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Boston Red Sox: 20 Reasons They'll Run Away with AL East

Frank LennonCorrespondent IJanuary 25, 2012

Boston Red Sox: 20 Reasons They'll Run Away with AL East

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    OK, so maybe "run away with the AL East" is a little over the top. But at least it got your attention…

    But I do believe that chances are the Red Sox will win the AL East this year, even facing an upgraded Yankee pitching staff. The Rays, despite superb home-grown pitching, have been unable to upgrade their offense enough to knock off either the Yankees or the Red Sox.

    Toronto has made few off season moves, and closely resembles the .500 team from last year. The Orioles have now suffered through 14 straight losing seasons, and despite the pasting they gave the Red Sox to knock them out of the playoffs last season, they will finish last again in the AL East in 2012.

    Like most others who follow the Red Sox closely, I was very concerned about the way the 2011 season ended. The subsequent departures of GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, combined with the "chicken and beer" fiasco, could have resulted in a long-lasting hangover that might have dragged the team down in 2012.

    However, the way things have gone so far this off season should give Red Sox Nation cause for optimism.

    Kudos to ownership and new GM Ben Cherington for not overreacting. It would have been easy (but also a big mistake) to blow up one of the best teams in baseball.

    Think about it: when something bad happens, it's human nature to want to blame someone, or something.

    The fact that a disaster may be an act of God or just an unfortunate accident or a perfect storm of bad luck is not good enough. We have to string someone up. Remember poor Steve Bartman?

    Fans vicariously combine their own lives, joys and heartbreaks with the teams they support. Unfortunately, the media (talk radio especially) may sometimes fan those flames by blowing controversies out of proportion.

    The Red Sox "chicken, beer and videogames" brouhaha was not "Sex, Lies and Videotape." The Red Sox did not collapse in September because three pitchers drank rally beers in the clubhouse. 

    Thankfully, leadership did not overreact. All signs indicate they are making baseball decisions, not "holier than thou" social judgments. Remember, this WAS the best team in baseball for much of the season (and they were probably drinking rally beers during that stretch as well). 

    Fortunately, they ignored those frothing at the mouth to trade Beckett, get rid of Crawford, etc. Instead, they are uniting around this team's strengths and doing everything they can to get them ready to play in April. They can still be the best team in baseball.

    For that to happen, however, a number of stars and planets need to align. Stars such as Crawford and Buchholz will have to rebound, and some new unknown heroes will have to emerge. The slides to follow describe the "perfect storm" of positive convergence that will return the Red Sox to AL East supremacy.

1. GM Ben Cherington Has Made the Right Moves

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    In most cases, that means the moves he did NOT make.

    Congratulations for not overpaying for Jonathan Papelbon, and potentially crippling the team's ability to make other moves. This was his first major player decision, and coming so soon after the season-ending debacle, there was a lot of pressure to keep Pap. 

    Congratulations also for staying the course he laid down in his very first press conference—to focus on low-risk, high-reward free agents, and avoiding the pressure to make a big splash in free agency. 

    I predict that at least one of the "scrap heap" pitchers he has signed will be a big and pleasant surprise this year.

    And, while some Red Sox fans may be disappointed that the team has not pursued one of the top starters on the free agent market (at least so far), the business-like evaluation of "bang for the buck" has put Boston in a good position to avoid salary cap hell for 2013.

    Also, he was able to acquire two potential closers (Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon) without giving up their best trade chip, Kevin Youkilis. There are still eight more weeks until the start of the season, and I would imagine the Red Sox are not finished dealing.

2. They Have Weathered the September Collapse Issue, and Appear to Be Moving On.

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    I was one of those who questioned the hiring Bobby Valentine, believing it was an application of lipstick to a pig.

    I thought one of the reasons he was hired was so that his high-profile, volatile personality and relative accessibility would distract the media during the hot stove winter.

    The exact opposite seems to have happened. Valentine has been relatively low-profile, and he has not made himself the center of attention. He seems to be saying and doing the right things, building good communication and rapport with the clubhouse for the coming season.

    There has certainly been a reduction in the flow of rumor, innuendo and criticism which dominated the New England media (especially sports-talk radio) from the end of the season until about Thanksgiving. Maybe it was just a case of media exhaustion, and also the fact that the well of juicy tidbits seemed to dry up. And of course the Patriots run to the Super Bowl has kept the spotlight off the Red Sox…

    Come spring that may change, and the problem may manifest itself again, just like the thawing carcass of some frozen critter lying under your porch.

    Reporters will get their first crack at most of the players since the 2011 collapse. It will be interesting to see if the sticky questions about the end of last season will be asked again.

    My guess, however, is that the launch of spring training will not become a media circus, and the focus will be on the the beginning of 2012 instead of  the end of 2011.

    Job well done by Red Sox management in general.

3. Josh Beckett Will Come Back with a Vengeance, and Have a Career Year

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    At the end of the 2011 season there were a few knee-jerk suggestions that, as part of their housecleaning, the Red Sox needed to part ways with Josh, the alleged “ringleader” of the clubhouse morals offenders.

    You don't jettison a season-long 2.89 ERA because of a few beers and some fried chicken. As many people pointed out this month, Babe Ruth fueled up with whiskey, cigars and loose women. The Red Sox traded Ruth; how did that work out? 

    You do not trade a pitcher of Beckett’s caliber unless you can get a future or current No. 1 or 2 in return. At best, it’s a lateral move—so the team probably gains nothing in the long run.

    Beckett was one of only 11 pitchers last year who won at least 13 games with an ERA of under 2.90.

    Beckett has shown he can pitch, and pitch well, in this market. He is signed through 2014, and is due to be paid $15.75 million for each of the next three years. That’s reasonable money for a top-of-the-rotation horse.

    He started 30 games and threw 193.0 innings, both above his career average.  His 2.89 ERA was the best of his career and is almost a full point below his career average of 3.89. 

    His opponents batting average and WHIP were both career bests at .211 and 1.03 respectively.  Beckett had a 13-7 record and if it weren’t for a lack of run support in many of his starts, he could have made a push for 20 wins.  

