Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Massarotti - On Balance, Sox Better

In a bit of a Despiser echo, the Boston Herald's Tony Massarotti says the Sox might well be a better team in 2006 than in 2005. Not bad for a team that finished 2005 tied for first in their division.

Their defense looks better, their offense looks worse, their pitching remains a relative unknown. But if things break how the Red Sox want, one of the more unsettling offseasons in memory may produce one of the more balanced and versatile teams.
How’s that for an amusing twist?
The 2006 Red Sox still have more questions than answers as things stand, but for a moment try to envision what this team might be. With today’s expected announcement of the Alex Gonzalez acquisition, the Sox will fill the last major hole on their roster. In 2005, Gonzalez made 14 fewer errors than then-Sox shortstop Edgar Renteria, which means the infield defense may be considerably better.
Of course, Gonzalez couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. He rarely walks, provides little power and seldom runs. And because of that, he embodies the new philosophy being implemented at 4 Yawkey Way more than anyone else on the revamped Red Sox.
For months now, we have heard Sox officials speak of how the team needs to improve in the area of “run prevention,” which is a nice way of saying the 2005 Sox could neither pitch nor play defense. Last year, the Sox allowed more runs than all but six teams in baseball: Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Colorado, Texas and Arizona. Combined, those clubs averaged 70 wins and finished a miserable 134 games under .500.
The Red Sox? They went 95-67 and qualified for the postseason, which was both a wildly deceiving number and a testament to their prolific offense.
And when the playoffs started, they got smoked.
Not so coincidentally, the Red Sox now have the look of a team more like the defending world champion Chicago White Sox, who unceremoniously ousted them from the postseason in October. If the Red Sox pitching staff can stay healthy, and that is an enormous, colossal and gargantuan if, the Sox will have a much deeper staff to go along with better defense up the middle. That means they should be equipped to win more low-scoring games than a year ago.
The idea, it seems, is to make the Sox much more like the team from August, September and October of 2004 than the one-trick pony of last summer.
Also, as we approach the dawn of spring training 2006, remember one thing: the game is changing again. During baseball’s Helium Age, the use of steroids and performance-enhancing substances inflated numbers and made offense far more predictable. It hardly seems a coincidence that statistical analysis exploded during a time when, on the mound and in the batter’s box, baseball executives developed an insatiable thirst for power that had nothing to do with the recent upper-management struggle at Fenway Park.
Last offseason, as baseball prepared to penalize steroid users for the first time ever, the White Sox were a step ahead of the competition. The White Sox hit home runs, to be sure, but they did not entirely rely on them. And when it came time to execute a pitch or make a big defensive play, Chicago was just as capable of relying on Neal Cotts or Aaron Rowand as Paul Konerko. And the White Sox could run and bunt to boot.
As for the 2006 Red Sox, only heaven knows if this team will come together because so many parts have changed. The entire infield is new. Much of the bullpen is new. Curt Schilling is a year older and Josh Beckett has a worrisome right shoulder, all while Keith Foulke attempts to return from the train wreck that was 2005.
For now, all of those questions remain. But at least now we know who has been asked to answer them.
And why.

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