- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Sometimes when a championship is won, it comes as the last gasp of a veteran team. To an extent, the '04 Red Sox were like that. Pedro Martinez was going into free agency, as was Derek Lowe. Spark plug Orlando Cabrera was a rental at shortstop, Doug Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts knew they probably wouldn't return, and Mark Bellhorn and Bill Mueller were ostensible fill-ins who'd caught fire for a season. This isn't meant to denigrate what was an amazing story. But just two seasons later, 60 percent of Boston's 2004 starting rotation, all members of the bullpen save Mike Timlin and Keith Foulke, the entire starting infield and the starting center fielder didn't play for the Red Sox any longer.
Then there's the other kind of world champion. The kind that wins even before it's at the peak of its powers. The kind that gets contributions from much-hyped first-year players who weren't really even expected in the majors yet. The kind that scares the bejeezus out of the rest of major league baseball, because it looks like a serious threat to repeat, and maybe more than once. The '07 Red Sox fall into that latter category.
Dustin Pedroia overcame a dismal April and won the AL Rookie of the Year. Daisuke Matsuzaka came to the States as a huge-dollar international free agent, and struck out 201 batters in 204 2/3 innings. Jon Lester overcame cancer to pitch fairly well in his limited regular-season appearances, then won Game 4 of the World Series. Hideki Okajima became one of the most devastating set-up men in the game. Jacoby Ellsbury assumed a big role in September, hitting .353, only to top himself and become the team's starting center fielder in the ALCS and then hit .438 in the World Series. Clay Buchholz jumped to the bigs on Sept. 1 and threw a no-hitter. With players like starting pitchers Justin Masterson and Michael Bowden and shortstop Jed Lowrie in the high minors just a year or so away, with 24-year-old Ellsbury and 23-year-old Buchholz ready to go in the bigs in '08, with 27-year-old (he turns 28 in May) Josh Beckett and 27-year-old Matsuzaka heading into their peak years, with 24-year-old Lester another winter removed from chemotherapy and reporting to camp far stronger, with 24-year-old Pedroia at second, and with 27-year-old Jonathan Papelbon arguably the best closer in baseball, the Red Sox deserve to be favored to become the first team since the '98-to-'00 Yankees to repeat.
Let's not go crazy here. It's not as if this is some small-market franchise doing it solely with young kids. The Red Sox spend tons of dough on superstars like Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, and pay a lot of pretty good players as though they were superstars: J.D. Drew, Jason Varitek, Mike Lowell and Julio Lugo come to mind. But with the club's average age dropping by the season, with the farm system coming to fruition in waves, and with the core of the rotation looking so young and strong, Boston has the best of both worlds: tons of dough, and a bunch of very good, cheap future stars. That's a tough combo to beat.
Ballpark: Fenway Park has the reputation of being (in John Updike's words) a "lyric little bandbox," but especially in an age of Citizens Bank Parks and Great American Ballparks, Fenway doesn't stand out as being overly hitter-friendly. In the past few years, yes, the park has played to the hitters' advantage in terms of runs scored (in fact, in '07, it was the highest runs-scored park), but typically not to the extremes that, for example, Colorado, Arizona and Cincinnati do. In addition, Fenway is not a generic homer haven; even in high-run-scoring '07, it was just 23rd-most hospitable to the long ball, and statistically speaking, it hasn't even been an above-average place for dingers since 2003 (note that the Green Monster seats were installed after '02, and are sometimes accused of having changed the stadium's wind patterns). What Fenway does foster are doubles: for five years running, Fenway has literally been the most hospitable place in the bigs for two-baggers, mostly because of the Green Monster.
