The best news of Spring Training is that Clay Bucholz and Justin Masterson came out throwing hard and throwing strikes. Both pitchers finished with battered arms in the 2013; both are looking for a big comeback year. Both threw with authority in their first starts against Major League hitting.
Because they are known quantities in Boston, Clay and Justin have expectations riding on them. They have good hard stuff and have been dominant on their good days. They are also known for injuries that could derail all this. No one can say if that vulnerability is behind them yet.
But Clay and Justin could be the one-two punch that could silence the talk of aces. We could see 35 wins from the pair of them, if their arms hold up. They could thrive on 6-7 innings per start and leave it to Ogando, Tazawa, Mujica and Uhehara to cancel the remaining pretenders. This is all you can ask of starters today, and these two are up to the requirement.
This is not to say that Rick Porcello and Wade Miley are corned beef, but we know pretty much what they will bring: lots of ground balls and some of them for hits. Will they dominate, shut down the offensive powerhouses? Maybe not, but they will keep you in the game.
The arms we know will shut down the heaviest offense belong to Clay and Justin. As long as those arms are in play, the Red Sox will win in 2015.
“No … the Red Sox need a true No. 1 starter at the top of the rotation. Without one, I don’t like their chances in 2015.” So say 57% in yesterday’s ESPN poll.
Ben Cherrington sounds like he believes the pitching staff he’s assembled is the real deal. Maybe he has prophetic vision the rest of us lack, but a staff without a stopper is a staff that can plunge into depression at intervals of the long season. There is no one in the proposed rotation that can step in to stop a slump.
A year ago I was arguing Clay Bucholz was the stopper, even with Lester in the rotation. Now I feel less confident. No one knows what Bucholz will bring in the spring–Cy Young apparent or a half-vast command of his pitches. No one can say he will live up to the promise of 2012, when, for a few months, he was the best pitcher in baseball.
It is not enough to hope for an ace to emerge from the pack, as Justin Masterson suggested yesterday. Masterson, himself, could assume that role, but so much depends on his health and getting his control back. Another wild card. The Red Sox have rolled the dice on their pitching staff before and come up empty.
We don’t want to rely on “maybe-his-sinker-will-sink” stuff. It’s clear the Red Sox are interested in the low-ball pitcher who throws strikes. We love them on their good days. On the days when the ball gets up in the strike zone, you are looking at 5-0 before you get to the third inning.
So we need a shutdown pitcher. Someone who dominates and sends the hitters back to the dugout shaking their heads. Jon Lester was like that many times last year, but that was yesterday and yesterday’s gone. We need a Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto who can lead the struggling sinker-ballers out of the wilderness.
Your work is not done, Mr. Cherrington. Get in the top pitcher sweepstakes. If you can do it without sacrificing Mookie Betts or Blake Swihart, that would be great, but make the deal or sign the free agent. Boston wants an ace.
Signing Grady Sizemore to a major league contract brings up the chief vulnerability on the Red Sox roster: they lead the league in rehabbed players. Up and down the roster we find players who have spent large chunks or whole seasons on the disabled list, players who are healthy today, but could be hurt tomorrow.
Last year, the Red Sox got lucky with injuries. Really? you say. They lost two closers, their number one starting pitcher, every member of their infield for twenty-one days or more, and an outfielder who played hurt most of the season. Why lucky?
First, they solved their closer problem with an aging Japanese import, who had a career season in the bullpen. No one knew how good he would be. Second, John Lackey came back from shoulder surgery in a dramatic fashion, worthy of “comeback of the year.” Third Jake Peavy pitched some of his best games in years, following a mid-season signing. Any one of these pitchers might have sunk the Red Sox pennant drive.
In the first half of the season, John Farrell kept his infield together with bailing wire. He played Middlebrooks at second at one point, and shortstop was covered by Jose Iglesias, while Stephen Drew languished on the disabled list. Iglesias astonished the world by hitting .400 in the early going. When Mike Napoli languished in an awful hitting slump, Mike Carp and Daniel Nava added more than adequate punch to the line-up. Later Napoli sat out with plantar fascitis.
The biggest injury story was Shane Victorino, who crashed into walls and stormed around the bases with abandon throughout the season, incurring an untold range of injuries. Victorino played hurt the whole season, as far as I can determine. Whether he could do that again is best known by his doctors.
With the exception of Iglesias and Drew and Xander Bogaerts, this is the team that Cherrington says he is happy with for 2014. They are the World Champions, so it is hard to argue, until you consider their physical vulnerability. Clay Bucholz is a significant question mark since he has never had a season off the disabled list, except maybe his first. Another wild card is Koji Uhehara, who enters the season as a 38-year-old closer, having never pitched a full season in that role before. You could say these are the anchors to the pitching staff, but they are not reliable anchors.
Of course, Spring Training brings another crop of almost-Major-Leaguers, and maybe the Red Sox know they have some aces in the hole. There are probably half a dozen pitchers who could be ready for the big time, if their confidence and location come to fruition. They have a cluster of catchers who may be ready to step up if the aging catching duo of Pierczinsky and Ross go down.
But you can’t have too much insurance on the bench with this corps of fragile and aging bodies. Maybe it wasn’t luck that the Red Sox had Uhehara and Carp ready to fill key roles on the team. Maybe it was the genius of foresight. Foresight needs to step up to the plate again this spring.