Sky's the limit for Theo, Sox
The Red Sox enter the off-season following a second World Series title in four years with as much confidence as the club has enjoyed since World War I.
General manager Theo Epstein, whose team missed the playoffs in 2006, constructed a team that was an enviable blend of youthful exuberance, players performing in their prime years and experienced veterans with multiple World Series appearances and frontline experience in the realm of postseason baseball.
Free agent acquisitions Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew, for a multitude of reasons, had disappointing first seasons in Boston, but David Ortiz put together his most underappreciated offensive year with the Sox. Big Papi led the American League with a .445 on base percentage, knocked in 117 runs and reached base nearly 300 times during the regular season.
Mike Lowell, a perceived throw-in during the Josh Beckett trade, set a Red Sox record for RBIs by a third baseman during the regular season and then went on to snag the World Series MVP honors.
Kevin Youkilis followed a growing pattern of a strong first half paired with a ragged second half, but time off late in the regular season allowed him to dominate during the playoffs. Dustin Pedroia set a record for the best batting average by a rookie second baseman and has already emptied off a place on his shelf for his 2007 Rookie of the Year award.
The Sox unearthed a dominant, big-game ace in right-hander Josh Beckett, a pitcher who was locked up by the club until 2010 after Epstein made a shrewd move in extending the Texas gunslinger during his first down year with the Sox.
Beckett will be 27 years old at the start of next season, the same age as No. 2 starter Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Japanese right-hander didn't put together 200 innings of consistent excellence during his first season in the major leagues, but he still compiled 15 wins, didn't miss a single start and amassed more than 200 strikeouts while adjusting to a foreign culture.
Curt Schilling missed seven weeks with a shoulder injury but still managed to win nine regular-season games and put up a 3.87 ERA in 24 starts, and he was again a money pitcher during the postseason run to glory.
Tim Wakefield battled through shoulder and back issues to net 17 wins, and young hurlers Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz exhibited great promise for next season.
The Sox had the best bullpen in the American League all season. Left-hander Hideki Okajima was the biggest surprise in the AL as he managed to stabilize Boston's biggest weakness heading into the season, setup relief. Jonathan Papelbon was among the best closers in baseball for a second consecutive season.
The Sox pitching staff was first in the American League with a total team ERA of 3.87 and an AL-best bullpen ERA of 3.10—second to only the San Diego Padres in all of baseball in both categories.
"I can't say there was one [defining moment]. This wasn't easy. This wasn't easy at all," catcher Jason Varitek said as he packed up his belongings Oct. 31 in Fenway Park's home clubhouse. "The whole season was a grind. We were just very fortunate, first, to have the opportunity to play in the postseason and then created our own destiny a little bit and then faced some adversity and worked through that."
After winning the AL East for the first time in 12 years and sharing the best record in baseball (with the Cleveland Indians) for the first time since 1946, the Sox breezed through Division Series by sweeping the Los Angeles Angels. After a blowout victory in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against Cleveland, the Red Sox found themselves down 3-1 in the series.
David Ortiz gave a rousing, expletive-laced speech to his teammates following one of the road losses at Jacobs Field, and the Sox proceeded to ride a season-high, seven-game winning streak past the Indians and then on through a four-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies in the World Series.
Heading into next season, the biggest weaknesses on Boston's roster appear to be the lack of production from Drew, Lugo and center fielder Coco Crisp for much of the season. The Sox also don't have a lot in the way of right-handed power-hitting lineup insurance should Ortiz or Ramirez go down for an extended period of time.
But all-in-all, this is a strong team with a youthful nucleus that should have a legitimate shot to repeat its World Series title next season.
In one of the team's first off-season moves, Schilling, a potential free agent, was re-signed to a one-year, $8 million deal. The contract could pay him an extra $5 million in bonuses based on innings pitched and Schilling's weight.
The Sox face free agent decisions with Lowell and right-handed setup man Mike Timlin, and they have minor holes to fill at the back end of the starting rotation, backup catcher and possibly at third base. The Sox, though, also have a seemingly endless supply of young players coming up through their minor league system that can fill many of their needs.
When Epstein was named GM of the Sox, one of his goals was to create a player development machine, and that machine is starting to hit its highest gear—a scenario that has the Sox set up for solid playoff runs for the next five to seven years.