The Returnees, Pt. II

On Monday, I went through the returning pitchers who will play a major role for the 2006 Red Sox. Today, I’ll look at the hitters. This would normally be a fairly large task, but the overturning of the Sox lineup in the offseason has left only 4 starters intact from last year’s AL Wild Card (and AL East co-champion) club. This article will consider those four players, and suggest what I believe we can expect from each in the upcoming season.
Jason Varitek, C
Varitek, coming off of – in no particular order – his first fan-voted All-Star appearance, his first season as team captain, and his first Gold Glove at catcher, comes into 2006 as the most widely respected catcher in the game. He’s not only a top play-caller (according to the pitchers with whom he works) and an outstanding defensive backstop; he’s also one of the two best offensive C’s in the game today (along with Cleveland’s Victor Martinez). Going into his age 34 season, however, questions have to be asked regarding his stamina. Though his OPS hovered in the 850’s – the third straight year and fourth season in five that it has been over the 800 mark – his final figure was dragged downward by an abysmal September, in which he hit .173/.280/.235. Never before has Tek had such an awful month, and the confluence of his age and the fact that he logged more PA’s than in any season since 1999 is too glaring a red flag to ignore. Keep in mind, also, that Varitek will be Team USA’s primary catcher during the World Baseball Classic; does anyone think the Captain won’t give that as all, just as he would any regular season game?
Jason Varitek, as I’ve mentioned before, is my favorite ballplayer. He’s gutty, he’s talented, he’s subtle and fierce and consistent. But he’s also getting older, and the Sox are going to need to do a much better job of resting him than they have; simply lifting him for Wakefield isn’t enough. If they hope to avoid another and possibly longer late-season swoon, the Sox management will need to get whoever emerges as the backup to cover for more than Doug Mirabelli’s 152 PA – perhaps closer to 200 or 225. That’s part of the reason I believe Josh Bard will get the nod over Ken Huckaby and John Flaherty, both of whom are older than Tek. When we signed Jason to 4 years, we knew we’d be getting his decline; last year he showed that that decline might just be on its way, in the form of a lapse in stamina. If the Sox are careful with him, limiting him to 480-500 PA’s, they’ll be in better shape for both 2006 and the final two years of his contract. If not, expect another, longer decline for Tek at the end of the season.
Manny Ramirez, LF
Another winter of uncertainty for Manny has given way to… another spring of uncertainty, as Manny suits up – a day late – for his sixth year in a Boston uniform. Manny had a rough year last year; early struggles had some questioning whether he was in the midst of a decline, and later public intrigue nearly saw him shipped out of Boston before a last-minute redemption in a critical July 31st contest with the Twins that will go down as one of the highlights of the 2005 campaign.
Manny’s 2005 is subtly different from any other he’s had in a Boston uniform, but that’s only evident after examining his splits going back to 2000. In every season prior to 2005, Manny had hit better vs. lefties than he had vs. righties; in 2005, those numbers reversed themselves and then some. Manny collected an .885 OPS vs. lefties in 2005; in no season since he joined the Red Sox had he ever put up an OPS under 1.000 vs. LHP. His numbers against RHP, on the other hand, remained essentially at the median for his career; in other words, the only thing that dragged Manny “down” in 2005 was a possibly flukey performance vs. LHP that was severely pronounced early in the season. What’s especially interesting to note was that the gap between his LHP and RHP numbers had been shrinking over the previous couple seasons; 2004 was the first season Manny hit lefties for an OPS of less than 1.100 since joining the Sox, and his 2003 total was just slightly above that mark, a downturn from previous years.
Manny off-field distractions aside, I find it hard to predict that Manny will be anything other than Manny in 2006; an OPS anywhere from .980 to 1.100, around 40 HR, RBI and Runs at standard Mannyesque levels. What should be interesting to watch are those splits; a continuation of 2005 – and of the general, though accelerated, trend vs LHP – suggests a decline in what had been previously his most dominant matchup. His numbers vs RHP have remained steady; what he does vs LHP will tell a far greater story.
Trot Nixon, RF
2005 was a very disappointing year for Trot Nixon; a bulging disc in his back forced him to miss a significant portion of the second half, and both before and after the injury he simply didn’t look like the player that had put up an OPS over .880 in two consecutive seasons. Nixon finished with an OPS of .803 in 2005 – a respectable number, but one has to note that he was far more effective toward the beginning of the season. Injury remains Trot’s biggest concern; he has missed significant time in several seasons, mostly with back and leg problems, which tend to be devastating for an offensive player. Moreover, he’ll turn 32 in early April; for a player with his injury history, decline could come quickly.
This is likely Trot Nixon’s final year in Boston. The best case scenario and worst case scenario have as their difference one stat: Games. If Nixon can avoid injury, he should remain a valuable commodity in right, despite his declining range and defensive ability. If he has another major PT loss from injury without a clear or effective backup in right – RF could become the club’s biggest offensive hole over the course of the season.
David Ortiz, DH
What didn’t David Ortiz do last year? Can he possibly do it again? Can he come close? All he did in 2005 was hit .300/.397/.604, hit the second-highest number of home runs in franchise history, create reel after reel of late-inning heroics footage (trademarking the walkoff base trot in the process), and very nearly become the first DH to ever win the American League MVP. 2005 was the first year where David Ortiz was unquestionably the best offensive player on his team – no small feat when that team also includes one of the greatest hitters of all time.
So what will he do in 2006? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. He’ll be good; I think we can say that much without overreaching. Will he be 2005 good? How about even 2004 good? Impossible to say. Ortiz is still a little bit of a mystery; his rise to dominance was so fast and so unpredictable that it’s had to fathom. Have these last two years been an amazing ride, or a harbinger of a long period of brilliant hitting? Will he decline fast, as his bulk and bod type would suggest, or continue to thrive as one of the dominant hitters in the league? I’d bank more toward the former, at least for 2006; I can easily see Papi’s production remaining stratospheric for two or three years to come. But there does remain that little nagging doubt.
So that’s that. The 10 guys I wrote about on Monday and now today represent the only full-time holdovers from the 2005 season. They’re a group on average older than the newcomers, many with question marks. Several of them are franchise players, players without whom this team would be sunk. I’ll admit to being troubled that not one of them has gotten a legitimately optimistic review here – which is to say I haven’t projected any of them to improve dramatically (or at all). Still, if some can overcome their injuries and the rest can hold the line steady, this club should once again compete both for the AL East and for the championship at the end of the season.

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