For the team that broke the Curse of the Babe in 2004 and has since become the team of the decade in Major Leauge Baseball, it is becoming apparent that the Red Sox run may be coming to a close, especially when a young and fiesty Tampa Bay Rays team beat up the Red Sox in last October's ALCS.
The Red Sox really didn't change much of their nucleus from 2008; they never went out to find another big bat that could replace Manny Ramirez and instead re-employed Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek, both of whom are nearing the end of their careers.
Varitek is 39 years old and hit only .220 last year with a .313 on base percentage. Varitek is not the same player he used to be when he was a consistent .270 hitter. Why did the Red Sox bring him back? Other than the fact he is a leader, there is no reason for Varitek's return. The Red Sox are starting to act like the Yankees, holding onto washed up players who brought them success years ago.
As for Lowell, he is coming off a disastrous 2008. Lowell suffered through injuries and played in only 113 games last year, batting .274. That is a huge drop off from his .324, 21 homer, 120 RBI performance from 2007. It will be imperative for Lowell to return to his 2007 form, especially with Manny Ramirez now a Dodger.
The rest of the lineup has holes now that Ramirez is gone too. David Ortiz, a.k.a. Big Papi, had a down year in 2008, batting .264 with 23 home runs and 89 RBI. It was Papi's worst season since 2002 when he was still a member of the Minnesota Twins. If the Red Sox are going anywhere offensively, they need Ortiz to hit with authority; however, some have speculated that Ortiz was a product of the presence of Manny Ramirez. When Ramirez hit behind Ortiz, he got more pitches to hit; with Ramirez gone, people will try to pitch around Ortiz.
After Ortiz, Jason Bay and J.D. Drew are nice hitters, but they do not scare the living daylights out of opposing pitchers. The best part of the Red Sox lineup is 5'6" Dustin Pedroia. Even for his average size, Pedroia did enough to win the AL MVP last season, batting .326 with 17 homers and 83 RBI. Pedroia had a .376 OBP since he took 50 walks to just 52 strike outs all season long. Pedroia is a special player and is the new face of the franchise.
Speaking of old age on the Red Sox? Why did the Red Sox sign John Smoltz? Smoltz missed almost all of 2008 with an arm injury while with Atlanta and is now hoping to be the team's number five starter at the age 42. It won't be a pretty year for Smoltz; pitching in the American League is no fun for anyone, especially someone in his forties.
Still, not all is bad for Boston. They have young flame-throwers in Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Justin Masterson, Josh Beckett (the best big game pitcher in baseball) and Dice-K Matsuzaka. If Matsuzaka and Beckett can continue to shine on the big stage, then the Red Sox will be in contention for a playoff spot to the end. Beckett is coming off a rocky 2008 and is due for big things in 2009. Matsuzaka came into his own in 2008, winning 18 games and should only get better. Lester and Masterson are still very young, but both ranked in the top six in team ERA last year, and they, too, should only get better with time.
As for the bullpen, the Red Sox are set with the combo of Hideki Okajima and Jonathon Papelbon. Okajima recorded 23 holds in the eighth inning last year with a sparkling 2.61 ERA. Papelbon, on the other hand, is his generation's Mariano Rivera. The guy has ice in his veins, having blown away the Indians and Rockies in the playoffs in 2007. In 2008, Papelbon had 41 saves, while walking only eight batters all season in 69 and a third innings.
Expect the Red Sox to be right in the thick of the AL East race, but if they are going to win any pennants this year, they will have to rely on their pitching to get them there. PREDICTION: RED SOX 2nd Place AL East, 89-73.