Coming off of a 97 win, 101-Pythag win season in which the New York Yankees ran away with the American League East, the Bombers last night added Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda. They did so, too, by giving up almost nothing from the roster that buried the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox last season. They did give up a major part of their future in Jesus Montero, but his explosive September debut aside, Montero did very little for the 2011 Yanks. Montero’s is an impressive bat that was poised to make an impact in 2012, but in parting with the youngster the Yankees have turned a patchwork rotation into a very good one, all in a night’s work. The Yankee optimist, factoring improvement from Mark Teixeira and health from Alex Rodriguez, could hardly be blamed for dreaming of a 105-win 2012 campaign.
Elsewhere in baseball’s toughest division, almost all along during Tampa Bay’s impressive four-year run, 2012 has been the season for the Rays where everything seemed to be lining up. Studs Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore are now in the mix full-time, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist have settled in as superstars, and they bring back a rotation that boasted the lowest ERA in the American League in 2011 – a rotation that Moore stands to improve in the upcoming campaign. The Rays window isn’t necessarily closing, but if you had to pick their year this one would probably be it.
For good measure, add to this backdrop that the Toronto Blue Jays are now a fully functioning baseball operation and the fact that, two years running, the Red Sox have finished in third place. In 2011, they descended sharply into third after as dominant a 120-game stretch as the team experienced in a long time, famously collapsing in September. The impossibly idiotic hysterics of Boston’s media climate in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 season aside, one can understand the Red Sox fan’s concern for both the 2012 season and beyond. Their AL East foes, Baltimore aside, are all making one move after another to get better.
The narratives and projections for 2012 in the AL East are becoming just about as ingrained, repetitive and familiar this offseason as they were last offseason, when everyone with a keyboard had the Red Sox running away with the division. In the immediate aftermath of last night’s trade, the Yankees became the “favorites” to win the division according to SI writers Cliff Corcoran and Joe Sheehan. After the Matt Moore extension, it was just one more example of how super-duper Andrew Friedman is. Days later, Jonah Keri even felt compelled to remind the Oakland Athletics that they’re at no competitive disadvantage at all since the Rays are like good and stuff. And Rany Jazayerli, also on Grantland (the site that was to elevate long-form sports writing as we know it…heh), wrote a piece so negative about new Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington that he needed to insert a sentence assuring readers that he didn’t mean to imply Cherington was “a dolt or incompetent.” What a difference a year makes.
So where do the Red Sox stand? They’re clear underdogs, or so it goes, and here’s what being an underdog looks like. It means returning baseball’s best offense with a chance to make significant improvements. Boston’s bats managed to accomplish all they did while lugging around the least productive right field in either League, with very little from Kevin Youkilis and a .289 on-base percentage from Carl Crawford. In 2012, Ryan Sweeney enters the mix in right field to form a decent little platoon with Darnell McDonald and/or Mike Aviles, Youkilis is healthy by many accounts and Crawford, humiliated by 2011, is as determined as ever. Improvement is no shoo-in when you’re atop the league, but these aren’t exactly stretches, even if you’d care to forecast some regression for Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz.
Of course it’s not the offense that accounts for the consensus bearish outlook on the Red Sox. It’s the rotation and, to a lesser extent, the bullpen. Let’s focus on the rotation. In 2011, the Red Sox had an “awful at baseball” problem. John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kyle Weiland contributed 441.2 innings of 5.89 ERA pitching over 75 starts. They were awful at baseball. So, Cherington’s trick this offseason is to turn his potent offense into a luxury, or a means of creating meaningful separation, not the necessity it was in 2011 that had to pick up an awful run prevention unit in order to win games.
So how do you go about replacing 75 starts of 5.89 ERA pitching? The good news is that there’s no need to blow out the budget. We’re not setting the bar very high here, remember. First, you hope Clay Buchholz returns healthy and the reports so far on that score are terrific. Next, you see who else you have in-house who might be able to help. Dan Bard wants to try his hand as a starter? No problem, go be better than Weiland. Alfredo Aceves? Why not? Try to improve on Lackey. And then you need insurance. Aaron Cook and Carlos Silva come to Fort Myers with battle scars and some shitty peripherals but with Boston’s solid defense and explosive offense, strikes and innings will do just fine, thanks, if it turns out one of the two is needed. Finally, the offseason is not over. Maybe Roy Oswalt, Joe Saunders or even Edwin Jackson (at the right price) can offer some help. These aren’t big splashes, but Boston did big splashes last season. Really, they’re no guarantee at all. Remember scoffing at Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia before both pitchers made significant contributions to a Yanks squad that dusted Boston by seven games in 2011?
Each name mentioned in the preceding paragraph is meant to slot in after the team’s top two of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. Both are known as big-time competitors and both have to answer for some serious character questions that surfaced last season. If you accept that they’re both proud and serious professionals, it’s no leap to hope, or even expect, strong performances in 2012. As established as the two may be, they have something to prove again this season. That works in Boston’s favor.
Given the hyper-competitive American League East, Ben Cherington’s first offseason posed daunting challenges on the one hand. On the other, he needed to take a 90-win team laden with stars and simply replace his closer and a lot of dead weight. Andrew Bailey, Mark Melancon, Sweeney, Aviles, Kelly Shoppach, Ryan Lavarnway, Cook, Silva and I imagine more to come, in aggregate, just need to offer below average contributions instead of devastatingly awful ones in order to help the Boston Red Sox stay in the thick of things. And if they get lucky with a couple of them the way New York did with Colon and Garcia, the consensus prognostications of this offseason may look just as silly as last offseason’s.