By Rich Levine
On paper, the Red Sox recently completed the most explosive offseason in franchise history, but for the smoking hot winter to translate into another World Series title, two carryovers from the 2010 team will have to step up their games.
And Im not talking Darnell MacDonald and Daniel Nava.
This week, both Josh Beckett and John Lackey arrived in romantic Fort Myers ready to move on from less-than-stellar seasons. Beckett clearly understands how deeply he disappointed Sox fans in 2010. John Lackey? Not so much. But theres one thing both players and the rest of the free world can agree on:
This year, the two supposed-to-be aces need to be better. If not, despite all the Hot Stove success, the Sox might find themselves in the same predicament as last season, and possibly, the same place in the standings.
Thats kind of dramatic. Im not trying to rain on our World Series parade. Its been a long time since Bostons been this confident about the team. Its been a while since the Sox have been so primed for a title.
They grabbed the best two free agents on the market; two killer bats that will be added into an already lethal, and finally healthy, line-up. They also went out and bolstered their bullpen with two legitimate veteran arms, which, combined with a more mature Daniel Bard and more focused Jonathan Papelbon, will give Boston one of the deepest and most reliable crews in the league.
Unlike last year, no ones worried about scoring runs (although despite low expectations and a high mortality rate, offense wasnt even the Sox issue last year: They still led the majors in OPS, were second in runs, second in homers and third in OBP); no ones worried about preventing runs, no ones worried about holding leads. No ones worried about anything except whether they can get off work for the Rolling Rally. And if all goes to plan, maybe it will be that easy. Maybe theyll win 100 games like Beckett suggested on Tuesday. Maybe the Sox will cruise.
But their ability to do so isnt resting on that new-and-improved lineup or the refurbished bullpen. Its about the one unit that remains untouched from last season; the one group most capable of taking the 2011 Sox from Paper Champions to legitimate juggernaut. And the two guys who, despite the pretty resumes and deep pockets, somehow still have the biggest fleet of doubters.
Beckett and Lackey. Lackey and Beckett. Beckey and Lackett. Whatever.
They need to step for the Red Sox to follow suit.
Becketts struggles last season arent much of a mystery. Fresh off his 68 million extension, he injured his back early, never recovered and was a non-factor. He finished with only six wins over 21 games and a 5.87 ERA so bad it offended Matt Clement. On Tuesday, he was asked about his lost season and predictably didnt mince words.
"At times it was a physical struggle," he said. "But things still should have been better than they were."
We can all agree.
Lackeys situation is a little less cut and dry. The big man certainly didnt live up to expectations last season, but speaking to the media on Monday, he downplayed the disappointment.
"There's definitely room for improvement," he said. "But there were definitely some numbers I can look at that were pretty good. My innings were good and there were a lot of quality starts. Honestly, I think all the evaluation was overblown a little bit. I'd only won more than 14 games once in my life. I led the team in quality starts and innings."
Thats how he chooses to remember it, but I think Sox fans are less impressed with the innings and more concerned with the fact that he set a career high in WHIP. That he tied a career high in walks and earned runs. That he pitched into eighth inning only six times in 2010 (with zero complete games), after doing so 10 times (with three CG) in 2009. That he honestly thinks reminding fans that hes only won more than 14 games once in his career is supposed to make them feel better.
Yeah, theres the fact that he led the team in innings, throwing seven more than Jon Lester. But theres also the fact that in those seven extra innings he gave up 66 more hits, 30 more earned runs and struck out 69 fewer batters than Lester.
And theres the 82 million contract.
Overblown evaluation or overpaid pitcher? You decide.
But this season, the decision belongs to Beckett and Lackey.
If were being honest (we are, right?), they dont even both need to come up big. The Sox could survive another mediocre season from either Beckett OR Lackey. But at least one guy needs to shake off the silliness of last season and become a third dominant force in the starting rotation. They cant leave Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester out on an island, they cant leave the team in a position to have to rely on Dice-K. They cant sit back and let another season on a high seven-figure deal slip away.
Theyre supposed to be the leaders. They should be pacing Lester and Buchholz, not the other way around. Theyre the two big money arms. Theyre the two World Series MVPs. Theyre the guys who youre supposed to roll out there once a week and know the other teams scared. The fact that Buchholz and Lester are as dominant as they are should be icing on the cake. People should be talking about the Sox in the same league as the Phillies Big 4. Or if not quite at that level, then at least to the point where those four starters, the new-and-improved lineup and the suddenly deep bullpen would absolutely run away with this division.
No one can match that. And no one would.
But right now, whether its a matter of physical or mental concerns (or a combination) with Beckett and Lackey, those two guys arent there, and for now, thats the largest hurdle standing between the Sox and the team everyone hopes theyll become.
And its up to either one (or both) of the veterans to carry the Sox over the top.