Lefty Jon Lester emerged as an ace-quality starter in his first full MLB season, sitting among the league leaders in ERA (3.21), innings (210.1), home runs allowed (14), and complete game shutouts (2). He struck out well over two batters per walk for the first time in his Major League career and established himself as a big game pitcher, allowing only three runs in three starts at Yankee Stadium and shutting out the Angels in two starts in the ALDS.
Josh Beckett has had a full offseason to recover from oblique issues and will return as the number one starter for the Red Sox. Last season was a struggle for Beckett who dealt with elbow, hand, and leg injuries for much of 2008. Even in an injury plagued off year he managed to strike out a batter per inning and toss 14 starts of two or fewer runs allowed.
In his second season pitching in the U.S., Daisuke Matsuzaka had the third best ERA in the AL in 2008. Matsuzaka still hasn’t fully adapted to pitching in the majors as he continues to walk more than four batters per nine innings. Still, he allowed the lowest opponents’ average in the league in 2008 while suppressing home runs and extra-base hits. The test for Daisuke in 2009 will be to improve his efficiency by cutting down on walks and throwing more innings. Nevertheless, he will provide the Red Sox with the best third starter in baseball.
The back end of Boston’s rotation is somewhat up in the air, but there is tremendous upside. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield will begin the season as the fourth starter in the rotation, coming off of one of his best seasons in years. Wakefield was third in the AL in opponents’ average, holding hitters to a .228 clip, with a 4.13 ERA in 181 innings. If his back and shoulder fail to hold up to a full season again, the Red Sox are prepared after a series of low-risk high-reward signings.
After 20 years in Atlanta, John Smoltz will be pitching in Boston. Smoltz hasn’t had a season with an ERA above 4.00 since 1994, but he is coming off of shoulder surgery and won’t be on the active roster until May at the earliest. Whether he can pitch at a high level again isn’t certain, but the upside he can bring to the Red Sox.
Brad Penny is another offseason pickup who is less than two years removed from All-Star caliber play. Pitching through shoulder issues in 2008, he was woeful in 95 innings, and coming into spring training, he will be fighting for a rotation spot. If healthy, he could be a great addition to an already strong, deep pitching rotation.
Justin Masterson is beginning the spring as a starter, though his role is yet to be determined. If Penny fails to earn a rotation spot, the Red Sox may give Masterson the ball every fifth day. He could also return to the bullpen where he became manager Terry Francona’s second option by the end of 2008. Wherever he ends up, he will be lethal against right-handed batters, but he will need to show a better changeup in 2009, or he will be vulnerable against lefties.
Two of the top pitching prospects in baseball, right-handers Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden, will also provide the Red Sox with excellent starting pitching depth waiting in the minors. With question marks surrounding the health and performance Smoltz and Penny, along with the inevitable bumps and bruises that come with a 162 game season, it’s almost a certainty that at least one of the two prized arms will get a shot in the majors during the 2009 season.
The Red Sox added to what was already a strong bullpen by signing former Dodgers’ closer Takashi Saito and trading outfielder Coco Crisp to the Royals for setup reliever Ramon Ramirez. Like Penny and Smoltz, Saito will be returning from an elbow injury and, if healthy, he gives the Red Sox a reliever who has struck out well over a batter per inning in each of his three ML seasons.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon, lefty Hideki Okajima, and righty Manny Delcarmen have served as the core of Boston’s bullpen for the last two seasons. In 2008, the quartet of Papelbon, Okajima, Delcarmen, and Ramirez (while with Kansas City) combined for a 2.73 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, a full strikeout per inning, and a ratio of 3.1 strikeouts for every walk. With Saito, lefty Javier Lopez, and possibly Masterson, Boston has excellent bullpen depth and arguably the best relief squad in baseball on paper.