    The fans will support him again so long as he goes out on the mound and dominates to start next season. People have short memories, and good performance will erase a lot of angst. 

    The guess here is that he feels he has something more to prove, and that he will let his pitching do his talking.

4. At the Deadline (if Not Sooner), Red Sox Get a Starter from the Nationals

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    The Washington Nationals are an intriguing potential trade partner for the Red Sox, because they have too many major league starters as of today. 

    Pete Kerzel of MASN wrote, "There's no way around it: The Nationals have at least one more starting pitcher than spots in the vastly improved five-man rotation that will break camp from spring training in Viera, Fla., in early April."

    Those pitchers include Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, John Lannan, Tom Gorzelanny and Craig Stammen.

    Lefty Tom Gorzelanny is probably wondering which of the baseball gods he may have offended. In his seven-year career as a dependable end of the rotation guy, he has toiled for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and Nationals, and only one of those squads won more games than they lost.

    A second round draft pick in 2003, he was one of the Pirates' top prospects in 2005. In 2007, he was the staff ace (14-10, 3.88 ERA). His performance inexplicably went south thereafter, and he was traded to the Cubs, where he spent two seasons as a long reliever and fifth starter. He ended up with the Nationals in January 2011.

    For the past four years he has also averaged 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings, and only one home run per nine innings. He doesn't walk a lot of batters. With the acquisition of Gio Gonzalez this offseason and return of ace Stephen Strasburg, Gorzelanny will likely be relegated to long relief if he stays in Washington.

    However, since the Nationals are probably viewing him as bullpen fodder, they may not ask a lot for him in a trade. The Nationals need a center fielder, and Ryan Kalish might fit the bill.

    Ross Detwiler, Washington's first-round pick (sixth overall) in the 2007 draft, is a 6'5'' lefty with a mid-90's fastball. Detwiler has great stuff, but over the course of his short MLB career he has dealt with a number of lower body injuries which have limited him to 29 starts in the majors since 2009. He had surgery in February 2010 to repair a torn hip flexor.

    He started 16 games in 2011 for Triple-A Syracuse, with a 6-6 record and a 4.53 ERA.  He also started 10 games for the Nationals in 2011, and appeared in relief five times, earning an excellent 3.00 earned run average for a relatively bad team. Lefties batted only .167 against him.

    Down the stretch, the 25-year-old left-hander went 2-0 in three starts in which he gave up just 10 hits and two runs in 19 innings.

    The third Washington lefty, and the one who seems to fit the Red Sox mold the best, is John Lannan. Lannan led the staff in wins, starts and innings pitched in 2011, and is under club control for two more years. Also of interest to GM Ben Cherington is Lannan's ground ball rate: 54.1 percent, which is right up there in Aaron Cook range.

    According to Patrick Reddington of federalbaseball.com, that ground ball rate was the sixth highest among NL pitchers. Lannan also ranked second in double play balls induced.

    Virtually every description of Lannan's career includes the words "reliable," "steady" and "back-of-the-rotation starter." He has made 30 starts in three of the past four seasons, and his 162-game average for innings pitched is 199.

    Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post did some research on Lannan, who ranks in the top eight in his age group in career games started, innings pitched and quality starts. The other seven are Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Chad Billingsley, John Danks, Clayton Kershaw and Yovani Gallardo.

    Kilgore also reports there are only 26 pitchers in baseball who have thrown at least 710 innings with a 4.00 earned run average or better over the past four seasons.

    However, Gio Gonzales' arrival has created a logjam in the starting rotation, and at least one Washington reporter thinks trading Lannan makes sense. Phil Wood of MASNsports.com writes, "I wouldn't be surprised if veteran lefty John Lannan ends up in some other team's uniform by opening day. The ballclub likes Lannan, but I suspect they like Ross Detwiler's stuff a little more."

    Lannan is 27, a bit older than Detwiler, but more importantly Lannan is already arbitration eligible and will be a free agent after the 2013 season. He should make $4 million to $5 million in arbitration for 2012, so he will be more expensive than either Gorzelanny or Detwiler. 

    Detwiler is also a former first-round draftee while Lannan is an 11th round pick. It's hard to imagine that distinction being lost on the front office.

    A trade, perhaps for an outfielder, seems to be the best solution for the Nationals. Because Detwiler might offer more upside, and because Washington just dealt a number of its young arms to the Oakland Athletics to get Gonzales, they may prefer to keep the younger pitcher and think about moving Lannan.

    Having written all this about three Washington pitchers, everything is predicated on the initial presumption that they have too many starting pitchers. But isn't that what folks said about the Red Sox last year? Look what happened.

5. Daniel Bard Will Succeed in the Starting Rotation

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    If Bard can succeed in the rotation, the Red Sox will save a bundle on the free agent market. They can plow that money into still another starter, or perhaps another right-handed bat off the bench.

    Bard is arbitration-eligible, having earned $505,000 in 2011. Even with an arbitration bump, the Red Sox are not going to be able to find many starters with Bard’s stuff available at that price.

    "What you've allowed yourself to do is . . . acquire a high-upside starter in Daniel Bard for nothing," said ex-Red Sox infielder Lou Merloni on Comcast SportsNet New England.

    I've been beating the "Bard as a starter" drum since the season ended.

    Point one: It's a lot harder to develop (or find) good starting pitchers than it is to find relievers.

    Point two: I doubt Daniel Bard has the makeup to be a closer. The Red Sox seem to agree, as witnessed by their acquisition of Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon.

    What many forget is that the Red Sox drafted Bard as a starter, and he made 44 starts (with admittedly terrible results) in 2007.

    Bard himself has said that starting wasn't the problem; he just was not pitching well that year, and the results would have been the same no matter what inning he pitched. At the start of the 2011 season, he expressed an interest in returning to a starting role. 

    To those who suggested that the Red Sox should have pursued C.J. Wilson, I remind you that Wilson was a reliever for five years before transitioning to a starting role in 2010.

