Re-Assessing The Red Sox Rotation For The Second Half Of The Season

The Red Sox starting rotation has certainly had their ups and downs this season.  They’ve dealt with injuries, inconsistencies and failed experiments.  Despite a dismal west coast trip they are still only 2.5 games out of a playoff spot heading into the final series before the All-Star break against the Yankees.  To contend in the second half they will need the the starting rotation to step up…here’s how things look as we stand right now in the rotation:

Lester needs to step up in the 2nd half

Jon Lester (5-5, 4.34 ERA, 88 Ks) – Lester has been disappointing in the first half.  At times in his career he has pitched like an ace but he has just not shown it this season.  He’s been terribly inconsistent and seems to get flustered easily when he’s on the mound.  The Red Sox really need ace Lester to show up in the 2nd half of the season if they want to contend.  With Josh Beckett aging Lester is the closest thing that they have to a #1 starter.  He had a good start on Tuesday night, giving up only 1 run in 6 2/3 innings so hopefully he can use that start to go on a run.  Lester has been healthy this season and is the Sox most durable starter.  If he can find his consistency it would be huge for the Sox’ 2nd half.

Josh Beckett (4-7, 4.06 ERA, 60 Ks) – Beckett has been the most consistent Red Sox starter by far this season.  He has the lowest ERA of all Red Sox starters who have made at least 10 starts.  He is not a number 1 starter anymore but he is still very productive.  Health is the big issue with him.  He can’t produce if he’s not pitching.  He has already missed 3 starts this year and is battling a shoulder injury.  He looked good in his 1st start back in Seattle and will have a big start against the Yankees on Friday night at Fenway.  The Sox will need healthy Beckett in their rotation to try and get to October.

Clay Buchholz (8-2, 5.53 ERA, 58 Ks) – Buchholz seemed to have started to turn the corner in his last few starts before his stomach problems crept up.  He seemed to have trouble coming back from his back injury from last season earlier this year but when he finally looked to be settling down he had a new issue to deal with.  Time will tell how long he is out and what lingering effects he will have from the stomach problems.  Buchholz is a top of the rotation guy when he is healthy and right so hopefully he gets healthy and right sooner rather than later.

Fatigue may become a factor in Doubront’s 1st full season as a starter

Felix Doubront (8-4, 4.42 ERA, 91 Ks) – Doubront carried the rotation in the early part of the year and has been the workhorse along with Lester in the 1st half.  You have to wonder if all of that will catch up with him however.  The 89.2 innings pitched so far this year is more than he pitched all of last season and it’s only July 5th.  He has looked tired in his last few starts.  Doubront is a good young pitcher who will only get better and you have to think about the long term with him.  I can see a DL or bullpen stint in the next month to preserve him better for the stretch run.

Daniel Bard (5-6, 5.24 ERA, 34 Ks) – The Daniel Bard starting experiment is over.  If he makes it back to the big club this year it will be in a relief role.

Daisuke Matsuzaka (0-3, 6.65 ERA, 20 Ks) – Dice-K is back on the DL after making 5 starts coming off of Tommy John surgery.  The results were not good.  Would anyone honestly be surprised if Dice-K didn’t make another start in a Red Sox uniform?

Fatigue may become a factor in Doubront’s 1st full season as a starter

Aaron Cook ( 2-2, 4.37 ERA, 2 Ks) – Aaron Cook was a low risk-high reward signing and it looks to be paying off.  He throws a good sinking fastball and the Red Sox have played excellent infield defense this year making him a good fit for the club.  He’s a playoff tested veteran who’s been a starter his whole career.  With all of the other questions surrounding the Red Sox rotation I can easily see him sticking around for the rest of the year.

Franklin Morales (1-1, 2.51 ERA, 46 Ks) – Morales is a K machine and has been a pleasant surprise filling in for the Red Sox rotation.  The Sox should ride the wave with Morales right now but he will run into the same problem that Doubront will.  His career high in innings was 46.2 last season.  Right now he is at 43.0.  Morales is too versatile a pitcher to tire out so he may be the odd man out when the Red Sox have 5 healthy guys.  This is also where Aaron Cook has an advantage over Morales, he is stretched out enough to start for the rest of the season.  Either way, Morales will be an important part of the Sox staff going forward.

Every contending team needs great starting pitching.  The pieces are there for the Sox, they just need to continue to execute.  If these guys can get it done the Sox will have a chance to get to October.  If the injuries and inconsistencies continue then they’ll likely be on the outside looking in for the 3rd year in a row.

