Friday, April 24, 2009

The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Bullpen

(Allow me to preface this post by saying that I can't take full credit for this idea. This was born out of a conversation Sam and I had over the winter, and it's taken some time to develop. But the biggest claim in this post, and it's overall theme about the above closer's future in Boston, came from Sam originally. I'm just enunciating it further here.)

When Jonathan Papelbon hit arbitration this past winter, we knew the dollar figure would probably be pretty high for his 2009 salary. After all, not every closer averages 38 saves with a 1.84 ERA during their first three full professional seasons. The dollar figure wound up being $6.25 million, the third-highest ever for a player in his first year of arbitration.

Like so many other teams, the Red Sox have been trying to lock up their young players to team-friendly extensions that buy out arbitration and at least the first year of free agency. They were successful in the offseason with Dustin Pedroia (6 years, $40.5 million, 2015 option), Jon Lester (5 years, $30 million, 2014 option) and, while not really so "young" anymore at 30, Kevin Youkilis (4 years, $41.25 million, 2013 option). When Papelbon and his agents were approached with a similar package, it didn't exactly go the way the Red Sox envisioned.

Boston's offer was, according to Papelbon, "so far off" that it wasn't even considered. When Jon Heyman hypothetically queried Papelbon if he'd take $10 million a year (which I'm fairly positive is the max the Red Sox would want to pay him right now), he gave a non-answer. He's consistently stated that, as a "gambling man," he wants to go year-to-year as opposed to signing an extension. Papelbon thinks very highly of himself, and believes it's his duty to set the market for closers.

If this holds true, and Papelbon looks to go year-to-year, his 2010 salary will likely be around $10 million, and 2011 could approach $15 million, which is what the game's highest-paid closer, Mariano Rivera, will make this year. If Papelbon duplicates the success of the past three years over the next three, he'll assuredly be rewarded with the biggest contract ever for a closer.

There's no way, with how the Red Sox system of valuation works, that they'll ever pay someone who pitches around 60 innings per year anything close to $15 million, let alone whatever crazy number will come up in a free agent contract. There is simply no way. This leads me to my point, and it's something I haven't heard or read anyone in the mainstream media discuss directly:

Unless Papelbon and his representation drastically change course, there's a more than plausible chance the Red Sox trade their popular, All-Star closer before he hits free agency. The Red Sox won't be the ones giving Papelbon that record-shattering contract, and the return in a trade will be much, much greater than the two draft picks.

Blasphemy? Hardly. I'm not even sure how much the Red Sox actually want Papelbon to sign a long-term deal. His shoulder broke down near the end of the 2006 season, and even though he's done a phenomenal job keeping that shoulder strong since, it's hard to overlook that going forward. If you look at the way he's pitched this year, his efficiency has gone out the window and he's become over-reliant on his fastball. What the hell happened to that awesome splitter, anyway? The results have been good, but all the sudden he's become an adventure to get those results.

For all his hype, and all his success in the postseason, and all his status as the most fun member of team with Manny gone, when I watch him pitch now I have to ask myself: Is this really the guy I want the Red Sox to commit to long-term? Is there ANY closer that deserves the kind of money and years he'll be seeking in negotiations? The answer to both questions is no.

Billy Beane made clear in "Moneyball" his disdain for closers as overvalued, injury-prone commodities that he could trade for what he believed to be more useful pieces. He's included incumbent closers Billy Taylor, Billy Koch and Huston Street in deals to pick up other talent, and then use internal candidates or cheaper free agents as closers. I have no doubt Theo Epstein subscribes to a similar theory, and might get a chance to put it to good use.

Trading Papelbon, while still and his prime and not causing a fuss amongst the clubhouse (which was most of the reason why both Nomar and Manny were shipped out) could go down as one of the most unpopular moves in club history if or when it is made. That is, unless the Sox get something of significant value in return. And I believe teams will be willing to pay top dollar for even just one year of Papelbon's services.

With several key hitters set to become free agents over the next two winters (Mike Lowell and Jason Bay, in particular) the Red Sox will have to think about ways to address those needs. Would the Red Sox be able to acquire a big hitter if they made Papelbon the centerpiece of a deal and threw in one or two other top prospects? I think so. Beane did that with Street last offseason and got Matt Holliday, and Street was coming off his most inconsistent season yet. So you have to like Boston's chances there. What if Albert Pujols, or Ryan Howard, or Prince Fielder were to become available? Wouldn't Papelbon, Lars Anderson and another solid prospect get it done for one of those guys?

I'm getting way ahead of myself. But the reality of this situation is closer than you might think. I highly doubt the Red Sox would ever trade Papelbon during a season, even if he was in a walk year. But the next two winters are distinct possibilities, and I believe the club will entertain offers if no extension is hammered out before arbitration numbers are exchanged.

Again, unless Papelbon changes his tune and becomes more receptive towards a team-friendly extension, the Red Sox would be stupid to just let him walk after six seasons. It won't happen. Besides, there's this closer in Pawtucket who struck out the side on nine pitches the other night. You may have heard of him from somewhere.

