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Who Will Stay? Who Will Go?

Next Tuesday, 07 December, marks the final day that the former Major League Baseball club of a free agent will be allowed to resign said player or, at a minimum, offer salary arbitration. Otherwise, a player may not resign with his former club until 01 May. That means that, in seven days, Boston Red Sox fans will have a better idea of what face the club will have on Opening Day in 2005 as the organization prepares to defend its World Series crown. Of the 16 free agents that played last season for Boston, one has fled to Japan, utility outfielder Gabe Kapler, and one has resigned with Boston, Doug Mirabelli. Of those remaining players, four big names top the list of players that may or may not return in a Red Sox uniform next season; what chance will they be back?

Jason Varitek – C
Chances: Better than 75%

Varitek’s agent, the infamous Scott Boras, has told all interested parties that his client is looking for a five-year deal around $50 million with a no-trade clause; Boston has countered with a four-year deal in the neighborhood of $36-$39 million. In Varitek’s words, what he wants is stability so that he won’t have to worry about moving his family for a number of years to come. Having spent his entire career in Boston since his trade from Seattle in 1997, staying put would be the ideal situation. Varitek is a fan favorite because he always plays at full speed and probably reached an elite status alongside Sox legend Carlton Fisk when he shoved his mitt in Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s face in July.

There are very few free agents on the market that play to the caliber of Varitek; however, having said that, he is also not among the top players at that position. Varitek will turn 33 on 11 April and, historically, catchers do not play well into their late thirties. Reports last week arose that Boston will likely offer Varitek salary arbitration by the deadline and he would have 12 days to decide whether to accept. If he declines, the club would then have until 08 January to try and negotiate a new deal. Boston wants him here and Varitek wants to stay here, especially if he is serious about doing what’s best for his family. A final deal will probably pay him $10 million per season, and some of that will be paid out up front as a signing bonus, but the maximum number of years that Boston would be willing to commit would be four years.

Pedro Martinez – P
Chances: Fifty-fifty

Before the start of the 2003 season, the Dominican dominator began to squawk about a contract extension and told the media that, every day, his price would continue to climb. Instead of going into a panic about the Boston ace bolting to the Yankees when his contract expired, the organization simply kept its mouth shut and instead picked up the club option on a seventh year a week after the season began. Fans began to wonder if the Red Sox would eventually watch another big-name player walk as they had with former studs Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn but, two seasons later, no one is in a panic and Boston looks like they played those cards right.

Boston has offered a two-year deal at $25.5 million with an option for a third year if he remained healthy that would bring the final value of the contract to around $38 million. Interest from the Yankees has been lukewarm at best; Pedro and his agent called a meeting with Steinbrenner early this month, but the Yankees have not verbalized an offer and it appears to have been more of a ploy to try and force the Red Sox to up their offer. The New York Mets are now willing to offer Martinez a guaranteed three-year contract at the same $38 million level, but it’s not the four years that the ace wanted and New York isn’t exactly on track to win another World Series in the next few seasons. Right now, the Red Sox are holding firm and they are willing to let Pedro walk, something that perhaps no Boston fan would have fathomed even before the 2004 season began. Pedro may get his best all-around deal from Boston, but it will be up to him whether his ego will allow his supposed loyalty to Red Sox fan to keep him in a Boston uniform for another few seasons.

Orlando Cabrera – SS
Chances: One-in-three

Cabrera was a nice pick-up for the Sox and made everyone forget that he was traded for perhaps the most popular Boston player in recent memory, especially in helping his new club win a World Series. Now the 30-year-old Columbian is looking to cash in on the national exposure that you just didn’t get playing for Montreal and is looking for a nice long-term deal. While Boston has some interest in retaining his services, they are not interested in signing him for more than a year or two, especially if Pawtucket prospect Hanley Ramirez is ready for the big leagues by 2006. Boston might try to offer him arbitration, but it’s a better bet that he will try to sign elsewhere because he may not get a better opportunity for more money as a player.

Derek Lowe – P
Chances: Less than zero

The unsung hero of the 2004 playoffs blew his chance to sign a contract extension with Boston in each of the last two off-seasons and that may come around to bite him in the end. Although numbers haven’t been mentioned lately, Boras reportedly was looking to secure Lowe with a contract worth $11 million per season. Lowe did win 52 games over the last three seasons and was a runner-up in the Cy Young voting in 2002, but he was inconsistent over the 2004 season, finishing with a 14-12 record and an ERA of 5.42, and the offensive juggernaut in the Boston clubhouse helped him record a few of those wins. It should be noted that he become the first pitcher in post-season history to record the decisive win in every one of his team’s playoff series, providing an inning of relief in Game Three of the Division Series and pitching gems in Game Seven of the ALCS and Game Four of the World Series. However, Babe Ruth has a better chance of being in a Red Sox uniform next season. Lowe is obviously a disgruntled employee in the organization and also wants to escape the scrutiny of the Boston media. With the younger Carl Pavano on the market for equal value and less money, Lowe will be dishing his sinker on another club next season.