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Morales And Cook Have Lifted Red Sox Rotation

At the beginning of the year the Red Sox rotation was failing them.  Daniel Bard was a disaster as a starter, Clay Buchholz looked to be struggling coming back from his 2011 back injury and Jon Lester was showing the same inconsistencies that he was last September.   Add in the fact that an aging Josh Beckett was starting to show durability issues and the Red Sox rotation looked to be a major weakness at the beginning of the season.  It’s rare that you have a season like 2004 when all of the Sox starters made every single one of their starts so starting pitching depth is important.  Give credit to Ben Cherington and Bobby Valentine for identifying two guys that could, and have, helped out the Red Sox rotation.

Aaron Cook was as efficient as one could be Friday night in Seattle

First is Aaron Cook who was in the running for a starters job in spring training and pitched well but was not stretched out due to an injury and had to start the year in Pawtucket.  On May 5th the Red Sox called Cook up to replace an injured Josh Beckett and Cook was promptly spiked in the leg while covering home plate in the 2nd inning of that game.  He headed on to the DL for another month and a half.  When Clay Buchholz had to go on the DL with his stomach issues Cook was called on to take his place in the rotation.

Cook has made two starts in Buchholz’ absence and won them both.  He has pitched 14 innings in the 2 games, giving up 3 runs on 8 hits.  Cook’s good sinker has been on since he came off of the DL.  Of the 42 outs that Cook has recorded so far as as a starter over half have come on the ground ball.  Cook has only struck out 2 batters since he’s been back but he doesn’t really utilize the strike out.  Cook’s start Friday night against the Mariners was one of the most efficient starts I have seen in a long time.  He took care of the Mariners on 81 pitches and 2 hits, 1 of them being an infield single by Ichiro.  He pounded the strike zone and let the Mariners hitters make contact and let his infielders do the rest.  He only faced 1 batter over the minimum for the entire game.  Cook is the type of pitcher, with that biting sinker, that will go on long hot streaks.  If Cook can continue to pitch like he did Friday night it’s hard to see how the Red Sox wouldn’t use him somehow.

Morales has racked up the Ks since joining the rotation

Franklin Morales was acquired by the Sox last year from the Colorado Rockies for nothing but cash.  Morales did a fine enough job last season for Boston, finishing with a 3.62 ERA in 36 relief appearances.  Morales was supposed to be one of the late inning guys for the Sox this season but he struggled early like the rest of the bullpen did and was relegated into more of a middle relief role.  He is a guy who relies on control and has devastating strikeout stuff when he is getting the ball over the plate.  Bobby Valentine started to rely on Morales in the longer situations out of the bullpen and he began to stretch him out and eventually when Josh Beckett’s shoulder landed on the DL Morales got the call to take his spot in the rotation.

Morales has made 3 starts since being put into the rotation.  The Red Sox won the first 2 and lost the 3rd by a score of 1-0 against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez.  Morales has pitched 18 innings in his 3 starts.  In those 18 innings he’s given up 4 earned runs on 14 hits.  His most impressive stat is the 24 strikeouts that he has piled up against only 3 walks in those 18 innings.  Morales has been pin point with his control and when he gets ahead of hitters he has shown that he has the arsenal to put them away with his 95+ MPH fastball with a ton of movement to go with a devastating change-up that often catches hitters off guard.  Morales was actually a starter on the 2007 Rockies team that lost to the Red Sox in the World Series but he is currently enjoying his biggest success as a starting pitcher.  He looks to be filling the role that Alfredo Aceves did last year as the most versatile man on the Red Sox pitching staff.

Cook and Morales can help the Red Sox in several different ways from here on out.  Morales will stay in the rotation, at least for the short term but you may see him bumped a la Aceves last season when they need someone else in the bullpen.  Unlike last year however the bullpen has been great and unless they suffer a rash of injuries it doesn’t look like Morales will be all that needed in the pen.  With Felix Doubront coming back down to earth a bit Morales has become the Sox’ best strikeout pitcher in the rotation.  With his versatility he should not come off of the Red Sox roster for the rest of the year unless he is injured.

Ben and Bobby have decisions to make with Cook, Morales, and others

Cook is a different story.  He was the subject of trade rumors while he was in Pawtucket early in the season and may be the subject of them again.  If Cook can show that he is healthy and can contribute to a contending team, particularly in the National league then the Red Sox can move him for something of relatively good value.  It’s not bad to get a good return on a guy that only makes 5 or 6 starts for you so if someone hits you with a good offer you have to listen.  The Sox would still have Morales and Dice-K to go along with their original top 4 starters in the rotation and also have Clayton Mortensen and Aceves as back-up options if need be.

