As the hometown team boasts one of the strongest starting nine in the American League, it can be difficult to detect sleepers among the pack. Don’t be fooled, however. They are there and prepped to support an elite cast looking to avenge last season’s early playoff exit.
Though few of the positional starters offer much potential as true “sleepers”, considering the number of All-Stars and MVP candidates among them, the pitching staff contributes much of the excitement on this front. With youngsters and rebound contenders among the lot, an already superb rotation and bullpen could receive a few significant boosts from numerous sources.
SP Clay Buchholz
After the light came on last season, it never seemed to go out. Finally hitting his stride at the Major League level, he was able to lay fears about his potential to rest. Though not a groundbreaking season by any means, Buchholz’ performance went a long way toward stabilizing the ailing rotation during August and September.
Looking forward to 2010, Buchholz should comfortably take the place of the 5th starter – possibly 4th, depending upon the performance of Daisuke Matsuzaka – expectations he should have no problem fulfilling.
Turning 26 this season, he’s getting a bit old for the prospect label, though we seem to forget that just two years ago he and Joba Chamberlain were the preeminent pitching prospects in the game.
Though his performance was solid and satisfactory last season, his underlying indicators point to so much more.
Hurlers who carry contact percentages in the mid-to-high 70’s are expected to strike out 7.5-9.0 batters per nine innings, not the 6.5 range that Buchholz posted. Further, his astromonical home run rate (15.7 percent home runs per fly ball) and rising groundball percentage point to a top of the rotation guy, not a back-end starter.
With just a little bit more improvement on the mental side of the game, Buchholz could post the season Boston fans have long been waiting for. If he does, a rotation comprising Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Buchholz, and Daisuke would be every bit as strong – possibly stronger – than the Yankees quintet of Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, Vazquez, and Chamberlain/Hughes.
2010 could be the year when he makes that long-awaited quantum leap, figuring out how to work batters, trusting his stuff, and putting up the numbers he is capable of. All signs point to a go and expect Buchholz to give Lackey some serious competition for that 3rd starter slot come playoff time.
SP Daisuke Matsuzaka
Plain and simple, 2009 was a lost year for Daisuke. He just couldn’t do anything right – he couldn’t stay healthy, he couldn’t find the zone, and when he was able to take the hill, he was torched relentlessly. Seeing Daisuke go on the DL was very much an act of mercy – one that hopefully won’t need repeating this year.
If the World Baseball Classic was as big a problem as some assert, then Matsuzaka’s new fangled off-season workout regimen should work wonders. Hopefully this is the extent of his ails, since, as often happens when pitchers face mounting injuries, their careers tend to fall apart.
Further complicating the issue, Matsuzaka is reliant upon his stuff more than most other MLB starters. The type of pitcher who seems ill-equipped to throw with diminished offerings, if injuries and even minor maladies continue to nag him and sap his stuff, he really has nothing to fall back on.
With poor command and an even worse approach on the mound, the pitcher doesn’t work counts, doesn’t induce ground balls, and doesn’t last long into outings. His one enviable skill prior to ’09 was missing bats – and even that abandoned him last season.
Many pitchers can survive – and even thrive – despite not having swing-and-miss offerings. However, these pitchers combine either excellent command, ground-ball tendencies, or both. Aaron Cook is a great example. Unfortunately, Daisuke is not one of these pitchers and, if he can’t miss bats this season, he won’t have much use for the ballclub.
If Daisuke shows up to camp with a healthy shoulder, he’s a great candidate for a rebound season – one worthy of much more than a #4-5 starter. Alas, this is Boston, and above-average is only good enough from the back end of the rotation. However, at this point it’s very difficult to predict what will transpire, as the Japanese import has already encountered back soreness.
What lies in store for Daisuke in 2010 is anyone’s guess at this point. Although, keep in mind that, despite the somewhat bearish outlook, he’s still a pitcher with considerable talent that can provide excellent production from the #4 slot in the rotation.
OF Jeremy Hermida
The pickings are slim when it comes to breakout candidates among BoSox hitters – but that’s a good thing, really. Relying heavily upon veterans at every position on the diamond, the team’s starting nine can be expected to provide steady, superb production.
