Boston Red Sox: 13 Bold Predictions for the 2011 Season
Boston Red Sox: 13 Bold Predictions For The 2011 Season
You'd be hard pressed to find a team who did more to significantly alter their look this offseason than the Boston Red Sox. In fact, I'll go on record right here: the Red Sox had the best and most momentous offseason of any team in baseball.
But that being said, there are a number of questions to be answered. Where do the new guys fit in? How will the rest of the squad be impacted? Who's due for a good year in 2011?
Hopefully, I'll shed some light on the state of all things Red Sox.
Also, pitchers and catchers report in less then a month...which sounds oh, so sweet. Theo knows what I'm talking about.
Adrian Gonzalez Struggles Early On; Picks It Up As Season Goes Along
Adrian Gonzalez is as talented a player as there comes in baseball. He brings a certain brand of offense and defense that the Red Sox covet in a ballplayer, and he's built for Fenway Park.
However, there are a few reasons that I think Gonzalez will struggle during the early part of the season.
The most prevalent of these issues is Gonzalez' offseason shoulder surgery, which he had last October. I'm not a doctor, but the injury doesn't look like anything to be worried about long term, or something that could resurface down the road.
Rather, the injury to his shoulder most certainly will impact and significantly shorten his prep time come spring training. Terry Francona has already said that Gonzalez won't swing a bat until March, and he could be limited to only a handful of at bats in Grapefruit League games.
Additionally, Gonzalez has yet to grasp the full essence of what it means to play in the American League and most specifically the AL East. While it's mostly pitchers who struggle to make the transition from the National League to the American League, Gonzalez still has to get used to an entirely new set of pitchers, ballparks, and baseball-crazy fanbases.
Also, this may sound a bit strange, but we don't know how Gonzo will react to the weather.
Born in San Diego, Gonzalez spent time in the Florida Marlins' and Texas Rangers' farm system until finally settling in with his hometown Padres in 2006.
Gonzalez has spent his entire professional career, and probably most of his life, in warm weather. He has yet to fully experience a New England April, or to get jammed in on the hands with a fastball in 45 degree weather. Neither are particularly pleasant.
Plus, while Gonzalez hasn't been known as a slow starter, he's been a better second half player throughout most of his career. Given all these factors, I wouldn't be surprised if he "struggles" early on.
However, given his talent, his placement among some of the best hitters and baseball, and the ballpark that he gets to play 81 games a season in, Gonzalez will assuredly end up with one of the best bottom lines in baseball. Red Sox fans needn't fret.
John Lackey Rebounds From a Rough 2010
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John Lackey didn't have a good 2010 in any sense of the word. He was clearly the biggest offseason addition for the 2010 Sox; however, he disappointed after going just 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA and 1.42 WHIP.
But before you launch into a full anti-Lackey tirade, let me at least delve into some statistics that might indicate a better 2011.
First off, when the Red Sox signed Lackey, they were expecting a workhorse. Well, despite his struggles, that's what they got...seriously.
Lackey led the Sox in both games started (33) and innings pitched (215.0). While he may have struggled while he was out there, at least he was out there, which is more than you can say about Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett. Lackey was one of the few Red Sox (or maybe the only one) who stayed healthy for the entire season.
His BB/9 (3.0) and K/9 (6.5) were somewhat worse than his averages over the last three seasons, but not that far off from his career averages (2.7; 7.1 respectively). Additionally, the average velocity and movement of both his fastball and his curve (according to fangraphs.com) were nearly identical to his career averages.
His BABIP (batting average against), however, was .320. This is the second highest mark of his career and his worst since 2005. This would indicate that Lackey was a bit unlucky when it came to where balls fell in around him.
Barring significant injury, it's almost a given that Lackey's numbers will improve. His peripheral stats were about par for the course, and it doesn't seem likely that his BABIP will again be so high.
It's also worth a mention that Lackey had a much better second half than first last season:
First Half: 4.78 ERA, 1.60 WHIP
Second Half: 3.97 ERA, 1.22 WHIP
He also finished the season with clearly his best month:
Sep/Oct: 3.46 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, .221 opponent batting average.
Even for a pitcher with the credential's of Lackey, there's an adjustment time needed from the AL West to AL East. I think we saw Lackey experience that last season, and I expect he'll be in better form in 2011.
