Saturday, April 3, 2010

Built For The Grind...And Beating The Yankees

The 2009 Boston Red Sox season was one that ended in disappointment. Not only did they lose to an Anaheim Angels team that many people thought they should have been able to beat in the ALDS, but the hated Yankees added another championship to their name. Not exactly the way we fans wanted things to end.


That will change this year.


Rather than over-react to what happened and pursue every big bat and big name in the free agent market, Theo Epstein and company went out with a plan. The first part was to bolster the pitching rotation, which was decimated by injuries last year. Adding John Lackey to the rotation not only gave Boston the best front three in the game today, but it also weakened a potential post-season rival. Never mind that now the Sox don't have to face him any more...Lackey was a pain in the ass.


The nay-sayers will point out that Lackey hasn't pitched 200+ innings or started 30+ games in the last two years. Both points are true, but Lackey isn't being asked to lead the rotation now. He's also only 30 years old and in his prime. Is there a better #3 pitcher in the game today? No.


The front three of Beckett, Lester and Lackey more than matches up with New York's trio of Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte*. The real question comes at the back end. I'd give Buchholz the edge over Hughes right now only because Buchholz has more experience as a starter and proved himself finally capable of starting in 2009. The real question is whether Wakefield/Matsuzaka or Vazquez will do more for their team in 2010.


Vazquez pitched well with the White Sox in 2007-08 and with the Braves in 2008-09. And although he is atrocious lifetime against the Red Sox (2-7, 4.23 ERA, 1.394 WHIP, 11 G), he can pitch in the AL. Wakefield was one of the best pitchers in the AL over the first half of 2009. He's also been one of the most steady in recent memory, winning 10+ games in six of the last seven years. But he has broken down in the second half of the season the last two years. Matsuzaka seemed to regain his skills over the final few games of 2009 but every game he pitches is an adventure in walks and run prevention. How these pitchers perform for their teams will go a long way to determining how the season goes for the Yankees and Sox respectively.


The Sox bullpen, annually one of the best in the game, will continue to be so...with one large question. Boston strengthened their pen with last-minute addition Scott Schoeneweis and stole a march on the rest of the MLB with getting Scott Atchison into camp early and onto the roster. The reliable Hideki Okajima returns along with promising youngster Daniel Bard. Hot-and-cold Manny Delcarmen will look to become more consistent and finally grow into his considerable natural talent.


And then there is Paps.


Yes, he had 38 saves. He had a 1.85 ERA. But he also imploded in the post-season and looked shaky in the regular season. His final numbers masked what was a very uneven season for Papelbon. Frankly, Papelbon was a little lucky in the regular season and his luck finally ran out in the ALDS. If he can return to his historic dominant self, all the better for Boston. If not, then the Sox will have trouble getting through the post-season once again.


On the field, the Sox have assembled a group that will be one of the best defensive teams in Boston's history. They have Gold Gloves at first (Youk), second (Pedroia) and third (Beltre) along with Mike Cameron in center. Moving Ellsbury to left cuts down the amount of ground he has to cover and maximizes his prodigious speed. Marco Scutaro at short (while I still question his ability to hit like he did in 2009) brings a top-notch glove to the position. This team is very much built for run-prevention.


And that was the right call.


Many people (Aviv among them) have said that Boston's big problem is that they don't have enough power. They won't be able to produce enough with their lineup. That they will be overwhelmed by New York's hitting.


Ummm...no. First off, to try and compete with New York based on their strength would have been suicide. There is no way, even if Boston had kept Bay and added another bat, that the Sox would have been able to out-slug the Yankees. New York is a power team built for a park that rewards that power.


That is also their weakness. If you can neutralize their run-production, they become a much easier team to beat..."easier" being a relative term when it comes to New York. But last year, when held to four runs or less, New York went 25-44. Once they hit that five run mark, the Yankees became near unstoppable. So to try and outslug the Yankees is madness. The trick is to hold them down. And that is what Boston's team is built to do. Last year's problem wasn't run-production, it was defense.


Second, the idea that Boston is "power-challenged" in their lineup is a bit of a myth. True, they aren't stacked with guys that crack 40+ homers each and every year. But they do have six batters capable of hitting 20+ homers. And run-production as a sign of a team's ability to win is somewhat inaccurate. Boston's 2007 championship team scored fewer runs than the 2009 version. New York's 2007 team produced 53 more runs that their title-winning team last year.


The time-worn phrase we hear in relation to football is "Offense sells tickets; Defense wins championships." Well, I believe that by-and-large applies to baseball as well.Yes, you do need offense; Toronto has one of the best fielding teams over the last two years and they haven't won squat. But combine an offense that can generate at least 850 runs with a defense that doesn't give away runs to their opponents and you have the makings for a team that can make a run at the title. Boston will have both those elements this year.


Of course, the Yankees will be the big obstacle for Boston this year. And while they got stronger on paper in their rotation (Vazquez), lineup (Nick Johnson) and in the field (Granderson), their path to a repeat isn't easy. It's hard as hell to be a repeat champion in baseball, probably more than any other game. You can have all the talent in the world, but without lucky breaks along the way you won't win. And there is another reason.


Sooner or later, age has to start telling with some of their players. Posada is 38. Jeter will be 36 mid-season. A-Rod will be 35 in July. Pettitte will be 38. Mo Rivera is around 142 but apparently he was born on Krypton because his age doesn't matter. But these are key players who have excelled year-after-year but are approaching ages where their production should start to fade. New York has to hope that doesn't happen if they want to even come close to competing for the title again in 2010.


So who will win the AL East? Either New York or Boston, with the other team as the wild-card. Tampa has too many questions in their bullpen even with a new closer. Toronto and Baltimore are still years away from competing, although Baltimore could be interesting.


As for a title...history would dictate it won't be the Yankees. And the Sox are built for a 162-game grind, to win the close games and neutralize the power other teams will bring against them. Bats can slump, while gloves don't...unless your name is Chuck Knoblauch**.


Get ready for your third title in seven years, Sox fans.


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* Look for Lester to be a dark horse Cy candidate this year. He should have gotten a couple of votes last year.


** Too soon?

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