April 20, 2011

On Baseball: Red Sox seem to have an edge, but East competition is tough

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

Josh Beckett
click image to enlarge

Josh Beckett could be the difference between a good rotation and a great one for the Boston Red Sox.

The Associated Press

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.

Starting pitching

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.

Relief pitching

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.

Infield

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.

Outfield

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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