I’m watching opening day. Wonderful.
I’ve been meaning to write a “here comes 2011” post for weeks now; I guess late is better than never. Most of what I have to say has been said in one place or another.
I’m optimistic about 2011 for the Red Sox, but I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t worried about the pitching staff. I read a provocative question regarding the Sox staff somewhere this Spring: “Is the Red Sox staff good, or merely deep?” It strikes me as a legitimate question.
#1: Sure, Lester is an ace. No questions there.
#2: Buchholz is the poster child for sabermetric regression. Virtually every advanced metric last year (especially BABIP, xFIP, K/BB. K/9and strand rate) suggests that Buchholz was exceptionally lucky, and that his 2.33 ERA was something of a mirage. He won’t suddenly sink, but don’t be surprised to see an ERA closer to 4.00 than 3.00 this year. That’s good, not great.
#3: Beckett. Sigh. Entering the first year of a 4 year, 60 million dollar extension, one really has to wonder how much Beckett has left in the tank. This spring was not reassuring. When healthy, Beckett has a wicked curve and a nasty fastball. When not, his back injury flattens out both pitches and wrecks his control. Fingers crossed that we get more Dr. Beckett, and less Mr. Hyde.
#4: Lackey. I wasn’t a big fan of this signing last season, and I wasn’t surprised to see Lackey put up mediocre numbers last season. The guy is a horse, and he’g likely going to pitch his 200 innings. But they won’t be great innings–expect another 4.50 ERA.
#5: Dice-k? Wake? Doubrount? Player to be named later? Its hard to guess who will finish the year as the #5. Certainly, Dice “I can’t throw a ******* strike” K will be in line for the job, given his $10 million salary.
The bullpen should be outstanding. Any potential struggles by Papelbon should be absorbed by Bard (who will certainly be the closer after Papelbon departs for the Yankees this offseason). Jenks and Wheeler give nice 7th and 8th inning depth. I am a bit surprised that perennial prospect Michael Bowden didn’t make the team.
Obviously, this offense is ungodly. The Sox boast a potential all-time 1-6 with Ellsbury, Pedroia, Crawford, Youkilis, Gonzalez, and Ortiz. I mean, JD Drew isn’t an all-star anymore, but its pretty scary when he’s your #7. The Sox will score runs. And, assuming Youkilis holds up at third (and I think he’ll be ok in terms of zone rating), they can field the ball, too.
The big question for me centers around Josh Beckett. I think that will determine whether the Red Sox win 95 games (and perhaps the division) or 90 games (and perhaps miss the playoffs).
The Yankees figure to be very good. There offense might come down a bit (Jeter, A-Rod, and Posada are all getting older), but I think their gamble on veteran, back-end starters is likely to pay off. I figure the Yanks can win 95 games.
I think the Rays are in trouble. Yes, they have the best starting pitching in the loaded AL East. And, yes, traditionally starting pitching wins in the regular season. But the AL East is a different beast–and all the other teams have very strong lineups (even Baltimore). I’m not sure starting pitching is enough, especially since the Rays bullpen got raped in the off-season. You can’t seriously start Dan Johnson at first base and hope to compete in the AL East. I figure, given their pitching, the Rays will win 90 games.
The AL Central has a few top contenders, and a few real stinkers–so I wouldn’t be surprised if that division put up two 94 game winners. And, since I think all five AL East teams are strong, I would be surprised to see three teams equal the win totals of the top AL East teams last season. In other words, I’m not convinced that the wild card will come out of the East–it certainly could, and probably will, but I don’t think it is the given that it has been lately.
So, here’s to hoping that I’m wrong about the pitching staff. That Buchholz is an ace. That Beckett is still a potential 20 game winner. That the Lackey who lived in LA will finally arrive in Boston. That somebody translates “contract year” into Japanese. Because, otherwise, this great lineup might sit home and watch the playoffs. Again.
