Pinball at Fenway returns with signings

Gammons: Pinball at Fenway returns with signings

Understand that Fenway Park has always been a left-handed-hitter's park. People who don't see many games there always talk about it being a home run park, but it hasn't been. As Bill James so eloquently noted in the 1980s, it is a doubles-and-on-base-percentage park whose home run-factor numbers are among the lowest in the American League.

Sparky Anderson once watched the Red Sox of Wade Boggs/Mike Greenwell vintage bounce balls off The Wall, that inexplicable ladder, and over into the right-field corner and said, "They play this place like it's pinball."

And now, a half-mile from the old Boston Tea Party where "Tommy" made its North American debut back when Yaz roamed left field, Theo Epstein is now the Pinball Wizard. Twitter-world is alive chattering about the $300 million-plus he has spent and how Carl Crawford has the 10th-richest contract in baseball history, but after the Sox held on to the bridge in winning 89 games despite losing more games to injuries than anyone else in its league, Epstein has brought in two players younger than 30 years old who were born to play in Fenway Park.

Since Epstein traded four Minor Leaguers to the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez, the baseball universe has opined about what he can do in Boston.

"It will be unbelievable what he does in that park," says San Diego manager Bud Black.

"He'll play pepper with the Green Monster," says Kevin Towers. Don Mattingly said weeks ago that he thinks Gonzalez is the ultimate Fenway hitter.

Enter Crawford. OK, he is one of the fastest players on the planet, such a great athlete that he turned down the chance to be the point guard at UCLA and the quarterback at Nebraska before signing with the Rays and becoming an All-Star. Even if the Red Sox bring in the bullpens, shortening the fences in right-center, Crawford is not going to hit 40 home runs. He's an extra-base-hit machine. He's been in double figures in doubles, triples, homers and steals four times in his career. Last year he had 30 doubles, 13 triples, 19 homers and an OPS higher than that of Victor Martinez.

Oh, he and Jacoby Ellsbury each have had 60-stolen-base seasons, but Crawford is more than 200 pounds. His natural line-drive stroke is left-left-center, made for The Wall. His speed is so great that every time he pulls balls over first base he'll have a chance at an inside-the-park homer; if you haven't watched what goes on in that right-field corner during the season as balls skip round the bend, drive from Cambridge to Lincoln, because playing that corner at Fenway is like dealing with rounding the Fresh Pond Rotary.

Gonzalez is a great hitter, but more than that he is cerebral, a hitting scholar once described as "the Greg Maddux of hitters." Highest praise possible. He studies video on pitchers, pitches, umpires, defenses, and in his two days in Boston so blew away Epstein that Theo described him as "one of the most incredible people I've ever been around."

Add Crawford, whose offseason conditioning and dedication is legendary. His career path during the past three seasons shows 8, 15 and 19 homers; 30, 51 and 62 extra-base hits; OPSs of .719, .816 and .851.

Dustin Pedroia averaged 51 doubles in 2008-09. Gonzalez could easily hit 50-60 doubles playing 81 games at Fenway. Crawford? He wants to bat third and concentrate on his hitting skills rather than relying on his legs in his 30s, and he's capable of 50 doubles and 70-something extra-base hits with those games at Fenway.

If the Red Sox make no more major changes, they could have Ellsbury, Pedroia, Crawford, Gonzalez and Youkilis in the first five holes. Then David Ortiz, who can sit back, enjoy the runners on base and get back to what he does best -- flipping balls off The Wall. Then J.D. Drew, and if they face a bunch of lefties, Mike Cameron is a .980 OPS guy against left-handers the past three years, and Jed Lowrie's is .944 batting right-handed for his career. Darnell McDonald's OPS was in the mid-.800s against lefties. Gonzalez's OPS vs. lefties was .937 last season, despite playing half his games in spacious Petco Park.

Between injuries and other factors, Boston's outfielders were third-worst in OPS and worst in defensive metrics. The production changes dramatically with Crawford, a healthy Ellsbury and the prospect that, if there are injuries, Ryan Kalish is ready. Incidentally, Kalish, like Crawford and Ellsbury, is another elite athlete who plays with the intrepid fearlessness of Grady Sizemore.

One of the things Carl Yastrzemski did so well when he was the game's best defensive left fielder was charge singles and prevent runners from scoring from second base on singles, which over seasons was a huge factor. Crawford brings that. He is so quick that he will allow Ellsbury a couple of steps to the right-center-field gap, which was the Bermuda Triangle at times last season.

The Red Sox have not started printing World Series tickets. They need a couple of setup men in front of Daniel Bard. They need Jonathan Papelbon to be more consistent. They need Josh Beckett and John Lackey to be better than their combined 4.91 ERA last season.

But you look at this team and while Youkilis is 31, the rest of their core players -- Pedroia, Gonzalez, Crawford, Ellsbury, Lowrie, Bard, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz -- are all between 25 and 29. Not only that, but Epstein has not touched one of his young players who might play in 2011: Kalish, Lowrie, shortstop Jose Iglesias, pitchers Felix Doubront and Junichi Tazawa, et al.

The Red Sox have speed, they have power, and in Pedroia and Jason Varitek, they have the core of the leadership before adding consummate professionals in Crawford and Gonzalez. And with the first- and sandwich-round picks they'll get for Martinez and the two picks they will get for Adrian Beltre when he signs elsewhere, they may be able to rationalize surrendering their second-rounder to sign Scott Downs.

In December, this appears to be the ultimate Fenway Park team. If you've watched thousands of games there, you'd understand. Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez have gone to the park of their dreams. First one to say "lyric little bandbox" gets a free order of lobster tacos at Liniage.

Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.