When the Boston Red Sox last put out a dominating batting lineup, they won the American League East and marched their way to a World Series title in 2007.
Since then, the Tampa Bay Rays have won the division twice and the New York Yankees once.
Now, Red Sox followers are talking domination again, with Boston’s season set to start Friday in Texas (after 12 teams begin Thursday).
But if Boston is again going to be playing baseball in late October, it must get past its division foes (well, at least one of them).
How do these Sox stack up against the Rays and Yankees?
Let’s look at six areas: starting pitching, bullpen, infield, outfield, catcher and DH.
Boston: Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka
Tampa Bay: David Price, James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Jeremy Hellickson
New York: C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia
This is one area where the Red Sox did not try to improve, yet they believe they’re in fine shape. If Beckett returns to form, the Red Sox should make the playoffs.
This is also the Rays’ real strength, although Red Sox antagonist Matt Garza was traded to the Cubs. Price is an ace, and Hellickson is a rookie to watch.
Here, you can put a check mark next to “Area of Concern” for the Yankees. Sabathia is the star and Hughes is an emerging star. Everyone else? New York is counting on Burnett turning it around, an untested Nova maturing quickly, and Garcia finding one more spark.
New York: Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, Pedro Feliciano, Joba Chamberlain, David Roberston, Boone Logan
Boston: Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler, Tim Wakefield
Tampa Bay: Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Andy Sonnanstine, J.P. Howell, Jake McGee
While much is made of Boston’s rebuilding effort, the Yankees still have the best closer, and now the best setup man after signing Soriano. Feliciano could also be a key addition.
Boston brought in Jenks and Wheeler and is counting on the continued emergence of Bard. But will Papelbon’s downslide continue?
This is where the Rays could fall out of contention. After losing five top relievers, including Soriano and Wheeler, to free agency, Tampa Bay hopes to find magic in its latest pickups. Howell is coming back from shoulder surgery and McGee is a top prospect.
New York: Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez
Boston: Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Marco Scutaro and Kevin Youkilis
Tampa Bay: Dan Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, Evan Longoria
No one matches the four All-Stars the Yankees bring to their infield. All eyes will be on Jeter, who turns 37 in June. Were his career-worst numbers last year (.270 average, .710 OPS) an aberration or a sign of decline?
Boston features three All-Stars along with the steady Scutaro. If Youkilis and Pedroia remain healthy and Gonzalez performs as advertised, it will be, in Pedroia’s words, “a laser show.”
The Rays lost Carlos Pena to free agency and traded shortstop Jason Bartlett. But they still have the dangerous Longoria.
Boston: Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew
New York: Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher
Tampa Bay: Johnny Damon, B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist
The Red Sox get a slight edge here only if Ellsbury can return to his 2009 form, and if Mike Cameron can sub often for Drew against left-handed pitching.
Gardner may eventually become the Yankees’ leadoff hitter, while Granderson and Swisher are solid.
Tampa Bay needs Upton to be consistent with Crawford gone. The Rays hope Damon still has something left.
Boston: Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Jason Varitek
New York: Russell Martin/Jesus Montero
Tampa Bay: John Jaso/Kelly Shoppach
There is no greater question mark for the Red Sox and Yankees than catcher. In Boston’s ideal situation, Saltalamacchia will emerge to fulfill his promise, under the guidance of Varitek. That, obviously, is no guarantee.
Martin saw his numbers go down every year in Los Angeles (.248, .679 OPS last season). Montero, a top prospect with no major league experience, might start the season in Triple-A.
Jaso is the rare leadoff-hitting catcher (.372 on-base percentage). But he does not hit lefties well. That’s where Shoppach comes in.
Boston: David Ortiz
New York: Jorge Posada
Tampa Bay: Manny Ramirez
Even with a slow start last year, Ortiz, now 35, batted .270 with an .899 OPS, hitting 32 home runs.
Posada is a clutch switch hitter who turns 40 in August.
While it is fun to have goofball Ramirez, 38, back in the AL East, can he improve on last year’s numbers (nine home runs in 90 games)?
The Yankees and Red Sox look alike, with formidable lineups. Their rotations appear similar — a left-handed ace (Sabathia and Lester), emerging young standout (Hughes and Buchholz) and questionable veteran (Burnett and Beckett) — with Boston having a slight advantage.
The bullpens may decide the outcome, which might make Red Sox fans uneasy. Boston may be the favorite to win the division, but the Yankees will jump ahead should Papelbon continue to blow saves.
As for the Rays, they do not appear to match up on paper. But Tampa Bay has been underestimated before and won anyway.
And, just to make it interesting, the John Farrell-led Blue Jays and Buck Showalter-managed Orioles both look improved.
Can the Red Sox dominate in 2011? Boston will settle for reaching the playoffs and then see what happens.
Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: