Monday, July 14, 2008

Mid Season Report: The Long Road

Saving the day with a BIG halfway report is DC. His words are after the italics.

It’s that time again kids. Time for the big exhibition that has lost a lot of its luster over the years, but has somehow gained importance (thanks for that Bud). It’s time for baseball to take a couple of days off trot out the “best” it has to offer (assuming each team has at least one of the league’s best players) for a home run derby that never fails to disappoint (other than McGwire bombing the Mass Pike do you remember a single Derby moment? No? Neither do I), and a “meaningful” exhibition that only matters if the World Series goes 7 games or if one of your team’s major players gets hurt. But I digress… this isn’t about the shortcomings of the All Star Game and Festivities. This is about our beloved Boston Red Sox and how they’ve performed in the 1st half of the season. Let’s break it down…

Starting Pitching - This has been the most consistent group so far this year. It seems like no matter who gets hurt, there’s always someone who we can plug in for a couple of weeks and still succeed. This is truly a testament to the great job Theo and the boys have done at retooling the farm system with great prospects. The Sox have used 7 pitchers to start all but 1 game this year (Pauley started 1), and each of them have proven to be successful.

Josh Beckett: This guy has taken last season’s success and reaffirmed his stance as the ace of the staff. Thus far he’s 9-5 on the year but could very easily be anywhere from 9-5 to 13-0. Of his 5 losses, 2 were 1 run losses and all of them were 3 runs or less. If there’s one potential concern about Beckett, it’s that he appears to be giving up more home runs this year than he did last year.

Daisuke Matsuzaka: Dice-K started the season off looking like a sure thing for the Cy Young award. Then a brief stint on the DL with a tired shoulder and a couple of very rocky starts have raised some concerns. Despite this, he still has the best ERA of all the starters and looks like he’s putting it back together with a great start against the Minnesota Twins. If he can keep it together in the 2nd half, we might be looking at our first Cy Young winner since Pedro.

Jon Lester: This guy seems to finally have put it all together this year. His no-hitter was one of the clear high points of the season. He’s learned how to throw strikes and seems like a legitimate 3 starter for the first time since he came to the big club. All of this makes me happy. All of this makes Robin have a legitimate, potentially sexual, man-crush. Seriously, if Jon Lester ever goes missing, check Robin for a bottle of roofies and a guilty conscience.

Tim Wakefield: Let’s be clear here: Timmy Knuckles is STILL the biggest bargain in professional baseball! He is second on the team in starts and innings pitched, second on the team in strikeouts, and has an ERA under 4.00. What’s that you say? He walks too many batters? Well in the words of Jeremy Grey: Erroneous!!! Granted, he is 2nd on the team in walks, but he also has the second best WHIP of all the starters on the staff (yeah look at that use of stats). So yes, he does give up his share of walks but by no stretch of the imagination does he give up too many to win. And for those of you who point to his 5-6 record let me remind you of this: the Red Sox have lost 11 of Wake’s starts this season by 3 runs or less. What does he have to do to get some run support? The point is that Tim Wakefield gives you a chance to win every time he takes the mound. Beyond that, he basically gives the bullpen a day off every 5 days and he does it all for $4 million a season in a market that dictates $8-12 million for similar numbers. (Note: You’re probably asking yourself “why is this section sounding defensive?” Well I’ll tell you. It’s because every day I hear or read another person who wants to force Wake to the bullpen or to retire after this season to make room for their favorite flavor of the week. It is my contention that these are the same people who would force their parents to stay in a hotel rather than letting them shack up on their couch like a bunch of ungrateful little punks. Remember kids, Timmy Knuckles has earned his spot in this rotation over and over again and if your mother can’t crash on your couch then maybe you should learn to do your own damn laundry!)

Clay Buchholz/Justin Masterson: Ladies and gentlemen, the future of the Red Sox pitching staff is in good hands. The whole of Red Sox Nation is totally enamored with these “two yutes”. These guys have made a lot of people jump on the “Schilling isn’t a big loss” team and they’re also the conductors of the “Wake is too old” train. Now let’s come back to reality shall we? These “two yutes” are a combined 6-6 in 17 starts. They have both flashed signs of brilliance but at other times have provided painful reminders of how young they are. Now its looking like Buchholz is returning to the rotation after ripping up AAA during his recovery from injury and Masterson may serve as an internal answer to the problems in the bullpen. I think it’s safe to say that if the Red Sox go for another World Series, then one or both of these youngsters will play a major role.

