Miss Me, Miss Me, Now You Have to Kiss Me
By Brian Phair
There is nothing like going on vacation in Arizona and arriving home just a few days before one of the biggest blizzards of the past several years in New England. As I was outside shoveling nearly 2 feet of snow yesterday, all I kept thinking of was warm weather. Whenever Boston gets dumped with snow, I can’t help but think of how close we are to Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, FL in just over 4 weeks on February 15th and just 4 days later is the first full squad practice. Red Sox fans and staff have a lot to be excited about this Spring with some major additions to the roster and what on paper appears to be a balanced and powerful lineup. The front end of the Sox rotation looks as strong as any and their bullpen appears to be coming together rather nicely. That being said, there are still some question marks that need to be addressed.
The first big question mark is the end of the Sox rotation. With a 1-2-3 punch of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz, it is hard to argue with their rotation strength, but John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka leave a lot to be desired. If the Red Sox want to compete for a World Series title in 2011, they can’t afford the type of inconsistent and shaky outings they received from both Lackey and Dice-K in 2010. Combined, the 2 pitchers had a respectable 23-17 record last season, but both had eras above 4.40 and looked awful during stretches of the season. It is difficult to swallow the tandem’s $25.5 million payroll in 2011 if they repeat their high eras, but at the same time, as long as the Red Sox offensive is as potent as expected, they will still collect several wins each.
The second big question has been discussed quite a bit. It is the bullpen for the Sox in 2011. They have brought in some nice and respectable options in Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks, but with Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, do the Sox have enough? They added briefly dropped Hideki Okajima, adding a lefty in the ‘pen, but he has slipped the last few years and has been anything but reliable. The Sox are missing a strong lefty unless Okajima can channel is 2007 and 2008 self, which is unlikely. Against their biggest divisional rival, the Sox will need a strong lefty or 2 in the ‘pen to match-up with the Yankees in mid-and late-game situations. Felix Doubront will likely get a long look as a long-man in the ‘pen, but could also earn a more important role due to his lefty status. The Sox also have lefties Andrew Miller and Rich Hill, but there is a ton of uncertainty when it comes to those two guys. You never know who will step as the season wears on.
The third big question for now is the Red Sox catching situation. If you have followed this blog for a while, you know my belief and faith in Jarrod Saltalamacchia. That being said, he is a gigantic question mark in a powerful and fast Sox lineup. He has struggled both offensively and defensively over his young career and has shown some mental instability as well as physical instability during periods of time. His back-up or split-time guy is Jason Varitek, who although is the Sox captain and has been invaluable to the Sox over the years, his offense always begins moderately-strong and then fizzles to rock-bottom numbers. I believe his controlling of the game behind the plate is what is important, but to have an easy out in the lineup only helps the opposing pitcher. Salty is working with coach Gary Tuck this off-season and if anyone can turn this kid around, it is Tuck. As much faith as I have, I am still concerned the closer we get to the Spring.
The final big question is another topic that has been beat to death in the Boston media. It is the lefty-heavy lineup of the Red Sox lineup. The Sox will likely start 5 lefties and 1 switch-hitter, making them a pitching nightmare for righties, but tough to hit against lefties. It will certainly be a new feeling in Boston to have as many lefties stepping into the box as they do, but when you break it down, it’s the smallest concern of all. Last season, lefty Adrian Gonzalez hit nearly .060 points higher against lefties than righties, essentially destroying the norms of the lefty-lefty match-up. On top of that, Mike Cameron will likely start in place of David Ortiz against most left-handed pitchers, so the Sox will actually only have 4 lefties in their lineup and with Gonzo’s numbers, will essentially only have 3 for match-up purposes. We will have to see whether the lefty-heavy lineup does effect the team’s out-put versus lefties, especially if Andy Pettitte returns to the Yankees, but it’s not going to prevent them from playing deep into October. Only time will tell if these questions rear their ugly head as April approaches.