I think the 2011 Red Sox are going to be good. I'll even give you very good. But to listen to callers (and hosts) on 'EEI the last couple of days you'd think the 1998 Yankees and The Big Red Machine better hurry up and figure out which team is going to be ranked second on the list of best team of our lifetime.
Forget who gets the ball on Opening Day, it would seem that we need to know who will be starting Game 3 of the ALDS. Lackey or Beckett? Tough call, they each won 22 games …
The Red Sox have a terrific lineup and a hugely improved bullpen. I have some doubts about the rotation, but it's top five in the league. And there is almost no chance of a repeat of the DL-stuffing rash of injuries from 2010. They are the favorites to win the AL East (and American League) and they should be. They have the best team on paper.
But all this talk of 100 wins is a touch greedy, no? Winning 100 games ain't easy. The Sox have done it three times in franchise history, and exactly once since 1915 (104-50 in 1946). The 1978 team came close, won 99 games. The 1986 team won 95 games. The two World Series teams? 98 wins in 2004 and 96 in '07 (and if any team was going to win a 100 games it was the '04 team -- each starting pitcher made at least 32 starts).
I'm going to try and burst the bubble a little bit. Again, I think the best team in the American League, I really do. But this isn't a perfect team, not even close. I've got them at 95-67 and winning the division, but it's not hard to put together a scenario that sees them on the outside looking in at the end of the season.
So with that, let's take a look at the 10 reasons why the Red Sox might not make the playoffs in 2011 …
Well, duh. No kidding. Whoever is writing the "14,442 reasons why the Pittsburgh Pirates might miss the playoffs" column is probably leading off with injuries, and so did the guy who wrote the "Yeah, but" story when previewing the Yankees in March of 1927. But it can't be ignored simply because it's an obvious mention. Ask 100 Red Sox fans Reason No. 1 why their team didn't make the playoffs last season and at least 75 of 'em are going to name the injuries to Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Beckett, Mike Cameron and Victor Martinez as the main culprit. Clearly that was a perfect storm of disaster and almost certainly will not happen again. And by every account all the walking wounded from last season are healthy and ready to go in 2011. But -- not unlike extreme sunburn, the cost of air conditioning and any film directed by Michael Bay -- injuries have a way of sneaking up and kicking the crap out of your summer. Right now things are swell in Injuryville (kind of -- more on that later), but that was also the case a year ago today. Something that can't be controlled, of course, but always kicking around.
(Aside: Giving this column the once-over, I realized that I again wrote "Mike Seaver" instead of "Mike Cameron." Always happens, and I think anyone between the age of 30-38 understands why. Kirk Cameron played Mike Seaver on the seminal 80's sitcom "Growing Pains." So a sort of hybrid of the character and the actor pops in my head every time I'm writing something about the veteran center fielder. What does it mean? Well, if anything, it's another ice-breaker if I ever meet Alan Thicke.)
9. Is Buchholz This Good?
A year ago, Buchholz was largely viewed as -- if not a disappointment -- a question mark, a guy battling Tim Wakefield for the fifth spot in the rotation. Well, 17 wins and a 2.33 ERA later, Buchholz enters the 2011 season as one of the two "sure things" in the rotation. I have very little doubt that Buchholz will be a good pitcher in 2011, but isn't a step back to be expected? Hard to ignore the idea that there was some luck involved in Buchholz's 2010 season -- his walks per nine innings stayed the same as it was in 2009, and his strikeouts per nine actually went down. In fact, both rates were below the league average. Again, I don't think he falls off a cliff this season, but if those numbers stay the same I'd expect a record and ERA that is more in line -- think 14-10 and 4.00.
8. All Your Life is Channel 13
Look, I hate writing this stuff. But I guess we have to raise the possibility that the pressure of playing in Boston might be a problem for Adrian Gonzalez, at least for the first couple of months. I hate writing it because there's really no way to prove if it's true. Gonzalez could be batting .230 with four home runs on Memorial Day and it could have nothing to do with the fact that there will be more media at his locker on most days than there were fans in the stands for some Padres games. But figuring out if "big-city pressure" is real is like trying to prove if clutch hitting exists or determining what it is exactly that makes me reach for a fork to remove my eyeballs every time Skip Bayless in on ESPN. No way to know, but we have heard enough athletes over the years say that the first year in a major media market can be a test.
