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.

Phillies down Astros for 1st playoff berth since 2011

Philadelphia Phillies v Houston Astros
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HOUSTON – Aaron Nola took a perfect game into the seventh inning and Kyle Schwarber homered twice as the Philadelphia Phillies clinched their first playoff berth in 11 years with a 3-0 win over the Houston Astros on Monday night.

After Brandon Marsh caught Mauricio Dubon’s fly ball in center for for the game’s final out, players jumped and cheered in jubilation before meeting at the mound where they hugged and bounced around some more.

The video board at Minute Maid Park displayed the team’s logo and the words: “Congratulations Philadelphia” as the Phillies celebrated.

A small but vocal group of Philadelphia fans congregated near the team’s dugout and chanted: “Let’s go Phillies,” in the bottom of the ninth inning.

The Phillies clinched at the same ballpark where they secured their last postseason trip on Sept. 14, 2011. That game was a 1-0 victory over the Astros highlighted by a complete game shutout by Hall of Famer Roy Halladay.

Philadelphia’s postseason drought was the longest active one in the majors after the Seattle Mariners clinched their first playoff berth in 21 years Friday night.

The Phillies entered the opener of the final regular season series of the year needing a win or a loss by the Brewers to get a National League Wild Card spot. The Brewers rallied to beat the Diamondbacks 6-5 in 10 innings a few minutes before Philadelphia wrapped up the victory.

Nola (11-13) struck out nine and didn’t allow a baserunner until Yordan Alvarez singled with two outs in the seventh. David Hensley followed with a single and Nola was replaced by Jose Alvarado, who struck out Kyle Tucker to end the inning.

Zach Eflin pitched a scoreless ninth to complete the shutout and get his first save in 11 years of pro ball.

Schwarber got things going for the Phillies in their first visit to Houston since Sept. 16, 2012, with a leadoff homer off Lance McCullers (4-2)

Philadelphia added some insurance when Bryson Stott and Schwarber hit back-to-back solo shots off Jose Urquidy to start the eighth inning.

It is the eighth multi-home run game this season for Schwarber, who leads the NL with a career-high 46 home runs, and gives him 199 homers in his career.

The Phillies have three players who will appear in the postseason for the first time after playing more than 600 career games. Jean Segura leads the group with 1,327, J.T. Realmuto has 1,004 and Rhys Hoskins is at 666.

McCullers allowed six hits and one run with five strikeouts in six innings.

Manager Dusty Baker replaced Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Jeremy Pena with Aledmys Diaz, Dubon and Hensley for the seventh inning.

He said before the game that he planned to get some of his starters out early to rest since Houston has already clinched the best record in the American League.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Phillies: LHP Brad Hand (elbow tendinitis) threw a bullpen session Monday in Houston and could throw live batting practice Wednesday. If that goes well, he could be ready to return for the postseason.

UP NEXT

Houston Justin Verlander, whose 1.80 ERA leads the majors, will try for his 18th win when the series continues Tuesday against Ranger Suarez (10-6, 3.37).