5 Key Questions for 2005

Today, Sam Killay of Raystalk gives Evan a breather
First of all, Red Sox fans, I highly recommend that you read this Globe article on your new team Captain. Any wonder why this guy gets the respect of his teammates? Good article, very in-depth. You’ll love it, I promise. A good look at what life is like for the man behind the mask–a better view than CatcherCam ever was, I’ll say that much.
Second, the beginnings of the baseball season are nearly upon us. Aren’t you excited? I am. I know, it’s kinda sad: I’m not excited because the baseball season is about to start, and I’m not excited because Spring Training is about to start. No, I’m all excited because Spring Training is about to start for pitchers and catchers. I think that must mean I’m a baseball junkie.
I’m a loser. I love it.
Anywho, I know you’re sick of season previews and W/L predictions by now (or if you aren’t, then you should be). But take heart: just a few more days before the focus shifts from the future to the present. Before then, however, let’s take one last look at a few potential obstacles to our World Champion Boston Red Sox and consider what will help the boys be most successful in their defense of their title.
How healthy and/or effective will Curt Schilling be?
According to the commentators, it was the one big knock on the (also World Champion) Patriots this year: if Tom Brady goes down hurt, what do the Patriots have to replace him? Rohan Davey doesn’t cut it. Of course, the so-called experts only harped on the Pats about that Achilles heel because … because there wasn’t much else to pick on.
Unfortunately for the Red Sox, the problem is more imposing. Brady never actually did get hurt, but the Red Sox aren’t so lucky. Ace Curt Schilling says he can be ready for his Opening Day start, and maybe he’s right, who knows? The man has done the unthinkable, the unbelievable, the impossible before. But the bigger question is, how effective will he be when he does return, whenever that may be? How much conditioning time has he lost this winter as his famous ankle healed? Has he had to alter his workouts? If so, will his legs be fully healthy and strong enough to withstand a full season of pitching? Will his mechanics be the same, whether because of a change in muscle mass or lingering injury?
Schill is a warrior, but we have no guarantees. Last year he was the 2nd-best pitcher in the American League. Red Sox fans, consider yourselves warned: we might not get as much out of our workhorse this year.
Will Trot Nixon be healthy?
The Trotster played in just 48 regular season games in 2004. Needless to say, we need his bat.
Obviously the Red Sox have the deepest and most effective offense in baseball. Our league-leading Runs totals in 2004 and 2003 are proof positive of that. The top of the order is good. The bottom of the order is good. The heart of the order (Manny and Papi, at least) is historically good.
No team in baseball can match our lineup top to bottom, even without Nixon. However, if Nixon isn’t healthy, there are two teams that can better the heart of our order, the Cardinals and the Yankees. For reference, here’s the Cardinals’ 2-6 hitters:
Larry Walker
Scott Rolen
Albert Pujols
Jim Edmonds
Reggie Sanders
Which is an incredibly good and extremely deep heart-of-the-order. And here’s the Yankees’ 2-6 hitters:
Derek Jeter
Gary Sheffield
Alex Rodriguez
Hideki Matsui
Jason Giambi (or)
Jorge Posada (or)
Tino Martinez
Or some such variation thereof. I’m not exactly sure how they plan to order things now that Womack (eh?) is hitting leadoff. Any way you slice it, though, both the Yankees and Cardinals better our 2-6 of:
Edgar Renteria
Manny Ramirez
David Ortiz
Kevin Millar
Jason Varitek
On the other hand, we’re not doing so badly with a 2-6 that includes a healthy Nixon and pushes Captain Tek down into the 7-9 territory.
Even without a healthy Giambi, the Yankees are extremely deep and dangerous. With Juicer G healthy, they have an unquestionably dominating lineup. Can Nixon rebound from his down 2004 season to give us the kind of production and energy we know he’s capable of? We can only hope.
Will Kevin Millar be traded?
If import Roberto Petagine can prove himself in Spring Training to be (at the very least) a productive platoon player, a mid-season Millar trade could be a good way to get Kevin Youkilis much-needed AB’s as the other half of the platoon at 1B. Youks should pick up a few extra AB’s because of the recent news about Mueller’s arthroscopic surgery. Still, the kid is about to turn 26: it’s time he began to get into the lineup every day.
