Times for good for those of us who reside in Red Sox Nation. Boston comes into Sunday’s games on a pace to win 111 games. They’ve got a comfortable seven-game lead on a New York Yankees team that’s on a pace to exceed 100 victories themselves. The Red Sox are the 11-4 betting favorite to win a fourth World Series title in the last fifteen years.
Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez might be on their way to finish 1-2 in the AL MVP voting. Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi hit for both average and power. The Red Sox lead the league in runs scored in spite of getting subpar production at a number of spots. Second base, third base and catcher have been weak spots. Jackie Bradley Jr. has had a bad year at the plate. Any one of Bradley, Eduardo Nunez or Ian Kinsler is fully capable of a big postseason and it wouldn’t be a big surprise.
But underneath the glitter of the record, the division lead and the offense lurks a problem and it’s the track record of this pitching staff in the postseason. David Price has a playoff record of 2-8 and an ERA of 5.03. Rick Porcello’s playoff ERA is 5.47 in a handful of starts. Chris Sale made his first appearance on the October stage last year and his ERA in two outings against the Houston Astros was 8.38. This adds to Sale’s established tendency to fade in August and September—a tendency that he’s added to with a couple DL stints already this month.
It’s easy to dismiss these numbers as the product of a small sample size and therefore a fluke. But we’ve seen over and over again that problems in the playoffs, regardless of sport, tend not to be random chance. Alex Rodriguez continually struggled in October. So did Barry Bonds. The Washington Nationals have made an art form of underperforming in the playoffs.
The hard reality that Red Sox fans have to face is that this starting rotation has all the makings of one that will make underperformance in the clutch a pattern of behavior. And while the bullpen is pretty good, it’s not the kind of lights-out unit that can take over playoff games from the fourth inning on.
By contrast, the Yankees have just such a bullpen. The Cleveland Indians have a weapon in Andrew Miller that can dominate a playoff series out of the pen. Houston has starting pitchers, most notably Justin Verlander, who have performed in the biggest of pressure situations. The Astros and Indians have won the last two American League pennants. The Yankees showed some playoff mettle with wins in two winner-take-all games last year and then going down fighting against Houston in the ALCS.
By contrast, Boston has rolled over dead in the last two postseasons, being steamrolled by Cleveland and Houston in the Division Series. The starting pitchers have a track record that inspires pessimism. A warning sign marked “Regular Season Team” is all over this rotation. I hope I’m wrong and this year will be different. But these Red Sox will have to win one postseason series—or even show signs of being competitive in one—before I get my hopes up for a Duck Boat Parade downtown.
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.
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.
One of the more surprising developments of the second half of the major league baseball season has been the blowing open of the AL East race. While I’m enough of a partisan Boston fan to still be on pins and needles as they get set for a three-game series with Tampa Bay starting tomorrow, I also know how I’d view a race that had a margin of 7 ½ games with three weeks left if I were on the outside looking in—as all but over.
For today’s MLB coverage, let’s take a brief look at how the Red Sox opened up this sizable cushion on a team in the Rays that appeared to have all the makings of a division winner.
SEVERAL HOT BATS
If we confine our statistical review to the last thirty days, there are several bats in the lineup that go beyond hot and into the realm of “scorching.” Let’s start with first baseman Mike Napoli, who has a stat line of .385 on-base percentage/.676 slugging percentage, and has made those who were skeptical of his acquisition (that would be me) look foolish.
Napoli has hit seven home runs in the past month, and in Thursday night’s win over New York, he kept alive a ninth-inning rally with a smooth opposite-field single against no less than Mariano Rivera.
Shane Victorino’s decision to hit strictly from the right side of the plate since a hamstring injury (he’s normally a switch hitter) has been beaten to death by national broadcasters when the Red Sox are on, but when you look at the numbers, you can at least understand why people are talking about it. Victorino’s stat line is .397/.575 and he’s also homered seven times in a month. The rightfielder has produced this kind of OBP consistently in his career, but this kind of power production isn’t normally is his area.
The left-field platoon of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava has been productive all year, particularly when the left-handed hitting Nava is at the plate. The stat line here is .486/.603. Can we remember him for something other than hitting a grand slam on his first pitch in the major leagues back in 2010? Yes, that’s an amazing feat, but don’t let it obscure the fact he’s a solid baseball player. And when it comes to dramatic moments, he also hit the game-winning home run in Boston’s first home game this year after the Marathon bombing.
