Quick Thoughts on Red Sox Game #1

The good news is that for the first time since 2010 the Red Sox started 1-0.  The better news is that for the first time since 2010 that the Red Sox will not be swept in the first series of the season.  The new look Red Sox offense put a ton of pressure on Yankees ace CC Sabathia and Jon Lester got his first opening day victory in three tries for the Red Sox.  Here are some quick, very premature thoughts on the first game of the season.

  • Lester was sharp in all but 1 inning

    Lester was sharp in all but 1 inning

    Jon Lester looked sharp in all but 1 inning but that 1 inning is a killer.  Last year the guy would just lose himself at times and that is what led to his downfall.  It happened again in the 4th inning but luckily he got it back in the 5th to finish out the start and get the win.  Lester needs to eliminate that problem inning because the bottom line is he’s piling up too many damn pitches early in the game.  He can’t rely on the bullpen all season long to clean up his messes.

  • All that being said above the Red Sox bullpen did a hell of a job cleaning up his mess.  It was an interesting strategy by Farrell to use virtually everyone but it worked out today.  Andrew Miller showed how maddening he can be by walking the first two and striking out the next two.  Bailey and Hanrahan both had some extra juice on their fastballs today, they may have been saving that stuff for the regular season.  If the guys in the back end pitch like they did today this team will be tough to beat with a lead late in games.
  • Jonny Gomes celebrate his hustle run in the 7th

    Jonny Gomes celebrate his hustle run in the 9th

    The Red Sox offense did work without Napoli or Middlebrooks doing anything.  Crazy as it sounds I’m not rushing Papi back because Jonny Gomes is a gamer.  That was a great hustle play to score on Ellsbury’s infield single in the 9th.

  • It was nice to see the Red Sox get back to basics overall.  There was no half-assing on the base paths.  Iglesias did what he had to do to get on base with a bunt single and two infield hits.  Bradley walked 3 times, which is as many times as Crawford walked ALL SEASON last year.  They worked Sabathia early and drove up the pitch count and he only lasted 5 innings.  This is the kind of thing that you saw night in and night out during the Francona years and hopefully it’s a sign of things to come this season.
  • I can’t believe I saw Jarrod Saltalamacchia walk 3 times in the same baseball game.  I’ll wait and see if it was just an aberration or if he has finally learned how to take pitches.
  • Jackass

    Jackass

    It was a great start for the Red Sox no doubt but there is one thing that can’t be denied – the Yankees lineup sucks.  Every time they started a rally they’d have a scrub like Lyle Overbay or Jayson Nix come up (or is it Lance Nix?  I’m not even sure which one it was.)  Guys like Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, even Ichiro, these guys haven’t been any good in years and they are relying on them in key spots.  You could see that Youk strike out against Bailey in the 7th coming from a mile away.  Like we haven’t had that scouting report on him for a decade.  And he’s their clean-up hitter right now.

  • Joba Chamberlain looks like a jackass with his porn stache.
  • The thing that I hate about opening day is they play the first game and you are all pumped up for baseball to be back and then they don’t play again for another day and a half.  We’ll see if the Red Sox can make it 2 for 2 Wednesday night in the Bronx.

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The Red Sox And Showtime’s “The Franchise” – A Match Made In Heaven

A major image crisis has emerged for the Boston Red Sox over the last 12 months.  Pretty much everyone from John Henry down to the clubhouse guys, with the exception of a few players, now seem to have a negative reputation in Boston.  The fans of Red Sox Nation are quickly becoming disenchanted.  They desperately need to do something to repair their image and it may take more than just becoming a winning team again.

Showtime could have a winner with “A Season with the Red Sox”

The people at Showtime developed a winning concept a few years ago when they created “The Franchise”, a show that piggy-backed off of HBO’s “Hard Knocks”, but instead of following an NFL team through just training camp it follows an MLB team throughout the entire season.  It is a great concept and it makes for really good TV.  Their problem is that in the first two seasons they followed two teams, the San Fransisco Giants and the Miami Marlins, that were out of the playoff hunt by the all-star break.  The most exciting thing about following these two teams in the last two months of the season was the trade deadline.  Now granted the Red Sox were pretty much out of the playoff race by the break as well but I’m guessing they could have kept us entertained quite a bit after the All-Star break.

