Low-risk, high-reward veterans headline Boston’s offseason moves

Dan MaloofContributor IFebruary 4, 2009

            The Red Sox pitching staff endured a number of significant injuries last year highlighted by Josh Beckett’s postseason oblique injury that led to the team’s ALCS defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays.

            But with the additions of John Smoltz (one-year $5.5 million with incentives), Brad Penny (one-year $5 million) and Takashi Saito (one-year $1.5 million with incentives), General Manager Theo Epstein hopes the veteran depth can overcome the inevitable injury bug this year. Though Smoltz is not expected to be ready for the start of the season, a September rotation of Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Smoltz and Penny would appear to be very formidable. Throw in savvy veteran Tim Wakefield, the talented young Clay Buchholz and an emerging Michael Bowden and the Red Sox rotation has the potential to be one of the deepest in baseball.

            The Sox also bolstered their pitching staff this offseason by acquiring Ramon Ramirez in a trade for Coco Crisp and signing Japanese import Junichi Tazawa to a three-year $3.3 million deal. Ramirez – a hard throwing right-hander coming off a season in which he posted a 2.64 ERA for a brutal Royals team – should contend with Saito, Justin Masterson and Hideki Okajima for the set-up role in the Bostonbullpen. Tazawa figures to start the season in Double-A but scouts rave about the 22-year old right-hander’s electric stuff.

            The rest of the bullpen figures to line up with Manny Delcarmen and Javier Lopez working the middle innings while Tazawa and recent acquisition Wes Littleton could contribute throughout the season. Jonathon Papelbon, arguably the top closer in baseball, comes off yet another outstanding season and will look to continue his dominance at the back of the Boston bullpen.

            The move this offseason that may have the most significant impact on the Red Sox pitching staff this year was the re-signing of catcher Jason Varitek. Varitek – whose offense has drastically declined over the past few seasons – proves his worth defensively as his knowledge of opposing hitters is second to none in the majors. Varitek’s contribution can be seen most visibly in the emergence of Jon Lester who – after a difficult battle with cancer – has become perhaps the best young left-handed pitcher in baseball.

            Despite the offseason improvements to the pitching staff, the powerful lineups in the AL East – arguably the toughest division in baseball with four teams expected to finish above .500 – will undoubtedly take its toll on the Red Sox hurlers. Epstein and manager Terry Francona hope the injuries that have haunted the Sox veteran pitchers in the past will not re-emerge, but with the depth that has been added, the staff should once again be one of the best in baseball.

            Expect an excellent year from John Lester – perhaps nearing the 20 win mark –, a sneaky eight wins from John Smoltz in an injury-shortened season, and 15 to 18 wins for both Beckett and Matsuzaka. In the bullpen, Masterson should secure the set-up role he performed so well in towards the end of last season while Ramirez and Saito will provide the depth that was missing from last year’s squad. As usual, Jonathon Papelbon will finish near 40 saves and the Red Sox – led by big name veteran and enormously talented young pitchers – will win the AL East by a slim margin over their revamped rival New York Yankees.