By Brian Maloney
Well, here it is, our final installment of previewing the Boston Red Sox. Here are some thoughts on their pitching staff.
The starting rotation for the Sox will be the same rotation we saw last season, with perhaps a different starting order.
Jon Lester has been announced as the Opening Day starter when the season begins in Texas. The lefty, easily capable of approaching the 20-win mark, is a true ace and should compete for the Cy Young Award.
John Lackey will get the start in game two. Last off-season’s big signing was good for 200 innings and 14 wins last season, and that will be the target yet again.
Clay Buchholz is the third starter in the rotation. This could really be Buchholz’s breakout season, as he could make the jump from mid-rotation to top-of-the-line starter. This will only be Buchholz’s second full season in the big leagues. Last year he put up a 2.33 earned run average (ERA) through 170+ innings. If he can keep the ERA about the same and give the team 30+ innings, there will be nothing else to ask of him.
Josh Beckett will get the first start in the second series of the season. Tito is holding Beckett back to let him fully recover after getting a baseball to the head during Spring Training, and possibly so he doesn’t have to open the season in Texas. Beckett is still a fantastic starter, being downright dominant at times.
Daisuke Matsuzaka needs to have a coming out party this year. The clamoring to move him will only increase this season if he doesn’t show that he was worth every penny of the gigantic deal he got a few years ago. Once batters were used to the funkiness of his delivery, his deceptiveness was lost. He needs to go more than five innings, 120 pitches and have the bases loaded every inning. Red Sox nation does not need to have collective heart attacks.
The Sox have seven spots in the bullpen. Four are set in stone, leaving three uncertain.
Jonathan Papelbon is locked in as the closer, but this year he will have to be successful to keep his job. Set-up men Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks are ready, willing and able to take the closer role over, if Papelbon should not return to his old form. They will fill the seventh and eighth inning roles for the time being.
Bard fits the hard-throwing mold that Papelbon already uses and he can blow the best of hitters away.
Jenks has previous experience as the closer for the Chicago White Sox and has shown that he can get it done.
Free Agent signee Dan Wheeler has also locked in his spot in the bullpen as a middle reliever. Wheeler will only be good for an inning at a time, but he will perform with a sub-3.50 ERA.
That leaves three spots open: Long Relief, Left-handed Specialist (LOOGY) and Middle Relief.
The Long Relief job has recently been Tim Wakefield’s position. His ERA has been increasing over the last few seasons, but being in his mid 40’s, Wakefield can’t do this forever. However, this is probably a tenure situation.
Michael Bowden, Felix Doubront, Alfredo Aceves and local boy Rich Hill are also candidates for this spot, especially Aceves and Hill with how well they’ve both pitched this spring. Expect all to get a look this season, but Wakefield wins the spot for the time being. He will also serve as the sixth starter.
The LOOGY spot really has two candidates: former All-Star Hideki Okajima and free agent Dennys Reyes. The key issues separating these two is probably that Okajima has minor league options and Reyes does not. Furthermore, Okajima showed last year that he needed to change something in his game, as batters were starting to figure him out. This will be a tough call, but Reyes gets the bullpen spot, at least to start the season.
The Middle Relief spot is being fought between Bowden, Doubront, Aceves, Hill, Okajima, Matt Albers, Scott Atchison and Andrew Miller.
The Sox seem to like all of these players, so it will most likely come down to who has the option to go to Pawtucket to start the season.
Bowden, Doubront, Aceves, Okajima and Atchison have options, so they are out. Hill and Miller are both signed to minor league contracts so they can be sent down without worrying about options. So, if the Sox really want to keep all of these pitchers that leaves Albers as the seventh man in the pen.
This decision is solely based on keeping the players, not how they are currently pitching. Boston will inevitably have a pitcher or two on the disabled list to begin the season, therefore, resulting in more spots for that last group of players.
The Rest: Let’s take a look at the rest of the pitchers we may see this season, starting with the men who are competing for an Opening Day spot.
Bowden has been a long-time prospect in the system and he could be a full time player for Boston by the end of the season. He has the flexibility to start or come out of the bullpen, although he has hit a wall at AAA and needs to break through.
Doubront has similar flexibility. He has tremendous potential, but probably has a future as trade bait, especially with all the free agent signings of this season. Look for him to get time in July to entice possible trade partners.
Aceves looks to be the best of the outside-looking-in pitchers going into the season. He could probably fill the seventh bullpen spot, but Francona likes him as a Starter. He will be the Opening Day Starter in Pawtucket.
Hill has the major league experience with the home-crowd pulling for him. He has developed more of a sidearm release recently, which he needs time to perfect. As we have seen with players such as Javier Lopez, there will always be room in Boston for a lefty.
Okajima is probably the most surprising on this list. His not making the roster is mostly a numbers issue. Any Sox fan knows what they have with Okajima and he will be back in Boston to fill the first bullpen injury spot.
Atchison is a solid relief pitcher and a good insurance policy. He made 43 appearances for Boston last season, so the team knows that he is reliable.
Miller, a former top prospect for the Tigers, ran into mechanic issues and was relegated to the bullpen in Florida. This is a reclamation project for the Sox; anything the team gets out of him is a positive.
Two other pitchers on the expanded roster not mentioned thus far are Junichi Tazawa and Stolmy Pimentel.
We all remember Tazawa for his appearances at the end of the 2009 season. He missed all of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he will get a few starts in Boston this season. However, the team will not rush him back.
21-year-old Pimentel is only on the 40-man roster at this point in his early-career because he has been a professional since the age of 17, and the rules require him to be on. He is at least a season away from even spot duty in Boston, but his is a name to follow.
Two more veteran names that those who follow baseball may recognize are Brandon Duckworth and Lenny DiNardo. Both are unlikely to be in Boston this year, but you will know them when you visit McCoy Stadium.
Starters: Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka
Bullpen: Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler, Tim Wakefield, Dennys Reyes, Matt Albers
The Rest: Michael Bowden, Felix Doubront, Alfredo Aceves, Rich Hill, Hideki Okajima, Scott Atchison, Andrew Miller, Junichi Tazawa, Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Duckworth, Lenny DiNardo