Across Major League Baseball, many front office types will tell you that the 30-game mark of the season is when they start determining the current state of their ballclub and assess what changes should be made, if any. In Boston, there are a plethora of question marks, and now that the team is 12-18 after dropping two out of three to the woeful Royals, the Red Sox get a failing grade after 30 games.
With the team is disarray and sinking deeper into the American League East cellar – they are now 7.5 games out – it desperately needs an injection of life.
Fans are already calling for the firing of Bobby Valentine, but let’s squash that idea right away. The Red Sox are highly unlikely to fire the veteran manager this early in his tenure with the ballclub. The team might respond better to bench coach Tim Bogar, who is regarded as a future big league manager, but Valentine will get more time to save the ship from completely sinking.
Though the Sox lineup is without key components like Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford and Kevin Youkilis, the weakest link on the team is not the hitting. It’s pitching – starting pitching, to be exact. Entering Wednesday’s game, Red Sox starters had a 5.89 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP, and they were ranked 28th out of 30 major league teams. Only Kansas City and Minnesota have worse rotations statistically than Boston.
Jon Lester continued to disappoint on Wednesday. Though the stat line says he allowed just one earned run, that does not tell the whole story. He needed 39 pitches to get through the first inning, and the ball that Marlon Byrd misplayed in center field for an error was a smoked liner with two outs. Instead of settling down and getting out of the inning, Lester served up a two-run double to Brayan Pena for a 3-0 Royals lead.
With Josh Beckett no longer dominant – he is good, but not dominant – and Lester pitching like a No. 3 starter instead of a No. 1, the Red Sox currently lack a true ace. The Sox expected a rebound season from Clay Buchholz. Instead, the 27-year-old right-hander looks much like he did in 2008, when he was shipped back to Pawtucket. Buchholz has a 9.09 ERA, has allowed at least five runs in all six starts and opposing hitters are batting .343 against him. Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard have shown promise, but in most starts it seems like they have one inning when they cannot get key outs and allow critical runs. Doubront has a 5.29 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP while Bard has a 4.83 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP.
What has especially hurt Red Sox starting pitchers this season is walks. They have issued 76 walks, which is the second most behind Cleveland (78). The WHIP (walks, hits, innings pitched) is 27th out of 30 teams in the majors. Only Minnesota, Colorado and Kansas City are worse.
There are solutions to the problems. The Sox are hoping to get a positive contribution from veteran right-hander Aaron Cook, who pounds the strike zone and induces grounders with his sinker. Cook was effective in the first inning of his start against the Orioles but was spiked in the knee in the second inning and could not get the ball down after that. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list.
Daisuke Matsuzaka has pitched well in his rehab stint as he makes a return from Tommy John surgery. Matsuzaka has a lot to prove, and he is a starter who can replace Buchholz if the team chooses to option him to Pawtucket.
There is also a chance Boston could trade Kevin Youkilis and a prospect for a starting pitcher, or package prospects for a starter. Roy Oswalt is also still on the free agent market.
The Sox desperately need their starters to pitch deeper into games, throw strikes and command their pitches. Too many offerings have missed their spots and have been hit hard. All five starters in the rotation are guilty of this.
After an atrocious first few weeks of the season, the Red Sox bullpen has emerged as a strength. Statistically, they are in the middle of the pack in the majors with a 4.46 ERA, but since the game when the Sox saw a 9-0 lead over the Yankees disappear and lost 15-9, Boston relievers have been outstanding.
Alfredo Aceves has settled nicely into his role as a closer. In his last six outings, which have spanned 8.2 innings, the right-hander has registered three saves and has allowed no runs and six hits while striking out 13 and walking two.
Like Aceves, Vicente Padilla had a rough outing in the debacle against the Yankees, but since then he has permitted one run and six hits in six innings, walking two in his six games. Padilla has especially been effective when he enters a jam. He has stranded all nine of his inherited runners.
Matt Albers served up a three-run home run to Billy Butler (two of the runs were charged to Daniel Bard, who walked the first two batters he faced in the eighth inning) on Tuesday, but overall he has been reliable as his 1.84 ERA and 0.89 WHIP suggest.
Scott Atchison and Clayton Mortensen have been pleasant surprises. Both pound the strike zone and can throw three innings, if needed, as Mortensen did on Wednesday, holding the Royals scoreless. Atchison has a 1.35 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP while Mortensen owns a 0.96 ERA and a 0.64 WHIP.
