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Several teams have already (rightfully so) expressed their interest in Cliff Lee, with some even travelling to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to meet with the Ol’ Gunslinger. (Sorry, wrong guy, but close enough to Arkansas.) And whether or not John Henry and Theo Epstein will do what needs to be done and pull the trigger, they really need to go after Cliff Lee and make him part of the rotation.
2010 was supposed to be a year of prominent pitching and defense for the Red Sox, with few players capable of providing offense. Instead, pitching was largely terrible, defense wasn’t great, and injuries pretty much made it so there were no Pawtucket Red Sox. The Red Sox still have bats; Adrian Beltre can be allowed to leave and the Red Sox can find another cheaper alternative at first base while Kevin Youkilis covers third.
With Justin Upton getting kind of pricey, an Adrian Gonzalez deal could include prospects, lesser bullpen pieces, or even Jacoby Ellsbury and his nagging ribs. Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford are still out there to sign outright to fill out the outfield, but the Sox can make as few of these moves as necessary, because their bats are there, and Beltre committed too many errors.
Of much greater concern is the pitching, which is why Cliff Lee should be priority #1 for the Red Sox. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz were the only two really good notes for the starting rotation, and Jonathan Papelbon, while still compiling 30+ saves, was much too off his game for the standard the Red Sox require to remain competitive. With many spots both in the rotation and the bullpen to fill with talent, adding Cliff Lee would immediately bolster both.
In the 2010 regular season, Cliff Lee had a 3.18 ERA, 1.003 WHIP, and seven complete games. That betters his career averages of 3.85 ERA and 1.256 WHIP. In his postseason career, Lee is 7-2 with a 2.13 ERA .816 WHIP, along with three complete games. And most importantly, he’s 3-0 in his postseason career against the Yankees.
Boston was supposed to have three aces last season. If they sign Lee, Boston can have their three aces next season: Lee, Lester, and Buchholz. And that would allow Boston to move a struggling starter to the bullpen to shape up, which would also help fill out the bullpen too.
Even before the injuries, Beckett just stopped trying; with the lucrative extension, he apparently thought he didn’t need to try. Beckett finished the year 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA and a 1.535 WHIP, both career worsts by far. While extremely unlikely, Beckett is a great candidate for a bullpen or bench stint to motivate him to perform and earn his spot in the rotation. Since that is out of the question, adding Lee as a #1 starter and moving Beckett down the rotation order would put him up against other teams’ lesser starters as well, and allow Beckett to regain his form, and his confidence along with it.
Lester has arguably been the most consistent pitcher for Boston in recent years. Lester’s record in 2010 was 19-9, a career best in wins, and he had a 3.25 ERA (second best ever) and 1.202 WHIP (career best). He also had two complete games, just like in each of the past three seasons. Lester has been the best pitcher for Boston over the last few years together, and he has earned the #1 spot if Lee doesn’t sign. It’s a shame to have Lester toiling in the #2 spot playing like that and with the other players around him.
Lackey was Boston’s pitcher who looked better than he really was because the offense happened to support him at a higher rate than other pitchers. Despite tying the second most wins of his career with 14, Lackey’s ERA was 4.40, his worst since 2004 (4.67), and his WHIP was 1.419, a career worst. For the first year in his career, Lackey had no complete games. He did strike out 156 batters, but walked 72, and also allowed 105 earned runs, which tied a career worst. Lackey was supposed to do a lot better facing #3 pitchers, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Lackey had some good spots, but with the problems they’ve had, Boston can’t afford to overlook Lackey’s trouble spots.
Buchholz had a career year, finally becoming a full-time starter instead of skipping every other turn or so. Buchholz’ ERA and WHIP were 2.33 and 1.203 respectively, both career bests if you discount his highly abbreviated 2007 rookie year (four games, three starts). Buchholz struck out a muscular 120, and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting; maybe that one one-inning outing against the Athletics cost him some points, but that was just one outing. Buchholz has really come into his own, and deserves to be right behind Lester in the rotation.
Although not QUITE as bad as 2009, Matsuzaka is still a huge injury risk, and is still a COLOSSAL waste of money. Dice-K managed 25 starts, but had a 4.69 ERA and 1.373 WHIP, his second worst stats in the majors behind 2009. That kind of “performance” is not worthy of $10 million dollars per year, massage and physical therapists (which haven’t done their jobs, by the way), a personal assistant, and extra plane rides.
Matsuzaka always seems to have that one trouble inning, and moving him to the bullpen would help him avoid that, and convince him to work harder and/or help him avoid injuries from repetitive work. Dice-K probably won’t support any move to the bullpen. In that case, maybe, just maybe, he would become frustrated enough to waive his no-trade clause; with $51.1 million being paid to just talk to him, Matsuzaka should feel privileged enough to do that.
