Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 22, 2001
BASEBALL: 2001 Red Sox Preview Part II
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
Last week we looked at the offense; this week we'll look at the pitching staff. There should be 11 or 12 roster spots open. Let's assume 12 (with someone starting off on the DL) and take a look:
#1 STARTING PITCHER (Ace Di Tutti Aces)
Pedro should be coming into camp ready to go, having stayed in good shape with daily walks on the water near his home in the Dominican Republic . . . this man, like the key Sox hitters, needs help; heís been carrying more stiffs and freeloaders than Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose.
I've been promising this for a while, so I'll run here the Translated Records for Pedro's last four seasons as compared to Sandy Koufax's final four:
Appreciate this man, while he's in front of you. I never saw Walter Johnson. I never saw Lefty Grove. But I've seen Pedro... and I'll tell my grandchildren about him. Iíll probably run the how-great-exactly-is-Pedro column later in the year, with the historical perspective.
Have you looked at the Red Sox schedule for the coming season? I have. And if you are thinking about the schedule at all, you are thinking about two things:
1. How many games will Pedro start?
Follow me on this one, Sox fans: if Pedro starts opening day (April 2 at Baltimore), it will be impossible for him to appear on his regular rest in the Sox' first two series against the Yankees (April 13-16 and 20-22). If he starts either Saturday or Sunday during the opening weekend at home (April 7-8 against the Rays, which would no doubt keep the sellout crowd happy), and if Jimy Williams is willing to give him an extra day of in May (good possibility), Pedro can appear in all four Sox-Yanks series in April and May. thus potentially face the Yankees six times this year.
Granted, the Yanks beat Pedro 3 times last year, but he's still the guy you want in that situation. And granted, this approach means 11 starts the first two months instead of 12, a loss the Sox don't get back. But there's something to be said for using extra days to keep the Ace of all Aces fresh for the long haul. And if you move beyond that, itís possible to work the second half so that he could start the opener of the first second-half series against the Yanks, a 3-game set ending September 2, and the final Sox-Yanks game to end the last, with a start against the Indians in between.
Hereís Pedro's first two months could go if the Sox attempt that six-man rotation for the first few weeks to keep everyone fresh:
4/2 opening day, Orioles
Notice how Pedro would get five days rest for every start through the second week of May... and he would face the Yankees in every NY-Boston series. I wonít run the whole thing, but the extra rest will cost him starts; if he starts the opener and goes every fifth day without fail he could start 36 times. My schedule would cut that to 35, and 34 if he sits out the last day of the season to prepare for the ALDS (best-case scenario).
It appears, instead, that Jimy intends to give Pedro even more extra days of rest, getting the fifth starter as many starts as Pedro. That means he'll probably use off-days on May 7th and May 14 to give Pedro an extra day of rest, causing him to miss one start against the Yanks. Too bad. Iím all in favor of working Pedro carefully to keep him from repeating past DL trips, but that might be just as well accomplished by keeping some of his early outings short, and either way the prime consideration should be maximizing Pedroís value over the season and postseason, not getting enough starts to decide between Cone and Castillo. Pedro was 4-5 last season on 5 daysí rest (albeit with a 1.91 ERA), so itís not like the record suggests that one extra day of rest is the best way to keep him fresh. Weíll see how it works out, but Iíd love to see him get six shots at the Yankees.
#2 STARTING PITCHER
The Sox are spinning the idea that Nomo will benefit greatly from the new strike zone since he has control troubles and likes to work high in the zone. He certainly will be helped, and there's no reason to think he can't be a solid starter, but I wouldn't get too excited about a return of Nomomania. When Nomo was with the Mets, the popular theory was that he had some sort of incurable degenerative disorder that caused the muscles in shoulder to slowly unravel, sapping his ability to control his pitches. There was also a lot of talk of how insanely hard pitchers work in Japan - Nomo often threw 150+ pitches a night - and the accumulating toll that had taken on his arm. Nomo will be the Sox' number two starter this year (in terms of workload) by default unless the youngsters step up, but I can't see him winning 18 games. A 15-10 season is a much more reasonable forecast, if all goes well and he gets good run support.
The good news is that Nomo has been Ė however maddening he may be to watch Ė steady and durable the last few years. Heís a good bet for 30 starts, at least.
#3 STARTING PITCHER
Yeah, you read the WHIP right Ė Okha was the third-best starter in the AL (ranked by ERA) last year with at least 10 starts, behind Pedro and Barry Zito (Frank Castillo was fourth), and he allowed only one unearned run, so thatís not a deceptive stat. But opposing batters werenít really baffled, hitting .263 with a 741 OPS.
Okha has succeeded everywhere heís pitched, and I expect him to hang in with an ERA around 4.10 this season; if the offense breaks right and heís healthy he could win 16 or 17 games. But heís not going to dominate; another 3.12 ERA is too much to ask.