Since their activation from the disabled list and recall from Pawtucket, left-handers Andrew Miller and Rich Hill have been superb. Miller has tossed 1.2 scoreless frames in two outings and has four strikeouts and no walks while Hill has a 1.93 ERA in four appearances.
Hard-throwing left-hander Franklin Morales has been the least effective of the current relievers. He has a 4.91 ERA (inflated from early season outings), but his WHIP is 1.55, which is not favorable.
The Sox bullpen is in a positive state right now. It even received a significant contribution from right-hander Junichi Tazawa, who was optioned to Pawtucket after he tossing 6.1 scoreless innings. The concern moving forward is that there will be too many games like Wednesday, when Lester logged just five innings so Bobby Valentine had to use Mortensen for three frames.
Eventually, the relievers are going to wear down if they have to cover three or more innings every game, which is why the Sox need to make moves to bring in new starters if the present rotation does not show improvement.
On paper, the Red Sox are third overall in the majors in offense with 159 runs and a .273 average. Only St. Louis and Texas are better. Yet, with the absence of Ellsbury and Crawford – and the disappearance of Youkilis, even when he is in the lineup – there are holes. The Sox need the struggling Adrian Gonzalez to generate runs, and aside from the three-run double on Wednesday, he has done little in recent weeks. In his last 10 games, Gonzalez is batting .244 with no home runs and four RBI, three of which were knocked in on the double off soft-tossing left-hander Bruce Chen.
Only David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Ryan Sweeney are consistently hitting. Rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks has given the lineup a jolt by delivering at least one extra base hit in his first five games ( a streak that ended on Wednesday), but he is nursing a sore hamstring, so that could deter the Sox from dealing Youkilis, who could be activated from the disabled list as early as Monday.
Since catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is hitting .239 and has struggled at times behind the plate – and Kelly Shoppach offers little offense – it is time for the Red Sox to call up top prospect Ryan Lavarnway, who continues to improve with his game-calling abilities and catching skills.
Though the right-handed hitter is batting just .260 with two home runs and nine RBI so far at Pawtucket, he has tremendous power and represents an upgrade over Saltalamacchia and Shoppach at the plate. He is arguably better behind the dish than Saltalamacchia. Lavarnway has committed just one error this season, and that was on catcher’s interference. His throws have been accurate. Like Middlebrooks, Lavarnway can breathe added life into the lineup. It would be better to part ways with Shoppach and keep Saltalamacchia since the latter is still just 27 and he is a switch-hitter with more pop in his bat.
Unless the Red Sox make another trade for an outfielder, it appears they are going to wait for Ellsbury’s return, which could be June or July. Cody Ross (.250, five home runs, 21 RBI, .771 OPS) and Sweeney (.355, .900 OPS) are producing, but they are better suited as platoon partners in right field.
Darnell McDonald is hitting .184 with a .645 OPS yet somehow continues to hold a roster spot. The Sox would be better off calling up 23-year-old Che-Hsuan Lin (who is just hitting .242 at Pawtucket but is a plus defensive outfielder with a strong arm and is also a speedy baserunner) or even summoning 27-year-old right-handed hitting Juan Carlos Lineras, the Cuban free agent signee who is hitting. 358 with five home runs, 20 RBI and a 1.022 OPS at Double-A Portland.
Marlon Byrd has demonstrated no power since returning from getting hit in the face by an Alfredo Aceves pitch last season with he was with the Cubs, but he plays a decent center field (despite the error on Wednesday) and is batting .279 from the No. 9 spot.
At shortstop, Mike Aviles has produced at times at the plate. He has five home runs, 19 RBI and a .266 average. Yet he would be more valuable as a super utility player. The Sox should strongly consider calling up Cuban phenom Jose Iglesias, who is hitting .325 in his last 10 games and has lifted his average to .250. Red Sox officials say he is showing a better approach at the plate, and the result has been six multi-hit games in his last seven contests. Iglesias will also prevent runs with his spectacular defense.
There are no sure-fire fixes to cure this team’s woes. The rotation needs to eat more innings and make better pitches so the Red Sox are no longer playing catch up in seemingly every game. The starters also need to log more innings so the bullpen does not wear down.
First-year general manager Ben Cherington is facing his first stern test. What will the team do with Middlebrooks when Youkilis is ready to return? What about Buchholz? Will he be given more starts or will he be sent to Pawtucket to work on his mechanics, command and confidence? Are there any deals that can be made to upgrade the rotation? And when will the Red Sox call up Lavarnway and Iglesias? Answers need to start soon, or the Sox could be sellers instead of buyers at the trade deadline as they nosedive deeper into the AL East basement.