Has too little been made of the challenge the Red Sox face in trying to replace Jacoby Ellsbury and fellow departed free agents Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew?
There was no residue of shock or hurt feelings when the Red Sox encountered longtime staple Ellsbury in enemy territory on Tuesday. Though held out of the Yankees lineup in the spring training game against the Red Sox, Ellsbury had a chance to visit with former teammates prior to the game, an encounter that the 30-year-old characterized to reporters as "pretty normal."
The expectation of Ellsbury's departure from Boston had been so long anticipated that even the fact of his defection to the Yankees was treated matter-of-factly. The Sox had been able to plan for Ellsbury's egress, with Jackie Bradley Jr. representing a viable in-house alternative and Grady Sizemore emerging this spring as an intriguing candidate to succeed the center fielder.
But just because Ellsbury's departure wasn't shocking, it doesn't diminish its significance. And the reality is that no matter how good Bradley might one day become, and no matter the degree to which Sizemore continues to surprise with his comeback, neither is likely to match the impact made by Ellsbury last year.
"We had the fortunate ability to see him for six years, so we know where the strengths are. We have a little bit more of an in-house feel where some of the challenges existed. He's a damn good player," Sox manager John Farrell told reporters. "When Jacoby's going well, he's going to impact any team, regardless of their place in the standings or who they have on a roster. He's a dynamic leadoff guy. They've got a good player. They've got a very good player."
Farrell has suggested repeatedly that the Sox -- who finished last year with the best offense in the majors (853 runs and 5.3 runs per game) -- hope to finish among the top handful of teams in offense in 2014. He reiterated the suggestion in discussing the Sox' efforts to move on from Ellsbury on Tuesday.
"With all due respect, we're not looking to replace Jacoby Ellsbury. We're looking to be the best team possible," Farrell told reporters. "We're looking to put together a team that's going to be a top five scoring team in the league and we may do it a little bit differently because of the personnel here, but we're not looking to replace Jacoby Ellsbury."
Yet while such claims have been taken as a logical matter-of-fact assessment, it obscures just how enormous a decline the Sox offense might take to go from first to fifth in the majors in offense. A year ago, the Orioles and Indians were tied for the fifth most runs in the majors with 745 -- a full 108 runs fewer than the Sox scored last year, meaning an average decline of two-thirds of a run every night.
How significant a difference is there between first and fifth in the majors in runs? If one uses the so-called Pythagorean Expectation, which uses runs scored and runs allowed to calculate an expected winning percentage, the Red Sox (who won 97 regular-season games) would have gone from a team whose run differential suggested a 100-win team to one that would have been expected to win 10 fewer games based on the number of runs they permitted. And if the Sox had been a 90-win team last year instead of a 100-game winner, they would have missed the playoffs completely, with the 92-win Rays getting past them in the AL East and the 91-win Rangers claiming the second wild card spot.
So: Being the best offensive team last year as opposed to the fifth best offensive team last year realistically could have meant the difference between winning the World Series and missing the playoffs entirely.
Important caveats: Being a top-five offensive team would almost certainly punch the Sox' ticket to the postseason if their pitching and run prevention improves from a year ago -- a possibility given the improved starting and bullpen depth of the club. Moreover, Farrell's suggestion that the Sox' ambition is to be a top-five offensive team doesn't necessarily mean they'll be no better than the fifth best offensive team. Indeed, with a few favorable developments, the team could have an offense that could match or even exceed the one that helped the march to a title in 2013, particularly given the potential for more from the infield.
The Sox believe it's a near lock that they'll see offensive improvement at third base, where a season-long merry-go-round combined for a .242/.288/.395 line. Dustin Pedroia, with a healthy thumb, could once again show the ability to impact the ball, thus restoring something of a power threat to the order. Mike Napoli, after a full offseason workout program, could see offensive improvement. And even though the Sox led all AL shortstops in OPS (.771) while finishing second in OBP (.340) and third in slugging (.431), Xander Bogaerts has at least a chance to provide even greater offensive separation at the position.
But ... There are also several areas where the Sox could see regression, or at least face considerable uncertainty, making the idea of a decrease of roughly 100 runs a possibility.
In all likelihood, the team will take a step back -- perhaps a significant one -- from the production offered by Ellsbury in center field last year. He hit .298 with a .355 OBP, .426 slugging mark and 52 steals in 56 attempts. If Jackie Bradley Jr. is the everyday center fielder, the Sox do not expect him to live up to those hitting stats in his rookie season, and he isn't a base-stealing threat. Even a best-case scenario for Grady Sizemore is unlikely to feature that kind of across-the-board impact at this stage of his career.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a lineup-changing presence against right-handed pitching last year. The Sox felt that 2013 might have represented a career year for him, and that he might not be able to replicate those results, but the team will still have to contend with the offensive dropoff from what he did last year.
The catcher clubbed righties at a .294/.350/.523 clip. His replacement, A.J. Pierzynski, is coming off a year in which he hit .269/.286/.438 against righties; he did post a .287/.338/.536 line against righties in 2012, but that looks like an outlier as the only season among the last seven in which he's had an OPS above .800 against righties. Pierzynski's career line of .290/.331/.442 against right-handed pitching would still represent a significant step back from what Saltalamacchia did a year ago.
While the expectation is that Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks have a chance to offer tremendous offensive production on the left side of the infield, given their relative professional inexperience, they hardly represent known quantities. Like Saltalamacchia, Stephen Drew was a significant presence against righties, hitting .284/.377/.498 against them, and so even if Bogaerts hits the ground running in his rookie season, it might be hard for him to match that level of production against righties.
"We lost a couple of thunders, that's why I can't wait to see how everything turns out," David Ortiz recently told WEEI.com. "I don't know if Ellsbury is going to be replaced. I don't know if Salty is going to be replaced. Drew. We've got the question marks. We'll see. The season will tell us. We've got capable players to get things done, and we can keep on winning, but I don't know how it's going to be."
Among returning players, at some point one imagines that Ortiz will no longer be one of the top handful of hitters in the AL; whether that time comes this year or not remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the ongoing management of Shane Victorino's health raises questions about whether he can match his 2013 production (and whether he can remain in one piece if he needs to get hit by another 18 pitches to do so).
So what to make of the Sox lineup as they prepare for life without three of last year's lineup cogs? It's hard to say. Middlebrooks and Bogaerts offer at least a chance that the lineup could be as good, maybe even better, than it was a year ago, particularly if Ortiz and Victorino perform at their 2013 levels. Still, there's also a chance for a considerable step back, hence Farrell's emphasis on the goal of being a top five offense in 2014, perhaps scoring as many as 100 fewer runs than a year ago.
Overall, the Sox have considerable offensive upside but considerably greater uncertainty than they faced in 2013. Such is the nature of life without Ellsbury, Drew and Saltalamacchia, three major contributors in 2013 whose collective absence this coming year will be a far from simple development to absorb.