That would be the career OPS of Jared Saltalamacchia. And I get that you can't have an All-Star at every position and he'll see better pitches in this lineup and that Theo and the crew really like him, but Saltalamacchia has been a lot more Dale Berra than Yogi Berra in his 813 major-league at-bats. If everyone in the lineup is healthy Saltalamacchia can hit .220 and it won't matter, but you lose a couple of guys for a month or two and all of the sudden it's a weakness.
6. Wait, Did I Mention Injuries?
J.D. Drew, I'm going to miss you next year. The gift that keeps on giving. He almost made it to Lincoln's Birthday before letting us know that he's not sure if his hamstring injury has fully healed, which is really Drew's way of telling us to buckle up and get ready for another 130-game season.
"I don't think it's going to be a major issue when I get to camp, but there are going to be some questions from me when I get there to make sure that thing is good," Drew explained to Rob Bradford on February 7. "I'm kind of in the process now of doing some light running to see where I'm at. It feels better than it did, but that being said, baseball speed is a lot different workout speed."
Ah, talk about knowing your audience. Well played, J.D, those comments sure won over the masses. I have to think the Sox were banking on the 2008-09 Drew showing up this season (OBP above .390, slugging over .500 in both seasons), but if this hamstring deal is legit and does in fact linger it could mean more of the 2010 Drew (career-low .341 OBP, a 70-point drop in slugging percentage).
Doesn't Dice-K's 2008 season look more and more like one of the great fluke jobs in recent history? I'm not suggesting that Matsuzaka doesn't have the stuff to win 18 games -- and I still think watching a good Dice-K start (think the near no-hitter vs. the Phillies) runs a very close second to a Rajon Rondo-led fast break on the Boston Sports Level of Enjoyment chart -- but look at his numbers from '08. He led the majors in walks (94) and had a WHIP of 1.32 (tied with Paul Byrd for 24th in the AL). Most guys who do that don't finish third in the league in ERA, as Dice-K did in 2008 (just a a couple of examples -- in 2009 Carl Pavano was 24th in WHIP and 30th in ERA and in 2010 Doug Fister was 24th in WHIP and 27th in ERA). What we've seen the last two years is probably closer to the truth, somewhere in the 4.50-5.00 ERA world. That would be OK if you knew he would make 30 starts and had confidence in the four guys above him in the rotation, but that's just not the case right now.
4. Will Tony La Russa Please Shut Up?
Slightly off-topic, but this guy is such a blowhard. He goes off on the MLBPA for pressuring Albert Pujols to sign a record-setting contract. He describes that pressure as something close to "dropping an anvil on your back through the roof of your house." And then when asked, he admits that he has no actual evidence that Pujols was in fact being pressured by the MLBPA. So what's the problem exactly? La Russa is a great manager, but he can be such a fraud. Think he has any reason to want Pujols to take a lesser deal from the Cardinals? If Bud Selig was Bud was Commander General of the Steroid Era, La Russa had a high seat in the cabinet. And we never heard word one about steroids from La Russa during the Bash Brother days or when Mark McGwire went from Steve Balboni to Babe Ruth. And he's no dummy -- La Russa must've known what was going on. The Hall of Fame voters have been pretty clear to date when it comes to punishing the players when it comes to steroids. I wonder if La Russa -- without question a steroid-era profiteer --- will take a hit when his time comes.
(Sorry, this was actually supposed to be about Jacoby Ellsbury, but you already know the deal. He could hit .300 and steal 75 bases and I don't think anyone would be shocked, or he could hit .240 and play 26 games and I don't think anyone would be shocked. Make or break year.)
3. Paid Like an Ace, Treated Like An Ace …
Josh Beckett has been -- with the exception of 2007 -- an average (at best) major-league pitcher during his Red Sox tenure. His non-2007 ERA with the Red Sox is 4.57. You think Kevin Correia is an ace? He signed a two-year, $8 million contract with the Pirates in the off-season. His career record is 36-43. His ERA? 4.57.
