MLB

MLB: Lester, Buchholz Bouncing Back

clay-lester

It was not my plan to write on Red Sox-related topics every week when I re-started by blogging career this season. But I feel like the best thing about the 2013 season to date, for me at least, has been the resurgence of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

There were times last year when both guys seemed so lost, so out of sorts that I wondered if they’d ever regain the form that made them so formidable not that long ago.

Buchholz, 28, was horrendous from the outset of 2012, got sick but then came back strong. By the end of the year he was the most consistent pitcher on the team, but it’s still hard to call it anything but a lost season for him (4.56 ERA). He did make a career-high 29 starts, however.

Lester, 29, for reasons I still don’t understand, went from being one of the most consistent starters in baseball, and one of the finest left-handed pitchers in the game, to astounding mediocrity. He went over 200 innings but his 4.87 ERA and drop in strikeouts (225 in ‘09 and ‘10, 182 in ‘11, 166 in ‘12) were definitely alarming for a starter Lester’s age. Brian MacPherson has a good comparison of Lester to other elite AL lefties here.

But that’s all different now. Through three starts each, Lester sports a 1.42 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 18/3 K/BB while Buchholz has a microscopic 0.41 ERA, also an 0.95 WHIP with 23/10 K/BB.

Each guy has made hitters look silly with the best of their stuff, making all of their pitches work and without much fear of using any pitch in any situation. I always felt like Buchholz may have better stuff than Lester, and that’s borne itself out so far this year.

Most importantly, the Red Sox have won all six of their starts, all coming against AL East opponents.

Some of the renewed success of Buchholz and Lester must be attributed to the return of John Farrell. Since the start of 2010, these guys have worked with five different pitching coaches (Farrell, Curt Young, Bob McClure, Randy Niemann and now Juan Nieves). It seems working with Farrell and Nieves, and the idea there will hopefully be some stability in those positions going forward, has helped significantly.

With Josh Beckett gone, Lester and Buchholz have taken it upon themselves to be leaders and positive influences for the pitching staff. It’s easy to be positive when you’re actually pitching well.

For Buchholz, the key will be remaining healthy and on the mound. His dominating performance Sunday against Tampa where he took a no-no into the 8th inning was an important statement for what he can be. But he’s never made 30 starts in a season and can, once and for all, shed the title of “fragile” if he can keep it together.

Lester has corrected whatever mechanical or mental issues that plagued him a year ago. He’s thrown a lot of pitches in his starts so far, but on Saturday, while I was sitting in the right field grandstands, Lester got stronger as the game went on. Being efficient will be his biggest test in 2013.

Thanks in no small part to these two, the Red Sox have a 2.07 ERA for their starters through 11 games. With enough offense to go around and a deep bullpen, there’s no reason this team won’t compete all year as currently constituted.

And with Lester and Buchholz pitching like this, it’s not hard to imagine the Red Sox being more than just competitors in 2013.

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I don’t have much more to offer on the topic of Carlos Quentin than what’s already been said ad nauseum, but it’s clear his rage was in the wrong place this week when he charged the mound and knocked Zack Greinke out for at least two months. Was eight games enough for Quentin’s suspension? I say no. As much as I’d like to see Quentin have to sit as long as Greinke will be out, that’s probably a bit too punitive. I still wish MLB would factor in the severity of the opposing player’s injury in determining discipline as the NHL does.

Fair or foul? D’backs owner Ken Kendrick forced some Dodgers fans sitting behind home plate at Chase Field to change their shirts Friday night, or move to a different location. The Dodger blue was apparently uncouth in such a high-visibility area of the park. If you plunk down $3,000 for a suite, should you be allowed to wear whatever you want, within the boundaries of good taste? What I find funny is the fans seemed so willing to don the gear of an opposing team to keep their seats. I can’t imagine ever doing something like that, even if it came with free booze.

