Yes, there are the offseason acquisitions. Yes, you've got openings in right field, at shortstop and in the starting rotation. Those are all important issues.
But there's one that's critically important because it will have a major impact well after the lineup and rotation are settled upon (and even if they're not).
Pitch counts: a manager or organization's monitoring of the number of pitches a pitcher throws on the mound in a game and on the days in between.
The Boston Red Sox have been one of baseball's more diligent teams when it comes to monitoring pitch counts. They even had a three starts, 330 pitches rule in place last season. That rule stipulated that a starting pitcher could not eclipse 330 pitches over the course of three starts.
The pitch count limits are designed to protect pitchers. It's an issue that's been touched on before as an ineffective method of improving a staff's effectiveness and durability.
For those fans frustrated by the constant removal of seemingly effective starters, the enforced off days for no apparent reason and the distinct lack of effectiveness of the Red Sox starting rotation last season, there's some good news. Bobby Valentine isn't too big a believer in pitch counts.
In a recent piece in The Providence Journal, Valentine had some interesting comments regarding the use of rigid pitch counts to protect or enhance the performance of starting pitchers.
"The one thing that doesn't compute is less than better. It doesn't match. More is better," said Valentine.
That's not exactly how former manager Terry Francona handled things.
It also is not how former pitching coach Curt Young looked at his rotation:
We try to put things in almost a three-start cycle. We try to keep it at no more than 330 (pitches). So one start, maybe you can extend a little, one you shorten, and one you keep right in between. The other thing is how much rest they have, and Josh has an extra day coming up before his next start. … This organization pays attention to how many high-intensity pitches you throw, like with guys in scoring position and less than two outs. You don’t squeeze the ball as tight with nobody on.
That controlled method simply didn't pay off as last season progressed. In fact, by the end of last season, Clay Buchholz had been lost to back problems and two starting pitchers, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, are currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, exactly the type of injury that regulating pitch counts is supposed to protecting against.
This coming season should feature pitchers doing something that would seem like common sense: pitching.
The Texas Rangers, who have won the American League the past two seasons, have not done so with starting pitching staffs composed of a long list of high profile, big money arms. The Rangers had Cliff Lee for the postseason run of 2010 but he left for Philadelphia following that season.
Last year's Ranger team had C.J. Wilson—who had a very nice season—but after that it was a staff comprised of starters who didn't have spectacular numbers but were, for the most part, consistently healthy and productive throughout the season.
By the time the Red Sox had collapsed last year, the entire staff had imploded.
Josh Beckett was at one time in Cy Young contention, but his final month was a mix of injuries and bad starts.
Jon Lester was also ineffective in September.
John Lackey's terrible season continued, but we now know he was pitching with a bum elbow that would require Tommy John surgery.
Daisuke Matsuzaka had already been lost to that very same surgery by the time the September swoon started.
Will this season's Red Sox pitching staff be healthier, more durable and more effective? That remains to be seen. Josh Beckett showed up early at Fort Meyers and was reportedly looking sharp in a 50 pitch bullpen session.
Clay Buchholz also showed up early and seems to be showing no ill signs from last season's back injury while hurling eight bullpen sessions.
So for now, the Red Sox have three very good starting pitchers, all of whom are healthy and ready to go. They also have a new manager who has a decidedly different take on how those pitchers will be used in the upcoming season.
There's no feedback from the pitchers on how they feel about this yet, but it wouldn't be a shock if we heard that starting pitchers do in fact enjoy having more control over the outcomes of the games they start.
In the end, this will be about results. Not just in wins and losses, but in the manner in which the pitching staff holds up.
If, come September, the Red Sox have a trio of effective starting pitchers all making quality starts every five days, then Bobby Valentine will have been at the very least vindicated on this one critically important issue.
That may also prove to be a far more telling reason for last season's collapse than largely unsubstantiated rumors of an occasional beer or take out meal.
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