2010 A. L. East Preview: Pitching And Defense Will Key Red Sox Pennant

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2010 A. L. East Preview: Pitching And Defense Will Key Red Sox Pennant

A few years ago, the Red Sox front office decided to experiment with Bill James’ closer-by-committee theory, and we all know how THAT worked out for them.

This season, Theo & Company have decided to pursue the concept of run prevention as opposed to run production — and over the course of the next several months we will learn how THAT will all learn how THAT will work out for them.

It says here that it will work out just fine.

The Red Sox essentially traded Jason Bay, Alex Gonzalez and Mike Lowell (who is still with the team but presumably in a greatly reduced role) for Mike Cameron, Marco Scutaro and Adrian Beltre… and then they used the payroll saved by saying goodbye to Bay to secure the services of starting pitcher John Lackey.

It seems inarguable the Red Sox offense will score fewer runs this season (as many as 60 runs less, depending on the analyst). But the upgrade in defense, which includes shifting Jacoby Ellsbury to left field, and improved pitching are projected to save the club at least that many runs — and by some estimates the changes will prevent as many as 50 additional runs from scoring.

Run prevention vs run production: it’s an interesting experiment, especially when it will be played out in front of an entire world of baseball fans.

Since assuming the reins as General Manager, Theo Epstein has continually proved to be a leader and manager who thinks outside the box. He is aggressive. He wants to be on the cutting edge of baseball theory. He emulated the NE Patriots approach of not paying for past performance and let fan favorites like Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Johnny Damon (among others) leave via free agency.

He traded clubhouse cancer and face-of-the-franchise Nomar Garciaparra in the middle of the 2004 season. He experimented with closer-by-committee. And now he has adopted run prevention.

You can say one thing for Theo - he isn’t shy!

Key Additions: 3B Adrian Beltre, OF Mike Cameron, OF Jeremy Hermida, P John Lackey, SS Marco Scutaro

Key Subtractions: OF Jason Bay, SS Alex Gonzalez, 1B Casey Kotchman, P Takashi Saito, P Billy Wagner

Key Performer, 2010: DH David Ortiz

Starting Rotation

The Red Sox starting rotation could be the best in baseball in 2010 and it may be one of the best rotations assembled in franchise history. Many baseball fans think of the ball club as one best known for its offense, and so they might think that isn’t saying very much.

But the truth of the matter is that the franchise has assembled some exceptional pitching staffs over the years. Back in the early days of baseball, the Red Sox assembled staffs that had three 20-game winners (1903 & 1912), and where a rookie named Babe Ruth won 15 games, posted a 2.44 ERA, and was arguably THE WORST pitcher on the staff.

And while it may be a bit of hyperbole to suggest that the 2010 rotation could rival those quintets, it is not unreasonable to suggest this rotation COULD be among a handful of the best rotations in team history since those golden years.

The Red Sox have three pitchers who would be the staff ace on most other major league clubs, and a fourth who has the potential to become an ace (if he ever lives up to his abilities). Jon Lester (15-8, 3.41), Josh Beckett (17-6, 3.86) and John Lackey (11-8, 3.83) each have the potential to win twenty games.

That’s not to say they WILL win twenty… I’m just stating the obvious fact that each has that kind of ability. And then there’s the matter of Clay Buchholz (7-4, 4.21), who has as much innate ability as any of the others, but who has had trouble putting it all together. Either Tim Wakefield (11-5, 4.58) or Daisuke Matsuzaka (injured most of last year) will occupy the fifth spot in the rotation.

Lester, Beckett, Lackey, Buchholz and Matsuzaka all have the ability to be outstanding when they are pitching up to their potential, but each has demonstrated the ability to be quite pedestrian as well. It goes without saying that the success of the rotation - in terms of wins and losses - will have a lot to do with whether the run prevention approach works as the front office hopes.

It is arguable none of the guys in the Red Sox rotation have the ability to consistently dominate an opposing team in the way Roy Halladay or Felix Hernandez can dominate and opponent, and it is also arguable there are other teams who have a 1-2 punch that equals or exceeds the Sox (the Mariners, Phillies, Yankees, Cardinals and even the Tigers immediately come to mind).

But it is my humble (and not-so-objective) opinion that there is not another team in all of baseball who boasts a rotation that can equal the Red Sox from 1-5 (actually, 1-6).

The proof is in the pudding, and that’s why they play the games.

Bullpen

One of the key questions that loom over the team as the season gets under way is: which Jonathan Papelbon (1-1, 1.85, 38 S) will show up in 2010? Will Pappy be the same pitcher who dominated the opposition over the last few years or the guy who had a colossal meltdown in Game 3 of the ‘09 ALCS? The answer to that question is of critical importance to the success of the ball club this season.

Behind Papelbon, the team has assembled an excellent bullpen, headed by hard-throwing setup man Daniel Bard (2-2, 3.65), righty Ramon Ramirez (7-4, 2.84) and southpaw Hideki Okajima (6-0, 3.39), depending on the game situation. Middle relief will be manned by RHPs Manny Delcarmen (5-2, 4.53), Boof Bonser and Scott Achison (Japan).

Lineup

The offense won’t rival the Yankees in terms of runs scored… heck, it probably won’t even rival last year’s Red Sox club in terms of scoring. Yet, it should be much better than people expect it to be.

Fleet-footed Jacoby Ellsbury (.301, 8 HR, 60 RBI, 70 SB, 94 R) returns to the leadoff position, followed by former ROY and MVP Dustin Pedroia (.296/15/72, with 20 SB). The heart of the order will consist of C Victor Martinez (.303/23/108), 1B Kevin Youkilis (.305/27/94) and DH David Ortiz (.238/28/99), who is coming off a career-worst season overall, but who looked like the Big Papi of old after June 1st.

The lower half of the lineup will be headed by under-appreciated RF J D Drew (.279/24/68, with a .914 OPS), and newcomers Adrian Beltre (.265/8/44), Mike Cameron (.250/24/70), and Marco Scutaro (.282/12/60).

The key to the lineup will be Ortiz. He struggled mightily during the first two months of last season and then turned it on once the weather warmed up in the summer months. The Sox need him to be the Big Papi of old in 2010 — that would go a long way towards off-setting the loss in production that Bay’s departure will create.

Outlook

There are some “givens” on this ball club. Lester, Beckett and Lackey will be great atop the rotation… and the combination of Ellsbury, Pedroia, Martinez and Youkilis will be outstanding atop the lineup.

But from there, performances could range from “solid” to “very good” to “outstanding” for a plethora of players, including Ortiz, Drew, Beltre, Cameron, Buchholz and Matsuzaka. How close each gets to the upper range of the abilities will dictate whether this club can overtake the Yankees and win a World Series.

GM Theo Epstein is fond of saying that he builds ball clubs that are good enough to get to the post-season and that have the potential to thrive in October. He has done that once again. It remains to be seen whether this team will be primed when October arrives (as they were in 2007) or whether it will fizzle in prime-time (as last year’s team did).

I think the Red Sox make a run at the Yankees, but ultimately they will come up a little short in the run for the division title. They will beat the Yankees in the ALCS (in six games) and then beat the Phillies in the World Series (in six games). Remember, you read it here first.

SOX1Forecast: 96-66, 2nd place.

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