That's right, Red Sox fans, baseball is back. The team is currently in the early portion of their Spring Training schedule, and all signs look good for the 2011 season.
But what should we be focused on in 2011? Who or what will most contribute to the team's overall performance this season? As with every baseball season, there are questions still left unanswered, and that's where we (the Boston Red Sox featured columnists here on Bleacher Report) come in.
One of the greatest things about BR is diversity of opinion. We aren't some news feed ticker service, force feeding the same old information to the casual sports fan.
Please, enjoy. Be sure to tell us what you think we got right and wrong!
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Q: There has been a lot of talk about the loss of Victor Martinez. How do you think V-Mart’s absence will impact the team in 2011?
Andrew Seifter: Victor Martinez is a very talented and professional hitter, and there isn’t a catcher in the league not named Joe Mauer that has delivered the type of production that Martinez has provided for the Red Sox the last couple years. Even the most optimistic supporter of Jarrod Saltalamacchia recognizes that the team will get less offense out of the catcher position in 2011. That said, the additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford should more than make up for the offensive production lost with the departures of Martinez and Adrian Beltre, and the Red Sox should finish among the best offensive teams in baseball again this year. Losing Martinez will only help the team defensively, as opponents were running on him at will and he was destined to move to first base or DH anyway.
Dan Hartel: Defensively, the Sox haven't lost anything behind the plate. While Saltalamacchia is no stud, he'll have the tutelage of Jason Varitek as well as a full Spring Training to learn the nuances of the staff. And, while Salty is no great threat when it comes to throwing out runners, neither was Victor
Offensively, Salty won't do what V-Mart did in a Red Sox uniform. However, with the additions of Gonzalez and Crawford, as well as the projected healthy returns of guys like Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Sox shouldn't have any problems scoring runs in 2011.
Keith Testa: I don't expect a big impact from V-Mart's absence. He was never renowned for his ability to call a game, and all of his and Beltre's offensive production should be replaced by Crawford/Gonzalez. Perhaps the one person most likely to be affected is Clay Buchholz, who adopted V-Mart as his personal catcher and had his best season with Victor behind the plate. But on the whole I don't see a tremendous impact. I'm actually one of those who expects a better-than-predicted year out of Saltalamacchia.
Jeff Cockey: I don’t see the absence of Victor Martinez hurting the Red Sox at all next season. Martinez had a great bat with a lot of pop, but the bats in the Red Sox current lineup are a dream for any skipper to manage and they wouldn’t have been brought to Boston if not for Theo Epstein’s decision to get rid of V-Mart’s contract.
On a defensive note, V-Mart didn’t have a ton of time in Boston to work with the pitching staff so I don’t see any loss of good game calling with Salty behind the plate, especially considering Varitek has been coaching the kid for the past several months. V-Mart’s departure will have no adverse effect on the 2011 Red Sox.
Q: On a further note, what are your expectations for Saltalamacchia & Varitek? How will the catching situation shake out?
KT: As I hinted at previously, I think people will be pleasantly surprised by Saltalamacchia. He is in a no-pressure situation, out of Texas, where any offense he gives the team will be considered a bonus in this lineup. The pitchers have already expressed happiness with how he's handled things and worked in the offseason. And Varitek is the perfect back-up. He's essentially a coach on the field who can mentor Salty while still providing solid pop against lefties and calling one of the best games in baseball. Between the two of them, I think the Sox will be fine at catcher. The only potential pitfall is health, given that Salty has been injured at times and 'Tek certainly isn't getting any younger.
AS: At least to begin the season, Saltalamacchia will be the starter while Varitek will still see a couple starts per week, primarily against lefties. It’s hard to know what to expect from Saltalamacchia, a former top prospect who has struggled at the big league level with everything from hitting the ball to throwing it back to the pitcher (he had a case of the Chuck Knoblauchs).
Adding Saltalamacchia was a shrewd low-risk move by Theo Epstein, given Saltalamacchia’s salary and what it took to acquire him. Now that he’s hitting in a great lineup and ballpark he could finally become a solid regular. The problem is that if Saltalamacchia does struggle, we do know what to expect from Varitek: decent pop, a very low batting average and, most importantly, too old a body to handle catching everyday. Expect Saltalamacchia to have a fairly long leash, because if he doesn’t pan out the Red Sox will probably need to look outside the organization to find a replacement.
JC: My expectations are about the same as they have always been for the Red Sox at the catcher position. I expect a great game to be called from behind the plate. Anything above and beyond that is a bonus.
Catchers have never been known as great hitters. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule (Mike Piazza, Joe Mauer) but as a whole the main job of the guy squatting behind the dish is to make the pitchers strike out the batters, and with the coaching and extensive attention to detail that Varitek brings to the game I see Salty shaking out just fine. If he can bring a solid bat to the table as well then that is just a welcome bonus.
DH: If I had to guess, I'd say that we'll see Varitek a little more frequently than expected to begin the season. As the year progresses and Salty learns the ropes, I imagine he'll play more and more.
It's funny to say, but I think that the offense the Sox get out of the catching slot literally doesn't matter; they aren't going to have any trouble scoring runs. It's also hard to predict what Salty will do in 2011. He's never really been handed a starting job like this. At age 25, he could tear it up (relatively speaking), or he could be hitting .230 in July. We just don't know.