The Sox are best to ride both of these guys out while they’re hot and re-evaluate once we approach the trade deadline.  One thing for certain is that you always need starting pitching depth and Cook and Morales have provided valuable depth for the Sox rotation.

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Keep ‘Em Or Trade ‘Em – Red Sox Pitchers And Catchers Edition

Let’s get right to it…

Beckett will likely not be on his way out of town

SP Josh Beckett – I’ll get this one out of the way early.  Josh Beckett is not going anywhere.  For starters he is on the DL.  Then there is the fact that he is still owed upwards of $40 million over the next 3 seasons.  Thirdly he’s got 10/5 no-trade rights that gives him the right to refuse any trade.  That is probably the most important factor because surprisingly Beckett still likes pitching in Boston.  Maybe it’s the atmosphere, maybe he likes the bar scene, maybe all of the hate keeps him motivated.  Who knows?  What I do know is that many people close to the veteran right-hander think that he’s none too anxious to waive his no-trade.  Due to the contract the return would be nothing special anyway and let’s face it, Beckett has been one of the most consistent starters for the Sox this season.  Of his 12 starts 8 have been quality starts.  Only Jon Lester has more quality starts, with 9 in 15 starts.  Beckett will probably play out his contract here so people should probably get used to him sticking around for a while.

Verdict – Keep Him

SP Jon Lester – This is similar to people saying that they should trade Pedroia.  I don’t really see the point…you don’t dump a guy after a poor 1/2 season.  He’s by far the most durable starter for the Sox over the past 2-3 years so I see little sense in giving him up when you have a lack of starting pitching depth.

Verdict – Keep Him

SP Clay Buchholz – I could copy and paste the above in this spot.  Like Lester he’s only 28 and signed to a team-friendly deal.  He had a bit of trouble coming back from his back injury from last season but he seems to have put that behind him.  He’s missing his scheduled start today because of the flu but that shouldn’t keep him out too long.

Verdict – Keep Him

Doubront’s been a work horse in his rookie season

SP Felix Doubront – He’s 24 and is 8-3 on June 23rd of his rookie year.  Next question.

Verdict – Keep Him

SP Daisuke Matsuzaka – The Red Sox have spent roughly $98 million on Daisuke since they acquired him before the 2007 season.  Might as well see this thing through and pay him the $5 million remaining.  I’m not sure he’s got much value anyway since it’s up in the air whether or not he is committed to continue playing in the U.S. after his contract expires at the end of the season.

Verdict – Keep Him

SP/RP Franklin Morales – Morales has seemed to curb the control issues that have plagued him for most of his career.  He’s made 2 good starts in place of Josh Beckett.  He’s probably the Sox most versatile pitcher since Aceves is currently the closer.

Verdict – Keep Him

SP/RP Daniel Bard – This one of tempting.  Part of me says that he’ll eventually put it together but part of me says that he never will and you might as well try to get a maximum return for him while you can.  When I see Bard I see visions of his college teammate Andrew Miller.  Miller has been traded twice already and had to fight for a roster spot on the Sox this season.  He finally found his spot as a reliever but only after two major league teams had already wasted time waiting for him to realize his potential.  If there is a Matt Garza type of player out there and Bard can be the centerpiece of a trade I don’t think he’s the type of guy that you walk away from the table to keep.  His arm and head are too much of a question mark to consider him a sure thing.

Verdict – Trade Him if you can make him the centerpiece of a potential blockbuster

Padilla could be the odd man out if they get Bailey and Bard back in the back end of the bullpen

The Bullpen – As the old saying goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  The Sox bullpen has been exceptional since the beginning of May.  Andrew Bailey will have a place when he comes back and so will Bard if he’s not moved.  Miller is the late inning lefty.  Bailey, Aceves, Bard, and Melancon will take up in the back end.  Scott Atchison has excelled in his very specific role.  Clayton Mortensen, Junichi Tazawa, and even Mark Prior are waiting in the wings.  Two guys who could be moved are Matt Albers and Vicente Padilla.  When the back end is healthy they would prove to be redundant and everyone always needs bullpen help.

Verdict – Keep Bailey, Aceves, Melancon, Miller, Atchison, and Mortsensen.  Trade Padilla and Albers for value.

C Jarrod Saltalamacchia – Saltalamacchia just turned 27 and looks to be headed to Kansas City as one of the American League All-Star catchers.  The Sox should honestly be thinking of a contract extension for Salty rather than a trade.  He’s a keeper.

