If the Boston Red Sox are not to begin the 2011 season against their arch-rivals the New York Yankees, what better way to test its collective strength right out of the gate than by facing the defending American League champions, the Texas Rangers? Clearly, the Rangers won’t be the same without former ace Cliff Lee, who surprisingly opted to go back to the Philadelphia Phillies in the offseason during the free agency period. But they will send out lefty C.J. Wilson to face fellow lefty Jon Lester, the cancer-surviving, 2007 World Series Game 4-winning pitcher to start game one of the 2011 season on Friday, April 1.
It should be a competitive game and series, and be the first test of how well the Red Sox’s lefty-heavy lineup will be. For the opener however, left handed veteran right fielder J.D. Drew will sit in favor of right handed outfielder Mike Cameron, who is as fit and healthy now than he’s been since he joined the Sox last year. And young Jarrod Saltalamacchia—a former Texas Rangers prospect and catcher until traded to Boston in 2010—will start behind the plate, with Sox instructor Gary Tuck and the captain Jason Varitek teaching him (in the backup role once again) the do’s and dont’s of the game before and after games.
The two catchers will alternate starting catching duties this year, and for now, it looks like Salta can hit major league pitching pretty well, if his spring training results are any indication. He got three hits against Houston in the final Red Sox spring training game on Wednesday, and is known as a patient hitter who can put up a good OBP. It remains to be seen, however, if he can call games and handle pitching staffs in the regular season, as he only appeared in 10 games last year before shutting it down with a thumb injury (which he suffered before he was traded here from these Texas Rangers in 2010 and which he is now surgically healed from).
The two new big-time pickups in the offseason, Carl Crawford and (former Texas Rangers and San Diego Padres slugger) Adrian Gonzalez, are what is truly creating the most buzz regarding the Red Sox since the 2004 season when GM Theo Epstein signed closer Keith Foulke and Curt Schilling. Both have looked good in the preseason, though Gonzalez had a short spring due to recovery from shoulder surgery in the offseason.
The lefty will add power in the cleanup or fifth spot (as will be the case tomorrow) this year, while Crawford adds speed and some power in the third spot in Terry Francona’s strong batting order. With Jacoby Ellsbury healthy from his rib injuries from early last year, never before have the Red Sox had two players who could each steal 40-50 bases in a single season.
With Kevin Youkilis back and healthy in the cleanup spot (and playing third base while Gonzalez takes over at first) and David Ortiz batting fifth or sixth depending on the day, they have two and possibly three legitimate 30+ homer threats. With a healthy Dustin Pedroia in the two spot and Marco Scutaro batting ninth most days (I assume), this is truly one of the strongest Red Sox lineups since 2007. And depending on the date, solid-hitting infielder Jed Lowrie, Mike Cameron or J.D. Drew and either Varitek or Saltalamacchia will be on the bench, along with surprise 2010 success story, outfielder Darnell McDonald. It may lack a reliable power hitter, but that is deep bench, indeed.
Besides maintaining health of key players throughout a whole season, the biggest question marks on this year’s team is pitching. Can Josh Beckett and closer Jonathan Papelbon recover from the worst year of their careers (and for the most part, a rocky spring training)? Will new bullpen arms like Matt Albers, veteran lefty Dennys Reyes and former Rays reliever Dan Wheeler make Sox fans forget about the lousy 2010 bullpen? And will Bobby Jenks succeed in a setup role?
I have a feeling that Albers will be a disappointment and not be around come June, since his track record, a career 5.11 ERA, is nothing to write home about. In that case, Alfredo Aceves, who begins 2011 in the minors because he has options left in his contract, should succeed him in due time.
I also have a strong inkling that Papelbon will continue to struggle with his control, but not as much as last season. In this, his probable final year with Boston before hitting free agency, I expect him to at least save 25-28 games, with Bard and Jenks saving a few when needed.
Wheeler and Jenks should do well in Boston, since they are veterans of the American League, while Reyes will be coming over from the National League. I’m still banking on him to be a surprise success story, though it may take a while for him to adjust to the AL East and to take over as the primary lefty out of the bullpen, since Hideki Okajima not so surprisingly got sent to the minors to begin the season—he also had options left, despite his four years of service in the majors.
And what about knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, the elder stateman of the Sox squad? You gotta feel bad for the guy, as he is relegated to long man duty once again. But with the poor spring he had, he should consider himself lucky he even made the team. I don’t expect much success from him this year (maybe seven wins as a reliever and spot starter, topps).
Even with all the injuries and poor outings from the bullpen and starters not named Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester last season, the Red Sox still won 89 games to the amazement of many. This season, I expect that total to jump into the mid-90s because of the return of healthy everyday veteran players, an improved, veteran-heavy bullpen, and a starting staff that is the envy of the American League and that can only get more consistent as a group than it was last season, with the rotation being Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett and Daisuke “Dice-K” Matsuzaka.
The Sox may have finished third behind the Rays and Yankees last season, but in a stacked division once again this year, I feel the Sox are once again ready to win the AL East for the first time since 2007.
Photo credit: Boston Herald