However, I don't think the catching spot will be one of trouble in 2011, so long as both Salty and 'Tek remain healthy.
Q: Last season, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka both struggled to stay healthy, combining for just 46 starts and an ERA over 5.00. John Lackey severely underwhelmed in his first season in Boston. What will it take for these three to pitch to their abilities, and what should we expect for them in 2011?
AS: Don’t expect Lackey and Beckett to dominate the league in 2011, but I think both are capable of 15 wins and an ERA around 4, which should be good enough for a staff that also features Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.
In my mind, Lackey’s struggles last year were mostly due to over-thinking and over-pitching. Faced with the media spotlight of playing in Boston—and pitching in a hitter-friendly ballpark in baseball’s toughest division—Lackey got too cute, instead of challenging hitters. As a result, he posted the second highest walk rate of his nine-year career. Lackey was also fairly unlucky, surrendering his highest BABIP (batting average on balls in play) since 2005 and posting the lowest strand rate of his career. His 3.97 ERA and 1.22 WHIP after the All Star break are more in line with his past performance and are a fair expectation for 2011.
Beckett had similar problems to Lackey: he had his highest walk rate since 2006 and the highest BABIP and lowest strand rate of his career. Beckett also had the second highest HR/FB (home run per fly ball) rate of his career. Beckett is still only 30 years old, and threw as hard as ever last year. So while he may be a long-shot for another season like he had in 2007, as long as he can stay healthy (watch out for fungo drills!) and get the walks down, there’s no reason Beckett can’t have a season resembling his very solid 2008 and 2009 campaigns.
Matsuzaka’s 4.69 ERA last year is a legitimate expectation for 2011. Like Lackey and Beckett, Daisuke was perhaps a bit unlucky with a career low strand rate, but he also is a fly ball pitcher that benefited from a low HR/FB ratio. The bottom line is that Matsuzaka simply walks too many batters to consistently work deep into games or be counted on to post a sub-four ERA.
DH: I'm going on record and coining the trio of Beckett, Lackey and Matsuzaka the "middle managers" of the Boston Red Sox because, in reality, that's what they are. The Sox don't need spectacular performances from any of the three; what they need is health and consistency. If they get those two factors out of these three guys, the Sox have the potential to go all the way.
I think all three men took a huge step in the right direction when they all showed up to camp early,in noticeably better shape than the year prior. This willingness to physically get right before the start of camp (something that has hindered both Beckett and Matsuzaka as members of the Sox) shows me that they are finally seeing the big picture.
I'm the least worried about Lackey. His peripherals seem to indicate a statistical improvement, and he finished the season on a high note last year (3.46 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, .221 BAA in six starts during Sep/Oct), a sign that he had finally adjusted to pitching in Boston.
I don't think Josh Beckett's 2011 can be any worse than his 2010. Still, with his history of inconsistency, there has to be some concern going forward
JC: They need to get out of their own head. Dice-K psyches himself out. He’s a good pitcher but he expected to rock the MLB world the way he did Japan’s Pacific League when he was with the Seibu Lions and that was a ridiculously high expectation. Yes he met it in 2008, but not in a good way. He did it with 94 bases on balls and every year other than ’08 his ERA has been way north of 4.00. Dice-K just needs to start over fresh with no expectations.
Beckett is fine. As long as Beckett can keep his body healthy he will be a superb pitcher for the Red Sox for a few more years.
While Dice-K piled expectations on himself, Lackey had expectations piled on him by Red Sox nation. Bringing Lackey to the rotation was supposed to win the Sox the Series last year and instead of lifting Lackey that pressure stunted him. There is enough pressure playing in the Fens. If Lackey can push everything else aside and pretend like he is pitching back in pressure free Anaheim then he will be just fine.
I expect a huge turnaround for these guys in 2011. All the puzzle pieces are in place for a Series run, Dice-K is in amazing shape, Beckett is healthy (aside from that ball to the head incident) and Lackey has the first year jitters under his belt. With Lester and Buchholz added, I see a rotation posting five winning records this year.
KT: I'm afraid Daisuke is "pitching to his ability." That is to say, he is what he is. But the Sox will need a better season out of either Lackey or Beckett. At least one of them has to return to form for the Sox to accomplish what they want to accomplish. For Beckett, the key seems to be health and a quick start. In the season's he's started poorly, he never seems to get himself into a rhythm. So here's hoping he can start the year on a positive note and continue his bizarre streak of one bad year followed by one good year. As for Lackey, I don't know what the magic formula is. I just hope he is less of a disaster than he was for much of 2010.
Could 25 year-old, former top prospect Andrew Miller make an impact for the Sox in 2011?
Q: The Red Sox signed a bunch of low/mid-level left handed relievers this offseason who’ll compete for a bullpen spot in training camp. Who do you like most and what will they bring to the team?
KT: The lefty with the most potential, to me, is Andrew Miller. He's a guy who has never lived up to his No. 1 draft pick billing, but could provide long relief and spot starting duties out of the pen. His future is likely as a starter, but he is an intriguing option out of the bullpen this year. Much like Salty, he's in a pressure-free environment (in terms of being a No. 1 prospect), which could allow him to blossom. He's certainly not a lefty specialist by any stretch, but given Okajima's struggles (which continued in his first outing of the spring this week), he probably isn't getting that job. Felix Doubront interests me in much the same ways as Miller. He's less highly touted, but equally versatile and potentially could have a solid Major League career.