Will Middlebrooks was sent down to the minors earlier in the year, and whatever the young third baseman learned should not be forgotten anytime soon. His numbers in the last month are .434/.621 and six home runs.
It’s most certainly worth noting that in talking about this lineup’s hottest bats, we haven’t once mentioned David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia or Jacoby Ellsbury, where you presume such a conversation would start. Ortiz and Pedroia have been solid, albeit unspectacular. Ellsbury was in a bit of slump, and is now hurt with a bad foot. He’s in a walking boot that will be evaluated at the end of the month, the one dark cloud on the Boston horizon right now.
A 1-2 PUNCH
Jon Lester and the newly acquired Jake Peavy have been lights-out in their recent starts. Lester has a 2.09 ERA in six starts, and is re-establishing himself as the Game 1 starter in a potential Division Series. Peavy has posted a 2.67 ERA in five starts, and made those were skeptical about his acquisition (that would be me) look foolish.
On the other hand, Ryan Dempster has a 5.47 ERA in four starts. I say this not because it’s notable—with Clay Bucholz coming back from the disabled list on Tuesday, Dempster is likely going to the bullpen, and in either case, would not be in the postseason rotation. But I was also skeptical of his acquisition, and my ego is demanding I insert at least one piece of skepticism I was right on.
IN NEED OF RELIEF
The one big question mark for Boston remains the bullpen. The good news is that Koji Uehara has stabilized the ninth inning. Actually, in closing all seven chances and not allowing any runs in the last month, he’s been more “spectacular”, then “stabilizing.”
But as noted in a recent review of American League bullpens, the Red Sox are a team with issues in getting to him. It’s about finding one or two of Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman or Matt Thornton to get hot. Right now that’s Breslow, but this can change on a moment’s notice.
It’s not that Boston has no concerns—if they lose all three games in Tampa, the race in the AL East is tight again. They need to see Bucholz get his rhythm back and Ellsbury get healthy. They need to get the seventh and eighth innings in the bullpen figured out on a game-to-game basis.
Let’s also acknowledge that their financial muscle played a big part in this AL East race—Boston lost Bucholz to the DL, Tampa Bay lost Matt Moore, and both had prospects to deal. But the Red Sox were the team that could afford to take on Peavy’s contract. I sympathize with Tampa fans who feel frustrated.
But let’ s not overlook the fact the Red Sox have a lot of under-the-radar players playing some excellent baseball right now, that have spurred them to something an objective fan would call a decisive lead in the AL East.
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 nightmarethat 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.
Toronto (39-38): Last week’s MLB coverage here at TheSportsNotebook featured the Blue Jays, and at 6 ½ games out, with Jose Reyes on the way back, they are decidedly back in the picture.
The Boston Red Sox have been the toast of baseball in the first four weeks of the season, rolling to an 18-8 record and the best record in the majors. After a soap opera year of 2012, a new manager and a new attitude have produced some new results. In today’s American League MLB coveragewe’ll look at how the Red Sox have been doing it, speculate on their long-term chances and take a brief look at the rest of the AL.
Boston’s strengths in a nutshell are…
Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz have been amazingly good
Dustin Pedroia leads an offense that’s filling the basepaths with runners
The return of David Ortiz has lifted a lineup that’s also driving the ball for power very well.
Bucholz is your April frontrunner for the Cy Young Award, with a 5-0 record and 1.19 ERA, while Lester is 4-0 with a solid 3.11 ERA. These were the two pitchers everyone was focused on at the start of the year. Both were part of the infamous Fried Chicken Fiasco in the collapse of 2011, where pitchers were drinking and eating fried foods in the clubhouse during games—the baseball equivalent of fiddling as Rome burned. But it was presumed the ringleader in the group was Josh Beckett. Now Beckett is gone, the old pitching coach John Farrell is back as manager, and Bucholz and Lester look like aces again.
The back end of the rotation and the bullpen were question marks. I was skeptical of signing Ryan Dempster and my mind hasn’t really changed, but Dempster does have a nice 3.30 ERA. Felix Doubront is an acceptable fourth or fifth starter—one who’s never pretty—but at least gives you a shot. John Lackey has made two starts since his return from Tommy John surgery and has an ERA of 2.61, but with one stint on the DL already behind him, you have to question how many outings he can give you.