Then again, if Millar starts the year like he did last season, hitting for disappointing power until mid-July, then it might be better to hold onto him. His contract is up after the season, but it would be nice if he were hitting heavy when the trade deadline looms: he could pull down a nice prospect in return. Maybe there’s reason to hope for that, if his comments in an MLB.com interview have any truth to them:

So as the Red Sox dealt Doug Mientkiewicz to the Mets on Wednesday — meaning that Millar will be back as the first baseman — an added fringe benefit is that they just might get a new and improved player.
“It’s indescribable. I haven’t been able to sleep. I’ve been in the weight room,” said Millar, reached at his home in Beaumont, Texas. “I’ve worked as hard as I ever have this offseason, probably the hardest I ever have. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in just because of this whole thing. I’d do pushups just to keep the nights going by. It was scary. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Such things should probably be taken with a grain of salt. And then again, there’s no guarantee that pushups will improve his swing mechanics and noticeably boost his power. But the possibility remains that Millar might be a valuable commodity at the trade deadline.
Of course, it could also prove beneficial for the Sox to hold onto Millar and let him walk after the season, potentially netting us an extra draft pick. But we also have to offer Millar arbitration if we’re to become eligible for that draft pick, so that strategy could be a double-edged sword. If he were to accept our arb offer (and he says he loves it here in Boston, making it quite possible that he would accept), we might not be happy with the outcome.
How will the bullpen hold up?
Mike Timlin is about to turn 39 years old and had maybe the 2nd-worst season of his career in 2004. Alan Embree is already 35, also had a down year in 2004, and continues to lose velocity on (off?) his fastball. Matt Mantei is a reclamation project. Byung-Hyun Kim might and might not be able to contribute but is more likely to be traded at the earliest opportunity.
We’ll need innings from somebody. Closer Keith Foulke is the consummate relief ace. Beast that he is, though, even Foulke can’t pitch every day.
Theo is aware of the problem. To that end, he signed former Devil Ray John Halama, who should provide us quality innings from the pen. He also took a flyer on fireballing Japanese import Denny Tomori, although Tomori is a longshot to contribute. Also, it’s possible that Senior Sock Tim Wakefield could return to the pen if Wade Miller proves to be healthy. More on that in just a second …
Who will step up to be the #2 starter?
You can never have too much pitching. That is, unless of course you have too much pitching. The Red Sox currently have an overload of pitchers capable of starting ballgames. The rotation currently stacks up something like this:
#1 Curt Schilling
#2 Matt Clement
#3 David Wells
#4 Bronson Arroyo
#5 Tim Wakefield
#6 Wade Miller
#7 John Halama
Now obviously our rotation isn’t going to be 7 men deep. We know who our ace is: that’s Schilling, whenever he’s ready. And we know that Halama and Miller are currently the odd-men-out, Halama because he belongs in the pen, Miller because he has to prove the health of his pitching shoulder.
And really, that’s all we know as of right now. While not a bad rotation, that rotation is a #1, three #3’s, and a #5, albeit maybe the best #5 in baseball. But it’s not a rotation without question marks.
Wells had a good year last year in San Diego’s cavernous Petco Park, but how much can we expect upon his return to the AL? Wells is at a point in his career where he’s a pure finesse pitcher, walking nearly nobody (0.9 BB/9 in each of his last two seasons) but striking out nearly nobody (4.3 K/9 in 2003 and 4.7 K/9 in 2004). If healthy, and that’s a big if, Wells will be consistent, but nothing more. He no longer has the stuff to be anything more than a #3 or #4 starter. In all honesty, Wells could be the second coming of John Burkett.
Clement and Miller, on the other hand, have all kinds of stuff. Neither controls it especially well. At the same time, Clement’s K/9 has been variable the last three seasons, ranging from a career high 9.4 in 2002 to a disappointing 7.6 in 2003 to a new career high 9.5 last year. Which Matt Clement are we going to see in 2005? Wade Miller, meanwhile, is about as wild as Clement but has averaged only an adequate 7.7 K/9 over the last 3 seasons. At the moment, neither of these guys can be counted on to fill the void behind Schilling in our rotation.