If it seems like a risky proposition to put these Red Sox players behind a camera in the clubhouse and beyond it’s because it is.  God forbid things get even worse next year it will be embarrassing for the Red Sox but, hey, at least it will make for some compelling TV.  But it’s easy to see that the potential reward far outweighs the risk.  The Red Sox need an image clean-up and while there is a lot of work to do behind the scenes between now and opening day there may not be a better way to introduce the new Red Sox to Red Sox Nation than by putting them on “The Franchise”.  What better way to introduce a new manager to the Red Sox faithful, particularly if he is a young less well-known up-and-comer?  What better way for the fan base to feel more comfortable about it’s own players by actually seeing who they are off the field?  Too many times do you hear a fan or a media-type talk about a player like they know them personally.  None of us truly know any of these guys personally but at least if we got a peak of how they carried themselves behind the scenes then we might feel more comfortable about making a judgment on them.

Superstars like Jose Reyes showed their human side on “The Franchise”

Many new players have not been fully embraced by Red Sox Nation in past years, particularly ones with larger contracts.  I can’t help but think that maybe Red Sox Nation would have embraced Adrian Gonzalez a bit more if they knew a little more about him.  There will be a new generation of Red Sox players coming up next sure.  Guys like Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Lavarnway and Felix Doubront will all have prominent roles with the team.  The Sox will have to go out and bring in some role players to fill in their roster as they retool it.  They’ll also have to bring in veteran pitching.  And of course there is the manager.  The question of Bobby Valentine’s impending exit from Boston is becoming more of a “when” rather than an “if” which means that the Red Sox will likely have their 3rd different manager in 3 years.  Every time that these Red Sox owners have made a managerial change they have gone for the polar opposite of the guy they are replacing.  Look for a young less-known up-and-comer to replace Valentine.  It could be a tough place to break in for a guy like that in a market where a winner is expected year in and year out.  Getting to know the guy behind the scenes might make Red Sox Nation more comfortable with him early on.

If you watched this season of “The Franchise” you know a lot about rookie closer Steve Cishek, an unknown when the season began.  You might have a better view of highly-paid superstar Jose Reyes after watching the show and seeing him lead the Marlins with his jovial, laid back attitude.  You would have gotten to know role players like Justin Ruggiano and Greg Dobbs.  And of course you would have laughed at Ozzie being Ozzie.  At this point, with the exception of a few guys, I feel like I know the Marlins players more than I know the Red Sox guys from watching this season of The Franchise.

As I said before it’s a risky proposition for the Red Sox organization.  As a Red Sox fan it seems like a win/win.  If they are good and you love the team you will likely love them even more by going behind the scenes and watching how they turn the franchise around.  The love affair between the Red Sox and their fans that has been fractured over the past few seasons could be re-ignited.  On the flip side if the Red Sox have another disaster behind the scenes like they have had during the past two seasons then at least we will can still be entertained by the club.  For Showtime it’s a no-brainer.  Getting the Red Sox or the Yankees on “The Franchise” would be akin to obtaining the holy grail for Showtime.  The Yankees have no reason to do it but the Sox have plenty.  So why not?

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Whatever Happened To “Red Sox Baseball”

Saltalamacchia is a great clubhouse guy but just doesn’t seem to be a great organizational fit

I’ve been watching the Red Sox struggle through the 2012 season and i can’t help but wonder what happened to the “Red Sox Baseball” that GM Theo Esptein implemented in the early part of the last decade that helped the Red Sox win two World Championships.  No, I’m not talking about that silly cosmetic stuff that anonymous sources report about what’s going on off the field.  I’m talking about what they do on the field, more specifically at the plate.  The Red Sox don’t take pitches anymore.  They don’t talk walks anymore.  They don’t make pitchers work hard anymore.  They often have poor at-bats, mostly from the bottom of the order.  Why did the Red Sox stop bringing in players with high OBP rates?

John Henry bought the Red Sox with an obsession with Oakland GM Billy Beane’s “moneyball” philosophy.  When he couldn’t secure Beane’s services he turned to another young moneyball disciple in Theo Esptein.  The Red Sox built the 2004 roster on players that walked.  Kevin Millar, David Ortiz, Bill Mueller, and Mark Bellhorn were all acquired before the 2003 or 2004 seasons and they all had one thing in common – they got on base.  The Red Sox built their 2007 roster by drafting players like Dustin Pedroia and supplementing the roster with guys like Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew who all got on base.  Now they have a bottom of the lineup that consistently have 3 or 4 pitch at-bats and leaves the pitcher fresh for the top of the order the 2nd and 3rd times around.  Guys like Mike Aviles and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are the opposite of the prototype moneyball type hitters.  Here’s a look at the OBPs for the starting lineups in the World Series winning years of 2004 and 2007.

