Boston Red Sox 2011 MLB Predictions: 10 Things To Help the Sox Win It All

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IMarch 7, 2011

Boston Red Sox 2011 MLB Predictions: 10 Things To Help the Sox Win It All

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    Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez are the highlighted names, but virtually every move Theo Epstein made this winter made good sense and improved the team. Boston now boasts a roster deeper and better-balanced than any other in the American league, and perhaps better than any other in baseball.

    Still, there are dozens of things that could go wrong for a team with even this degree of depth. Epstein undertook this project because of the long and frustrating collapse of a team that had the talent to win the division last year. This team has every opportunity to win the division, and then the pennant, and then the World Series. For all that to happen, though, these 10 things need to go right.

    This is the fourth in a series of pieces listing 10 things that would have to go right for each MLB team to win a pennant this season. To find out when your favorite team's article comes out, follow me on the twitter @MattTrueblood, or sign up for your team's Bleacher Report newsletter.

1. Adrian Lives Up to Expectations

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    Do you want to drink Adrian Gonzalez's Kool-Aid? Okay, that's fine. They might be out of track suits in your size but the punch bowl is pretty well bottomless.

    It's fine for Red Sox fans to be excited about this acquisition, but the organization needs to keep its head on its shoulders. Gonzalez is recovering nicely from offseason shoulder surgery, but he had the procedure for a reason: The injury that caused it lingered through the entire 2010 season and held him back.

    The injury is a mild concern. He played through it all year last year, which is both good and bad, but mostly, the prognosis has to be good because he is already ahead of schedule on his rehab and is facing live pitching.

    Of greater concern is whether the Red Sox know precisely what they are getting, or if they (like too much of Red Sox Nation) have let their imaginations run away with them.

    Yes, Gonzalez suffered from the homer-sapping pastures of right field in San Diego. Yes, he hits well to the opposite field and will clang a fair share of doubles off the Green Monster. In fact, he hit .468 with 13 homers to the opposite field in 2010, encouraging numbers indeed.

    But let's not pretend that Fenway Park is Yankee Stadium: Gonzalez will not find a hitter-friendly right field waiting for him in Boston.

    While PETCO Park suppresses home runs by left-handers by 41 percent, Fenway does do by 16 percent.

    It's a step (or three) in the right direction, to be sure, but Gonzalez will not suddenly crank 50 home runs because  of this move. Forty is fair. Forty-five is pushing it. He'll be good; he will not be Mark McGwire overnight.

2. New Guys Hit Southpaws

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    Another key thing that must be dealt with when it comes to analyzing the acquisitions of Gonzalez and Crawford is the bevy of left-handed pitching talent with which they have to contend inside the division.

    Here are the best AL East starters going into 2011. An asterisk symbolizes a left-handed hurler:

    1. Jon Lester*
    2. CC Sabathia*
    3. David Price*
    4. Ricky Romero*
    5. Jeremy Hellickson
    6. Phil Hughes
    7. Brian Matusz*

    First of all, note how depleted the pitching in the division has gotten over the past few years. That works in Boston's favor, so there's one thing that has already gone right.

    Secondly, though, note the preponderance of southpaws who rule the division.

    The aces of the best staffs in the AL, in fact, are nearly all left-handed: Francisco Liriano of the Twins, C.J. Wilson of the Rangers, John Danks of the White Sox and Gio Gonzalez of the A's all are skilled lefties who could be Hell on the Sox's new swingers.

    For the record, Crawford has really struggled against left-handed hurlers over the years, posting a .307 wOBA against them for his career and a .306 even in his stellar 2010.

    Gonzalez handles them somewhat better with a .339 career wOBA against lefties, but that number is skewed by the .403 mark he posted last season in those spots.

    With apologies to Clayton Kershaw and Jorge de la Rosa, the AL offers some rather harder left-handed starters and Gonzalez is not going to sustain that split.

3. Jarrod Saltalamacchia Puts It Together

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    For all the things the Red Sox do that people so clamor to trumpet, there is this one constant bane to Epstein's reputation: He cannot fall out of love with Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

    People are quick to point out that Saltalamacchia has shown almost no signs of substantial progress at the plate over the past few years.