And if that kid can dominate in the majors as he has in the minors, well, maybe putting Papelbon on the block won't be so far-fetched.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Rant about Daniel Bard

In case you don't know, the picture above these words is that of Daniel Bard. He's better than at least one guy currently in the Red Sox bullpen, maybe more. But will we see him in Fenway anytime soon? Not likely.

Bard was the second pick of the Red Sox in the 2006 Draft, when he was one of the hot starters for the UNC Tar Heels along with Andrew Miller. Shortly after he was drafted, I watched Bard pitch in the College World Series, and in one game he was still throwing close to 100 mph even though he'd already pitched seven innings.

He pitched well in instructs that fall, and the Sox started him out in 2007 at the launching pad in Lancaster, Calif. It produced simply awful results. In five starts there he had a 10.12 ERA with 22 BB and 9 K, and he was actually demoted to Greenville so he could build some confidence. That didn't work either. His 17 starts there were riddled with poor control and he finished with a 6.39 ERA. Bard just didn't have enough with his secondary pitches to consistently compliment his blazing fastball. The only logical move for the Red Sox to salvage their former 1st-rounder was to try him as a reliever.

Those results? Much better. After working his slurvy off-speed offering into a solid, mid-80s slider, Bard took off. Between Greenvile and Portland, he managed 107 K and 30 BB in 77 2/3 innings and a 1.50 ERA. He also did not disappoint in spring training. In Peter Gammons' annual column about the most impressive spring performances, Bard was surveyed as the best young arm in either Florida or Arizona.

It wasn't necessarily surprising that Bard was sent to Pawtucket to start the season, but it must have been a disappointment for him given his performance. Now facing Triple-A hitters for the first time, here are his numbers thus far: 6 G, 9 IP, 3 SV, 1 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 16 K. That one hit was a home run.

The Red Sox big league bullpen is doing well right now. They were sterling in the sweep of Baltimore, with Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen continuing to dominate (0 ER in 16 2/3 IP). But there's at least one weak link in the bullpen who doesn't belong, and there's no arguing that Bard would be more useful than that certain lefty specialist: Javier Lopez.

Lopez isn't really that bad. He had a good year last year, and earned his $1.35 million for 2009 based on that. However, I'm fundamentally opposed to relief pitchers in general, and especially opposed to the lefty specialists who I find to be entirely useless. This year, Lopez has been useless at his useless job. So far against lefties, Lopez has surrendered 4 H and 4 BB in just 1.1 IP. Not good.

You can't tell me that Bard, who is right-handed, couldn't have done a better job. Bard's numbers tell me that regardless of what side of the plate they are facing him from, he's getting them out.

That salary for Lopez is low enough that the Red Sox could get a prospect back for him (not a good prospect, just a prospect) and use Bard in a much more, you know, useful capacity. Will they do it?

Almost definitely not. When Dice-K was put on the DL, and it was decided to toss Masterson into the rotation. So who came up to replace Matsuzaka on the roster? You'd think the best reliever in Triple-A, right? No. It was Hunter Jones. Yes, this Hunter Jones. Impressive, I know.

I'm not sure what to make of all this. Do they want Bard to get comfortable facing Triple-A hitters for a month or two before calling him up? But, given Terry Francona's loyalty to Lopez and his useless abilities, who will go down? Nobody else has minor league options besides Jones, as far as I know.

With Jonathan Papelbon's early inconsistency, it's plausible that Daniel Bard is the best relief pitcher in the Red Sox organization. Yet he's not in the big leagues. Let's hope this changes soon.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Random Saturday Thoughts

Gary Sheffield got his first hit in a Mets uniform last night, but that hit also happened to be the 500th home run of his long career. Sheff did it in classic fashion, cleaning out a Mitch Stetter mistake left up an in with what, at 40, might still be the quickest wrists in the game. It's been a tough spring for Sheffield, who Jim Leyland didn't think was part of his best 25 to carry into April. The Mets took a shot, and they'll use Sheffield this year as a veteran righty power bat off the bench. That's exactly how he was used last night, and his homer tied a game New York would go on to win in the 9th.

Sheff's 500th home run cements his place in Cooperstown, so long as voters are willing to overlook some rather thin steroid allegations. He spent the better part of 15 years as one of the most dangerous right-handed hitters in the game. Sheffield joins Barry Bonds, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez as the only players to ever amass 500 homers and 250 steals. He's had seasons of 25 homers for six different clubs, and nine All-Star appearances for five different teams. He never led his league in homers, but he did win the batting title (.330) in his only full season in San Diego.

But more than anything, what's set Sheffield apart are the things he brings to the field everyday. The most fierce competitor out there, he could never be accused of dogging it or not doing whatever it takes to win. Despite having hitters like A-Rod, Jeter, Giambi and Matsui, when Sheffield played for the Yankees he was always the guy I didn't want to see come up with men on base late in a game. He's in the top 30 all-time for RBI, with good reason. If you make a mistake up in the zone against him, like Stetter did last night, he'll make you pay seemingly everytime without fail.

