Five Questions: Boston Red Sox

Will the starting staff be deep or will Felix Doubront be in the rotation?

The cliche goes that pitching wins championships. And the cliche was never more evident with last year’s World Champion Giants. In the post-steroid era, compiling a deep starting staff is all the rage. And the Red Sox are helped by the fact that the Yankees starting pitching staff is anorexic. But before all of Red Sox Nation starts to taunt the Empire, remember that the Red Sox starting rotation is hit or miss.

Before the 2007 season, the Red Sox had many question marks. Was Josh Beckett, who flopped in 2006, just another National League pitcher who couldn’t make it in the junior circuit? Could they still rely on Tim Wakefield? What kind of year would Daisuke Matsusaka have? Did Curt Schilling have anything in the tank? Will Jon Lester come back from cancer? Should Jonathan Papelbon start or relieve?

As it turned out, almost every answer that year turned out to be positive for the Sox.

This year, they have similar concerns. Will Lester and Clay Buchholz continue to pitch like All Stars? Can Josh Beckett rebound and be at least a decent No. 3? (In my own blog I compared Beckett’s up-and-down Red Sox career with the varied quality of the Star Trek films.)

What about Dice-K? John Lackey? Will they come back from disappointing 2010 seasons or are they done? And Tim Wakefield is still around even though his former personal catcher, Doug Mirabelli, is selling real estate now. As it was in 2007, if the pitchers come through, then it might be time to rent duck boats in October for the parade.

If not and the likes of Felix Doubront are getting lots of starts, then they will not go far.

Will Jonathan Papelbon’s great grandchildren be set for life?

It’s been four seasons since Papelbon struck out Seth Smith to clinch the 2007 World Series. He was only 26 years old and looked like he was going to be a fixture in Boston for a generation. But since his implosion in the final game of the 2009 Division Series, the Irish gigs have ended and his Red Sox life is at a crossroads.

He had only one fewer save in 2010 compared to 2009, but his ERA went up more than two runs, he had six more losses and his ERA+ went down by 142 points. He is up for a contract at the end of the season and he only has to ask his new teammate, Bobby Jenks, how much job security exists for an unlikely bullpen closer who clinched a World Series title for a team with the word “Sox” in its title.

With Daniel Bard, Papelbon’s assumed understudy, waiting in the wings and Dan Wheeler joining Jenks in the pen, the Red Sox relief corps seems to mirror the starting staff. All could be well if everyone is healthy and productive. But Papelbon is the key. His eight blown saves were tied for the league lead and unacceptable in a season so riddled with injuries that the Red Sox couldn’t afford to give any games away. And two of his blown saves, four of seven homers allowed and three of his losses were against the Yankees.

Take away his record against the Yankees and he would be 32 for 38 in save chances, with a 5-4 record and a 3.33 ERA. Not great, but not as bad.

But those games with the Yankees count three times. Once in the standings, once in the pursuit of New York and once in the collective peace of mind of Sox fans.

Papelbon needs to get his swagger and dance moves back if the Red Sox truly have thoughts of a long October dancing in their heads. If Papelbon pitches like an All Star (as he was his first four full seasons in the bigs) then he will be rewarded with a gigantic contract that will make sure his great-grandchildren will be getting a free ride through college.

If not, then Papelbon will join a long list of one time All-Star closers who flamed out.

Are Youk and Pedroia back to give the lineup four potential MVPs?

The Red Sox history has included many great left-right combinations. Whether it was Tony Conigliaro and Carl Yastrzemski, or Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, or Dwight Evans and Wade Boggs, or Mo Vaughn and Nomar Garciaparra, or Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, the Sox love having that big stick on either side of the plate.

The addition of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford gives the Red Sox a pair of MVP candidates from the left side. Of course Gonzalez needs to come back from shoulder surgery, but the prevailing thought is those deep fly balls in Petco Park will be off or over the Monster in Fenway. And Crawford brings speed, defense, smart hitting and some power to the hallowed ground of left field in Boston.

They will also remove the pressure fromDavid Ortiz, who will probably do his routine of looking dreadful for the first few months and then finding his stroke. Now he will be doing that from the seven hole, not the clean-up spot.

Meanwhile, from the right side will come two homegrown superstars, one already with an MVP on his mantle, who are coming back from injuries. 2008 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia was flexing his power last year when he broke his foot in San Francisco. He tried to come back last season but after an ill conceived return, was shut down for the rest of the season.

