Division Debate: The Red Sox' Success Hinges on John Smoltz

E ASenior Analyst IFebruary 26, 2009

When opening my inbox of e-mails this afternoon, Nino Colla presented me with a tough question:

"Both the Red Sox and Yankees are big spenders, probably one more than the other, but this offseason Boston opted to patch their holes with lower risked-high reward type signings like Brad Penny. The Yankees meanwhile retooled with cash. Which single offseason acquisition will prove to be the most successful in 2009?"

Without a doubt, the American League East will be the most competitive division this season as the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have loaded 25-man rosters, and the Tampa Bay Rays are no slouches either. The Toronto Blue Jays can be factored in as well as they have long been a good team stuck in the wrong division. The only real cellar-dweller team looks to be the Baltimore Orioles.

The 2008-09 offseason saw the Yankees bring in marquee names like C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. The Rays added left fielder/designated hitter Pat Burrell, as well as trading for Detroit outfielder Matt Joyce. The Red Sox combated these solid acquisitions by adding Ramon Ramirez, Takashi Saito, Brad Penny, Rocco Baldelli, Brad Wilkerson and John Smoltz.

Of those signings, Smoltz is the most important of the division from this past winter. Here's my logic as to why.

The Yankees did add two front-line starters in Burnett and Sabathia. However, those are essentially replacements for their '08 rotation. Mike Mussina, who won 20 games in 2008, retired after the season and is being replaced with CC Sabathia.

While Burnett is a solid pitcher when healthy, that "when" is a big "if." Injuries have plagued Burnett for years now. Last year, Burnett made 34 starts, the first time he hit the 30-start mark since the 2005 season and only the second time in his career.

Either Yankees GM Brian Cashman didn't learn much from the Carl Pavano deal or he was so desperate, he became willing to grossly overpay for a pitcher who owns the Red Sox on a regular basis in Burnett, despite the fact he is rarely able to put a full season together.

Also, the Teixeira deal is essentially a replacement for Jason Giambi. While Tex obviously is a better hitter and defender than Giambi, their power production is incredibly similar. I would also like to point out that before his Yankees career began, Giambi was nearly the same hitter that Teixeira is now. A perennial .300 hitter with Oakland, Giambi never reached that mark with the Yankees.

The Red Sox flooded their pitching staff with talent this winter as GM Theo Epstein added depth to the rotation and bullpen by bringing in Penny, Smoltz, Ramirez, and Saito.

The Red Sox already have a dominant front end of the rotation, headed by Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester. As if they weren't good enough, imagine a healthy Smoltz pitching as a fourth starter with Penny bringing up the rear. Smoltz has won 210 games in his career, serving as an excellent strikeout pitcher. Penny, who was plagued with injuries most of last year, started for the National League All-Star team in 2007.

If Beckett, Matsuzaka, Lester, Smoltz and Penny are all healthy and locked in at the same time, this would really make the Red Sox a force to be reckoned with. With these five star pitchers firing on all cylinders by the end of the year, paired with Boston's fabulous bullpen and great offense, Boston will be very hard to beat down the stretch or in a short series.

How far the Red Sox go in 2009 largely lies on how Smoltz performs. If Smoltz can click in and find his "A game" in sync with the rest of the Boston staff, the Red Sox could go all the way once again. If Smoltz has more injury trouble or is ineffective, the Red Sox could suffer another disappointing end like in 2008.