There's no question Sheff is a testy guy. He quickly wore out his welcome as young hotshot in Milwaukee, forced his way out of places like San Diego, L.A. and New York, and has never really been afraid to voice his opinions. There aren't a lot of guys like Sheffield left. I'll miss him when he decided to hang them up, which could happen after this year. But if there was any question about his HOF credentials before, it's gone now. He's in.

Some other thoughts on this the first day in three weeks that I haven't had to spend at least 90 minutes in a car:

No matter what the Yankees and their fans might be saying, losing Xavier Nady to TJ surgery for the year is not good. Given the fragility or inconsistency of their outfield corps, Nady was one guy I believe the Yankees were counting on to contribute something close to the .305-27-97-76 line he posted between Pittsburgh and New York in '08. They'll plug in Nick Swisher for now, but they need additional depth. Names like Jason Repko and Austin Kearns have been suggested as possible trade candidates, but they won't be as important going forward as Nady would have been.

In other news, Cody Ransom sucks.

Speaking of the Yankees, they opened the new ballpark this week. I gotta say, I'm impressed, especially with views like this. That familiar frieze surrounding the park harkens back to what the old park looked like prior to the 1970s renovation. I look forward to going there sometime soon, although I might have to get a second job just to afford a ticket.

Harry Kalas died this week, taking from us one of the best voices in all of sports. My favorite memory of Kalas came during my first trip to Citizens Bank Park in May of 2006. In between innings, they played a video on the scoreboard during which Phillies players described their personal favorite foods. After going through most of their roster, right at the end of the video, Kalas' face showed up on the screen. In that low monotone voice, Kalas said the following: "I'd have to say my favorite food is cottage cheese." I couldn't stop laughing for a solid three minutes. Not only was it one of the most random possible favorite food choices, but the way he said it in his famous voice just killed me. He was one of the greats. RIP, Harry.

And, speaking of announcers, there's a lengthy Globe Magazine piece about Jerry Remy that is absolutely fascinating. You might be shocked to learn some of the information about the RemDawg, which is exactly what good feature writing should do. I look at something like this and say, "This is what I want to do."

I'm going to try and keep this updated as often as I can, but to be honest, I hope my sports focus for the next few weeks will be on the Stanley Cup quest for our Boston Bruins, especially now that the Celtics have lost both KG and Game 1 of their series with Chicago. We'll see how things go.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Rough Start

OK. I know what you're thinking. "Here comes Jake to tell us everything's going to be alright, even though we're definitely screwed." Well, I am here to tell you everything's alright, that it's too early to panic, and the Red Sox just need to find some consistency. But I'd also be lying if I said the lackluster 3-6 start doesn't cause at least some level of trepidation for me.

Let's start with the good. Kevin Youkilis has been hot since Opening Day, slugging at a .722 clip with a couple bombs to boot. Jason Bay has been similarly solid, hitting .345 with an impressive 10 walks in nine games. For all the concern about Jason Varitek, he hit two homers in the Tampa series from the left side of the plate. As for the pitching, Brad Penny looked solid in his only start thus far, and Tim Wakefield's sterling complete game yesterday provided a reminder of what the old man can do with the knuckler is dancing (his new batterymate, George Kottaras, has also been impressive behind the plate and with the bat). Justin Masterson was terrific in the long relief role on Wednesday, and I feel confident whenever he's in the game. Two of the more unheralded members of the bullpen, Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen, have combined to throw ten scoreless innings to begin the season. And overall, the team defense has been sterling, living up to every preseason expectation.

So all that is really good. Unfortunately, the list of bad things is a bit longer.

There's no easy way to put this: David Ortiz looks lost at the plate. He got his first extra-base hit of the season yesterday. I'm sorry, but given his skill set in 2009, Ortiz is no good to the Red Sox or any team if he's only hitting singles (although maybe he's transforming since he did try, unsuccessfully, to steal a base last week). He just looks flat-out awful right now. It's not good. I'm not blaming this not having Manny hitting behind him; I just wonder if we've seen the best of David Ortiz. Knowing him, though, he could go on a tear the next few weeks and make all the naysayers look bad. I hope like hell that happens.

Dustin Pedroia (7-for-39, 1 RBI) and Jacoby Ellsbury (7-for-36, 2 R) are yet to get untracked. Given their youth and talent, I'm not worried about how they'll perform over the whole season. I'm a bit more concerned about the likes of Mike Lowell (8-for-35, 5 Ks) and J.D. Drew (7-for-30, 7 Ks) and how this season will treat them. To be fair, both have come up with some clutch hits and each have smashed two homers. But with their age and injury history...I just don't know.