AS: The Red Sox will surely hope that Hideki Okajima can bounce back to the type of performance he gave the team from 2007-2009, because none of the newly acquired southpaws are a sure thing.
Rich Hill is an interesting case as a guy who was actually a very promising starter for the Cubs in 2007 before his career completely derailed. But the best bet of this ragtag bunch has to be Dennys Reyes, who has put together five straight seasons of decent relief work, including three in the American League. Reyes can’t be counted on for more than about 50 innings, but if he can rediscover the effectiveness against lefties that he had prior to 2010, he should be a decent lefty specialist.
JC: If you look at the Red Sox current 40-man roster the only lefties listed are Felix Doubront, Jon Lester and Okajima. I personally don’t see anyone not on that roster list making any kind of impact this year on the Red Sox unless, of course, they become decimated by injuries.
As for lefty prospects, I really like Drake Britton but he is a starter who won’t be ready for a couple of years. I am kind of avoiding this question because I don’t really see any lefties making a big bullpen impact this year.
DH: Of all the left-handers competing for a job, I think the three with the best chances of winning a job are Okajima, Miller and Hill. Okajima has the edge in experience, Miller has the edge in potential and Hill has the edge in not being either a flame-out veteran or a flame-out top prospect.
The man who I'd have to give my support to is Miller, but I could just as easily picture Okajima taking his spot away. It really will come down to who has the best spring training. Even if one man wins the job over the other, we could certainly see both on the big league level at some point during the season.
Q: The Red Sox had a 4.44 bullpen ERA last season, the 24th highest in baseball. Did the Red Sox do enough to improve their ‘pen for 2011, and what are the keys for the bullpens success?
JC: I think the Sox did one thing really well to bolster their bullpen this season and that was the acquisition of Bobby Jenks. I know he has been on a downward slide the past couple of seasons. However, he is a World Series winner who has been there before and thus wants to get there again. That drive combined with his less stressful role as a set-up man (and not even THE set-up man. Daniel Bard has that role filled) will give Jenks the opportunity he needs to bring back some of his magic this year. The Sox have arguably the best one-two-three bullpen punch in baseball
KT: I believe the Red Sox did, indeed, do enough to improve the bullpen. Bobby Jenks is a big addition, but an under-the-radar signing likely to make a big impact is Dan Wheeler. I see him as something of a Mike Timlin-type, and we all remember how valuable Timlin was in his time with the team. The key to me is two-fold: Will Jenks adjust well to a setup role (for those looking for what happens when someone doesn't, see Gagne, Eric) and will Papelbon return to form? If Paps can put last year behind him and Jenks is comfortable, the back end of the pen is as strong as anyone. Wheeler in the 7th, Jenks/Bard in the 8th and Paps in the ninth? Yes, please.
AS: There is no question that the Red Sox have improved their bullpen by adding Wheeler and Jenks. Wheeler knows what it takes to succeed in the AL East, and has done quite well in each of the last three seasons in Tampa Bay. As a former closer, Jenks' name recognition probably rates higher than his actual value at this point, but it would not be surprising to see him have a strong year pitching in middle relief.
Given these additions, the Red Sox should have a good enough bullpen to at least finish in the middle of the pack. But I’m also expecting a big bounce-back year from Jonathan Papelbon, as he prepares for free agency in 2012. If Papelbon returns to form and Daniel Bard continues to dominate, the Red Sox should have a very formidable bullpen.
The biggest issue, though, will be the lack of quality left-handers. The uncertainty surrounding Hideki Okajima and the team’s other left-handed options is the only thing holding the bullpen back from being among the league's very best.
DH: The Red Sox had a great offseason, and I think one of their biggest improvements was the bullpen. Despite all the injuries, the Sox lost most of their games in the middle innings last year. Guys like Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen and Okajima completely fell off the table, leaving the Sox with a huge void in the middle of the 'pen.
This year, the additions of Jenks and Wheeler should help solidify the middle innings, keeping Bard and Papelbon fresh late in games. The Sox have also accumulated a good amount of relief help depth in the minors who we could see at any given point during the season: Okajima, Rich Hill, Andrew Miller, Matt Albers, Dennys Reyes, Alfredo Aceves, Junichi Tazawa, Felix Doubront and a few others are all waiting in the wings.
The Sox got two big names in Jenks and Wheeler, and then spent the rest of the offseason buying in bulk, which I think will pay dividends down the road.
Q: Obviously, the Red Sox had a very busy offseason. What was their best move, and why?
AS: It has to be a tie between the Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford acquisitions. Replacing Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre with Gonzalez and Crawford marginally improves the team’s offense in the short-term, but the biggest reason these moves will pay big dividends is that they set the Red Sox up well for the long run.
Both Gonzalez and Crawford are under 30 years old, while Martinez and Beltre are on the wrong side of 30. Crawford brings across the board production and skills, while Martinez becomes more and more one-dimensional as he gets older and is able to catch fewer and fewer games. Gonzalez's production in San Diego was held back by the worst ballpark for hitters in the majors, whereas Beltre, much like in 2004, is coming off a career year as he went in search of a new contract. As if that weren’t enough, Gonzalez and Crawford have each won Gold Gloves in the last two years.