Hopefully by now you’ve learned the story of Evan Gattis, the Braves’ catcher who’s overcome incredible personal adversity and is presently tearing the cover off the ball, including this truly insane homer off Stephen Strasburg. My favorite thing ever: he went to Venezuela to play winter ball and the fans called him “El Oso Blanco,” or, “The White Bear.” Gold.

Buster Olney tweeted Sunday the Rangers are “doing early reconnaissance and prep work” on a possible trade for Giancarlo Stanton. Later Sunday, Peter Gammons tweeted that the Rangers, Mets and Red Sox are among the teams to inquire on Stanton, but the Marlins aren’t making a deal now. As with all the Marlins’ best players, the question isn’t if Stanton gets dealt but when. He’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, will continue to get more expensive and probably wouldn’t mind getting the hell out of South Florida. The Rangers seem well-positioned to make any kind of big trade they want, be it for Stanton or David Price, given their wealth of prospects and younger players. The question, as it was with the Justin Upton sweepstakes over the winter, is whether they really want to pull the trigger.

It seemed like most people had the Rays pegged to be either first or second in the AL East this year on the strength of their pitching alone. But watching them this weekend, it really struck me how poor their offense is. Going into Sunday, they ranked dead-last in team OPS at .601 so far this year. You wonder how long they wait to call up Wil Myers, the prized outfielder who clubbed 37 homers in the minors last year and came over from KC for James Shields over the winter. But even Myers might not be enough.

My music recommendation for the week: “Wakin on a Pretty Day” by Kurt Vile. Until next time.

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MLB

MLB: 2013 American League Preview

I’ve been doing an American League preview for as long as I’ve been blogging, which means the first year I did it was 2005. It’s taken various forms through the years, with it happening in audio form in recent times.

With the 2013 MLB season upon us in just a few days, I decided to slap together a few thoughts on each of the 15 (yes, it’s 15 now) teams that will comprise the Junior Circuit.

I won’t be making predictions about where each club will finish in the standings this year because I pretty much always get them wrong. I was the same guy who boldly predicted the Orioles would come in last in the AL East last year. No more egg on my face, please.

Instead, each team is presented in alphabetical order by division, working east to west. Feel free to critique me in the comments if you think I’m way off base. Enjoy.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE: It’s probably safe to say the Orioles played a little over their heads last year. Nearly every pitcher had a great year and their lineup came together really well for once. But Dan Duquette didn’t really add anyone this winter. Will Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen really produce at that level again? Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are stars and they have truly insane pitching depth. But I can’t seem them repeating 93 wins this year.

BOSTON: After their worst season in 20 years, the Red Sox set out to remake everything about their club this winter. Success in 2013 will be predicated on their five starters and the health of their position players. The bullpen appears to be their strength, but that’s not enough to be successful for 162 games. I’m banking on John Farrell making the right adjustments and getting strong years from Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey.

NEW YORK: The problem the last few years for the Yankees has been their age. They did literally nothing this winter to address that and in fact got older by bringing back most of their 2012 team save Nick Swisher. Now they are battling significant injuries with so many veterans. They still have CC Sabathia, a solid offense and Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour. But this will certainly be Joe Girardi’s toughest test yet as a manager.

TAMPA BAY: It’s a major testament to what Andrew Friedman has built that he could lose BJ Upton, trade away James Shields and still be a favorite to win a division title. I don’t know if Fernando Rodney can do it again, but their rotation (which will probably be entirely homegrown once again) is the absolute class of the league and their offense should be great with a full healthy season of Evan Longoria. Even adding a malcontent like Yunel Escobar won’t derail the Rays.

TORONTO: Fighting for relevancy for years, the Blue Jays finally made some big moves to grab baseball’s attention. They added three new starting hurlers, an All-Star at shortstop and are taking a chance on Melky Cabrera. But I heard one interesting theory on these new-look Jays: They essentially combined two last-place teams for their 2013 squad. Will that equal success, with a manager in Jon Gibbons who always seemed overmatched his first time in Toronto?

