2008 Mid-season report

At 49-32, the Boston Red Sox hold a 1-game lead over Tampa Bay in the AL East. Their .605 winning percentage is second in the AL only to the Los Angeles Angels (.608), but we have a much better run differential of +70, suggesting that they are (once again) playing over their heads a little bit and are an overrated team. That being said, the running Angels do seem pretty consistently to outperform their Pythagorean projections. So 81 games in, your Boston Red Sox are one of, if not the best, the top teams in the AL and a clear favorite to make the playoffs once again.

Here is what I see unfolding for the second half in our division: while the Rays are clearly improved, I don’t expect them to continue winning at their current pace. They will regress some and should finish with something like 86 wins. The Yankees are 14-9 in June and 22-11 since May 21, and they are definitely coming up quickly in the rear view mirror. You can bet they’ll make some deadline deals, so I think they will pass Tampa, but won’t quite catch us. Toronto can’t continue being this bad, can they? I still don’t think they’ll finish behind the Orioles.

Overcoming obstacles
Amazingly, the Sox are here despite the loss of David Ortiz for (at least) the whole month of June, Mike Lowell out for most of April, and a host of regulars battling nagging injuries, like Manny Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis. Jason Varitek was also KO’d for a week in April with a killer flu bug. The pitching staff has had to endure a lot of DL time, with Curt Schilling out the whole year and Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Mike Timlin all requiring stints of downtime. There was also the tough international road trip to open the season. The Red Sox have been able to to survive all this through the emergence of some young players from our farm system, as well as the bench depth the front office assembled.

Drew picks up the offense
Surprise, surprise: J.D. Drew is the offensive MVP in the month of June. He has compiled a .359/.469/.885 line this month, hitting 10 HR and driving in 23 runs from the vacated #3 hole. Those are numbers Ortiz would love to have. Make no mistake though, the Red Sox miss Big Papi in the middle of the lineup. The team ranks 8th in runs scored this month with 116, and has put up a composite line of .276/.356/.474. In May, with Papi on fire, Boston scored 154 runs, in a tie for 3rd in the Majors.

Lester, Wakefield prop up the rotation
The Sox are third in team ERA this month at 3.36, and one of the big reasons for that is the adjustments made by this rotation. Jon Lester is 3-0 with a 1.63 ERA for the month of June, and Tim Wakefield is 2-1 with a 2.31 ERA. Maybe the most amazing stats is that Lester has only issued 3 walks in 27 2/3 IP after giving out 36 free passes the first two months. Fewer baserunners equals a lot of success. Combine that with Beckett‘s 2-1 record and 2.33 ERA, and you’ve got a pretty dominant rotation.

Now I don’t think that Lester has suddenly arrived, but he’s making huge strides and learning how to pitch with his stuff in the Major Leagues. Justin Masterson has been a rock-solid spot starter for us, and he could easily stick as our number five if we didn’t have six other pitchers who deserve to play. With Bartolo Colon and Clay Buchholz as other good options, we should be able to distribute innings and keep everyone fresh for the stretch run.

The bullpen steps it up
After a rough start, the Sox bullpen is really rounding into shape. This year’s relief corps is potentially better than last year’s version, with more depth and variety to go with developing youngsters.

Jonathan Papelbon is in top form, and the 8th inning is covered by Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen. Okajima has struggled with inherited runners this season, but appears to be pitching better lately. The Sox are trying not to overwork him like last year, and that should pay dividends come September and October. MDC is back to using his hook, and is no longer getting the hook. He has been untouchable in July, striking out 14 men in 10 scoreless innings. He has allowed just five baserunners this month, and was touching 99 mph last night with his fastball. That’s the shutdown reliever we were hoping for this year.

I don’t like his jerky delivery, but Craig Hansen‘s mound placement and arm slot make him very tough on righties. Despite his inconsistency, Hansen has held right-handed hitters to a .218/.283/.291 line this season. He’s also gotten a good number of ground balls, which is a skill that will come in handy.

David Aardsma may have gotten his fastball under control, and has a 1.93 ERA in June, while striking out 15 batters in just 9 1/3 IP. He’s a very good middle-inning option for those 1-out, men on strikeout situations, as long as he can keep from walking people.

Now the bad news. Despite a good month, Javier Lopez is still eminently hittable. His value is in being left-handed and getting grounders. Mike Timlin doesn’t look good, and the Sox need to start thinking about a backup plan for him. Right now, it looks like it could be Masterson and his heavy sinker. I know this could cause some problem with the catching, but what about trying out Charlie Zink in this role?

Defense lags at shortstop
The Red Sox boast one of the best defenses in baseball, the only weak spots being shortstop and left field. Francona tries to remedy this with late defensive substitutions, but that doesn’t solve the issue.

Julio Lugo is becoming a problem at shortstop. What looked to be just a shaky stretch with the glove has turned into a series of miscues. He’s bobbled the ball, missed on his throws, and has lost confidence in himself at the position. You can’t unload a shortstop who can’t hit and can’t field, especially with the contract he has, so Jed Lowrie is, unfortunately, screwed. He’ll likely be dangled at the trade deadline.

Ramirez is adequate in left most of the time, and I don’t believe his gaffes occur often enough for us to make them an issue. At Fenway, he’s actually an above-average defender. Using Jacoby Ellsbury and Brandon Moss as defensive subs is a very good solution here.

What to watch for
Only serious injury is going to derail this team. The offense is pretty good, pitching is too deep, the defense is too good for them to fall out of contention. The team’s performance will allow them to take their time with Big Papi, allowing him to make a full recovery and return after the All-Star Break. How many teams do you know that can afford to lose their cleanup hitter for a month plus and be just fine?

Coco Crisp wants out, so the front office will try to trade him, but they want something back. The outfield situation has worked out just fine for the Red Sox, and there’s no reason to change it, except to maybe get Moss back up here.

As far as acquisitions, I would love for the Sox to get one more strong reliever with experience. Maybe a lefty like Brian Fuentes or Damaso Marte? I expect Theo Epstein to be very cautious at the trade deadline, however.

Would they try to trade for C.C. Sabathia or Erik Bedard? Sabathia is going to be a rental, but when he walks, he will yield two draft picks, so I believe the Indians would want Lowrie and Masterson/Michael Bowden for their lefty. Seattle would want a little more, as Bedard is open to signing an extension. Epstein would answer of these two as he always answers, “for the right price.” With so many teams in need of pitching, I think the price will be inflated for those arms, and the Sox will not bite. Maybe a lesser light, like A.J. Burnett? The Blue Jays can’t wait to be rid of him, and he’ll be strictly a rental.

The Sox have a ton of players who can come up in September, and if they have a good lead in the division, they’ll see a lot of playing time. It’ll be fun.


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