2004 Championship Series Previews

Unfortunately, there will be no champagne celebrations in the locker rooms of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Anaheim, or Minnesota; these four teams have the rest of the off-season to reflect on what might have been. Now, with four teams just eight wins away from a World Series championship, they must set aside that lofty goal and concentrate on the task at hand; that is, they must win the pennants of their respective leagues. Boston, New York, and St. Louis had little trouble getting through the division round while Houston needed all five games to take care of those pesky Braves. Now, the stakes have been set higher and each team is ready to prove themselves, but only two will survive to move on to the next round.

New York (101-61) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: Boston won, 11-8

Anyone who has paid attention this season knows by now that these two teams were destined to face each other in the American League Championship Series for the second year in a row. With nineteen meetings between these two teams in the regular season, there should be no surprises left to spring on each other and the only advantage left seems to be psychological. Boston was just five outs away from the pennant when Grady Little had a brain cramp and left Boston ace Pedro Martinez in the game to try and work through a jam; his strategy failed and the Red Sox lost to the Yankees in extra frames. Now, a year later, Boston believes, to paraphrase unofficial team spokesman Kevin Millar, that the club this season is five outs better than the team from a season ago. New York, however, has the uncanny ability to seemingly pull an invisible string and make the impossible become reality, which has translated to several world championships in the 86 years since Boston won its last.

This series is about as evenly matched as you will ever find two teams coming face-to-face in the playoffs, so who will come out on top? This wouldn’t be much of a Red Sox fan site if we didn’t believe that Boston would triumph in the end, but we aren’t just showing favoritism. The key to the club’s success will lie in its ability to score runs early, which was critical to the success of the regular season; when the number nine hitter in the lineup is last year’s AL batting champion, you would think that they are capable of pushing people across the plate. With a relatively weak starting rotation, New York must find a way to subdue the Boston lineup, led by the Monsters of the Fenway Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, or it will find itself in a hole very early. What also gives Boston an edge is its starting rotation, which features Curt Schilling, who was nothing less than dominant in the regular season, and Martinez who, despite rumors to the contrary, is nobody’s daddy in the major leagues. Throw in Bronson Arroyo and you have the answer to keeping the always-dangerous Yankee lineup at bay.

What the Red Sox must watch for, as was true in the Anaheim series, is a close score late in the game. The Yankee bullpen, led by Cy Young candidate Mariano Rivera and bolstered by Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, is nearly unhittable and, with what’s on the line, the chances of a late-inning rally are small. Also, the Red Sox cannot afford to give the Yankees extra outs; those are the types of mistakes that New York does not miss the opportunity to take advantage of when the game is on the line. Do not think for one minute that it will be easy for Boston to take the series but, in the end, the Red Sox should finally be able to dispatch their archrivals and move on to the World Series.

St. Louis (105-57) vs Houston (92-70)
Season series: Houston won, 10-8

St. Louis ran away with the National League Central division and dispatched Los Angeles in four games in the Division Series. They accomplished this, to no one’s surprised, by lighting up the scoreboard with seven home runs, including five in the first game of the series. Led by Albert Pujols, Larry Walker, and Edgar Renteria, the Cardinal’s offense was too potent for the Dodgers to handle. Houston, on the other hand, needed five games and two wins in Atlanta to win their series, which was not decided until the Astros scored five runs in the seventh inning of Game 5 to put the contest out of reach as the Braves watched yet another team celebrate a division series win at Turner Field.

These two teams, like Boston and New York, had the opportunity to face each other multiple times this season (18, to be exact), so they should have a good idea of what is in store for them. Houston, of course, continues to roll after a late-season surge pushed them into the playoffs as the wild card while St. Louis cruised through the final two months in preparation for some late October baseball. In September, Houston took five of six games between the two teams, including a sweep at home in the final week, but that success was more likely a result of the Cardinals resting themselves for the coming weeks; had it been more decisive, perhaps the outcome would have been different. So, take away that late season success and the Cardinals were 7-3 when there was more that mattered.

Houston also comes into this series with a starting rotation that is nearly burned out from the NLDS. Astros starters Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt each pitched on three day’s rest, so Phil Garner may have to try and save these two for Games 3 and 4 in the series. That leaves Brandon Bracke (5-3, 4.30) and Pete Munro (4-7, 5.15) in the first two games, unless Clemens feels good enough to come out in Game 2 on just three days of rest again. In contrast, for the Cardinals, starters Woody Williams (11-8, 4.18), Jason Marquis (15-7, 3.71), and Matt Morris (15-10, 4.72) will have enjoyed plenty of rest when their turn in the rotation comes.

Even though it looks like St. Louis should be better rested for this series, Houston has fought tooth-and-nail to make it this far. Clemens would love to add another ring to his collection along with the Cy Young award that he’s sure to collect after the season ends. Phil Garner would love to be the guy who turned a team around at mid-season and turned them into champions. The Cardinals, though, have been at this point in three of the last five seasons and were unable to advance in the first two attempts and they don’t intend to let that happen again. Add it all up and St. Louis finally comes away with their first NL pennant since 1987.