Damon was the prototypical moneyball lead-off hitter

2004:

C Jason Varitek .390, 1B Kevin Millar .383, 2b Mark Bellhorn .373, SS Orlando Cabrera .320, 3B Bill Mueller .365, LF Manny Ramirez .397, CF Johnny Damon .380, RF Trot Nixon .377, DH David Ortiz .380

2007:

C Jason Varitek .367, 1B Kevin Youkilis .390, 2B Dustin Pedroia .380, SS Julio Lugo, .294, 3B Mike Lowell .378, LF Manny Ramirez .388, CF Coco Crisp, .330, RF J.D. Drew .373, DH David Ortiz .445

Now let’s take a look at the OBP numbers for the starting lineup so far this season:

C Jarrod Saltalamacchia .282, 1B Adrian Gonzalez, .352, 2B Dustin Pedroia, .336, SS Mike Aviles .285, 3B Will Middlebrooks .325, LF Carl Crawford .308, CF Jacoby Ellsbury .309, RF Cody Ross .337, DH David Ortiz .414

The differences are astounding.  In 2004 and 2007 only 1 player in the Sox starting lineup, Julio Lugo, had an OBP under .300 and he was at .294.  This year they have 2, Saltalamacchia and Aviles, and both are .285 or under.  Lugo, Orlando Cabrera, and Coco Crisp were the only 3 guys in those two seasons to have a OBP of .330 or lower.  Only 4 guys in the Red Sox starting lineup this season – their 3 best hitters, Gonzalez, Pedroia, Ross and Ortiz – are over the .330 mark.  Jacoby Ellsbury’s .309 OBP is a horrible number for a lead-off hitter and pales in comparison to the .380 OBP of 2004 lead-off man Johnny Damon.  Bill Mueller’s .365 OBP was 2nd lowest in the Red Sox starting lineup in 2004.  He’d have the second highest in this year’s lineup.

It’s clear what the Red Sox need to do.  They need to re-acquire players who takes pitches and get on base.  They need to rebuild the roster with the 2004 version as a guideline.  When Theo Epstein took over in 2002 he envisioned a 100 million dollar player development machine.  Now it’s just a 100 million dollar mess.  For the Red Sox to get back into the post-season they need to simply get back to Red Sox baseball.  Judging by the numbers above it doesn’t seem like a guy like Mike Aviles, Jarrod Saltalamacchia or even Jacoby Ellsbury would fit into that plan.  They need to get rid of the guys who don’t get on base and replace him with guys who do.

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How Should The Red Sox Handle Carl Crawford’s Injury?

Crawford looks more comfortable in Boston this year but there is no sense delaying his Tommy John surgery

The Red Sox signed Carl Crawford to a monster contract before the 2011 season and Crawford had a disappointing first year in Boston.  He hit only .255 and stole only 18 bases, well below his career totals when he was in Tampa where he regularly terrorized the Red Sox.  Crawford was anxious to make Red Sox Nation forget about his poor first season but a series of injuries delayed his comeback until July 16th.  Word was that even though he was healthy enough to play that he would eventually need Tommy John surgery on his elbow, likely at the end of this season.  So the question now is – at what point does Crawford shut it down and get the surgery?

Crawford has played much better this year than he did last year with the Red Sox.  In his 24 games since he has come of the DL he is hitting .258 with 3 home runs and 13 RBI.  He is hitting much better at home than on the road though which is something that he needs to fix.  The problem for the Red Sox is that even with Crawford back in the lineup the Red Sox are still sputtering around the .500 mark.  The Sox have not put out their best lineup all season and when they lost 3B Will Middlebrooks for the rest of the year it meant that they won’t at any point.  At some point David Ortiz will be back in the lineup but by then it will be far too late for the Red Sox to get back into contention.  One might say that the Sox should shut Crawford down and get the surgery now.

