Friday, February 15, 2008

The four most beautiful words

Pitchers and catchers report. Short of “I love my sweetie” or “The Red Sox Win”, I can’t think of four better words strung together. There may be snow and ice outside, but pitchers and catchers report. The windchill is below zero, and you’re starting to believe the parka and gloves are actually parts of your body, but pitchers and catchers report. Spring is near. The long cold winter is going to end. Whether your team is the defending champions (the Red Sox), trying hard to forget a miserable, humiliating 2007 and rebound toward lost glory (the White Sox and the Mets), or you’re really not sure what to expect (the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers), pitchers and catchers report.

The three ring circus featuring George Mitchell, Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee continues, but none of them are suiting up this week in Florida or Arizona. Bud Selig can spout all the sanctimonious crap he wants about how he’s protecting the game and doing the best job he can cleaning up the mess he helped create, but he won’t be wearing a uniform. The only thing that matters is the annual inevitability of spring: pitchers and catchers report.

Johan Santana is a Met. Pedro Martinez hopes he’s healthy now. The Giants need to figure out what kind of team they’re going to be in the first year PB (post Barry). The Rays have a new name, new uniforms, and they’d like to finish better than last place. The Mariners have a new ace. The Phillies, with their MVP’s, want to put it all together this year. The Tigers want to bounce back. The Brewers want to have a second half of 2008 that’s as good as the first half of 2007 was for them. The Cubs want to break their century-long drought. The Red Sox and Rockies, of course, want to repeat last year’s glory, though the Rockies want four more post-season wins. The Indians know that if they had held on a bit longer in the ALCS, they could have been receiving rings this opening day instead of the Red Sox. No matter the team, it all starts with the four words: pitchers and catchers report.

Such lovely words. It’s all possible. Everyone fantasizes this month about their ability to hoist the trophy in their delirious, champagne-soaked locker room in October. The road to October starts this week, because pitchers and catchers report.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

No Schill, Sherlock

El Tiante's preview of the 2008 Red Sox begins with the starting rotation.

Curt Schilling is not going to be available this year, and possibly not ever again. Oh well. It does solve one of the nagging questions that had been facing Terry Francona: How do you fit six starters into the five spots of the rotation. With Schilling out due to a bad shoulder, we’re back to five: Josh Beckett (the de facto ace), Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Jon Lester and future ace Clay Buchholz.

This still stands as one of the two or three best rotations in the American League. There’s an elegant balance between experience and youth, flamethrowers and control artists, World Series heroes and a continued thirst to get there again.

· Josh Beckett had a superb 2007 and one of the most dominant postseasons in modern history. Still, he didn’t get the Cy Young, and that remains within his reach in 2008.

· Daisuke Matsuzaka made it through a long, tough rookie season and was rewarded with an important role on a championship team. But he has much to prove in 2008. His season will begin with a very visible start at home in Japan. That will be the kickoff to his campaign to show that he’s as great as his reputation and outsized contract would suggest. Daisuke was good in 2007, but never the best on his own staff. He frequently threw too many pitches early in the game, tired as the season progressed, and on occasion was simply ineffective. Being The Man is important to Dice-K. Look for him to get closer to 20 wins.

· Tim Wakefield may only have one, possibly two years left in him. He’s the senior statesman, but still stands as the designated innings-eater. He was hurt for part of 2007, and missed the historic post-season. Wake would like to go out as the warrior he’s always been.

Then there are the kids.

· Jon Lester was the World Series game 4 starter, which stood as a perfect capstone to his astonishing comeback from cancer treatment. In the offseason, Lester was one of the key names thrown around in the Johan Santana trade rumors. With Curt Schilling now out, the year-long presence of staff’s only lefty shouldn’t be underestimated. Jon Lester could become the new Bruce Hurst, and Francona’s going to need Lester to take the ball and be effective every fifth day. He has the stuff and the poise. Now he has the chance to do it from April through September.

· Clay Buchholz. The sky’s the limit for this kid. He’s still considered a rookie in 2008. He threw a no-hitter in his second major league start, at Fenway Park, in the middle of a pennant race. If the Red Sox had included Buchholz in discussions with the Minnesota Twins, Johan Santana would not be pitching for the Mets this year. Given the choice, Theo Epstein preferred to hang on to the kid, even if it meant passing up one of the best pitchers on the planet. Buchholz might just be that good, and he’s likely to be the #5 starter in 2008.

The starters, all by themselves, are capable of notching an average of 15-17 wins apiece. That might include two or conceivably as many as three 20-game winners. Kyle Snyder and Julian Tavarez are the spot starters in the bullpen. Since the Santana deal didn’t happen, the Red Sox still have real minor league pitching talent developing, most notably Justin Masterson and Nick Hagadone.

This isn’t a good rotation. This is potentially a great rotation, even without Curt Schilling. I’d posit that replacing Big Schill with Buchholz makes them deeper, more dangerous, and even tougher for everyone else to prepare for.