Josh Beckett Follows The Josh Beckett Pattern and Has a Good 2011
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If you are thus far unaware, Josh Beckett has developed a strange sort of pattern. This pattern pre-dates his days with the Red Sox, and has held true for virtually his entire career. For whatever reason, Beckett has a good year followed by a bad year, followed by a good year again.
It just so happens that all of these good seasons fall on odd numbered years, so, given his injury plagued 2010, it seems as if Beckett is due for an improved 2011.
Another key for Beckett could be how well he starts the 2011 season. Slow starts have plagued him throughout his career in Boston, and a terrible April kept him from being in the Cy Young conversation in 2009.
Beckett has always had some of the best pure stuff in baseball, but for whatever reason has struggled mightily with his consistency on the mound.
Last season, he developed what looked like an above average cut fastball, something he hadn't experimented with much. However, the pitch was so good (in Beckett's mind) that he felt the need to throw it all the time, in all situations, in all counts. He threw a fastball, whether regular or cut, over 70% of the time last year. That's not a healthy balance for a guy who isn't a power pitcher and has leaned pretty heavily on his curve as his main out pitch for most of his career.
Trying to throw his fastball past literally every single hitter in baseball was the biggest reason why Beckett had a 14.2 HR/FB (home run/fly ball) ratio, his worst rate since 2006 and one of the worst in the bigs. Even guys like James Shields (13.8) and AJ Burnett (11.6), who struggled with the longball, kept it in the park more often than Beckett.
The maddening part of all this is that Beckett's fly ball percentage (35.3%) isn't all that bad. Last season, it was about on par with guys like CC Sabathia (34.1%) and Ubaldo Jimenez (35.0%). It was better than guys like Zack Greinke (36.3%), Cole Hamels (37.9%), Cliff Lee (40.4%), and Mat Latos (40.4%).
Essentially, Beckett was keeping the ball on the ground at a fairly good clip, but when he did allow a fly ball, they were leaving the park at an alarming rate. These statistics back the theory that Beckett suffered mightily from the "one bad pitch" or "one bad inning" syndrome. When Beckett missed, he missed bad, even if he pitched well for a large portion of the game.
Beckett needs to get back to what he does best in 2011, which is mixing it up and keeping hitters off balance with his nasty repertoire.
Barring Serious Injury, The Catching Situation Remains Intact
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Of all the notable moves the Red Sox made this offseason, they were relatively quiet when it came to finding a replacement for Victor Martinez, who left for Detroit via free agency.
There were rumors of interest in Russell Martin and Rod Barajas, among others. They even put in a waiver claim for former Texas Ranger Max Ramirez, only to have him go to the Chicago Cubs.
After all the dust was settled, Jason Varitek got his one year extension, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia became the de facto starter for the Boston Red Sox.
It might seem like the catching spot will be one of weakness for the Sox in 2011, but don't be fooled. It literally doesn't matter what kind of offensive production they get from that slot; even if Salty and 'Tek combine for a .220 average, the Sox aren't going to struggle to score runs.
However, offensively, there is at least something to get excited about....the prospect of a platoon situation!!! (Waits for applause).
As crazy as it may sound, the Sox might be able to squeeze some above average numbers out of their version of the odd couple if they play the matchups right. Just look at the career splits for both men:
Salty vs RHP: 570 PA, 15 HR, 68 RBI, .273/.343/.422/.765
'Tek vs LHP: 1613 PA, 60 HR, 236 RBI, .279/.359/.471/.830.
If you get my gist, the Sox could bat Saltalamacchia against right-handers and Varitek against lefties. This would allow Salty to get the bulk of the time behind the plate, yet still keep him away from left-handers, who he has struggled mightily with over his career.
Varitek, on the other hand, has struggled more against lefties than righties, a trend which he has maintained throughout his lengthy tenure in the majors. A good portion of his power comes from the right side of the plate, and an .830 OPS is a solid mark for any major league player, let alone a 38 year old backup catcher.
But really, all the Red Sox have to worry about in 2011 is how well the catching tandem will handle the staff. Saltalamacchia, although he has limited experience with any of the Red Sox starters, should be well equipped going into next season. He has Jason Varitek, the best gamecaller in baseball, to learn from, as well as the peace of mind in knowing that he is the starting catcher for a major league ballclub.
And to top it off, Saltalamacchia is entering uncharted waters. As noted, he's never really been given the nod as the clear cut starter for an MLB club. He could take the job and run with it, finally living up to his potential. The Salty that we did see in 2010 was playing with a torn thumb ligament, so it's safe to say we haven't seen him at his best, even if we don't know what his best is.
Jonathan Papelbon Finishes The Year As a Member of The Red Sox
Recently, Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated reported that the Red Sox considered dealing Papelbon to the Chicago White Sox or the Oakland Athletics. Following the report, a source told Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe that Papelbon won't be off limits in trade negotiations during any point of spring training or the regular season.
This, plus the additions of former long term closer Bobby Jenks and solid middle reliever Dan Wheeler, as well as the ever-present Daniel Bard, might make it seem like Pap's days in a Red Sox uniform are numbered. While he might not be back after this season, once he hits free agency for the first time, Papelbon will indeed finish the year as a member of the Sox.
For starters, even a diminished Papelbon is still one of the best relievers in baseball. His consistency at the back end of games has been for the most part unparalleled over the last decade (only the likes of Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan are in the same tier). Papelbon at his worst (last season) is still better than the majority of the relievers out there. While his $12 million salary might be high, the Red Sox aren't going to dump it on a team for nothing in return.
To provide a little perspective on the ephemeral nature of relievers in baseball, please allow me to humor you and examine the case of Dodgers reliever Jonathan Broxton. On June 19 of last year, Dustin Pedroia delivered a game winning hit against him during an interleague matchup at Fenway. After the game, this is what Pedroia had to say about Broxton and the at bat:
"It was survival. He threw me some pretty tough pitches. It's not fun. I've never faced a guy like that before and he's throwing 100 with that second pitch. Honestly, when I got two strikes, I was just trying to put the ball in play and I got it on the barrel."
"It definitely was a tough at-bat. Facing a guy like that, you look at him on the mound, and it looked like he was nine feet tall. That first pitch, I was like, 'Jeez, I better wake up.' He's throwing the ball hard."
Pedroia was so impressed that he labeled Broxton's stuff as some of the best he's ever seen. At the time, Broxton was an up and coming closer (and he still is at age 26), one of the National League's best, and was made an eventual two time All Star later in the season. And yet, roughly two months after the allowed walk off, Broxton lost his closer's job to hard throwing lefty-specialist Hong-Chih Kuo. He finished the year with just 22 saves, an ERA over 4.00, and a 1.48 WHIP.
The moral of this story? Being a reliever in the major leagues is hard. Even the most talented relievers in the game go through tough periods. The good majority of them don't last; only a handful have had success throughout their entire career. Maybe that's why only five relievers have made it to the hall of fame.
The difference between a year like Broxton's and a year like AL save leader Rafael Soriano's (who parlayed his success into a $35 million deal) is often the difference between just a handful of outings. Imagine if all people were judged in terms of what they did on three or four of their worst days in a year. Society would look quite different.
Papelbon, even though his production has seen a dip in the last few seasons, has avoided the trap that virtually all relievers fall prey to. Never once has his job in Boston been in question. Never once has he put a streak together so poor that his spot as closer can no longer be justified.
Even if the Red Sox keep him on the market during the season (and they probably will), it seems doubtful to me that he'll get moved. If he's pitching well, the Sox might be disinclined to trade him in fear they mess up the chemistry of the bullpen. If he's pitching poorly, the Sox will be hard pressed to find a team willing to either pay him or give a significant enough return if the Red Sox eat his salary, especially as he'll hit free agency once the year is over. Most likely, the Sox remain willing to listen to offers in hopes that they get one that they can't refuse. If they don't move Pap or resign him, they get a first round draft pick from whichever team gives him the gargantuan contract that he's been seeking for awhile now, which is a consolation prize the Sox can live with.
It might seem as if the Red Sox are loaded with bullpen help at the moment, but it always seems that way. Once the season gets rolling, the Red Sox will probably have to call on the wealth of arms they have in the minors at certain points during the year. In Papelbon's case, it's a simple math equation. Four good arms are better than three, three are better than two, etc.
Mike Cameron Gets The Opportunity to Contribute in a Reserve Role
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Last year was a disappointment – to say the least – for Mike Cameron. He appeared in just 48 games due to injury, the lowest total of his career.
One common problem for bench players in the American League is the sporadic nature of their job and their inconsistent appearances. Because the pitcher doesn't hit in the AL, complex late inning substitution packages rarely occur. However, given the high number of left-handed bats in the lineup, particularly in the outfield, Mike Cameron is going to see plenty of opportunities to contribute off the bench in 2011.
When the likes of David Ortiz and J.D. Drew are given the day off against a left-handed pitcher, Cameron is the guy who'll be getting the call. Also, even if a right-hander does start, Cameron will be the first option to pinch-hit if the opposing team elects to use a left-handed reliever against any one of the five lefty batters in the Red Sox lineup.
There's also a potential for a quasi-platoon between J.D. Drew and Mike Cameron in right field. Drew is an above average fielder who still hits right handed pitching very well, but looks baffled against a lefty. Just look at his 2010 splits:
Against LHP: 172 PA, 4 HR, 19 RBI, .208/.302/.309/.611.
Granted Cameron adjusts to Fenway defensively (he was quite awful last year even before the injury), the Red Sox no longer have to justify putting JD in the lineup against a left-hander just to get mowed down. They have a fairly decent right handed option who'll provide above average power and defensive work. He also happens to be making about $7.5 million next season, and there's just no reason to waste that on the bench.
The Shortstop Position Remains Up In The Air
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This one has me torn. My heart says Jed Lowrie will end up the starting shortstop for the Red Sox in 2011, and my common sense says it will be Marco Scutaro. I can guarantee you this, though: Scutaro will at least open the year in the six-hole.
After hating on Lowrie for the larger part of his tenure with the Red Sox, he impressed me more than perhaps any Red Sox player last season. The strides he made in the final two months of the year were evident.
The sufferer of many wrist injuries and even a bout with mononucleosis, Lowrie was finally healthy for the first time in over a year. After the season went kablooey for the Red Sox and injuries led to their demise, he was one of the many playing-time beneficiaries given a chance to prove his mettle. And, boy, did he certainly do that. Let's take a look at the numbers:
2010 stats: 55 games, 197 PA, 31 R, 9 HR, 24 RBI, .287/.381/.526/.907.
Lowrie's HR/AB rate went from 1 HR/82 AB's from 2008-2009 to 1 HR/19 AB's in 2010, an indicator that his wrist is finally healthy. Albeit in only 197 plate appearances, a sustained .907 OPS at the shortstop position is worthy of All-Star selection.
Lowrie also did quite a bit of defensive shuffling last year. Because of all the injuries, Lowrie was forced to play positions that weren't shortstop (his natural position). He totaled 27 games at 2B, 23 at SS, and even 6 at 1B. It's a logical thing to expect that a player's offensive numbers might suffer when they have to focus their attention on playing a defensive position that they are unaccustomed to. Lowrie certainly fit that bill in 2010, and his offensive numbers at short were even more impressive than his season averages:
2010 at SS: 83 AB, 17 R, 6 HR, 13 RBI, .324/.422/.648/1.070
However, these numbers must be taken with a grain of salt. While extremely impressive, the sample size is less than significant. I don't want anyone thinking that Lowrie is going to go Prince Fielder–2009 on the world.
I merely want to point out the fact that Lowrie did many good things in about two months of play as a member of the Sox last season. If he continues to make improvements and stays healthy, it could be hard keeping his bat out of the lineup on a regular basis.
Whatever route the Red Sox choose, though, both Scutaro and Lowrie should remain solid parts of the plan in 2011. There will be times when Lowrie is called on to fill in at another position, and Scutaro will have to play short, regardless of who the starter is. We could often see things Papi sit against a lefty, Youk DH, Lowrie slide to third, and Scutaro cover short. The most important thing is that Terry Francona has flexibility for his roster.
Kevin Youkilis Makes a Seamless Transition To The Hot Corner
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One of the side effects of the offseason wheeling and dealing was the move across the diamond by Kevin Youkilis from first to third.
Youk is a former Gold Glove winner (2007) and is regarded as one of the best firstbaseman in baseball. Through five seasons in the majors, Youk has maintained a 7.4 UZR/150 at first. However, he originally came up as a thirdbaseman in the Red Sox farm system, and only made the switch over to first because of the presence of Mike Lowell at third.
What some fans might not realize beyond this is that Youkilis has a very significant sample size at third base on the major league level. While he's primarily played at first, he's managed 219 career games at third and 1606.1 innings of defensive work. In all that time, he's committed just 18 errors and maintained a UZR/150 of 6.9.
Youk was told at the end of the season to prepare as if he would open camp as the starting third baseman. So, even before the Red Sox landed Gonzalez and Crawford, and before they let Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre walk, Youkilis was conditioning himself to be an everyday thirdbaseman. Don't expect any hitches in 2011.
David Ortiz Quietly Puts Up Another Great Year; Tough Choice For Front Office
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Despite all the well noted slumps and hubbub surrounding David Ortiz, he's remained arguably the best full-time DH in baseball.
In 2009, after hitting just one home run and batting just .185 through the first two months of the year, David Ortiz regained his form. He finished with 27 HR and 81 RBI from the month of June on.
In 2010, after a brief struggle early on in the season, Ortiz produced a 32 HR, 102 RBI, .270/.370/.529/.899 campaign. He was tied for tenth in HR in the MLB and fifth in the AL. He was also tenth in the AL in RBI. At the end of the season, David Ortiz had one of the better years of any power hitters in the game, regardless of position.
However, there was a question of whether or not the Red Sox would even bring Ortiz back at all. He's 35 years old, and his contract was expiring. In the end, they picked up his one year, $12.5 million option, despite his desire for a multi-year contract.
Papi is in line for another great campaign in 2011, and I don't think expectations of a breakdown due to age are justified in Ortiz's case. His 2009 struggles were the result of a wrist injury suffered the year prior. He played nearly the whole season with the injury, and as a result his mechanics were all fouled up. Last season, Papi was clearly pressing himself. It wasn't a physical problem, it was mental.
Ortiz should be able to avoid all that in 2011, though. For once, the eyes of the Red Sox fans aren't going to be on him. In fact, there are a million different storylines that take precedence over David Ortiz: how the new guys (Crawford, Gonzo, Jenks, Wheeler) will fit in, will Beckett and Lackey produce, will Youkilis, Pedroia, Ellsbury and co. all come back strong from injury?
Papi should receive a relative stress-free start to the 2011 season. You could make a case that David Ortiz is the fifth most important player to this club offensively, whereas last season it was just him and Adrian Beltre for most of the year.
Less responsibility + less pressure = very good numbers for David Ortiz.
There's also one health-related issue that I find is never discussed often enough. While Ortiz has often drawn comparisons to guys like Mo Vaughn, they are completely unjustified for a number of reasons.
First, Papi is in much better shape right now than in the early part of his career. He recognized that to maintain a high level of play as he got older, he would have to keep his body in tip-top shape. While Ortiz is still a big dude, he's very lean, and built very sturdily.
Second, Ortiz has played virtually his entire career as a full time DH. He just hasn't gone through the same wear-and-tear that other guys (like Vaughn) who play first base experience.
The most games Ortiz has played in the field in a Red Sox uniform is 45 in 2003, his first year with the team. Since then, his days in the field have dwindled for pretty much every season; from 10 games in both 2005-2006, 7 in 2007, 6 in 2009, and just 4 last year. He didn't even appear in the field in 2008.
So, let's review. David Ortiz is still in very good shape for a man of his age, has had limited wear and tear that might debilitate the career of a power hitter, and has the benefit of hitting in a low pressure environment (relatively) in one of the best offenses and baseball.
Oh, and not to mention, Papi is playing for a contract and the satisfaction of proving all his doubters wrong. I predict more good things from Papi in 2011.
The Red Sox Finish The Year As The Best Basestealing Team in The American League
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Last season, the Red Sox stole just 68 bases. They tied with the Minnesota Twins for the second lowest total in the American League. Only the Toronto Blue Jays (58) stole fewer bases.
However, the Red Sox were tied with the Oakland Athletics for the best stolen base percentage (80%) in the AL. While the Sox have traditionally been conservative on the basepaths, they always pick the right time to go.
