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We’re just saying…Sox and Yanks AL East(er) rivalry begins anew

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Posted: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 3:36 pm

Todd: Finally some sunshine, I thought the rain would never stop. 

While that sentence looks familiar if you read our last column, it happens to be true yet again.  I still haven’t finished building that ark yet, either.  Can we move on to April already?  This March wetness is doing nothing for me, other than leaving me soaked. 

The Red Sox would like to move on to April as well, they’ve had enough of spring training and three-hour bus rides across the Sunshine State. 

Thankfully for them and us baseball fans, the 2010 MLB season commences at Fenway Park with the Yankees on Opening Day, oops, make that Opening Night…Easter Sunday night.  Better load up on those chocolate bunnies for the sugar rush you’ll likely need to stay up and watch all nine innings. 

I understand why it has to be this way with national television and all, but it just doesn’t feel right.  No kids skipping school, no adults taking an extended lunch break from work.  Like listening to the Remdawg’s Boston accent, Opening Day on a weekday afternoon has been a long time New England tradition, but not this year.

Oddly enough, the Sox don’t have a day game at Fenway until April 18, and only three of their scheduled 13 April home games will be played before the dinner hour.

But enough of my mini-rant, let’s try and answer some questions about the 2010 Boston Red Sox.

The team’s biggest asset appears to be their starting pitching, but is it?

Todd: There is no question that Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey are a formidable trio of arms that can match up favorably with the three best starters of any team in baseball, and it’s great having them going into any potential playoff series.  But I have some concerns with the back end of the rotation. 

Daisuke Matsuzaka supposedly came into spring training in great shape, putting last season’s debacle behind him.  Yet he is dealing with both back and neck injuries and won’t be heading north with the team this week.  On the other hand, 43-year old Tim Wakefield dealt with back issues throughout the second half last season, but he’s had a great spring and leads the team in innings pitched.  I think by the time we’re into the dog days of the season these positions will be reversed.  Daisuke should be healthy and pitching well (even if it’s only for five innings at a time), while I have my doubts that Wake can keep that knuckler dancing for the whole year.

Then there’s Clay Buchholz, the wild card of the group.  He struggled this spring, but based on how strong he looked the last two months of 2009, it would seem as if he’s ready to make the next step in his pitching progress.  If that happens, it takes considerable pressure off Matsuzaka and Wakefield to remain healthy.  But if it doesn’t, it could put more stress on the three aces at the top of the rotation to win a larger majority of their starts. 

I’ve heard some talk that a six-man rotation could be a possibility if all are healthy at the same time.  I’m sure Daisuke would love that idea, but Beckett, Lester and Lackey would not, and I don’t think having that much rest between starts would benefit them.  I hope Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell are not seriously considering such an option.

Mike: I know it’s a cliché, but you really can’t have enough pitching. Going into the season, the Sox appear to have one of, if not the strongest starting rotation in MLB, but that’s all relative. One or two injuries to their trio of aces could leave the team scrambling to fill some holes.

Sure, Lester, Beckett and Lackey all have the stuff, but I’m not sold on Matsuzaka (and even less so that he’s going to start another season on the DL), Buchholz is still young and unproven, and there is no way of knowing if the real Buchholz is the brilliant one from last season or the one who imploded in 2008 and had to be sent all the way down to Portland. Finally, Tim Wakefield is 43 years old, and if he is one of your top three or  four pitchers, your team is in huge trouble.

That being said, if the top three stay healthy, it’s clear that the Sox are going to win some games solely from strong pitching. But as for a six-man rotation, no thanks. I want to get my top pitchers like Beckett on the mound as often as possible and a six-man rotation defeats that purpose.

Staying with the pitching, how will the bullpen perform?

Todd: Some depth was lost with the departures of veterans Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito, but all conversation about the pen begins and ends with Jonathan Papelbon, who with 151 saves over the last four seasons is one of the top closers in the game today.  However, last year he had some occasional control problems along with the lack of a consistent second pitch.  Regaining the latter will probably go a long way to rectifying the former, and no one has been harder on Papelbon to regain his truly dominant form of 2007-2008 than he has.  Some fans want to rush this guy out of town just because there appears to be an heir apparent (more below), but I don’t.

As for the rest of the pen, Hideki Okajima has been one of the most consistent southpaw setup men the last three seasons, and needs to continue doing so.  Ramon Ramirez had a decent first season with the Sox and will hopefully continue getting better, while hometown boy Manny Delcarmen must improve if he wants to be brought into games with the lead.

Most fans gush over Daniel Bard’s closer-type stuff (myself included), but last year was his first in the big leagues and many forget he suffered through a few bumpy outings along with the good ones.  He still has some learning to do, and don’t assume just because he can hit 100 mph on the radar gun that he’s automatically going to be a capable closer in the future.  There’s a certain mentality that goes along with being able to record the final outs of a ballgame, and it’s what makes a closer like Papelbon dominant.  Don’t know if Bard has that yet, and in the meantime there is nothing wrong with keeping the kid in the role of eighth inning power arm or occasional fill-in closer when Pap is overworked.    

Mike: First things first, Papelbon is the key to this bullpen. If he blows up, the Sox are done. Starting pitching can only take you so far (in the case of Matsuzaka, that means just five innings) and you need a stud to slam the door, and that’s Pap.

