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Friday, February 4, 2011
10 Questions -- No. 10: Doubting pitchers?

By Gordon Edes

Part 10 of a 10-day series on Red Sox questions that will be answered during spring training.

BOSTON -- The final question of our spring training countdown would be a great one to pose to Sox owner John W. Henry in an unguarded moment, of which he has very few these days.

You might be inclined to word it a bit differently, though, as in: “John (or Mr. Henry, depending on your level of politesse), last year, you committed $160 million or so to Josh Beckett and John Lackey and basically got a tuna fish sandwich back in return.

“You’re on the hook to those guys for $130 million for the next four seasons. What if they still stink in 2014? Do heads roll?’’

The message coming from Yawkey Way this winter is that isn’t going to happen. In Beckett’s case, the Sox comfort themselves by harking back to the renewed purpose Beckett showed after the last time he struggled, in 2006, roaring back to win 20 games and pitching the Sox to a World Series title in '07. He has a similar chip on his shoulder this go-round, the company line goes, and he’s dedicated himself to another return to past glory.
Josh Beckett
Will Josh Beckett (above) and John Lackey pull their weight in 2011?

As for Lackey, who spent most of last summer (when he wasn’t glaring into the dugout after someone messed up behind him) claiming he wasn’t that bad at all, the theme is: Hey, this isn’t the AL West, Lackey needed some time to settle in, and with better defense behind him in 2011, he’ll prove to be a worthwhile addition to the rotation.

And they may well be proven right this summer.

But there are nagging doubts. As in:

Beckett is four years older than he was in 2007, and for all his Texas grit, his body continues to show an alarming tendency to betray him. Not to mention all the additional mileage he’s put on a shoulder that has thrown a lot of bullets over the past decade.

With Lackey, meanwhile, there is the specter of A.J. Burnett, who set the market for Lackey the year before when the Yankees gave him the exact same money Henry and the Sox agreed to give Lackey. Burnett deserves some modest credit for helping the Yankees win a World Series in 2009, but he was awful in 2010 -- a 15-game loser with an ERA over 5 -- and the Yankees have no idea what to expect going forward.

That’s a position similar to where the Sox are with Lackey. Yes, he gave them innings (215) and surprisingly, his WAR (wins above replacement) was actually a tick higher than it was his last season with the Angels (4.0 to 3.9), even though his strikeouts were down and his walks up. But he had a terrible time against left-handed hitters (.298 /.364/.438/.802) and was whacked around by winning teams (a 5.15 ERA against teams with a record above .500). His performance last season certainly did not have the Angels second-guessing their decision not to pay him an ace’s salary to keep him.

The opposite was true. It merely reinforced the surprise of those who thought it was out of character for Sox general manager Theo Epstein to bestow a contract of that heft and length to a pitcher already in his 30s (Lackey is 32).

The saving grace for the Sox is that, with the emergence of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, the Sox don’t need Beckett and Lackey to carry them. Beckett has to offer more than the six wins he gave last season, which if he stays healthy is a virtual certainty. Lackey has to remain an innings-eater who resembles more the guy who pitched well in September, giving up three runs or fewer in five of his last six starts, than the guy who gave up five or more runs in 10 starts.

Henry signed up for much more than that, of course. The question for him will persist well beyond 2011.