A large part of the lack of motion on the basepaths last season had to do with injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury – the AL stolen base leader in 2008 (50) and the MLB stolen base leader in 2009 (70) – as well as Dustin Pedroia, who stole just nine bases after stealing 20 in each of the previous two seasons.
The health of guys like Ellsbury and Pedroia, plus the addition of Carl Crawford, arguably the best baserunner in baseball, should add another weapon to the already deep offensive arsenal the Red Sox possess.
The Red Sox have a rare blend of speed and efficiency on their roster. Just take a look at some of the career numbers of some of the guys they'll have in 2011:
|Player||Stolen Bases||Caught Stealing||SB%||RS% (% a baserunner scores a run)|
The stats of Cameron and McDonald are both a bit misleading, as neither will be starting for the Red Sox next season. Cameron will probably get the opportunity to run more than he did last year (no stolen bases in one attempt), and McDonald really only has one season (2010) with any significant numbers to point to (he was 9-10 in stolen base opportunities last year). Both will likely see a select amount of times to run in 2011. Expecting something in the range of 5-10 SB's for either of them next year (granted they are healthy), along with a fairly high success rate isn't out of the question.
But, it's fairly obvious that the Red Sox have two of the most talented and efficient baserunners in the game in Ellsbury and Crawford. Pedroia is a nice complement, who should provide around 20 steals given a full season of health. The Red Sox could get a conservative estimate of 120+ steals from these three guys alone in 2011, along with a success rate of 80% or higher.
Carl Crawford Finishes The Season In Close Contention For MVP Award
It's not a surprise that a Red Sox player wold finish in the conversation for the MVP award. They generally have at least one name in the debate; the high exposure the team receives, as well as their consistent success and generally high-powered offense lends itself particularly well to this fact.
However, the choice of Carl Crawford for this spot might raise a few eyebrows. Crawford has generally been regarded as one of the best players in baseball, yet he doesn't exactly fit the MVP-type billing. The highest he's ever finished in voting was seventh in 2010 followed by a twenty-sixth place finish in 2006.
And despite Crawford's status among the leagues best, Adrian Gonzalez was heralded as the best acquisition for the Red Sox this offseason.
Yet, I think Crawford is due for an MVP caliber year in 2011. For one, he simply doesn't have to go through the same adjustment period that Gonzalez might experience. Crawford has spent his entire career in the AL East, and he's about as familiar with the division as any one player can get.
A good amount of my belief that Crawford will contend for the MVP stems from the fact that I think he'll gel particularly well with those around him. We already know the skill that he has, and I think he'll get the opportunity to showcase his abilities in Boston more than he did in Tampa Bay.
Personally, I believe Crawford is best suited for the third spot in the batting order. The Red Sox already have one of the better leadoff hitters in baseball on their team when healthy in Jacoby Ellsbury. He also happens to be one of the few men in baseball who is arguably better on the basepaths than Crawford.
Also, Crawford batting in the third spot and Ellsbury in the first spot (if they are both producing) will yield a more productive lineup for this team than if Crawford was to lead-off and Jacoby was to bat ninth.
Crawford's game-changing ability is one of the main reasons the Red Sox signed him to such a hefty deal, and that skill is best utilized out of the third slot, where he's given the opportunity to not only score runs but to drive them in as well.
Batting Crawford leadoff would be like buying a Ferrari only to drive it to the grocery store every other Sunday. While he could fulfill the role, he would be much better served batting third.
Because of the protection he'll get batting third in the lineup, and his ability to offer a well-rounded stat line (potential for 100 R, 50 SB, 20 HR, 100 RBI, .300 avg) as well as his Gold-Glove caliber defense, I think Crawford will be in the thick of things when it comes to determining who wins the AL MVP.
Jon Lester Wins The AL Cy Young Award
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Lester has become the trendy preseason pick to win the American League Cy Young, but he's in as good a position as any pitcher in the AL to capture the title.
Felix Hernandez might be the most talented pitcher in the American League, but last season's 13-12 Cy Young resume was an exception to the rule, not the beginning of a new trend. Because of his placement on the Mariners, one of the most offensively inept teams in the majors, it would be hard for him to repeat and significantly improve on his W-L record. This, coupled with the fact that many of the Cy Young contenders have fled to the NL in recent seasons (see: Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke), leaves the award wide open.