2004 Division Series Previews

Perhaps no season in recent memory has come down to the final day of the regular schedule before the playoff picture became clear. Even with three American League teams clinching playoff spots almost a week or more before the season ended, every team that finally did make it spent the last few games trying to jockey for a more favorable position in the post-season, with Anaheim getting the edge over Minnesota to host one of two division series match-ups. Meanwhile, in the National League, Los Angeles needed until Saturday to claim the stake on its division and the Houston Astros, who seemed out of playoff contention at the All-Star break, enjoyed a late season surge and won the final seven games of the regular season to earn the National League wild card spot. Now that the marathon has passed the 26-mile mark, it’s time for the eight remaining teams to sprint to the finish, starting with the four division series.

New York (101-61) vs Minnesota (92-70)
Season series: New York won, 4-2

One of the biggest weaknesses of the Yankees this season was its starting pitching staff; despite winning 100-plus games for the third straight season, its starting rotation was not intimidating to opposing teams. In contrast, the Twins have Johan Santana, the likely AL Cy Young award winner (sorry, Curt Schilling and Mariano Rivera), who won 20 games, struck out a league-leading 265 batters, and posted a 2.61 ERA, Brad Radke (11-8, 3.48), and Carlos Silva (14-8, 4.21). However, what got the Yankees to 101 wins was the strength of its offense, led by MVP candidate Gary Sheffield; the team scored an eye-popping 897 runs this season and stroked 242 home runs, a team record. Last week, the Twins paid a visit to Yankee Stadium and got swept by the Bronx Bombers in three games; the results will be no different for Minnesota against New York this week. In other words, the division series is just a formality for the Yankees as they make their way to yet another ALCS.

Anaheim (92-70) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: Boston won, 5-4

Five weeks ago, the red-hot Angels strolled into Fenway Park and were swept in three games by the even more red-hot Red Sox as Boston continued its climb on top of the wild card standings and Anaheim fell four games behind the Oakland Athletics in the American League West division. While Boston spent the rest of the season trying to catch the Yankees, eventually finishing three games behind New York in the AL East, Anaheim won 17 of its remaining 29 games to win the division by just a game over Oakland. Anaheim hopes to demonstrate that World Series title they collected in 2002 against the San Francisco Giants in seven games was no fluke. Boston, which won 19 of its last 30 contests, is looking to win its first World Series in 86 years. The teams are evenly matched in most facets and this has all the makings of a fall classic, even if it is just the first round. However, Boston should win because they have 21-game winner and Cy Young candidate Curt Schilling, the Monsters of the Fenway, Manny Ramirez (43 HR, 130 RBI, .613 SLG) and David Ortiz (41 HR, 139 RBI, .603 SLG), and a supporting cast ready to finish what was started in 2003.

St. Louis (105-57) vs Los Angeles (93-69)
Season series: St. Louis won, 4-2

Unlike most of the playoff contenders this season, the chances for St. Louis were never in doubt, having surged well ahead of its fellow NL Central division opponents by mid-summer on its way to its fourth division crown in five years. Starter Chris Carpenter (15-5, 3.46) led the rotation this season but will miss the first round with an injured bicep; however, the remaining four starters all won 10 or more games, equaled only by Boston this season. At the end of the game, the Cardinals have Jason Isringhausen, who converted 47 saves while posting a respectable 2.87 ERA. On offense, Albert Pujols, were it not for a San Francisco Giant named Barry Bonds, would be the most prolific offensive force in not only the NL but all of baseball as well (my god, is he really just 24 years old?). The Dodger Blue were led by Adrian Beltre on offense, who clocked 48 home runs and posted a .334 batting average, a resurgent Jose Lima, who posted 13 wins and a 4.07 ERA, and a relentless Eric Gagne, who collected 45 saves this season. On paper, it appears that St. Louis has the better team, and on the field, the same is true; expect to be seeing the high-flying Red Birds cruise to the NLCS.

Atlanta (96-66) vs Houston (92-70)
Season series: Tied, 3-3

Give credit to Bobby Cox, the one constant in the Braves clubhouse, who led his team to a playoff appearance for the 13th straight year (not including the strike-shortened 1994 season). Very few people picked Atlanta to repeat and most had them finishing fourth; perhaps the lesson learned is, like the Yankees, they find a way. Likewise, Houston fired Jimy Williams at the All-Star break after a poor start and no one expected that they would see action in October. However, Houston had other plans and, with Phil Garner at the helm, went 49-25 the rest of the way to clinch the wild card spot in the National League. In other words, we have two teams that no one thought would be in the post-season, but here they are, warts and all. Neither team has impressive numbers on offense or defense, so who has the advantage? It’s a toss-up; Houston won left and right over the last six weeks of the season, going an amazing 31-8, while Atlanta was almost as hot, going 25-13. However, the edge goes to Houston for the reason that Atlanta went 51-25 this season against what proved to be relatively weak competition in the NL East, making it easier than expected to take the division. Houston, however, played almost evenly against St. Louis this season and had to battle Chicago in the standings in the final weeks; winning nine of the last ten also has them on a roll that will be tough to stop.