It seems almost impossible to fathom that on July 16, the Red Sox had moved into legitimate contention. That day, the team won for the third time in four second-half contests -- all against other contenders (Rays and White Sox) -- to improve to 46-44 and move within a single game of the second wild card spot.
But that was the day that David Ortiz suffered a strain in his right Achilles tendon while rounding the bases on an Adrian Gonzalez home run, and that was the day that the Sox’ hopes of contention effectively faded to black. At that point, the Sox lineup had given the team hope, the nightly yield of 5.0 runs per game ranking second in the majors. From that point forward, the team went 23-49 (the second worst record in the AL) while averaging just 3.9 runs per night (11th in the AL).
Factors beyond the loss of Ortiz -- who missed 71 of the team’s final 72 games -- played into the offensive derailment. The team was without Will Middlebrooks and Carl Crawford for most of the last two months, and the late-August trade of Adrian Gonzalez left the lineup emaciated.
Still, there was no denying Ortiz’s impact. At 36, he was as dominant a player as there was in the majors while in the batter’s box, hitting .318/.415/.611/1.026 with 23 homers in just 90 games. No one on the free agent market, and no one who will be available in a trade, posted such gaudy numbers.
And so, it came as little surprise that Sox general manager Ben Cherington said that bringing back Ortiz was the team’s top roster priority of the offseason.
“After the season, we identified a number of things we wanted to do this winter, but the most important one was to work to get David re-signed,” Cherington said. “This is a very important first step in our offseason.
“David’s been an incredible performer for the Red Sox for 10 years. What he’s done on the field speaks for itself. He’s also been a great leader off the field and represented the team as well as one could possibly do that. We’re thrilled to keep him here. We want David to retire as a Red Sox and we hope that’s many years from now. But right now, we’re just happy he’s going to be sitting there in the middle of our lineup once again next year.”
With Ortiz back and, presumably, healthy (both Ortiz and Cherington suggested that the DH should be healthy going forward, and his Achilles is not expected to be an issue), the Sox have some formidable lineup building blocks. If they keep Jacoby Ellsbury, then the combination of Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz and Middlebrooks gives them a solid foundation for a potentially powerful lineup.
Indeed, at a time when the team remains unsettled at a number of positions, it’s worth asking: How much work do the Sox have to do to match their production of the first 90 games of the year, when the offense ranked with that of any team in the game?
A look at the team’s production by position is intriguing. The numbers listed represent the Sox’ position-by-position performance through July 16; the numbers in parentheses represent the year-end American League averages at that position:
DH: .315 average, .413 OBP, .593 slugging, 20 HR (league-average: .256/.328/.430)
2013 analysis: It’s hard to imagine Ortiz repeating such incredible numbers. He was amidst arguably the best year of his career, at least as measured by OPS+ (OPS relative to the league average).
The idea that a decline is likely is no slight. If healthy, even at 37, he’s likely to rank among the best designated hitters in the game, but the Sox likely will need improved production from elsewhere in the lineup to offset a season that aligns more closely with the veteran’s career norms.
1B: .289/.343/.455, 11 HR (.258/.336/.442)
2013 analysis: The Sox had an offense as good as any in the league despite the fact that the team’s first basemen (primarily Adrian Gonzalez with some Kevin Youkilis and a few David Ortiz games in the mix) had a sub-.800 OPS through 90 games.
Granted, Gonzalez had huge numbers with runners in scoring position to possess value beyond his line. Even so, Gonzalez set the bar at just slightly better than league average. Even with the team still lacking a defined starting first baseman, the idea of finding a solution via free agency and/or trade capable of living up to Gonzalez’s offensive standard through the first 90 games isn’t far-fetched.
2B: .271/.330/.403, 7 HR (.250/.311/.374)
2013 analysis: With Dustin Pedroia fighting a succession of hand injuries, his production suffered. The 29-year-old had, far and away, the worst OBP of his career and the lowest OPS of his six seasons. If he can stay on the field and stay healthy -- not necessarily givens, though it’s worth noting that Pedroia’s played at least 139 games in five of his six big league seasons, including 2012 -- then the Sox could enjoy a considerable upgrade in their production at second base.
3B: .266/.320/.445, 13 HR (.261/.320/.420)
2013 analysis: Though Will Middlebrooks burst onto the scene in dazzling fashion, the Sox’ production at third base was only slightly above league average in the power department due to the rough start by Kevin Youkilis. Even if Middlebrooks (who finished at .288/.325/.509) endures something of a sophomore slump -- not that there’s any reason to assume that he will -- he would still have a fighting chance of performing at the level of Sox third basemen through the first 90 games of last year.
Still, there’s less track record with Middlebrooks than a player like Pedroia, so there’s a chance that he could considerably outperform or underperform his 2012 mark. Clearly, he has middle-of-the-order potential for years to come; whether 2013 is such a year is one of the key variables in the performance of the Red Sox offense next year.
