Boston Red Sox: Scouting the rotation

As I stated the other day, it’s time to take a look at the Orioles’ competition in the American League East. I understand you are all extremely excited about the upcoming season, as you should be and as am I, but I’m afraid some of you have lost touch with reality and have let your emotions get the best of you. Since a few of you have stated on my 105.7 The Fan radio show with Ken Weinman that you believe the O’s lineup is better than that of the Red Sox and Boston doesn’t stand a chance against this revamped Baltimore lineup, I’m here to tell you why you’re wrong.

Let me just say, however, I believe the Orioles have greatly improved over the offseason and Andy MacPhail did an outstanding job addressing the needs of the ball club. He didn’t overpay for anyone and he really didn’t give up much. With that being said, I believe this is a great time to be an Orioles fan and I’m sure the product on the field will be a competitive one.

Also, before I state facts and, at times, the obvious, me telling you why the Red Sox will finish ahead of the Orioles has nothing to do with me being from Boston. I am not a Red Sox fan. I have not rooted for the Red Sox since I was a teenager. Are we clear? Crystal? Good.

Even though the Red Sox went through an 86-year drought, they’ve managed to win two World Series in seven years (2004 and 2007) under manager Terry Francona, who has surprisingly never taken home Manager of the Year honors. Yes, the Red Sox’s lineup has been extremely impressive, but Francona’s positive presence and ability to manhandle at times a circus-like clubhouse, combined with Boston’s pitching, has truly been their recipe for success.

Although Boston’s pitching staff is handled by new coach Curt Young - John Farrell left to manage the Toronto Blue Jays - there’s no denying the incredible talent in this five-man rotation.

Entering the 2011 season, Boston has the most impressive rotation in the American League. Sitting at the top of the rotation is Jon Lester, who carried Boston’s rotation last year with an impressive 19-9 season. Lester, a cancer survivor, is a fan favorite and one of Francona’s go-to guys for a victory. Entering his sixth season with the Red Sox, Lester has struck out 225 batters in consecutive years (one of only six pitchers to do so in a century) and, along with No. 2 starter Clay Buchholz, were just the 20th pair of teammates in the last 50 years to each qualify for the ERA title and put up an ERA+ of at least 130 at age 26 or younger, according to MLB.com. With a career record of 61-25 and a .709 winning percentage, Lester has emerged as one of the top young pitchers in the game. In addition, Lester holds a 13-0 record and a 2.33 ERA against the Orioles. Brian Roberts is the only current Oriole to homer off the left-hander.

Buchholz, the projected No. 2 starter, teamed up with Lester last year and proved to be one of the Red Sox’s most valuable young arms. Buchholz entered camp last year uncertain of his spot in the rotation but quickly established himself with a 17-7 record and 2.33 ERA that resulted in his name being tossed around in American League Cy Young Award chatter. This year, he has secured himself as one of Boston’s top starters and hopes to build off of what could have been a career year. The 25-year old enters the new season with confidence on his side and a new baby daughter waiting for him at home. Bottom line: Everything is good in Buchholz’s world. Buchholz is 5-2 in his career against Baltimore with a 2.98 ERA and has given up home runs to Adam Jones and Scott. Guerrero is 2-for-4 with two RBIs, Nick Markakis is 2-for-20 with four walks and Reynolds has struck out four times in as many at-bats.

VIDEO: Clay Buchholz interview from Camden Yards

Josh Beckett, who if healthy has proven to be one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball, moves down to the No. 3 spot after being the No. 1 in 2010. The 2003 World Series MVP with the Marlins and a member of the 2007 champion Red Sox (he had a 20-7 season, the best of his career, and was 4-0 in the posteason) enters this season more focused than ever. After an injury-plagued season that limited him to just 21 starts and a disappointing 6-6 record in 2010, Beckett is determined to return to his old form and lead his team to a 100-win season. The 30-year-old has a career 6-3 record with a 3.53 ERA against the Orioles. Vladimir Guerrero, Luke Scott and Derrek Lee each have two career home runs off the right-hander.

The No. 4 starter John Lackey - a past No.1 in Anaheim - is coming off a disappointing season after signing a five-year, $82.5 million contract last winter following eight years with the Angels but should be more comfortable in his second year in the AL East. He’s ready to prove he is better than his 14-11 record last season. The 31-year-old Lackey, who most likely will start behind Lester, has lost nearly 10 lbs. and admitted he doesn’t have much to learn this spring. In other words, the division is no longer foreign to him. Food for thought: Only one Baltimore Oriole has ever gone yard off Lackey (Scott has hit two homers), while Mark Reynolds has stuck out four times. Lackey has a career 10-4 record against Baltimore with a 3.05 ERA.

And last, Daisuke Matsuzaka rounds out the rotation as the No. 5 starter. After outbidding the Yankees for the rights to even negotiate with the Japanese right-hander, Matsuzaka earned his keep with a 15-12 record in not only his first year with Boston in 2007 but his first year in the United States. That 2007 rookie season, however, was the only year Dice-K avoided the disabled list, as the right-hander has been plagued by nagging injuries that have limited him to just 37 starts in the past two seasons. Entering camp in 2011, Dice-K has reportedly been obsessive about his side work and is determined to stay off the DL. Futhermore, Young says he expects Matsuzaka to give the ball club 200 innings. In nine games, Dice-K holds a career 4-3 record and a 5.73 ERA against the Orioles. Matt Wieters and Scott each have a home run and five RBI versus Matsuzaka, J.J. Hardy has two strikeouts in three at-bats; and in 21 at-bats, Markakis has five hits, five strikeouts, six walks and four RBIs. Reynolds and Lee have never faced Dice-K.

Advantage: Boston
Prediction: 102-60
Division finish: First

Tomorrow I will break down the bullpen and the starting lineups.

After Boston will be the Rays, Yankees and Blue Jays.

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