It's fair, I suppose, to call 'EEI and predict a bounce-back year from Beckett, as I've heard dozens of times over the past couple of weeks. But if you think Beckett can pitch like he did in 2007, isn't at least as likely that he could pitch like he did in 2006 (5.01 ERA), or 2008 (12-10, 4.03 ERA) or last year (5.78 ERA, which would have been dead last in the AL if he pitched enough innings)?
It's nice that he wants to win 100 games and that he's looking ahead and all the other spring training fluff stories that we read every year, but the reality is this: Josh Beckett enters the 2011 season as just another guy. And if puts up another lousy season that contract ($68 million over four years) officially moves into the Flop Zone, not at the Barry Zito or Mike Hampton level but somewhere in the Kevin Millwood or Carl Pavano neighborhood.
(Millwood signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Rangers in December 2005 and lasted four years before they moved him to Baltimore. His ERA in those four seasons? 4.57.)
2. What Is the Definition of Quality?
Give John Lackey this: The guy learned from his mistakes last season. Who knows if he'll pitch better, but he has clearly turned the corner when it comes to changing how he's viewed by the fans. I mean, Lackey was paid $18.7 million last year, the most ever in a single season for a Red Sox pitcher. By a lot. He was paid more than four times as much as Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz -- combined. And for that money, Lackey submitted a season that included an WHIP of 1.42 (36th in the AL) and an ERA of 4.40 (34th among 40 eligible AL pitchers). A whiff, a stinker, a borderline disgrace for the money. So when Lackey faced the media for the first time in spring training a couple of days ago, he said exactly what you wanted to hear.
"I'd won 14 games only once in my life. I led the team in quality starts. Whatever."
Not exactly Taking Ownership 101.
Ready for a little Pitcher A, Pitcher B?
Pitcher A: 4.40 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 9.8 hits per nine innings, 2.17 K/BB ratio
Pitcher B: 4.64 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 9.8 hits per nine innings, 1.98 K/BB ratio
See much difference, because I sure don't. Pitcher A, as we know, is Lackey in 2010. Pitcher B was Freddy Garcia in 2010. Lackey will be paid $15.7 million in 2011 (and for the following three years). Garcia signed a minor-league contract with the Yankees about a week ago.
Listen, the reality is that the Red Sox probably didn't figure that Lackey would be a Cy Young candidate when they signed him to that $82.5 million deal. They knew they overpaid, but there was comfort in the idea of locking up a guy you wouldn't have to worry about for the next half-decade. Durability, high teens in wins, ERA in the mid-to-high 3.00's, and the security that a "big-game pitcher" would be on the mound in, well, big games. Instead what they got was a glorified innings eater with an almost unnerving habit of taking zero blame after a loss.
But I think Lackey is a much safer bet than Beckett to bounce back. He was better in the second half (3.97 ERA, 1.22 WHIP) and there isn't the injury history. Again, he isn't going to win 20 games or have an ERA under 3.00 (he has never accomplished either), but it's perfectly reasonable to expect a 15-10, 3.80 ERA kind of year. And -- fingers crossed -- he can handle the pressure and somehow manage to repeat as the team leader in quality starts.
1. In Closing
Here's the thing about Jonathan Papelbon: The leash is basically gone. If he blows, say, four of his first seven save chances I think Francona will make a move to Daniel Bard or Bobby Jenks (I guess probably Jenks, right?) Francona is almost Clemenza-like in his loyalty but A) Papelbon's had enough chances, B) there are just too many other quality options kicking around and C) this is a team built to win right now.
Papelbon's strikeout numbers and hits allowed haven't changed much since his best seasons (2006-08). The only real difference is the walks. In his first four seasons he walked a total of 53 batters in 230 innings. The last two seasons? He's walked 52 batters in 135 innings. He's probably never going to be the Papelbon of 2006 and 2007 again, but if he can limit the walks he should be back among the top 10 best closers in the league. And that would be OK for what will almost surely be his final season in Boston.