Still, there is room for speculation and excitement when it comes to Jeremy Hermida, who, aside from being a legitimate breakout candidate, also rates among the best fourth outfielders in all of baseball.
What made Hermida such an exceptional prospect in 2006 was his impeccable batting eye, one which has been suprisingly ordinary since his premier in the MLB. Showing some signs of progress in ‘09 after stagnating over the previous three seasons, Hermida dropped his O-Swing percentage by four points last year, though it remains a relatively pedestrian number.
To reclaim his former glory, he’ll have to rediscover that exceptional batting eye, aiming at dropping his O-Swing rate below 20 percent. This is no easy task however and will take some serious effort and development.
The other item on Hermida’s list will be to improve his power stroke. For a batter standing 6-3, 222 lbs, one would expect far more power than just a 10.1 home run per fly ball percentage. Still, with his strength and size, he could find it at any point in time. Perhaps improving his plate discipline will expedite the process.
What Hermida needs now are consistent opportunities at the plate to build upon his 2009 improvements. While residing in Boston will likely stunt his growth a bit – much as it did Wily Mo Pena’s – the team’s versatility in the outfield should work in Hermida’s favor.
With enviable positional flexibility elicited by Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury, Francona should have plenty of opportunities to fit Hermida into the lineup. When either Cameron or Ellsbury need a day off, Hermida slides into left field – preferably to take on a tough righty in place of Cameron.
At 26, Hermida may not have much room for growth left, but it is never prudent to give up on former prospects – especially ones with as much latent talent as Hermida.
Though no one should expect the outfielder to move mountains in Boston, a distinct shot at improving still remains whereby Hermida can revive what can yet be a very promising career.
SP Michael Bowden
For a pitcher not even guaranteed a slot on the 25-man roster, Bowden has the potential to make some serious waves in 2010. Though the odds are against him ever fulfilling the frontline starter projections expected in years past, he could still have a successful career as a back of the rotation hurler – provided he ever gets the opportunity.
As it stands at the moment, Bowden is the team’s seventh starter though, the two pitchers ahead of him, Wakefield and Matsuzaka, are considerable question marks. As a result, Bowden should crack double-digit starts this season, with much of the work following the dog days of summer when pitchers begin to wear down in August.
2010 will be a pivotal season for Bowden, as he needs to prove that his poor 2009 season was a fluke – at both the Major League level and Triple-A. Though we always preach the perils of small sample size, Bowden’s 2009 was a real disappointment. Along with his well-documented problems in the MLB, Bowden’s best attribute, command, faltered somewhat in Pawtucket.
Still, if things go as planned, Bowden will break camp on the big club roster with a chance to solidify his status as a full-timer. Still, without exceptional command, Bowden’s value takes a considerable hit – one that his raw stuff cannot make up for.
Considering that his best chance to build a career likely lies outside of Boston, the Sox will probably look again to deal him. Until that time comes, however, it’s up to Bowden to rediscover his 2008 form.
RP Manny Delcarmen
One of the more talented, underappreciated relievers in the American League, Delcarmen has the talent that would make him a solid 8th inning setup man on many other clubs. Instead, like so many others, he gets lost in the shuffle among a supremely talented Boston squad – left to battle for the 7th inning job in Spring Training.
Though he struggled after the All-Star break last year, many of his problems can be attributed to arm fatigue that sapped both his command and his velocity. With an off-season of rest, he should be able to return to his 2007-08 form, a stretch where he was among the better relievers in the AL East.
With good command for a relief pitcher and the raw stuff to miss bats, a healthy Delcarmen could be among the best 7th inning bridges in the league – granted he is even chosen for the job among the litany of options in this deep Boston bullpen.
With an Opening Day lineup stocked with veterans, the Boston roster is short on traditional breakout candidates. This is not a reason to be down on the team, however, as a team full of perennial All-Stars and MVP candidates doesn’t have much room to level up.
Aside from Buchholz and Matsuzaka, the most the youngsters can do for the team is solidify the bench and provide depth in the case of injury. For this, they have considerable value – though they don’t offer the upside of many of the sleepers in the division.