Jed Lowrie started the year 1-for-18 before Terry Francona placed him on the DL with that chronic wrist injury. With Julio Lugo still on the shelf, Nick Green has actually filled in rather nicely. These journeyman types obviously love to be in the big leagues for any extended stay, and typically try as hard as possible to impress when given the chance. Still, I never thought I'd get to a point where I'm itching for Lugo to return.

People are whining about this team's offense, but I've been most concerned about the starting pitching. After wowing everyone on Opening Day, Josh Beckett was mediocre in his second start and the extra-circulars earned him a six-game suspension (totally ridiculous, by the way). It at least appears that Beckett is fully healthy following an '08 riddled with nagging injuries. Whether he can be consistent remains a question.

Jon Lester has struggled in both of his starts thus far. It strikes me as odd because he's got 11 Ks and just two walks in 11 innings, yet he's allowed 18 hits and three homers (he allowed 14 homers all of last year). So it's a good sign that he's still striking people out. My worry is that the load he shouldered last year could be catching up to him sooner than I expected.

I'm not sure I can bring myself to discuss what's happened to Dice-K. I'm completely stunned. Everyone wants to blame the WBC, but it's more than that. I almost don't want to know.

Takashi Saito, Hideki Okajima and Javier Lopez have a combined ERA of 7.20 in 10 innings. Yikes. And what can we say about Jonathan Papelbon? He's been getting the job done, but at what cost? Does he really only have a 94 mph heater with no life? Is this really the same guy? Where's the deadly splitter? Christ, where's that average slider? Give us something, Paps! Meanwhile, Daniel Bard has nine strikeouts in six innings at Pawtucket so far. The Sox ought to cut bait on Lopez, bring up Bard and scare the piss out of Papelbon in the process. Then maybe he'll come to his senses and start throwing some frickin' splitters.

So what are the things I'm really worried about? Definitely Ortiz. He just doesn't look the same. I'll worry about Lester until he stops giving up so many hits. And I'm worried about Papelbon, in general. I'm not quite at that level yet for Drew or Lowell, or any of the eternally-fickle bullpen guys, but it could get there soon.

Otherwise, let's all just calm down. Four games against Baltimore, who's #2 starter is Koji Uehara, might be just what the Sox need. Perhaps they sweep the four games, and life will go back to being just wonderful.

Either way, in my opinion, it's too early to get too up or down about a team. We are exactly 1/18th of the way through the season. There's many more games to be play, transactions to be made, and fun to be had.

Before I go, take a look at the first thing I've written about baseball that I also got paid for: a game recap from an extra-inning affair between Pentucket and Triton. (Do me and everyone at the Daily News a favor and click on that link 1,000,000 times today, please?) It was great to get out there, hope it's warmer next time.

Take care and enjoy the spring. It's awesome to watch baseball every night again, isn't it?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

2009 Boston Red Sox Preview

Tomorrow is Opening Day, so tonight is the last chance I have to get out my 2009 Red Sox preview before we begin play. It appears tomorrow's tilt against the Rays at Fenway will likely be delayed with a 90 percent chance of rain for the afternoon in the Boston area. So we might have to wait until Tuesday for the season to really begin. In the meantime, I'll offer my thoughts for the season to come.

The 2008 Red Sox overcame so many obstacles to win 95 games during the season, and given the perils of clubhouse strife and injuries to so many key players, it's truly amazing that they actually came within one game of getting back to the World Series. The players were kept in check and on focus by Terry Francona, who with each passing year solidifies his status as perhaps the greatest manager in Red Sox history and one of the best managers/coaches in the history of the city along with Red Auerbach and Bill Belichick. I feel confident the Red Sox would have won the World Series had they gotten past the Rays in Game 7, and with a fully healthy team all along I'm positive they would have won it all. But that's not how it went down, and the team had a full winter to address how they'd get back to the Fall Classic in 2009.

Theo and Co. missed out on Mark Teixeira, who went to the Yankees instead. But they didn't panic by overpaying for the likes of Bobby Abreu or Adam Dunn. They went out and signed several low-cost, high-reward veterans that primarily added to depth for their roster. Through some other shrewd moves, it appears the Red Sox have assembled their finest bullpen during the John Henry regime. The depth of their starting pitching isn't too far behind. While some have questions about their offense, if things break their way I can't imagine it will be much of a problem. And if the Sox pitching is as good as advertised, their offense won't need to be astronomical.

With that, let's dive right into a position-by-position breakdown of the 2009 Red Sox:

CATCHERS (2): Jason Varitek, George Kottaras.
It was cold winter of discontent for Varitek, his agent Scott Boras, and the Red Sox. Boras advised his client to turn down the Red Sox offer of salary arbitration, a decision that ultimately cost Varitek around $5 million this year. By displaying incredible arrogance in suggesting prospective employers use Jorge Posada's inane $52 million contract as a benchmark in negotiations, Varitek had no suitors besides the Red Sox, and Boston certainly wasn't going to bid against itself for a 36-year-0ld catcher with a .672 OPS in 2008. It's only because of Varitek's distinguished service in Boston the Red Sox were willing to guarantee $5 million with a $3 million player option for 2010 in this contract.

