Why the Boston Red Sox Will Win the AL East in 2009
For me, 2008 was almost as disappointing as 2003 in terms of how the Red Sox did.
My favorite player, Manny Ramirez, turned out to be the guy who screwed over the Sox down the stretch, faking knee injuries, forgetting which knee he had "hurt," and orchestrating other such shenanigans to sit out games.
The bullpen, one of the most key factors to the 2007 championship, failed to come through again in '08, thanks largely to having to rely too much on guys like Mike Timlin and David Aardsma.
The Red Sox produced a Wild Card berth in the playoffs, and like always, made quick work of the Los Angeles Angels in the American League Divisional Series.
Jason Bay was the standout player of the series, hitting .412 with a pair of homers and five runs batted in.
Moving on to the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox would play four games at Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field and three games at their own cherished Fenway Park.
The Red Sox came out of the gate with a winning effort from Daisuke Matsuzaka, winning game one 2-0.
Over the next three games, the Rays destroyed the Red Sox, outscoring them 31-13. For the record, two of those games were at Fenway Park, and eight of the runs scored by Boston came at Tropicana Field in Game Two.
The Red Sox started to mount a comeback off of a huge swing of momentum following game five, a game in which, as late as the seventh inning, the Rays led 7-0.
Thanks to a walk-off single in the ninth from JD Drew, the Red Sox won that game 8-7.
The Red Sox went on to win Game Six as well, and due to historical context of how the Red Sox performed in these situations, against both New York and Cleveland, everyone in Boston expected, not just wanted, the Red Sox to win Game Seven.
Wrong. Matt Garza starts Game Seven for the Rays. He allows one run in the first inning and absolutely nothing over the rest of the game. Garza shut down the Red Sox for seven very strong innings, earning him series MVP.
With the regular season only a week away, Theo Epstein has all but made sure 2009 will bring a different result for his Red Sox.
This year, the Red Sox will be leaning on their pitching more so than their offense. Their offense is still far from one that opposing pitchers will write off, however.
Ellsbury, who is looking to prove himself as an elite leadoff hitter, will be a major offensive catalyst for the Red Sox offense this year.
If he finds a way to bump up his .280 batting average and .336 on-base percentage, which by no means are bad for a rookie, then realistically, he can improve on his other stellar 2008 stats.
With his low OBP last year, Ellsbury still managed to score 98 runs, drive in 47, and steal 50 bases. Those are all numbers that can increase if he were to just get on base more.
Is there anything that the reigning AL MVP can't do?
He's managed to improve off his previous season both years he's played in the bigs now. If he does it again in 2009, it will be flat out scary.
After his 2008 numbers, including hitting .326, 17 homers, 83 RBI, 118 runs scored, and 20 steals, it's going to be interesting to see if he can improve on those numbers this upcoming season.
Big Papi is still around, and his wrist appears to be okay. This is big news for the Red Sox, as Ortiz tries to prove this year that he can still hit like his old self.
Spring Training stats usually don't matter, but it's hard to look at Ortiz's numbers and not feel confident that he can bounce back this season. Ortiz has hit .313 with three home runs and nine RBI this spring. More importantly, Ortiz said that he has his timing down.
2006 and 2007 were solid years at the plate for Youkilis, who was a middle-of-the-road hitter at that time. He hit .288 with 16 homers and 83 RBI in 2007.
In 2008, Youkilis became a legitimate power threat, hitting .312 with 29 homers and 115 RBI.
Youkilis is a very patient hitter, so having him hit cleanup will be instrumental in how David Ortiz does. Ortiz will likely see more pitches to hit this year because Youkilis is never an easy out at the plate.
Jason Bay has been very comfortable with his situation in Boston. He is a free agent after the season, one in which most expect me him to do big things during.
He plans on testing the market this winter, but never ruled out a return to Boston.
Bay hit .286 with 31 homers, 101 RBI, 10 stolen bases, and 111 runs scored last year between Pittsburgh and Boston, rebounding from a terrible 2007 season.
Hitting behind Ortiz and Youkilis, Bay should see a lot of RBI chances in a hitter-friendly ballpark.
Last June, there wasn't a hitter as hot as J.D. Drew.
Last October, Drew was one of the most important bats in the lineup. If Drew can stay hot at the plate, and stay healthy all year, he can hit 30 home runs.
Last year, Drew only made it into 109 games, but still hit .280 with 19 homers and 64 RBI.
Drew's health is a very huge question mark, but if he manages a clean bill of health, he will be raking all summer.
Like Drew, Lowell's health is a big question mark after a torn labrum in his hip. He won't return to his 2007 form where he stepped up to carry the offense to the playoffs.
However, Lowell is still capable of posting decent numbers. He hit .274, with 17 homers and 73 RBI last year, and if his hip doesn't bother him a lot this year, he can easily post similar numbers.
But, his health, like Drew, is a big if at this point.
With $9 million-bust Julio Lugo out after arthroscopic knee surgery, Jed Lowrie, one of Boston's better prospects, has won the shortstop job, for now.
Because of all the money owed to Lugo, Lowrie will have to perform very, very well to keep his job when Lugo returns sometime around May.
In limited duty last year, Lowrie hit .258 with 34 runs scored, two homers, 46 RBI, and a stolen base. These numbers came in 81 games, which is half a season.