There is a lot of different information about exactly how long it takes a position player to recover from Tommy John surgery.  Despite Rob Bradford of WEEI’s claim that it takes just as long for a position player to recover from Tommy John surgery as a pitcher, meaning 10-12 months, the numbers simply don’t back that up.  Two position players got Tommy John Surgery last August, Padres OF Brad Hawpe and Reds SS Zach Cozart.  Both players were cleared for full baseball activity by mid-February, almost 6 months to the day from the time of their surgery.  So even if Crawford were to wait until the end of the season to get the surgery he would likely be able to be cleared for baseball activity before opening day.  However if he shuts down at the end of this month and gets the surgery then he should be healthy enough to participate in spring training next season.

One other thing is that Crawford is still “likely” to need the surgery which sounds like a final decision has yet to be made.  Why is there still doubt that the procedure would have to be done?  I’m not sure but it doesn’t make sense for him to “probably” need Tommy John surgery for 3 months and then all of a sudden not need it.  My money is that he will get the surgery at some point in the next few months and will hopefully feel a lot better and more comfortable as a result.

At this point the Red Sox should re-evaluate the decision at the end of the month.  If the Red Sox are still at or under .500 then they should shut Crawford down and have him get the surgery.  A surgery in early September means that he should be able to resume baseball activities in early March and would be more healthy going into next season then he was this season.  He doesn’t need to try and rush to get back to the team like he did this year.  Hopefully with his major injury concerns behind him he can relax and get back to being the Carl Crawford that we expected when he signed here last off-season.  There’s no need for false hope at this point.  This season is lost, it might be time to start looking towards the next one.

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Ellsbury And Crawford Providing A Spark At The Top Of The Red Sox Lineup

We’ve seen more of the Tampa Crawford since his return from the DL

When Carl Crawford signed with the Red Sox before last season people expected to see a dynamic 1-2 punch at the top of the Red Sox lineup with Jacoby Ellsbury and Crawford.  While Ellsbury put up an MVP season last year Crawford did not live up to the hype and hit primarily in the 6th and 7th spot in the lineup all season.  Fast forward to 2012.  Carl Crawford was coming off of wrist surgery and had to start the year on the DL.  Jacoby Ellsbury suffered a shoulder injury in the 7th game of the season.  Both guys would end up on the disabled list until the all-star break as the Sox got by with a makeshift top of the lineup in their absence.

Now both guys are back and the Sox are reaping the benefits that they have been waiting for since they signed Crawford.  In his 5 games since coming off of the disabled list Crawford has 7 hits and a walk in 20 at bats giving him a .450 OBP.  All of his at-bats have come in the #2 hole in the lineup.  He’s also been productive when he’s gotten on base, stealing 3 bases and scoring 6 runs in his 5 games back.  In Ellsbury’s 8 games back at the top of the order he’s gotten 12 hits in 35 at-bats.  He’s stolen a base and scored 5 runs.  The duo has combined for 5 steals and 11 runs in just 8 games.

Ellsbury has been a welcome sight back at the top of the Red Sox order

Offense hasn’t been the problem for the Sox all season long but they have had some trouble scoring runs in stretches.  Not only does the return of an effective Ellsbury and Crawford solidify the top of the Red Sox order it also lengthens the lineup as a whole.  Mike Aviles can stay at the bottom of the order and they have guys like Will Middlebrooks all the way down at the #7 spot in the lineup.  When David Ortiz returns a healthy lineup will probably look this this – Ellsbury, Crawford, Pedroia, Ortiz, Gonzalez, Ross, Middlebrooks, Saltalamacchia, Aviles.  That is as deep as any lineup in the American League.

When these two guys are playing at the top of their games offensively there is a snowball effect that trickles down to the rest of the Red Sox lineup.  We’ve already seen Ortiz, Gonzalez, and Ross get good pitches to hit while pitchers are distracted by Ellsbury and Crawford on the base paths.  Ellsbury will have to stay healthy and Crawford will have to stay productive for the rest of the year but if they can then we will see the top of the lineup that Theo Epstein envisioned when he signed Crawford prior to the 2011 season.

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Crawford Trade Rumors Seem Bogus

Bob Nightengale of the USA Today sent the baseball world abuzz earlier today when he posted an article stating that the Red Sox and Marlins have had discussions about pulling off a blockbuster trade.  In the trade Carl Crawford and a prospect, presumably a high level starting pitcher would go to the Marlins in exchange for third baseman Hanley Ramirez, the former Red Sox prospect who was traded for Josh Beckett back in 2006, and former closer Heath Bell, who just signed a 3 year 27 million dollar contract prior to this season.  It’s worth noting that Nightengale reports that the Marlins have approached the Red Sox with the offer.

