It was a disappointing season all-around for the Boston Red Sox and Red Sox Nation. They finished third in the rugged AL East at 89-73, behind the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. The Red Sox failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Injuries decimated the team all season long, and bouts of inconsistency plagued both hitting and pitching.
Despite the poor finish, the Red Sox ranked in the top 10 in the major batting categories. They were second in runs (818), sixth in batting average (.268), third in on-base percentage (.339) and second in slugging percentage (.451).
Pitching was the most alarming issue. Josh Beckett severely underperformed, and offseason acquisition John Lackey underwhelmed in his first season in Beantown.
Overall, the pitching staff was subpar, finishing 22nd in ERA (4.19), 13th in quality starts (89), 17th in WHIP (1.36) and ninth in BAA (.253). After Lester and Buchholz, it was a crap-shoot to find a solid outing by the back-half of the rotation. Beckett, Lackey, Matsuzaka and Wakefield all struggled with command and location. The bullpen was being overused, and that resulted in their struggles as well.
However, 2011 is a new year, and this is a new-look Red Sox team. They were able to sign speedy free agent LF Carl Crawford from the Tampa Bay Rays and acquire San Diego's stud 1B Adrian Gonzalez via trade. Crawford adds another dimension of speed to the lineup that the Red Sox have lacked (outside of Ellsbury). Gonzalez is a superb defensive first basemen as well as a monster at the plate.
The Red Sox did lose Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez to free agency. Beltre signed with the Texas Rangers. He lead the team in batting average last season at .321. Martinez signed on with the Detroit Tigers, and steps in as their starting catcher. Also, after the season was over, Mike Lowell announced his retirement from baseball after a stellar career.
With Gonzalez manning first base, Youkilis will shift back over to third. Pedroia remains at second, while Marco Scutaro will return at shortshop. Ellsbury, after being in left field last season, will head back to center. Crawford will take Ellsbury's place in left field, while J.D. Drew returns to right field. Captain Jason Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia will continue their catching duties.
The Red Sox also have a very potent offensive machine.
Now that they've added the speed of Crawford and the power of Gonzalez, those offensive numbers should only rise. Crawford had 47 stolen bases last season for the Rays, as well as a .307 batting average. He almost had more stolen bases than the Red Sox did as a team. Gonzalez lead the Padres in all the major batting categories, including batting average, home runs and RBIs.
The key for the offense is to remain healthy and swing a more consistent bat. Ellsbury played a total of 18 games last season. Pedroia played in only 75. It's up to those guys to get on base for their power hitters to be able to drive them home. Terry Francona typically doesn't steal a whole lot of bases, but with Ellsbury healthy and Crawford in the lineup, he'll be able to take advantage of their speed.
I haven't even mentioned Big Papi, David Ortiz.
He was able to play in 145 games, and had a productive season once he got going. He finished with 32 home runs, 102 RBIs and a .270 batting average. He's another year older, and now slides (presumably) into the sixth spot in the order. He'll have Gonzalez and Youkilis hitting in front of him, both of whom are good hitters for average. He'll continue to see his fair share of RBI opportunities, and can hopefully capitalize with those guys on base.
Lester and Buchholz were the bright spots of the pitching rotation, finishing fourth and sixth respectively in the AL Cy Young voting. Lester lead the team in wins with 19, while Buchholz finished with 17. Buchholz proved his worth as a member of the Red Sox pitching staff, striking out 120 batters and sporting a team-low ERA of 2.33. It'll be up to those two to really carry the pitching staff again.
Josh Beckett's pitching, meanwhile, continues to free fall. Hopefully, with a healthy and re-focused Beckett, he can get back to his old pitching dominance of a few years back.
Lackey was a solid starter for the Angels, but suffered in his first season in the AL East. Now that he's got a full season under his belt in Boston, he'll need live up to the contract he signed and deliver for Terry Francona and crew.
Matsuzaka needs to have a good season as well. He was good, but then he was bad. He needs to prove that he was worth all that money the Red Sox spent to get him. He still walks too many batters, and needs to find better command with his pitches.
The fifth spot in the rotation seems to be open, with Wakefield, Doubront, Millers and a few others battling to capture it.
Bobby Jenks came over from the Chicago White Sox to help out with the lackluster bullpen. Daniel Bard may have been the brightest spot out of the pen last season. He struck out 76 and finished with a 1.93 ERA.
Jonathan Papelbon was questioned this offseason if he was still the guy. He had 37 saves last season, but his ERA rose to 3.90. Not good for a closer. He was rumored to be in trade talks, but nothing happened. Now that he's back, hopefully he's been motivated to regain his form.
Assuming this team can stay relatively healthy and continually get better, more consistent hitting and pitching, it'll be yet another battle between them and the New Yankees for the AL East crown. Sure, this will be a little biased, but I give the Red Sox the edge. They've got a younger lineup with better options off the bench.
Reddick, Nava, McDonald, Hermida, Lowrie and Kalish all got some time. Lowrie missed a good portion due to injury, but played well during his brief time on the active roster.
Mike Cameron is another veteran that provides leadership, defense, and a decent bat off the bench. Much of this season's success will depend upon the starting pitching. If Beckett and Lackey can lock it up and pitch like we know they can—going deeper into the games while taking the pressure off the bullpen—it'll result in better performances and more wins in the end.
I think the Red Sox will take the AL East this year.
They've got to be hungry after a dismal season in 2010 and missing the playoffs. They've brought in two outstanding players in Crawford and Gonzalez, and get their walking wounded back after having missed a lot of time last season.
2011 Red Sox Record: 95-67
Remember, the last time the Red Sox missed the playoffs in 2006, they won the World Series the next season (swept the Rockies in 2007). Just a thought.