Bartolo Colon: This is one of those low-risk/high-reward investments that have made Theo look like he grew up watching those Baby Genius videos. The big guy took a minor league contract, stepped in when Buchholz went down and was well on his way to stealing the youngster’s spot in the rotation when he hurt his back with those ridiculous swings during inter-league play. Even still, assuming he can come back healthy, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the fat man. Expect him to finish a distant 2nd for the Comeback Player of the Year award behind Troy Percival but quite possibly also finish with a spot in the playoff rotation.

Honorable Mention – Curt Schilling: People seem to forget just how good, just how important, and just how clutch this guy has been for the Boston Red Sox. When you don’t see someone play for a while and others are able to successfully replace him, then it is very easy to overlook the injured player. They become an easy target for criticism and second guessing, especially when they’re as outspoken as Curt Schilling has been. This case is particularly unique because we may never see Schill throw another pitch. This fact has opened up countless discussions of his place in history. Is he a Hall of Famer? I really don’t know and according to baseball reference’s various Hall of Fame monitors… neither do they. Is he destined to become Governor of Massachusetts or take some other elected office? Who can say? What I do know is that without Curt Schilling we would possibly still be waiting for our first World Series and we definitely wouldn’t have 2 in the past 4 years. This guy brought us those championships, this guy made Joe Buck stop talking about Babe Ruth and this guy made 55,000 Yankee fans sit down and shut up. Make sure you don’t forget any of that! Thanks for everything Mr. Schilling.

Bullpen – If the Red Sox don’t repeat as champions this season it will be because they were unable to straighten out their bullpen. This unit has been in shambles since the season began. The bullpen has already lost 2 more decisions than they did all of last year. They have 3 guys with 3 losses including the closer. They have already had to get rid of 3 bullpen arms (Snyder, Corey and Tavarez) due to lack of effectiveness and the guys who are left have been extremely inconsistent. Basically, you never know what you’re going to get from these guys and that makes things harder on everyone else.

Jonathan Papelbon: Ok, I’ll be the one who says it: Why does Paps look so mortal this season? What happened to 9 pitches, 3 batters, 3 K’s, goodnight, thanks for playing, our staff has a nice spread laid out for you in the clubhouse? This year it seems like facing Papelbon with 2 strikes is an engraved invitation to foul off 10-15 pitches. Guys who wouldn’t even dream of hitting off Papelbon in the past are finding their way on base (yes I’m talking to you Brett Gardner). That being said, this guy still fires me up. As soon as I see him fist pound that fat cop on his way out of the bullpen I believe we’re going to win… which is probably why it hurts so bad when he blows one.

Hideki Okajima: From now on, if you’re on base when Oki comes into the game you should simply be allowed to score while he trots in from the bullpen. Why keep up the charade that he’s going to keep you off the scoreboard? It doesn’t seem fair to make the other team’s players waste their energy running the bases when everyone knows the end result will be more runs on the board and Oki looking like he just crapped his pants.

Manny Delcarmen: With Okajima struggling in the set up role, Manny Jr. has been given the opportunity to thrive as the 8th inning guy; and good god has he blundered it! MDC has been the picture of inconsistency, looking amazing for a couple of outings and then failing to throw a strike the next time out. When he’s having a bad night, MDC can’t find the strike zone with a map and compass. Watching him makes me vomit out of my eyes!

Craig Hansen: I HATE this guy!!! I honestly don’t think I’ve ever hated a Red Sox player as much as I hate Craig Hansen! Remember when he was the closer of the future? Now he’s lucky if he can get 3 outs in 2 games. Much like MDC, Hansen had the opportunity to take over the set up role. And exactly like MDC, he forgot how to throw strikes. This could easily turn into a 5,000 word rant, so I’m going to leave you with this: Watching Craig Hansen pitch makes me homicidal, suicidal, and all other kinds of cidal I’ve never even heard of! Just seeing him warming up in the bullpen makes me start reminiscing about that summer I spent at Camp Crystal Lake!

David Aardsma, Javier Lopez, Mike Timlin, Chris Smith: All have shown signs of being good. All have shown signs of being too old, too young, or too terrible. More inconsistency! Close your eyes and try to imagine the surprise written all over my face.

Starting Lineup - There are a lot of interesting things going on with this group. Three major injuries (Ortiz, Ellsbury and Lowell) threatened to derail the season, but the Sox were able to plug in other pieces and succeed. There is also the nice balance between wise veterans and exuberant youths that gives this team a spark that always seems passionate yet controlled (except when Youk strikes out). Finally, never in our lifetime have the Red Sox had this much speed in the batting order. No longer do the Sox live and die by the home run.

