The biggest move came when Boston inked Angels’ ace John Lackey to a five-year contract. The addition of Lackey gives the Red Sox three big-time starters, any of whom could win a Cy Young. Josh Beckett won 17 games last year with a 3.86 ERA, very good for pitching in the tough AL East and making 5-6 starts a year against the Yankees in particular. Jon Lester has emerged as perhaps the best lefthander in all of baseball, and Red Sox Nation is surely grateful to Theo Epstein who refused to part with him prior to 2008 when Johan Santana was waiting to be snatched up. With this 1-2-3 combo at the top, Boston immediately put themselves back on a par with the defending champs in the Bronx.
Offensively there have been concerns expressed about this team, and the decline of David Ortiz, never more apparent than the early part of last season is the biggest reason why. Big Papi recovered and still hit 28 home runs, but his ability to draw walks is down, as pitchers no longer fear him. And his lack of speed and inability to play any defensive position makes him an increasing liability. Boston also watched Jason Bay go to the Mets, without signing a comparable offensive force—the money was directed toward Lackey.
Make no mistake, there are still hitters here. Jacoby Ellsbury improved his on-base percentage and became a legitimate leadoff man. Kevin Youkilis is one of the game’s brightest stars. Victor Martinez was picked up at the trade deadline and immediately showed that the pressures of playing in the Hub weren’t something that would rattle him. J.D. Drew is the complete offensive package. Even if Dustin Pedroia’s home run numbers never reach what they were in his 2008 MVP year, he still remains a tough out and gets on base consistently. If Ortiz were to stabilize and Mike Lowell can continue to hit, it’s only an added bonus, to what should be a respectable offense.
Jonathan Papelbon was the subject of some trade rumors in the offseason, albeit never very serious. His blown save in the finale of the Division Series took a bit of the bloom off him, as did his assertion that he intends to go the highest bidder when his time comes for free agency. Many—myself included—believe that his arrival in Pinstripes is all but inevitable, as Papelbon’s free agency will come about the time Mariano Rivera calls it quits. For now though, Paps is still the man in Beantown and however last season ended, he remains as lights-out as anyone in the business when it comes to getting those final three outs. The setup team, with Hideki Okajima from the left and Ramon Ramirez from the right, is steady and solid.
Boston has plenty of pitching and enough offense to be in the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years. Whether it’s enough to win an AL East title and another World Series is the question Red Sox fans really want answered.
Final AL East Picks & Preview: April 1
Up Next: Cubs tomorrow, Yankees on Sunday.
Sweet 16 recaps are over at The College Basketball Notebook.