The most important part of the team, and the part of the team that will either make or break the Red Sox' playoff and World Series aspirations.
Last year, Josh Beckett was hampered by injuries, and only went 12-10 with a 4.03 ERA. In the postseason, he registered an 8.79 ERA in 3 starts, which was one of the biggest reasons the Sox lost to the Rays in the ALCS.
This year, the word is that he'll be healthier out of the gate. He does have a tendency to accumulate blisters, and like every pitcher, his health is always going to be a question mark for the future.
The question is, was 2007 a fluke? His career is full of ups and downs. He was good in '03, then mediocre in '04, then great in '05, horrible in '06, excellent in '07, below average in '08. Is this a trend with him, or is it due to other factors?
I think Beckett will be good this year, as good as he was two years ago. He'll win 18 to 20 games, with an ERA between 3.15 and 3.50, and if the Sox get into the playoffs, he'll be the most feared by the opponents.
Jon Lester emerged as a quality pitcher last season. He was the Ace of the staff, and one of the few bright spots of a somewhat ugly season. 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA. He also cut down on the number of pitches it took him to get outs, which helped him go deep into games. But he needs to continue to progress along these lines. Then again, the bullpen is more improved this year, and can maintain a slim lead for 3 innings if need be.
Lester struggled a bit in the series with Tampa Bay, but pitched 14 scoreless innings against the Angels. He was also 3-0 with a 0.90 ERA against the Rays, so go figure.
Lester's finally gotten his strength back, and even though I think his ERA will come down to earth a little bit, as far as #2 pitchers go, he's one of the best in baseball. 17 wins, 3.60 ERA.
Daisuke Matsuzaka's success doesn't make sense. At least not according to conventional wisdom. He walks batters, gives up hits, throw 17.3 pitches per inning, and finished 4th in Cy Young voting, deservedly so. He won 18 games with a 2.90 ERA by NOT challenging hitters. It doesn't make sense.
He does have a significant weakness. He doesn't last long. By some miracle, he was 5-1 in games he only went 5 innings. In 29 starts, he had 0 complete games, two 8 inning starts, nine starts of 7+ innings, and 16 starts of 6+ innings. 13 of his starts were shorter than 6 innings.
And I don't want that to change. When he's economical with pitches, he gets hit, and hit hard. When he throws lots of pitches, he's very good. He bends but doesn't break. The 18 wins last year were an anomoly, especially as mediocre as the Sox bullpen was. However, he should be around 15 or 16 wins, with a low ERA, and no more than 170 innings pitched. Not bad for a #3.
Tim Wakefield... ugh.
I'm sorry to everyone who loves Tim Wakefield, but he's done. At least as a starter. He was 10-11 with a 4.13 ERA last year. Against New York and Tampa Bay, he was 1-3 with a 5.35 ERA, and that's not counting his 2.2 inning, 5 earned run start against the Rays in the LCS (it's a 6.13 ERA counting that start).
He turns 43 in August, and yes, there is wear and tear on a knuckleballer's arm. I don't see him in the rotation once Smoltz is ready.
Now we get to the part of the rotation loaded with question marks, but also loaded with potential answers.
Right now, Brad Penny is the #5 starter. He was the Opening Day starter for the Dodgers last year, but he's coming off shoulder trouble. He's throwing 96 now, though, and if he can perform for 5 solid innings every 5th day, then his acquisition can be considered a success.
He has nothing but upside. He was 16-4 with a 3.03 ERA in 2007. He's only 30, and if he can find that form again, the Red Sox become the most terrifying team to face in October.
John Smoltz will hopefully replace Wakefield in the rotation by June. He's still in the bullpen session stage, and he'll be 42 by the time he returns (if he returns), so I wouldn't count on him too much. From 2005 to 2007, he was very good with the Braves. BUT, pitchers don't recover quikly from injury once they hit the Big 4-0. I'm not optimistic about Smoltz at all, and will be shocked if he makes more than 10 starts.
Last year Clay Buchholz was a disappointment. But when everyone in town expects no-hitters night after night, it's hard not to be a disappointment. He had an outstanding spring, but after last season's struggles (2-9, 6.75 ERA), he'll still start the season in AAA Pawtucket.
Expect Buchholz to be up in Boston before the All-Star Game. I'm trying not to expect much from him. He has talent, but more important than that for a pitcher is confidence. His body language changes from pitch-to-pitch. He looks like prey on the mound, not a predator.
Michael Bowden is another name you'll probably see with Boston in the summer, especially once Wakefield gets shipped to the pen. He made one spot start last year and was solid. 5 innings, 2 runs, 7 hits. The 22 year old righty is 6' 3" and 215 pounds, and had a 2.62 combined ERA in Pawtucket and AA Portland last year. For me, he's passed Buchholz on the Sox' depth chart.
Justin Masterson found himself a nice niche last year, out in the bullpen. He quickly became the Sox' most reliable set-up man. But with new faces out in the pen, the Sox extended the 24 year old to be a starter.
As a starter, Masterson was 4-3 in 9 starts, with a 3.67 ERA and a 1.241 WHIP. Those are promising numbers for a 24 year old. However, he walks too many batters (27 walks in his starts, in 54 innings, or one every other inning), and struggled the 2nd time through a lineup. He rarely made it through for a 3rd time. He can be used as a starter, but I think in 2009, his best use will be as a reliever, just in case Okajima struggles, or there are injuries. At the same time, he has good Major League experience, and could wind up starting if Penny disappoints, Smoltz's recovery stalls, Wakefield stinks, a starter gets hurt, Buchholz remains inconsistent, et cetera.
The rotation will determine the fate of this team. The offense isn't good enough to carry the Sox into the playoffs. And a good bullpen is worthless if the starters that precede it aren't quality. The Sox might be holding three Aces with Beckett, Lester, and Daisuke. Then again, all three of those have the potential to be busts. Then there are the wildcards, an assortment of old "scrap-heapers" and young prospects.
I think this rotation will be among the best in baseball, and will propel the Sox to a 100 win season.