What Matters for 2013

Gordon Edes of ESPN.com takes a dim view of the re-treads the Red Sox brought in over the Winter. He portrays the glass half-empty for 2013: fragile bodies, disappointing 2012 performances, uncertain clubhouse culture. But Edes misses the point when he evaluates what the Red Sox have added, because the one thing that has to change in 2013 is the pitching.

The Red Sox will hit, they always have hit, but what will make the Red Sox into a contender is their pitching. So it matters that they brought in Ryan Dempster, Joel Hanrahan, and Koji Uhehara, all pitchers with good credentials. Even more it matters that the front of their rotation, John Lester, Clay Bucholz, and John Lackey make a comeback from career-worst seasons in 2012. If those three pitch as they are capable, it hardly matters who is in the line-up next to Ortiz, Pedroia and Ellsbury. The Red Sox will hit, and they will win.

On their best days, no one can out-pitch John Lester and Clay Bucholz.  The problem was they had maybe two “best days” apiece during the 2012 season.  You could see the pitches, the aggressive approach, the frustration in the eyes of the hitters, but you saw it only occasionally. These are both blue chip pitchers. Other teams always ask for them in trade talks. What will they show in 2013?

In 2011 John Lackey spelled disappointment. Many doom-sayers thought the Red Sox had overpaid for him, and I was one of them. When it was disclosed he had a deteriorating elbow condition, a lot of things made sense.  Lackey should be a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, but he hasn’t been healthy since he came to Fenway Park.  If he can win 14-15 games in 2013, he will be what the Red Sox anticipated when they traded for him.

Rounding out the rotation will be Felix Dubront and Ryan Dempster.  Both of them can be counted on for 10-12 wins if they stay  healthy. Both of them have to prove they can endure a full season of starting at 6-7 innings a start.  Both of them have proven they can face the best line-ups in baseball when they are healthy. So durability is the big question.

The bullpen has been reassembled with a new closer, Hanrahan, with Aceves moving back to middle relief. Andrew Bailey’s health remains a question, and Daniel Bard’s confidence needs re-building, but the bullpen can survive the collapse of either of them with the insurance of Uhehara, Aceves, Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller. Franklin Morales may yet play a vital role for the Red Sox, but where and how remains a question.  The upshot is there are a lot of questions in the bullpen, but a lot of answers as well.

So what matters in 2013 is, Can John Farrell, the erstwhile pitching coach, assemble a strong pitching staff from these elements? The Red Sox were clearly counting on this when they aggressively pursued his contract from the Toronto Blue Jays.  Ben Cherrington was clearly counting on this when he signed Hanrahan, Uhehara, and Dempster.  All the noise about Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew is just distraction compared to what happens on the mound this year.

It’s a new era in Major League Baseball.  With good hitting you might stake out third place in the division. For the long haul and in the playoffs, pitching rules.

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