I’m not necessarily a big fan of arm chair prognostication. I’m a much bigger fan of narration–and think that the most compelling sports analysis involves narrative arc. So, rather than offer a prediction, I’ll call attention to what I think are the most intriguing Red Sox story lines heading into the season.
1. John Lackey’s health
Of course, every team needs players to stay healthy. But the Red Sox are counting on their version of Maddux / Glavine / Smoltz this season–a three-headed pitching hydra poised to eat up innings and rack up wins. Lackey has missed 23% of his starts over the past two seasons. Put simply: missing 7 starts would be bad in a division that will likely come down to two or three games.
2. Can Defense Really Win?
This is a question posed by about every major media commentator [wsj.com]: the Red Sox’s turn toward defensive minded players. To separate myself a bit, I will point to the increased interest in defense in many of baseball’s “think tanks.” Seattle focused on defense as well this off-season–if the Sox and the Mariners do win their divisions, be prepared to become familiar with obscure terms such as RF and DE. I’ve been interested in these new defensive stats for quite awhile simply because they are so hard to quantify (and so few people will believe in the impact of something that cannot be measured). Rest assured, if the Sox win 100 games, you’ll see some theoretical-mathematical approaches to defense popping up on ESPN.
3. Does This Team Really Have a 4th Starter?
Those first three pitchers are incredible, and the team should benefit from increased defense. But can either Wakefield, Dice-K, or Buchholz maintain the Sox’s pitching advantage by consistently giving a 6 inning, 3 ER effort? The easy answer is “yes”–but last year’s struggles suggest that the Red Sox might actually have three number one pitchers and three number fives. I’m hoping Buchholz looks more like the pitcher of last September–a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation potential, than what he looked like at the beginning of last season or for most of this Spring.
4. Can This Team Score Runs?
This is an obvious question that has been covered elsewhere. Very simply:
- Which David Ortiz shows up? One who can hit .250 with 30 home runs or one who can hit .200 with 15 home runs? Or one that hits like Pat Burrell (ewww….)?
- Is Scutaro a one year wonder?
- Will Cameron have more hits or strikeouts? (Hint: the last time he had more hits than k’s was 2000).
- Can Drew repeat his stellar 2009?
- Will Ellsbury continue to grow or has he plateau-ed?
Ok, so I’m not optimistic about the answer to most of these questions…which leads to my next two storylines:
5. Will Josh Reddick Break Through this Season?
Only the die-hard Sox fans likely know who Reddick is. Last year, in Spring Training, Reddick hit .423 / .433 / .577. This season he followed it up with an even more amazing .404 / .426 / .702. That’s a 1.128 OPS from a 23 year old who can play all three positions. He had a rough trip up to the majors last September, going only 10 for 59 with 2 walks and 17 strikeouts. But, on the bright side, 6 of his 10 hits were for extra-bases. His major league service clock has been activated, so there’s really no reason to keep him in the minors any longer. He’s got a career .512 slugging in the minor leagues, and though he tends to swing (think Nomar), he could be the next big Red Sox wonder-kid. Here’s one prediction–if Ortiz struggles, then I think Lowell and Drew will platoon at DH while Reddick will come up from the Paw Sox to get a shot at RF everyday. We all know Drew is leaving after this season–Reddick is the best candidate to get his job. And getting Drew’s 15 million dollars off the book will give the Sox the option of…
6. Adrian Gonzalez (?)
Perhaps the Mauer contract will fool the Padres into thinking they can resign their local star. I doubt it. If anything, Mauer’s price tag probably emphasizes how little chance they have. The Red Sox gave Beltre a one-year deal in the likelihood that Gonzalez will be a free agent next year. Gonzalez at first, Youkilis at third… that would be quite nice. I have no idea if this will happen–but rest assured, if the offense problems in question 4 do materialize, then the Gonzalez to Boston rumors will continue to intensify.
