I’ve put off continuing our 3 Questions series for a while now, because I haven’t really been sure what to do with the winningest team I hadn’t covered yet, your Boston Red Stockings. The one big question is who among the pantheon of talented players they have is going to be healthy, and really, if you’re not a doctor or something, what can one say about that?
So here are three things I’m thinking about. Feel free to supply your own, better questions (or, for that matter, your own, less juvenile photo):
1. Is Salty the Answer at Catcher?
Is it stupid to ask a question that includes the words “the answer?” I kind of think so. But anyway, you can’t blame the Sox (or anybody) for not wanting to hand Victor Martinez $50 million, especially if you’re not thrilled with his catching abilities (the Tigers aren’t, and plan to DH him. Question #1 when the Tigers’ turn rolls around: “WTF, Tigers?”). But at catcher, that leaves the Sox with only Jason Varitek, who is no longer a full-time player, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who becomes the de facto starter.
Salty was a top-20 Rangers prospect entering the 2006 season, after a .314/.394/.519 showing in high-A. He hasn’t come close to duplicating that success anywhere else, though, and has seen a decline in OPS in each of the four years he’s appeared in the majors (though that includes just 12 games in 2010), boasting a career .248/.315/.386 line (82 OPS+, 83 wRC+) in 250 games. He isn’t renowned for his defense, so he has to hit much better than that to be a Red-Sox-starting-quality catcher.
Bill James’ projection system has Saltalamacchia’s 2011 at a respectable .249/.323/.422 (105 wRC+), but those are pretty famously optimistic for hitters. If he’s not doing something like that in late June or so and Varitek hasn’t found some sort of fountain of youth, this seems like the most likely place for them to make a move.
2. How Will the Change in Defensive Alignment Affect the Pitching Numbers?
This is an aspect of the Adrian Gonzalez trade that I don’t think has been addressed enough; Gonzalez does a nice job of replacing the production the Sox are losing in Adrian Beltre (certainly a better job than Beltre is likely to do of replicating it himself), but they’re effectively downgrading two positions: from Gold-Glove caliber Beltre to just-okay (and maybe out of practice) Kevin Youkilis at third, and from Gold-Glove caliber Youkilis to Gold-Glove-awarded-but-really-just-pretty-good Gonzalez at first.
It was the subject of a lot of derisive comments from short-sighted writers and fans last year, but the Red Sox’ defense was a big part of why they had the success they did despite being devastated by injuries (the total UZR looks bad, but that’s mostly the fault of changes necessitated by all those injuries). I’m sure the offense will keep them more than afloat, but you’re likely to see some more singles and doubles pulled through holes on this year’s infield than last.
3. Are They Over the Injury Bug?
The news is encouraging on Dustin Pedroia, who I think is legitimately the most important member of the team — but then, the news seemed encouraging for much of last year, too, and things kept getting pushed back. And while I think that’s the biggest injury concern, it’s far from the only one. Youkilis missed sixty games in 2010 (indications are he’s fine now, but he’s moving to a more demanding position, and thumb injuries seem to me — a decided non-expert — to be one of the more reoccurrence-friendly injuries). Mike Cameron, a smart 2010 addition, was snakebit to the tune of getting into just 48 games in 2010, and at age 38, he’s a huge question mark entering 2011. Then there’s Jacoby Ellsbury and the always-risky J.D. Drew and the aging David Ortiz…and, almost comically (which isn’t to suggest it’s necessarily a bad move), reports out of the Winter Meetings suggest they may be trying to land Carlos Beltran, who certainly wouldn’t alleviate this particular concern.
Here’s the thing: I think that if everyone is perfectly healthy, this is probably the most talented roster in baseball (note–I wrote this before the Crawford deal was announced. This team is silly now). The only hole is at catcher, and even Saltalamacchia has some upside. But there’s not a ton of depth here — at least not yet — and it’s hard to see most of these pieces playing 150+ games in 2011. With at least two other very good teams in their division, it won’t take an unholy mess like what they were hit with last year to turn this team from a contender for the division (even a favorite, maybe?) into a contender for third or even fourth.