Wakefield, of course, is what he is. You get what you get out of him, and there’s never any way of knowing what that’s going to be. However, something to take note of: the more hitters see of Wakefield, the less effective he tends to be, and his ERA has risen in each of the last 3 years. That could be a warning sign. If Clement and Miller can keep it on track for 2005, might Wakefield prove more useful to us in the bullpen?
As far as our rotation after Schilling, somebody is gonna hafta step up in 2005. And that somebody is Bronson Arroyo.
Evan and I have talked about this before on Firebrand, but for memory’s sake let’s rehash. You wanna see something strange? Courtesy of The Baseball Cube, as always here at MVN, let’s look at Bronson’s year by year WHIP totals dating back to 2000:
2004, Boston (MLB): 1.22 WHIP, 2.4 BB/9 [179 IP] 2003, Boston (MLB): 0.81 WHIP, 2.1 BB/9 [17 IP] 2003, Pawtucket (AAA): 1.14 WHIP, 1.4 BB/9 [150 IP] 2002, Pittsburgh (MLB): 1.67 WHIP, 5.0 BB/9 [27 IP] 2002, Nashville (AAA): 1.08 WHIP, 1.8 BB/9 [143 IP] 2001, Pittsburgh (MLB): 1.51 WHIP, 3.5 BB/9 [88 IP] 2001, Nashville (AAA): 1.18 WHIP, 2.0 BB/9 [66 IP] 2000, Pittsburgh (MLB): 1.74 WHIP, 4.5 BB/9 [72 IP] 2000, Nashville (AAA): 1.21 WHIP, 2.5 BB/9 [89 IP] 2000, Lynchburg (A): 1.43 WHIP, 2.6 BB/9 [7 IP] If that’s not a trend, I’ll eat my hat. Do you see what I’m talking about? Maybe the visual comparison would be more helpful if I broke it down differently for ya. So here goes: we’ll call it, A Tale of Two Pitchers:
Bronson the major leaguer:
2004, Boston (MLB): 1.22 WHIP, 2.4 BB/9 [179 IP] 2003, Boston (MLB): 0.81 WHIP, 2.1 BB/9 [17 IP] 2002, Pittsburgh (MLB): 1.67 WHIP, 5.0 BB/9 [27 IP] 2001, Pittsburgh (MLB): 1.51 WHIP, 3.5 BB/9 [88 IP] 2000, Pittsburgh (MLB): 1.74 WHIP, 4.5 BB/9 [72 IP] Bronson the major leaguer isn’t very impressive, all in all. He busted out during a cup o’ coffee in 2003 and posted pretty good numbers in 2004. Other than that, though, his career numbers at the MLB level are horrific, truly a pitching coach’s nightmare. Bronson doesn’t strike a lot of guys out, and if you walk a lot of batsmen while not striking out many hitters, you don’t last long in this (or any other) league.
Bronson the minor leaguer:
2003, Pawtucket (AAA): 1.14 WHIP, 1.4 BB/9 [150 IP] 2002, Nashville (AAA): 1.08 WHIP, 1.8 BB/9 [143 IP] 2001, Nashville (AAA): 1.18 WHIP, 2.0 BB/9 [66 IP] 2000, Nashville (AAA): 1.21 WHIP, 2.5 BB/9 [89 IP] 2000, Lynchburg (A): 1.43 WHIP, 2.6 BB/9 [7 IP] What’s this? Bronson the minor leaguer is a practically a different man. A completely different pitcher. He’s not walking people like he did in the majors. What’s the explanation for that?
I’ll tell you, too, but before I do, lemme just throw one more stat at you to see what you make of it: with 20 HBP in 2004, Arroyo tied Carlos Zambrano for the most hit batsmen in all of baseball.
Now what’s the real story behind Bronson Arroyo?
I was confused myself for a while. I knew about the HBP and just assumed that the guy couldn’t control his fastball. Turns out, I was wrong. Look at his minor league numbers again: not only can this guy control his fastball, he can control it immaculately.
When he wants to.
