Springtime Storylines: Are the Boston Red Sox the best team in baseball?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. For in-depth previews of all 30 teams, check out the HBT Preview. In this edition: the Boston Red Sox.

The Big Question: Are the Red Sox the best team in baseball?

Man, it’s hard to pick a better one. Offensively they’ve traded Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre for Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. I think 2011 wins that battle, and I think Gonzalez might be a nice MVP candidate in his new ballpark.  Add a healthy Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia to the mix and you’re talking about a better overall offense this year than last, and last year the Sox finished behind only the Yankees in runs scored in the American League.

The rotation is less formidable though. Like the Yankees’ rotation, it certainly looks nice at the top with Jon Lester figuring to, once again, be among the elite in the league and with Clay Buchholz poised to build on an impressive 2010. Beyond that are three guys looking to regain past form in Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka. I’m less optimistic about Dice-K than I am Lackey and Beckett, but it seems silly to me to assume that all three of these guys are toast. Figure at least one and probably two of them bouncing back. Also figure that if the back end of the Red Sox’s rotation does come through, its upside is considerably higher than the potential upside of the back end of the Yankees’ rotation.

Finally, the bullpen, where the addition of Bobby Jenks and the maturation of Daniel Bard will complement the maligned yet still highly effective Jonathan Papelbon to make the final three innings of any game fairly miserable for Red Sox opponents most nights. And don’t sleep on Dan Wheeler who — at least judging by superficial bullpen depth charts — is one of the better fourth options out of the pen in all of baseball.

Where does that leave us? I’ll get a little more reflective about their chances below in the “So how are the going to do” section, but for now I’m going to give a guarded “yes” in response to that question. I think the Red Sox are the best team in baseball in 2011.

So what else is going on?

  • Jacoby Ellsbury has been raking this spring. I don’t spend too much time mucking about the Boston press, but the fact that he could add something major to the Red Sox lineup seems like one of the more underreported stories of the spring. If Ellsbury shines this year, that guarded “yes” above turns much more emphatic. Same goes for J.D. Drew who, unlike the vast majority of baseball fans, I am not inclined to sleep on. He’s good. He’s always been good and at times he’s been great. He could still turn in an All-Star caliber season, even if no one is all too eager to acknowledge it as such when it goes down.
  • How much rope does Marco Scutaro have? He toughed his way through injuries and ineffectiveness last year to play in 150 games, but how much of Terry Francona’s loyalty was based on true confidence in Scutaro’s skills and how much was based on the fact that, with Dustin Pedroia gone, he could use both Scutaro and Jed Lowrie in the lineup? If Scutaro struggles again out of the gate, will Lowrie get a chance to build on a promising 2010?
  • I have yet to talk to anyone — not a single person — who knows a thing about about baseball who believes that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is going to last the whole year as the Red Sox’ starting catcher. It’s his age-26 season now, and no, he hasn’t managed to put it together anywhere he’s been. At least not compared to his promise as a Braves’ farm hand. Of course, that promise was based mostly on one great year in high-A ball in 2005 and his second go-around at AA in 2007. If Saltalamacchia fails he won’t be the first former Braves prospect to bite the dust once he reached the majors. I’m kind of rooting for him because of where he came from, but this is probably his last shot at being a starting catcher in the majors, wouldn’t you agree?
  • I have no personal interest in David Ortiz’ performance, but I really would like to see him hit well in April and May just so we can avoid a third straight year of questions about the guy and testy responses from Ortiz himself. There’s nothing more tiring than “Is Big Papi done?” talk.

So how are they going to do?

It’s easy to look at Gonzalez and Crawford, add in the Fenway Park effect that people tend to overstate when a big new bat comes to town and to crown the Red Sox AL East champs right now, But let’s not get too crazy. I think that yes, on paper, the Red Sox are the best team in the division. Which, by definition, makes them the best team in baseball. But they’re not invincible. They face a substantially similar rotation problem as the Yankees do and their offenses profile pretty similarly as well.  The Red Sox are not kings only temporarily lacking a crown. They are not an inevitability.

But I do think they’re a bit better as we kick off the season. That may mean diddly squat once the games actually start, but for now I’m tasked with picking the winners. And in the AL East I pick Boston.

Rays acquire Sergio Romo from Dodgers

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The Rays acquired right-handed reliever Sergio Romo from the Dodgers, the teams announced Saturday night. Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash hinted that the team was in on Romo during the offseason, but couldn’t quite make a deal happen at the time. The righty reliever was designated for assignment by the Dodgers on Thursday and will net the club cash considerations or a player to be named later.

Romo, 34, struggled to find his footing in his first season with the Dodgers. He left a closing role in San Francisco to play set-up man to established closer Kenley Jansen, and saw mixed results on the mound with a 6.12 ERA, 4.3 BB/9 and 11.2 SO/9 through his first 25 innings of 2017. It’s a far cry from the sub-3.00 ERA he maintained in 2015 and 2016, but the Rays don’t seem to have ruled out a second-half surge just yet.

The veteran right-hander is expected to step into a bullpen that already boasts a solid core of right-handed relievers, including Alex Colome, Brad Boxberger, Erasmo Ramirez, Chase Whitley and Tommy Hunter. According to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the Rays were intrigued by Romo’s extensive postseason experience, affordability and hefty strikeout rate, but will likely continue to hunt for additional bullpen depth in the weeks to come.

Colin Moran is carted off the field after taking a foul ball to the eye

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Astros’ third baseman Colin Moran was carted off the field on Saturday night after a foul ball caught him in the left eye. He was forced to leave in the sixth inning when a pitch from Orioles’ right-handed reliever Darren O'Day ricocheted off the handle of his bat and struck him in the face, causing considerable bleeding and bruising around his eye. The full extent of his injury has yet to be reported by the team.

Prior to the injury, Moran was 1-for-2 with a base hit in the third inning. He was relieved by pinch-hitter/third baseman Marwin Gonzalez, who polished off the end of the at-bat by catapulting a three-run homer onto Eutaw Street.

Evan Gattis and Carlos Beltran combined for another two runs in the ninth inning, bringing the Astros to a four-run lead as they look toward their 65th win of the season. They currently lead the Orioles 7-4 in the bottom of the ninth.