Verdict – Keep Him

Shoppach fits good in the backup C role for now

C Kelly Shoppach – He may have some value but I’d keep him.  The Sox need a backup catcher and Ryan Lavarnway is still developing and wouldn’t be best served to come up to the big leagues to get 1-2 starts a week.  There probably isn’t a better secondary catcher available than Shoppach so I’d keep him for the rest of the year and let the young catchers in the minors continue to develop down there.

Verdict – Keep Him

So there you have it.  Bard is our best piece and like I said teams are always looking for relievers so we might be able to steal something of value for an Albers or Padilla.  Beckett is going nowhere so it’s best if Red Sox Nation dropped that notion.  There is no point in doing a fire sale since a lot of these guys are still young and could be valuable in the future.  There’s no need to sell off players like Lester and Buchholz at this point.

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Felix Doubront Showing That He Has A Bright Future With Red Sox

Lost in the hoopla of the Daniel Bard fiasco is the fact that Felix Doubront is quietly becoming one of the best young left-handed starters in the game.  A lot of the focus was on Bard coming into the season but people forget that it was Doubront who actually secured his starting spot before Bard in spring training.  Doubront, not Bard, is the guy who has shown that he has the potential to be a top of the rotation starter in the early part of the season.  At 24 years old Doubront looks to have a very bright future ahead of him.

Doubront has pitched confidently so far this season

In his 12 starts so far this season Doubront has carried a 6-3 record.  He was under a 4.00 ERA for most of the season before getting knocked around by a tough young Nationals lineup on Friday night.  His ERA now stands at 4.34.  Only 10 left-handed starters in the American League boast a better ERA.  Doubront has been a K machine so far this season as well.  He’s struck out 72 men in his 66 1/3 innings pitched.  5 lefties in the majors have more strikeouts than him – C.C. Sabathia, Cole Hamels, Gio Gonzalez, Johan Santana, and C.J. Wilson.  That’s some pretty good company.  Even in a game where he only lasted 4 innings on Friday night against the Nationals Doubront struck out 6 guys.  He averages 9.77 strikeouts per 9 innings.  That is better than every left-handed starter in the American League and only Gio Gonzalez averages more K/9 as a left-handed starter in the entire majors.  If you factor in right-handed starters as well only Detroit’s Max Scherzer has a better K/9 rate than Doubront in the American League.

The key to a lot of Doubront’s early success has been the same thing that has failed Daniel Bard and some of the other Sox starters – he throws strikes early in counts and gets ahead of hitters.  He’s not afraid to stay around the strike zone.  A guy like Daniel Bard nibbles too much early instead of going right after hitters with his power stuff.  Doubront comes out early and pounds the strike zone.  He has looked very much like Jon Lester did when he came up to the team in 2008 and became a top of the rotation guy (if only Lester would start to look like that guy again).  Doubront’s consistency has been key so far in an inconsistent Red Sox rotation.  He has 7 quality starts in 12 outings.  Only Josh Beckett has more quality starts on the Red Sox staff with 8.  Most of Doubront’s numbers trail only Beckett’s and it’s clear that Doubront has been the second best starting pitcher on the Red Sox staff so far in 2012.  That’s not bad for a guy that had only 3 career starts coming into this season and none since 2010.

Doubront has pitched like one of the top LHP in the AL

People didn’t notice Doubront at the start of the season even though he out-pitched Daniel Bard and every other pitcher going for a rotation spot in spring training.  At this point in time it seems like the future is much brighter for Doubront than it is for Bard.  Doubront is two years younger than Bard and is already showing that he can be a successful big league starter.  Bard hasn’t even proven if he can be a consistent set-up man, let alone closer or starter.

If the Red Sox want to stay in the pennant race then Felix Doubront will have to stay consistent.  His last outing was disappointing but he still K’ed 6 against a tough lineup.  He is 2-1 against the American League East so far and should be 3-1 if the bullpen didn’t blow the 9-1 lead that he left them with in his 1 start against the Yankees.  Lester and Buchholz had inconsistent starts.  If they can come around and Doubront keeps up his pace it’s hard to imagine the Sox not staying in the race, particularly when they get key hitters back from injuries.  Daniel Bard may have been a failure for the Sox but Doubront has been a great success.  And it looks like he may be around for a long time.

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Jon Lester Needs To Return To Form For The Red Sox To Contend

The Red Sox organization has been in a free fall since last September 1st.  Mirroring the Red Sox’ fall from grace has been the decline of the guy that used to be looked at as our young ace pitcher, Jon Lester.  Lester is only 28 years old this year but if he can not rebound from his sub-par pitching since last September than sadly we may have already seen the best days of Jon Lester as a pitcher.