Joel Hanrahan was acquired to shore up the ninth inning and began the season by getting hit hard and then hurt. He’s back off the disabled list, but Andrew Bailey—last year’s big acquisition to shore up the ninth inning before getting hurt, then hit hard—has found his pre-2012 form. Bailey’s closed five of six chances with a 1.46 ERA. Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa are doing excellent work in the setup roles.
What happens with Dempster is going to go a long way towards telling us if the Red Sox can continue to lead the AL East throughout the summer. While I’m sold that Bucholz and Lester are back as a legitimate 1-2 punch, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that somewhere along the line they’ll lose some decisions and that Bucholz’s ERA might rise into the 2s. If Dempster can stay steady, it will give the rotation needed stability.
While Boston’s staff ERA ranks 4th in the American League, the hitting is a little bit better, ranking 3rd. The best Red Sox teams from 2003-11 followed the Moneyball formula of churning out on-base percentage and this team is doing just that. Pedroia is leading the way with a .444 OBP, while Shane Victorino is at .385. Jacoby Ellsbury is playing reasonably well, but hasn’t really heated up yet in the leadoff spot, so there’s every reason to think the Sox can maintain their high level of getting runners on base.
This wasn’t supposed to be a vintage Red Sox team when it came to power, but they’re second in the American League in slugging percentage. David Ortiz returned from the disabled list and in nine games, he hit three home runs and delivered a slugging percentage of .917. Mike Napoli, another offseason acquisition I was skeptical about, is coming through and unlike Dempster, I’m ready to change my mind and say this is the real thing. Napoli looks very comfortable in Fenway and my biggest concern was his defensive skill at first base. At the very least, that hasn’t been a problem in the early going.
And my favorite Red Sox, left fielder Danny Nava, is finally getting regular playing time. Nava got national attention in 2010 when he hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the major leagues. When he got further chances to play, he consistently got on base and played a good left field, but was always shunted aside as the front office went in search of the next high-priced star. Now he’s getting his chance and the numbers speak for themselves–.385 on-base percentage and .500 slugging.
The disappointments in the lineup are clearly on the left side of the infield. Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks are off to horrible starts. Middlebrooks’ six home runs have somewhat obscured that, but he’s only got 19 hits total for the year. He’s a great talent and the fact the team has started so well will buy him some time to keep developing, but for long-term success, Boston is going to need him to hit.
Drew is a different story. I like his acquisition in the offseason, but he’s hitting sub-.200 and has been hurt. You know, I realize that the offseason moves I didn’t like (Dempster and Napoli) are coming through and the one I did (Drew) is a bust. The Sawx are my favorite team, and let’s just say I’m glad I’m not in charge of making these decisions. Just writing about them after the fact. But back to Drew—he’s apparently never really gotten his stroke back after the devastating ankle injury that cost him a season and a half when he was in Arizona. The Red Sox haven’t had stability at shortstop since Nomar Garciaparra was traded in 2004 and apparently the search will continue.
So where do the Red Sox stand for the long haul in what promises to be a tough AL East race? The Yankees are only two games back, as they try and find healthy bodies. The Orioles are two and a half back, and the Rays are inching back closer to .500.
As a fan, I feel good about this team, but also realistic. Clearly, Boston is back to being fun again and will be in the race. The realistic side of me says the 3 thru 5 spots in the rotation are a question mark. And even if you’re a Dempster believer, you have to concede that at least 4-5 are big questions. In the bullpen, Bailey’s known to be fragile, so we have to see how that plays out. I’m not ready to say the Red Sox are the team to beat in the AL East, but at least this spring I don’t have to use the NBA & NHL playoffs as a way of hiding from baseball reality.
DETROIT& LOS ANGELES GO IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS
The Detroit Tigers had been off to a muddling start, but have caught fire and won five in a row. They’re getting vintage performances from Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and new free agent acquisition Tori Hunter. The ERA of the Detroit starting rotation is the 2nd-best in the American League, with Anibal Sanchez also off to a blazing start. The bullpen was a question mark coming into the season and is no less so today after some blown saves and injuries to Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel, but Jose Valverde has returned to the team and successfully closed two save opportunities. I picked this team to win 100 games and win the World Series. The century mark might have been overkill given the relief pitching, but as long as the Tigers are alive and have their stars healthy, I consider them the team to beat in all of baseball.
The Los Angeles Angels were last year’s team to beat and for a lot of people they were this year’s too. And apparently they are the team to beat—because of a lot of people are beating them. The Angels are now 9-17, thanks primarily to a pitching staff that’s 14th in the league in ERA. Everyone is to blame. The starters’ ERA is also 14th and the bullpen is an abysmal 3-of-8 in save opportunities. Say what you will about how bad Josh Hamilton has been—and with a .252 OBP/.296 slugging he’s been awful—but pitching is the big culprit here.