Top sleeper: For a guy who was named rookie of the year, Dustin Pedroia sure doesn't get a lot of fantasy pub. I suppose that's true for the same reason most organizations (and journalists) didn't believe Pedroia would ever be a successful big leaguer: He has little power and little speed. But if you don't draft one of the elite options at second base (Utley, Phillips, Roberts, Upton or Cano), you could do a lot worse than waiting awhile, and taking Pedroia. He'll probably bat first or second for what should be a very good offense, so he'll score runs. He's an on-base machine (.380 overall in '07, despite a .308 April) who walked 47 times and struck out just 42, and he has elite line-drive peripherals. Sure, the seven steals he mustered in '07 are probably about his limit, and he hit only eight dingers while driving in 50, so he's no five-category wonder. But what he does, he does exceedingly well, and he's a very solid late-round gambit who lets you take starrier names at other positions in earlier rounds.
Intriguing spring battle: The Red Sox probably made fewer high-impact changes than anyone in baseball this winter, which makes sense, considering they're the champs. Only two situations bear any drama at all. In center field, Boston has Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury, two speedy guys who play excellent defense. Ellsbury has only 116 career major league at-bats, but he has to be considered the favorite to win this job, despite the fact that GM Theo Epstein referred to Crisp as "the guy" in late February. (It's very possible Epstein said this to enhance Crisp's potential trade value.) Yes, Crisp is a six-year veteran, and yes, his defense helped the club win the AL East in '07. But offensively, his two years as a Red Sox have been disappointing. And it's not as if manager Terry Francona didn't already have enough confidence in young Ellsbury to bench Crisp in the '07 ALCS. Heck, the kid proved himself in the World Series. One more interesting note: Boston re-signed Bobby Kielty to be a backup outfielder. Would the Red Sox have done this if they expected to have both Crisp and Ellsbury on the roster? It's possible both guys start the year in Boston, and it's even possible Crisp really is the starter at first. But Ellsbury is the future, he'll wind up with more at-bats, and he (with his 40-steal potential) is the guy you'd want to draft.
The other spot of contention is the fifth-starter role. Clay Buchholz has the inside track on the job. He was dominant after getting his call-up in '07, he's got the pedigree, and the team is pleased with how he came back after his shoulder subluxation last September. But the Sox are also preparing for the possibility that Buchholz spits the bit in March. They've already made mention of Julian Tavarez and Kyle Snyder as possible fifth starters, and early this week signed Bartolo Colon to a minor league deal. I have serious doubts about Colon. He wasn't good in winter ball, where he threw in the 88-91 mph range, and let's face it, this isn't exactly a guy who dazzles you with secondary pitches. No, when all's said and done, I think Buchholz wins the job and winds up the third-most valuable starter on this team, after Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Trainer's room: By now, you probably know not to draft Curt Schilling. He has a biceps tendon that's close to disintegrating and a rotator cuff that may be partially torn, and if it were up to him, he would already have had surgery that would mostly likely have been season-ending. But the Sox signed Schilling to only a one-year deal this winter, and so don't particularly care about 2009 when it comes to the storied right-hander. Therefore they've mandated that Schilling rest and rehab for a few months, to see if it's possible he can pitch again after the All-Star break. It doesn't sound promising, and Schilling might have to call it a career.
David Ortiz battled right knee problems throughout 2007, problems that are widely considered an explanation for his decrease in power numbers (47 and 54 homers in '05 and '06, 35 in '07). In early November, Big Papi had surgery to repair his slightly torn meniscus, and he says he's fine. While Ortiz is 32 now and isn't exactly what you'd call "buff," a return to the mid-40s in homers is well inside the realm of possibility.
Fantasy stud: There are a few. Ortiz is probably the most consistently valuable fantasy commodity on this team right now, but we've already talked about him. So let's go with Beckett. Once he discovered he didn't need to throw his fastball by every hitter on every pitch, Beckett became an entirely different guy. American League hitters just kept trying to catch up to the heater, as evidenced by the highlight reel of foolish-looking swings Beckett induced on slower stuff from April of '07 forward. And his control became nearly Schilling-esque: just 40 walks and 194 strikeouts in 200 2/3 innings. With Johan Santana in the NL, I think Beckett can lay honest claim to being the best fantasy starting pitcher in the American League, though of course guys like C.C. Sabathia and Erik Bedard have something to say about that. The only thing that gives you a moment's pause when it comes to Beckett is health, since even in his best season he couldn't avoid a two-week absence because of a blister/cut/evulsion/whatever on his pitching hand. Still, he should be spectacular again in '08.