Lester has been an inconsistent performer since last September 1

Lester’s woes have flown under the radar with Josh Beckett being public enemy #1 for what he’s done off the field, Clay Buchholz pitching as bad as any starter in the league at the outset of the season, and John Lackey in exile (even though he’s in the dugout at every home game) after Tommy John surgery.  Lester also got points from Red Sox Nation when he stepped up and accepted responsibility for what happened last season in the clubhouse and expressed remorse for what became of the Red Sox season and manager Terry Francona.  Lester, however, has been as inconsistent as any player on the Red Sox since last September 1st when the wheels began to come off of the wagon.

Consider that Lester made 25 starts between opening day and August 27th.  Of those 25 starts 19 of them were quality starts (pitching at least 6 innings while giving up only 4 runs or less).  A quality start is a benchmark for consistency for  a major league pitcher and a 76% Quality Start rate, which Lester had going into September last year, is an excellent number.  Lester also struck out at least 5 batters in 20 of his 25 starts including 11 in a game against the Angels on May 3rd of last year.  He had a 3.09 ERA heading into September last season and had walked 3.3 guys per 9 innings.  His shortest outing of the season was a 4 inning outing against Toronto on July 5th due to an injury that caused him to leave early in his next start as well and eventually land on the disabled list.  There were only three other occasions where Lester could not get into the 7th inning meaning he reached the 7th in 80% of his starts through August.  Then came September 1st.

Lester made 6 starts in September.  He had 3 quality starts, a 50% QS rate.  He went 5 innings, 4 innings, and 2 1/3 respectively in his other 3 outings.  His ERA in the month of September was 5.48, he walked 4.6 guys per 9 innings, and he sported a 1-3 record.  Things have not gotten better for Lester so far this season.  In 7 outings to start the year he has 4 quality starts.  He’s got a 4.29 ERA and he’s had more than 5 strikeouts in only 2 of his 7 starts.  He had given up 18 walks so far on the season.  He’s got a 1-3 record thus far.

When you put together Lester’s numbers from September 1 of last year the results are disappointing.  His 7 quality starts in 13 outings leaves him with an average 54% QS%.  He has a 4.76 ERA and a 4.2 BB/9 rate.  His record is 2-6.  Compare that with his 3.09 ERA and 3.3 BB/9 rate through August of last year and you find a serious downgrade in production.  Compared even further to his career stats going into last season when he had a 3.55 career ERA, 3.4 BB/9 rate and averaged about 16 wins per season you would assume that Lester is a much more effective pitcher than he’s been showing.

Lester’s been easily flustered by umpire calls but he needs to bare down in those situations

So the million dollar question is – what is the problem?  It doesn’t seem to be health related.  I do see Lester get flustered early in games over close calls that go the other way and he tends to lose his composure.  But why now at this point in his career?  Why does he seem to be regressing rather than maturing as a pitcher at age 28?  I doubt anyone knows the answer and I am hoping that what seems like a statistical anomaly is exactly that, a blip on the radar for a guy that has a ton of talent and will put it all behind him.  Lester hasn’t totally lost his arm, he’s just inconsistent.  You’ll see flashes of the Lester we thought we’d see every night and then the guy who throws too many pitches will come back 5 days later.  Lester is coming off of a string of sub-par outings and tonight would be the perfect time for him to throw another gem and give the Red Sox their 4th consecutive quality start, something they’ve only done one other time this season (series in Chicago).

Despite all the talk about beer, chicken, and golf it all comes down to starting pitching.  The Red Sox are 15-19 largely because their starting pitching has been inconsistent and hasn’t gotten deep into outings.  The bullpen has settled down but is still being used far too much because the starters aren’t going deep into games.  Jon Lester, not Josh Beckett, should be the ace of this staff.  He is 3 years younger than him and in the prime of his career.  If Lester doesn’t bear down and become the pitcher that he should be it will be hard to see us anywhere near the race this September 1st.  Hopefully tonight we will start to see that guy.

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The Daniel Bard experiment has provided mixed results thus far for the Red Sox

Daniel Bard wanted to either close or start for the Red Sox this season after 3 seasons at the Red Sox’ primary set-up man for former closer Jonathan Papelbon.  When Bard had a horrendous September last season the front office shied away from simply handing him the closers job and went out and acquired proven closer Andrew Bailey from the Athletics.  That left the starters role for Bard.  The Red Sox had a need for a starter in the back of the rotation so it was a fit.  Bard would have to win the job in spring training however.  After a rocky start to the spring Bard settled down and was named to the 5th starter’s role just before the beginning of the season.  Results thus far have been mixed.