And now the elephant in the room is the status of manager Mike Scoscia. He’s considered in many quarter s—including this one—to be the best manager in baseball, or at least the equal of anyone else. But this franchise has spent a lot of money and is not seeing any results. If the issue is management—and that’s still a big if—I’m inclined to that Scoscia would just be better off playing on a team that was less about high-priced stars and more about finding quality, aggressive young players to fill roles. Managing egos is different than managing baseball. But whatever you think on this subject, what seemed unthinkable for a long time, is now a topic being casually broached on talk shows. egos is different than managing baseball.
nd and more about finding quality, aggressive young players to fill roles.
One of these AL East teams was aggressive in the offseason, made a big splash and is getting a lot of attention as the candidate to displace the New York Yankees atop the American League East. The other team is coming off a bad year, one of the biggest salary dumps in history and is laying relatively low. Normally you’d have no trouble identifying which of these teams is the Toronto Blue Jays and which is the Boston Red Sox. But this year, the Jays & Sox have reversed roles—Toronto even traded Boston their manager for good measure. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage previews both teams and measures their chances against the projected win total Las Vegas has posted for each.
Boston: John Farrell has returned to town after a mostly unsuccessful two-year run managing north of the border. Farrell was still a popular choice in the Hub—he was a successful pitching coach here, notably with the 2007 World Series winner, and he’s said to have an especially good rapport with Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz.
Lester and Bucholz are where a Red Sox Revival would have to start. Lester, after a steady run of seasons where he won at least 15 games and had an ERA in the 3s, ended up at 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA in 2012. Given the chaotic environment he worked in, betting on a return to form from the lefthander seems pretty safe. But that same can’t be said for Bucholz. The 28-year-old has electric stuff, but he’s been in the majors regularly since 2008 (his 2007 no-hitter came as a call-up) and there’s only been once season where Bucholz pitched consistently well and stayed healthy. It’s reasonable to hope for a year where he has 20-25 starts, a couple DL stints and pitches like an All-Star, but 2010 was the only year where the righthander stayed healthy and pitched well all year long.
Farrell will be relying on a couple veterans to balance out the rotation. Boston added Ryan Dempster, a move I find highly questionable. Dempster only had one really good year pitching with the Chicago Cubs and that was 2008. Otherwise he was a steady, if unspectacular pitcher. Before you argue that’s all the Red Sox need, let me point that “steady and unspectacular” against NL Central lineups usually translates into “mediocre to bad” against American League lineups. And that’s exactly what Dempster was in Texas during the stretch drive after he was dealt at the July 31 trade deadline. The other vet the Sox will turn to is John Lackey. If he can overcome Tommy John surgery and the otherwise horrible performance that has marked his tenure in Fenway, the Sox will be fine.
Suffice it to say, I see more problems than potential when it comes to the rotation. The bullpen is a similar mix of question marks, although I think with more positives. Joel Hanrahan is the new closer and he’s saved 76 games with a composite 2.26 ERA over the last two seasons. Andrew Bailey and Koji Uehara are strong setup candidates, Andrew Miller is a nice lefthanded option and if Daniel Bard can revive his career, this corps could be very strong. Bard’s comeback might be necessary though, because as good as Bailey can be in the setup role (or closer if necessary) he spends a lot of time on the disabled list.
It’s tough to get a feel on how good the offense might be. The positives start with Dustin Pedroia—he had the worst offensive season of his career in 2012 and still ended up with a .347 on-base percentage/.449 slugging percentage. If that’s the worst we’re going to see from Pedroia, the Red Sox are in good shape. Will Middlebrooks is a young stud at third base, who hit .288 with 15 home runs before being derailed by a thumb injury. Mike Napoli hits for a ton of power and draws a lot of walks, something he shares in common with David Ortiz. Throw in a healthy Jacoby Ellsbury and possibly a revived Shane Victorino and you have the makings of a team that can score runs.
Now the negatives—let’s start with the fact that hoping for Ellsbury’s health is like hoping for Bucholz—it’s a nice wish, but little to suggest it will come through all year. Your best hope is just that the disabled list time isn’t extensive or with a hangover effect after the return. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is an incredibly overrated catcher—he hits some home runs, but with an OBP of .288, he better hit about 40 before we can consider him anything other than a liability. Stephen Drew is dealing with a concussion and the shortstop has had major injury problems the last two years. A Victorino comeback is far from a sure thing, Ortiz has an Achilles problem and it’s tough to know what to expect from the leftfield tandem of Jonny Gomes and Danny Nava.