There are very few players in baseball with the talent and proven track records of these two guys, and even fewer who are in the prime of their careers and can be counted on to produce at an All Star level for at least the next five years. Red Sox Nation has not seen such a major retooling of the lineup since the early 2000's, when the team added Manny Ramirez ('01) and David Ortiz ('03), and in the process established themselves as a perennial 90-plus win team and championship contender. And this time it happened in just a matter of days instead of several years.
JC: Gonzalez was easily the Red Sox best move this offseason. He brings a huge bat and a Gold Glove to the Fens. He will be in a two sox uni for a long time. Crawford was a close second but a great outfielder doesn’t trump a great first baseman. And, as I mentioned above, Jenks was a solid addition.
Gonzalez makes it impossible to pitch around anyone in the top half of the Sox lineup. Everyone is a hitter and last years cries of trading offense for defense will not be heard at all this year, especially considering the Sox have seemed to improve both. Looks like the have their cake and are eating it too.
KT: Gonzalez is going to be fun to watch for a long, long time.As much as I love Carl Crawford, I think it's the Adrian Gonzalez trade, assuming they sign him long-term. They have been seeking a middle-of-the-order threat since Manny left and Ortiz started declining - the lineup has never been the same - and he gives them the perfect hitter for that spot over the next six or seven years. It also quiets the whiners who could never let go of the botched Mark Teixeira negotiations. He has a stroke made for Fenway, he's a gold-glove caliber first baseman and is by all accounts a great teammate and person. To me, that's the complete package. Gonzalez is going to be fun to watch for a long, long time.
DH: The signing of Alfredo Aceves...Ok, so maybe not. But everyone knows what Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez bring to this team. Both are franchise players and stand-up guys, and should contribute to the team's success for years to come. However, for diversity's sake, I want to examine a lesser known guy and the impact he could have on the team.
Theo Epstein has already expressed some concern over the teams starting depth. Teams on average use around 10-11 starters per season, and beyond their current starting five, the Sox don't exactly have a bunch of quality veterans waiting in the wings. Aceves gives them a multi-dimensional arm, someone who we'll likely see as both a reliever and a starter over the long haul that is the 162 game season. Aceves has also spent his entire career in the AL East (with the Yankees) where he's had decent success. That attribute is invaluable.
Aceves has the potential to be the innings-eater of 2011, someone capable of functioning in a number of different roles, and a stopgap if someone were to go down with injury. These guys are almost as important to a team getting through a season as star players.
Q: Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz both had fantastic 2010’s for the Red Sox, finishing fourth and sixth in Cy Young voting respectively. Is last year’s success a reasonable goal for 2011?
DH: Jon Lester is my AL Cy Young favorite for this year. I see him as a true ace who will only get better and better as time goes on, and I think it's only a matter of time before the rest of the league sees what he is: the best left-hander in the game today.
Clay Buchholz, on the other hand, is a bit of a conundrum. Obviously talented, he finally figured it out on the MLB level last year. And yet, it's hard to completely overlook his low BABIP (.261), his high FIP (3.61) and his less than ideal BB/9 rate (3.47) and K/9 rate (6.22).
And yet, at the same time, his HR/FB rate (5.6 percent), his GB/FB ratio (1.61) and his HR/FB rate (4.1percent) were some of the best figures in the league. Buchholz clearly was the master of weak contact last season; his superb fastball/change-up combination saw to that. And, with his first full season under his belt, I think it's reasonable to expect a positive regression towards his minor league peripherals (10.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9). Buchholz is a strikeout pitcher; he has the approach and stuff of one. For me, it's not a matter of if he starts striking out batters, it's when.
Do I expect another 2.33 ERA out of him? No. Do I expect him to completely fall off the table? Not at all. I think Buchholz is due for another good season in 2011, and I think he'll eventually become an ace pitcher if he isn't at that level already.
AS: With Lester, absolutely. This guy has had three straight excellent seasons, and is one of the most consistent aces in baseball at this point. Barring an injury, it would be very surprising if Lester didn’t put up a sub-3.50 ERA, 15-plus wins and 200-plus strikeouts.
Buchholz is more of a wild card. While his 2010 season was incredibly encouraging, there are some warning signs in his peripheral statistics that suggest some regression could be on the way, at least in the short term. Buchholz had the 10th-lowest BABIP in baseball last year, which allowed him to be extremely successful even though he posted mediocre strikeout totals and a fairly high walk rate. Buchholz also appeared at least somewhat fortunate in avoiding home runs. His strong ground ball rate undoubtedly helped, but whether he'll be able to maintain his excellent HR/FB ratio from last year is an open question.
It’s tough to best someone like Buchholz, who is still just 26 years old and possesses a 95 mph fastball and 12-to-6 curveball. But unless he takes a major step forward this year, I would expect his numbers to take a step backwards. I still think he’ll be a solid second or third starter this year though, and there’s no question that he has the ability to eventually emerge as an ace sometime down the line.
JC: I think last year's success is a reasonable starting point for 2011. I don’t see any drop-off in Lester or Buchholz. They are both coming into the prime of their careers, and with the bats that they will have at their backs, even if they slip up this year the offense will protect them.