Prospect(s) to watch for 2008: We've already discussed Ellsbury and Buchholz, and it wouldn't be a shock to see either of those guys follow up Pedroia's rookie of the year award with one of his own. There isn't a ton of room on this big league team for any other prospects to break in this year. The only other name worth knowing for '08 would probably be catcher George Kottaras, and the only reason he could be relevant is if 36-year-old Jason Varitek gets hurt. Kottaras turns 25 in May, and could be a decent major league hitter, with 15-homer power and a good batting eye. He wouldn't be a great fantasy option, but he might be a better everyday guy than current backup Doug Mirabelli, at least offensively. Defensively, though, Kottaras would probably struggle.
Prospect(s) to watch for the future: This organization has good prospects at all levels, but we'll focus on three players who figure to stay at some combination of Double- and Triple-A for all of '08, but could contribute by '09. Justin Masterson is 22 and has a potentially lethal sinker that he throws at several speeds, and the development of that single pitch caused him to shoot skyward in the estimation of many potential Red Sox trading partners last summer. Boston wants to see Masterson work on his third pitch, a pretty good changeup, before it considers using him as a starter in the majors. It's possible he could morph into a young Derek Lowe set-up type, but the organization would certainly rather see him be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter, perhaps as early as '09.
Michael Bowden is a harder-throwing righty whose mid-90s fastball is probably ready for the majors right now, but who doesn't have the same command Masterson does of his secondary pitches. Bowden pitched quite well at Class A Lancaster in the first half of '07 and got Red Sox fans excited about a possible ascension direct to the bigs last year, but he didn't fare quite as well at Double-A Portland, so expect a gentler timetable for the 21-year-old. His upside is someone like Javier Vazquez, but Jeff Suppan may be a little more realistic comparable.
Shortstop Jed Lowrie is a very good middle infielder who might be in the majors in '08 if he played for a worse team (which is why the Twins were interested in him in any proposed deal for Johan Santana). Lowrie isn't going to be an elite defender, and he won't hit homers, so he draws some comparisons to Dustin Pedroia, another former college shortstop (Lowrie went to Stanford; Pedroia went to Arizona State). Lowrie is a bit faster than Pedroia, but their on-base skills are very similar. With Julio Lugo signed long term in Boston for high dollars, Lowrie appears to be blocked, which means he could be a trading chip this summer.
In future seasons, remember the names SP Nick Hagadone, 1B Lars Anderson, SS Oscar Tejada and, in about five years, a potential superstar shortstop or (more likely) third baseman named Michael Almanzar.
Baserunning philosophy: The days of the station-to-station Red Sox are gone. In 2007, they were a respectable 18th in stolen base attempts, and tied for 15th in steals. Francona's modus operandi seems to be: Keep your slow guys anchored, but let your fast guys run. Lugo had 33 steals in '07, Crisp had 28, and after his September call-up Ellsbury got nine in just 116 AB. Drew's running days are far behind him, while players like Ramirez, Ortiz, Lowell, Varitek and Pedroia are plodders. This year, expect Lugo and whichever center fielder wins the starting gig to eclipse 30 thefts again.
Fearless prediction: Josh Beckett will win the AL Cy Young Award. Heck, you can make the argument he deserved it in '07. (I'm not making that argument; I'd have voted for Sabathia. But Beckett was the majors' only 20-game winner.) With Santana out of the American League, one major obstacle is gone. And while there are tons of other topflight starters, none has proved himself to be the big-game pitcher Beckett is. Put it this way: If he simply duplicates his effort from '07 but stretches it out over, say, 220 innings instead of 200, Beckett has a better-than-even chance of taking home the hardware.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.