#4 STARTING PITCHER
Arrojo is probably the biggest wild card on the Sox; I really don't know what to make of him. I have no idea whether he's actually healthy or not, or how old he is, and his time in Coors Field makes it difficult to tell whether his track record the past few seasons spells success or failure. Certainly he's got the deceptive motion and bewildering array of pitches that are common among Latin American pitchers, but then David Cone has those too, and he's still finished. Heís not a horse like El Duque. My sense is that, if he struggles, the Sox might prosper by getting him into the bullpen, where batters will get only one look at him (particularly with the imbalanced schedule). He will likely have a long trial in the rotation to prove himself first because the other options arenít so impressive.
#5 STARTING PITCHER
Iíd compare the Sox rotation to Russian roulette, but that would imply getting their brains blown out only once every six days. Castillo is about as high-risk a starter as there is, but of course he was outstanding last year. In 1993 he followed a 3.46 ERA with a 4.84 ERA, and lasted just 4 starts the next season. In 1996 he followed a 3.21 ERA with ERAs of 5.28 and 5.42 (the latter with a little help from Coors). Each time, his peripheral stats (K/BB ration, hits/IP, HR/IP) were good, no signs of trouble. In 1998 he started well, then got reamed the rest of the way, and didnít pitch in 1999.
In the regular season, Lowe may well be the most valuable relief pitcher in baseball. Heís not as lights-out effective as Rivera or Hoffman (and of course he lacks Riveraís postseason resume), but he works harder, and I canít say it often enough: how much a pitcher pitches is as important to his value as how well he pitches.
That said, even sinkerballers have their limits when it comes to working 90-100 innings a year in relief. Iím not a fan of the current save-driven closer scheme, but while the 2-inning closer can be hugely valuable, itís not clear whether pitchers today can handle Goose Gossage/Kent Tekulve/Mike Marshall/Dick Radatz type workloads. But thereís absolutely no reason Lowe couldnít be effective Ė and probably more durable Ė as a starter. Itís not like the Sox donít need a good number 2 starter. He wouldnít have a 2.89 ERA in the rotation, but he could pitch twice as many innings with less stress on his arm. If the Sox have other options to close games Ė I think they do Ė putting Lowe in the rotation would make a whole lot of sense.
The new Aurelio Lopez, but not as durable. Maybe this is unfair, but I just have a hard time imagining that El Guapo is only five months older than I am. The Twins were talking about making him their closer ten years ago. If heís healthy again (as early reports suggest, but you know what theyíre worth) thereís no reason he canít finish games.
--Jesus Pena (26) (not established in the major leagues)
--Sang-Hoon Lee (30) (not established in the major leagues)
I loved it when the Sox re-signed Schourek and Jimy said it was because he ďknows how to win.Ē Is that how he went 3-11 last year? I guess a less crafty, less veteran pitcher would have been 0-14. Schourek mustíve picked up that winning attitude from being a teammate of Anthony Young . . .
Schourek still has a decent shot at a spot on the staff mostly because the Sox are so short on lefthanded pitching. The only other lefties anywhere in sight are Pena and Lee, unless you're keeping your fingers crossed for Kent Mercker. Penaís pitched 50 innings at one stop only once, but heís been reasonably effective in the minors; the problem is nearly a walk an inning at the major league level. My guess is that the Sox will go north with two lefthanders (they could still get one in a trade) and Lee will be one of them; he should be ready.
Tim Wakefield (34)
Wakefield should be traded. His main attribute as a soft-tossing knuckler is the ability to handle a heavy workload, but heís not Stretch Armstrong; even a knuckler needs a predictable schedule, and his struggles the last two years are at least partially the result of getting jerked around so much (Now heís a starter! Now heís the closer! Now heís a mopup man!). At 34 he may just be entering his prime, and with a regular rotation turn he might well rebound to his 1997-98 form, which plenty of teams could use. But the Sox canít give him the space to try, with too many options and too much pressure to win now. Philly or Detroit would be a good destination. Obviously he wonít help anyone if he gives up 31 homers in 159.1 innings again.
Rod Beck (32)
Hipolito Pichardo (31)
If Beck can pitch, he can close. Iím not a big fan, but he held his own last season, and the glass-armed Pichardo did that one better. Iíd feel better about arguing for Lowe in the rotation except that the back of the bullpen is as unreliable as the back of the rotation; neither of these guys is exactly a safe investment.
Bret Saberhagen (37)
Personally, Iíd like to see the Sox try Sabes in the bullpen. In fact, if heís healthy, thereís no reason he couldnít prosper as an Eck-style closer. Granted, heís 5 years older than Eck was, but Saberhagen can still get people out; the problem is getting him healthy. Throwing 15 pitches three or four days a week is much less stressful than starting for a guy his age (the opposite of Loweís issue, but only because Lowe goes more than an inning and comes into games that arenít save situations; Sabes could be saved for those precisely as a limit on his work).
Paxton Crawford (23)
Crawford should be the first option when one of the others breaks down. With just 11 starts at AAA, he's probably best suited to start the season there, but if Pichardo, Beck and Saberhagen are on the roster, there will be call for him soon enough.
