September 12, 2010

On Baseball: It's never too early to start looking ahead to next year

By Kevin Thomas
Staff Writer

Some thoughts with one season over at Hadlock, and another winding down at Fenway ... 

WITH FIVE STARTING pitchers under contract next year, the Boston Red Sox look like they will be building on a solid foundation for 2011. But there are question marks.

The fifth starter is Daisuke Matsuzaka -- an obvious disappointment after Boston invested $103 million (including the $51 million given to his Japanese team, the Seibu Lions, for the rights to sign him).

Matsuzaka will make $10 million each of the next two years and has a no-trade clause. If Matsuzaka would agree to a trade, how much of his salary would Boston have to pay, and what could the Red Sox get back?

Maybe it's best to have the best-paid fifth starter in baseball.

Another question concerns Tim Wakefield. If it is obvious that Wakefield, 44, is going to the bullpen, will he retire? He isn't enjoying his current mop-up role.

With Michael Bowden going to the bullpen full time and the Red Sox considering a temporary relief job for Felix Doubront in 2011, where is the depth in the rotation?

With Junichi Tazawa coming back from Tommy John surgery, the Red Sox have no ready starters coming out of the farm system.

Pawtucket did not have much in terms of starters last year until Doubront was promoted from Portland. All of the other Sea Dogs starters remained in Portland all year.

Casey Kelly, 20, is still the big prospect. His 2010 season (5.31 ERA) is considered a wash because of his age and lack of experience. He will be back in Double-A next year and, if the numbers improve, he will move up. But Boston won't rush the process.

Boston will likely sign minor league free agents who have some major league experience and can move up if needed. 

SPEAKING OF Pawtucket, former Sea Dogs lefty Kris Johnson just finished his second full season there, going 6-13 with a 4.88 ERA. Johnson was drafted in the supplemental round in 2006 (40th overall, and just ahead of Joba Chamberlain) and has been to the last two major league spring training camps.

Maybe Johnson, 25, will follow the path blazed by Bowden, Daniel Bard and Manny Delcarmen and become a reliever. 

BOSTON'S BULLPEN ranks 11th in the American League and will obviously be the site of major reconstruction.

Looking at last offseason, the Red Sox obviously overestimated some of their relievers while letting others go.

Boston had an option on 40-year-old Takashi Saito for $2.5 million and decided against it. The Braves signed Saito for $3.2 million, and he has a 2.70 ERA and 1.06 WHIP (walks/hits per inning). 

IT'S A GAMBLE when predicting relievers. Tampa Bay offered a low-risk $750,000 contract to Joaquin Benoit, who had a 5.00 ERA and 1.67 WHIP with Texas last year.

This season: 1.44, 0.66. 

ONE EASY DECISION for the Red Sox is to bring back infielder Nate Spears, who will be a free agent.

While minor league free agents are normally considered journeymen, Spears, 25, is as young as some of the Red Sox prospects. And his game is improving. With Portland, he established career highs in home runs (20), RBI (82) and runs scored (104, which tied the franchise record). He batted .272 with a .843 OPS and played stellar defense.

Spears should get a Triple-A deal and major league spring training invitation from some team. 

ONE OF SPEARS' unnoticed roles was that of mentor to shortstop prospect Jose Iglesias.

"He was a great role model for Iggy," Sea Dogs Manager Arnie Beyeler said. "They room together on the road. Been a great influence. Showing him how to play the game, how to work."

(Continued on page 2)

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