Wakefield had another poor season as a spot starter, with a 5.34 ERA and 1.350 WHIP in 140.0 innings pitched. He also balked for the first time since 2002. Ever since Wakefield’s back problems in 2009, he just hasn’t been the same. The real reason to keep him around is his incredibly inexpensive contract, at a base of just $1.5 million for 2011, with innings pitched incentives. But that hopefully won’t happen with Wakefield.
Despite a 4.50 ERA and 1.283 WHIP, not the best but still pretty good considering the rest of the bullpen and rotation, Atchison, along with Bard, was the most consistent Red Sox reliever. He never really seemed to get in an absolutely horrible slump, and filled in admirably for Matsuzaka in a spot start last June 12, holding Philadelphia to two runs in three innings. Daniel Nava’s first-pitch grand slam helped out there. Atchison’s reliability in long relief situations makes him a go-to guy for Boston in 2011.
Daniel Bard has quickly emerged as the kingpin of the Sox bullpen. In only his second year, Bard had a miniscule 1.93 ERA and 1.004 WHIP. He was a solid set-up man, and picked up three saves when Papelbon was unavailable. Bard was even known to go two innings every now and then, something every closer needs to be able to do to increase his usefulness. Bard was a strong anchor to the Sox’ bullpen, and he will continue to be one next season as well.
Papelbon set career worsts with blown saves (eight out of 45 chances) and ERA (3.90), and a second-worst career WHIP (1.269), which trails only his rookie year in 2005. Seven losses were also a career worst. No question, Papelbon still has some value, but that is rapidly slipping. Papelbon’s salary is very high, which would be okay if it weren’t for the noticeably lower stats (mostly ERA, and in addition four wild pitches, compared with none in 2009). Papelbon’s salary does present an obstacle to trading him, unless Boston is willing to cover part of it like they did for Julio Lugo. Even without trading him, Papelbon would still make a great arm, but one think that I’ve noticed: he has severe problems trying to pitch more than one inning and remain effective.
So where does Cliff Lee fit into all of this? His history and playoff career (Tim Lincecum aside) make him a natural fit for a #1 starter. Basically, Lee would enter the rotation, thereby allowing pushing other starters back and stabilizing the back end of the rotation. Continuing on, the Sox would have an additional long reliever / spot starter to use when needed. Facing lesser counterparts, or a lot less batters, the struggling members of the Red Sox pitching staff would be able to regain their mojo and at the same time, fill in a depleted bullpen.
Change is clearly needed to fix the Red Sox’ pitching and ensure a playoff spot, instead of having to fight through problems and injuries. With that in mind, here’s how the Red Sox’ pitching staff should work out to keep them competitive:
*Salary is a huge obstacle in trading Josh Beckett, but it’s worth a shot.
* Jonathan Papelbon should be considered as trade bait, if the salary obstacle can be overcome. Tim Wakefield should be considered as trade bait due to a likable contract. Hideki Okajima should definitely be used as trade bait.
If Cliff Lee doesn’t sign, then the other starters should be moved up a rung, with Tim Wakefield getting the final spot, but he should have a VERY short leash given recent performances. Prospects and Matsuzaka will be hoping to get a chance to have a stellar season.
Use the extra trade bait to land another bat in Adrian Gonzalez or Joey Votto or someone similar, which wouldn’t require Ortiz at first. Signing Werth and/or Crawford would fill in the outfield bats, and Crawford would give Boston speed, especially if Ellsbury is included in a trade package, which due to his injury, which could easily be nagging, I would very much support.
But that’s what Boston should do. What they will do won’t be known until free agents start signing and trades are made, but here’s what Boston likely will do:
Notice how I predict Boston won’t really make any changes. Boston has made a lot of talk about retaining Adrian Beltre (despite all the errors, which compounds the problem, and an offensive season which I doubt can be duplicated) despite the huge contract he wants, and it’s tough to resist a powerful catcher like Victor Martinez, though Jason Varitek is pretty powerful in his own right. And all the pitchers Boston has locked up for eight figures per year? The Red Sox don’t seem to understand the concept of a sunk cost. That basically means the money is gone already and can’t be recouped. As such, it shouldn’t play a factor in playing whoever gives you the best chance to win.
But Boston has already signed their pitchers, and seems to think they have to play their pitchers just because their names are Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. That’s not the way to do things. Just look at the Boston Bruins. Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas lost his starting job, despite his name, midway through the very next season. Sure enough, he got a chance to earn his job back, and earn it he did. And now that Thomas knows his starting job isn’t a lock, he’ll likely keep trying, unlike the start to the 2009-2010 season.
Such is how it must be with the Boston Red Sox. Bench those who are under-performing. They will then hopefully realize that they are not immortal, and will put in a much better effort once they see they aren’t guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation, or even the closer’s role.
And by going after Cliff Lee, that action will be all the easier.
Tags: Boston Red Sox, Casey Kelly, Clay Buchholz, Cliff Lee, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Daniel Bard, Felix Doubront, Hideki Okajima, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Josh Beckett, New York Yankees, Scott Atchison, Texas Rangers, Tim Wakefield