Jacoby Ellsbury: When was the last time that a Red Sox player led the league in stolen bases? I can’t believe how fast this guy is. He is a lot of fun to watch. Every now and then Jacoby reminds us all how young he is, but all in all he’s not playing like a rookie. If he can get his batting average over .300 and raise his on base percentage a bit he’ll get even more opportunities to wreak havoc on the basepaths and possibly give the Sox back-to-back Rookie of the Year Awards.

Dustin Pedroia: After a rough May, Dusty turned it on as spring gave way to the summer months. He hit .356 in June and is hovering around .400 in July including a big time hitting streak. He’s also been money in the field and one of the emotional sparks for this team. Now if somebody could remind him that he’s not real fast I could stop yelling at my TV every time he tries to extend a line drive off the monster into a double.

J.D. Drew: Nobody has come up bigger in Big Papi’s absence then J.D. Drew. Right now he is the Red Sox MVP. His month of June is the best stretch that I remember anyone ever having. To everyone who spent last year trashing him, enjoy your giant plate of crow. He’s been so good that when Papi comes back I would put him in the 5 hole and leave Drew right where he is: cleaning up hitting in front of Manny.

Manny Ramirez: Manny just keeps on doing his thing and I love it. His average is down a bit, but he’s still the best hitter that I have ever seen. Yes he’s wacky and occasionally rubs people the wrong way, but he’s also leading the team in RBI’s and home runs. It is not a coincidence that JD started destroying the ball as soon as he bounced up into the third spot in the order. Manny is the engine that makes this little run scoring machine go, which makes the possibility of him leaving us after this year terrifying. I know that his option is a lot of money and I understand that Manny is getting older. But riddle me this: Who’s protecting Papi in the middle of the lineup next year if Manny is let go? I challenge anyone to find a replacement for Manny. And don’t forget the new guy has to be right handed (to break up the lefties of Ortiz and Drew), must be available and probably a free agent (Theo doesn’t like trading his prospects), and he has to fit into our team (sorry all you Mark Teixeira fans you can’t have 2 first basemen). I’m not saying that they must keep Manny, I’m just saying it’s hard not to and they better have a plan to replace him.

Mike Lowell: Back in the day, my little brother and I called Billy Mueller “The Pro” because of his quiet, consistent play. After Billy left, I gave the name to Mark Loretta. Well, consider Mike Lowell officially dubbed “The Pro” and revel in all his glory. Watching this guy play baseball is like watching Bob Ross paint. He calms me. He doesn’t get a lot of national attention (it’s a sham that he isn’t on the All Star team), and he doesn’t have enough pieces of flair to work at Chotchkie’s. What he does is play amazing defense, hit the ball and play the role of quiet leader. So from this day forth, in my house Mike Lowell will be known as “The Pro” (unless my girlfriend is talking… she only refers to him as “Smoke show”).

Kevin Youkilis: This is probably the only guy on the team who can rival Papelbon in the category of pure intensity that borders on psychotic fury. It would not surprise me one bit if it came out that those idiots from PETA are suing Youk because of some crazy pre-game ritual involving biting the heads off woodland creatures Ozzy Osbourne style. He’s a fundamental hitter, plays perfect defense and runs slightly faster than Pedroia (which is like a slug racing a snail). If you don’t like Youk, then you probably don’t like hustle and might want to give up on the whole sports fan thing.

Jason Varitek: I cannot believe the way that people have been turning on The Captain lately. I understand that he’s in a terrible slump. I get that all of his numbers are below his career averages. But here’s the dirty little secret: there are almost NO good catchers around the entire league! Seriously, if you’ve recently been blessed with a baby boy and that little man has 2 arms and 2 legs, then do everyone a favor and buy him a catcher’s mitt and have him sleep with the damn thing. As for Tek, he’s not here for his bat ladies and gentlemen. He’s here because everywhere he goes he brings solid defense, a hard-nosed attitude and a giant bag of leadership. Everyone who knows what they’re talking about (coaches, general managers, other players, former players, etc) say that Tek is the most irreplaceable guy on this team and it’s not only because we don’t have a good backup or any catching prospects behind him. It’s because he leads this team, he calls the games and most importantly for the Red Sox, he allows us to rely on young pitchers because he tells them exactly what to do at all times. A couple of them don’t even tie their shoes without looking for Tek for signs. So please, take a moment to send a quick letter to Theo begging him to re-sign The Captain at the end of the season. Clay, Justin, Jon, Manny and Craig are all counting on you.