I wish we'd been able to pull off a reasonable trade for either of Texas' young duo of Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden or Arizona's Miguel Montero. It's still very possible that could happen even before this season ends, but I don't want to see the Red Sox give up Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden for a catcher the other team doesn't need. So Varitek was really our only option for 2009. I don't expect him, at 37, to improve on that .672 OPS because that's just not what happens to catchers at this age. He still knows how to handle a World Championship-caliber pitching staff, and his defense is good enough to get by. We'll just have to live with at least one more year of Tek weakly flailing at 95 mph heaters with men on base.

The backup situation became clear when the club somewhat surprisingly released Josh Bard, who'd come on a non-guaranteed contract and was expected to be Tim Wakefield's personal catcher. When Kottaras appeared to exhibit just as strong of a prowess at fielding the floaters, it was a simple question of economics; we don't care what we get offensively out of our backup catcher, so if they can both catch the knuckleball the same, do we go with the guy making $1.7 million or the guy making $400,000? A no-brainer, really. Kottaras still needs work with the bat, but since he's out of options and was once a highly-touted prospect, the Red Sox were smart to give him the job. Maybe we find out Kottaras is the Sox catcher of the future? It's possible.

INFIELDERS (7): Chris Carter, Nick Green, Mike Lowell, Jed Lowrie, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis. DL: Julio Lugo.
Alex Cora departed for the Mets, and with Lowrie's emergence last year there wasn't much need to bring him back. The starting shortstop situation remains fluid, as it was the only job on the entire roster that wasn't entirely determined prior to spring training. Lugo needed to have his knee scoped following a promising start to his spring, so Lowrie will get most of the starts while Lugo works his way back. Should Lowrie get off to a hot start, it might be difficult for Lugo to crack the lineup. Journeyman Nick Green makes the Opening Day roster after spending all of last season in the minors.

Lowell is trying to come back following offseason hip surgery, and even though he's good to go for tomorrow he doesn't seem to be all the way back. It might just take a few weeks for him to really get comfortable in actual games. On the other side of the diamond, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia present the best all-around right side of the infield in baseball (I'd take them over Ryan Howard and Chase Utley because of Howard's low average and mediocre defense). Youkilis and Pedroia are both signed to team-friendly extensions that buy out some of their free agent years. They represent everything great about this era of Red Sox baseball: professional ballplayers who leave everything out there on the field and fans can never question their desire. These guys only want to do one thing when they're out there, and that's win. Perhaps 2008 will stand as their respective career years. But every Red Sox fan knows this team will be better for having them and I'm so happy Theo locked up two of my favorite players ever for years to come.

I once again lumped Ortiz into this group because this is just where he fits. He certainly saw his fair share of action at first base for the Dominican Republic WBC team. Papi claims his wrist issues are a thing of the past. I didn't watch many games during spring training, but in one game I saw Ortiz turn around a hard inside fastball and deposit it behind the right field wall at City of Palms Park. That's definitely a good sign for the wrist. Will he ever get back to his '06 form, when he set the club record for homers at 54? It's not likely. This will be his first full season without Manny Ramirez, and we'll know what kind of player the Red Sox have going forward based on his performance this year.

OUTFIELDER (4): Rocco Baldelli, Jason Bay, J.D. Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury. DL: Mark Kotsay.
Words can't describe how much I loved the Baldelli signing. I'd advocated the move as soon as Baldelli proved himself to still be a productive player during the postseason. He's learned to deal with his channelopathy and I'm confident he'll be healthy enough to contribute quite a bit to the 2009 Red Sox.

I'm predicting a huge year for Bay, who'll find the Green Monster to be the best friend he's ever had. The quiet, unassuming star will hit 6th and without the pressure of being "the guy," the road is wide open for Bay to go .300-30-100-90-10 and set himself up for a big payday somewhere after the season. We saw what Drew can do when healthy when he carried the team for a whole month in Ortiz's absence, and I'll continue to support him and hope he does well. I feel like there's this undercurrent in Red Sox Nation that somehow sadistically hopes that J.D. Drew fails, and that's not fair. Nobody works harder, plays harder or hustles more than Drew on this team, and I hope he plays a full season and finally gets the credit he deserves.

That brings us to Ellsbury. I think we all expected a little more based on his 2007 postseason performance, however unfairly based that expectation was. It's awesome to have such an exciting homegrown player make it in the Bigs. You'd have to go back to Ellis Burks to find a similar talent, and even he wasn't much of a threat to steal 50 like Jacoby. He no longer has Coco Crisp breathing down his neck, and center field belongs to him. At 25, Ellsbury still has room to grow and with time he can still become one of the game's best leadoff hitters.

STARTING PITCHERS (5): Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny. DL: John Smoltz.
Beckett's struggles last year are well-documented. He reverted back to his '06 tendency to rely heavily on his fastball and dealt with nagging injuries all season. A 4.03 ERA isn't what you expect from your ace, so look for Beckett to bounce back in a big way. This will be the most important year of his career, as he goes into the last guaranteed year of his contract and will likely be engaged in extension talks over the next year. How much the Red Sox are willing to commit to Beckett is mostly dependent on just how he bounces back.

