For those who have spent more time this winter following football and basketball while entirely ignoring fantasy baseball, you've missed a busy MLB off-season. Put in terms of the so-called balance of power, there is one thing to know: expect a Phillies-Red Sox World Series. Simply put, after a few big free agent signings, the Boston Red Sox are absolutely stacked. Here's a closer look at their top impact players for the upcoming fantasy baseball season.
Adrian Gonzalez, First Base
- Acquired via blockbuster trade with the San Diego Padres in December, the Red Sox gave away quite a few studs like Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo, and Reymond Fuentes, who all have long-term keeper value in fantasy leagues. However, with free agents Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre walking out the door, the former to Detroit and the latter eventually to Texas, something had to be done to give the Red Sox a cornerstone power hitter. And boy, did they ever get a power hitter. In 2010 with the Padres, Gonzalez hit .298/.393/.511 with 31 home runs and 101 RBI.
- Due to a thin offense that provided little protection, Gonzalez drew 93 walks and an additional 35 intentional walks, but that should change in 2011. With great hitters like Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Carl Crawford, and Kevin Youkilis surrounding him in the lineup, Adrian Gonzalez will be pitched to more often.
- Why is this good news? Because Gonzalez is moving from cavernous Petco Park to Fenway Park, a true hitter's haven. Away from Petco last season, Gonzalez batted .315/.402/.578 with 20 home runs and a .980 OPS, against a .279/.383/.438, 11 home run, .821 OPS line at home. Gonzalez' massive power coupled with a move to the loaded Boston Red Sox may bump him into the first round of your fantasy baseball draft, so be prepared if you have your eye on him.
Carl Crawford, Outfield
- Like Gonzalez, the Carl Crawford signing was a big-time move that seemingly came out of nowhere. Although trade rumors for Gonzalez had been going on for years, news of the trade itself did not break until the deal was done; usually such news is broken when a deal is imminent but not yet completed. While the Red Sox had been mentioned as "serious suitors" for the services of left fielder Carl Crawford, most baseball people still expected him to land with the Texas Rangers or the Anaheim Angels, so the fact that he ended up in Boston was maybe the closest that any MLB player can come to re-enacting the Lebron James saga.
- Crawford was a 6.9 WAR player last year, and at age 29 is just entering what baseball experts and statisticians like to call the prime years. He is a speedster and spent a long time playing on Tampa Bay's turf field, however, the Red Sox front office and legendary baseball statistician Bill James believe that Crawford fits the mold of the speedy player who ages gracefully, ala Rickey Henderson.
- Last year, Crawford batted .307/.356/.495 with 19 home runs, 90 RBI, and 110 runs scored. He had 30 doubles, which is a typical total for him, but playing more often at Fenway Park should help him improve upon his doubles and home runs, while batting third in between Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez will help him keep those RBI and run totals robust. Like his new teammate Gonzalez, his elite talent and improved situation will likely bump up his draft value, so plan accordingly.
Jon Lester, Starting Pitcher
- Jon Lester, a promising power-lefty type starting pitcher coming up through the Red Sox system, had his career derailed in 2006 due to a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He actually overcame the disease, worked his way back, and by the 2007 World Series, was pitching for the Red Sox once again. In a truly inspirational story, Lester won that World Series start, and in 2008, tossed a no-hitter against the Royals. After overcoming the disease, Lester has become a dependable workhorse for the Red Sox, pitching at least 200 innings for the past three seasons.
- As his workload increased, Lester has had improving success. In 2008, he totaled 152 strike outs, but in 2009 he improved to 225. In 2010, he repeated the feat, notching 225 K's in 208 innings. Additionally, Lester compiled a 19-9, 3.25 ERA, and 1.20 WHIP to go with all those strike outs. Interestingly, his .289 BABIP indicates that he had relatively solid defense going behind him, but his 3.13 FIP indicates that he actually pitched better than his defense played. Adding Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and getting more healthy time from slick fielders Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Marco Scutaro, who all missed good chunks of time or played hurt, should only help to improve Lester's numbers.