Don’t expect to see Carl Crawford taking his talents to South Beach anytime soon

Having said that I see several reasons why the Red Sox wouldn’t do this deal.  First off they have no definitive need to move Crawford.  With Jacoby Ellsbury’s long term status with the team in question as he approaches free agency it doesn’t seem prudent to move Crawford at this point.  Then there is the players that the Red Sox would get in return.  First off – despite being in desperate need of a closer in the off-season the Sox passed on Bell.  In Miami Bell has already lost his closers role and has a 6.48 ERA out of the Miami bullpen.  Considering that the Sox have one of the best bullpen ERA in the majors since they blew a 9 run lead to the Yankees in April it would seem that acquiring Bell would actually make the bullpen worse.  Not to mention paying him another $18 million in guaranteed money in 2013 and 2014.  Regarding Hanley Ramirez, sure he is a great talent and he may need a change of scenery to resurrect his career but I don’t think he makes sense either. The Sox have Will Middlebrooks, Jose Iglesias, and Xander Boegarts to play the left side of the infield.  Acquiring Ramirez would block two of those guys from making it to the majors.  It’s unlikely that it will be Middlebrooks, who was all but crowned the third baseman of the future when Kevin Youkilis was moved to facilitate more playing time for him, which means Hanley would move back to shortstop where his defensive play is sure to decline as he ages.  Neither player seems like a particularly great fit for the Red Sox.

I am sure that the Marlins approached the Red Sox about this deal and why not?  They would get rid of a mistake contract (Bell) and an unhappy player (Ramirez) for Carl Crawford and a prospect pitcher which they desperately need (all 5 of their current starters are slated to hit free agency by the end of next season).  The problem is it takes two to make a trade and this is a trade I can’t imagine that the Red Sox would be eager to make.

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Keep ‘Em or Trade ‘Em – Red Sox infield edition

I’m back from a week of vacation in Miami and the Red Sox have remained stagnant in the standings.  Despite a 4-2 road trip last week they still stand 7.5 games out of first place.  Despite winning 7 of the last 8 series the Red Sox are still at .500, 18 days into June.  Obviously there will be changes to the roster between now and the end of the season whether the Red Sox are in contention or not.  Here is a breakdown on the guys on the roster and whether I think they should stay or go:

Gonzalez is the type of player that you stick with through a slump

1B Adrian Gonzalez – There is no doubt that Adrian Gonzalez is having a difficult year thus far.  His .260/.315/.403 line is ridiculously lower than his career averages.  He is hitting 78 points below his final average from last season.  He is on pace to hit less than 20 home runs for the first time since 2005 when he played in only 43 games for the Rangers.  Clearly Gonzalez is a better player than this.  The big consideration would be the fact that he is only a few months into a 7-year contract extension that he signed last season.  The contract makes him nearly unmovable and if all things were equal I’d keep Gonzalez anyway.  Eventually the old Gonzalez will be back.  He’s the type of hitter that you ride through slumps with like the Sox have done a few times with David Ortiz.  Put him back at 1B full time, try to find a regular spot in the lineup for him and just wait for him to come around.  Hitters like him always do.

Verdict – Keep Him

Pedroia isn’t nor should be going anywhere

2B Dustin Pedroia – Any argument to trade Pedroia seems ludicrous to me.  The best thing that I can come up with is that people have entertained the idea of trading him just to entertain the idea of making a trade.  Even if you could get value for Pedroia you are simply creating another hole in your lineup as there are no prospects near ready to play 2B in the big leagues.  You’d be going with Aviles or Punto if you traded Pedroia.  Pedroia’s been the heart and soul of this team since he’s been called up and he should never put on another uniform at any point in his career.

Verdict – Keep Him, forever

SS Mike Aviles – Aviles is a guy that could generate some interest at the trade deadline since he has played a very good defensive shortstop this season and could help a team in contention in what is a weak position league-wide.  The enticement for the Red Sox for moving Aviles is that they have Cuban youngster Jose Iglesias waiting in the wings.  Iglesias has seemed to turn the corner offensively in the minors.  Aviles was a huge help to the Red Sox lineup early in the season in the lead-off spot when Ellsbury went down but he has barely hit in the lead-off spot of late.  Even if he’s not a starter he’d be a valuable player and with Dustin Pedroia’s health in question it might make more sense to keep him even if you do decide to bring Iglesias up.  Still if another club is offering some good pieces for him it would be hard not to try and make do without him.  The difference between keeping or getting rid of Aviles will come down to how much a team is willing to give up for him.

