By Jeff Louderback
Forget about the 20-8 start that the Red Sox posted to open the season. The momentum from that stretch has been erased because of a 2-9 skid that has seen this club plagued with ineffective pitching, a lack of timely hitting and awful defense.
Fortunately, in baseball, there is a 162-game schedule. A prolonged losing streak in the NFL means no playoffs. In May, when a team is 22-17 like the Red Sox, there is ample time to rebound and regain momentum. For that to happen, though, immediate changes to the lineup should be made, and if certain players continue to struggle, roster adjustments must be implemented.
At 20-8, the Red Sox owned the best record in baseball. Now, they are three games behind the New York Yankees and clinging to third place in the American League East.
To win consistently, it is obvious that the Red Sox must play clean defense. In a 5-3 loss on Tuesday at Tampa Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury‘s lackadaisical throw back to the infield after catching a routine fly ball with runners on first and second resulted in the slow-footed Jose Molina reaching third and Yunel Escobar advancing to second. Moments later, first baseman Mike Napoli lost Matt Joyce’s routine pop up in the dome ceiling, allowing Molina and Escobar to score.
Those two plays transformed a 3-3 tie into a 5-3 deficit for the Red Sox. The club’s continued lack of productivity with runners on base also contributed to their ninth loss in 11 games.
The lineup needs to be tweaked by manager John Farrell. Jacoby Ellsbury is not setting the table from the leadoff spot. Shane Victorino would be a better candidate there. Moving Dustin Pedroia from third to second would allow the Sox to return David Ortiz to his more familiar No. 3 slot. Though Napoli has scuffled at the plate recently, he is an ideal cleanup hitter.
Ellsbury would be better suited at the bottom of the order – perhaps at the No. 8 or No. 9 spot. That could jumpstart him, and since he is not known for a high on-base percentage, hitting in the bottom of the order would free him to focus more on the power he showcased two seasons ago.
It is puzzling why Farrell continues to give at-bats to Jonny Gomes, who has whiffed 21 times in 82 plate appearances, and is batting .182 with a woeful .647 OPS and two home runs. Mike Carp and Daniel Nava should get the at-bats in left field. Gomes was signed to a questionable two-year, $10 million deal last offseason, but if he does not produce at the plate, he does not belong on the roster since he is a below average defensive outfielder.
Gomes is popular in the clubhouse because he is an inspirational teammate, but this team cannot afford to carry a light-hitting defensive liability, especially since the lineup is not as loaded as it was a few years ago.
Bryce Brentz and Jackie Bradley would offer more than Gomes because both prospects are solid defensive outfielders and project as above average bats in the majors. Bradley, of course, was overmatched in his April stint with the Red Sox – and he is currently on the disabled list at Pawtucket – but he is hitting well in his first taste of Triple-A, and he provides tools than Gomes lacks. If Mitch Maier gets healthy, he would even be a better solution than Gomes since Maier can play all three outfield spots, and he was batting .321 (9-for-28) before he landed on the DL.
The 24-year-old Will Middlebrooks has tremendous upside as a run-producing bat, but he has appeared overmatched this season. The Red Sox desperately need a power bat to accompany Ortiz and Napoli in the lineup. If Middlebrooks’ struggles continue, the Red Sox should explore a trade. Perhaps with Philadelphia for veteran infielder Michael Young, or with San Diego to the highly regarded Chase Headley.
Young could likely be had for a package that includes second baseman Sean Coyle (who is from the Philadelphia area and is an intriguing prospect) and a pitcher like Brandon Workman or an outfielder like Brandon Jacobs or Jeremy Hazelbaker. If the Phillies are not fully confident about their chances in the National League East, they might be open to an expanded deal involving veteran left-hander Cliff Lee. Young and Lee would cost a higher price in prospects.
Headley would likely require the Red Sox assemble a package that includes Middlebrooks, a frontline pitching prospect like Allen Webster, an outfielder like Brentz and maybe a Major League pitcher with upside like Felix Doubront. The Red Sox would not make a deal that has the names Jackie Bradley or Xander Bogaerts involved. Garin Cecchini is another prospect who the club will likely keep, though 20-year-old left-hander Henry Owens and even top pitching prospect Matt Barnes could be included in a package to get an impact bat like Headley, who plays third base and left field.
Ideally, the Red Sox would keep Middlebrooks and option him to Pawtucket if they obtain a veteran like Young, who does not have power but does hit for average and generate runs.
It is too early for the Red Sox to hit the panic button, yet it is late enough in the season to recognize deficiencies and make changes to bolster the lineup.