, if you look closely, you'll see it's there.

You'll see April's Derek Jeter trying to convince the October Jeter that, unlike Derek Zoolander, he should really work on turning right, not left. You'll see David Ortiz offering congratulatory hugs from both the front of the line and the back of the line as each newly scored teammate gets met on their return to the dugout. Around the seventh inning, the faint sounds of a "who's your daddy?" chant will swirl around the stadium and disappear into a New York that is finally, once again, experiencing live baseball.

The deja vu will hit Johnny Damon in the third inning and, as he trots out to center field alongside a slightly younger version of himself, he'll forget for a moment that everyone in Yankee Stadium is undressing him with their eyes, then redressing him in a Carlos Beltran uniform that they just couldn't throw away.

Fully armed with a past and a present, Red Sox fans get to concentrate on the team's two futures.

The immediate future concerns a Red Sox team that five BP authors picked to win the World Series again. Another two think they'll reach the Series, but lose to the Braves. All 12 of our survey respondents picked them to at least reach the playoffs. PECOTA is on board, too, predicting they'll win the AL East by four games. Since they play in what amounts to a two-team division, the Red Sox are perhaps the only team in baseball for whom the worst-case scenario is still pretty good.

It's easy to see why. The 2005 iteration of the Sox looks a bit different than the October release, but once again has no glaring weakness. After recording the final out of the World Series, Doug Mientkiewicz hoped that people would forget there was a game ball that night; he was traded to the Mets for minor-league first baseman Ian Bladergroen, giving first base back to Kevin Millar. Orlando Cabrera, of "Replacing Nomar" fame, was signed by the Angels, the even more Latin Mets of the West. Playoff spare part Dave Roberts was flipped to San Diego for Jay Payton, Ramon Vazquez, and sort-of-prospect Dave Pauley. Payton and Vazquez could both start for a malnourished team (they have), but will instead be excellent reserve players in a lineup where, as Chris Kahrl has noted, you don't need to pinch-hit for anyone.

The pitching staff experienced some more significant turnover:


      Out                    In

Pedro Martinez           David Wells
Derek Lowe               Matt Clement
Curt Leskanic            Matt Mantei
Scott Williamson         Wade Miller
Ramiro Mendoza           John Halama
Byung-Hyun Kim           Blaine Neal
Matt Mantei and Wade Miller (and one might add Wells to this list) are the 2005 version of the Pedro Astacio/Brad Thomas/Curt Leskanic/Scott Williamson plan where you sign pitchers with high injury risk cheaply and hope one or two pan out. Only two worked out for the Sox in 2004. Only two have to do so in 2005.

Along with fellow bench players Doug Mirabelli, Dave McCarty and Kevin Youkilis, the Sox have added such minor-league luminaries as Billy McMillon, Simon Pond, Shawn Wooten and Tim Hummel. Theo Epstein and Co. have built a ridiculous amount of short-term depth, something the higher-payroll Yankees haven't been able to do. The Red Sox once again have the best depth in the majors, something that will ensure their no-worse-than-second-place-finish even if a regular, any regular, misses some time.

The second of their two futures, the more distant one, is a bit more contentious. While J.P. Ricciardi tried to build his team from the ground up, Epstein built it from the top down, supporting his superstars with useful free talent (with nary a Manny Alexander or Donnie Sadler in sight). Epstein inherited a very thin farm system, one that's now starting to produce some interesting high-level prospects. Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia and, to a lesser extent, Jon Papelbon all look like they could contribute in the bigs in the near future. The problem is that both Ramirez and Pedroia play the same position as Edgar Renteria, recently locked up for four years, making it likely that someone will be either traded or moved to another position.

Epstein has almost guaranteed that no one can safely discuss the distant future: no current contract extends into it. By keeping all contracts in the manageable 1-3 year range, Epstein has prevented an albatross from hijacking an otherwise competitive season. Byung-Hyun Kim and Jason Varitek's new deal seem to be the only entries in the "cost" column of a Theo Epstein cost/benefit analysis.

So the distant future does not exist. What we're left with is a well-documented past with an identifiable end point, a present that has no end point, and an immediate future that all but guarantees a playoff berth for the third year in a row, and perhaps the first division title since 1995.

So welcome to 2005, Red Sox fans. I hope you enjoy both games tonight.

--

John Erhardt is an editorial assistant at Baseball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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

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