David Cone (38)
It's hard to think of any pitcher who has come back to any significant success after a year as bad as Cone's; guys have had bad or injury-riddled years, but a 6.91 ERA in 155 innings is an awful lot of awfully awful pitching. And he didn't really have a major injury last year; anything that was wrong with Cone physically last season is still wrong with him. Tom Seaver bounced back from a dreadful 1982 (5.50 ERA in 111.1 innings), but that season wasn't quite as bad and Seaver was suffering from a back injury. Also, he was younger. About the only example that comes to mind is Robin Roberts, who was 1-10 with a 5.85 ERA in 117 IP in 1961, and rebounded to four more years of good pitching that stretched his career win total from 234 to 286.
Probably the most similar situation I can think of is Jeff Fassero, who entered last season with many of the same problems Cone has - Fassero had suffered more from a loss of location and movement than velocity, but it was the same sudden wrong turn into a batting tee. After a few touches of Joe Kerrigan magic, Fassero wasn't useless last season, with an ERA better than the league average, but he didn't have the stamina to finish 6 innings and he lost steam as the season went on.
Cone just looked done last season -- he doesn't have the heat anymore and struggled with his command. The new strike zone won't help him, because he doesn't have the high hard one anymore and nibbling at the edges will be harder with a narrower zone. I won't be stunned if Cone throws 120 innings, reels off a few wins in a row and has an ERA a shade under five, a la Fassero and Schourek last season. But I'll be shocked if he stays the season in the rotation and has an ERA below 4.50. It's far more likely that the Cone retirement press conference will be before the end of June.
There are actually people out there who think David Cone is a "traitor" for taking his 6.91 ERA to the Red Sox (not kidding; listen to WFAN if you donít believe me). More like a double agent, I'd say, and anyway if Cone is a traitor at all he has been one since the day he put on Yankee pinstripes. Did the Yankees give him his first rotation spot after seven years in the minor leagues? Did the Yankees stick by Cone when he was accused (falsely) or rape the night before his 19-K game and accused of exposing himself in the bullpen (the only obscene act I can remember Cone performing was in a 1990 game against the Braves when he inserted his head completely into his rectum, holding the baseball to argue with an umpire while two runs scored)? Or when he turned in 3 straight disappointing 14-win seasons on contending teams? Or antagonized the opposing team in print before a big playoff start, in which he got hammered?
Anyway, surprise, surprise, Cone is a mercenary. He was one of the union leaders during the 1994 strike, remember? It's not like he's never been a free agent . . . I like Cone, actually, but this is not a new phenomenon with him. Live with it. And remember the Cone-bashing next time a Yankee fan claims to be above the whole Yanks-Sox rivalry. Cone had the best perspective on the whole thing, when he explained last week that he signed with the Red Sox to stay in the Sox-Yankees rivalry, adding, "I'd rather be booed than forgotten."
Actually, the Red Sox played a crucial but now-largely-forgotten role in Cone's development as a starting pitcher. In April 1987, with Dwight Gooden in rehab, Davey Johnson made an ill-fated decision to go to a four-man rotation. Bob Ojeda hurt his arm almost immediately, and the Mets were down to three starters. Cone had pitched brilliantly in relief (a 2.79 ERA to that point), flashing the curveball the scouts had raved about to strike out Jack Clark and Dale Murphy in key situations, so Davey decided to stick him in the rotation. This was not a smashing success; Cone got hammered in his first two starts. He looked terrified and couldn't find the plate. The Mets needed him, but it looked like Cone would have to be sent back to the pen because he was too nervous to handle the pressure of starting.
Enter the Sox. In 1987, for the second year in a row, the Mets and Red Sox played an in-season exhibition game to benefit the Jimmy Fund (the game was discontinued after this, presumably because Red Sox fans never wanted to see the Mets again). This time it was in early May. Picking a starting pitcher to waste on exhibition games is always an adventure, but there was a lot of speculation that Davey would use the low-pressure forum of an exhibition to get Gooden tuned up. Instead, he started Cone. Freed of the pressure of starting a regulation game, Cone settled down and pitched well, and went on to reel off several more good outings before he had the pinky on his pitching hand crushed by a pitch while trying to bunt. The following year, Cone entered the rotation full-time following an injury to Rick Aguilera, and with the help of the new strike zone vaulted to 20-3 with a 2.22 ERA. A star was born - thanks in part to the Red Sox and the Jimmy Fund game.
RED SOX OUTLOOK:
Unless something really surprising happens, a team with this many weaknesses canít win 98 games. But 90-93 wins is a distinct possibility, and that could be enough to win the division if the Sox fare well in head-to-heads with the Yankees. That alone, by the way, is good reason to keep Daubach and either OíLeary or Burkhart in the lineup against right-handers: you need lefty power to win in Yankee Stadium, and need lots of lefthanded hitters to beat Clemens, Mussina and Hernandez.
Iíll do predictions as we get closer to Opening Day. But February is an optimistic time, and the important thing is that the Sox are plenty good enough to support the dreams that make spring training exciting.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"There's a best way to throw, there's another way to pitch. The best way to throw isn't always the best way to pitch. You can make a guy throw better, but all of a sudden, the ball's straight and he can't get anybody out."