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October 30, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

In the Wake of Victory

by John Perrotto

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DENVER-Jacoby Ellsbury is a novice to the major leagues. The Red Sox center fielder only made his debut June 30, and has a grand total of 145 plate appearances, including the postseason. He also looks the part, his boyish face belying his 24 years.

However, Ellsbury had been around long enough to determine one thing Sunday night as the Boston Red Sox celebrated their second World Series title in four years. "I could get really used to this," Ellsbury said with a smile during the clubhouse celebration at Coors Field following a series sweep of the Rockies. "This is great. I feel so fortunate to be in this position as a rookie and I hope I get to do again a few more times in my career."

Relative parity has come to the major leagues in recent years, thanks in part to revenue sharing and the luxury tax. Seven different teams won World Series in the first seven seasons of this century until the Red Sox won their second. Furthermore, the Yankees were the only holdover playoff team in 2007 from 2006, and they are now in considerable turmoil after manager Joe Torre walked away and third baseman Alex Rodriguez opted out of the final three years of his contract to become a free agent.

"It's so hard to win even one World Series," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "First, you have the grind of a 162-game season, and the ups and downs and bumps and bruises that comes along with that. Then, you have three rounds of postseason series to win, and getting 11 wins in October is tough. So, winning it all isn't easy by any means. Of course, it's not meant to be easy, either."

Winning two World Series in four years certainly does not qualify as dynastic. However, no team has performed that feat since the Yankees won four in five years from 1996-2000. While the Yankees are on a run of 13 straight playoff appearances, it is the Red Sox who supplanted them as American League East champions this year. It appears as if the Red Sox have the best chance of following the Yankees as baseball's next dynasty, though Boston management cringes ever so slightly when the word is used. "The playing field is getting so level, between revenue sharing and the advancements in developing players, that there are fewer and fewer competitive advantages out there that you can exploit," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said during the World Series. "It's more difficult for a general manager. Ten years ago, teams had older techniques, and so teams were a little bit more predictable. If you found something that worked, you could really stick with it in that landscape."

While the landscape may have changed, the Red Sox have more advantages than most. For starters, the Red Sox get consistently top dollar by selling out Fenway Park on a nightly basis (with the highest ticket prices in the majors leagues), and they also own the lucrative New England Sports Network. And owner John Henry is not afraid to spend that money, as the Red Sox had a $143 million payroll this year, second only to the Yankees, whose payroll was $190 million.

Secondly, the Red Sox have greatly improved their scouting and player development departments since Henry bought the franchise from the Yawkey Trust in 2002. The Red Sox have gone from drafting players with low ceilings because they could be signed cheaply to having of the most fertile farm systems in baseball. Five players key to the Red Sox future are not yet eligible for salary arbitration-left-handed starter Jon Lester, closer Jonathan Papelbon, set-up reliever Manny Delcarmen, second baseman and AL Rookie of the Year favorite Dustin Pedroia, and Ellsbury, the morning-line favorite for 2008 AL Rookie of the Year. First baseman Kevin Youkilis becomes eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter.

"We all showed in the postseason that we are capable of playing on a big stage and performing, which we take a lot of pride in as guys who were drafted by the Red Sox and came up through the farm system," Lester said. "We were groomed to be in this position, and we've all proven we are ready for it. We're all going to get better as we gain more experience, and we all understand the importance of helping to keep the winning tradition that has been built here going. You also have to give management credit for hanging on to all us and showing patience with us. It's easy for a team to trade its young players for veterans who can help right away. The Red Sox don't do that very often, and I think that sets us up to have a bright future and win for a long time."

Beyond those five, the Red Sox also have right-hander Clay Buchholz. The 23-year-old was kept off the postseason roster because of arm fatigue after throwing a no-hitter against Baltimore on September 1 in only his second major league start. While right-handers Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka can hardly be described as fresh-face kids, both are only 27 and seemingly have a lot of good seasons remaining at the top of the Red Sox's rotation. "Hopefully more guys are coming from the last two drafts," Epstein said. "That's a point of pride for the entire organization. That builds a foundation, and those young players understand the expectations and the culture of winning. An organizational culture takes hold and that's something you simply can't replace."

The Red Sox also have only two key players eligible for free agency this winter, right-hander Curt Schilling and third baseman Mike Lowell, the World Series MVP. Those around the Red Sox feel certain that Epstein will re-sign both. Those Red Sox fans who stayed in the stands in Coors Field more than 90 minutes after the final out of Game Four of the World Series made their sentiment about Lowell heard amidst the celebration. They kept alternating chants of "Re-sign Lowell" with those of "Don't Sign A-Rod."

Epstein acknowledged the crowd by taking off his 2007 World Series champions cap, turning it upside down and waving it to the crowd. Epstein was only kidding, of course. The Red Sox aren't the Pirates or Devil Rays. They don't need to pass the hat to solicit funds for free-agent singings. "Hopefully, we'll re-sign Lowell and Schill, and I firmly believe the organization will do everything in its power to do that," Francona said. "I really like the mix of players we have on this club. We have a lot of veterans who have that twinkle in their eye like young kids, and we young kids who handle themselves with the poise of veterans. It's a really good mix right now."

John Perrotto 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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