Being a proud Bostonian, I’m prone to say this every spring, but this year, I do so with a bit more conviction than usual: The Boston Red Sox will win the American League East.
They are a team with virtually no real weakness at present.
General Manager Theo Epstein ran head long into the offseason free agent market with two fists full of John Henry’s money and emerged with arguably the two biggest fish in the pond. The additions of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and left fielder Carl Crawford make what was a pretty good lineup into a downright scary one.
In the field, the Sox will be flashing more leather than the crowd at a Lady Gaga concert. With six former Gold Glovers on the bench, four of whom should be everyday starters, the Olde Towne Team looks to be a pretty solid one defensively. Both Gonzalez and Crawford have won the award, and while Gonzo joins an infield that already boasts two former winners in Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. Crawford takes over one of the most storied pieces of real estate in the history of sports: left field at Fenway Park. Once home to names like Williams, Rice and Yastrzemski, the patch of grass that lies at the foot of the Green Monster has also suffered through some of the more bizarre and beguiling moments in Red Sox history. Think Manny Ramirez disappearing into the scoreboard to take a phone call during a pitching change in 2008. Crawford is inked to a seven-year $142 million contract, keeping him in Boston until 2017. While he may not come near the glamour numbers posted by Ramirez, Rice, Teddy Ballgame or Yaz, Crawford has a few things none of those players had. In addition to being far and away the best fielder of the bunch, Crawford has six consecutive seasons with at least a .450 slugging percentage and 45 stolen bases. That ties him with Rickey Henderson and Cesar Cedeno. The only players with more? Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner with seven each. How's that for select company?
Toeing the slab for the local nine this season, is essentially the same corps as last year. That being said, with Cy Young candidates John Lester and Clay Buchholz returning, what are the chances that Josh Beckett and John Lackey perform as poorly as they did a year ago? In my mind, not that great.
Beckett has a recent history of roller coaster-like form. Since posting his career year in 2007, going 20-7 with a 3.27 earned run average and finishing second in AL Cy Young voting, Beckett came back in '08 with an infinitely pedestrian 12-10 mark and a less than stellar 4.03 ERA. He bounced back in 2009, posting a 17-6 record with an ERA of 3.86. Last season, Beckett suffered his worst year as a pro. His 5.78 ERA made him a near liability for most of his starts in 2010.
But given his track record of rebounding from tough campaigns, I'll put my money on Beckett bouncing back this summer. The guy has been a war horse throughout his career, and his 127.2 innings pitched a year ago over 21 starts still averages out to a shade over six innings per start. His arm is fine. I think he'll regain some of his form, if perhaps not his dominance, from prior seasons. If he stays healthy, I'm looking at him for 15-16 wins and somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 innings pitched in 2011.
Even if Beckett struggles again this year, the rest of the rotation, featuring John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield has a couple of tested veterans with proven track records of being reliable Major League starting pitchers.
It also has Matsuzaka. For all his vast array of weaponry, Daisuke, save for his first two seasons in America, has been uninspiring, to say the least. Despite winning 15 and 18 games respectively in 2007 and 2008, Daisuke has shown a maddening aversion to just throwing strikes. With the exception of 2007, when he fanned 201 batters and walked 80 over 204.2 innings, he has never walked fewer than four men per inning in his career. He has five viable big league pitches and throws in the 90s, yet he refuses to attack head on. Daisuke likes to nibble on the corners, and he drives me crazy with it. I'm convinced he would be a much better pitcher if he would just throw the damn ball over the plate.
Wakefield is a known entity. We know what to expect from him. He will be invaluable either coming out of the bullpen and making spot starts, or as a replacement in the rotation if necessary. The man with the slowest fastball since Montgomery Burns still has that crazy knuckler, and that's enough to make Wakefield an innings-eating madman no matter how he's employed this summer.
Lackey, well, he takes his fair share of lumps in the press at times, but I like him for a number of reasons. Primarily, because he pitches a ton of innings and gives up very few home runs. While not awe inspiring by any stretch last year, Lackey pitched 215 innings and surrendered just 18 round trippers. He's 32, and prior to last year's 4.40 ERA, Lackey hadn't seen a sub 4.00 earned run average since 2004. I don't think he's quite washed up yet, and I'm looking at him to have a solid season in 2011.
All that being said, even if the rotation ends up being "Lester and Clay, then look the other way," I still think the lineup is just ridiculous. It's like a video game team assembled in cheat mode. It's good enough to cover up a lot of poor outings.
I know they lost 9-5 to the Rangers on opening day, but consider the lineup they trotted out: Jacoby Ellsbury, CF; Pedroia, 2B; Crawford, LF; Youkilis, 3B; Gonzalez, 1B; David Ortiz, DH; Mike Cameron, RF; Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C; Marco Scutaro, SS.
I think the pedigrees of hitters one through six speak for themselves. Cameron, batting out of the seven hole, though past his prime, is one of just 15 players in MLB history to have hit four home runs in one game, accomplishing the tremendous feat in 2002. Not bad for your number seven hitter.
Saltalamacchia and Scutaro are not wearing Red Sox uniforms because anyone expects them to put too many new dents in the Green Monster. They are here for their glove work. Scutaro is a proven everyday infielder with a strong resume of leather-based feats, while the Sox' new catcher will be in the role of starter for the first time in his career. Jason Varitek still remains on the bench, just in case Terry Francona doesn't stay sweet on "Salty" for too long.
It's still down to the Yankees, Rays and Sox, and Boston has the horses to win the race.
Pitching will be a problem in the Bronx this summer, and many of the Yankees key men are getting conspicuously long in the tooth. Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter were born during the Nixon administration, while Alex Rodriguez came into the world while Gerald Ford was in the White House.
On the mound, Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes will need to come up big for the Yankees in 2011, while it seems they will also look to veteran Freddy Garcia to bolster the rotation. With CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett at the front end, while still strong, the New York starting five look somewhat suspect. I think the Red Sox are just better.
The Red Sox will win the American League East. I'll say it again. They have a pair of 40-plus stolen base guys in Crawford and Ellsbury in addition to all the aforementioned assets. No other team in the East boasts such power and speed in one lineup.
The pitching is obviously the area that bears the most scrutiny, and as I said, they have the horses.
They're going to beat the Yankees like a gong, and I'm going to revel in it.
My prediction: The Red Sox go 98-64, topping Tampa Bay for the AL East crown. The Yankees win 89 games, and the New York media are feasting on the blood of Joe Girardi and AJ Burnett by the first week of August.
It's going to be a beautiful thing.