Tell me, how does a guy post a superb 1.18 WHIP and a terrible 1.51 WHIP at two separate talent levels in the same season, as Bronson did in 2001? How does a guy post a fantastic 1.08 WHIP and an ugly 1.67 WHIP at separate talent levels in the same season, as Bronson did in 2002? How does a guy post an excellent 1.21 WHIP and a grotesque 1.74 WHIP at separate talent levels in the same season, as Bronson did in 2002?
The solution is easier than you’d think. Simple answer: Bronson’s major league WHIP’s have been bad because he didn’t want to throw strikes. His minor league WHIP’s have been outstanding because he wanted to throw strikes. Now ain’t that simple?
But why, you ask? Why in the world would a guy not want to throw strikes?
Consider, if you will, the particular assortment of pitches in Arroyo’s repertoire. He throws an average fastball in the range of 88-91 miles-per-hour. Average but unspectacular. When you have a fastball like that, you don’t dominate by relying on your fastball alone. You have to be able to augment it with something else in order to keep the hitters off balance. Bronson has no changeup to speak of, so he keeps the hitters guessing with a grab-bag assortment of curves, slurves, and sliders, on all of which he changes the speeds & arm angles. Which is good because, even when the batter knows that Arroyo is bringing a breaking ball, he doesn’t know what sort of breaking ball it will be.
In other words, even when the batter knows what’s coming, he still doesn’t know exactly what’s coming. But neither does Arroyo.
See that’s the trouble with changing speeds & arm angles the way Arroyo does. Practice makes perfect, or practice makes permanent, or practice makes polished: say it any way you want to, but Arroyo makes a living off the art of improvisation. And every now and again, he’s going to miss a beat. Result: a major hanger.
Arroyo always knew this. He also knew that MLB hitters punish hanging breaking balls. And he was scared of the strike zone.

“The guy dives out over the plate and hits balls 500 feet to rightcenter, sooo … I mean, I’m gonna try to get in on him.”

Those were Bronson’s words spoken about Alex Rodriguez in the press conference after the infamous brawl game in which Captain Varitek took exception to ARod’s displeasure about being hit by a pitched baseball.
Coupled with the minor league WHIP totals and the 2004 HBP total, Arroyo’s press conference comments prompt me to observe: I don’t believe Bronson Arroyo is afraid of MLB hitters anymore.
The bottom line is, Arroyo decided to let it all hang out in 2003. He had spent the last 3 years shuttling back and forth between AAA (where he got batters out at a prodigious rate) and MLB (where he failed to get batters out at a prodigious rate). He was tired of that. His career was going nowhere, so when he received his usual callup to the big leagues after another steller AAA season in 2003, he went for broke.
He went after hitters.
And he got them out. Just like he had been doing for years in AAA. That success carried over into 2004, in which Bronson landed himself a starting job and, eventually, a place among the American League’s best starting pitchers.
Amazing what a little confidence in your breaking ball can do for you, isn’t it?
For what it’s worth, nothing else has changed about Arroyo. He’s still gonna throw a hanger once in a while. He knows that. He has also come to learn that it’s all right — once in a while — to hang one when the rest of the time you’re throwing Bugs Bunny breaking balls. Or, in the words of Derek Lowe, who has pretty good stuff himself, “wiffle ball curves.”
Arroyo has the control. He has the stuff. He has the confidence.
I can’t tell you how things are going to go for the Sox in 2005. Along with the Yankees, we still have one of the 2 oldest teams in baseball, so we’re going to have our share of injury concerns. We’re still in danger of regression from guys like Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Our rotation has its question marks. Our bullpen has its question marks. And the Yankees do pose a serious threat.
But I know that we won it all in 2004 despite all kinds of serious losses to injury. I know that Theo has signed a lot of depth (both in the hitting and pitching departments) to counteract the injury effect in 2005 — enough depth, in fact, that we might actually have a surplus at the trading deadline. I know that our offense has improved upon last year’s league-leading squad. I know that Keith Foulke is a master of his craft. And I know that when he finally takes the hill, Curt Schilling will give his all, come hell or high water.
You can answer these 5 questions any way you want to. But as for myself, I anticipate many good things for the Boston Red Sox in 2005.