    Here's my thing: He hasn't really proven not to be progressing, either. In the past four years, he has bounced from one organization and from one level to another 10 times. He has never eclipsed 425 plate appearances in one season as a professional. To me, there is little (if anything) to be gleaned from that limited sample.

    All we have to rely on, then, is Saltalamacchia's scouting report. And the scouts still love this guy. They see an athletic backstop who has learned to receive well enough to stay behind the plate. They also see a smooth swing from both sides of the plate.

    Contact evades him sometimes; so does discernment in the batter's box. But Saltalamacchia still has the tools, and at age 25, he is not yet too old to put them to use. If he hits anywhere near his potential, the Sox have the best offense in baseball. They may anyway.

4. John Lackey Commands His Fastball

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    John Lackey struggled in his first season as a Red Sox, and his trouble against left-handed hitters was a huge reason why. Of his 930 batters faced, 517 were left-handed, and those left-handers batted Lackey around to the tune of a 1.59 WHIP.

    After three years with the Angels during which Lackey averaged roughly two walks per nine innings against left-handed batters, that rate leaped to 3.62 walks per nine frames last season.

    A huge contributor to that problem was Lacky's problems with fastball command. Here is a FanGraphs heat map of Lackey's fastball location against lefties in 2009:

    and in 2010:

    As you can see, the fastball strayed from the strike zone (and missed his target on the outside corner) far more often in 2010, leading to more walks.

    That wildness also forced Lackey to rely more on his curveball and slider, both of which are essentially platoon pitches that are badly exposed when he must throw them to left-handers.

    He also threw his change-up more than he had in half a decade last season to keep left-handers off-balance, but the deception is gone from that pitch and it now hurts him more than it helps.

    Commanding his heat, then, is critical to Lackey's prospective success in 2011. The Sox need him as a mid-rotation starter, so the magnitude of his success with the fastball will be a key item to keep an eye on in 2011.

5. Ryan Kalish Is Okay with Riding the Pine

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    Ryan Kalish has done everything you like to see a skilled outfield prospect do.

    He has moved up the minor-league ladder smoothly and has adjusted quickly to new environments.

    He has stayed patient at the plate, allowing his power tool to develop as he matured physically rather than pushing that curve and losing the ability to make contact.

    He has focused enough on defense to maintain good fundamentals and make use of his athleticism.

    He has even proved that his speed (which looked like it may fade over time and with ascending level of competition) is a legitimate tool.

    Now, however, he must prove to the Sox that he can handle a very tough role: He will be the fifth outfielder for Boston in 2010.

    Key prospects are generally kept on the farm until such time as they are ready to play every day for the parent club, but after seeing some time as an injury fill-in in 2010, Kalish will be a Red Sox for the bulk of the 2011 season.

    How Kalish responds to the responsibility of coming in late in games as a defensive sub and getting only very sporadic starts will matter a great deal if and when Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury miss time with accumulating injuries.

    Given the health histories of those three players and the ages of Cameron and Drew, Kalish could realistically be a regular by October, and he needs to be ready for any role for the Sox to succeed there.

6. Bobby Jenks Handles Boston

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    The West Coast has never produced a nut job quite like Bobby... okay, so he isn't THAT nuts.

    He is a lunatic, though, and worse, he is fat and lazy.

    The White Sox were wise to cut ties with Jenks because they are not legitimate World series contenders with or without him, so taking on 290 pounds of risk did not make sense.

    Boston, being in a better position to leverage the improvement to their bullpen, pulled the trigger on Jenks, and he has spent the past month making a scene over the White Sox.

    Now it is time to get down to business, and Boston needs Jenks to have a season much more like his 2010 than his 2009 or 2008. In those years, his strikeout rate dipped dangerously without a corresponding decrease in walks, and Jenks lost a ton of velocity from his once-blazing fastball.

    He has recovered some of that zip, but that does not entirely explain his sudden resurgence in strikeout rate.

    In fact, hardly anything does, other than perhaps luck.

    Jenks induced swings and misses on 8.7 percent of his pitches last season. That was slightly above league-average, but it was down substantially from his 10.3 percent figure the year before. Those numbers never ought to have supported a strikeout rate of over 10 per nine innings.

