Boston Red Sox: Hurling woes, not injuries, dominate first quarter of season

Every time we turn around another Red Sox position player has gone down to injury.  It would be comical if not for the fact that it has necessitated such extreme solutions.

Adrian Gonzalez playing right field.  The likes of Daniel Nava, Marlon Byrd, and Che-Hsuan Lin drawing starts. The acquisition of Scott Podsednik.

It’s hard to laugh when you feel like crying.

Cody Ross joins Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Ryan Kalish, and Ryan Sweeney on Boston's list of injured outfielders (Hartline/ US Presswire)

And yet despite the ever-growing list of health woes– Cody Ross and his broken foot being the most recent addition– the Boston offense has done quite well.

Let’s pause here for a quick nod to David Ortiz, who leads that offense in virtually every meaningful category, including average (.325), on-base percentage (.393), homers (10), and RBI (30).

Big Papi recently took umbrage at the perceived lack of respect afforded to him by the media.  While he may not be the typically outspoken clubhouse leader, it’s hard to question the way he’s leading by example on the field.  Years ago many fans, including this fan, thought Ortiz was on the downside of his career.  But he’s rebounded to prove us wrong.  Ortiz’s consistent ability to drive in his teammates has been a major factor in helping this team keep itself together instead of unraveling completely.

Boston’s 230 runs scored trail only the Texas Rangers (239) in all of baseball.  So while management is no doubt wringing its hands over the challenges of finding healthy bodies to put on the field, plating runners is not what has the Red Sox sitting at 21-22 and in last place in the AL East.  Scoring 5.44 runs per game should have yielded a much better start.

The bulk of the blame for the sub-.500 performance falls on the pitching staff.  Because while Boston’s is one of the game’s most productive offenses, only three team have allowed more runs.  As of May 23, the Sox have coughed up 214; only the Twins, Brewers, and Rockies have been more generous to their opponents.

Boston’s run differential of +16 doesn’t seem so bad, but consider those posted by other teams scoring comparable numbers of runs:  +81 for the Rangers, +62 for the Cardinals, and +36 for the Braves and Jays.

Things are certainly getting better.  Jon Lester and Felix Doubront now both have ERAs under 4.00.  After his lat soreness and display of selfishness, Josh Beckett delivered a couple of excellent starts to get himself back on track– these don’t erase his character issues, but at least the public outcry for his ouster has died down.  Clay Buchholz had a pair of decent outings in May only to stumble again in Baltimore.  Still, his 7.84 ERA is, believe it or not, an improvement from the way his 2012 began.

However, as nice as it is to see the numbers coming down a bit, simply being on the right track isn’t enough.  The team still suffers from a collective 4.63 ERA, third worst in the majors.  And the rotation’s 5.19 also ranks 28th.  The bullpen is sporting a mediocre 3.63 (17th) which is drastically better than the ugliness endured in April.

It would be easy to dismiss the first quarter of the season.  To write it off with “but they’ve been banged up.”  Unfortunately, a cursory glance at the numbers dispels that excuse.  The pitching must continue to improve and quickly; Boston’s chances of making the post-season are already slim.

The search for a fifth starter is still ongoing, as the Daniel bard experiment has, predictably, not paid dividends.  The good new is that Felix Doubront is coming into his own as the number 4.  he now leads the team in strikeouts with 53, and his 3.96 ERA is a hair behind Lester’s 3.95, vying for tops in the rotation.

Doubront has been effective despite putting runners on base (Szczerbowski/ US Presswire)

That’s encouraging, but Doubront’s propensity to allow too many baserunners is going to catch up with him.  Maintaining a sub-4.00 ERA while toting a ponderous 1.42 WHIP is practically impossible.  Assuming he can cut down on the walks, Doubront should continue to be a fairly reliable arm.  If that happens, and if the Boston baseball version of the “Big Three” continue to round into form, the season’s next quarter ought to have a much better outcome.

Rumor has it that the Sox are still considering adding an arm, and Roy Oswalt’s name is one that comes up frequently.  While he may be more likely to return to the Phillies or at least stay in the NL, Oswalt would obviously be a solid addition.  None of the tema’s other stop-gap measures have worked out too well; Aaron Cook was blasted on the mound before going on the DL with a knee laceration.  Andrew Miller has been hurt.  Vincente Padilla has been vintage Vincente Padilla.  Andrew Bailey is still shelved, and Mark Melancon was shipping to the minors with a 49.50 ERA.

Yes, technically you can sport an ERA of 50.

The bottom line is that the Sox have performed admirably in overcoming injury.  Their shortfalls have been on the mound rather than a result of DL attendance.  Finding a way to fix the pitching, either by working with what they already have or bringing in some outside assistance, remains the top priority.  Now that Kevin Youkilis is healthy again and whispers of trade talk are circulating, it may be worth wondering if Boston would seek to add an arm by moving its third baseman, thereby opening the door for Will Middlebrooks to stay with the big club.

Whatever their means, the Sox need to turn things around as soon as possible.