7. Will Josh Bard Develop Into the Next Papelbon (Literally) ?
Ok here’s one from left field, so to speak. But Sox fans have to see the writing on the wall. All of the Sox home-grown wonder kids have extensions–Ellsbury, Pedroia, Lester, and Youkilis. Papelbon does not. And, if what I read is true, then its quite likely that he won’t. Papelbon wants to be the highest paid closer in baseball history, and the Yankees need a closer soon. Perfect match. The Red Sox will feel a lot more comfortable with the prospect of letting Papelbon go to free agency (Yankees, Yankees, Yankees) if and only if Bard realizes his 100 mph potential.
So there’s my 7 story lines for the season. I’ll add two minor league threads to pay attention to as well: the development of Lars Anderson (who, if he plays well, would be a nice chip in a possible Gonzalez trade) and shortstop Jose Iglesias.
Let the baseball begin.
The next week will be a trial by fire for this Red Sox team as they face the Rays and Yankees six times. With the exception of Wakefield, the Red Sox find themselves at full strength. I will be paying close attention to the pitching match-ups the next six days, since, if you remember, I was most concerned about our lack of a legitimate 3rd starter heading into the trade deadline. Wakefield might be one of the best fourth starters of all-time (no exaggeration) given his consistent ability to deliver 6+ innings. You can plug him in near the end of the rotation and know that your bullpen will actually get some rest. That is invaluable over a 162 game season. But what you can’t count on him for is giving you quality innings. That isn’t too valuable in the hyper-shortened post season. Wakefield’s post season ERA with the Red Sox sits just south of 8.00. Let’s not forget that the most important start of Wake’s post-season career is the one he didn’t make.
Thus the question: will a legitimate third starter emerge on this team? I am hoping the quasi-playoff atmosphere of the next week will give some indication. Buchholz is probably the favorite–but his first-strike-percentage has been up and down. I think this is the key for him (as it is for any pitcher, but especially for the young Buchholz who acknowledges some psychological misgivings on the mound): throw those strikes. Anywho, here’s the Sox pitching match-ups for the next week.
Red Sox vs. Rays
- Lester vs. Garza: I expect a great match-up, these guys are probably even. I’ll say pick’em odds on this one. Lester’s ERA is inflated due to a few early poor starts. Garza has been nothing short of electric against the Sox (he reminds me of Dave Stewart–a pitcher who plays his best against the best).
- Penny vs. Price: These guys both struggle, so, while I’m close to another pick’em, I’ll give Tampa Bay and Price a small advantage. Price has a tendency to overthrow his fastball and loses control. Penny has a tendency to leave fastballs (a bit, um, underthrown) over the heart of the plate. The Rays all-or-nothing, strike-out-or-homer strategy means Penny is just the guy they like to see; Price’s control struggles make him an ideal target for the Red Sox’s general plate discipline. As if you can’t tell, I am suggesting you bet the over on this one.
Red Sox vs. Yankees
- Smoltz vs. Chamberlain: I read an interesting Sabermetric evaluation of Smoltz’s number the other day, suggesting that his FIP numbers (fielding independent pitching) were right on his career averages. In other words, that he has been the victim of statistical improbability rather than poor performance and that, in turn, Red Sox fans have room for optimism. To that I say “bunk.” Guys get old and leave pitches in bad places (funny thing: a commentator left such a remark on the forums, suggesting that the statistical evidence might fail to account for contextual factors, and the gallery near booed him from the stage. I like it when empiricist utterly disregard rhetorical factors. I makes me feel like my job really matters). Yankees and Chamberlain
- Beckett and Burnett: In the battle of ex-Marlins, I am going with “big” brother. Red Sox and Beckett
- Buchholz and Sabathia: Duh. Yankees and Sabathia
- Lester and Pettitte: While Pettitte has been solid this season, Lester’s June and July have been fantastic (8 QS in 10 GS). Lester and the Red Sox
Again, an interesting week. I think the Sox will be satisfied if they come out of the road trip 3-3. To do that, they really need to split the series with the Rays. Here’s hoping Lester brings some of his magic tonight.