Injuries limited Kevin Youkilis to only 104 games last year. Of course it would help if the injury bug that helped torpedo the Red Sox 2010 season doesn’t make an appearance this year. Having the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron back would give the Sox much needed outfield. No offense to Daniel Nava and Darnell McDonald, but I’d like to see more everyday outfielders on the field this year.

But if Youk, switching back to third and Pedroia can remain healthy, the right-left-right-left combination of Pedroia, Gonzalez, Youkilis and Crawford would be nothing short of devastating.

Will this be J. D. Drew’s third elite season?

J.D. Drew is almost a forgotten man when most people break down the Sox. He, too, missed time due to injuries in 2010 (only Marco Scutaro seemed to avoid a trip to the disabled list). His power numbers were down. His OPS dropped to below .793. His OPS+ dropped nearly 30 points. He struck out too many times. He grounded into too many double plays.

Drew has been a good if injury-prone hitter for 10 of his 12 full seasons. In the other two seasons, he has been an elite hitter. With the 2004 Braves, he clocked 31 homers, the only time he reached 30. He walked 118 times, his lone 100-walk season. And he stayed healthy, playing in what was a career high 145 games. He finished sixth in the MVP vote. And with the 2006 Dodgers, he stayed healthy enough to play in 146 games, still a career high. He had his lone 100-RBI season and helped the Dodgers make it to the playoffs.

What did those two seasons have in common? Free agency was looming. He left Atlanta after 2004 and signed a five-year, $55 million contract with Los Angeles. Then, after 2006, he exercised his option to terminate the contract and become a free agent again. This time he signed a five-year, $70 million deal with the Red Sox.

At age 34, he probably has one more really good contract left in him. And he already will have made almost $95 million in his career. Big paydays seem to be his muse, and who can blame him? For that kind of money, I would make sure to time my best years before free agency as well. If he has his sights on one more big deal, it will be the Red Sox’ gain this year.

Is this really the catching situation?

With the loss of Victor Martinez, the Red Sox are handing the starting job to Jarrod Saltalamacchia. While his last name will sound wonderful being said with a thick Boston accent and will probably lead the league in syllables, having him start was such a better proposition in 2008 when it looked like he was going to be an elite player. Now? He struggled to make the Rangers and caused Texas to find a new catcher in Bengie Molina in midseason.

Saltalamacchia combined to hit .167 with an OPS of .625 last season. So the good news is he will probably be better. Plus he is only 25, his thumb injuries seem to be behind him and he still has a good eye, collecting walks at a solid clip. No word if he can catch a knuckleball.

Jason Varitek‘s career looked dead at the end of the 2008 season. And neither his 2009 nor 2010 were Comeback Player of the Year worthy. But he is still around, no doubt as a de facto coach and to help Saltalamacchia settle into his old job.

Of course both could be injured before the Boston Marathon is run. Could that mean Mark Wagner could be summoned from Pawtucket? Or maybe someone has still-unsigned Bengie Molina’s number on speed dial.

Or maybe Doug Mirabelli will come out of retirement? Why not Rich Gedman?

References & Resources
Fangraphs.com, baseball-reference.com, USA Today Baseball 2011 Complete MLB Preview

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Comments

  1. Mitch said...

    “Saltalamacchia said he is over his issue of throwing to the pitcher and hasn’t had a problem in two months.

    “‘Once I figured out it wasn’t mental, I was OK,’ Saltalamacchia said. ‘It was a physical issue where I wasn’t in the proper arm slot and then I made it a mental issue. Now I’m throwing in the right slot and it’s fine.’”

    Until it becomes a mental issue again… smile

  2. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    First of all, I only had 5 questions…
    Secondly Papelbon’s effectiveness is MUCH more important than Ellsbury

    Having the 9th inning be lockdown in close games could be the difference between October baseball and October golf.

    Thirdly, if Drew has a monster contract year, it gives the Red Sox an All Star addition to their lineup and takes the pressure off of Ortiz.

    And fourthly, the catcher’s handling of the pitching staff was always a given for the Red Sox with Varitek behind the plate. Having a mystery like Salty is a huge questionmark.

    Pedroia could bat lead off.
    So can Scutaro.

    I felt Ellsbury wasn’t as vital a question

  3. toratoratora said...

    “Having the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron back would give the Sox much needed outfield.”

    I’m going to assume you meat to add another word such as depth, but as is, that’s a funny as hell miscue.

  4. Morat said...

    How can you not ask a question about Ellsbury? Paplebon and Drew issues should take a distant back seat to Ellsbury.  Will he be back to form, will he bat leadoff, etc?  How he performs is much more integral to the success of this team than Salty or Drew.

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