Red Sox

Looking for a third Ace

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Looking for a third Ace

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

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.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Red Sox can be thankful for a successful past and a bright future

Red Sox can be thankful for a successful past and a bright future

For the glass-is-half-full folks, there are those back-to-back Eastern Division titles. For the glass-is-half-empty folks, well, there are those two first-round playoff ousters (though both their conquerers made it to the World Series, and one of them won it). But, here on Thanksgiving night, there's plenty for Red Sox Nation to be thankful for, starting with . . . 


YOUR GOOD HEALTH

We know you don’t need the Red Sox to know you how important the most basic elements of life are. But sometimes, the typical fantasy land of baseball can grab our attention. The death of 17-year-old Sox prospect Daniel Flores (above) this month from complications because of cancer didn’t take away only a potentially great baseball career. It took away a beloved, hard-working young person from the people who loved him. He had just made millions of dollars in July for his talent on the field, but what does such a windfall matter compared to one’s health? His cancer was both rare and fast-moving, per the Boston Globe.

MOOKIE, JACKIE, XANDER, BENINTENDI, DEVERS

The kids deserve some love. They probably won’t be together on the Red Sox forever. Heck, the group could get broken up this winter. But while any of the Killer B’s (plus a D) remain on the Sox, there should be a sense of optimism. Two straight 93-win seasons may have resulted in a first-round exit, and 2017 didn’t meet expectations for some individual performances. But you know what? The youths are still damn good, and there’s time for them to show us they can be even better.

INSANELY GOOD PITCHERS IN CHRIS SALE AND CRAIG KIMBREL

Neither hogs the spotlight once the game ends or says too much. Sale doesn’t even have Twitter. But the righty closer and lefty starter both do two things exceedingly well: make batters swing and miss, and prevent runs. When both pitch, your seat at the park may well be worth the price of admission. (But we won’t ask what you paid for those seats.) Sale didn’t take down Pedro Martinez’s Sox single-season strikeout record this year, finishing with five fewer than Martinez’s 313 in 1999. But he could have done it. And with a little more rest next year, one can envision him plowing his way through playoff opponents too.

ALEX CORA'S NEW DIRECTION

A first-time manager’s not a sure thing, but as Sox owner John Henry noted, there was a feeling it was time for a change. It’s a little early to be thinking ahead to a New Year’s resolution, but a manager who better connects with his players and brings a different vibe to the day-to-day scene is reason to feel the Sox are following the right road map. Plus, if nothing else, Cora took that awesome picture walking toward Fenway.

A CHRISTMAS SHOPPING SPREE MAY BE AROUND THE CORNER

We don’t want to be too materialistic. But Uncle Dave Dombrowski couldn’t let you buy everything you wanted last year. The credit card companies needed him to step back for a year. Now he’s ready to spend. He might not close down Bloomingdale’s for the day for you to do your private shopping, but if you need a couple great jackets to complete your look, it sounds like he’s ready to get you some designer threads. He probably feels there won’t be too many chances to have a moment like this with you, at this stage of your life, and he wants to make the most of it.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

 

Why the Red Sox should sign not one but two relievers

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Why the Red Sox should sign not one but two relievers

BOSTON — There is a world outside of Giancarlo Stanton. 

Stanton, at this point, simply doesn’t appear likely to end up in Boston. That should feel obvious to those following along, and so should this: it can change. 

But there are other pursuits. Besides their search for a bat or two, the Red Sox have been actively pursuing left-handed relief options. Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is a fast mover, but this year’s market has not been.

MORE RED SOX:

Robbie Ross Jr. and Fernando Abad are both free agents, leaving Robby Scott as the lone incumbent southpaw from last season's primary group. Brian Johnson is bound for the pen, with Roenis Elias as a depth option too.  Still, even if Johnson’s transition pans out, the Sox still have an opening for a late-inning reliever with the departure of free agent Addison Reed. 

Reed is a righty, but between Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, Carson Smith, and Craig Kimbrel, the Sox have more right-handed choices than left. Coming back from surgery, Tyler Thornburg, should be in the mix eventually too, but it's difficult to expect too much from him.

What the Red Sox should do: sign one of each for the bullpen, one righty, and one lefty. And then trade a righty or two. Turn some of that mishmash into an addition elsewhere. Be creative. 

Because inevitably, come midseason, the Sox will want to add another bullpen arm if they sign just one now. Why wait until you have to give up prospect capital when you can just add the piece you want now?

Go get a near-sure thing such as Pat Neshek, a veteran who walks no one and still strikeouts a bunch. At 37 with an outgoing personality, Neshek also brings leadership to a team that is looking for some. He walked just six guys in 62 innings last season. Entering his 12th season in the majors, he’s looking for his first ring.

All these top of the market relievers may be handsomely paid. But relievers are still something of a bargain compared to position players and starting pitchers. One of the key words for this winter should be creativity. If there’s value to be had in the reliever market, capitalize on it. 

Comeback kid Mike Minor, Jake McGee and Tony Watson headline the crop of free agent lefties available. Brad Hand of the Padres could also be had by trade but his market isn’t moving too quickly (and he won’t come cheaply).

Minor, 29, who posted a 2.55 ERA in 2017 after health issues kept him out of the majors in 2015-16, is expected to be paid handsomely. He is also open to the idea of potentially starting if a team is interested in him doing so. The Royals reportedly could give him that shot.

McGee’s American League East experience could be appealing.

He's 31 and had a 3.61 ERA with the Rockies in 2017 and has a 3.15 ERA lifetime. He’s not quite the strikeout pitcher he was earlier in his career — he had an 11.6 K/9 in 2015 — but a 9.1 K/9 is still very strong, particularly when coupled with just 0.6 homers allowed per nine.

For what it’s worth: McGee has also dominated the Red Sox, who have a .125 average, .190 on-base percentage and .192 slugging against him in 117 regular-season plate appearances. 

McGee throws a mid-90s fastball with a low-80s slider. He can operate up in the zone, and he actually has been even more effective against righties than lefties in his career, including in 2017. McGee’s been a closer, too, with 44 career saves.

The Sox had the second-best bullpen in the majors by ERA in 2017, at 3.07. Yet, come the postseason, there wasn’t a sense of great confidence or even a clear shape to the pecking order behind one of the absolute best relievers in the game, Kimbrel.