Spring Training is back. A fresh, new regular season is so close we can taste it, and Grapefruit League games whet the appetite like nothing else.
So to mark the event, (and to celebrate the joys of division rivalries), the Bleacher Report MLB Community Leaders are facing off.
The topic this time:
Much of the epic battle in the ’08 ALCS was built on pitching, and both teams have only gotten better with offseason moves. Whose pitching staff will dominate in ’09: the Red Sox, or the Rays?
Which team will pitch better in '09?
There’s absolutely no denying the Rays have a strong pitching staff. They did real damage against the Red Sox throughout last year, much to Boston's chagrin. In four games out of seven of the ALCS, they kept Boston’s bats near silent, and I’m just now getting over the trauma.
But there’s been some roster shifting since then, and some rehabbing of arms and shoulders and such, and the changes for Boston have left me with a broad grin.
I’m convinced that in that in this round of the fight at the least, the edge is all Boston’s.
First point: Boston’s starting rotation starts with three bona fide aces, enough to win a poker game, and it sure as heck ought to do for baseball.
Last season, Beckett was less than 100 percent from almost his game of Spring Training. This year? He turned up at camp fit and healthy and throwing sharp. (I’ll grant you, this early on the only hard evidence we fans have seen is that he successfully shut down a bunch of college students, but the reports are all good as well.)
Last season, the Red Sox were just one healthy Beckett away from the World Series. This year, they’ve got a healthy Josh Beckett.
Then, take Jon Lester. Last season, we learned in one historic night what he is really capable of, and he went on to become one of the most consistent guys on the staff.
And yet, to quote catcher Jason Varitek (who caught that no-hit game), “He's still developing, and that’s the scary part about Jon Lester.” Because yes, he’s still honing his skills, still gaining experience, still perfecting his timing and consistency. As good as Lester already was last season, what will he look like when he’s refined his game even further?
Then, Daisuke Matsuzaka: There are plenty who love to downplay his achievements, as high pitch counts regularly drive him from games before late innings, and he’s been known to walk batters like no tomorrow.
Yet the facts stand: Dice-K’s ERA last season was just 2.90, not just lowest on Boston’s staff but third lowest in the AL. His 18 wins tied him for fourth in the AL, and he was credited with just three losses. And, with runners in scoring position, his opponents’ batting averages dropped from puny to nil.
Yes, the top of the order trio of Kazmir, Shields, and Garza is good. Very good. But Beckett, Lester, and Dice-K, they ain’t.
Second Point: An imbalance at the back of the order might have tipped the scale back toward Tampa Bay, but Boston’s rotation doesn’t taper off.
Brad Penny is nothing to sneeze at. If he’s healthy in ’09, he’s likely to be as strong as any No. 4 starter in the game.
And Wakefield’s knuckleball still knuckles in this, his 15th season in Boston. With just 10 wins in 2008, it was easy to miss just how strong his ‘08 season was. He regularly left games with a lead only to get a no decision, or let up only one or two runs and still took a loss from lack of run support. In point of fact, his 4.13 ERA in 2008 was lower than in his 17 win season of 2007, or in his 16 win 2005, or in any other season in the last five years.
This Red Sox rotation is strong, one through five, even before they bring in that future Hall-of-Famer waiting in the wings…
John Smoltz doesn’t have to return to his vintage form to help in Boston. He’s the sort of big game pitcher who defines the type. A good fraction of ‘form’ from Smoltz would be enough. His presence could be huge.
But perhaps the main point in favor of Boston’s staff (and here’s where I’m most confident the Sox have the edge over the Rays) the bullpen they’ve put together for ’09 is about the best it’s been in living memory. Where the Rays will be pressed for bullpen depth, the Red Sox will be swimming in the deep end.
For much of ’08, the gap between starters and Papelbon was a veritable minefield for the Sox, with two and three run bombs blowing up left and right in relievers’ faces, blowing far too many saves along the way.
Yet by the end of the season, the bullpen had become one of Boston’s great strengths: Okajima got back into his groove, and Justin Masterson converted to a reliever, taking to his new task in a big way. That difference was huge.
Yet this year, the new depth and strength of the Red Sox bullpen has been kicked up to another level entirely.
For 2009, Masterson and Okajima will be joined by Takashi Saito and Ramon Ramirez. Saito, like Smoltz and Penny, is coming off injury, but already is pain free and looking sharp, sooner than expected. And Ramirez, acquired from the Royals for Coco Crisp, may just be one of the season’s great surprises for Sox fans.
Together with Javier Lopez and Manny Delcarmen, these guys will have that Bridge to Papelbon rock solid. And just in case they don’t? There’s a whole plethora of hotshot prospects behind them, just waiting for a chance.
A lot of question marks remain for the Red Sox, all across the roster. They are counting on rebound years from a number of returning players, besides the several new signings who had health issues in ’08, the Rays’ former player Rocco Baldelli among them.
They took risks, signing pitchers like Smoltz, Penny, and Saito, hoping for better health and a better year. But Boston doesn’t need all these gambles to pan out.
With the kind of pitching depth currently in the organization, even the backup plans have backup plans. The moves they’ve made have filled in weaknesses on the staff, and made the team’s strengths even stronger.
In this newly-minted Rays/Red Sox rivalry, I see the pitching edge as Boston’s, all the way.