This years offense will be the best defense in that respect. It will allow Red Sox pitchers a larger margin of error and thus they will be more comfortable on the mound and that higher level of comfort will result in more relaxed and thus even better pitching by the Sox staff. At least that is the logic that I am employing.
I see both Lester and Buchholz as All-Stars this season.
KT: I think Lester is likely to top his performance from a year ago and Buchholz is likely to fall short. Lester, to me, is a perennial Cy Young candidate, and if he gets his walk total down, he could be one of the two or three best pitchers in the American League. Buchholz has that kind of talent too, but it's probably unfair to expect another sub-2.50 ERA. I have no doubt Buchholz will be solid, but I'd guess he falls short of his numbers from last year while Lester makes a legit run at a 20-win season.
Q: The Red Sox saw Jonathan Papelbon suffer the worst season of his Major League career. What will it take for him to return to form, and what are your expectations for 2011?
JC: I was a very vocal proponent of not re-signing Jonathan Papelbon this season. I think he has lost his stuff. The aura around Pap is gone and so are the days of automatically chalking up a win once he gets on the mound.
I foresee Pap having a better year because I don’t see the Sox relying on him as much for close saves. Again, I go back to the offensive firepower that Epstein brought in and the fact that Jenks will help in the set-up role. These factors mean Papelbon will be relied upon less often and will result in him having a better year.
That said, I think he will thus become more expendable than in previous years and will either be traded mid-season or play his last game in a Sox uniform at the end of 2011.
KT: You never know with Papelbon. He reminds me of Manny in that you don't get the sense he kicks the game around in his brain much once he leaves the park. That could be an asset this year, if Papelbon can forget last year entirely and focus on the future. The Sox have plenty working in their favor in that regard: It's a contract year, he's looking for his first massive payday and he has Jenks and Bard breathing down his neck. If that doesn't motivate Papelbon to return to form, nothing will. I honestly expect him to have an All-Star caliber season.
AS: I am not the least bit worried about Papelbon. All he needs to do to return to form is just go out there and pitch, and I fully expect him to be every bit as effective as he was from 2006-2009. That he will be playing for a new contract only makes it more certain that he will bounce back this year.
Plus, while his poor September is likely still fresh in many fans minds, Papelbon didn't pitch as poorly in 2010 as the numbers appear. He may have finished with an eye-catching 3.90 ERA, but Papelbon's ERA was just 2.81 on September 5. He then fell apart, giving up 11 runs over his next seven appearances. Relief pitchers don’t throw that many innings, so a few rough appearances like that dramatically change their final statistics. It’s true that Papelbon was not quite himself all season long, but he was only really awful in September. Chalk it up to a bad month.
DH: Papelbon clearly wasn't the same guy last year as Red Sox fans have been accustomed to. That being said, he wasn't nearly as bad as many people think. He had a 2.91 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP going into the final month of the season. In eight total appearances in Sept/Oct, his ERA ballooned to 3.90 and his WHIP to 1.27. Pap, like almost everyone else on the team, lost focus as the Sox' playoff hopes faded.
Pap was the first Red Sox player to report to camp this year. He's put a focus on incorporating his slider into his repertoire more, and he's noted that he's improved his mechanics and already feels in regular season form.
Pap is in a contract year, and he wants a big deal. He's a very talented pitcher, and I doubt we see him at his worst (2010) again this year. I expect a stellar season from Papelbon.
Q: Which team in the AL East (other than the Red Sox) had the best offseason?
KT: This is a satisfying question for Red Sox fans because nobody else in the division really had a good one. The Yankees lost out on everyone, watched Andy Pettitte retire and had their only major signing panned by the GM. And Tampa lost about two-thirds of its young talent and replaced it with the chalk outlines, formerly known as Manny and Johnny Damon. If forced to pick a team at gunpoint I'd say Tampa, if only because Manny will probably be able to produce as a full-time DH and Damon still has some game left in him. But nobody else really upgraded to the point worth celebrating.
AS: The biggest story is the teams that had rough offseasons: the Yankees and Rays, last year’s playoff teams from the division. But I am really impressed with Baltimore’s moves. After finishing near the bottom of the league in runs scored last season, the Orioles completely rebuilt their offense, adding Mark Reynolds, Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee and J.J. Hardy. Also, starter Justin Duchscherer is a low-risk addition who could prove to be one of the best low-budget free agent signings of the winter if he can somehow find a way to stay healthy.
The Blue Jays are a close second. They added underrated speedster Rajai Davis and several solid bullpen arms: Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch. Most importantly, they somehow managed to convince the Angels to take on the four years and $86 million remaining on Vernon Wells' contract.
JC: I expect the Baltimore Orioles to make some noise this year. Birdtown is chirping with the additions of Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Reynolds and Hardy. Their line-up looks pretty beastly and tough for opposing pitchers.
They have added some pop, as well as speed and leadership. The Orioles have been out of the spotlight for a long time in the AL East, but I expect them to give second place a run for its money this season.
DH: If you stuck a gun to my head, it's probably the Toronto Blue Jays. They did the most to give themselves a chance at seriously contending for a division title in a few years by dumping Wells' salary. They also added depth to their bullpen, as well as minor, yet solid pieces like Davis and Corey Patterson. The Orioles probably added the most talent of any team in the division, but it's a short term fix and one that won't be enough for them to make the playoffs.
The Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees both made nice, shrewd moves with the respective additions of Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Andruw Jones, Russell Martin, Freddie Garcia and Co. That being said, neither the Yankees or the Rays had good offseasons by any stretch of the imagination.
Q: What was the most important non-Red Sox offseason move in the AL East?
JC: Can I say Cliff Lee choosing NOT to go to the Yankees was the most important non-Red Sox move in the AL East? Because it absolutely was. If Lee had donned the pinstripes then conversations would be taking a completely different tack this Spring Training.
Aside from Lee going to Philly, the next biggest impact on the AL East was Manny and Damon heading to the Rays. I may be stretching quite a bit here but those two guys, old as they may be, will bring leadership, base running and the much needed long ball to the Rays. Tampa Bay decimated their squad this offseason and without this addition they would have been dead in the water and dead last.
KT: Cliff Lee choosing Philly over New York. That set in motion a disastrous offseason that left the Yankees thin in the rotation and short on any major additions. They missed out on Lee, watched Crawford come to Boston and Pettitte walk off into the sunset. Of course, they could make up for it all at the trade deadline, but as it stands right now, Lee was the first domino to fall in an ugly offseason for the Evil Empire.
AS: It’s not a move made by an AL East team, per se, but I’ll go with Cliff Lee choosing to spurn the Yankees in favor of the Philadelphia Phillies. The Yankees don’t usually have bad offseasons, but their strategy of going all-in on Lee and then trying to convince Andy Pettitte to return for one more season backfired, with Lee choosing to return to Philadelphia for less money and Pettitte belatedly deciding to hang up the cleats.
The Yankees used the money they would have spent on Lee to sign Rafael Soriano, but Lee’s decision has left New York with serious question marks at the back end of their starting rotation. The Red Sox may have some questions of their own in that regard, and the Yankees will likely acquire another starter at some point, but for now starting pitching is the single biggest advantage Boston has over New York heading into the season.
DH: It's got to be the retirement of Pettitte. Had he returned for another season with the Yankees, they'd look a lot scarier on paper. Even if he didn't repeat his 2010 success, he would have adequately held down the fort along with CC Sabathia until the trading deadline, where the Yankees could potentially land another arm. Now, without Pettitte, the Yanks are going to have to get much improved performances from the likes of AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes, as well as get lucky on a few minor signings (like Garcia, Colon, etc).
Q: On paper, the Red Sox have been annointed the best team in the AL by many around the league. What other AL team poses the biggest threat to the Red Sox?
DH: If the Texas Rangers staff can overcome the loss of Cliff Lee, and they can get Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler healthy and producing on the field at the same time, the Rangers will be a team to watch. On paper, the Tigers look like potential contenders as well.
However, public enemy number one for the Red Sox is still the New York Yankees. Did they have a great offseason? No. Are they still a great team, and one of the best in baseball? Yes. I don't expect the Yankees to fall off much or at all, and I expect them to give the Sox a great race come September. I wouldn't be surprised if they dangled much-hyped prospect Jesus Montero if a big name arm came on the trade market during the season; a move like that could totally revitalize the team.
KT: Though Tampa will catch people by surprise (they have a lot of young talent still on the roster), I think you have to say it's the Yankees. CC Sabathia is still an ace to anchor the staff, the lineup remains deep and the back end of the bullpen is frightening. As long as guys like Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are in the lineup, the Yankees are a dangerous team. It's fun to laugh at their off-season failures, but it would be silly to expect them to fade out of the race.
AS: Even with their tough offseason, it has to be the Yankees.
Tampa Bay still has a great young nucleus, but will have an uphill battle to repeat as division champs after an offseason that saw them lose Crawford, Soriano, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena and Jason Bartlett. Baltimore and Toronto had nice offseasons, but they’re still not ready for primetime.
Meanwhile, the Yankees still have one of the best offenses in the game, a dominating end-game combination of Mariano Rivera and Soriano and a top tier ace in Sabathia. They should challenge the Red Sox all season long, and it is unlikely the division will be decided before September.
JC: Easiest question to answer….NONE. NO other AL team poses a threat to the Red Sox this season. Certainly no other team from the AL East poses a threat.
I think Detroit (I don’t see Cabrera’s off the field issues affecting his performance), Minnesota (if their pitching can rebound) and Texas, in that order, will give the Sox a decent race.
Please excuse the Dr. Seuss tribute.
Q: The Red Sox have a number of guys (Ellsbury, Pedroia, Youkilis, Beckett, Dice-K, Gonzalez, etc) returning from injury. Should we be concerned about any of these guys for 2011?
AS: I tend to be on the optimistic side when it comes to injuries, unless they are very serious. The Red Sox had their season derailed by injuries last year, but most of those injuries were fluky and shouldn’t have an impact on the team this year.
Gonzalez’s shoulder surgery was fairly minor, and the fact that he’s already taking batting practice shows that he’s ahead of schedule in his recovery. Youkilis, Pedroia and Ellsbury were all 100 percent healthy well before Spring Training began. I am expecting big seasons from Gonzalez, Youkilis and Pedroia, but the fact that Ellsbury fractured ribs on three separate occasions last year does give me some concern that he could end up being the type of player that is routinely plagued by injuries throughout his career.
