The Boston Red Sox celebrated the winter holidays as the clear winner of baseball’s hot stove season. A trade for slugger Adrian Gonzalez and the signings of the athletic Carl Crawford and former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks were big moves designed to put Boston back atop the AL East.
The Sox were World Series champs in 2004 and 2007 but they’ve been division champs just once in the past decade.
Will the big moves be enough to push Boston to the top of baseball’s toughest division for the second time since 1996? Here are 10 reasons why the Sox will win the AL East in 2011.
10) Squashing the Injury Bug
No team in baseball was hit as hard by injury as the 2010 Red Sox.
Two-thirds of the starting outfield, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, combined to play just 66 games. The right side of the infield and heart and soul of the lineup, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, sustained season-ending injuries in midsummer.
There is no way the Sox bad luck on the injury front extends to another year, and the players returning from injury will be fresh, pumped, and ready to go in 2011.
9) The Rotation Goes Deep
For the second straight year, the Red Sox have five established major league starting pitchers entering the season.
Jon Lester has developed into one of the top left-handed starters in baseball.
Clay Buchholz has progressed from a phenom with great stuff into a consistent major league winner.
Josh Beckett and John Lackey are both primed for bounce-back years after hard-luck 2010 seasons.
At the back end of the rotation is Daisuke Matsusaka, who in his best season (2008) went 18-3 with a sub-3.00 ERA and finished 4th in the AL Cy Young voting. Not bad for a 5th starter.
In case anyone falters, the franchise’s all time leader in innings pitched, 44-year-old Tim Wakefield, can still fluster a big league lineup and offer a change of pace to Boston’s power arms with his knuckleball.
8) Bullish on a Revamped ‘Pen
The signings of Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler adds two tough veterans to a bullpen that should be much improved from last year’s inconsistent group.
Jonathan Papelbon is coming off his worst season, with a bloated 3.90 ERA, but entering his free agent year he should be focused and ready to close out games with more regularity.
7) Pressure’s Off for Papi
For years, the offense revolved around the power of Big Papi.
David Ortiz will hit lower in the lineup in 2011, likely in the sixth hole, and the spotlight won’t be on him but on the Sox new acquisitions.
With an under-the-radar 32 homers and 102 RBI in 2010, Papi remains the best DH in the American League and should be way above average in the six spot.
6) Diminishing Returns in the Big Apple
The Yankees are old. Derek Jeter’s best years are behind him, Alex Rodriguez hasn’t looked the same since injuring his hip, Jorge Posada can’t catch anymore, and Mariano Rivera, while still the best relief pitcher in the game, isn’t the lights-out closer he was in his prime.
These aging Yanks are due to show their geriatric tendencies at some point, and problems with the starting rotation combined with an aging lineup could spell doom (well, third place) for the Bronx Bombers.
5) Back to the Farm in Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay is still loaded with young talent. But even with blue chip youngsters like Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson stepping up, it won’t be easy for the Rays to overcome the loss of two cornerstone players, Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena.
The Rays already have trouble scoring runs, having been no-hit twice in 2010. Evan Longoria is a great player, but can he carry the lineup by himself?
4) The Need for Speed
No team in baseball has the speed Boston now has at the top of its lineup in Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford.
Two years ago, these guys combined to steal 130 bases.
If Ellsbury comes back strong from his rib injuries of 2010, the Sox will have baseball's two best thieves in their lineup, and it's going to be fun to watch them wreak havoc on opposing pitchers and catchers.
3) Tito Knows Best
With new acquisitions, high expectations, and a team full of veterans with big egos, there’s quite a management challenge for the Red Sox skipper in 2011.
Luckily the Sox have a great one in Tito Francona, winner of the first two World Series in Boston since the Great Bambino exchanged red stockings for pinstripes.
Francona’s got big questions to answer with his batting order and his bullpen, but there’s little doubt he’s up to the challenge.
2) Going Gonzo for Adrian
The Sox have been pining after Adrian Gonzalez for years. He spent half a decade carrying a mediocre lineup and wasting his opposite—field power in San Diego’s cavernous Petco Park.
The lefty slugger should pepper the Green Monster with his inside—out swing and make Boston fans forget the heartbreak of losing the Mark Teixiera bidding to the hated Yankees.
Scouts project Gonzo to have 50+ homer power playing half his games in Fenway and plenty of road games in hitter friendly parks in the AL East.
1) Cliff Lee Phills Sox Hearts with Gladness
The biggest knock on the 2011 Sox as currently constructed? Too many lefthanded hitters.
Five lefties project as regulars – Ellsbury, Crawford, Gonzalez, Ortiz, and JD Drew.
That’s why Sox fans rejoiced when Cliff Lee chose Philly’s Brotherly Love over the Yankees Cold Hard Cash.
With Lee and CC Sabathia, not to mention the possible return of Andy Pettitte, the Yankees could have had three tough lefty starters as Kryptonite to Boston’s new supermen.
Instead, the Yanks are left looking at a rotation of Sabathia, Phil Hughes, the disappointing AJ Burnett, and beyond that prospects and uncertainty. Pettitte must come back to give the Yankees some self-respect in their rotation, but even then the loss of Lee really stings. This stands as the biggest reason Boston could win the division title for just the second time in this millennium.