Bard’s starting career has been solid if inconsistent thus far

Bard has made 6 appearances, 5 starts and the one appearance out of the bullpen.  Interestingly enough he’s gotten a decision in all 6 appearances he has made, sporting a 2-4 record.  1 of the 2 wins came in his relief appearance so he is 1-4 as a starter.  The record might not necessarily reflect how well Bard has pitched.  Bard has a 4.83 ERA which is not horrible for a starter.  Bard has a average run support per game of 5.40 which isn’t too bad either but he did have a 1-0 loss to the Rays on Marathon Monday.  He’s been inconsistent with strikeouts.  His K/9 rate is an even 6 but he has only had 1 strikeout in each of his last 2 starts.  In his first 3 starts he had 6, 7, and 6 strikeouts respectively.  On Tuesday he tied his innings high for the year by going 7 full innings but he disappointingly couldn’t record an out in the 8th despite only throwing 86 pitches going to the inning.  Durability is still an issue and it probably will be all season long.  It’s not just pitch count durability but innings related too ie. he could have 70 pitches going into the 8th inning but he still may tire because his body is just not used to sitting down and getting back up 8 or 9 times a night yet.

Bard is still trying to figure it all out

One thing that Bard has done far better than ANYONE on the staff is limit the long ball.  He has only given up 1 home run all year, a bomb by White Sox slugger Paul Konerko on a 3-0 pitch.  All of the other Red Sox starters have at least 3 home runs given up and the bullpen has given up a whooping 15 home runs combined.  The home run has killed the Sox staff this year because there haven’t been that many solo shots given up by them.  Bard has also improved on his control.  Since his 7 walk performance against the Rays on Marathon Monday Bard has only walked 8 guys in 4 appearances since, half of which came Tuesday night in Kansas City.  Bard seems to get lost for an inning which is what happened for pretty much all of September but then he was only pitching 1 inning so I guess it’s better off this way.

Of course many people are still clamoring for Bard to return to the bullpen.  I wrote about that myself just a few weeks ago here.  A lot of things have changed since then however.  Firstly the longer they hold off the less sense it makes as the longer we go the closer Andrew Bailey is to returning.  Secondly we need Bard in the rotation still because our alternative options are dwindling.  Aaron Cook got the call-up and promptly got spiked in his 2nd inning of work, sending him to the D.L.  Now Daisuke Matsuzaka, coming off of Tommy John surgery, is the last hope and that’s not even mentioning the 500 lb. gorilla in the room known as Clay Buchholz’ season thus far.  Bard will eventually end up in the bullpen this season, his innings limit will guarantee that.  The fact of the matter is that they need him to start right now and then just hope that Buchholz has come around and Dice-K and Cook are healthy when that time comes.

Bard’s problem has been the 1 inning.  That’s not so bad when you consider that he hasn’t started since low A ball.  Bard is still learning to be a starting pitcher in this league and he’s doing it in the most stacked division in baseball.  This year will provide good experience for the future no matter how the season turns out for Bard and the Red Sox.  It looks like they will stay the course with Bard, which is the best bet at this point.  The bullpen has settled down a bit and the key arms should be recovered from the debacle in Baltimore over the weekend.  Bard’s place for now is the rotation.  Will he ever turn into the top of the rotation guy that he’s got the potential to be?  Maybe, maybe not but at least he’ll be able to say that he got his chance.

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Red-hot Red Sox look to come home on 7 game winning streak

“I think we’ve hit bottom.  If this isn’t the bottom then we’ll find some new ends to the earth or something”

Bobby V. has gone from goat to hero in the matter of a week

That was Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine’s quote 8 days ago after the debacle in Boston in which the Red Sox blew a 9-1 lead to the Yankees in the 7th inning and lost the game 15-9.  In many ways it was rock bottom, being embarrassed like that by your biggest rival at home and dropping your record to 4-10.  Thankfully the Red Sox didn’t find those new ends of the earth.  After Sunday’s rain out the Sox headed on the road and have basically pulled a 180 on their season in 6 games in Minnesota and Chicago and go into today’s Sunday matinee looking for a clean 7-game sweep of their AL Central foes.  The Sox are now at .500 with a 10-10 record, a feat that they didn’t accomplish until May 15 last season, and could miraculously finish with a record over .500 in April if they can take the last two games of the month.