Verdict – Trade Him only if you get good value back.  Otherwise keep him.

Youkilis’ days in a Sox uniform appear to be very numbered

3B Kevin Youkilis – Here is the thing about Youkilis right now – he is playing so poorly that it might not even get to a question of whether to keep him or trade him.  It’s easy to rip the Red Sox for continuing to put him in the lineup but it was the right move.  You needed to try and establish value for Youkilis after he came off of the D.L.  It’s pretty clear at this point that Youkilis has little to no value on the trading market.  The one other thing that has kept Youk alive thus far has been the fact that the Red Sox would be losing a lot of right handed power if they got rid of Youk but the impending return of Cody Ross, which could come as early as tomorrow night, would alleviate that problem.  At this point it will start to become increasingly tougher for the Red Sox to justify keeping Youkilis on the roster at all.  He will likely be designated for assignment in the not-too-distant future.  The only saving grace for the Red Sox would be that there are several National League teams that need a 1st Baseman so maybe one of them would claim Youk off of waivers or they could make a trade with one of them after he cleared waivers.  Either way it would be a tremendous upset if Youk were sill on the roster come the All-Star Break let alone the trade deadline.

Verdict – Trade Him if you can even get anything for him

Middlebrooks has a bright future in Boston

3B Will Middlebrooks – Middlebrooks is 24 years old and playing behind a gimpy soon-to-be free agent in his 30’s who, as I’ve outlined above, is not too much longer for this team anyway.  He’s have some bumps along the way but Middlebrooks will be a fixture at 3B for the Red Sox by August at the latest.

Verdict – Keep Him

IF Nick Punto – There is no reason to dump this guy unless you have someone to take his place.  The only way he goes is if Iglesias or someone else supplants Aviles at the shortstop position and even then they’d have to make sure Pedroia was 100% before they got rid of him.

Verdict – Keep Him

DH David Ortiz – This is another pointless exercise.  As big of a name as Ortiz is he is still a 36 year old designated hitter with an expiring contract.  There is no possible way to get back the value that he currently gives you in a trade.

Verdict – Keep Him

So there you have it.  Only Youkilis is definite to go, all others should be secure unless the Red Sox are blown away by an offer for Aviles.  Tomorrow I’ll do outfield where there seems to be an impending logjam.

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Red Sox Finally Climb Out Of Last Place

If someone told you at the beginning of the season that the Red Sox would be situated in last place in the American League East division from opening day until June 2nd you would have probably gone into full-blown panic mode.  The truth of the matter is that despite being in last place for two full months the Red Sox climbed up into 4th place last night and now stand only 2 games behind the 1st place Orioles and Rays.  They are only .5 game behind the Yankees at this point for 3rd place as well.  Such is life in the American League East this year.  No one team is much greater than the rest and once the Red Sox bounced back from a horrid start and the Orioles came back down to earth a bit the division has been bunched up together for the past few weeks and it will probably stay that way for much of the remainder of the year.

Things are looking up for Bobby V.’s Red Sox

One thing that’s for sure at this point is that it’s time for Red Sox Nation to give the devil its due.  Bobby Valentine has done a phenomenal job these past few weeks to get the Red Sox back into the AL East race.  He had a rocky start and he certainly heard it from the fans but after settling in Bobby V. has really found his groove.  He has had to maneuver around a minefield of injuries, many significant, and has done an excellent job.  He had what amounted to a patchwork bullpen at the beginning of the season after the injury to Andrew Bailey and ineffectiveness of Mark Melancon and has done an excellent job maintaining with what he has back there.  He’s worked well with the starting pitchers.  For the better part of the last month Bobby Valentine has seemed to push all of the right buttons and it’s time he gets his due.