- The Red Sox have a solid rotation from top to bottom, with Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Josh Beckett at the top, with John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka rounding out the back end of the rotation. Statistically speaking, Lester is the best pitcher on the Red Sox staff, so he will be going off of draft boards well before his other rotation-mates.
Jonathan Papelbon, Closer
- As a starting pitcher turned reliever, Papelbon came on as an electric, lights-out closer for the Red Sox, compiling a 0.92 ERA in 2006, 1.85 in 2007, 2.34 in 2008, and 1.85 in 2009. Last year, he became a much shakier pitcher, as his ERA ballooned to 3.90. Still, in the five years Papelbon has spent as Boston's closer, he has yet to record fewer than 35 saves, and the 3.51 FIP he posted last year shows that it wasn't all his fault.
- Additionally, Papelbon's 10.21 K/9 and .287 BABIP were close to his career norms, with his HR/9 and BB/9 taking big jumps up. His BAA has been trending upwards but did not see a significant rise in 2010. The biggest change in his pitching last year is that his groundball rate jumped up and his flyball rate dropped, and this is pure speculation, but it at least seems plausible that his defense suffered behind him because they had trouble adjusting to his pitching tendencies.
- This winter, Boston added a new pitching coach, Curt Young. Young previously coached for the Oakland Athletics, where he played a major role in developing some very effective pitchers in both the rotation and bullpen. Given his desire to become the highest paid closer and the pedestrian season he had last year, Papelbon should be motivated to put in extra time with Young to correct his recent control problems and return to that shut-down form he had a few years ago. If he fails, the Red Sox are open to trading him and have Bobby Jenks and Dan Bard waiting to compete for the closer role.
Dustin Pedroia, Second Base
- Pedroia played in only 75 games in 2010 due to a foot injury, and despite a prolonged slump that he was just roaring out of when he went down, Pedroia played a heck of a 75 games. Because of his slump, his batting average sat at .288, much lower than is typical for the little giant. Still, he managed to keep a .367 OBP and .860 OPS with 12 home runs, 41 RBI, and 9 steals.
- Pedroia has historically been a mid-teens, twenty-steal sort of player, but last year he set a goal for himself to hit 20 home runs. He was well on track to achieve that goal when he went down, but given his feisty attitude and borderline obsession with playing the game, don't expect him to abandon it this year. Also, keep in mind that Pedroia is a man who has been told all along that he's too small to amount to anything in the league. Then he won the MVP in 2008. If he wants to do something, he does it.
- Finally, outside of Chase Utley, Ian Kinsler, Robby Cano, Dan Uggla, and Brandon Phillips, second base is a very thin position for fantasy baseball. Pedroia is typically ranked as the second or third highest second baseman in fantasy draft rankings, and as a .300 hitter with emerging 20 home-run, 20 steal potential, Pedroia is definitely worth taking early in your fantasy baseball draft. But buyer beware: in case he aggravates that nasty foot injury from last year, be prepared with a solid back-up plan.
Wild Card: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Catcher
- I'm branding Jarrod Saltalamacchia, "Salty," as a wild card because his major league track record leaves so much to be desired that it would really be a fluff to call him a sleeper. Still, potential is there, and the Red Sox front office has come out saying that they trust him as their starting catcher. Salty is by far the easiest out in Boston's lineup this year, so he is definitely going to be seeing many pitches to hit. Because of this he is at the very least worth a look, although it is important to keep in mind that he's a career .248 hitter, so despite all of the hype that used to surround his power stroke, temper your expectations.
Sleeper: Jed Lowrie, Shortstop/Second Base/Third Base
- After missing most of the 2010 season due to mono, the utility infielder came back and lit the world on fire at the plate filling in for Dustin Pedroia. Collecting 197 plate appearances, Lowrie mashed 14 doubles and 9 home runs and drew 25 walks while batting .287/.381/.526. Marco Scutaro has been announced as the starting shortstop by manager Terry Francona, but if Scutaro struggles out of the gate that may not last long. Additionally, Lowrie will be the first guy the Red Sox turn to if any of Pedroia, Scutaro, or Kevin Youkilis go down injured. Despite his super utility role, he is definitely worth owning and there is definite breakout potential. For a comparable value, think Martin Prado in 2009 or Omar Infante in 2010.