    The recent signings of free agent starters like Wilson show that the shortage of starters has resulted in mediocre pitchers being paid far more than they are worth. That's why I think it's a much shrewder investment for the Red Sox to make Bard a starting pitcher.

    The Rangers  signed Joe Nathan so that they can convert their closer, Neftali Feliz, into the starting rotation—so there are two recent precedents for you.

    One of the perceptions of Bard is that he is a one- (or at most two-) pitch pitcher. That's not true. If you go back to Bard's scouting report at redsoxprospects.com, it says: "Bard also mixes in an 80-82 mph slider with some nice bite. His slider really keeps hitters off balance. It can also dip down to about 76-78 mph with more slurve action. He also has a few other pitches in his arsenal that aren't used very often, including a high-80s cutter, a low-90s two-seamer, and a circle change."

    Let's face it, a top-four rotation of Beckett-Lester-Buchholz-Bard would not be bad.

    The low-risk, high-reward potential seems to fit right in to GM Ben Cherington's plan.

6. Daisuke Matsuzaka Will Make a Major Contribution in the Second Half

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    Daisuke underwent Tommy John surgery in June. He began playing catch at the beginning of October, and his recovery seems to be on schedule.

    He could be back by the middle of 2012, and if he can overcome his frustrating inconsistency (brilliant one start, shaky for the next two) he could be an internal solution to the problem of starting pitching depth.

    When he returns, he will have Bobby Valentine as a manager. Valentine spent several years in Japan, and his experience in dealing with Japanese pitchers may be the x-factor that gets Matsuzaka back in a groove.

    Granted, in the “What have you done for me lately?” category, Matsuzaka falls short. Over the past three seasons, he has compiled a 16-15 record with a 5.03 ERA. In 2011, he posted a 3-3 record and a 5.30 ERA before his surgery.

    However, let’s not forget his 2008 season, when he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. While there’s no way to tell if he can ever regain that form, the Red Sox have invested so much in him already that it’s silly not to try to find out.

    Despite his frustrating tendency to nibble, thus elevating his pitch count, he has averaged almost six innings per start during his Red Sox career, with an above-league-average ERA. Wouldn’t you have preferred to see Dice-K pitching every fifth day down the stretch at the end of last season, instead of the likes of Kyle Weiland or even Erik Bedard?  

    He is entering the final season of his six year, $52 million contract. His salary is already on the books, and he’ll get it whether he returns to the Red Sox rotation, so it makes sense to try to get the most out of him.

    At the same time, I'm pretty sure that he would like to save face by coming back and proving his detractors wrong. 

    I think he will prove to be another pleasant surprise.

7. Bobby Jenks Will Be the Team’s “Comeback Player of the Year”

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    OK, so I'm really going out on a limb on this one, even despite the report that Jenks underwent a second back surgery on December 30. 

    But I think Bobby Jenks could be a sleeper who really helps pull the Red Sox bullpen together in 2012. And having Andrew Bailey in that bullpen makes me more confident of that prediction.

    Here's the thought process.

    With Bailey and Melancon added to a group of arms with great potential, there is less pressure for Jenks to be throwing hard at the start of the season. He will have the luxury of working his way slowly back into the mix as he rehabs from his back surgeries and a pulmonary embolism.

    Eyebrows were raised around MLB when the Red Sox signed the former White Sox closer to a two-year, $12 million contract at the end of 2010. The impression at the time was that GM Theo Epstein had acquired both insurance and leverage with reference to Jonathan Papelbon's upcoming free agency.

    I also seem to recall that Jenks was promised the opportunity to compete for the closer’s role when and if Papelbon departed; this is borne out by the fact that his contract includes incentives for games finished.

    Although several teams had shown interest in Jenks, he jumped at the opportunity to join the Red Sox. “It wasn’t a matter of money or years. I wanted to play baseball for the Red Sox. I got that opportunity and I jumped on it,” he told Alex Speier of WEEIlast April.

    Jenks' signing was immediately followed by a well-publicized feud with former Chisox manager Ozzie Guillen. According to Scott Merkin of MLB.com, Jenks said: "Why would I come back to that negativity? I'm looking forward to playing for a manager who knows how to run a bullpen."

    Both Guillen and his son Oney responded in kind, and the resultant feud was well-described by David Brown of Yahoo.com: "The soap opera divorce between Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and right-hander Bobby Jenks—in which there seem to be only children and no parents—keeps deteriorating."

    If for no other reason than to prove the White Sox made a mistake by non-tendering him, Jenks wanted to do well in Boston.

    All those plans blew up, however. After being crucified by the fans and local media for his performance (15.2 innings, ERA of 6.32), Jenks went on the DL in July with an undisclosed back problem.

    He was advised to have surgery to remove bone fragments from his lower back, and in the process of being evaluated for that surgery in mid-September, he was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. This is a potentially very serious; it involves a sudden blockage of an artery in the lung.

    The treatment starts with blood thinners, and no surgeon would operate on his back while he was taking that medication.

    Fortunately, the blood thinners worked, and Jenks was cleared for the back surgery early in December. 

    Reading between the lines, I sense that the initial back surgery was not that complicated as surgeries go. Jenks himself insisted that he would be ready for spring training.

    “As far as the recovery, the doctors are talking about weeks and not months,’’ Jenks told Michael Vega of the Boston Globe in September.

    However, Alex Speier of WEEI.com reported that minor complications from the first procedure had caused some fluid build-up around the spine, and the surgeons cleaned it up at the end of December.

    His status for spring training (and the first part of the 2012 season) was very much up in the air after the first surgery, and this second procedure has undoubtedly pushed back his potential return to action.

    I still have a hunch he will be a pleasant surprise when he does return.

    Jenks is still relatively young, and assuming he comes through his medical issues without further complications, there is every reason to hope that he could surprise everyone. 

    The 30-year-old right-hander still has a good arm and good stuff (Baseball Almanac reports that his fastball was clocked at 102 mph in Seattle in 2005). His career ERA of 3.53 with 173 saves is not too shabby, and there is one other intriguing possibility.

