OK - so the whole "come back tomorrow and read my thoughts on the Sawx pitching staff" thingie didn't really work out so well. Here it is, three weeks into the season, and I am finally posting part two of my Sawx season preview.
Damn you, Life and your incessant busy-ness! Damn you, uber-successful Boston pro sports teams! Damn you, springtime and your siren song of warm weather and late sunsets!
And, just for fun, you damn dirty apes!
Now that I have that out of my system, here's my preview of the Sawx pitching staff, striving for objectivity but influenced by the mixed results of the first three weeks of the 2009 season.
Josh Beckett - Any conversation about the Sawx pitching staff's ability to make a postseason run begins with Beckett, the unquestioned "ace" of the staff and the veritable bell cow of the Sawx pitching staff. If he's right, he can carry the team to the promised land; if he's not, he might still be able to keep the team chugging along. And he only seems to be getting better, especially now that he's figured out how to harness his 90+ fastball, killer curve and has added a legit changeup. Three starts into 2009, we've seen one great start (Opening Day vs. the Rays - 7 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 10 K) and two middling starts (start #2 vs. Angels - 6 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, one near-brawl with Bobby Abreu; start #3 vs. Orioles - 6 IP, 3 ER, 4 BB, 5 K). If we can get more of the former, and less of the latter, this team will go a long way.
Jon Lester - His breakthrough 2008 season saw Lester put it all together. Long known for his fastball/curve combo, Lester starting mixing in a slider and a changeup, with fantastic results - 16-6, 3.21 ERA, 152 Ks, 210 IP - wearing down only in his final start of the playoffs against the Rays, where he dropped consecutive starts. Heading into this season, Lester seemed primed to emerge as the 1A to Beckett's 1, the only concern being the possible effects of a 147-inning bump in his workload. After a couple of rough starts against Tampa Bay (5 IP, 8 H, 5 ER) and Oakland (6 IP, 10 H, 6 ER), he bounced back with a vintage 2008 Lester outing against the Orioles, going 7 innings, whiffing 9 batters and allowing just 4 hits. It would appear he's turned the corner; let's see what happens when he faces the Yankees, Rays, et al.
Daisuke Matsuzaka - Oh boy. The worst fears of Red Sox Nation about Dice-K came true, quite quickly, this season. After pitching in - and being named the MVP of - the WBC, Dice-K started the season with a vintage100-pitch, five-inning outing against the Rays (3 HRs allowed) in which he took the loss. Unfortunately, that would be his best outing of the season, as he would go just one inning in his next appearance, throwing 43 pitches, giving up 5 hits and 2 walks, and five runs. Following the game, he went on the DL with a tired shoulder & arm. Time will tell if his WBC outings - 98 pitches in one four-inning stint - have taken a toll. The Sawx can survive without Dice-K for a while, but the deep lineups in their division will catch up with them if they don't have that extra starter, whether it's Dice-K, John Smoltz, or whomever else.
Tim Wakefield - The guy is amazing... he's 42 years old and still has that knuckleball fluttering. His versatility and longevity make him a valuable asset for this team, and if they can handle the standard two-week tired arm period in mid-season, Wakefield will continue to give this team 27-30 starts, 180+ innings, and 11-14 wins - all key compenents to helping this team compete and go deep into the postseason. He has two World Series rings and the eternal respect of his peers as a gamer and a stalwart member of the Sawx rotation.
Brad Penny - To reference myself "[S]ay what you want about [Penny's] injury history, but remember two things: He is just two seasons removed from a dominant season, and he is now in a rotation with his old Marlins buddy Josh Beckett. Remember when the Marlins had a rotation of Beckett, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny and A.J. Burnett and won the 2003 World Series? Good to have 1/2 of that quartet with the Sox." Well, Penny's had two starts in 2009 - one decent, one decidely awful - and has looked like, well, a fifth starter. One thing to remember: In Penny's career at Fenway, including his April 17 home start against the Orioles (3 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 5 BB), he has pitched a total of 8 innings and allowed a whopping 17 runs. That's a 19.13 ERA...
Some quick hits on these guys:
- Ramon Ramirez - been as good as advertised. Great fastball, decent slider/change, gets outs as a strikeout/fly ball pitcher. He's allowed 3 hits in 26 ABs over 8 IP. A great pick-up thus far for the 7th or 8th inning bridge to Papelbon.
- Manny Delcarmen - appears to have comfortably settled in to his middle relief role, overpowering hitters with fastballs and getting key outs in his 8 innings thus far. He may never be the power set-up guy he was drafted to be, but he will give this team a lot of value by filling the middle innings to get to the set-up guys.
- Javier Lopez - after a great 2008, Lopez has been a bit bumpy this year, posting a 2.57 WHIP in seven appearances this season. He gets guys out; he just might give you a heart attack in doing so, throwing an average of more than 20 pitches per inning to do it.
- Takashi Saito - appears to be a real steal. Thought to be done because of elbow troubles, Saito has been a valuable addition, proving the Sawx gambled right in adding him to be a set-up guy and a secondary closer. Although he has an ERA over 6, Saito is averaging more than a strikeout per inning and has a save and a hold in his four appearances.
- Hideki Okajima - despite a bumpy start to 2009, Okajima has settled into a nice groove, with 6 Ks in his last appearances and two holds, setting up Papelbon nicely. If he can continue to work his fastball/curve/changeup mix effectively, he should remain one of the Sawx primary set-up guys and key cogs in this bullpen.
- Justin Masterson - an emerging stud in this pitching staff. His versatility - he can be a reliever, pick up spot starts in Dice-K's absence, and even close if needed - is unmatched on this team (maybe only Wakefield is as versatile), and his ability to get swings & misses on his sinker and plus fastball, mixing in a slider and occasional changeup, make him a real asset to this team. His future is bright indeed.
- Jonathan Papelbon - he's basically become a fastball-only guy, mixing in his self-proclaimed "slutter" (slider/cutter). He can still bust out the splitter ocassionally, but with his plus fastball and control, he usually doesn't need it (his April 11 outing against the Angels notwithstanding). he still gets a ton of swing & misses, and can make batters look silly waving at his stuff. if he can avoid the tired shoulder that's plagued him at the end of the last few seasons, Paps will stay one of the most valuable Sawx - and pitchers - on the team.