2008 was Jon Lester's breakout season. He became the stopper, the guy they looked to during a losing streak to turn things around. It all began when Lester threw a no-hitter in May, and he just took off from there. All of his pitches were working all year, and he truly emerged as the ace into the postseason. I'm still not sure he's reached his potential at 25. Like Youkilis and Pedroia, Lester signed a very team-friendly extension that was the biggest ever for a pitcher with his small amount of service time. I'm worried about how he bounces back from throwing 236 innings last year, but in the short term that shouldn't be an issue. I look forward to Lester establishing himself as one of the best lefties in baseball in the next few seasons.

Next up is Dice-K, who's 2008 season provided as much of a statistical enigma as humanly imaginable. When someone has an 18-3 season with a 2.90 ERA, that'd seemingly be enough to warrant a Cy Young Award. But when he did it in only 167.2 innings with 94 walks, it changes the perception. Matsuzaka's looked great between his Japanse WBC dominance and his limited action in Red Sox spring training. It seems like he's ready to turn the corner and finally find himself in the American professional ranks. If these three guys do what they're supposed to do, I'll be shocked if the Red Sox don't win the World Series.

Tim Wakefield is back for his 15th season in a Boston uniform. I would hope the Sox brass will be willing to pull the plug on Wake if he struggles and Clay Buchholz continues to impress in Pawtucket as he did all spring in Florida. With things being so close in the AL East, they can't afford to wittingly lose games if they know they have someone better in the minors. Brad Penny will make his first start in April 12, and I'm ready for him to have a better season than A.J. Burnett so we can stick it to those Yankees fans. Come June, Smoltz will be ready and a potential postseason rotation of Beckett-Lester-Matsuzaka-Smoltz would almost guarantee rings for all involved. With Buchholz and Michael Bowden at Triple-A, I've never been less worried about a Boston rotation.

BULLPEN (7): Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima, Jonathan Papelbon, Ramon Ramirez, Takashi Saito.
There's no doubt this is the best bullpen that's been assembled in the history of the franchise. Jonathan Papelbon anchors a crew of professionals that have proven themselves at just about every level. Papelbon is coming off a decent season by his standards, and the price tag for him will continue to rise with each passing year. No Red Sox fans really want to hear this, but starting next offseason the team will have to look at the real possibility of trading their superstar closer as his price tag rises. I have no doubt the Red Sox do not want to pay a closer $15 million a season, which is likely what Papelbon will demand once he reaches his final year of arbitration and may look for an extension in that AAV neighborhood. It's just not good business to keep that guy and then let him go for nothing after six years. I'm not sure if you've heard of this kid Daniel Bard who throws 100 effortlessly. He'd make a good closer, for a lot cheaper. In the meantime, I look forward to another All-Star caliber season from Papelbon while he's still here.

We're innundated with great set-up men, which is such a good problem to have. Saito, who may end up being the ultimate bargain of the offseason, looks really solid and gives Boston a great, lights-out option. His countryman, Okajima, is ready for another great season. Masterson will be a full-time reliever for the first time, and I'm pumped to see what Rusty can do in a full year in the 'pen. Ramirez comes from KC, and he seems ready to step right into the role Mike Timlin played here for so many years. Delcarmen could find himself traded because the Sox have so many other solid guys. Lopez is the weak link, but Francona only needs him for one lefty at a time. This bullpen lacks a long man, but hopefully they won't need it.

It's late, so I'll wrap this up quickly. This is my 18th season following the Red Sox, and I've never been happier to be able to watch a team of professionals everyday as I am with this one. It's been a long, hard winter for the sport, with so many teams weary to improve themselves amidst the difficult economy. In the 1930s, baseball provided a way out, a healthy diversion from the tribulations of the most dreary times for our country. I hope baseball tries to market itself the same way over the next few months. Sure, baseball won't cure all that ails us (I'm not George Will, after all) but it's something to remind us about our past, and the good times we've all had with the game. I hope the Red Sox provide that for all of New England in 2009.

I'll be in attendance on Wednesday, which also happens to be my 23rd birthday.

Let's. Go. Sox.

2009 AL West Preview

We're just a couple hours away from the start of the 2009 MLB season, with the World Champion Phillies set to take on Atlanta at Citizens Bank Park at 8 p.m. With that, let's head right into the last of my three AL preview posts, a look at the West Division.

LOS ANGELES - Manager: Mike Scioscia
The Angels were the only team in baseball to win 100 games in 2008, playing Mike Scioscia's game predicated on pitching, defense, fundamentals and the occasional pop. The mid-season acquisition of Mark Teixeira gave them that pop down the stretch, sporting a staggering 1.081 OPS in 54 games for the Halos. There was no doubt, going into October, that the best team in baseball was the Angels. But they shot themselves in their collective foot over and over during their ALDS bout with Boston, and lost in four games.

