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Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Updated: December 16, 12:23 PM ET
Could Sox starters win 80-plus games?

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

It's an easy case to make, this business about the Red Sox now having the best starting pitching in the American League.

They have a 20-game winner (Josh Beckett), two kids with no-hitters (Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester), a two-time MVP of the World Baseball Classic (Daisuke Matsuzaka) and an ageless wonder (Tim Wakefield) who won't retire until he has won more games than any pitcher in Red Sox history.

The new guy, John Lackey, pitched and won the seventh game of the World Series in 2002. Beckett was 23 when he pitched a clinching Game 6 in Yankee Stadium in 2003, and Lester was less than a year removed from chemotherapy when he completed a four-game sweep of the Rockies in 2007.

According to ESPN researcher Jason McCallum, you have to go back 63 years to find the last team to have three pitchers who started and won a clinching World Series game -- the 1946 Yankees (Red Ruffing, Tiny Bonham and Spud Chandler).

John Lackey
John Lackey joins Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz on the Sox's formidable starting staff.

Lester and Matsuzaka have both struck out 200 batters in a season. Beckett and Lackey have each had seasons where they fell one whiff short.

Beckett has averaged 16 wins a year over the past three seasons, Lester 15½ over the past two. Lackey has averaged 14 wins in his past three seasons, Wakefield 13 and Matsuzaka 12. That's 71 (rounding Lester up one). Assume that Buchholz breaks into double figures in what will be his first full season in the rotation, and the Sox starting pitchers, if they hold form, could combine to win more than 80 games in 2010.

Yes, we understand there are myriad statistics that are better measures of a pitcher's value than wins. But consider this: In the first decade of the 21st century, only three AL teams have had starting staffs that won 80 or more games in a season.

One of those teams, the 2001 Seattle Mariners, won 116 games that season, tying the major league record. Their starters won 83 games, with four starters winning 15 or more -- Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia, Paul Abbott and Aaron Sele, with John Halama winning 10.

That total was matched two years later by the Yankees, who went to the World Series before falling to Beckett's Florida Marlins. Andy Pettitte won 21, Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens 17 apiece and David Wells 15.

The other team was the 2001 Oakland Athletics, who won 80, with Mark Mulder winning 21, Tim Hudson 18, Barry Zito 17 and Cory Lidle 13. If Jeremy Giambi had slid home, they might have gone to the World Series that year, not the Yankees.

The winningest Red Sox rotation in that span came in 2002, when starters combined to win 78 games -- led by 21 for Derek Lowe, 20 for Pedro Martinez and 13 for John Burkett.

But it's also worth mentioning that those teams won so many games not only because their pitching was strong, but their offenses were dominating. The '01 Mariners led the league in runs and outscored their opponents by 300 runs. The '01 A's were fourth and were plus-239 in run differential, and the '03 Yanks were third in runs and enjoyed a plus-161 differential.

The Red Sox as presently constituted, with their emphasis on run prevention through better pitching and defense, don't appear capable of having that large a spread between the runs they score and the ones they give up. That's why there's at least one more move to be made by Theo Epstein, one that will address the team's need for a big bat. And it also underscores the possibility that the staff Epstein puts down on paper in December may not be the same one that opens the season in April. He has chips, and while Buchholz has commanded the most attention as the possible centerpiece of a future deal, Epstein could also decide to spin off Beckett in the last year of his contract to a contending team in need of a No. 1 (Mets, Dodgers, Cubs, Rangers?).

Maybe he gets a big bat in return, or maybe he gets prospects that he can use in the deal everyone is waiting for him to make, for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Funny thing about that last team to have three pitchers who won Series clinchers, those '46 Yankees. They finished in third place that year, 22 games behind the Red Sox.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.