Boston has positioned themselves well for a 2nd half run
As baseball fans enjoy the midsummer classic known as the All-Star Game, fans of contenders are thinking of how their team can be improved for the final 2 and a half months of the season, while others are already looking toward the future *cough* Astros, Marlins *cough*. Boston fans have endured a swirl or emotions recently when it comes to their beloved teams, but there are signs of cautious optimism in Red Sox Nation as the team prepares for a playoff push.
Many Sox fans, young and old, have already experienced a heartbreaking 2nd half that has drowned out playoff and World Series aspirations. Some fans know better than to get overly excited about pre All-Star Break success and will only judge the team by post-July results. But sources close to this years team say something is different about the group of players Ben Cherington and John Farrell have assembled. Taking a look at the current state of the Sox, we will look at reasons to be both positive and negative about the next 65 games.
Reasons to be optimistic:
The stars are playing like stars: David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury have performed to the most of their abilities almost all year. After missing the first two weeks of the season, Big Papi made up for lost time and has not looked back since. He continues to defy Father Time and has had his average over .300 all year. With 11 homers in the final 65 games he would be looking at his first 30 homerun season since 2010. Ellsbury started the season slow, but has been on fire the passed two months and is on pace for 60+ steals once again. Although the power he showed in 2011 is nowhere to be found, he is still a catalyst for the highest scoring offense in all of baseball and provides Gold Glove caliber defense in center field. As for Pedroia, where to begin. He can do no wrong at second base (fewest errors as a 2B in all of baseball) and is his usual self at the plate. I could proclaim my love for Pedey all day so I'll just leave it at that.
John Lackey is pitching like the pitcher we are paying for: With Clay Buchholz out, the Sox needed a pitcher to step up and become the ace, and Lackey has done that and then some. In his last 10 starts, he has allowed more than two runs just twice. That is an unbelievable stat for anyone, never mind by a guy who fans rejoiced over when he had Tommy John surgery and would not be pitching for a year. Although Lackey's record won't blow anyone away (7-6) he is enjoying his finest season since 2007, and is fourth in the AL in ERA at 2.78. If he can maintain this pace over his final 12 or so starts then he could be the number 1 or 2 pitcher for Boston headed into the playoffs.
These players look like they are actually enjoying themselves: It might seem trivial, but a less talented team that is having fun will almost always win over a more talented team who is miserable (Blue Jays). Imagine dreading going to work every day, even weekends, and doing a team job with a bunch of teammates you dislike. Not an easy job. Boston has a lot of high character guys that remind me of their World Series teams of 2004 and 2007. They have a Kevin Millar-type leader in both skills and character in Johnny Gomes, and the everyday players they brought in; Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli are of high character and are hungry for October baseball.
Reasons to be pessimistic:
What is up with Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester? The Sox have kept Buchholz's injury very quiet, and the longer he is out, the more I will worry. Buch has had injury issues in the passed (never had a 200+ inning season) and the more time he misses, the more I think the injury is worse than just a pinched nerve. Buchholz was arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball through May, but hasn't pitched since June 8. Hopefully he is able to come back 100% healthy and dominate once again, but the longer he is out, the more I will worry. Lester is a completely different story. He is supposedly healthy, but has just been awful in June and July. After having a respectable 3.53 ERA through two months, it skyrocketed over a run to 4.61 in June alone. Farrell said he is relying less on his cutter than he used to when he was one of the most dominant lefties in the game. Lester needs to regain form and Buchholz needs to get healthy otherwise Boston will not have a playoff caliber rotation going forward.
Bullpen concerns continue to mount: Losing Joel Hanrahan early in the season was a hurdle easily cleared because of the plethora of quality arms at John Farrells disposal. However, Andrew Bailey has struggled and could very well be injured if we are aware of his past. Andrew Miller was one of the most unhittable relievers in all of baseball before his injury. Hopefully newcomer Matt Thornton is able to take his place as the lefty presence in the pen admirably. Koji Uehara has been spectacular all season and has excelled since taking over the closers role, but is on pace for an MLB career high in innings pitched at the seasoned age of 38. When Uehara was with Texas in the end of 2011, his high inning total began to take its toll as he struggled down the stretch. Boston desperately needs Uehara to stay healthy and continue to pitch well down the stretch to make a deep October run.
Left side of infield struggling and lacks depth: Jose Iglesias took the Red Sox by storm when he was called up to stay in late May. He was hitting an absurd .409 at the end of June. Although no one expected him to keep up that pace, he has come crashing down to earth so far in July, managing just a .250 average in the month. His sparkling defense at 3rd and short remain an advantage, but his bat could become a liability as he is just a career .257 hitter in the minors. Will Middlebrooks has proven he has legit power that is sustainable in the majors, but his batting average is below the Mendoza line at .197. He hasn't been much better in AAA and his 3rd baseman of the future status may now be in doubt. The Sox new well that signing another Drew would be an injury risk, and Stephen is no exception. His hitting and defense has been average, but is currently on the 15-day DL and a timetable for his return is unknown. With the injuries and struggles a trade or call up could be in the works soon. Michael Young's name has come up in multiple circles surrounding the Red Sox, and although not what he was in his heyday in Texas, Young still could be a serviceable infielder with postseason experience for the stretch run. There has also been speculation of a Xander Bogaerts late season call-up. Personally, I think Bogaerts will be a superstar in the big leagues, and his minor league number back that up so far. While seeing Baltimore's Manny Machado tear it up at a raw 20, the Sox may be inclined to bring up Bogearts to see what he can so to help the club.
With 65 games to go, nothing is set in stone for the Red Sox, and there are reasons why this team can succeed, but also reasons why it could fail as well. Boston opens the second half with 10 straight games against AL East opponents (3 vs. New York, 4 vs. Tampa Bay, and 3 at Baltimore). Those games should give a good indication about what direction this team will be headed in for the rest of the year.