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Tim Kurkjian on M&M: ‘If I have to pick the division today, I’m going to pick [Red Sox] last again’

03.01.13 at 1:37 pm ET

Tim Kurkjian of ESPN spoke with Mut & Merloni on Friday about why he’s picking the Red Sox last in the AL East but wouldn’t be surprised to see them finish higher, why Toronto is the team to beat and the state of the Sox bullpen.

“I’m not suggesting they’re going to be really good — if I have to pick the division today, I’m going to pick them last again,” Kurkjian said of the Sox. “I’m just saying that this division is really fluid right now, and I think the Red Sox could be a team that surprises. Every team in this division can win the division. This is as perplexed by a division as I’ve been by any division I’ve seen in a long while.

“I’m fascinated by this team, not because I think they’re really good, but with all the changes they’ve made and the change in manager, I can’t wait to see how they respond.”

After watching the Blue Jays’ training camp recently, Kurkjian said he thinks all the pieces are in place for them to finish atop the AL East.

Josh Johnson‘s healthy. More importantly, he’s the fourth starter on this team,” Kurkjian said. “Ricky Romero was their Opening Day starter — he’s the fifth starter on this team, and that gives them some real depth. But what I also really sensed was — a bunch of their free-swinging, really aggressive hitters, I feel like John Gibbons is going to come in there and just say, ‘Let’s go out there and take a hack.’ I think John Farrell leaving there and being replaced by a different type of manager is going to help the Blue Jays, in that John Gibbons has been there before and I think he’s just what they needed.”

Kurkjian said he’s not sure Daniel Bard will return to the form he displayed while pitching the eighth inning ahead of Jonathan Papelbon, but that if he does, the Sox bullpen will be a strength.

“If he’s that good again, then they’re in great shape in that bullpen,” Kurkjian said. “But just logically, you have to think, with the lost season he’s coming off, it’s going to be difficult to recapture that. But maybe we learned this is all about roles, this is all about comfort and you have to find the right spot. Obviously the Red Sox did not handle him very well and he did not handle himself very well last year, but I don’t think he’s lost any real velocity. I don’t think he’s lost any real stuff.”

Following are more highlights from the conversation. To hear the interview, go to the Mut & Merloni audio on demand page.

On the Red Sox’ chances: “A lot has to happen. The starters’ ERA last year was over 5. A significant improvement is going to have to happen there. John Lackey is going to help. Ryan Dempster in the AL East — how much help is he going to be, but I have to think [JonLester‘s going to be significantly better, [ClayBuchholz significantly better. In theory, this bullpen should be significantly better with Hanrahan at the end and people setting him up. I am encouraged, in the little I’ve seen with the Red Sox so far, and just checking around with people, I’ve heard several people in authority say, ‘Do not count the Red Sox out.’ And they don’t necessarily say that because they think the Red Sox are really good, it’s just that the American League East is not at its height right now. We sometimes get two, three 90-win teams out of the East, and I’m just not sure we’re going to see anything close to that this year.”

On skepticism about the Sox’ offseason acquisitions: “They filled in some holes that they needed to. We’ll see exactly how good Mike Napoli is at first base. His strikeout rate, his swing-and-miss rate went way up last year and we’ll see if he can correct that. ‘€¦ [ShaneVictorino‘s going to add something. His OPS dropped a long way last year, and we’ll see how much he has left, but I like to think for his sake that he’s got another good year left in him.

“An American League manager told me the other day that Stephen Drew‘s going to be a perfect one-year addition to this team. Everybody out there loves Will Middlebrooks, assuming he doesn’t get hurt with his wrist again, or anything like that. And again, [JacobyEllsbury, you’ve got to think he’s going to have a bounce-back year when he gets healthy again.”

On the possibility of Jackie Bradley Jr. coming up this year: “Nothing would surprise me, especially with guys that are this talented. And I saw him play in Dunedin the other day. It was really impressive watching him play the outfield and watching him run the bases, and he took a couple of really good swings. Let’s face it, guys, when you have a player who’s making not very much money, and you grew him and he’s one of your guys, teams now are saying, let’s not try to get a retread outfielder for a couple years, let’s try to go with our guy and see if he’s ready. If he’s not, send him back and he gets ready down in the minor leagues. So they just have to see how the outfield plays, but I don’t think there’s room for him now.

“One of the guys with the A’s was telling me how much they’re going to miss Jonny Gomes out there, the hitter he was for them and what kind of clubhouse presence he was. And I know most people would look at him and just say he’s going to be a platoon left fielder, and I get it, but I think he’s a little more than that, and the A’s convinced me they’re going to miss him in several different ways.”

On the possibility of trading Andrew Bailey: “With Andrew Bailey’s year last year, you have to wonder if a championship-caliber team, is this who they want? He might need a year in the seventh inning or the eighth inning to show everybody, I’m still a good pitcher, and once he does that, he gets a closer job next year as opposed to this year.”

On where the Yankees will finish: “I have them in fourth place right now. This is all very fluid right now, because everything could change in this division. With [CurtisGranderson out now, they’re down about 162 home runs from last year, and [NickSwisher gone and everything else. You look at the starting outfield and it doesn’t look like the Yankees. They didn’t come up with a catcher. [DerekJeter‘s going to have to be really good coming back from this injury. We’re not going to see [Alex Rodriguez] until July, and then who knows if he’s even coming back or what he’ll look like.

“An awful lot’s going to go on that starting rotation, which should be good, but Phil Hughes has already a bit of an issue and Mariano Rivera is coming back at 43. I think the record for the most saves by a 43-year-old in a season is six, and they’re counting on him to get 36. There’s a lot to worry about with the Yankees. They always find a way, but I think eventually they’re going to have to say, this austerity program we’re on, we’re bagging that, we’re going to get some more players, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did that.”

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