On the flip side, Jon Lester might be the most talented left-hander in the game today. He's only 27 years old and he'll be entering just his fourth full season on the major league level. He's got the backing of an offense which gives him a very legitimate chance at 20 or more wins (he had 19 last season). He's got the peripheral stats (SO, ERA, WHIP, IP) as well as the pure stuff and big game ability. Long story short, Jon Lester is a very good pitcher.
However, Lester might have to avoid a few things if he wants to finish the season with his first piece of major individual hardware. He's traditionally been a very slow starter (career 4.76 ERA in the month of April). Last February, he was the first player to report to training camp in an effort to shake off the early season cobwebs; yet, his work was to no avail (4.71 ERA in April).
Last season, Lester occasionally struggled with a few poor starts. It seems as if most of the time, Lester was dominant, but his ERA was inflated due to only a handful of performances. In 21 of his 32 starts, Lester gave up two or less earned runs. This includes 9 zero run games and 7 single run games.
However, in one bizarre start against the Blue Jays at home (Aug. 20), Lester game up nine earned runs in just 2.0 innings of work. He also gave up seven earned runs in one game against the Rays in April, and six against the Indians in June.
Despite all this, Lester had a 2.96 ERA with one start left on his 2010 season. A win and a solid outing would have given him 20 wins, an ERA under 3.00, and 220+ SO's. Basically, a good outing would have locked up his first Cy Young. However, he gave up eight earned runs in just 4.0 innings of work. His ERA was inflated from 2.96 to 3.25, and the rest is history.
Lester's occasional mystery performance was indicative of the Red Sox 2010 season as a whole. Lester will certainly look to turn around his early struggles and become a more consistent pitcher. If he does this, the Cy Young award will be his in 2011.
The Red Sox Win 100 Games and Capture The AL East Championship
I know, 100 wins is hard to predict for any team, regardless of talent. Let's just say I'm going bold or going home. On paper, this team is clearly talented enough to put a 100 win season together. It's just a matter of how the hundreds of variables involved in a 162 game season pan out.
What I think people might not realize is that the Red Sox were a 95-100 win team last year, but injuries severely diminished their play. Last season, the Sox finished with 89 wins. Given the fact that they lost guys like Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka for significant periods of time, I'd say that's a pretty good finish. It's not a stretch to say that the Red Sox could have won the division last year had they stayed healthy, and they're a better team on paper this year than they were last year.
Winning 100 games, especially in the AL East, is no small task, but the Red Sox have taken the necessary steps to put this plan into action.
The improved bullpen is probably the biggest difference between last year's team and this year's team. The Sox were 12th in reliever ERA in the American League last season (4.24), and they clearly struggled to nail down games in the late innings. As a result, they lost a good deal of late leads. New additions like Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler should help bridge the gap to Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon.
The additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford have arguably replaced and improved on the production of Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez, who both departed via free agency. Given the new guys, and a (hopefully) healthy cast of regulars, the Red Sox are prime shape to improve on what was actually one of the best offenses in baseball. Yes, despite the myriad of injuries, the Sox were second in the MLB last season in runs scored (818), second only to the Yankees. You could make the case now that they currently have the best offense in baseball.
The starting pitching, while it struggled at times last season, still remains one of the better rotations in baseball. I've already given my opinions on what I forsee for Lackey and Beckett in 2011, and the Sox have two young studs and future Cy Young winners in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Daisuke is maddening to watch at times, and he still steadfastly refuses to challenge hitters. But as a fifth starter, not a middle of the rotation guy, his production is more than acceptable.
Perhaps the biggest change from this team to the last, however, is a perceived sense of determination and excitement from the players and manager to get back to enjoying the game they love. In all the interviews and excerpts of interviews I've read from Terry Francona and the rest of the crew, I've gotten the sense that everyone on the 25 man roster is just as eagerly awaiting spring training as the fans are. Across the board, it seems as if every player knows they have a chance to do something special next year. Baseball in Boston will go back to being fun in 2011, I promise.
Dan is a Red Sox and Celtics featured columnist. Follow him on Twitter @danhartelBR.