Welcome to the inaugural 2011 edition of my “Dead Red” column!
There isn’t much debate as to why the Boston Red Sox missed the playoffs and dropped all the way to a disappointing third place finish in the heavily competitive American East division (behind the division-winning Tampa Bay Rays and Wild Card-winning New York Yankees), though an 89-73 record isn’t something to be ashamed of. The culprit was injuries, injuries and more injuries (Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jason Varitek and Jacoby Ellsbury to name a few). Plus, lousy seasons by former Sox ace Josh Beckett, closer Jonathan Papelbon and former Anaheim Angels ace John Lackey (who is now entering the second season of his five-year $82.5 million deal with Boston) didn’t help the cause.
Now, with everyone healthy and ready to go, Sox manager Terry Francona has named his starting rotation for the first week of games of the 2011 regular season. Jon Lester, one of the best southpaws in the game, rightly gets the honor to take the mound on Opening Day on April 1 against 2010 AL champs the Texas Rangers. It will be his first ever Opening Day start but should be his second in a row, as Francona chose Beckett to be last year’s Opening Day starter and many (including myself) thought that was the wrong move, since Lester was without question the better pitcher.
Lackey will get the home opener against the Yankees a week later, and with some weight loss over the offseason and more familiarity with the AL East, he hopes to regain ace-like form. Beckett too, with his back problems in ineffectiveness the past few years, has something to prove as well, as he drops all the way to fourth in the starting rotation to start the year, with Clay Buchholz getting the third start and Daisuke Matsuzaka in the fifth spot. Poor Tim Wakefield gets shut out and left for the bullpen as emergency starter and inning-eating reliever.
If I were Francona, I would drop Beckett (whose 2010 record was 6-6 with a career-worst 5.78 ERA) all the way to fifth in the rotation since Dice-K, by comparison, had a better year and an ERA that was a full run better at 4.69, though he didn’t go deep into games as he only at 15 decisions (9-6) in 25 starts. But it really doesn’t matter anyway who is fourth or fifth, since they both have to prove they aren’t past their prime and that their struggles this spring won’t carry over to the regular season.
Speaking of proving himself, Jonathan Papelbon has been having a terrible time lately, giving up four runs to the Mets yesterday, three to the Twins a week ago, with a perfect inning against the Yankees in between those appearances (on Monday). He says it’s a mechanical issue that’s causing problems (which has led to control issues and walks). If he doesn’t figure it out by the end of April, he’ll be looking over his shoulder to see two closers in waiting, the young phenom Daniel Bard and former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks.
So the Sox have depth at the closer spot. That’s a given. With Bard, newcomers Dan Wheeler, former Yankee standout reliever Alfredo Aceves (14-1, 3.21 ERA in 59 appearances over three seasons), and of course, Jenks, relief on the right side looks strong. It’s the left side of the bullpen that’s the glaring weakness.
It’s so bad that late in the offseason, GM Theo Epstein chose to bring struggling southpaw Hideki Okajima back to the team. He, Dennys Reyes, local boy and former Chicago Cub Rich Hill, Andrew Miller and youngster Felix Doubront are the lefty relievers the Sox have to choose from this spring. Doubront was shut down recently with elbow tightness and is only now throwing again (a simulated game), while Reyes (a native of Mexico) is a bit behind due to visa issues, and neither Okajima nor Miller have looked impressive this spring (though Miller has looked the better of the two of late).
No matter who is chosen as the lefty, it looks like Epstein will be working the phones and scouting the minors for help in this area for a long while this season. My hope is that Reyes, a formerly reliable reliever for the St. Louis Cardinals, becomes a surprise reliable lefty bullpen arm for Boston this year.
Other than that, the Sox have a strong and playoff-bound team on paper. When you have Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez added to the meat of a lineup that also includes Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, that is a nightmare of a lineup for any pitcher to face. And I haven’t even mentioned that Jacoby Ellsbury is back from his broken ribs to anchor it at the top and Marco Scutaro will be at the bottom, with J.D. Drew mixed in there in the bottom third as well. The only weakness in offense is at the catching spot, which consists of either the captain Jason Varitek or the young Jarrod Saltalamacchia (depending on which one Francona wants catching a particular pitcher or facing a certain starter in the lineup).
Lastly is the bench. It also looks solid but isn’t filled out yet completely, with more cuts to be made in the coming 12 days before the season starts. Veterans Mike Cameron and switch-hitting Varitek will definitely be joined by switch-hitting infielder Jed Lowrie. But between 2010 breakout outfield stars Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava, as well as Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick, there’s likely to be only room for one of them as fifth outfielder. And if should be McDonald, because of his versatility and clutch hitting from last year. But that’s jsut me.
And that has been my first column of 2011. Look out for another one in the coming weeks ahead as rosters are set and the season gets started at long last.
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