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Red Sox now 'team to beat' in A.L. East

December 9, 2010

The addition of Carl Crawford, who will take his physical exam in Boston on Friday, weakens Tampa Bay and makes the Red Sox favorites to rule the A.L. East in 2011.

Some things I think I think:
If you want to scare the daylights out of a Yankees fan, mention that A.J. Burnett might have a few problems dealing with Boston’s revised 2011 batting order. Now that the Red Sox have added lefty hitters Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to their lineup, sidearming right-handers like Burnett will be in big trouble against the Sox, who already have J.D. Drew and David Ortiz around as legitimate lefty power hitters.
With switch-hitting catchers Jared Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek available, Boston could start seven lefthander hitters against most right-handers. Only Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia are righthanded hitters who will play every day. Switch-hitting Jed Lowrie could platoon with Marco Scutaro at shortstop and Jacoby Ellsbury figures to be the centerfielder.
The flip side: How will Boston handle lefthanded pitchers in 2011? Theo Epstein addressed this the other day, saying there have been some good teams in recent years who leaned to the left at the plate. I’m guessing one of those teams was the Yankees, who used to throw Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Robbie Cano and Johnny Damon out there on a daily basis. Each of those guys hung in very well against southpaws.
Adrian Gonzalez hit .338 against lefties last season for San Diego. That’s the good news. Drew hit .208 against lefties in 2010 and Ortiz swatted them at a .222 clip. Crawford hit .256 against lefties.
Ellsbury hit .318 against lefties during his 2009 season. His 2010 stats are too small to sample as he played in only 18 games last season. Platoon partner Mike Cameron, if he isn’t traded by the time you read this, doesn’t discriminate. He’s a .250 hitter against both kinds of pitching.
Of course, Theo Epstein also points out that righthanded starting pitchers outnumber lefty starters by roughly a 2:1 ratio, which means Boston manager Terry Francona can trot out his lefthanded lineup for at least 100 games without worrying about certain matchups until the middle of the game.
Epstein is usually two steps ahead of his rivals. One would think he’s working on a deal to bring in a righthanded-hitting outfielder who can pinch-hit and start against lefties. Or maybe he thinks Darnell McDonald can repeat his 2010 success (.294 BA with a .357 OBP against southpaws). The Yankees used Marcus Thames to good advantage in this role during the 2010 season. He hit .300 against lefties last season in 142 at-bats. The journeyman remains a free agent after the Yankees declined to retain him.
Epstein might decide to keep Cameron as a platoon player for the final year of his deal with Boston, or he could try to move the 38-year-old centerfielder for some loose change.
With the acquisition of Gonzalez and Crawford this week, Boston is now labeled “the team to beat” by veteran scribes such as Buster Olney of ESPN.com. It makes sense. If the Red Sox can straighten out the back end of their pitching rotation, they will have a powerful team, no question about it. Jon Lester is a bona fide ace pitcher. Clay Buchholz is not far behind after his brilliant 2010 season. The key for Boston is getting Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka to regain their old form. If that happens, Boston might walk away with the A.L. East division title.
And what about the Yankees? Well, they need to sign Cliff Lee. If the free agent lefty chooses Texas over New York, then Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has to trade away one or two elite farm system prospects for a starting pitcher.
Right now, New York’s projected 2011 starting rotation reads this way: CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett … and then what? Andy Pettitte is leaning towards retirement again, and this time he might mean it. Chances are, the Yankees beg him to come back and make it worth his while. That gives them four starters. The No. 5 guy either comes through a trade or from among Joba Chamberlain, Ivan Nova or a fast-rising farm system prospect (lefthander Manny Banuelos is at least one year away).
The Yankees could honestly say they are facing a “bridge year” when it comes to their pitching staff. Banuelos could replace Pettitte in 2012. Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman are two high-ceiling right-handers who need another year of consistent minor league pitching to prove they are for real.
New York looks like a slugging team that will try to outscore its pitching staff in 2011. The addition of 20-year-old Jesus Montero to the catching corps gives the Yankees another power bat in the making. It is too much to ask for the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Venezuela native to make an immediate impact with his bat. But that’s probably what the Yankees are going to need now that Jorge Posada is 40 and likely to spend most of his final season in pinstripes as a designated hitter.
The Yankees’ position players aren’t getting any younger. Posada is gone after this year. Derek Jeter turns 37 this summer. A-Rod is 36 and demonstrating less flexibility in the field and swinging the bat after undergoing hip surgery in the spring of 2009. Pettitte has one foot into retirement. Mariano Rivera turns 41 this year.
Boston got younger when it signed Gonzalez (turns 29 next May 8) and Crawford (also 29). Youk will turn 32 next summer.
Ortiz and Drew will be gone after this season, barring a miracle turnaround from either veteran. Boston has Ryan Kalish ready to take over for Drew. Ortiz’s replacement could come from within. The Red Sox might use the DH slot to give their key players (Youk, Gonzalez, Pedroia) half-days off.
What’s the bottom line? Boston took its medicine during 2010 and responded by signing two star players who join Youkilis and Pedroia as the cornerstones of the lineup for the next five years. Tampa Bay has been seriously weakened by its refusal to raise payroll. And the Yankees are getting older.
I bet the Las Vegas bookies are already adjusting their odds to win the World Series next year. Boston has to be the favorite now, don’t you think?

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