In the packed horse race that is the American League East, the Boston Red Sox have maintained a small, but persistent lead. The margin is currently 3 ½ games coming into Thursday night’s games. But questions regarding the pitching, and a crucial lingering injury make one wonder just how long the Sox can hold on to the top spot in a ruthlessly tough division where all five teams are over .500.
This writer is a Red Sox fan, and like most of Boston Sports Nation, is ready to use baseball as a recovery tool following the Stanley Cup Finals. I’ve had a good feeling about this team all year that’s rather odd, and a bit unsettling—normally I see disaster around every corner. The question is, does an objective analysis of the roster make optimism stand up?
AN ACE-LESS ROTATION
Clay Bucholz was one of the prime frontrunners for the Cy Young Award, with a 9-0 record and 1.71 ERA in twelve starts. Perhaps he’ll still hold that status at year’s end. But Bucholz has been dealing with a lingering shoulder inflammation that currently has him on the disabled list. The word from the pitcher is that he “hopes” to be back by the All-Star break. In other words, the early July point at which he’s eligible is not at all a guarantee, and this could stretch on further.
This is where my pessimistic side kicks in, because we’ve seen this before with Bucholz. He went to the DL in June 2011, and was perpetually reported to be on the way back. As the season, collapsed in September thanks mainly to bad starting pitching, it was evident Bucholz was nowhere to be found. The Red Sox are notorious for keeping bad injury news from the public. With a fanatical fan base that might not be a bad thing, but it does mean you have to question any reports that downplay injuries, particularly when returns keep getting pushed back.
Boston’s rotation overall ranks 3rd in the American League in ERA, and that’s obviously not entirely due to Bucholz. But everyone else has issues with either recent performance or long-term consistency. John Lackey is right now pitching better than anyone on the staff, with a 2.99 ERA. But the phrase “Lackey is the best pitcher right now” are ones that most Sox fans would have taken as a sign of imminent defeat back in April. Ryan Dempster has pitched well of late, but his ERA is still over 4, and his track record in the American League doesn’t leave you confident in his ability to be more than a back-end guy.
Felix Doubront is on the other end of the spectrum—his 4.33 ERA is fine for fifth starter, or even a #4, as he is without Bucholz. Doubront’s best work has come recently. But again, how much do you want to be depending on him in September?
Which brings us to Jon Lester, the man who could enable everyone to fall into their proper place. Lester’s ERA is a mediocre 4.57 after 16 starts, and what’s worse is that this comes after a good start to the season. If we narrow the focus to the last month, Lester’s ERA is 7.81.
There is no scenario for Boston success that would have included Lester pitching poorly and Bucholz being hurt. It’s a great credit to the current rotation that they’ve held it together, but the help from the big guns has to come. Bucholz can’t control his health, but Lester can certainly control his own performance.
A BULLPEN GETTING BETTER
The numbers on the bullpen aren’t pretty, 12th in the American League in ERA and a 56 percent rate at closing save chances that’s well below the league average. Here though, I think some optimism is warranted. Manager John Farrell has started to find different pitchers who are throwing the ball well, is adjusting roles and the component pieces are there for this to be a good relief corps in the second half of the season.
Koji Uehara was lights-out in setup work, and now has gotten the chance to be the closer, after Andrew Bailey blew four saves and struggled to a 4.37 ERA. Farrell is also getting reliable work from Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow and Alex Wilson, all of whom have ERAs under 3. If you increase the workload for arms like Wilson and Breslow, and maybe Bailey becomes more effective in a less prominent role, Boston will have a very deep bullpen.
THE BEST OFFENSE IN THE LEAGUE
At least that’s what the numbers say after 80 games. Boston has scored more runs than anyone in the American League, with a blend of the usual suspects, some breakout years and one particularly big surprise.
David Ortiz continues to pile up the numbers, with 16 home runs and a .620 slugging percentage to go with his .405 on-base percentage. There are few more productive offensive threats in all of baseball. Dustin Pedroia has an OBP of .397, the second-best on the team besides Ortiz. Jacoby Ellsbury isn’t showing the same power he did in his big year of 2011, but with a .357 OBP, Ellsbury is doing what a leadoff man should.
The big breakout year has come from leftfielder Daniel Nava, whom I’ve been screaming for in the regular lineup since the summer of 2010. Nava is having an excellent year, with a .374 OBP and he’s even popped ten home runs. On the other side of the outfield, Shane Victorino may have lost his power, but at a .351 OBP, he keeps getting on base.
No one has a bigger shock though, than Jose Iglesias. A natural shortstop—indeed, a highly gifted defensive one—he was supposed to be waiting his turn and learning to develop his bat. When third baseman Will Middlebrooks went on the DL, Iglesias had to play third every day and promptly went on an offensive carnage, to the tune of a stat line of .469 OBP/.556 slugging percentage. Iglesias’ batting average is up over .400 after 117 at-bats.
It’s caused a change of plans, as the Sox sent the struggling Middlebrooks down to the minors and have given Iglesias the job full time. The team would still be better off if MIddlebrooks could hit well enough to displace struggling shortstop incumbent Stephen Drew (.309/.389), take back third base and move Iglesias to shortstop.
WILL THE RED SOX SURVIVE THE SUMMER?
That’s the big question right now, as call-up Allen Webster flails in taking Bucholz’s spot in the rotation (11.25 ERA in three starts). It depends on what you mean by survive. If the answer is holding first place and ultimately winning the team’s first AL East crown since 2007, then the answer is they clearly need Bucholz back and clearly need Lester to return to form.
But if the question is downgraded to simply staying amidst the pack, hanging in the wild-card race until the last week of the season and then taking your chances, Boston might be able to do it. Lackey was once one of the American League’s most respected pitchers and it’s not unthinkable he keeps pitching this well. This scenario still requires a return to form by Lester, but might survive Bucholz being on-again/off-again with his health.
The Red Sox have never functioned, at least under this ownership group, as one content to be in the pack and take their chances. That’s why they’re mentioned prominently in trade talks. They have the prospects to swing a deal for a Cliff Lee or Matt Garza if either becomes available, and that dramatically changes the game in the AL East.
For now though, it’s good to see Boston simply playing good baseball and being in the discussion for both the AL East and even the World Series, after the nightmare that was 2012.
AROUND THE AL EAST
Baltimore (43-36): The Orioles, ranking 14th in the AL in ERA, don’t want to hear about anyone else’s pitching problems. They too have the prospects to deal for a Lee or Garza, and Wei-Yin Chen begins his rehab on Saturday.
New York (42-36): Mark Teixeira’s troubled wrist requires season-ending surgery. Alex Rodriguez tweeted that he’s been cleared by his doctor to play games, and it prompted a profane tirade from GM Brian Cashman. With the offense currently awful, can Cashman really believe A-Rod can’t help this team at all if he returns? Or does the Yankee front office hate the third baseman so much they don’t care?
Tampa Bay (41-38): David Price’s rehab has begun, but the Rays still have to fix a bullpen that’s a bit below the AL average in closing saves.