Bobby Valentine has been much maligned this season but things seem to be clicking now.  His moment of levity in the first game of the series in Minnesota may have helped Alfredo Aceves start to rebound from his horrid start.  After Aceves gave up a long fly ball to light hitting Trevor Plouffe Valentine trotted to the mound and asked Aceves if he was trying to kill him.  Aceves said no and proceeded to close out the game and his next two chances on the trip without allowing a run.  As a matter of fact the bullpen as a whole is pitching better as they have only given up 1 earned run on the road trip.  Junichi Tazawa looks like he may become a contributor as he’s pitched 6 scoreless innings since being recalled last weekend.  Daniel Bard also came in and contributed 2/3 of an inning on Monday and you might see more of that here and there for the rest of the season as they try and keep his innings count down.

As far as the starting pitching went Bard showed why he should be in the starting rotation.  He pitched 7 strong on Friday night giving up 3 runs on 6 hits and striking out 6.  He showed that he is really too valuable in the rotation, particularly with Clay Buchholz continuing to struggle.  Felix Doubront continued to impress, pitching 6 innings on Thursday and giving up 3 runs on 5 hits and K’ing 2.  He finally got his 1st win after a few impressive performances that included a wasted great start last Saturday against the Yankees in the infamous 15-9 game.  The performance of the week probably belonged to Jon Lester on Saturday night.  After having to throw over 30 pitches in the 1st inning Lester bore down and finished the game with 7 strong innings of shut-out baseball.  He scattered 5 hits and only walked one while striking out 7.  He endured a 10 pitch at bat on his final batter of the game but finally put Alex Rios away with his 120th pitch of the game.  That broke a personal 5 game losing streak for Lester.  The starting pitching as a whole has seemed to have found a groove with the exception of Buchholz.  Hopefully he is just working off the rust and will come around soon.

Aviles has been the fire starter for the Sox lineup

The offense has continued to click on all cylinders on the road and it all begins with Mike Aviles, who has replaced Jacoby Ellsbury as the team’s lead-off hitter.  He has gone 8-for-27 on the road trip with 2 HRs, 5 RBI and a walk.  He’s set the pace for an offense that has scored 45 runs on the 6 game road trip which has included 3 games of 10 or more runs.  Cody Ross started things off with a clutch 2 home run performance in game 1 to propel the Sox offense which has also gotten 3 home runs from Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 2 from Aviles and David Ortiz and 1 each from Darnell McDonald and Kevin Youkilis.  Adrian Gonzalez, while not going deep, has continued to be an RBI hit machine, going 7-for-20 with 6 RBI.  The only game on the trip in which he didn’t get an RBI was the Friday night 10-3 rout in Chicago.  He saved his best piece of hitting for the Saturday night game when he took a good Jake Peavy pitch up the middle for the only run of the game in the 4th inning.  David Ortiz has continued his red-hot April on the trip, going 7-for-22 with 2 HRs and 6 RBI.  The scary thing about this offense is their are doing all of this on the road and, in Chicago’s case, against some pretty good pitching.  I’m interested if they continue to click on all cylinders when they come back to the friendly confines on Monday.

Josh Beckett takes the hill on Sunday against Gavin Floyd of the White Sox as the Sox try to go 7-for-7 on the road trip.  If they do it will provide a huge boost to the team as they head into May with a favorable schedule for the first two weeks.  The honeymoon may have been a disaster for Bobby V. and company but the first week of the marriage seems to be going good and hopefully it carries over.  The biggest difference from this season’s version of the Red Sox compared to last years is the production that they are getting from the back of the rotation.  Doubront and Bard continue to give the Sox solid starts from the back-end and are improving as they gone on.  Last year they got limited production from those spots whether they came from John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Kyle Weiland, or someone else.  When you’ve got 5 guys that can go out there and pitch it makes a world of difference.  The one weak link is the bullpen but if they’ve started to get themselves right and Bobby V. is starting to get a feel for how to use these guys this team is poised to be a very dangerous team from here on out.  Those new ends of the earth will seem so far away if the Sox can complete the clean sweep of a crucial 7 game road trip.

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Quick Thoughts on the Red Sox/Twins series

Don’t look now but the Red Sox are on a winning streak!  Their futility against the league’s better teams in the early going is concerning and it makes you wonder if this team has what it takes to win a World Series but they are clearly in the top 6-7 teams in the American League so eventually their play would plateau when they started to play the weaker teams.  That seems to have started this week in Minnesota.  Here are some thoughts on the series:

  • Jon Lester's April struggles are back in 2012

    On the starting pitchers:  Jon Lester is a little off right now.  He seems to have an inning or a stretch in the game where he doesn’t quite seem right.  It almost cost us the game on Monday but Cody Ross fixed that.  Remember that Lester has struggled in April in the past only to put it together in May for the rest of the summer.  Hopefully that is what is going on with him now.  Josh Beckett wasn’t as good as he was in his last two outings due largely to the 40+ pitch 1st inning that contained a questionable strike zone.  The encouraging thing is that Beckett bounced back and got through 6 innings and only gave up 1 run.  He seems to be in a bit of a groove now.  Clay Buchholz wasn’t as bad last night as he was last week against the Yankees but that is not saying much.  He is still throwing far too many pitches and pitching to too much contact.  With Aaron Cook pitching well in Pawtucket you have to wonder how long they’ll go with Buchholz before he gets one of those mystery DL stints.