Pitchers are always a bigger injury risk. Beckett’s fluke concussion this spring doesn’t sound like too big a deal, but it is somewhat symbolic of his injury history. He’s had at least one DL stint in seven of his nine major league seasons, and penciling him in for 200 innings this year would probably be foolish. That said, most of his injuries have been relatively minor, so I expect him to be able to contribute at least 150 or so solid innings. Matsuzaka also has at least one DL stint every year, and if the Sox can get 150 decent innings out of him they should be very happy.
DH: There are few guys who worry me going forward. The team suffered a boatload of injuries last year, but none of them were/are expected to be lengthy in nature. I have a few reservations about Dustin Pedroia; serious foot injuries, especially for a guy who banks on his mobility in the field, are never something to take lightly. There also has to be a little concern about how quickly Jacoby Ellsbury returns to his usual speedster self after suffering rib injuries. But with him, it's more mental than physical.
Other than that, I don't foresee anything horrendous on the injury front. As I previously noted, Beckett and Matsuzaka have already taken it upon themselves to show up to camp in tip-top shape, which should help limit their chance for injuries. I don't expect anything lingering from guys like Youk and Gonzalez.
JC: The only guy I would worry about is Jacoby Ellsbury because his injury cannot be solved by surgery or fixed quickly and it affects every aspect of his game. You can not make any baseball moves at all with broken or sore ribs. Couple that with Ellsbury’s skills (speed, sliding, diving) and you have a recipe for a possible problem if his once fractured ribs are not fully healed.
KT: Pedroia sounds like something of a concern, given the bizarre nature of his injury and the rehab. His broken foot has been compared by some to what Yao Ming has gone through, and his troubles are threatening to end his NBA career. Pedroia doesn't have to carry as much weight and doesn't play as high-impact a game, but it's still a concern. There's also concern for Ellsbury, but more from a mental standpoint than a physical one. If he gets off to a rough start, the "Jacoby Is Soft" bureau is sure to kick into high gear quickly. He needs to prove he's healthy and that he fits in with the team or he will have another long season.
Q: Lost in the shuffle of the whirlwhind offseason is the changes that the Red Sox will be making defensively. They’ve acquired two gold glove winners (Gonzalez, Crawford), switched another across the diamond (Youkilis), and will be starting Ellsbury in center again. They’ve also got a new catcher, and guys like Pedroia and Scutaro coming back from injury in 2010. What’s your opinon on the defense, and what should we expect in 2011?
AS: As Baseball Prospectus’ Steven Goldman recently told Bleacher Report, defensive performance is fairly tough to measure with statistics. But according to the UZR metric, which accounts for both a fielders range and number of errors, the Red Sox had the 10th-worst defense in baseball last year.
Swapping the combination of Adrian Beltre (3B) and Youkilis (1B) for Youkilis (3B) and Gonzalez (1B) will basically end up being a wash, considering that Beltre was a strong defender in his own right and Youkilis played better defense at first than he can be expected to play at third. All three players are former Gold Glovers (Youkilis won his as a first baseman).
But the defense should still be better this year for a few reasons. First, Crawford is quite possibly the best defensive left fielder in the game. He will be a huge upgrade over the combination of Bill Hall, Jeremy Hermida and Daniel Nava that Boston deployed in left last season. Saltalamacchia’s defense has been questioned in the past, and it’s unclear how much of an upgrade he’ll provide over Victor Martinez. But Salty is approaching defense as his number one priority this spring, so the guess here is that he’ll be at least marginally better than Martinez behind the plate.
Finally, Pedroia and Ellsbury are both above-average defenders at their respective positions, so their return from injuries is sure to give the defense a boost.
JC: Everyone talked last year about how the Red Sox focused on bolstering their defense. I always thought that was a nice way of saying that they didn’t do anything to help their offense. I’d argue that Boston has a better defense this year than last. Gold Gloves line the infield and Jed Lowrie is finally blossoming at the shortstop position. With the exception of J.D. Drew, extreme speed roams the outfield grass. If a flyball can be caught then it will be caught in Boston’s new look OF.
I see this Red Sox roster as the perfect storm. They have put together an amazing offense, an amazing defense and an amazing rotation all in the same season.
KT: Defensively, they're as solid as anyone. Youk won't be as dazzling as Beltre was, but he's more than capable, and Gonzo is a Gold Glover. The outfield is scary: Good luck trying to find a gap between Crawford and Ellsbury. And never mind that your fourth outfielder may actually be the best defender in the lot in Mike Cameron. The only real question remains at catcher, where throwing out runners has never been a strong suit and Saltalamacchia has never handled a full season of full-time duties.
DH: A ball won't fall in the outfield this year.
The outfield excites me more than anything else just because I think that they'll be insanely fun to watch. The speed of Crawford in left should allow Jacoby to cheat towards right field just a touch, not that JD Drew is a poor fielder or needs the help.
All three outfielders are gold glove caliber in my opinion, and Crawford is easily a top five defensive outfielder, if not higher. The monster should help conceal Crawford's average arm, and his speed should essentially allow him to play backup shortstop (as he'll be able to get to anything hit over his head that doesn't ricochet off the wall).
To top it off, they have a three time gold glove winner in Mike Cameron as a reserve OF, as well as four former gold glove winners on the infield. Defensively, I think the Sox should be in top form in 2011.
Q: Who/what should Red Sox fans be most worried about in 2011?