I’m encouraged with what I’ve heard from the offseason, it seems that the closer has taken his playoff implosion seriously, and he has been working to make sure that doesn’t happen again. He’s looked decent this spring, and hopefully he’ll continue to slam the door this season.

As for the rest of the pen, I’m just not sure. Okajima has looked good the past few seasons, but other than that, I don’t see anybody that’s a superstar out there. Bard looks like he has the stuff to be a closer, but let’s see how he does setting the table for Papelbon before we make this guy the closer. The Sox have rushed promising young pitchers before, and I’d hate to see that happen to Bard.

As for Casey Kelly, don’t expect to see him with the big club this season. On the bright side, he’s ticketed for Portland, so at least the local fans will get to watch him.

Now to the hitters: does David Ortiz have anything left in the tank?

Todd: I hope so, because Ortiz will be hitting fifth this season and needs to be a significant run-producer in that spot.  He put up some impressive numbers last year (28 HR, 99 RBI) considering he only hit one home run the first two months of the season and was hitting below .200 as late as June 10.  But the Sox can’t afford that kind of start from Big Papi this year with a lineup that lacks the middle-of-the-order power of days gone by. 

I am concerned that the 34-year old Sox DH may no longer be able to consistently hit top quality pitching, which is why I think the team would be wise to hold on to Mike Lowell, not only because Lowell can still hit (when healthy), but Boston would most likely have to eat nearly all of his $12.5 million salary for the coming season if they dealt him away.  Lowell could turn out to be that extra bat the Sox are looking for should Ortiz struggle out of the gate.

Mike: Frankly, I don’t think so. I hate to say that because I love Papi, but I can’t see him being that dominating force that he was in 2004-2007. He had flashes last year, but he was still starting to slide, and I can’t believe he’s going to suddenly turn that around.

But that leads to the question, who takes his spot if he can’t do  it anymore? Lowell is the obvious quick answer, but I don’t think the Sox see him as an answer, or else they wouldn’t have tried to virtually give him away in the offseason. Frankly, I think Lowell will be gone by June if the Sox can find anyone to take him, that is.

Concerned about how well the 2010 Sox will hit?  Can the new players provide an offensive spark?

Todd: I think the bats will be okay, but I think fans in general will have to get used to watching a Boston team win with more of a balanced attack of pitching, defense and situational hitting instead of sitting back and waiting for the three-run homer (BTW the old expression ‘pitching and defense wins championships’ has now been replaced by the 21st century sabermetric-friendly ‘run prevention’, but the concepts are one in the same).  This team is capable of scoring runs but it will be in a different manner than in seasons past.  Ellsbury and Pedroia are great table setters, and Martinez and Youkilis are each capable of driving in over 100 runs. 

Adrian Beltre, Mike Cameron and Marco Scutaro all come to Boston with a reputation of being hard-working players with good gloves who can also hit, and even have some pop in their bats.  It should help each of them to be batting in the lower part of the order where expectations won’t be as high.  I only hope we can all remain patient while these guys experience the occasional batting slump. 

Mike: Gone are the days of the big-hitting Sox. The team now seems to be built around pitching and defense and just enough offense to get by. I actually think it’s a strong formula. Sure, there won’t be as many home run blasts to make the NESN highlight reels, but they’ll score enough to win games, especially with the dominating pitching staff they’re taking into the season.

Both Josh Beckett and Victor Martinez are in the final year of their contracts.  Will they remain in Boston and could their negotiations have an adverse effect on the team this year?

Todd: I don’t think either negotiation will affect the team’s performance in any way during the season, but there will be angst amongst the fan base and the radio talk show yahoos if nothing gets done.

It sounds like Beckett could be close to getting his extension, especially if he doesn’t mind getting a four-year deal instead of the five years received by newcomer Lackey.  If Theo Epstein is able to lock up Beckett, it could set up a chain reaction that might allow the Sox GM to trade more of his younger pitching prospects in a potential midseason deal for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, which in turn could have an impact on the contract talks with Martinez.  There are some questions to Victor’s long-term future behind the plate, and one of the options could be to put him at first base.

Mike: I’m going to make this short and sweet. Beckett will resign with Boston, but Martinez, especially with Joe Mauer setting the bar so high recently, will be too expensive to resign.

Red Sox predictions for 2010: how many wins, where will they finish in the American League East and how far will they go in the playoffs?

Todd: The defending champion Yankees (still a little tough to admit that) will win 98 games and the AL East, the Red Sox will win 96 and the wild card, just ahead of the third place Tampa Bay Rays, who will win 94 games in what will far and away be baseball’s toughest division.

As for the playoffs, the Sox of 2010 are perfectly constructed for a short series with the strength at the top of the starting rotation.  I think the postseason could have a 2004 feel to it, as the Sox will prevail in seven games over the Yankees in the ALCS, followed by a another World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.  How’s that for a bold prediction, or am I coming across like too much of a homer?  D’oh!

Mike: Sox win the division with 97 wins, Yankees in the Wild Card with 94 wins. Like Todd, I see the Sox over the Yankees in the ALCS, but I’ll call it in six games. But  I’ll be bold for the World Series, Sox over Cubs in six!

Mike Higgins and Todd Bloniarz have been observing Boston sports all of their lives. In their professional lives, Mike is the sports editor for Current Publishing and Todd has called and covered games for various outlets ranging from high school, college and even the Boston Red Sox for one memorable inning on NESN.

Welcome to the discussion.