2006 Returnees: What Can We Expect?

So far, this offseason has been all about the potential newcomers, from the front office to center field to the bullpen. But I want to make a quick run through the lineup and focus on our returning players: what can we expect in 2006? Who will improve, who will decline? Can the core offensive producers that this team has relied on for three years continue to produce at the levels that have made them the majors’ top offense so many years running? Let’s look at the 5 highest-profile hitters, excluding 1B, 2B, and CF, and see what we see.
C: Jason Varitek
The team captain, fresh off signing a 4 year, $40 million contract that solidified his status as one of the elite catchers in the major leagues, had a season to remember – at least until September rolled around. The season as a whole was his third straight with an average over .270, and his second straight over .280; it was his third straight with an OBP above .365 and a slugging percentage over .480, all enviable numbers for a backstop, made only more valuable by his defensive presence, which earned him his first career Gold Glove. Still, a catcher’s shelf life is shorter that that of the average player, and Tek will turn 34 only days into the 2006 season.
A couple of interesting things jump out when one delves more deeply into Varitek’s numbers. The first, and more troubling, is the fact that Varitek seems to slow down offensively late in the season; it’s a trend that has existed at least since 2002. The concern, then, is not that something will change, but that as he grows older this split will worsen; though the Sox do a good job of giving him time off – 5 AL catchers had more AB’s than Jason over the course of 2005 – his age warrants a red flag in terms of potential breakdowns. Not many catchers retain their productivity well past the early 30’s, and Jason’s about there.
The other interesting note is the extreme shift, over the last few seasons, in his success as a right-handed batter. Earlier in his career, Jason was far more effective batting from the left side, with a higher OPS than as a righty every year from 1998-2002. Then, in 2003, something happened; suddenly, Varitek was maintaining his success as a lefty, but reaching new heights from the right side. In 2002, he put up an OPS of .686 as an RHB, but in 2003 that number hit .997. In the two seasons since ’03, he’s hit .995 and 1.000 as an RHB, making him – in 2005 – the third best catcher in the majors vs. LHP (with a minimum of 100 AB’s).
While I’m tempted to predict a decline for Tek in 2006, this latter number makes me wonder. He’s put up stunningly consistent numbers as a right-handed hitter over the last three years, enough to convince me that his shift isn’t a fluke. If the Sox can continue to spell him behind the plate with good frequency, there’s no reason to believe he can’t maintain his position as a top offensive and defensive catcher.
Prediction: Very Slight Decline
SS: Edgar Renteria
Edgar had a very rough first year in Boston; his price tag gave fans high expectations, and rightly so. His reputation was as an offensive sparkplug and a defensive wizard, and he failed on both counts, putting up an OPS slightly below league average and committing the most errors in the AL, to go along with unremarkable zone and sabermetric defensive stats. The defensive woes were stunning from Renteria, leading many to speculate a nagging injury, but the offensive problems really shouldn’t have been surprising; as bad as he looked at times, he basically performed up to the level he set in 2004, and for several years before 2002. Really, 2002 and 2003 were the outliers for Edgar, rather than 2004 or 2005; he’s a hitter who seems to settle in the mid-.700’s in OPS, with an OBP around .330 and minimal power. It’s what we should have expected from him, and it’s what we got.
That being said, I do think he’ll perform somewhat better offensively in 2006 IF we can find a way to remove him from the two hole, where it often seems as though he presses. Kevin Youkilis, in my mind an ideal #2 hitter, could be useful in this regard. Defensively… is there any way to know? There’s got to be some reversion to the norm; a great defensive SS doesn’t suddenly become a lousy one overnight. If there was an injury issue, then we can certainly expect the problem to go away, but if not… Edgar could be in for a rough 3 years.
Prediction: Status quo offensively, improvement defensively
LF: Manny Ramirez
Assuming, of course, that Manny is back in 2006 (and I see little reason to expect him not to be), we know in some basic sense what we’ll get; this is, after all, a guy who’s put up MVP numbers every single year he’s been in the league, with constant power and an excellent eye. His OBP has dropped three straight years, but most of that seems to be accountable in his BA; his strikeouts have held reasonably steady, his SLG continues to be among the highest in the league, and his sabermetric offensive stats are steady and exceptional. There has been a slight decline in his walk rate over the last two years, but it’s actually entirely possible that that decline is due entirely to the presence of David Ortiz. In short, despite his age and early season fears about his productivity, there’s very little reason to expect Manny not to emerge in 2006 with another .290/.390/.600 season.
Prediction: Status quo
RF: Trot Nixon
I’ll come right out and say it: I’m worried about Trot, in a big way. In 2005, the Sox RF posted the lowest full season OPS of his career, including large drops in OBP and SLG, and a large drop in his HR frequency. He also missed significant time, for the second straight year, with injury issues. His defense is also clearly in decline; where Trot was once an outstanding right fielder with great range and an above average arm, he has now become something of a liability in the field. It’s tough to identify the cause, given his injuries; they may simply be because he’s been hurting, or they may be because of aging and decline… or they may be the result of other things. In any case, injury issues are closely related to age; if it’s either of the first two, it’s difficult to predict Trot to have a full season in 2006, or for his offensive numbers to make a sudden rebound toward 2003 totals.
Prediction: Decline, with significant time missed
DH: David Ortiz
2005 solidified David Ortiz as the shining star of the Boston offense, which is no small feat in a lineup that features one of the most prodigious hitters in major league history. Ortiz, who turned 30 three days ago, set career highs in virtually every offensive category, including walks, homers, OBP, SLG, OPS, and SecA. He narrowly missed his first MVP award, only because Alex Rodriguez returned to greatness after a year of merely stunningly awesome in 2004. Can he possibly get better? Don’t count on it, but don’t count on him declining, either. The youngest player on this list, Ortiz has reached his full potential and promises to remain there for at least another season. There are no indicators of decline at all, nor should there be; while 27 is the widely accepted age for a career year, recent studies have shown that number to be closer to 30. His one warning sign – his physique – may also be misleading, as by all reports he was in better shape in 2005 than at any point in his career.
Prediction: Status quo, with the potential for a slight improvement
So, of the 5, only one – Nixon – shows a real likelihood of meaningful decline. Obviously the potential exists for any of them to do so, but we can at least expect solid numbers from Varitek, Ramirez, and Ortiz to go along with standard numbers from Renteria. The core of this offense will remain stable; the newcomers will be the ones to make or break the 2006 Red Sox.

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