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO: It won’t be surprising to see the White Sox contending once again, thanks in no small part to their solid if still fragile rotation. The top three in their rotation is gangbusters but health is usually a concern for Chris Sale and Jake Peavy. Adam Dunn is back to his old ways, Paul Konerko remains ageless, a very good OF of Dayan Viciedo, Alejandro de Aza and Alex Rios has formed. There’s no reason why this club won’t be in it all year.

CLEVELAND: The Indians are trying to win now. You don’t go out and hire Terry Francona, give up high draft picks for Swisher and Michael Bourn and trade for the likes of Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer without making an attempt to make the postseason for the first time since 2007. But it remains to be seen if their starting pitching will carry them to October. They’ve created a surplus of outfielders, one of whom could be dealt off for a starter if needed.

DETROIT: Despite some improvements to other teams in the division, it’s hard for me to see how the Tigers don’t win the Central again. They have the division’s best pitcher and best hitter, added a still-relevant Torii Hunter and are getting Victor Martinez back as another acquisition of sorts. The bullpen is an area of concern but they have enough talent back there I’m confident it’ll sort itself out. My money is on the insane Phil Coke taking the closer job.

KANSAS CITY: Like Toronto, KC finally realized they needed to do SOMETHING to be relevant. Wil Myers is totally legit and I don’t think the Royals got the better of that trade, yet Shields is a strike-throwing, bad-ass mofo ace. They have a dangerous lineup and a fine back-end of their bullpen with four legit closing options. But past Shields they have no one in the rotation they can rely on. That will keep them from finishing in the top half of the division.

MINNESOTA: The Twins have hit a rough patch after many years of consistent success. The reason? Their usually solid starting rotation has dried up in terms of talent. Their ace was supposed to be Scott Diamond and he’s starting the year on the shelf after elbow surgery. That their next best starter is probably Vance Worley doesn’t bode well for their chances of losing fewer than 90 games. Does Joe Mauer go to bed at night wondering why he signed that extension?

AL WEST

HOUSTON: I am not going to get used to the idea of the Astros being in the AL for a long, long time. But for now, it doesn’t really matter. There is absolutely, unequivocally no chance the Astros lose fewer than 100 games this year. In fact, they’ll defy expectations this year by losing fewer than 120 games. That’s how bad they truly are. Yet, strangely, it’s a franchise that’s headed in the right direction overall after so many years with no hope.

LOS ANGELES: With the signing of Josh Hamilton, the Angels can now sport three of the greatest baseball talents of the last decade-plus in one lineup. The best days of Hamilton and Albert Pujols are probably in their rearview, but that can’t overshadow the best days of Mike Trout that hopefully lie ahead. After not retaining Zack Greinke, their rotation has question marks. I’m not sure if there’s enough here to overtake the other two strong teams in this division.

OAKLAND: The 2012 A’s defied all the odds, pulling off a miraculous comeback to get to the playoffs, winning a round before bowing out to Detroit. Billy Beane did not rest, remaking his middle infield and adding the underrated John Jaso to catch. Oakland has a tremendous bullpen and a potentially devastating starting rotation. Yoenis Cespedes will be a super-duper star this year. They should not need another miracle to contend all season.

SEATTLE: It’s always the same story with the Mariners: so much pitching prowess but nowhere near enough pop to be a real threat. I can’t see the story changing much this year. Felix Hernandez remains the best pitcher in this division and Tom Wilhelmsen is the best closer you’ve never heard of. But unless the likes of Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley find their way at the plate (all had sub-.300 OBPs last year), they won’t get out of the cellar in 2013.

TEXAS: I feel like people are sleeping on the Rangers this year, and probably with good reason after dropping Hamilton and Mike Napoli, trading away Michael Young, losing the Greinke sweepstakes and with Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz coming back from surgery. But Ron Washington seems expert at getting the most out of his guys. There’ll be excitement when Jurickson Profar, the sport’s top prospect, gets regular playing time at some point this year.

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