Can The Red Sox Keep Pace With Self-Imposed Expectations?

The Boston Red Sox are solidly on a pace to win 100 games for the first time since 1946, with a .686 win percentage coming into the weekend. Yet earlier this week, as I was driving home in New England, the WEEI talk shows were ablaze with a sense of urgency after losing a home series to the lowly Chicago White Sox. Normally, I’d just laugh that off as talk radio nonsense. But I can’t do that this year.

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Not when the New York Yankees are playing at a .688 pace. Not when the Red Sox have a payroll of $238 million, easily the highest in MLB and when they—not the Steinbrenner Yankees—are the team with the storebought free agents (David Price, J.D. Martinez). If you’re going to shell out that kind of dough and pass the burden onto the local fan base, then you better win—and by win, we’re not talking about being among the last 10 teams in a league of 30. Something bigger than that.

In the aggregate the Red Sox do everything well—hit for power, hit for average, hit the ball in the gap or off the Green Monster for doubles, get starting pitching and get relief pitching. The one fly in the ointment is that they only rank seventh in the American League in talking walks. One of the key summer questions will be if that rank will improve as pitchers get increasingly gun-shy about challenging hitters—or if it portends a summer hitting slump that could prove costly.

Starting pitching is the core Boston strength, and—as of now anyway, the biggest advantage they have on New York. Chris Sale is having another vintage year, with a 2.75 ERA in 15 starts. Rick Porcello, Price and Eduardo Rodriguez are all steady-as-she-goes, with ERAs in the high 3s. Even with Drew Pomeranz enduring a rough year marred by injuries, the Red Sox are welcoming back knuckleballer Steven Wright, who’s made a couple starts and has a ERA of 1.21.

In the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel is his usual lights-out self, with 22 saves in 24 chances. Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly are consistent setup men with ERAs in the 2s.

None of these pitchers are performing over their heads and Price and Porcello are both capable of finding an even higher level—as Price demonstrated last night, when he outdueled Felix Hernandez in a 2-1 win at Seattle. If the Red Sox are able to create some space between themselves and the Yankees, it will be driven by the rotation’s Big Three.

If Boston loses ground, it’s easy to see bullpen depth as being the reason why. Barnes slipped in the second half of last season. The Red Sox were counting on hard-throwing righty Carson Smith to be a key piece of the pen, but Smith’s young career continues to be derailed by injuries.

On paper, the Red Sox are the best team in baseball, Martinez is having a big year in Fenway and rightfielder Mookie Betts would be the runaway winner in the MVP voting if the season ended today. They can look forward to getting Dustin Pedroia back at some point in the summer and even allowing the 34-year-old second baseman is on his last legs, that kind of veteran presence is invaluable in a high-octane race like this year’s AL East battle.

But games aren’t won on paper, and the best laid-plans can go awry with a single injury in the pitching staff or one ill-timed batting slump. And when you decide to open the vault the way the Red Sox front office has, there’s no excuses to fall back on. How the Sox bullpen performs, and how patient they are at the plate through these coming months will tell us a lot if they can be the best regular season Boston team since the Babe Ruth era.