The soap opera has left town with the firing of Bobby Valentine, although the media in Boston usually works overtime to get a sequel underway. At least for now though, it’s a little quieter and there’s no reason to think the Red Sox will lose 93 games again. In fact, getting back over .500 is a very reasonable goal. But if you want to think about contending for an AL East title or playoff spot, it requires a lot of optimism in thinking everything will seamlessly come together. I’m a Red Sox fan who’s getting ready to go to Fort Myers and watch some spring training games in the week leading up to Easter, and I’m feeling a lot of optimism. Enough so, that I would take the “Over” on the posted win projection of 83. But I’m feeling realistic enough to say they won’t go Over by very much.
Toronto: Pitching has been the Toronto problem in the twenty years that stand between now and their back-to-back World Series titles of 1992-93—also the last time they were in the postseason. The Jays went all-in to solve the problem this offseason. They traded for NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, and also added Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle, formerly of Miami.
Maybe I’m just in a pessimistic mood today, but like Boston, I still see more problems here than is generally being reported. I know Dickey can keep throwing his knuckleball five more years, but does anyone really expect the 38-year-old to perform at anywhere close to his level of his 20-win season with the Mets? Especially facing lineups stacked with DHs and considering the Rogers Centre won’t swallow up fly balls the way Citi Field did.
Johnson is Toronto’s version of Bucholz—very talented and very fragile. If nothing else, Buerhle can be relied on—he’s steady in giving you 30-plus starts every year, chewing up innings and being at least respectable in the ERA category. And unlike Dickey and Johnson, almost all of his previous success was compiled in the American League, back in his run with the White Sox.
Toronto might be pleasantly surprised at the bottom of the rotation though. 28-year-old Brandon Morrow had a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts last year. And while Ricky Romero had a bad year, he is just two years removed from looking like an emerging ace. Maybe the presence of a veteran like Buerhle can help him stabilize.
Offensively this team has been defined by Jose Bautista for three years and in that light I think his dropoff last year was paradoxically good. Using similar logic to what I wrote about Pedroia further up, if a .385//527 stat line is the worst you’re going to get from Bautista, then life is very good.
The rest of the lineup could go any which way. Is Edwin Encarcion really going to replicate his .384/.557 year with 42 home runs? I doubt it. Will Melky Cabrera return to his relatively mediocre offensive numbers that marked his career prior to the injection of PEDs? Probably. Jose Reyes is at shortstop, but has anyone else noticed that he’s only one good year in the last four and it’s the season he played for his free agent contract? Colby Rasmus has tremendous potential at center, but he hasn’t done it on the field since 2010 and Tony LaRussa gave up on him in St. Louis. Adam Lind is the DH and hasn’t’ been productive since 2009.
I haven’t hidden the fact that I’m on the pessimist side of these players, but we do have to be fair and acknowledge that every one of them have some sort of record that suggests that can deliver. The swing vote, to use a political term, is going to be the development of catcher J.P. Arencibia and third baseman Brett Lawrie. Both are highly regarded young players. Arencibia is at a key crossroads—he has not hit well in two full years, but the organization still traded away a top young catcher in the deal to get Dickey. Now it’s up to Arencibia to live up to the confidence at age 27. Lawrie isn’t under the gun quite as much, but the third base job is clearly his and he needs to hit if this lineup is going to fulfill its potential.
The offense and the starting pitching needs to deliver, because there are questions in the bullpen. If Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos stay healthy and consistent they can be a good—albeit not great—duo for the last two innings. But here again, you’re having to go on blind optimism that they can do it. Darren Oliver is reliable in a setup role and if J.A. Happ could get his career on track in the bullpen it would give manager John Gibbons a lot of flexibility.
Gibbons himself is one of the more mysterious hires. He was fired here in a previous run and I’m not sure why the front office would bring him back in a year where they’ve obviously shoved all their chips on the table. Gibbons might be the only first-year manager on the hot seat leading up to Memorial Day. Las Vegas is very high on this team, with a projected win number of 89. I see them somewhere in the 83-88 win category, not a lot different from the Red Sox. But because expectations are different, I have to go Under on Toronto.