Andrew Miller has become a key component in the Red Sox bullpen

The bullpen was a mess in the early going but Valentine and Ben Cherington never stopped trying to fit the right pieces in.  They weren’t afraid to admit a mistake when they sent Mark Melancon, who they traded two players for to become the primary set -up man, to AAA Pawtucket to get himself right.  They added Andrew Miller who has the big frame and arm but not the mentality to be a starter into the pen and he is enjoying a renaissance of sorts in his new role.  He stuck with Alfredo Aceves and Vicente Padilla even though they struggled in the early-going and they have become more reliable.  He has gotten used to the roles that he wants the pitchers to have and it’s worked out for the better.  He’s used Scott Atchison in a bridge role and he has responded with an early 0.89 ERA.  He uses Matt Albers primarily against righties late in games and Albers has a 1.32 ERA against them thus far.  Conversely he’s used Rich Hill as a lefty specialist and Hill has a 1.13 ERA against left-handed hitters for the season.  Whatever Bobby V. seems to do with the pen works these days and that’s a far cry from where we were at the beginning of the year.

Valentine has stuck with Nava who’s paid dividends

The injuries and spare parts in the lineup actually tailors more to Bobby V.’s managing style.  Valentine is not the type of manager to keep the lineup the same every night so it’s no surprise that he is mixing and matching with guys like Mike Aviles, Ryan Sweeney, and Daniel Nava.  Instead of replacing Jacoby Ellsbury with a permanent lead off hitter in his absence Valentine has done lead off man by committee which is probably a good idea since there is not a guy on the roster currently with extensive lead off experience with the exception of 36-year old Scott Posednik.  He’s shown faith in guys that have produced like a Daniel Nava.  Francona was a great manager but he tended to stick with the veteran players even if a younger guy was out-producing him.  Nava has been great, Will Middlebrooks has wrestled away a spot in the every day lineup and Mike Aviles has shown why neither Marco Scutaro or Jed Lowrie are missed in the Red Sox order.  No matter where they are in the lineup it seems like another role player or two is producing every game.

The Sox have been hot since Ortiz’ players-only meeting

Lastly the biggest improvement of the team from the start of the year comes in the chemistry department.  I’m not sure if they had to hit rock bottom to come up from the problems of last season but the Josh Beckett golf outing/David Ortiz meeting seems to have become the turning point in team chemistry.  The players seem looser now than they have for a long time.  Sure winning cures these types of things but they have seemed to have gotten over that hump and have come together as a team.  Whatever happened to team chemistry I hope it keeps up because these guys are playing like a team and winning games.

It’s amazing to think that this team was all bit written off a mere few weeks ago.  Now the starters are pitching better including Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard who both went through brutal stretches.  The bullpen is winning games.  The lineup, whatever it is for any given game, is producing.  Eventually guys like Jacoby Ellsbury, Cody Ross, Carl Crawford, and Andrew Bailey will be back.  There is still a long way to go and anything can happen but you can’t deny that there’s life in this team now.  You couldn’t say that about them a month ago.

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2012 Red Sox Player Previews: The Prospects

The Red Sox have made a habit if trading or buying the core of their teams for the past 15-20 years.  Theo Epstein had one stretch towards the beginning of his tenure in which he stocked his minor league system with players like Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, and Jacoby Ellsbury who make up the current core of the team.  Theo seemed to have one last hurrah as the Sox system has been left with 4 position players that will likely start the year in Pawtucket and one or all of these players may see major league time before the year is up.  Here’s a look at the 4.

Shortstop Jose Iglesias

Red Sox SS Jose Iglesias

Here’s a look at Iglesias’ 2011 season in Pawtucket:

Games: 101
Average: .235
On-Base Percentage: .285
Slugging Percentage: .269
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .554
Home Runs: 1
Runs Batted In: 31
Runs: 35
Doubles: 9
Walks: 21

As most all Sox fans know by now Iglesias is quite the defensive whiz.  The Sox brass knew as soon as they signed him after he defected from Cuba that he had superior defensive skill and hoped they could groom him into a more complete player in their system.  After incumbent starting shortstop Marco Scutaro was traded in the off-season it created an immediate opportunity for Iglesias to compete for the starting job.  Iglesias impressed fans and manager Bobby Valentine in Fort Myers with his defensive skills and gave fans a glimpse of the future double play duo of Iglesias and Pedroia.  In the end it was decided that Iglesias had not developed the offensive part of his game enough to keep him with the big club for the beginning of the season.  In particular Iglesias had developed a habit of swinging early in counts to avoid getting behind into breaking ball counts.  The organization will continue to work with him to break this habit and further develop the rest of his offensive game while Mike Aviles gets his crack at the starting shortstop job.  Make no mistake though, Iglesias IS the shortstop of the future.  I am not exaggerating when I say that Iglesias will be competing for a Gold Glove within his first few seasons in the league.  Once Iglesias entrenches himself at short for the Red Sox expect him to be there for a very long time.