    The good news is that he did strike those batters out, however improbably, and that he had some success getting his fastball up in the zone with velocity last year, for the first time since 2007.

    The Sox have Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard at the back end of the bullpen but need Jenks to provide quality depth.

7. Terry Francona Makes Good Use of His Depth

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    Marco Scutaro is the team's starting shortstop, according to Francona. But with Jed Lowrie, 27 in April, seemingly ready to produce at the plate and at least as able in the field as is Scutaro, Francona should get 300 or more plate appearances from Lowrie as well.

    Lowrie can also find playing time at second and third base, where Francona should keep in mind that Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis are both coming off injury-shortened seasons.

    Pedroia's foot is precisely the kind of injury that can benefit from rest, even after it has ostensibly healed, while Youkilis is beginning to age and needs days off just to recover from the scrapes and bruises that accumulate due to his aggressive style.

    In the outfield, Francona might be wise to allow ample days off to J.D. Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury, taking advantage of what could be the last hurrah for Mike Cameron. Cameron bats right-handed, too, so he could be used strategically against left-handed pitching to keep the other outfielders healthy and in good habits.

8. Big Papi Keeps Going

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    David Ortiz is younger than Marco Scutaro. He is younger than Mike Cameron and Jason Varitek. He is older than J.D. Drew, but only by two days. Why does everyone want to believe David Ortiz has to die soon?

    Ortiz did struggle badly in 2009, and for the first month of 2010. On balance, though, you have to take the massive body of evidence that he can hit over the small sample in which he struggled.

    Even fat designated hitters should be allowed one bad season without being discarded.

    Last year, Ortiz hit 32 home runs and drove in 102 runs. This season batting sixth in the newly terrifying Boston batting order, he seems unlikely to repeat those numbers, but the Sox do need him to hit for some power to get .400-OBP guys Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis around to home plate as often as possible.

9. Jonathan Papelbon Makes It a Walk Year

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    Jonathan Papelbon is a free agent after the 2011 season, and the Red Sox (who committed themselves to Bobby Jenks in 2012 and also have Daniel Bard in their bullpen) seem unlikely to keep him. Therefore, Papelbon has a world of motive to prove to other teams that 2010 was a fluke.

    It is not hard to make that case. While Papelbon's ERA finished at 3.90 (the highest of his career by about a run and a half) and an inflated walk rate (carer-worst 3.76 per nine innings) led to a less-than-stellar WHIP, his strikeout rate remained intact and he actually improved his ground-ball rate. The Sox's defense will be better in 2011 than in 2010, if only marginally, and that should help somewhat.

    The other thing Papelbon ought to consider is relying less on his split-fingered fastball. He went to it over one-fifth of the time in 2010, more than twice as often as he had in 2009 and the highest rate of his career.

    The pitch is exceptionally effective against left-handed hitters, but the big change in 2010 was that Papelbon threw the pitch much more often to righties, too. His four-seam fastball takes care of right-handers just fine, though, so Papelbon should use the raw heat and his slider/cutter more often in 2011 and employ the splitter almost exclusively against lefties.

10. They Stay Mostly Healthy

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    This one is obvious. Every team could have this as thing number 10 that must go right, or (for that matter) thing number one. Injuries can derail even the best squads.

    Since the 2010 Sox missed the playoffs almost exclusively because of injuries, though, and since their biggest addition over the winter (Gonzalez) is still recovering from shoulder surgery, the question of health looms larger for this team than for any other.

    Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka are bound to miss some time, but the Sox probably have the rotation depth to weather that storm.

    Alfredo Aceves was a key signing in that regard, although he, too, lost a good chunk of 2010 to injury.

    Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis should present very little risk of re-injury, but Gonzalez's problem could be a bit more dangerous and may cause him to start slowly even if he does not inflame it further.

    Injury trepidation abounds, but if this team does not look to you like the favorite for the AL East crown and the American League pennant, kindly take off your pinstriped glasses and look again.

    Matt Trueblood is a National MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and for AtHomePlate.com. He is on twitter @MattTrueblood. Matt will graduate with a degree in journalism from Loyola University Chicago in May

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