Friday, October 22, 2010

The Third Best Season of the Decade or How Bill Hall Became the Most Important Red Sox Player in 2011

OK, maybe Bill Hall in particular won't be the most important player in 2011, but one of the silver linings in a season defined by who did not play, was the excellence of those who really shouldn't have been playing. But first lets go back in the season in the season a little bit.

There was a very brief period of time when the Rex Sox were at about 90% healthy; about two, maybe three weeks total there was a decent approximation of the designed Red Sox taking the field every day. During that time, the Red Sox were at the top of the AL East, which might have been the best division baseball has ever seen. (Since 1995 the AL Wild Card winner has come from the East 12 times, 4 from the West and 1 from the Central). In other words, when the Red Sox fielded the team they intended to field for the season, they were the best team in baseball. But that's not why this was the third best Red Sox season of the decade.

Then the torrent of injuries. At one point both starting catchers were out. Three starting pitchers; Beckett, Bucholtz, and Matzuzaka had a variety of injuries that cost them starts and compromised performances. Jed Lowrie's return from his wrist injury was delayed by mono. Then reigning AL MVP and former rookie of the year Dustin Pedroia went down. Then AL MVP contender Kevin Youkilis went down. Plus the Ellsbury and Cameron.

So, to recap, the Red Sox had rolling injuries in their starting rotation, one third of their outfield, a stretch of games without Victor Martinez or Jason Varitek, a back up playing short stop for the bulk of the season (though at least that was expected for a portion of the season), and their two best players gone for the season. They weren't eliminated from the playoffs until the last week of baseball, and if Papelbon preserved the sweep against the Yankees the Sox might have had a chance to play for the Wild Card in the last series. In other words, an absolutely decimated team was in playoff contention in the highest quality division perhaps in the history of the game until September. This team forced the Yankees to alter their pitching rotation to secure their playoff spot. And let's just for a second imagine they played in the AL West.

Now the obvious way to go with a narrative like this is to talk about the grit and determination of the players, how utility journeymen stepped up and contributed (the aforementioned Bill Hall and Darnell McDonald); how starters played above expectations (did you know Adrian Beltre could hit, because I didn't), and how minor leaguers and prospects demonstrated their ability to play in the bigs (Kalish, Nava, et al.) but that's not the way I'm going to go. I'm going to take this in two different ways and they both argue for the 2011 Red Sox as pre-season world series favorites.

At about the same point that the Red Sox slipped out of legitimate playoff contention, I looked up and realized that the Red Sox had one of the best left-handed starters in the game in John Lester and that Clay Bucholtz had blossomed into a Cy Young contender. That is two legitimate aces who aren't named Beckett, Matzuzaka or Lackey. One of the best starting rotations in the game, saw its two young pitchers blossom into aces. I also noticed the Sox had a top five catcher in Victory Martinez, another MVP contender in Adrian Beltre, the number 2 or 3 young reliever in Daniel Bard. David Oritz can still generate runs and though next year might always be THE year he doesn't perform, I think he's got two more seasons in him. And then there are all the knowns returning from injury. In other words, the Sox on paper at the beginning of the season were World Series contenders and if they are able to return that team to the field they'll be World Series contenders again.

Or, maybe they decide not to. The real forward looking silver lining of this season, is that a whole raft of players proved they could contribute at the big league level. If the Sox decide they want to retool the bullpen over the off-season, or maybe 2011 is the year Papi doesn't have it and they need a new DH, or maybe some big name ends up on a selling team at around the trade deadline. Whatever the reason may be, the Red Sox now have perhaps the biggest pool of talent to draw from in the 2011 trade circuit. A proven utility man like Hall or an exciting young player like Kalish are exactly the kind of players teams usually need to complete a deal for a superstar. And that's how Bill Hall might become the 2011 Red Sox's most important player because he might be the final piece of a trade that brings a difference making superstar to the Red Sox.

There was a lot for the Red Sox to be proud of in how they performed this year and if they win the 2011 World Series, that championship will be based, in many ways, on how they performed in 2010, making 2010 the third best season in the decade.

And it'll be a crime if Tito doesn't get manager of the year. Not topical, I know, and certainly no way to conclude a well-structured essay, but I wasn't going to get another chance to say it.

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