Coming off the worst offensive season of his career, fans don't expect Varitek to improve much, if at all, on his .220 batting average from 2008.
Varitek isn't with the Red Sox for his offense, though. Despite his miserable offense, he still calls a great game and helps young pitchers mature into young aces.
Beckett, recently given the Opening Day nod, is finally healthy. He took a step back from his stellar 2007 last year due to his arm and back bothering him all year. Now that he is healthy, expect to see more of the beastly Beckett that carried Boston through the playoffs in 2007.
Jon Lester, the cancer survivor, is coming off a monster '08 campaign. Last year, Lester went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA and 152 strikeouts.
In the playoffs, Lester emerged as the starter to carry the Red Sox through, just like Beckett did in 2007.
With another year under his belt, 2009 will be a fun year to watch Lester emerge as the best young pitcher on the staff, second only to Beckett.
After a great 2008, Matsuzaka sets out this year to prove he is not a fluke. Unlike in 2007, Matsuzaka didn't lose arm strength in the second half, going 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA, despite missing the month of May with shoulder fatigue.
However, Daisuke was a little easier to hit, as he only struck out 154 batters, compared to 201 in 2007.
If Daisuke can pitch as dominantly as he did in 2008, and strike out as many guys as he did in 2007, he will finally get the respect he deserves.
On Saturday, Terry Francona officially announced the top four starters, and Wakefield was the fourth man. Wakefield, 42, is still one of the better back-end starters in the league, going 10-11 with a 4.13 ERA last year. Expect similar numbers again from Ol' Reliable.
With the return of John Smoltz around May or June, however, Wakefield may be bumped into the bullpen for long relief.
At this point, Penny seems to be the front-runner to win the fifth starter job for Boston. Until Smoltz returns around mid-season, the only competition appears to be Clay Buchholz.
Penny, who was last healthy in 2007, where he went 16-4 with a 3.03 ERA, and also was the National League's starting pitcher in the All-Star game.
Smoltz won't be a factor until May at the earliest, but when he comes back he should win a spot in the rotation, at the cost of Penny or Wakefield.
Smoltz, like Penny, last pitched a full season in '07, where he went 14-8 with a 3.11 ERA and 197 strikeouts.
When added to the rotation, he becomes one of the, if not the, best back-end starters in the league. This makes the Red Sox even tougher to beat than before.
Buchholz, the seventh starting pitcher option for the Red Sox, has been really turning heads this spring, including an ERA on the preseason under 1.00.
Buchholz battled injuries and ineffectiveness for all of 2008, however, in the minor leagues last year and Spring Training this year, Buchholz has restored his confidence and appears to have turned a corner.
Last year, Papelbon posted a 2.34 ERA and struck out 77 batters en route to a career-best 41 saves. During his short career, Papelbon has been lights out, and 2009 shouldn't be any different.
Saito, who owns a career 1.95 ERA over three seasons with the Dodgers, comes to Boston as Papelbon's setup man this year.
Saito battled injuries last year, like every other offseason addition, but is healthy now.
Acquired from Kansas City for Coco Crisp, Ramirez is one of several hard-throwing, lights-out right-handers in Boston's bullpen.
Ramirez boasted a 2.64 ERA last year, striking out 70 batters.
Delcarmen was one of the best pitchers in Boston's bullpen in 2007, posting a 2.05 ERA. In 2008, Delcarmen's ERA sat at 3.27, along with 72 strikeouts.
In 2009, Delcarmen should put up numbers in between his 2007 and 2008 stats.
Okajima posted a solid 2.61 ERA in 2008, striking out 60 batters in as many innings. He lost his gig as setup man, despite being able to maintain composure at all times.
He won't lose a lot of work, but is mainly the Red Sox's resident mop-up man.
Lopez is the main lefty specialist for the Red Sox this year, something he has done very well for Boston since 2006.
Last year, Lopez posted a career-low 2.43 ERA, holding left-handed hitters to a .182 batting average.
Masterson, who has been officially moved to the bullpen, is still an option to set-up or spot-start if needed.
Last year in 88 innings, Masterson boasted a 3.16 ERA, and a 1.22 WHIP.
Masterson, 23, has a high ceiling, which he has not yet reached.
Overall, the Red Sox have a great team heading into the 2009 season. Their offense will be among the best in the American League, but they are really counting on pitching to win games.
Boston's starting pitching, led by Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, is incredibly deep. They have as many as eight guys who could step in and start a game if needed. With everyone healthy and ready to go, this is an elite rotation that has two or three guys who could contend for the Cy Young Award.
In 2007, when the Red Sox won it all, their main strength was the bullpen. It was the best in the league.
With the 2009 season on the way, Boston's bullpen looks even better than it did two years ago, with Jonathan Papelbon as good as ever, and talented youngsters like Delcarmen and Ramirez, who both light up the radar gun.
Although the offense, led by Pedroia, Youkilis, Ortiz, and Bay, will not be bad by any means, it is the pitching that will be dominating opposing teams and winning games for the Red Sox, who are a lock to win 95 games this year.
With this offense and great pitching, comes depth.
The Red Sox have the deepest pitching staff in the AL East, coupled with great and improving starters and hitters.
All of this is why these Boston Red Sox will win the American League East in 2009.
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