    At the end of 2010, the Texas Rangers considered signing him as a starting pitcher. He started 142 games in the Angels minor league system between 2000 and 2004; it was not until the White Sox picked him up just prior to the 2005 season that he became a reliever.

    This potential flexibility may be an ace in the hole for his future.

8. Andrew Miller Will Finally Live Up to His Enormous Potential

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    Miller, the sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft (Tigers) has frustrated every manager and pitching coach he has worked with since. Despite enormous potential, the hard-throwing left-hander has had problems with his mechanics and command at every level.

    In six seasons, he has walked 215 batters, or about one of every eight he has faced.

    In 2007, the Tigers traded him to the Marlins as part of the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis deal.

    The Red Sox acquired him as a reclamation project in December 2010. He was arbitration eligible after the 2011 season, and likely would have been non-tendered by Boston had he not agreed to a deal before the deadline before the deadline, according to Matthew Pouliot of HardballTalk.com. As it was, Miller took a 20 percent haircut (the max for an arbitration-eligible player) from the $1.3 million he made last season.

    He went 6-3 with a 5.54 ERA in 17 appearances (12 starts) for the Red Sox in 2011, and the Red Sox apparently made it clear that they were not giving him a raise after another disappointing season.

    WEEI’s Rob Bradford reports that Miller will make $1.04 million next season. Pouliot adds, "Since this contract won’t be guaranteed — one-year contracts for arbitration-eligible players almost never are — he could well find himself off the roster if he struggles during March."

    Lurking in the back of everyone’s minds, however, is the belief that he has the potential to be a lights-out reliever if he could throw strikes.

    In our optimistic scenario, this is the year Miller proves his mettle.

9. Rich Hill Comes Back from Surgery and Excels

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    Faced with a glut of southpaws who were out of options (Franklin Morales, Andrew Miller, Felix Doubront) it is understandable from a numbers perspective that Hill was non-tendered at the end of the season. After all, he did undergo Tommy John surgery last spring, and it is doubtful that he would have been ready for the start of the season anyway.

    However, Hill showed signs of great promise after having been signed as a free agent and converted to relief work at AAA Pawtucket in 2010. He came up to the Red Sox at the end of that season and was not scored upon in six appearances.

    Even though he was a little older than most of his PawSox teammates and had had some success in the big leagues, he approached the offseason with the right attitude. The Pawtucket Times described his appearance at McCoy Stadium for the team's annual Christmas party for local kids.

    In 2011 spring training, he developed a new sidearm delivery, and as Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe reported, he worked on his arsenal to make sure he was not viewed as "just another LOOGY" (lefty one-out guy). He concentrated on throwing his fastball inside to right-handers and also worked to improve his change-up. 

    Hill started the 2011 season with a bang, giving up only two runs in 16 innings at AAA Pawtucket. He was then called up to Boston, where he racked up nine more scoreless appearances before injuring his elbow in late May. Just as encouragingly, right-handers hit only .167 off him (one hit in 12 AB).

    Just think about it: 15 Red Sox appearances, no runs allowed and a WHIP of less than 1.00. As Abraham wrote, "Hill could be an interesting weapon. Imagine the trouble a hitter would have after facing Jon Lester for seven innings and then have to deal with Hill coming in from a sidearm angle."

    Hill is a local boy who was born in Boston and starred at Milton High School. He was drafted by the Cubsout of Michigan as a starter in 2002 and helped them win the NL Central in 2007.

    Of his 78 major league games, 70 have been as a starter.

    His 2008 season was an almost total write-off: back and shoulder problems limited him to only five appearances. The Cubs sold him to the Orioles early in 2009, and after a struggling year, he signed with the Cardinalsjust prior to spring training of 2010. He pitched at AAA Memphis before the Red Sox picked him up and converted him to reliever.

    Alex Speier of WEEI.com reports that Hill "is progressing well in his rehab from surgery that took place a week after he suffered his injury." He is now throwing at 120 feet and is guardedly optimistic that he will be ready by Opening Day.

    “Health-wise, I couldn’t feel any better,” Hill told Speier. “I’m trying to get as strong as I can for the start of the season."

    Hill was obviously disappointed that the Red Sox did not initially tender him a new contract, but he did agree to agree to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. His split contract last season called for a prorated $580,000 salary while in the majors, so he would certainly fit GM Ben Cherington's mold of low-cost, low-risk signings.

    There's every chance that Hill will come back stronger than ever. If so, the Red Sox could end up with a lights-out bullpen, especially in the second half.

10. Junichi Tazawa Comes Back from Arm Surgery and Surprises in Relief

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    Tazawa, Boston's "other Japanese pitcher", has flown well beneath the radar since the Red Sox signed him as an international free agent in 2008. Tazawa came directly out of the amateur Japanese industrial leagues, and asked his country’s pro teams not to draft him so that he could come directly to the US.

    He pitched well in his first year with the organization, moving rapidly through the minors while compiling a 9-7 record in 20 starts at Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket with a 2.55 ERA in 2009. He also appeared in six major league games (four starts) that year with a 7.46 ERA.

    Interestingly enough, Tazawa had pitched exclusively out of the stretch as an amateur, and he had to learn to pitch from the wind-up.

    That, combined with an unorthodox throwing motion which places extra stress on his elbow, proved to be too much for his arm to handle, and he underwent Tommy John surgery in April 2010.

    He came back as a starter in 2011, but averaged less than three innings per game in seven games. He was then limited to bullpen work for the rest of the year, logging 14 relatively effective relief appearances. Overall, he struck out 56 batters while walking 19, with an ERA of 4.61.

    Tazawa made three appearances in Boston (three innings) after a September call-up, giving up two runs.

    The big question is how to use him going forward. Some consider him as the only potential starter at the top of the minor league system. The relief work in 2011 could have been a way to limit his innings while he regained his arm strength, or it could be an organizational decision that he be converted to a reliever.

    Nathaniel Stoltz of Seedlings to Stars believes it's the latter, and he has ranked Tazawa as the top reliever in the Red Sox farm system coming into the 2012 season.

