Nine Innings

Belief That Red Sox Need Quality Starting Pitching is Not A ‘Sloppy Narrative’

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COMMENTARY

Playing Nine Innings while wondering whether we should call these the dog days of spring training. The season can’t get here soon enough …

1. I thought Manish Mehta’s pandering, don’t-punish-my-cherished-Jets! column on the Darrelle Revis tampering investigation was the most ridiculous thing I read this week. And, well … it was. I mean, Fireman Ed and Joe Namath are more objective about the Jets than this joker. But it did have some competition for Head-Scratching Read of the Week, and this one came from a particularly unlikely source. Tom Verducci is one of the most thorough and thoughtful baseball writers working today, and his longer-form pieces never fail to be beautifully written and relentlessly reported. Which is why I was beyond puzzled to read his piece earlier this week on why the Red Sox don’t necessarily need to acquire an ace. If he wants to call such a suggestion one of the “sloppiest narratives of the spring,” hey, that’s his prerogative, as condescending as it sounds. But his response to such a narrative was, stunningly, even sloppier.

2. Verducci makes some reasonable points about how teams, such as last year’s Pirates, made the postseason without a clear-cut top starter. And yes, the AL East is thin on quality starting pitching all around. But his specific reasons for praising each individual pitcher in the rotation were cherry-picked half-truths. Sure, Justin Masterson is “the third toughest pitcher against right-handed batters among all active pitchers with at least 150 starts.” That’s great. But lefties pummel him, and managers with multiple firing synapses stack their lineups against him. And how about Joe Kelly and his 94.7 MPH fastball? He throws hard. He also struggles with control and command. Any major league hitter is going to crush a 94.7 MPH fastball if the pitcher doesn’t know how to spot it. Oh, and Clay Buchholz has a .643 winning percentage since 2010, Verducci informs us. He also had a 72 adjusted ERA last season. See, I can cherry-pick too. Maybe one of these guys will emerge — Rick Porcello is the safest bet. But to suggest this quintet of starters has enough to pitch the Red Sox to their ultimate goal — a fourth World Series title since 2004 — is nuts.

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3. I’m not sure how any Red Sox fan with a decent memory can buy the notion that Clay Buchholz can be the leader of this staff. He’s a very talented pitcher, but one who requires all of the variables working in his favor to pitch to the peak of his ability. His body and confidence have always been fragile, and I’m skeptical that he’s going to be more durable and reliable now that he’s turned the corner to 30. They need him to front the staff, and he has the ability to do so, but anyone familiar with his enigmatic career pattern knows that need and ability don’t mean that it’s actually likely to happen.

4. John Farrell has a World Series ring on his finger and brand-new contract extension in his back pocket, so he won’t be under the microscope to the degree most big-market, third-year managers coming off a last-place finish would. But there will be various referendums big and small along the way on just how adept he really is as a manager — and particularly as a tactician.

5. One of the ways I will judge Farrell? How often he finds a way — or I should say, resists finding a way — to shoehorn Brock Holt into the lineup. He was a wonderful story last year in a Red Sox season that didn’t offer many, and at 26 he established himself as a big-leaguer. But his prolonged slump in the second half — he slashed .219/.278/.271 in 213 plate appearances — also established that his role as a big leaguer is as a 24th or 25th man, not someone who should be in the lineup on a regular basis.

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6. Given the deep mediocrity of the Red Sox’ rotation (somewhere Verducci scoffs and cites Buchholz’s 2007 no-hitter), it would be reassuring if the staff were bolstered from the back by a deep, high-quality bullpen. I’m not sure that’s the case, though. Pretty much the only reliever I completely trust is the unsung Junichi Tazawa, particularly since Koji Uehara is dealing with a hamstring issue. I do not trust Craig Breslow as the presumed first lefty — Robbie Ross and/or Tommy Layne must emerge — and Edward Mujica seems to pitch his best when stakes are at a minimum. I’d love to see what Matt Barnes can do as a short reliever.

7. Hell with it, I’m all in. Mookie Betts makes the American League All-Star team this season, and with very little debate. And we’re all in agreement now that after his impressive spring, Blake Swihart isn’t headed to Philadelphia or Washington or anywhere else but Pawtucket for a couple of prep months, right? These kids are keepers.

8. Seriously, we’re gonna spend time, precious moments of our lives, caterwauling and speculated about why David Ortiz was dehydrated? Not in this corner we’re not. Give the man a glass of water and a day off or two, and move on. That this is even a conversation is further proof that spring training is too long.

9. As for today’s Completely Random Baseball Card:

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That’s an awfully big trophy for someone who slashed .240/.297/.362 last season. On the other hand, 12 homers out of a 21-year-old shortstop is something to be encouraged about no matter the context. A big year — and someday, bigger trophies — will come his way.

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