Monday, May 3, 2010

Red Sox Struggles

There's an old Paul McCartney solo song called, "Junk", that refers to "junk in the yard". That is the song I was singing to myself as I watched the Red Sox get swept yesterday by the lowly Baltimore Orioles. Right now, the Red Sox are junk in the (ball) yard.

Nothing is going right for the local nine. Being a boring team to watch is only a small part of the problem. The larger scale issues are the pitching has been terrible, the defense has underachieved, and the offense still cannot hit good pitching. The offense's struggles don't surprise me, because they couldn't hit good pitching last season, either. Manager Terry Francona's game management has been very questionable as well. At 105 pitches, Josh Beckett should've gone out to the mound to start the 8th inning. In a tie game, why is Francona bringing in Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, when both have been overworked so far this young season? Granted the bullpen has been leaky, but at some point, Francona is going to need to trust Scott Schoeneweis and Ramon Ramirez in a close game.

The cumulative ERA of the starters this season is an unsightly 4.96 However, Daisuke Matsuzaka is back from injury and Saturday's 5th inning meltdown aside, he should help strengthen the starting rotation. Josh Beckett's outing yesterday was encouraging. Even though his curveball was MIA, Beckett allowed only 2 runs in 7 innings, albeit against the Orioles. For all the talk show chatter about Clay Buchholz being a trading chip, he's been the team's best starter since last August. Buchholz should be untouchable in any trade discussion. John Lackey and Jon Lester both look to be coming around, as well. Despite the controversy of the move of Tim Wakefield to the bullpen to make way for Dice K, it is the right move for the team.

The pitching and defense should stabilize, it's the offense that is most concerning. The Red Sox badly miss Jacoby Ellsbury. He's the catalyst at the top of the lineup and with his absence, the lack of speed in the lineup is glaring. Does any team in baseball go station to station more than the Boston Red Sox? On a base hit to left field late in yesterday's game, Jason Varitek, trying to score from second base, was thrown out at the plate by ten feet. The Captain is 38 years old and it's not his fault he no longer has average foot speed, but as a team, the collective lack of athleticism is an issue. Mike Lowell has to be the slowest runner in baseball. David Ortiz isn't far behind Lowell.

Darnell McDonald has been a nice surprise since his call up from Pawtucket, but he's started to cool off and the more he plays, the more the holes in his game are exposed. He's a fifth outfielder at best. The same goes for Jonathan Van Every. McDonald and Van Every were two of the three starting outfielders for the Red Sox yesterday.

This team's biggest area of need is another slugging corner outfielder. Jason Bay filled that role last season, but he and his 36 HRs in 2009, are in New York now. There was hope that 3B Adrian Beltre would provide some thump from the right side, but so far, he's been nothing but a singles hitter. Ortiz can no longer catch up to a good fastball and unless he picks it up in the next three weeks, he is a candidate to be released - a scenario no one could have imagined three years ago. Victor Martinez has struggled so badly behind the plate, that it looks to be affecting his bat. Martinez's defensive struggles have Jason Varitek catching more than the team wants him out there. Varitek's bat has been the one of the few highlights of the season.

There doesn't seem to be any hope either in the farm system or externally via a trade. As the team continues to play poorly, the higher the price tag will be for a premium player in a trade. The off season talk was about the team acquiring 1B Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego. However, the Padres are off to a surprising start, leading the NL West by 1.5 games. Also, the Red Sox have a logjam at the 1B/3B/DH positions with Kevin Youkilis, Beltre, Ortiz, Lowell, and Martinez. Other than Youkilis, who's untouchable, none of them have any trade value right now. This current configuration doesn't exactly make for a flexible roster.

There has been much mockery in the media of the "run prevention" philosophy that was espoused this off season by Red Sox GM Theo Epstein. This mockery has escalated recently due to the pitching and the defense being a let down. However, the bats just aren't there. Even when Ellsbury and Mike Cameron come back, the offense still can be shut down. The Red Sox have two reliable run producers right now - Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.

The Red Sox have over $162 million invested in the roster. There are too many old guys (Ortiz, Varitek, Cameron, and Lowell), under producers (Victor Martinez and J.D. Drew), and players masquerading as sluggers (Adrian Beltre). They have only one starting position player who can really run and put pressure on a defense - Ellsbury. He's on the disabled list. So much for the idea of manufacturing runs.

The team is hitting a mediocre .259 with runners in scoring position. By comparison, the AL East leading Tampa Bay Rays are hitting .323 with runners in scoring position. The offense hit 8 HR in this weekend series vs. the Orioles. Only one of these HR's (Kevin Youkilis - Saturday night - 2 run HR) had a man on base. Of the 33 HR hit by the Red Sox in 2010, 21 of them have been solo shots.

Will things change as the season progresses? I doubt it. If you can't hit against the Orioles, then you won't hit against the Yankees, Angels, and Rays. If you think it's bad this season, wait until next year, when the contracts of Ortiz, Martinez, Lowell, Beltre, and Varitek all expire. The team is very good at developing pitchers, but their minor league organization is bereft of any young sluggers, Lars Anderson's hot start aside. Given that situation, the offense has the potential to be even worse in 2011.

The Red Sox will eventually play better ball, fill Fenway Park to capacity most nights, and make a run for the Wild Card. However, this is a flawed team that is not built for playoff success. The roster balance just isn't there and unless Theo Epstein trades the team's prize minor league prospects like Casey Kelly, which he is wont to do, this won't change.

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