    "He’s going to give up some homers," writes Stoltz, "But his control of a fastball/curve/splitter mix should allow him to succeed in relief."

11. At Least One of the "Low-Risk, High Reward" Pitcher Signings Will Bear Fruit

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    Over the past several weeks, GM Ben Cherington added to the gaggle of arms competing for roster spots by signing a number of pitchers who were not with the Red Sox organization last year to minor league free agent contracts with invitations to spring training. These pitchers include Jesse Carlson, Carlos Silva, Will Inman, Vicente Padilla, Justin Germano, Doug Mathis, Chorye Spoone, Tony Pena, Jr. and Justin Thomas.

    They will also compete with knuckleballer Charlie Haeger and journeyman Brandon Duckworth, who pitched for Pawtucket last year. And I'm not even considering pitchers already on the 40-man roster (Felix Doubront, Michael Bowden, Scott Atchison, Matt Albers) or up-and-coming youngsters such as Alex Wilson.

    The first of these new-to-Boston arms, and in my opinion the lost likely one to succeed, is former Colorado Rockies ace right-hander Aaron Cook. The Red Sox signed him to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Should he make the big league roster,  Cook stands to earn a prorated $1.5 million, according to WEEI.com. Cook will be given the chance to join a gaggle of other low-risk signees in competing for the fourth or fifth starter role.

    According to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthalnew Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure knows Cook. McClure was a minor league pitching coach for Colorado for six years (1999 to 2005).  Cook was the Rockies’ second-round draft pick in 1997, and made the major league team in 2002. He spent parts of 10 seasons with the Rockies, and he is the only Colorado hurler to have pitched more than 1,000 innings. Cook also holds the team record for victories with 72.

    During that span, he posted an ERA of 4.53 in some 1,300 innings. From 2006 through 2009, he averaged 187 innings per season and recorded a 4.11 ERA.

    Boston fans may recall that Cook was the losing pitcher in the decisive Game 4 of the 2007 World Series. Cook allowed just one run through the first six innings, but World Series MVP Mike Lowell hit a two-run home run off him in the seventh, and Boston went on to win, 4-3.

    Cook signed a $30 million deal covering the 2009-2011 seasons, but injuries plagued him for the duration of that contract. He lost a month in 2009 with a strained right shoulder, and the following year he suffered a broken leg when he was hit by a line drive off the bat of the Reds' Joey Votto.

    In 2011, he battled shoulder issues again early in the season and later broke a bone in his fingertip when he slammed it in a door. His 97 innings in 2011 were his fewest since 2005, and it was no surprise when the Rockies chose not to pick up an $11 million team option for 2012, making him a free agent.

    Cook had comparatively brutal numbers in 2010 and 2011, which undoubtedly made many teams leery of signing him. He posted a 5.08 ERA and a 1.19 strikeout to walk ratio in 2010, walking 52 batters in 127.2 innings. He followed that up with a 6.03 ERA and a 1.69 WHIP in 2011, walking 37 and only striking out 48 batters in 97 innings. 

    So, why should Red Sox fans be optimistic about Cook's chances? 

    First of all, he has one of the best sinkers in the game, and has produced a career ground-ball rate of 57.4 percent—one of the highest in MLB over the past ten years. The average MLB pitcher induces grounders about 44 percent of the time.

    That would certainly be useful at Fenway Park.

    More importantly, his deteriorating stats may not be a good prediction of his future performance.

    There is pretty good evidence showing that pitching in Colorado produces more wear and tear on hurlers due to the altitude. Marc Normandin wrote an excellent analysis of that phenomenon for SBNation.com when he covered the Ubaldo Jiminez trade last year.

    Normandin quoted former Baseball Prospectus writer Rany Jazayerli: "…one thing the Rockies have figured out--a finding backed up by medical science--in their decade in the mountains: as a result of the thin air, the body recovers from physical exertion slower than it does at sea level."

    In 2004, when the Rockies briefly moved to a four-man rotation, Jazayerli wrote:

    Mike Hampton threw eight shutout innings in his first start at Coors Field after signing with the Rockies, throwing only 98 pitches. The next day, he said, "I felt like I had been hit by a truck when I got up." The difficulty in recovering from each start was so debilitating that, before he was traded to the Braves, Hampton was planning to outfit his bedroom in Colorado with a pressure chamber so that his muscles might heal faster between starts.

    Although Cook pitched more than 200 innings in 2006 and 2008, no Rockies pitcher has thrown three 200-plus inning seasons in a row in the history of the franchise.

    The point is, getting Cook out of Colorado could be the best thing for his health. If he stays healthy, he could be a pleasant surprise to the Red Sox—at very little financial risk.

12. Bailey and Melancon Give the Red Sox Multiple Bullpen Options

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    Adding Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon offers flexibility the Red Sox did not have with Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon.

    Papelbon was rarely used for multiple innings, unless it was an extra inning game. Bard seldom closed, and also seldom went more than one inning. They never reversed roles.

    However, new manager Bobby Valentine will have options that Terry Francona did not have. Bailey has had success as a closer; so has Melancon. So has Bobby Jenks, for that matter. All can set up as well as close. All three can pitch multiple innings.

    The 26-year-old Melancon racked up 20 saves in 25 chances for the struggling Astros in 2011. He ended up 8-4 with a 2.78 ERA in 71 appearances. He held opponents to a .234 batting average and struck out 66 batters while walking 26.

    The operative word in that sentence, however, is "Astros" (as in the 106-loss Astros).

    He saved more than 35% of his team's wins last year even though he did not become the closer until mid-May. The problem is, contending teams devalue saves made on behalf of a cellar-dwelling ballclub. They don't believe that such saves constitute pitching under pressure.

    So, the big question is, "Can Melancon make the transition from the laid-back, sparsely attended, meaningless games played by the bottom feeders of the NL Central to the pressure-cooker known as Fenway Park during a pennant race?"

    To be fair, Melancon did appear in 16 games for the Yankees before being traded to Houston in the Lance Berkman deal in 2010—so he is not totally unfamiliar with the AL East.