KT: I think it's Beckett and Lackey. If they both struggle again, it will be exponentially more difficult for the Sox to compete for a World Series ring. And it's difficult to pinpoint a specific reason to expect dramatically better years from either, aside from perhaps Beckett's health. At least one of them has to have a strong year.
AS: The Red Sox are going to hit, and they’re going to be at least adequate defensively, so that leaves pitching as the primary concern. Boston finished near the bottom of the league in starter and bullpen ERA last year, and few saw it coming. Whether or not the pitching can improve this year will be the difference between the Red Sox being a pretty good team or a legitimate World Series contender.
Lester is a rock solid ace, and the combination of Papelbon, Bard, Wheeler and Jenks should be very adept at closing the door in the late innings. The key issues are whether Buchholz can maintain last year’s performance, Beckett and Lackey can rebound from sub-par 2010 campaigns and the Red Sox can find a reliable lefty specialist to put away dangerous left-handed hitters late in ballgames.
DH: Pitching depth is the only thing that has me a little worried. Beyond Tim Wakefield, the Red Sox only have three guys (Felix Doubront, Alfredo Aceves, Scott Atchison) who I'd feel comfortable with in a spot start situation. The Sox are going to need the same consistency from Lester and Buchholz, as well as 90 or more starts from Lackey, Beckett and Matsuzaka. If someone goes down for an extended period of time, the Sox might have to look to add a few low-level arms during the season
JC: I don’t see a lot of worry on this team. The only worry I would have is injury, but that is a worry every team has. Aside from that, the only worry I see in 2011 is how long it will take David Ortiz to get going.
Q: Who/what will surprise Red Sox fans most in 2011?
KT: This may sound like a strange answer given his contract, but I think it might be Carl Crawford. Red Sox fans all remember him as the guy who stole 394 bases in one game against the Red Sox - at least it felt that way - but watching him on a day-to-day basis should be exciting. The guy is a .300 hitter with 20-homer potential, gap power that should produce a lot of doubles and triples, and speed so he could probably play six feet behind shortstop and still get back to the wall to take away extra bases. He is going to be exciting to watch, on and off the base paths.
As for a darkhorse candidate, I think it might be Saltalamacchia. He is one of those guys who is either going to emerge as a full-time starter this year or forever end his hopes of getting a starting job. I'm going to predict he'll do more than people think (.265 or so average, maybe 15-20 homers) while impressing enough behind the plate.
AS: One unpleasant surprise will be that Buchholz’s transformation into an ace won’t be as quick as Red Sox fans may be expecting. Buchholz will be a solid starter this year, but he’ll have his rocky moments as hitters make adjustments to him and some of the good luck from last year catches up to him.
On a more positive note, Red Sox fans will be surprised by Jed Lowrie’s skills. Lowrie will begin the season as a super utility guy, but he could replace Marco Scutaro as the team’s regular shortstop by the end of the season. Formerly one of the team’s top prospects, Lowrie’s transition to the majors has not been smooth, but his .287 average and 9 HRs in 171 at-bats last year serve as a reminder that he still has plenty of talent. The Red Sox have a $6 million option on Scutaro for 2012, but Lowrie will show enough this year to convince the team to either let Scutaro go or trade him.
JC: Dice-K will surprise Red Sox fans in 2011. A lot of Red Sox fans have forgotten about Matsuzaka and I believe that he has set himself up nicely to come back into the limelight.
He is 100 percent healthy and he has come to camp in better shape than ever before. I think he has a new mental attitude this year, and it was his mind that was his biggest hurdle in the past. Dice-K will remind fans why the Red Sox once thought so highly of him.
DH: Strangely enough, I think it's Crawford. I still don't think Red Sox fans have an entirely accurate portrayal of what he is: a great hitter. Most picture him as a great baserunner and fielder (which he is), but they haven't fully realized his 20 HR, 80-90 RBI potential, all while hitting for a high average and reaching base at a decent clip.
Crawford can often be an aggressive hitter, which I think will pay dividends in the Red Sox lineup. He's capable of taking a walk, but he's not going to stand up there and look at everything like JD Drew. When you insert an aggressive bat like Crawford's into a lineup full of patient hitters, Crawford is going to see pitches he never saw in a Rays uniform. He's extremely well protected no matter where he hits, and I think he'll mesh perfectly with the Sox. I'd take him as a preseason MVP pick over the likes of Adrian Gonzalez.
I asked everyone to give their predictions for the 2011 AL East. This is what we ended up with:
|Projected Standings 2011||Dan Hartel||Keith Testa||Andrew Seifter||Jeff Cockey||Average Projected Record||Last Year's Finish|
|Boston Red Sox||99-63 (1)||99-63 (1)||100-62 (1)||112-50 (1)||103-59||89-73 (3)|
|New York Yankees||95-67 (2)||94-68 (2)||95-67 (2)||84-80 (4)||92-70||95-67 (2*AL Wild Card)|
|Tampa Bay Rays||84-80 (4)||91 -71 (3)||83-81 (3)||87-75 (3)||86-76||96-66 (1)|
|Baltimore Orioles||71-91 (5)||73-89 (5)||77-85 (4)||88-74 (2)||77-85||66-96 (5)|
|Toronto Blue Jays||85-77 (3)||76-86 (4)||76-86 (5)||66-96 (5)||76-86||85-77 (4)|