Boston Red Sox: 5 Things That Could Make (or Break) 2011

With apologies, my day job has been interfering with my sports coverage.  Would it really be too much to ask for my responsibilities to include wicked sweet Red Sox articles? 

I think that’s a perfectly reasonable request.  

But until it’s granted, I’ll muddle through as best I can.  My team assessments by position series has been temporarily derailed, so in the meantime I wanted to offer up some quick thoughts on the upcoming season. 

Here then are the Top 5 things that could make (or break) Boston’s 2011. 

5. The Catcher Position 

With V-Mart gone to Motown, the Sox are left with 2 options at backstop.  Neither is anything close to a sure thing.  

Can Salty take the next step?

On one end of the spectrum is the Captain, Jason Varitek.  About to turn 39, this Red Sox fixture can’t have much left in the tank; those legs have to be wearing out.  At best, ‘Tek is a part-timer.  He posted acceptable numbers last year when relieving Martinez and when filling in during V-Mart’s D.L. stint (injured thumb).  In 39 games, he was a league-average hitter.  And while he still calls a great game, his arm won’t make an impact.

Then we have the 25 year old with upside, Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  The trouble here is that he’s failed to realize his potential.  Will this be the year his game improves?  He has yet to play anything resembling a full season and his career high OPS is .732.  The Sox will need more than that.

Good Outcome: This tandem combines for something like .280/ .340/ .460 with 25 homers and 75 RBI.  That kind of production would be enough to keep this juggernaut offense atop the A.L. east.

Bad Outcome: Neither guy steps up and the position becomes an offensive black hole.  That would give the lineup a vulnerability that rivals would exploit. 

4. John Lackey and Josh Beckett 

Lackey has to be a better #4 starter than he was last year

The word is that Sir Lacks-a-Lot has dropped 15 pounds this off-season and will return to practice with a renewed vigor and sense of purpose.  We all hope so.  Because Boston can’t get a ring with only 2 working starters. 

Last year’s 4.40 ERA and 1.42 WHIP were not what the team paid $85 million for.  Lackey needs to get that ERA under 4.00 and keep the number of baserunners down if he wants to be successful.  

Beckett was an absolute stinkbomb last year.  Between injury and ineffective starts, he did more harm than good to the team that gave him a monster contract extension.  As an ace, he’s been supplanted by Jon Lester, but that doesn’t mean the Sox don’t need Beckett to be on point. 

2010 was unacceptable, and it makes 2006 (5.01 ERA/ 1.30 WHIP) look less like a fluke.  Beckett has to rebound and prove that he was worthy of the long-term deal.  

Good Outcome: ERAs starting with 3, WHIPs at or under 1.20, and 175+ Ks each.  If the duo can pull that off, then Boston will have 4 dependable arms in the rotation– more than enough support for its monster offense. 

Bad Outcome: A repeat of 2010.  Without a productive Lackey or Beckett, Boston will struggle to make a deep playoff run. 

3. The Bullpen 

Bard was great late, but the middle relief has to improve

Jonathan Papelbon had some tough times last year, but he still hurls electric stuff.  Daniel Bard is a phenom, and the team’s closer-in-waiting.  Other than that, the bullpen was a flop in 2010.

Boston has to have good enough middle relief to hang in tight games.  The offense is going to score a ton of runs, but unless the ‘pen can stop the other guys from doing the same, it may not matter much.  Last season and this past winter featured plenty of changes in the roster– Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez are gone, Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler are in.  Will the new-look bullpen fare better than last year’s disaster?

Good Outcome: A collective relief ERA of 3.50 or better.  That would put the ‘pen in the top half of the A.L.

Bad Outcome: Another display like last year’s.  Boston ranked 12th out of 14 teams in terms of relief ERA in 2010.  It tough to win a title that way. 

2. The Newcomers 

Acquiring Gonzalez was an off-season triumph

It was all well and good to watch replacement players step up in 2010.  There were some truly inspiring moments; Daniel Nava’s grand slam debut, Darnell McDonald’s solid year in center, Ryan Kalish stepping up late in the year.  But that kind of unexpected performance is unlikely to repeat itself.

Regression to the mean will bring the numbers back in line for those reserves.  Luckily, the organization was thoughtful enough to provide fans with a few upgrades.  You may have heard about them.Adrian Gonzalez (1B) and Carl Crawford (LF) instantly make the Sox offense the best in baseball.  As an elite bat and a 5-tool superstar, this pair means that Boston’s first 6 hitters could all post .800+ OPS totals.  The problem now becomes who will hit where, but that’s a nice problem to have.

Good Outcome: 40 homers and 100 RBI from Gonzalez, 40+ steals and another .850 OPS from Crawford.  The outfield will enjoy the defensive upgrade, and Gonzalez taking over at first gives Boston great corner infielders. 

Bad Outcome: The duo has to adjust to life in Beantown, and their numbers suffer.  If both fall off of their recent production, 2011 could be tougher than expected.  

1.  Health 

Here's hoping for a healthier 2011

You could have 9 Babe Ruths sporting Lou Brock’s legs; if they can’t stay on the field, they can’t help you win.  On paper, Boston has an embarrassment of talent.  But last year taught a painful lesson.  Injuries can befall anyone, even the best of the best.  The Sox have to avoid the injury bug if they want to make the post-season in baseball’s hardest division.

Good Outcome: A reasonably low number of trips to the D.L.  That would probably equate to an A.L. east title.

Bad Outcome: Another catastrophe.  Missing the playoffs isn’t all that hard to do when the Rays and Yanks are on your tail.