Springtime Storylines: Are the Boston Red Sox the best team in baseball?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. For in-depth previews of all 30 teams, check out the HBT Preview. In this edition: the Boston Red Sox.

The Big Question: Are the Red Sox the best team in baseball?

Man, it’s hard to pick a better one. Offensively they’ve traded Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre for Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. I think 2011 wins that battle, and I think Gonzalez might be a nice MVP candidate in his new ballpark.  Add a healthy Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia to the mix and you’re talking about a better overall offense this year than last, and last year the Sox finished behind only the Yankees in runs scored in the American League.

The rotation is less formidable though. Like the Yankees’ rotation, it certainly looks nice at the top with Jon Lester figuring to, once again, be among the elite in the league and with Clay Buchholz poised to build on an impressive 2010. Beyond that are three guys looking to regain past form in Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka. I’m less optimistic about Dice-K than I am Lackey and Beckett, but it seems silly to me to assume that all three of these guys are toast. Figure at least one and probably two of them bouncing back. Also figure that if the back end of the Red Sox’s rotation does come through, its upside is considerably higher than the potential upside of the back end of the Yankees’ rotation.

Finally, the bullpen, where the addition of Bobby Jenks and the maturation of Daniel Bard will complement the maligned yet still highly effective Jonathan Papelbon to make the final three innings of any game fairly miserable for Red Sox opponents most nights. And don’t sleep on Dan Wheeler who — at least judging by superficial bullpen depth charts — is one of the better fourth options out of the pen in all of baseball.

Where does that leave us? I’ll get a little more reflective about their chances below in the “So how are the going to do” section, but for now I’m going to give a guarded “yes” in response to that question. I think the Red Sox are the best team in baseball in 2011.

So what else is going on?

  • Jacoby Ellsbury has been raking this spring. I don’t spend too much time mucking about the Boston press, but the fact that he could add something major to the Red Sox lineup seems like one of the more underreported stories of the spring. If Ellsbury shines this year, that guarded “yes” above turns much more emphatic. Same goes for J.D. Drew who, unlike the vast majority of baseball fans, I am not inclined to sleep on. He’s good. He’s always been good and at times he’s been great. He could still turn in an All-Star caliber season, even if no one is all too eager to acknowledge it as such when it goes down.
  • How much rope does Marco Scutaro have? He toughed his way through injuries and ineffectiveness last year to play in 150 games, but how much of Terry Francona’s loyalty was based on true confidence in Scutaro’s skills and how much was based on the fact that, with Dustin Pedroia gone, he could use both Scutaro and Jed Lowrie in the lineup? If Scutaro struggles again out of the gate, will Lowrie get a chance to build on a promising 2010?
  • I have yet to talk to anyone — not a single person — who knows a thing about about baseball who believes that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is going to last the whole year as the Red Sox’ starting catcher. It’s his age-26 season now, and no, he hasn’t managed to put it together anywhere he’s been. At least not compared to his promise as a Braves’ farm hand. Of course, that promise was based mostly on one great year in high-A ball in 2005 and his second go-around at AA in 2007. If Saltalamacchia fails he won’t be the first former Braves prospect to bite the dust once he reached the majors. I’m kind of rooting for him because of where he came from, but this is probably his last shot at being a starting catcher in the majors, wouldn’t you agree?
  • I have no personal interest in David Ortiz’ performance, but I really would like to see him hit well in April and May just so we can avoid a third straight year of questions about the guy and testy responses from Ortiz himself. There’s nothing more tiring than “Is Big Papi done?” talk.

So how are they going to do?

It’s easy to look at Gonzalez and Crawford, add in the Fenway Park effect that people tend to overstate when a big new bat comes to town and to crown the Red Sox AL East champs right now, But let’s not get too crazy. I think that yes, on paper, the Red Sox are the best team in the division. Which, by definition, makes them the best team in baseball. But they’re not invincible. They face a substantially similar rotation problem as the Yankees do and their offenses profile pretty similarly as well.  The Red Sox are not kings only temporarily lacking a crown. They are not an inevitability.

But I do think they’re a bit better as we kick off the season. That may mean diddly squat once the games actually start, but for now I’m tasked with picking the winners. And in the AL East I pick Boston.

The Yankees attendance and revenue is down, but it makes sense

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There’s a long article in the New York Times today noting that the Yankees attendance is down and that, based on financial figures released as part of their stadium bond disclosures, ticket and suite revenues through last season have fallen by $166 million since the end of 2009.

There is a lot of talk in the article about the exciting young team the Yankees have put together and how much they’ve won so far in the early going. And there is a lot of talk about marketing and demographics — Hal Steinbrenner talks about baseball’s “millennial problem” — but the story of the Yankees’ box office issues, such as they are, is pretty straightforward.

All teams suffer attendance and revenue decline when they play poorly. While the Yankees have not been bad for a long, long time, that’s a somewhat relative thing. They Yankees have sold themselves and sold their fans on the idea that nothing short of a championship is acceptable, so missing the playoffs for three of the past four years is bad for them. Fans don’t want to go see a bad team, be it Yankees fans, Rays fans, Royals fans or whoever.

Despite the recent lack of success, the Yankees have still, perversely, continued to price their tickets, concessions, parking and everything else as though they’re the only game in town. When demand falls and prices remain super high, fewer people are buying your product. Even if you’re the New York Yankees.

The Yankees are good this year. What’s more, they’re good in that exciting way that only young promising players bursting out onto the scene can deliver. It’s a wonderful thing for marketing and stuff, but even under the best of circumstances, ticket sales tend to lag on field success, often by as much as a year. Go back and look at World Series winning teams — especially the surprise winners — and you’ll see that it’s the year after on-field success when the real attendance bumps happen. I expect, if the Yankees continue to play well, their gate will get really nice by the end of the summer, but I suspect we’ll also see a more dramatic bump next year.

Taken all together, this is a dog-bites-man story. The Yankees are not some transcendent institution, immune from market forces. They’re just one of 30 Major League Baseball teams competing against other entertainments for a finite amount of the public’s money and attention. Nothin’ to see here.

David Price had a rocky rehab start last night

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Red Sox starter David Price has been rehabbing a left elbow injury since early March. Last night he made his latest rehab outing for Triple-A Pawtucket. It didn’t go well.

Price allowed six runs — three earned — on seven hits in three and two-thirds innings, requiring 89 pitches to do it. His velocity was good, but otherwise it was a night to forget. This was supposed to be Price’s last rehab start before returning to the Sox’ big league rotation, but one wonders if he’s ready for it.

Price didn’t talk to the media after the game, but Pawtucket’s manager said he was “upbeat” and “felt good.” For his part, John Farrell, upon hearing about the outing, said this:

“There’s no announcement at this point. We’ve got to sit with him and talk about what’s best for him, best for us as we move forward.”

The Sox could really use Price back in the rotation given their injury problems, but rushing him back if he’s not ready is certainly not ideal.

Stay tuned.