Here’s an email exchange between two friends of mine: one a fan of the game of baseball, the other a Boston Red Sox fan. (hint: they’re both me)
Red Sox fan: Help me off the ledge here. I’m panicking.
Baseball fan: You’re panicking? Your team is 0-3 with 159 games to play and you’re already panicking? The ’98 Yankees started 0-3 and finished 114-48.
Red Sox fan: We’re not the ’98 Yankees. We have more talent. And a lot more baggage.
Baseball fan: Ok, fair enough. But please, don’t give me that first person garbage unless you’ve actually suited up for “your” team. Anyway, if you think your team has more talent than one of the most successful teams ever, why are you panicking?
Red Sox fan: Did you sleep through last September? This team has pitching problems. And left-on-base problems. And serious luck problems.
Baseball fan: Luck problems? You don’t believe in curses, do you? Did you forget those two titles the Sox won in the past nine years?
Red Sox fan: Go watch last September’s games again and tell me there were no supernatural forces at work.
Baseball fan: Unless a worn out pitching staff with no depth is supernatural, I can confidently answer ‘no’.
Red Sox fan: Ok, then, let’s talk about pitching depth. Last year’s team had the best hitting in baseball, an excellent rotation, and a very good bullpen. Their only weakness was starting pitching depth, and when Clay Buchholz got hurt and Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey were innefective, they couldn’t get league-average innings out of their replacements. Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland… all of them were terrible. Even Lester and Beckett pitched poorly down the stretch, and Daniel Bard imploded in the bullpen.
So the team had one thing to address: pitching depth. What did they do? They let Papelbon walk and replaced him with two lesser “closers”- Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon. Not a terrible move, but it hasn’t worked so far. They let Bard move to the rotation. We’ll see how that plays out, but I’m not too excited. Then they picked up a bunch of retreads- Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook, Carlos Silva, Brandon Duckworth- and called it pitching depth. What if Beckett’s or Buchholz’s awful outings this weekend were the result of injuries? Are we going to see Cook and Silva in the rotation next week? Did you know niether of those guys has ever averaged 5 K/9 IP outside of the NL Central? How are they going to get outs at Fenway?
Baseball fan: So, adding a bunch of starters with experience isn’t adding depth? Who would you like to have seen on the team?
Red Sox fan: Edwin Jackson. Hiroki Kuroda. Roy Oswalt, maybe. Somebody who can pitch 200 decent innings and let Bard go back to the bullpen, where he belongs.
Baseball fan: Oswalt’s only pitched 200 innings once in the last three years. Jackson’s pitched well everywhere but the AL East, where he was a disaster with the Rays. And while one game doesn’t mean much, you saw how the Rays feasted on Kuroda in his first start, right? There’s no guarantee any of those guys could handle the Sox’s schedule.
Red Sox fan: That’s just it. The schedule is brutal. We could chalk these first three losses up to playing a great team, but there are seven great teams in baseball (if we assume the Blue Jays are great and the Phillies aren’t). The Sox play 19 games each against New York, Tampa, and Toronto, 10 against Detroit, and six each against the Rangers and Angels. That’s 79 out of 162 games against great teams. How do you beat those teams without any pitching outside of Jon Lester?
Baseball fan: I’m not so sure the Blue Jays are better than the Phillies. And all those AL East teams play the same schedule. The best teams will beat whomever they play. And don’t you think you’re overreacting about the pitching? Beckett and Buchholz had one bad outing each against a strong lineup. We haven’t given Bard a chance yet, and Felix Doubront may be solid.
Red Sox fan: Maybe. But you’ll give me the horrible bullpen, right? Aceves hasn’t gotten anybody out all year and Melancon has two losses already.
Baseball fan: Sure, they’ve looked bad, but they’ve got decent track records. Aceves threw 114 innings with a 2.61 ERA last year and has a 24-3 career won-loss record. Melancon has a K/BB ratio over 2.5 and saved 20 games last year.
Red Sox fan: Don’t give me this “wins” and “saves” stuff. Can these guys get guys out against teams like the Yankees and Rays?
Baseball fan: Look, Andrew Bailey will be back someday. Guys like Padilla and Franklin Morales could be valuable pieces in this bullpen. Aceves will get somebody out this year, whether he does it as a closer, a middle reliever, or a starter. The bullpen won’t be great, but it will be ok.
Don’t forget that this team won 90 games last year, as many as the World Champion Cardinals, and would have won several more if they’d caught a few breaks. They’re bringing back basically the same team. How could they be much worse?
Red Sox fan: Last year’s team had one of the best rosters ever- on paper. But some holes were exposed. Carl Crawford might not be the guy we thought he was. Kevin Youkilis might be done as an effective player, or at least as an MVP candidate. John Lackey was one of the best pitchers of the last decade and had promise going into last year, after a 3.85 FIP in ’10, but I’d rather never see him in a Red Sox uniform again. Matsuzaka had a brilliant ’08 and a decent ’10, so there was reason to believe he would be great in ’11. So much of that promise is gone. Lester seems to get a little worse every year (6.4 fWAR in ’09, 5.7 in ’10, 3.7 in ’11). Beckett hasn’t pitched well since last August. Buchholz has never thrown 175 innings in a season. they’re good, but there might be five better teams in the AL.
Baseball fan: So what if there are? Five teams get in the playoffs now, and if one of those “great” teams has more injury problems than the Sox this year, there’s a playoff opening. Wouldn’t you like to see what this lineup could do behind a healthy Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz in October?
Red Sox fan: I would, but it’s not going to happen. If this team can’t win yesterday’s game, with 12 runs and 18 hits, how are they going to win 90 games and get in the playoffs?
Baseball fan: Yesterday was one game. There are 159 games to go. And let’s not forget, the Yankees are 0-3 too.
Red Sox fan: That’s true. Maybe this season won’t be so bad.