Coco Crisp: Thank god we didn’t trade Coco! I really like the way this guy has handled himself this season. We live in a world where athletes are constantly pouting, complaining, making trade demands through the media and simply being an all around pain in the ass if they encounter the slightest bit of competition for playing time. Coco hasn’t done any of that. He comes every day and does everything he can to help the team win. Let’s be real here, he’s never going to have another one of those seasons where he hit .300 and smacked 16 home runs. But he will give you some offense, play amazing defense, steal some bases and make some catches that make you thank the lord you can now rewind your TV to watch something over and over.

Julio Lugo: Lugo has become everybody’s favorite whipping boy. He has become so unpopular that last week Robin actually blamed him for an error that was actually made by Cora as Lugo watched from the bench. His defense has been atrocious. His 16 errors are tied for the 3rd most of any player and are the most of any shortstop (Hanley Ramirez has 15). To make matters worse, he has terrible range in both directions and Youk has probably saved him a handful of throwing errors with great defense at first base. However, with regard to hitting, I have to defend Lugo a bit. Now let me start by saying, he has certainly not been great. But the reality is that he’s right around his career numbers. He’s hitting .267 and he is a .271 hitter for his career. He’s on pace for his normal stolen base output and he’s never had any real power. I don’t understand where all the surprised looks are coming from when discussing his lack of productivity at the plate. He’s a #9 hitter! He bats last for a reason! If your #9 is hitting around .270 then you take it and run like you stole something. I never understood Theo’s obsession with this guy and he obviously overpaid to get him. So if you want to blame someone for being handcuffed with a lousy shortstop then Theo’s your man. As for Lugo, he is what he is. He’ll cost you some games in the field, he’ll make some plays for you with his speed (I believe he’s among the league leaders in infield hits), he lays down some decent bunts and he seems to get along well with everyone which is actually more important in baseball than any other sport. Now put away your torches and pitchforks and take a breath. (note from Robin: My torches and pitchforks have become party hats, balloons and streamers... Lugo is out 4-6 weeks!)

David Ortiz: After a rough April, Big Papi was putting it all together when this wrist injury sidelined him. This team would have been cooked if he was done for the season. But all accounts are he’ll be back shortly after the All Star Break. As far as I’m concerned it can’t happen soon enough. That way we can stop hearing all the stupid rumors about Barry Bonds coming in to take his place.

The Bench – What a great group of veteran role players we have this year. I love the way these guys play ball. They make you use words like “solid” and “dependable” which is really all you need from your back up players. It also makes me happy that the young guys who have bounced up and down from the minors get to learn from these guys.

Sean Casey: Great guy, great hitter, great glove, and great nickname (honestly, “The Mayor,” what’s cooler than that?). No real power left in that bat, but he did hit .296 and could probably be starting on some teams. But he chose to come to Boston and everyone seems happy he did. As a special bonus, all accounts point toward Casey being the nicest guy on the team and possibly the league.

Alex Cora: What more can this guy do? He plays everywhere. He doesn’t make errors. He seems to get along with everyone. He could definitely hit a little bit more, but over all how can you complain?

Kevin Cash: This guy has the coolest name in baseball. How many people have you ever met whose actual name sounds like an awesome nickname? He has been doing a great job with Wake’s knuckleball. He only has 10 passed balls which is more than Belli used to allow but he’s also about half Belli’s size.

Brandon Moss/Jed Lowrie/Joe Thurston/The Other Youngsters: Thanks to all the injuries we’ve gotten to see a bunch of the minor league prospects come up to fill in. Of them all, Moss looks to be the most promising all around. I know that everyone is big on Lowrie and offensively he was really good. I’m still not totally sold on his defensive capabilities. He didn’t display a ton of range and personally, I like my middle infielders to be able to get to everything (I’ve been spoiled watching guys like Young Nomar, Gonzo and Pokey). Hopefully I’m wrong and just didn’t see enough of him. I had never heard of Thurston when they called him up. Frankly, I miss those days. I’m not sure if I can put it any plainer than this: He’s terrible!

Well there you have it, the first half in a giant nutshell. We’ve had some really amazing moments (Lester’s no-no and Manny’s 500th home run) and some not so great moments (getting swept in Tampa a couple weeks ago). All in all, things are looking good. If Papi comes back healthy and Drew, Lowell, Youk and Dusty P keep it up then it won’t matter if Tek even bats. At this point it seems like the only thing that can derail this team is the bullpen. They need a set up man for the 8th inning. Could it be Masterson? Time will tell. But they better figure it out before the trade deadline, because if the kid isn’t this year’s Papelbon, then they’re going to need to trade for one.