    At the same time, a period of readjustment won't hurt, and having Bailey around makes that so much easier. With Bard moving to the rotation, Melancon can be expected to fill the set-up role that Bard excelled in last year. 

    Former Red Sox infielder Lou Merloni, interviewed on Comcast's "SportsNet Central" show recently, said: "And the thing I like most about it is . . . if the innings rack up and [Bard's] sitting on 130 in July and August and you think he's starting to get a little tired, give him a little breather [and] send him back into that bullpen. Now you've got a super bullpen. I think it gives them a little flexibility."

    More so than any other position, filling out the bullpen is a total crapshoot every year. So is choosing a closer, for every team that does not own Mariano Rivera.

    Take a deep breath and look at recent history.

    At the end of the 2010 season, the Tampa Bay Rays lost virtually every arm they had in what was a very strong bullpen. Dan Wheeler signed with the Red Sox, and Chad Qualls, Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, and Joaquin Benoit all left as free agents. (Most signed one-year deals elsewhere, and some are available again this year.)

    Through the summer, the Rays mixed and matched, and through a combination of rookies (Brandon Gomes and Jake McGee) and Maddon's various reclamation projects, they ended up with a relief staff that was one of the best in the majors.

    They picked up their very successful closer, Kyle Farnsworth, off the scrap heap.

    Another team that built up a solid bullpen in 2011 for very little money was the San Francisco Giants.

    Conclusion: 

    These two very successful bullpens consisted of a combination of non-performers who flourished in new environments, as well as youngsters who were developed by their teams internally.

    The bottom line is that decent relievers seem to materialize out of nowhere every year. The conundrum is that some of the good relievers in one year were total disasters just the year before. They seem to run out of gas in one park, division or league, and are rejuvenated by a change of scenery.

    Conversely, some of the best firemen in 2011 will turn out to be expensive duds in 2012.

    The argument here is that there is no true recipe for success. That's why signing several low-risk, inexpensive free agents (and throwing in a few prospects from the farm) seems preferable to investing a lot of money (and therefore credibility) into just a couple of guys.

    The Red Sox seem perfectly positioned to capitalize on this situation in 2012.

13. Bailey's Presence Also Takes Some of the Load off Alfredo Aceves

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    At Ben Cherington’s October 25 press conference, he specifically pointed out the acquisition of Aceves as the model of the type of “buy low” deal the Red Sox would like to do for 2012.

    In his four year career with the Red Sox and Yankees, Aceves has an incredible record of 24-3 with an ERA of 2.93. In late and close situations, in tie games or with a one run lead he is lights out–batters hit less than .200 against him. Also, Aceves can and does eat a lot of innings; He had seven games in which he came out of the bullpen for at least three innings and didn’t allow a run, and four more in which he allowed just one.

    The problem was that down the stretch he was the only one who was getting people out, and as a result he was overworked. 

    With Bailey and Melancon in the fold, and a gaggle of other relievers fighting for jobs, Aceves should feel more comfortable about his supporting cast for 2012. Manager Bobby Valentine will have the luxury to tinker a bit with this staff as it is shaping up; should Bard falter as a starter, he could also try Aceves in the rotation.

    To me, however, Aceves’ role as a middle reliever is more valuable than keeping Bard as an eighth inning specialist. His ability to pitch almost every day (within reason) is the best way to maximize his value. Aceves was one of ten Red Sox players eligible for arbitration, and even with a good raise coming from his 2011 salary of $675,000 he’s still very affordable.

    While Aceves has started 9 games in his career (5 for the Yankees and 4 with Boston), he is clearly a far superior pitcher as a reliever. As a starter, his ERA is 4.18; relieving, it is 2.62. His strikeout-to-walk ratio as a starter is almost even, while as a reliever he punches out almost three times as many as he walks. 

    Keeping him in the groove will go a long way toward an AL East championship.

14. Red Sox Pick Up Free Agent Long Shot Brandon Webb, and He Returns to Form

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    The big negative: due to shoulder injuries, Brandon Webb hasn't thrown a pitch in the majors since Opening Day of 2009.

    The big positive: he's a former National League Cy Young Award winner and three-time All-Star. Featuring a devastating sinker, Webb was one of the best pitchers in MLB over a four-year stretch from 2005 through 2008, starting 33 or more games and pitching more than 200 innings each year for Arizona.

    Webb, who has  a career record of 87-62 with a 3.27 ERA, underwent rotator cuff surgery in August.

    Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reports that Webb began a throwing program in late December and his agent, Jonathan Maurer, said his client's arm feels "strong and loose.''

    It's possible that Webb may never pitch again. After all, the Rangers took a chance on him last year with a $3 million, one year deal, and he never made it to the mound for Texas due to the rotator cuff problems. 

    The point is, his track record has at least earned him a look. I predict that just prior to the end of spring training,  the Red Sox will sign him to an incentive-laden minor league deal, and by the All-Star break he is showing some of his old prowess at Triple-A Pawtucket. The prospect of a rejuvenated and relatively fresh Brandon Webb pitching at Fenway down the stretch is exciting.

15. The Return of David Ortiz Anchors the Middle of the Lineup

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    There's no doubt about it in my mind: Big Papi's decision to accept arbitration and stay in Boston is the best news the Red Sox have had in several months.

    In 2011, Ortiz was by far the best designated hitter in baseball. (Check the facts here.)

    Joe McDonald of ESPNBoston.com quoted Ortiz as saying, "I've got so many ways to keep doing what I've been doing around here. I bring so much to this organization, I bring so much to the table here because I care so much about this organization."

    Underscoring that statement, prior to Game 2 of the World Series Ortiz received the Roberto Clemente Award, which honors one player every year who has made a significant contribution to the community.

    He's one of the few effective DHs who doesn't play in the field. There is no comparable replacement out there.

    He is also arguably the most beloved Red Sox player in the last 20 years. Big Papi was a critical component of two championship squads and is arguably the face of the franchise. 

    And, in 2011, Ortiz was by far the best designated hitter in baseball.

    The average batting average for a DH was .266. Ortiz hit .309.

    The average DH on-base percentage was .341. Papi’s was .398.