Catcher Ryan Lavarnway

Red Sox C Ryan Lavarnway

Here’s a look at Lavarnway’s 2011 season in Portland and Pawtucket:

Games: 116
Average: .290
On-Base Percentage: .376
Slugging Percentage: .563
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .939
Home Runs: 32
Runs Batted In: 93
Runs: 75
Doubles: 23
Walks: 57

Lavarnway is probably the biggest surprise in the Red Sox organization. He was a virtual unknown at the beginning of last season but his 32 home runs between Portland and Pawtucket put him on the map. Lavarnway was called up to the big club twice last year and did not disappoint. He hit .231 with 2 home runs and 8 RBI in 17 games and gave the Red Sox some key at-bats at the end of last season in Baltimore. He is the opposite of Iglesias in that his hitting seems to be major league ready but his defense is suspect. Lavarnway was often times used as a DH in both Pawtucket and Boston to get him in the lineup and that may have stinted his development at catcher. To Lavarnway’s credit he seemed to spend a great deal of his own time in the off-season working on his defense and catching instructor Gary Tuck has raved about his improvements in spring training. Lavarnway also got himself into better shape during the off-season and that is something that helped fellow catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia improve his defense behind the plate. Still I think he could use a bit more defensive seasoning.  Just remember how atrocious the defense at catcher was at times for the Sox last season. One thing that is interesting is that Theo Epstein could not for the life of him develop someone at two positions during his tenure in Boston – shortstop and catcher – and two guys are on the cusps of the majors as he’s walking out the door.

Third Baseman Will Middlebrooks

Red Sox 3B Will Middlebrooks

Here’s a look at Middlebrooks’ 2011 season in Lowell, Portland, and Pawtucket:

Games: 116
Average: .285
On-Base Percentage: .328
Slugging Percentage: .508
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .834
Home Runs: 23
Runs Batted In: 94
Runs: 62
Doubles: 26
Walks: 26

Middlebrooks is the only guy on the list that has not yet played in the majors. He is only 23 and burst onto the scene last season by jumping all the way to Pawtucket after starting the season in Single A Lowell. All tolled he hit .285 with 23 home runs and 94 RBI between all three levels last season. He is also a plus defender, which is a premium for a third baseman. He is farther off than Iglesias and Lavarnway but if pressed could be a candidate to come up to the big club if things go horribly wrong in the Red Sox infield. Still he is not that far off and he could be ready after a full season in AAA. If you look at the tea leaves there are two possible ways to facilitate a spot for Middlebrooks next season. The first would be to let Youkilis walk and give Middlebrooks the third base spot. The second would be to let David Ortiz walk and shift Youk to DH to make way for him. Obvious neither veteran is about to give up their spot but you have to start thinking about how Youkilis’ hip will hold up on the hot corner. In any event Middlebrooks’ debut is on the horizon.

Outfielder Ryan Kalish

Red Sox OF Ryan Kalish

Here’s a look at Kalish’s 2011 season in Lowell and Pawtucket:

Games: 24
Average: .228
On-Base Percentage: .291
Slugging Percentage: .293
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .585
Home Runs: 0
Runs Batted In: 0
Runs: 11
Doubles: 6
Walks: 9

I would likely have been writing a standalone preview for Kalish as the starting right fielder had he not injured his shoulder trying to make a diving catch last season. Kalish has the most extensive major league time of anyone on the list.  Unfortunately he had to have surgery on his ailing shoulder in the off-season and he will not be able to play in games at the outset of the season. He hit .252 with 4 home runs and 24 RBI in 53 games with the big club in 2010. When he is fully healthy and in the Sox’ starting lineup he will probably be a comparable player J.D. Drew without all of the hate since he’ll only make a fraction of the salary. Kalish is a guy that you know will develop into a fan favorite a la Trot Nixon but he should focus on recovering from his injury so he can make the maximum impact upon his return. The presence of Cody Ross should lessen the need for Kalish to rush back to the big club.

It’s rare to have 4 guys who seem like can’t miss prospects that high in your system and particularly rare for a big market club.  A “can’t miss” guy in AAA is a lot more can’t miss than a “can’t miss” guy in low A ball obviously.  These guys will a play an important part in the future.  Maybe not all this season but at some point.

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