That remains to be seen. But here are five things I think will happen with Boston's pitching staff this year.
1. Jon Lester emerges as the staff ace. Some people would argue this happened last year. But what made 2009 a great year for Lester is that he avoided "The Verducci Effect." SI's premier baseball writer, as most of you know, compiled a ton of data that showed the following (from BaseballProspectus.com):
...pitchers under the age of 25 who have 30-inning increases year over year tend to underperform. Will Carroll independently found that pitchers who break the "Rule of 30" tend to get injured. Carroll renamed this 'rule' the Verducci Effect in honor of the man who initially found the evidence.
Lester threw 63 innings in 2007 and 210.1 innings in 2008. According to the Verducci Effect, Lester should have fallen off noticeably in 2009.
Here are Lester's 2008 numbers: 16-6 | 210.1 IP | 3.21 ERA | 152 K | 66 BB | 202 H | 1.27 WHIP
Here are Lester's 2009 numbers: 15-8 | 203.1 IP | 3.41 ERA | 225 K | 64 BB | 186 H | 1.23 WHIP
In short, Lester essentially maintained his level of production and improved in one critical area: strikeouts. He threw seven less innings and registered 73 more strikeouts, which speaks to improved control and strength even in the later innings of his outings. You could argue Lester is the best left-handed starter in the majors under the age of 28, and one of the top 5 overall. This is the year he establishes himself as Boston's premier starter.
2. Clay Buchholz breaks double-digit wins. This isn't exactly a risky prediction. After spending the second half of 2008 and the first half of 2009 in the minors, Clay apparently figured out how to pitch again. He went 7-4 in 16 starts with a 4.21 ERA (ERA+ 111) and pitched well in his post-season appearance. There is a big question about whether he will ever be a front-of-the-rotation pitcher or if a #4 is where he settles. But considering Buchholz feasted on the AL East (sans New York) and AL Central, there is no reason he can't get at least 10 wins in 2010.
3. Matsuzaka returns to his 2008 form. Honor and "face" are a big deal in Japanese culture. And in every respect, Daisuke Matsuzaka embarrassed himself in the first half of 2009. Quarrelsome, out-of-shape and pitching like Carlos Silva after a four-day bender, Matsuzaka looked like he wanted out of Boston. And management looked ready to help him along.
Then cooler heads prevailed, Daisuke realized he was acting like a class-A jerk and started to straighten himself out. The result was a solid September where he went 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA. His only loss was a 3-0 defeat in the Bronx, and he pitched well in it (7 IP, 1 ER, 6 H)
So yes, Daisuke will always be a pitcher who walks a ton of batters and puts runners on base. He's also a pitcher who can get out of those jams. Deride that 2008 season all you want. The bottom line is that you don't run up an 18-3 record with a 2.90 ERA on blind luck. And while that won't happen in 2010, with Boston's superior defense the idea of Daisuke going 16-9 with a 3.50 ERA is not out of line.
4. Papelbon pitches his last year in Boston. Papelbon is one of the best relievers in the majors. He has gone to four straight All-Star games. Last year he posted a 1.85 ERA and saved 38 games, becoming the first pitcher to ever record 35+ saves in his first four years in the majors*.
Papelbon also posted a career high in WHIP (1.147), walks (24 - three times as many as he had in 2008) and homers (5). His strikeouts declined for the third straight year and he collapsed in the post-season.
It is undeniable that Paps is one of the best closers in the game and the best one the Sox have ever had. It is also undeniable that Boston's brass considers signing Papelbon to a long-term deal slightly less palatable than catching the Ebola virus. He becomes a free agent after the 2011 season. And Boston has his successor in young fireballer Daniel Bard. So when is Papelbon's value the highest? After the 2010 season.
Papelbon will not sign a long-term deal. So holding him into the 2011 season results in diminishing returns for the Sox. But trading him between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, giving their potential partner a full year of his services, maximizes Papelbon's value. And a top-flight closer is worth their weight in gold on the trade block. This also gives the Sox another year to let Bard settle down and prove he can close big games in the majors.
I'm not saying I want this to happen. But Theo isn't one to let a valuable player simple walk without getting anything back. Yes, there would be draft picks if Paps made it to market after 2011. But wouldn't you rather have some proven prospects/players instead of unknown picks, if you could get them? So would Theo.
5. Boston has three starters with 15+ wins. If this happened, it would be the first time for Boston since 2007. That year Beckett went 20-7, Wakes was 17-12, Daisuke posted a 15-12 record and the Sox won the World Series. The time before that was 1998. That year Pedro went 19-7, Saberhagen found his youth with a 15-8 record and Wakefield rolled to a 17-8 season.** So it isn't easy. But in Lester, Beckett and Lackey the Sox have three #1 pitchers who can definitely put up 15+ wins. If Daisuke returns to form, the Sox could possibly have four pitchers with 15+ wins. The last time that happened in Boston? 1916:
Babe Ruth: 23-12
Dutch Leonard: 18-12
Carl Mays: 18-13
Ernie Shore: 16-10
This is also the answer to the question "Can you name four guys Harry Frazee handed to the Yankees for next-to-nothing?"*** And in case you were curious, in 1915 the Sox had all five starters post 15+ wins. But post-1920s, the closest the Sox have come to four starters with 15+ wins was 1975. Rick Wise, Bill Lee and Luis Tiant all had 17+ wins while Roger Moret went 14-3.
* Aviv, please don't start this argument up again. Let's just acknowledge this is the case and move on. I didn't even mention The Goose. Until now.
** How awesome is it that Wakefield was on both staffs? This is why he is one of my all-time favorites: longevity combined with solid contributions.
*** Little-known fact: Frazee was un-officially limited to dealing Ruth to either the Yankees or the White Sox (he was butting heads with the Commissioner at the time). The White Sox offered Boston 60K and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Of course, Frazee took the hundred grand from the Yankees. And while Jackson would have still been banned after the 1920 season, the Sox would have gotten one hellacious season out of him (12 HR, 121 RBI, .382 BA, 1.033 OPS). Instead, Boston's third outfielder (after Harry Hooper and Ruth) was the immortal Braggo Roth. How many wins would Jackson have been worth? Would he have been suspended for life if he was on a different team in 1920? Who knows, but I'd take that one assured season of greatness over an extra 40K if I was the owner.