There was an interesting article on redsox.com the other day. Although I found myself agreeing with portions of it– particularly the part about this team still seeking an identity– I was taken aback by the title:
“Red Sox look to carry momentum on trip”
…Perhaps I’m missing something, but has there been any momentum? That time I checked, this team has alternated between flashes of competency and grossly inadequate performances all year long, see-sawing from bad to good and back again. Arbitrary stat, but it’s the club’s worst start through 35 games since 1997.
The article cites Boston’s “7-3 home stand” as evidence, and hey- that’s super. Nothing wrong with winning 7 of 10, right? Except if you look back at the schedule, a 3-game sweep preceded that stretch. A 3-game sweep by the Orioles.
Let’s not get too excited about going 7-3 at home because it ignores the larger picture. Yes, the sweep of the Angels was an impressive (and much-needed) accomplishment, but the Halos haven’t exactly been tearing it up this year either. And winning the series against Toronto was balanced out by the series loss against New York.
With the dust from the home stand settled, Boston is still in fourth place in the A.L. East, 6.5 games out of first and trailing the third-place Jays by 2 in the win column.
Unless you’re looking through a mighty thick set of rose-colored glasses, this season has been mostly frustration. And while it’s still early, we’re nearly 25% done. It’s time for a marked improvement, because as I’ve said before, falling too far behind in this division is a death sentence in terms of post-season chances.
But now that the doom and gloom is out of my system, let’s look at the other side of the coin. There have been some positive signs coming from the club.
- First and foremost, David Ortiz is hitting. I know it’s only an 8-game sample, but in May Big Papi is hitting .310 with 3 homers and 7 RBI. His .999 OPS has hitting coach Dave Magadan feeling confident about his chances for sustained success. I have to admit that even I hold out some out that this is more than a temporary hot streak. David Ortiz is one of baseball’s most likable players, and nothing would be better than watching him return to true slugger form.
- Jon Lester looks dominant. He stumbled early on, but his last 4 starts have been exceptional. I’m talking about an 0.98 ERA over the last 27.2 innings…
- Daisuke Matsuzaka did something right. I don’t mean to be glib here; Dice-K’s last start, though only 1 game, was meaningful in that it showed his ability to succeed by avoiding walks. Putting too many runners on base has been Matsuzaka’s primary weakness since he arrived in the U.S., and he’s been in the majors long enough for the excuses to have dried up. In my opinion, the team has to view this as a make or break season for the 29 year old righty– either he makes strides, or he serves out the remainder of his career as a barely serviceable back end starter. Too much has been invested in him for the latter to happen.
- The newcomers have, for the most part, held their own. We all know about Darnell McDonald’s scorching start after being called up earlier this year, and though he’s cooled down since (down to a .239 average), he’s still been doing his job, filling in for the injured Mike Cameron. I admit, .239 is pretty darn cold. But in essence, McDonald has been an average major league player, which is as much as the team could have expected from a career minor-leaguer. And I won’t forget that he won a couple of games for Boston when the team needed them badly.
Marco Scutaro has quietly done a solid job hitting atop the order in the absence of Jacoby Ellsbury. He lacks speed on the basepaths, but his .362 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot is acceptable. Adrian Beltre hasn’t shown much power, but he’s hitting for average: .313 through 128 bats this year. He’s driven in some key runs and has been an asset at the plate. In contrast, Jeremy Hermida’s .240 average isn’t turning heads but he has flashed power: 4 home runs in only 82 plate appearances.
This last group of players holds the key to Boston’s future this season. Scutaro, Beltre, Cameron, Hermida, Ellsbury: We all know what we’ll get from guys like Kevin Youkilis, Victor Martinez, and Dustin Pedroia. Pitching aside, the fortunes of these 5 players will determine what course the Red Sox take for the rest of 2010. With that in mind, here are 3 things Boston should do moving forward.
1. Get Ellsbury healthy. When Jacoby collided with Adrain Beltre in Kansas City, none of us expected the result to be a month’s worth of missed games. But his ribs have taken longer than expected to fully heal, and apparently the recovery is still ongoing. According to Rotoworld, Ellsbury will join the team in Detroit, meaning that he’s not yet ready for the rehab assignment that will represent his final step toward being re-activated. The Red Sox want an identity? Then they have to get their blazer back atop the lineup, stealing bases and frustrating opposing pitchers. Ellsbury is a catalyst, and without him, the team simply lacks something vital.
The fact that the team has never so much as discussed a timetable for his return makes me suspicious that something about his diagnosis and/or treatment was mishandled. Or maybe the team just didn’t want to go public with how serious the problem was. Either way, from here on out the Sox need to make it a top priority to get Ellsbury back in action.
2. Demand defense. I’ll get into this more when I review the month of May, but Boston signed Marco Scutaro and Adrian Beltre for their defensive abilities and both have been major letdowns in that department. The Sox are on pace for more than 40 combined errors at shortstop and third, and in fact are headed toward error totals similar to those from the past 2 seasons. Applying more pressure to these guys has to be done carefully, but both need to be refocused. Everyone on the team has a job to do, and for these infielders, glovework supercedes everything else.
The Sox have reportedly had some chemistry problems as veterans grumble over failures such as these fielding gaffes. Stop the mistakes, fix the chemistry. Improved defense from the left side of the infield will do a lot more for the team than merely upping its fielding percentage. If this sounds too simplistic, don’t forget that the Sox have options. As an example, Mike Lowell is healthy and playing well, and Kevin Youkilis is more than capable of sliding over to third as well. Applying a little heat at the hot corner might just get things moving in the right direction. Now that Papi is hitting (at least for the moment), Terry Francona has more freedom and flexibility with his infield and DH slots…
3. Find a way to play Hermida. I respect Mike Cameron’s defense. He’s one of the era’s best centerfielders when it comes to the glove, but he’s also a 37 year old who hasn’t hit better than .250 since 2006. Hermida is just 26, and despite his failure to materialize as an everyday contributor for the Marlins, this guy has major upside. The age 26 and 27 seasons are, on average, statistically the best years of a player’s career. While Hermida’s .240 average isn’t any better than what the team would get from Cameron, he’s compiled it while being shuffled in and out of the lineup.
I think that when Cameron and Ellsbury return– for Cameron that could be as soon as this weekend– Francona has to find a way to make Hermida a full-time player. For the team’s future, it’s important to see what he can do, and if the production numbers are any indication, I think Boston would be pleased with the results. If I had my way, the Red Sox outfield would be Hermida-Ellsbury-Drew, left to right. I think concerns over Ellsbury’s defense have been overblown, and the rewards at the plate would outweigh the cost of pulling Cameron from full-time duties in center.
Of course, none of this will matter if the pitching doesn’t get on track. The bullpen is still struggling and Josh Beckett is a mess. He’s also ailing, currently skipping a start due to back spasms. Clay Buchholz has hit a rough patch of late, and John Lackey struggled his last time out. Though I still believe that this can be one of the league’s best rotations, the time has come to prove that on the field. Potential is meaningless after a certain point.
The team’s current stretch of games will be a good litmus test: Detroit, New York, Minnesota, and Philadelphia will finish out the May schedule. A group of 4 very good teams that Boston must compete with and beat in order to avoid falling too far behind.