They couldn't keep Teixeira, who never really showed much interest in staying on the West Coast once the season was over. They refused to spend big bucks on Manny Ramirez, the middle-of-the-order presence they really needed once losing out on Tex. They let K-Rod go to the Mets, as well as waving goodbye to stalwart Garret Anderson and starter Jon Garland. They signed on the rejuvenated Brian Fuentes to close on a modest two-year pact. And once it became clear they could sign him on the cheap, they picked up Bobby Abreu for $5 million to provide some stability at the top of the order.

I said last year the Angels would really go for it in '08 know their group wouldn't stay together. Well, they ended up not losing as much as I expected, although after '09, Vlad Guerrero, John Lackey and Chone Figgins will all be free agents. So maybe this is the year they'll really need to push if they want to win with this group.

Unfortunately for them, I just don't see it. John Lackey and Ervin Santana are both dealing with elbow injuries with varying degrees of severity. Lackey should be OK to return with a month of rest, but Santana could be looking at Tommy John surgery if his elbow issue doesn't respond to rest and treatment by the end of April. Joe Saunders was excellent for most of last season, but is dealing with his own "dead arm" issues at the present time, and Jered Weaver seems to have come around from early-spring shoulder soreness. So when your only solid, healthy starter to begin a season is Dustin Moseley, well, that's not a good sign. In the bullpen, Fuentes should be alright but look for young Jose Arredondo to continuing developing as an excellent 8th-inning option for Scioscia.

I can't help but be slightly underwhelmed by their offense. Guerro is declining, and without him there's no significant power source in the lineup. It will be good to see the continuing offensive development of younger guys like Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Kendry Morales, who's been handed the first base job and looks ready. The outfield defense could be an adventure with Abreu, Guerrero and Juan Rivera sharing 2/3 of the duties everyday. The Angels will continue to have the most expensive fifth outfielder in baseball, with Gary Matthews set to earn $33.5 million over the next three years. Had Matthews been a free agent this past offeseason, I'd be interested to see if he could have done any better than the minor league deal Andruw Jones got from the Rangers.

Anyway, color me skeptical about this team's ability to be impressive in 2009. As you'll see through the rest of this preview, this year's AL West isn't very good, so I do expect the Angels to be in contention most of the year. Whether or not they have the goods to get into October once again is still a big question.

Prediction: 2nd place.

OAKLAND - Manager: Bob Geren
The A's went into rebuilding mode prior to last season, but hung around with the big boys all along and churned out a respectable 75 wins. Heading into the winter, GM Billy Beane set out to put together a contender for 2009, and made some surprising moves to make that happen.

Many in baseball expected the Rockies to trade Matt Holliday over the winter, but I'm not sure how many thought he'd get dealt to Oakland. Beane shipped deposed closer Huston Street, solid outfield prospect Carlos Gonzalez and young lefty Greg Smith to Colorado in exchange for the slugging left fielder. Should the A's find themselves out of contention during the summer, Beane could cut the chord and send Holliday out if he feels he can get more value than the two draft picks he'll get when Holliday signs with the Yankees or Red Sox next offseason.

Sure, Holliday can expect some regression in his numbers moving from Coors Field to a pitcher's park. But he hit .308, .301 and .280 on the road, respectively, in each of the last three seasons. He's still one of the game's best hitters, and the A's desperately needed some offense after finishing dead-last in the AL in runs, hits, batting average, slugging and OPS in 2008.

Beane didn't stop there. He brought back Jason Giambi, who will primarily play first base and can still provide some pop. After a prolonged negotiation, Orlando Cabrera was signed to be an upgrade over perennial disappointment Bobby Crosby. Beane coaxed Nomar Garciaparra out of a potential retirement to serve as the club's super-utility man. I definitely expect Nomar to see plenty of time at third base with Eric Chavez practically living on the DL the last few years. For Red Sox fans, there's a sense of irony seeing Cabrera and Garciaparra on the same team, both playing on small contracts, just four seasons after they were traded for each other in the most fateful trade in club history. I expect Nomar to get a HUGE ovation when he plays his first game in Fenway later this year.

Oakland's bullpen doesn't look quite as strong as it did earlier in spring training with the news that potential closer Joey Devine will visit Dr. James Andrews and has been put on the 60-day DL. Bob Geren will go with sidewinder Brad Ziegler at closer, who's coming off a fantastic rookie campaign that saw him begin his career with a record 39 consecutive scoreless innings. Santiago Casilla, Jerry Blevins, and new additions Russ Springer and Michael Wuertz should make up a solid crew.

They'll need to be solid, because one area where Beane failed to improve the A's was their tenuous starting rotation. Justin Duchscherer, who's pretty much always injured, will start 2009 injured. That leaves immortal names like Dana Eveland and Dallas Braden to top the rotation while highly-touted, electric-armed prospects Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill (who most agree need more time in the minors) will be thrown into the inferno immediately. Sean Gallagher, the main piece the A's got for Rich Harden last year, will start as the long man but should be back in the rotation soon.

