(Editor's note: This is the fourth installment in our "10 Questions in 10 Days" series leading into the Boston Red Sox's spring training, which officially kicks off Feb. 19, when pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report.)
BOSTON -- It has to rank as one of the oddest developments of this or any other winter: The Red Sox having to defend themselves against accusations that they’re too cheap to compete in the American League East -- because, critics both locally and nationally allege, majority owner John W. Henry is directing more cash to his Liverpool soccer team at the expense of his Boston Baseball Club.
Henry made an unscheduled visit to a radio station to refute that claim several months ago, and CEO Larry Lucchino went on the air Friday for the same reason after a national columnist made his case that Henry was suffering from soccer on the brain.
The Sox owners have every right to be indignant. They have two $20 million-a-year players on the roster this season in Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, the first baseman’s seven-year, $154 million extension kicking in this season, and they have $25 million in starting pitching on the disabled list, with John Lackey out for the entire season after Tommy John surgery and Daisuke Matsuzaka expected to miss at least half a season after undergoing the same procedure last spring.
Try as they might to avoid doing so, the Sox are teetering on the brink of crossing the luxury tax threshold again this season, they already have almost $95 million in salary commitments in 2014 ($20 million more than the Yankees), and already have spent $44 million on the 2017 team. And this we call cheap? Ludicrous. There is no credible argument to be made that Henry is poaching from Sox's monies to float a few more footmen for his soccer team.
That said, general manager Ben Cherington’s lack of payroll flexibility left him without the means to make the kind of move we have come to expect the Sox to make when they have an obvious need, such as starting pitching this winter. C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish, the high-end difference-makers? Out of the question. Hiroki Kuroda and Edwin Jackson, less-expensive-but-still-pricy options? No can do. Even sore-backed Roy Oswalt, who still lurks out there as a possible solution, evidently has to drop his price before the Sox stake a claim on his services, though Oswalt’s reluctance to relocate in the American League may be an equal factor in forestalling a deal.
So the Red Sox enter the season banking on two pitchers, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, whose reputations took fearsome hits in the aftermath of the team's September collapse, and Clay Buchholz, whose bad back limited him to 14 starts last season and made him a spectator for the autumn blood-letting.
Prediction: Beckett, who was everything an ace is supposed to be until he turned an ankle in early September then finished the season with back-to-back brutal starts (12 ER, 4 HR in 13 1/3 IP), and Lester, whose good work for much of the season was obscured by his poor September (5.40 ERA in six September starts), will bring anger, passion and excellence to the mound for a combined 400-plus innings and 32-36 combined wins this season.
Buchholz threw just 82 2/3 innings last season, and although we hear reports that he is fully recovered from the stress fracture that sidelined him last season, the Sox will be in trouble if he breaks down again.
The biggest bet placed by Cherington and the Sox this season, though, is that Daniel Bard can make the transition from setup man supreme to starter. The way the Sox see it, Bard, unlike Jonathan Papelbon before him, is deeply committed to the change and has a higher ceiling than some of the free-agent options on which they took a pass.
The rotation will be filled out by swingman Alfredo Aceves, one of a trio of recycled injury risks (Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla or Carlos Silva) or a kid such as Andrew Miller. Slim pickings, it would appear, especially if Aceves is needed back in the bullpen. And if one of the big three goes down, the lack of depth would be dangerously exposed.
That’s why it is reasonable to expect that Cherington isn’t done making moves, whether it is finally getting Oswalt under contract or triggering a deal for a Gavin Floyd.
Coming Monday: How will the bullpen shake out without Pap?