Rays Not Alone, Red Sox Also Have Questions

According to VegasInsider.com, the Red Sox and Yankees are 5/2 favorites to win the American League Pennant while the Rays odds are listed as 10/1.   Both the PECOTA and CAIRO projection systems have the Red Sox winning the AL East, the Yankees finishing second, and the Rays finishing in third.   As Rays fans we are used to the February doubt that comes with not having acquired the name brand free agents to plug holes on the roster or keep up with the annual upgrades made in New York and Boston. 

The offseason template that the national media seems to follow with the Red Sox (and other large market teams) is to focus on the team strengths often neglecting the areas of concern that may prevent the team from reaching the lofty heights established for them.  After the season, it's these same writers who will devote their columns letting us know what went wrong and what a great job the GM did in filling those holes and the cycle resets itself.  With all the changes made in Boston, will the Red Sox season be much different in 2011 than in 2010?   What are the Red Sox weaknesses?

The Red Sox 2010 season was derailed by a slew of injuries as they finished 7 games behind the Rays with a record of 89-73.  During the offseason, the Red Sox said goodbye to super utility man Bill Hall, 3b Adrian Beltre, and C Victor Martinez.  Among their key additions were free agents LF Carl Crawford, RHRP Dan Wheeler, RHRP Bobby Jenks, and RHRP Alfredo Aceves and they added 1b Adrian Gonzalez via trade.   These additions along with the return from injury of Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron who missed nearly all of the season along with the return of Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia who missed most of the second half, and Josh Beckett who was only able to make 21 starts are the reasons why the Red Sox fans are excited about their teams chances to return to the World Series. 

Final Thoughts

After reviewing the Red Sox the following questions came to mind:

* Is Ken Rosenthal crowning the Red Sox AL Champs rather early?

* How fragile is the Red Sox rotation?

*  Was Clay Buchholz the beneficiary of an unusual amount of luck in 2010?

* Will Josh Beckett have the bounce back year that his statistics seem to indicate he is due?

* Were Jonathon Papelbons struggles in September 2010 a sign of fatigue or a warning sign to the Red Sox?

* Will Bobby Jenks hold up for an entire season and will he be able to transition from closer to middle reliever?

* How much better will the offense be with Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford in place of Adrian Beltre, Victor Martinez, and Bill Hall?

* Check out the Podcast to Be Named Later for a listen to a review of the AL East and an extensive review of the Red Sox. Click here for a look at the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles, and click here for a look at the New York Yankees.

The Starting Rotation: The Achilles Heel?

The Red Sox go into 2011 with a rotation of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.  Jon Lester is the ACE of the staff and can be expected to have another strong season.  The other four have question marks for one reason or another which makes the starting rotation the weak link to the Red Sox 2011 season.

My first inclination was to assume that the Red Sox rotation was solid with Jon Lester and Clay Buccholz at the top.   I was going to focus on Beckett, Lackey, and Matsuzaka as areas of concern, after all, Clay Buchholz was coming off a very impressive 2010 campaign compiling a record of 17-7 with an ERA of 2.33.   Although he had a sparkling ERA of 2.33, he had a FIP was 3.61 and a xFIP was 4.20 which was my first indication that I should probably dig a little deeper.  What I found was the deluxe suite of luck.  The opposition had an extremely low batting average against of .222 ,  a low BABIP of .261, and a high LOB% of 79%    The BAA against number is surprising as he wasn't overpowering as indicated by his K/9 of 6.22.  One other surprising set of numbers for Buchholz were his FB% and his HR/FB%.  In 2010, Buchholz had a FB% of 31.5% which was higher than 2008 (31.4%) and 2009 (28.6%) but his HR/FB% was at 5.6% compared to 14.7% in 2008 and 15.7% in 2009.  How effective will Buchholz be when the luck dragon of BABIP and LOB% reveal their evil side?