    The average DH slugging percentage was .430. Ortiz? .554.

    No DH in the last three years equaled his .953 OPS this year.

    So long as he avoids serious injury, Ortiz should be able to produce. And he will make a difference.

16. Carl Crawford Needs a Big Year—and He Will Have One

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    The one player who can have the greatest impact on Red Sox success or failure in 2012 is Carl Crawford. Even the best starting pitcher can only win every fifth day; a multi-tool star like Crawford can help a team win every day.

    The Red Sox (and Bobby Valentine) should bend over backwards to help get his head on straight for spring training; reports suggest the valentine is saying and doing the right things to make that happen.

    Yes, there has been a setback due to the surgery on his wrist, but if the wrist had anything to do with his poor 2011 performance, then the repair can only help long-term.

    Unlike some other players whose long track records of injury and/or mediocrity can reasonably be expected to predict future performance, Crawford’s 2011 results are a stunner.

    I’m not going to rehash here the oft-repeated litany of his underperformance. I think it’s more important to focus on the monster seasons he had in Tampa, because they are more likely to be repeated than 2011 will.

    Former Red Sox pitcher Dick Drago and I were discussing Crawford’s unexpectedly bad year. Drago, who now lives in Tampa, said that Crawford in Boston did not look like the same player he was in Florida.

    Drago believes the attitude in the clubhouse may have had more to do with Crawford’s difficulties than most people think. In Tampa, Crawford was one of the leaders on the team. Crawford had once confronted Pat Burrell about his lack of professionalism and poor attitude, and threw Burrell up against a locker to make his point.

    Crawford’s opinion was so well thought of that management got rid of Burrell shortly thereafter. 

    When he came to Boston, however, he was the new guy—an outsider in someone else’s clubhouse, and was apparently unable to affect the existing culture.

    Mike Giardi of ComcastSportsNE did an excellent story about Crawford. He wrote, “Finally, late in the season but before the team entered its death spiral, Crawford had had enough. He launched into an impassioned speech, imploring teammates to get it together. It fell on deaf ears.”

    Valentine is the one person who can most affect the clubhouse culture going forward. If he does, chances are the Red Sox will get their superstar back.

17. Lack of Offense from the Shortstop Position Will Not Hurt Them

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    The recent salary dump trade of Marco Scutaro to the Rockies has left many citizens of Red Sox Nation fretting, "Who will play short?"

    For now, the answer seems to be a combination of utilityman Mike Aviles and recently-signed Nick Punto, neither of whom strikes fear into opposing hitters or pitchers.

    The conventional wisdom seems to be that the shortstop platoon constitutes a stopgap to give Jose Iglesias more time to develop. 

    Iglesias, a 21-year-old native of Havana, Cuba, was a prized prospect who received a $6 million signing bonus when he inked his Red Sox contract in 2009.

    His scouting report describes him as possessing “elite defensive skills”. Iglesias has excellent instincts and anticipation, allowing him to get to many balls that other shortstops can’t reach. He has great hands and a soft glove to go along with a strong, accurate arm.

    He projects as a future Gold Glove shortstop (something the Red Sox haven't had since Rick Burleson in 1979), but unfortunately his offense is sadly lacking. In 2011, he hit only .235 in Triple-A, with an OPS of only .554 in 387 plate appearances.

    To put that in perspective, the lowest qualifying OPS in the majors this year was Adam Dunn’s .569, and Dunn had an absolutely atrocious year. 

    Iglesias also swings at bad pitches and gets himself out too often. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much pop when he does connect.

    For a minor leaguer, he is making a lot of money, more than $2 million a year, so his struggles are magnified. Despite his All-Star defensive potential, many believe that he needs to ramp it up at the plate to even be considered as the Red Sox shortstop.

    Former Red Sox pitcher Dick Drago has a different perspective. "Put Iglesias out there," he said to me. "As a pitcher, I don't care if he only hits .200, so long as he is the vacuum cleaner we've lacked for so long. Just think of the runs he can save us."

    Drago has a point. The Red Sox were at or near the top of MLB in virtually every offensive category last year. With Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford, the Red Sox can afford a lack of offensive production at shortstop.

18. The Saltalamacchia/Shoppach Catching Tandem Will Exceed All Expectations

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    The player with the longest last name in MLB history (it means “jump over the thicket” in Italian) was a first-round draft pick of theAtlanta Braves in 2003. The 26-year-old native of West Palm Beach, Fla., went in the Mark Teixeira trade to the Rangers in 2007, and then came to the Red Sox in a 2010 trading deadline for three low-level prospects.

    2011 was an up-and-down year for Salty, but he certainly improved in many areas—especially defensively. He threw out 31 percent of potential base stealers in 2011, a huge improvement over his prior career mark of 19.7 percent.

    By all accounts, he did a good job of handling the pitching staff. In 2012, he will have the additional burden of a new pitching coach and a new manager.

    His hitting is still a cause for concern, however. He batted only .216 in April, but picked it up as the weather got warmer, hitting .327 in the month of June. Inexplicably, his average saw a steady drop thereafter to a woeful .162 in September. During the final month, he struck out 27 times and walked only once.

    This strikeout ratio is a real concern. On April 25, 2009, Saltalamacchia struck out in his 28th consecutive game, setting a new MLB record for a non-pitcher. This season he struck out 119 times—once every three at-bats.

    For the season, he hit .319 in wins and only .145 in losses–also a puzzling split.

    By the end of the year, however, he posted numbers close to league averages in offense from catchers.

    Saltalamacchia bats from both sides of the plate, but he is a much better left-handed hitter. According to an excellent analysis done by fellow BR writer Matt Trueblood, he had a .786 OPS against righties in 2011, but only .635 batting right-handed against southpaws.

    Enter the newly-acquired Kelly Shoppach, who led the league in throwing out runners. Trueblood pegs him as 44 percent better than the average batter against left-handed pitchers, and 26 percent worse than average against right-handers.