Despite this, I'm picking the A's to win the West. I'm not sure I've ever picked a team to win its division with such a shoddy rotation, but this particular division looks like a total crapshoot. If they can get some consistency, and Cahill and Anderson find immediate success, the A's have a real shot. But those are big "ifs," no question.

Prediction: 1st place.

SEATTLE - Manager: Don Wakamatsu
A complete, unadulterated debacle. That's really the only way to describe the 2008 Mariners season. After a successful '07, and everyone riding their bandwagon during the spring, they came out and nothing went right. Injuries, ineffectiveness, bad personnel choices and more all happened in Seattle last year. On June 16, the M's finally put clueless GM Bill Bavasi out of their misery and three days later manager John McLaren was similarly shitcanned. Besides the typically-solid years from Ichiro, Raul Ibanez, Jose Lopez and Felix Hernandez, nobody performed up to expectations for Seattle. When the dust settled, they were the first team ever with a $100+ million payroll to finish a season with 100 losses.

Jack Zduriencik, a longtime scout with tremendous credentials, was hired as GM and one of his first moves was to hire Don Wakamatsu, a former Rangers and A's coach, to be the first Asian-American manager in MLB history. Zduriencik set out to rebuild the Mariners by focusing on defense. He shipped out overvalued closer JJ Putz and in return brought back outfielders Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez, both of whom are fantastic defenders that, when combined with Ichiro, should help their starters by cutting down hits and runs significantly.

On-base machine Russ Branyan will start at first base, and Ken Griffey, Jr. will return to Seattle for one last hurrah in front of the fans he wowed for so many years. The inept Kenji Johjima will remain behind the plate, but top prospect Jeff Clement is banging down the big league door.

As far as pitching goes, the Mariners need to hope Erik Bedard finds some health and can be solid behind Hernandez. They're stuck with Carlos Silva and his bloated contract for the next three seasons, but at least they'll be out from under Jarrod Washburn's slightly-less bloated deal after this season. He's certainly a prime candidate to be traded at the deadline for a team needing a lefty starter. When it was decided Brandon Morrow would be the team's closer, Ryan Rowland-Smith was inserted as the club's fifth starter.

The Mariners will not be good this year. But at least with new management, the club appears to be on the right track for their future. It may take a while, however, to fully recover from the old administration's myriad of mistakes.

Prediction: 4th place.

TEXAS - Manager: Ron Washington
People associated with the Rangers probably spent all winter touting their second-place finish in the AL West in 2008, and probably failed to mention they won 79 games and finished a robust 21 games behind the Angels. After a semi-quiet offseason, the Rangers appear to have assembled one of the game's best young offenses but a starting rotation that leaves a lot to be desired.

They dealt off catcher Gerald Laird, and he'll be replaced by the high-upside tandem of Jarrod Saltalamacchia (23) and Taylor Teagarden (25), provided one isn't traded to the Red Sox midseason. Chris Davis (23) hit 17 bombs in 295 at bats in 2008, and people are excited to see how the first basemen will do over the course of a full season. Ian Kinsler (26) has established himself as a premiere offensive second baseman and just needs to put together a full season to enter the conversation as one of the game's best all-around players.

Elvis Andrus (20) will start the season at shortstop, and the defensive whiz might steal 40 bags this year. The outfield will be made up by David Murphy (27), Nelson Cruz (28), and Josh Hamilton (27), the latter of which provided one of the best stories in sports last year. When complemented by veterans Hank Blalock and Michael Young, who has moved to third, it's scary to think just how good this offense will be.

It's equally scary to think of how bad their starting pitching staff will be. I remember being so bummed when the Red Sox were outbid for the services of Kevin Millwood following the 2005 season. Since then, Millwood has not had an ERA for a season lower than 4.52, while many Red Sox hurlers making quite bit less have done much better. The deal that sent John Danks to the White Sox for Brandon McCarthy looks worse and worse every year, and McCarthy will be back after a couple of seasons filled with injury. Kris Benson is back, and can contribute if he's healthy. Again, a huge "if." I'll be interested to see if Neftali Feliz, the young former Braves prospect who was informed by Jeff Locke that he'd been traded to the Rangers, or Derek Holland can make it to Arlington at some point this year.

Ron Washington's bullpen is surprisingly decent, with the chair-throwing Frank Francisco entering the year as closer. They've got good mix with CJ Wilson and Eddie Guardado setting up. They're going to need to be pretty terrific considering how potentially awful their starting rotation will be.

The saving grace for the Rangers is that they have the game's best farm system, according to Baseball America, so they can hope either guys like Holland and Feliz can contribute to their big league club or they can cash in some other prospects to acquire some help. They might be in a position, with all the other clubs in the West being such question marks, to surprise some people. Their starting pitching is holding them back in a big way.

Prediction: 3rd place.