SS: .271/.295/.422, 10 HR (.255/.306/.368)
2013 analysis: Mike Aviles was a pleasant surprise for the Sox as an everyday shortstop last year, but even so, he was deficient as an on-base presence. But in the first half, he got on base at an only slightly worse-than-average clip given his position while giving the Sox well-above-average power and better-than-average defense through the period when Ortiz was a lineup linchpin.
If the Sox turn to Jose Iglesias as the everyday shortstop, then they’ll probably have to prepare for an offensive hit from what Aviles delivered through the first three-plus months of the season. If so, the team will need improvements elsewhere.
That said, there’s also room for a considerable upgrade in OBP if the team goes outside the organization. The shortstop market is, of course, terribly thin, but a run at someone like Stephen Drew would allow the Sox to turn what had been sub-standard on-base marks into a competitive advantage.
LF: .266/.357/.425, 9 HR (.256/.322/.428)
2013 analysis: Cody Ross and Daniel Nava allowed the Sox to enjoy above-average production in left. Most notably, this was one of the few positions where the Sox demonstrated above-average on-base abilities in the first half of last year, a fact that reflected in no small part Nava’s strong run as a leadoff hitter in place of Ross.
It remains to be seen if Ross returns, though Cherington acknowledged that, now that he’s reached free agency, the likelihood diminished. There’s considerable uncertainty in both left and right based on the current composition of the Sox’ 40-man lineup, which includes Nava, Ryan Kalish, Ryan Sweeney and first baseman/outfielder Jerry Sands.
CF: .248/.282/.331, 4 HR (.267/.328/.429)
2013 analysis: Center field represented a glaring weakness for the Sox in the first half of last year after Jacoby Ellsbury went down in the season’s seventh game. The fact that the Sox had one of the best offenses in the majors last year in the first half despite the considerable struggles of fill-ins like Marlon Byrd, Jason Repko, Darnell McDonald and Brent Lillibridge offers a reminder that a lineup can thrive even with a very, very weak link.
Of course, a healthy Ellsbury should represent a considerable upgrade over what the Sox got. Even his disappointing 2012 season (.271/313/.370) would have represented a marked offensive improvement over what the team had from its center fielders over the first 90 games of last year.
RF: .272/.336/.451, 9 HR (.264/.325/.428)
2013 analysis: The collaboration between Sweeney, Ross and, at times, Gonzalez afforded the Sox slightly above-average offense in right. Again, this is a TBD position, but the bar has been set right around what a league-average right fielder might be.
C: .238/.306/.500, 20 HR (.243/.311/.399)
2013 analysis: Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a borderline All-Star in the first half of last year, though that status was forged solely on the basis of his enormous power numbers; his OBP was slightly below average, while Kelly Shoppach delivered impressive offense as a backup.
Right now, some kind of timeshare between Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway seems likely. If Lavarnway can perform to his minor league track record, then the Sox could see some improvement in the frequency with which their catchers reach base. The power numbers could go either way; both Saltalamacchia and Lavarnway have above-average power, though as Lavarnway’s limited power display in the majors and minors in 2012 and Saltalamacchia’s diminished homer totals of the second half suggest, raw power doesn’t guarantee big home run totals.
BUT REALLY, WHAT DOES ALL OF THAT MEAN?
Ortiz carried the Sox lineup when healthy last year. He represented the equivalent of inserting multiple All-Star caliber players into the offense -- a good thing for the Sox, considering that they had but one All-Star a year ago.
Still, it’s fairly remarkable to note that, by and large, the Sox lineup that was near the top of the major league leaderboard in runs scored featured just two positions (DH and catcher) with considerably better-than-league-average performance. The team was average to modestly above average at most positions (first base, second base, third base, shortstop, left field, right field) and terrible at one (center field).
All of that suggests that, with health (again, not a certainty -- after all, Ortiz, Ellsbury, Pedroia and Middlebrooks all missed considerable stretches last year), the Sox need to manufacture little more than near-average production at their unresolved positions to create an offense that is postseason-caliber. A return to form by Pedroia and Ellsbury would permit the team to withstand something of a performance decline by Ortiz, and to pick up some of the slack should the team go light at another position such as shortstop.
Of course, nothing should be taken for granted, particularly given the way that the entire team seemed to dissolve into near-nothingness at the end of 2012. However, in the four seemingly returning pieces, the Sox have the components -- even without Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford -- to have an offense that much more closely resembles the one that ranked among the best in baseball while Ortiz remained on the field than the one that looked overmatched at the end.
In other words, as Cherington puts together what he refers to as an offseason "mosaic," he now has back in place one of his most central pieces. With Ortiz back in the fold, the Red Sox lineup possesses a far more robust outlook.