    "A perfect platoon division of the 657 plate appearances the Sox got from their No. 8 hitters in 2011 would give Saltalamacchia 379 PA and Shoppach 278," concludes Trueblood. Factoring in injuries and other factors, Trueblood projects about 130 PA for Ryan Lavarnway.

    The bottom line? It's a projected 3.6 wins above replacement. To say nothing of significant improvement in cutting down opposing base stealers.

    That's a win for the Red Sox.

19. Yankee Starters Not Named Sabathia Will Have Sub-Par Years

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    Not only does everything have to go right for the Red Sox, but for them to run away with the AL East their principal opposition will have to stumble.

    On the surface, it looks as if the Yankees have really shored up their starting rotation—but have they, really?

    Even with Kuroda and Pineda in the fold, who will be their fifth starter? How much can the Bronx Bombers count on A.J. Burnett? What will happen with Phil Hughes?

    Let's take a closer look at three key hurlers who will determine the Yankees' success or failure in 2011.

    Kuroda is 37 years old, and although he has so far avoided the so-called "Third Year Wall" that has afflicted most other Japanese starters who come to MLB, it's very possible that for him it will be a fifth-year wall, and it will come this year.

    Tom Verducci's superb Sports Illustrated piece described the "Third-Year Wall" problem in good detail.

    Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine told Verducci, "The anecdotal assessment suggests [Japanese] starting pitchers have a two-year window of success in MLB followed by a rapid decline, followed thereafter by disappearance. Even a lot of the relievers have had success quickly, reaching a hot peak followed by a rapid decline."

    Also, Kuroda has compiled most of his numbers against the relatively weak-hitting National League West. He has only pitched once in his career against the Yankees and Red Sox.

    Chances are that Kuroda's ERA will go up pitching in New York. He will face powerful lineups, one through nine in the batting order.

    Last summer, the Red Sox expressed interest in Kuroda at the trading deadline, but the Japanese pitcher told the Dodgers he would not waive his no-trade clause. He clearly stated that he did not want to go to an East Coast team.

    This year, things are different. The Dodgers signed left-handed Chris Capuano for two years and $10 million, sending a clear message they were unwilling to entertain Kuroda's expected salary demands. As a result, Kuroda reconsidered his position.

    Does he really want to be on the east coast?  Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe wrote that Hiroki Kuroda "still has some desire to stay out West."

    Could this affect his performance? We shall see.

    The second question mark is Ivan Nova, and the so-called "sophomore slump". New York writer Brian Buckley writes, "…let’s look at the cold hard facts.  As a 24-year-old rookie, Ivan Nova won 16 games last year.  With the enormous pressure put on a young player, it would be completely unreasonable to pencil that same win total in for him this year."

    Buckley points to some research done in 2004 by columnist Aaron Gleeman about this second-year struggle. "Analyzing the years of 1949-2004, he discovered that 64 percent of Rookie of the Year winners declined in their second year and only 32.5 percent improved." 

    The third pitcher to consider is newly-acquired Michael Pineda. Let's not forget that he was a rookie last year in Seattle, so the "sophomore slump" potential is in play for him as well.

    Although he's a 22-year-old All-Star who finished fifth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, he did break down in the second half, going winless in seven starts after his victory on July 30. He finished with a 9-10 record and 3.74 ERA. Most observers believe this was a case of an elite young arm getting tired down the stretch, but there's also the fact that he does not yet have an effective changeup, so hitters were better able to time his fastball in the second half.

    The 22-year-old Pineda threw 171 innings in 2011 and, according to Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLBTradeRumors.com, he had never thrown as many as 140 in any pro season before that.

    So, the Yankees need to be concerned about his workload. And how will he hold up in the crucible of the AL East, especially in the second half? As Christian Red wrote in the New York Daily News recently, "If there is ever a cauldron that will test the mental strength and resolve of an athlete, New York is that place. There is a lengthy list of athletes who have arrived in the Big Apple with big expectations, only to wilt spectacularly under pressure and the intense media scrutiny."

    Pineda does allow a lot of fly balls, and might have trouble adjusting to the more hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium. He has not yet pitched in the Bronx, with its short right-field porch. Some question how well he will adapt to moving from Safeco Field, one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in MLB.

    “I’ll just keep it low,” Pineda told Red. “Keep it low and everything will be fine.”

    Easier said than done, young man. Easier said than done.

20. Tampa Bay's Lack of Offense Will Prevent a Repeat of Their 2011 Success

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    Even though the Rays brought back Carlos Pena to play first, and signed free agent Luke Scott as the DH, there are still big holes in the Tampa lineup. The Rays ranked eighth in the American League with 707 runs scored last year. (The Red Sox scored 875, which is more than one a game more than the Rays.)

    Middle infielders Reid Brignac, Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez challenge the Mendoza line, and Brignac went below it, hitting .193 in 249 at-bats last season with only one home run. His platoon partner at shortstop, Sean Rodriguez, didn't do much better, hitting .223 in 373 at-bats with the second-worst on-base percentage of any Rays players who garnered 300 or more at-bats.

    With their powerful lineup, the Red Sox can afford to sacrifice offensive production in exchange for Gold Glove defense. The Rays do not have that luxury.

    Johnny Damon, miffed that the Rays signed Scott without making him an offer, pointed to the shortstop and catching positions as the keys to Tampa's hitting woes. "Those positions were hitting under .200," he told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.

    A catching combination of Jose Lobaton (.137 in 51 major league at bats) and Jose Molina (.241 lifetime) doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers.

    Even Scott, 33, brings questionable potential to the DH position. He tried to play through a torn labrum last season, but was shut down in July for shoulder surgery. His numbers (.220 BA, 9 HR, 22 RBI) reflect that injury. His ability to hit with runners in scoring position remains suspect, however. Even in his career year of 2010, he hit only .214 in those situations. 

    His career batting average with two outs and runners in scoring position is .218, while his  career batting average late in close games is only .222. He has only hit .208 against the Yankees in his career.

    Without decent production from the catching spot and shortstop, Tampa will scuffle this year, and will have a hard time keeping up with the Yankees and Red Sox despite their fine pitching staff. 

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