The State of Red Sox Nation

Last week I analyzed the Yankees’ powerful and successful off-season. While New York improved significantly, its Beantown rivals were not sitting on their hands. After a disappointing 33-43 second half in 2006, including a dismal 9-21 in October, the Red Sox are hungry to return to playoff form. Here’s a recap of Boston’s moves this off-season and why the Sox may keep Yankees fans on their toes in 2007.

Kapler hangs up his yarmulke

This Hot Stove brings tidings of a sad loss for the Red Sox and all of baseball: after seven MLB seasons, four with Boston, 31-year-old outfielder Gabe Kapler has retired. This leaves Shawn Green (Mets), David Newhan (Mets), Scott Schoeneweis (Mets), Brad Ausmus (Astros), Mike Lieberthal (Dodgers), Jason Marquis (Cubs) and Kevin Youkilis (Red Sox) as the only significant Jewish players in the Major Leagues. The Mets deserve credit for having three Jews on their active roster – possibly an all-time record – but the rest of the league needs to catch up following Kapler’s retirement.

Pointless “Tims”

Right at the onset of the Hot Stove, the Red Sox made two strange and unhelpful moves. On Oct. 30, they signed starting pitcher Tim Wakefield and reliever Mike Timlin to one-year deals. Wakefield’s knuckleball has been a welcome idiosyncrasy in the Boston rotation since 1995, but the 40-year-old no longer fits on a team with five stronger starting pitchers. The Red Sox’s 2007 rotation should consist of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester (assuming he recovers from lymphoma). Besides, Wakefield owns a career 9-13 record and 4.60 ERA against the hated Yankees – in essence, he’s a waste of money and roster space. While signing fan-favorite Wakefield at least has sentimental value, the Timlin signing is just silly. The 41-year-old strikes out few hitters and lets tons of runners on base. After letting these two geezers back on the team, the Sox had nowhere to go but up this offseason.

Konichiwa, monsutaa! (Hello, Monster!)

Next, the signing everyone – at least in Japan – is talking about. The BoSox, after posting a $51.1 million bid simply to talk to the Seibu Lions, signed World Baseball Classic MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka to a six-year, $52-million contract. In essence, Boston is dishing out (to be read a la Dr. Evil) $100 million for a hurler who has never thrown a Major League pitch. What are they getting in return? Daisuke (nickname: The Monster) is a legend, one of the best Japanese pitchers ever. He brings some impressive career numbers over to the States – in eight seasons, he has gone 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA, 8.70 strikeouts per nine innings and 72 complete games.

Are you wondering if he can handle MLB-quality hitters? In his first encounter with superstar Ichiro Suzuki, who at the time played in Japan but now plays for the Seattle Mariners, Dice-K struck out Ichiro in his first three at-bats. He brings a repertoire of six to eight pitches that are deceptively thrown with identical arm positions. Among these pitches is the mysterious gyroball, a pitch that few have seen. It supposedly spirals like a football, has the velocity of a fastball and drops like a sinker. But bigger mysteries remain. How will Matsuzaka fare against the bigger hitters and brighter spotlights of the U.S.? Has Boston made a brilliant move, or will D-Mat’s success in Japan get lost in translation? No one knows for sure, but I predict that The Monster’s experience, poise on the big stage and brilliant array of pitches will make him an immediate Cy Young award contender.

High-risk, high-reward

Boston General Manager Theo Epstein must be feeling lucky. After rolling the $100 million Dice, Epstein gambled once again. After weeks of muddled and drawn-out contract talks, the Sox locked up right-fielder J.D. Drew for five years and $70 million. Drew’s record is inconsistent, to say the least. He has been on the disabled list seven times in eight seasons. His average number of games played per season, out of the 162 total games, is a pathetic 118.

And yet I still venture to say that the Sox made a smart move. Why? Two main reasons. First, those drawn-out contract talks were not just for fun. The Sox added a crucial clause to the contract allowing them to release Drew after three years if his right shoulder remains problematic. This move saves the Sox from potentially paying their right fielder to warm the bench in a sling. Second, J.D. Drew’s potential is just too hard to ignore. In 2001, Drew hit .323 with 27 home runs in only 109 games – that projects to 40 HRs over a full season. In 2004 with the Atlanta Braves, he hit .305 with 31 HRs in 145 games. J.D. Drew was the best available outfielder for the Sox, and they love the extraordinary patience and power that Drew provides. If Drew can stay healthy – and that’s a big if – the heart of Boston’s lineup (Manny Ramirez – David Ortiz – J.D. Drew) becomes one of the most fearsome in the Major Leagues.

Will the Sox take the AL East crown and stun the Yankees? Well, judging from their risky offseason moves, many question marks loom. If all the stars align, the Sox may make a coup d’etat … but unlike GM Epstein, I’m not a betting man.