Opening Day in Arlington is tomorrow and to kick off the event, we reached out to Brian Phair over at BoSox Injection, FanSided’s Boston Red Sox blog, for a question exchange. Jonathan and Brian decided on 7 questions about our teams in preparation of this weekend’s 3-game series. (Be sure to check out the Rangers questions and answers.) This weekend won’t be the only time the Red Sox and Rangers meet as they’ll play again later in the season and we intend on collaborating with each other again to bring you in-depth match-ups of the games and our thoughts on the team.
With the addition of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, Brian feels the team is strong this year but were the offseason additions and the performance of the team through spring training enough for Brian to think that the Red Sox have enough to take the AL East division title? Read on to find out…
Last season’s opening day hero for the Rangers was Jarrod Saltalamacchia who ended the game with a walk-off RBI, this season the Rangers will see him on opening day on the Red Sox bench. What are your early thoughts and expectations for Salty this season?
I think this is Salty’s make-it or break-it season. Red Sox manager Terry Francona made it clear early in Spring Training that he was the starting catcher for 2011, allowing Salty to focus on improving his game and getting comfortable with the Red Sox pitching staff. I have always been a fan of Salty and I think he still has extreme potential, even though the past few years have been awful for him in so many ways. Given the right coach and environment, I think he could shine, especially considering he has been through so much at such a young age. The Red Sox have an excellent catching coach, Gary Tuck, who has been working with Salty since early February and it appears to be paying off defensively. I also expect Salty to contribute in the batter’s box given the protection the stacked Red Sox lineup provides him. He showed flashes of his ability this spring, hitting .355 with a home run and 8 RBIs in 13 games.
The speedy Jacoby Ellsbury spent a large chunk of time on the disabled list last season, how has he progressed this spring and do you have concerns about his health in 2011?
Before games began this spring, I was nervous about Ellsbury and the nagging nature of rib injuries. After seeing him swing a bat and play the field, I have zero concerns. Ellsbury has been hot this spring for the Red Sox, hitting .352 with a team-leading 3 home runs in 18 games. He had a .38A6 on-base percentage and was 1 for 1 in stolen base attempts, making me believe that he is not only healthy, but locked in for 2011. After his injury ordeal last season, when the decision was made for him to rehab away from the team in Arizona for a few months, there was a lot of chatter in the media and with fans calling for him to be traded and questioning his commitment to the team. Ellsbury wants to shut-up all his critics in 2011 and appears to be more motivated than he has ever been. If Ellsbury has a strong season in the lead-off spot setting the table for the big guns, the Red Sox will likely still be playing into October.
The Red Sox acquired another former Ranger Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego in the offseason as well as getting Carl Crawford in free agency, how do these fit into the current Red Sox roster and is Boston happy with those moves?
There is no question that Gonzo and Crawford are huge additions to the Red Sox roster. Gonzo adds a powerful, dominant clean-up left-handed bat to the lineup and he plays gold-glove caliber defense at 1st base. His opposite-field stroke will be perfect in Fenway Park and will likely result in an even higher number of home runs and extra base hits. He is an anchor that allows hitters surrounding him in the lineup to see better pitches and get better opportunities to drive in runs. With his shoulder injury in the rear-view mirror, Gonzo will be a force in 2011.
Crawford is the definition of a 5-tool player. He provides the Red Sox with more speed, which will help both defensively in the outfield and on the base-paths, and he knows how to handle a bat. He hits for average and has power abilities, making him an all-around huge addition to the team. I don’t think the Red Sox GM Theo Epstein could be any happier about his off-season moves, considering he brought in two huge names and made an already strong line-up more balanced and powerful.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon had his share of disappointments last season, do you think he rebounds in this season?
I’m honestly not sure about Papelbon. I keep teetering back and forth on what I expect from him in 2011. It seems that his collapse in the 2009 post-season is still affecting his mental toughness, which is something I never thought would last as long as it has to this point. He appeared to never be comfortable in 2010, giving me the feeling he didn’t have the confidence to attack hitters and rely on his stuff to get outs. This spring has done nothing but continue to make me wonder about Papelbon. His control was awful, allowing 7 earned runs on 4 hits with 2 hit batters and 5 BBs. On the other hand, Papelbon is in a contract year and knows that if he falters, Bobby Jenks and Daniel Bard are waiting in the wing to take his closer role, so his motivation may be higher than we have ever seen from him. I cautiously think Papelbon will regain his swagger in 2011, have a great season, then sign a massive deal on the free-agent market with someone other than Boston.
The AL East is arguably the toughest division in baseball, do you feel the Red Sox moves were strong enough to stay ahead of the Yankees and Rays?
It’s hard to argue that anyone had a better off-season than the Red Sox and because of that, I think they are strong enough to win the AL East. That being said, it doesn’t matter how good a team is on paper or how many moves a team made during the off-season, it matters what happens on the field. The Yankees are still the Yankees, despite having an interestingly thin starting rotation. They have their usual strong lineup and a dominant closer, so they are always in contention. The Rays made some interesting moves this off-season, losing some several key components (SP Matt Garza, OF Carl Crawford, and SS Jason Bartlett), and bringing in some old Red Sox players in Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. I’m not sure how much either of those guys will be able to produce this season, but overall, the team is still in the conversation to compete for the AL East crown with guys like Evan Longoria and David Price on their roster.
What are your predictions for this 3 game series against the Texas Rangers to start off the year?
This opening series will be a pitching battle. Both the Rangers and Red Sox have potent, balanced lineups and it will come down to which pitching staff can shut down which line-up. It will also be a chance for the Red Sox to see how their lineup pans out against left-handed pitching, because the Rangers will likely throw C.J. Wilson on opening day and potentially Matt Harrison in game 3, both lefties. I think opening day will be a pitcher’s duel won by the Rangers, followed by the Red Sox taking the final 2 games of the series for a 2-1 series win. I think no matter how you cut it, this will be a tough opening series for both clubs, two powerful offenses and two starting rotations with a lot of potential, but still some question marks. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see this match-up re-emerge in the post-season.
Where do you project the Red Sox finishing the 2011 season?
I am going to cautiously say the Red Sox win the AL East. I’m not as confident as many other writers on this subject. I think this season will result in a 2-team race for the division and wild card, with the Rays falling off the map as the season wears on. As the rosters stand now, the Red Sox are the best team in the division, but I have a feeling Yankees GM Brian Cashman will go after a starting pitcher not too long into the season, making them a much stronger team. Also, divisional opponent Baltimore Orioles got better this off-season, making the numerous head-to-head match-ups tougher, not to mention the always powerful Toronto Blue Jays, who are poised for a strong season with their new manager, and former Red Sox pitching coach, John Farrell. On paper, there does not appear to be a true basement team in the division this season, making the road a lot tougher for every team, especially the few fighting for the division title. No matter what happens, it will likely be down to the wire come September.