John Lackey will be 32 this season and has become a more ordinary pitcher each of the last four seasons.  His WHiP has increased each of the last 4 seasons (1.21, 1.23, 1.27, 1.43), his ERA has increased each of the last 4 seasons (3.01, 3.75, 3.83, 4.40), his xFIP has a simlar trend as his ERA (3.99, 3.88, 3.92, 4.32),  his K/9 rate has also decreased over the last 4 seasons (7.19, 7.16, 7.09, 6.53), and his BB/9 has increased in each of the last 4 seasons (2.1, 2.2, 2.4, 3.0).   For more on John Lackey 2010 struggles check out this article by Joe Pawlikowski at Fangraphs. 

Josh Beckett will turn 31 during the 2011 season. He is coming off a year in which he only made 21 starts due to injury.  When he did pitch, he pitched poorly as his 6-6 record with an ERA of 5.78 (xFIP of 4.01) indicates.   It is easy to assume that  Beckett should have a bounce back year after a 2010 season which included a low LOB% of 65.3%, a high BABIP of .338, a high HR/9 rate of 1.41, and a career high WHiP of 1.54.  The one thing that may stand in the way of a Beckett bounce back would be another injury plagued year. 

Daisuke Matsuzaka will be 31 at the end of the 2011 season.  When healthy Matsuzaka has been an effective starter for the Red Sox.  Unfortunately for the Red Sox, he seems to have trouble staying healthy.  Matsuzaka made 12 starts (59.1 IP)  in 2009 and 25 starts in 2010 (153.2 IP).  Like Beckett, Matsuzaka will have to prove healthy enough and ideally give the Red Sox 30 starts and 200 innings pitched.

The Red Sox will have decisions to make on Felix Doubront and Alfredo Aceves.  Should they be sent to Pawtuckett to be stretched out as starters or put into the bullpen?    It should be noted that a team can use a dominant offense combined with an average bullpen to win 90+ games as the Yankees did in 2007 when they used 14 starting pitchers and finished 8th in the American League with a 4.57 team ERA.

The Offense: Intimidating Lineup

The Red Sox offense is built to score runs and barring injury that is exactly what they will do.  I won't spend much time trying to poke holes in the Sox offense as it has all the components you could want going into a season: speed, average, and power. 

The Projected Lineup from MLB Depth Charts is Jacoby Ellsbury (CF), Dustin Pedroia (2b), Carl Crawford (LF), Adrian Gonzalez (1b), Kevin Youkilis (3b), David Ortiz (DH), J.D. Drew (RF), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (C), and Marco Scutaro (SS). 

The Red Sox bench will include C Jason Varitek, UIF Jed Lowrie, OF Mike Cameron, and OF Darnell McDonald.  The questions surrounding the offense include the health of Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, will Adrian Gonzalez immediately find success in the AL East, and will the offense score enough runs to support a starting staff that may struggle.

The Bullpen: Strength In Numbers

Entering 2010, the Red Sox had three very established middle relievers and a strong closer, but Hideki Okajima, Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen all struggled in 2010 and Jonathon Papelbon had his worst season of his career.   The bullpen received a boost as Daniel Bard emerged as the future but the Red Sox felt that the bullpen was an area of concern that needed to be addressed.    The Red Sox added Dan Wheeler, Bobby Jenks, Dennys Reyes (minor league deal), and Matt Albers to the 2011 bullpen mix.  

The first five spots in the Red Sox bullpen will most likely be filled by Papelbon, Bard, Jenks, Wheeler, and Albers.  Tim Wakefield will most likely take one of the final two spots as a long reliever which leaves a battle between Dennys Reyes and Hideki Okajima for the left handed specialist role.  A few questions about the Red Sox bullpen:

{sample size disclaimer} Much like Jose Bautista performance in September of 2009 (10 HR, .944 OPS) was a precursor of his breakout season in 2011, was Papelbons September 2011 a symptom of a more serious issue in 2011.  In September of 2010 Papelbon was 0-2 with an 8.74 ERA in 11.1 innings of work and hitters had a .862 OPS against him. 

Bobby Jenks had an emotional year with the White Sox in 2010.  He was removed as closer several times during the 2010 season which may have had something to do with Jenks quote after signing in Boston  ""I'm looking forward to playing for a manager who knows how to run a bullpen."   The question that Jenks needs to answer is if he can handle a set-up role and if he can stay healthy for the entire season. 

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