The Red Sox are obviously a perennial contender, and last year was no exception. Despite being decimated by injuries, the Sox finished with 89 wins, which kept them out of the playoff picture as a member of baseball’s toughest division. Their main problems came on the run prevention side of the ball. The Sox scored 818 runs, second only to the Yankees in all of baseball, but gave up 744 runs, fourth worst in the AL. Sox outfielders were largely at fault for their uncharacteristic defensive ineptitude, putting up a combined UZR of –23.4, last in the AL. Their pitching will fix itself to an extent. Josh Beckett will return from a season to forget and attempt to bounce back from injury and ineffectiveness, John Lackey is likely to see much better returns after a season in which his FIP (3.85) was more than half a run lower than his ERA (4.40), suggesting 2010 was an unlucky year for the righty. Clay Buchholz will look to continue to climb after a breakout 3.7 WAR season. Jon Lester will be Jon Lester, continuing to establish himself as the world-class ace of a world-class rotation.
So what do you do when your outfield is handicapping your pitching by playing subpar defense? You go out and sign the guy who’s been second in baseball in UZR over the last three, and finished second in the AL in the stat last season, to a seven year, $142 million contract, of course. However, Carl Crawford doesn’t just make the big bucks for his world-class defense. Crawford has put up a wRC+ of over 120 in four of the past five years, and is second in the league over the last two seasons with 107 steals. His wRC+ of 139 last season marked his best offensive year to date. Crawford’s 29, and should continue to be a human vacuum in the outfield and a sparkplug at the plate in the prime of his powers. The only question is whether to shift him to right to allow him to roam free, rather than being impeded by the short left field in front of the Green Monster.
But that’s not all. Theo Epstein and Co. needed to upgrade the outfield, and they certainly did. However, with Adrian Beltre, by far the best defender on the 2010 squad, leaving in free agency, Epstein also wanted to improve their infield gloves. That’s the difference between the Red Sox and smaller-market teams. When you don’t have the cash for a huge payroll, you know what the situation necessitates and fill team needs. When have bills to burn, like the Sawx, you can go out and get what you want as well. The Padres couldn’t afford to sign Adrian Gonzalez to a long-term pact, so they traded him while they still could, receiving a huge package of prospects from Boston that included highly rated starter Casey Kelly, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and outfielder Reymond Fuentes. Though Gonzalez had a pedestrian UZR of 1.1 last season, he does have an excellent defensive reputation (and his UZR of 5.8 in 2009) going for him. He’s also a tremendous hitter, and his already superb numbers will only increase as he leaves Petco Park, where power goes to die, for the much more hitter-friendly confines of Fenway. Gonzalez is essentially “Pujols lite,” contributing power and excellent on-base skills on offense as well as a stellar glove in the field. Well, sorta. Comparing Pujols to anyone is a bit of a stretch, which is why he may very well be worth $30 million per year.
So the Red Sox got their Perfect Pickup in Crawford, and then made another great move in going out to get Gonzalez. The BoSox may be the most improved team in baseball this offseason. The AL East standings will likely reflect that. Don’t expect them to miss the playoffs again in 2011, or really anytime soon. Next time, we’ll take a look at the Padres, and then move on to grading the playoff teams’ offseasons and gearing up for the start of the MLB season. I’ve also planned a trip to Arizona for my Spring Break, so I look forward to writing from Spring Training at the beginning of March.