  • Aceves celebrates his bases loaded save on Wednesday

    On the bullpen:  Well, at least Alfredo Aceves make it exciting.  He is at least getting a little better but clearly you don’t need to see 1-run games being closed out with the bases loaded.  It looks like we’ll sink or swim with Aceves at closer.  The whole Bard thing remains a mystery but there wasn’t another option besides him to start Friday’s game in Chicago.  His next start will say a lot about his role going forward.  Most of the other guys pitched well on Monday and Tuesday but they had trouble cleaning up Buchholz’ mess on Wednesday.  Justin Thomas got some critical innings and didn’t fare well.  He’ll soon be replaced by Rich Hill.

  • On Mike Aviles:  This guy was on fire in Minnesota.  He went 6-for-13 with 2 HRs, 6 RBI, and 3 runs scored.  For all of the worry that was out there after Jacoby Ellsbury was injured Aviles has done more than enough to temper the masses.  So much so that if he keeps it up he might stay at the top of the order with Ellsbury hitting 2nd.  It’s early but the Red Sox look like the clear winners in the Marco Scutaro trade.
  • On the rest of the offense:  The offense continues to click on all cylinders with 6, 11, and 7 runs in three games in Minnesota.  Big Papi continued his hot ways with a monster home run in game 2.  Cody Ross was the hero in game 1 with his two late inning home runs.  Even Kevin Youkilis got in on the fun with some hits to get him back up to the Mendoza line.  Adrian Gonzalez is starting to drive in runs in bunches again.  It should be interesting to see how this group performs in Chicago with some better pitching against them.
  • Bobby V. has had his hands full with Boston's bullpen

    On Bobby V.:  That moment of levity with Alfredo Aceves and the Sox infield on Monday might be looked back at the turning point for the Red Sox.  Some of his bullpen moves are still inconsistent but I guess that could be a by-product of an inconsistent bullpen.  The lineups moves that he’s had to juggle around have all seemed to have been on point so far.

  • What’s next:  A 4 game series in Chicago to take us through the weekend before the Sox come home next week.  Pitching match-ups are Doubront (0-0, 3.94) vrs. Humber (1-0, 0.63), Bard (1-2, 4.38) vrs. Danks (2-2, 5.11), Lester (0-2, 6.00) vrs. Peavy (3-0, 1.88) and Beckett (2-2, 4.56) vrs. Floyd (1-3, 3.60).  Obviously Phillip Humber is coming off of last weekend’s perfect game on Thursday night in his start vrs. the Sox.

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Bard, Aceves’ unwillingness to step up for team is disappointing

Back before the 2007 season when Jonathan Papelbon was coming off of his 1st full season as closer he was moved to the rotation.  Organizational philosophy says that you put your best arms in a position where they would get the most work, which is in the starting rotation.  Sometimes extenuating circumstances come up.  Towards the start of the season, when it became apparent that there was no better option in the bullpen to close games out than him, Papelbon went to manager Terry Francona and sacrificed his starting spot, where the big money was made, for a chance to help the team where he could help best.  So Papelbon became the closer and held the job for the next 5 seasons and then signed a 5 year contract with the Phillies worth over 15 million per season, the largest ever for a relief pitcher.  Things seemed to work out for Papelbon with what started as a selfless, team-oriented act.

Alfredo Aceves seems to lack the mental toughness to close games out

Fast forward to 2012.  The Red Sox acquired A’s closer Andrew Bailey to replace Papelbon but unfortunately an injury right before the season started put him on the shelf for the balance of the summer.  The Red Sox needed someone to step up and fill in for Bailey.  Alfredo Aceves was named the closer although he had never held the job before.  He has struggled mightily in the role and when Nick Cafardo was filling in for Jerry Remy in the NESN booth last night he mentioned that Aceves had told Cafardo’s Globe colleague Michael Vega that he was not comfortable closing and likely never will be.  One has to wonder if his ego was bruised when he was not named to the starting rotation coming out of spring training and that has as much to do with his early season mental ineptitude as does the fact that he is uncomfortable closing.  Aceves has always been seen as a jack of all trades.  He will never be a top end of the rotation guy like Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard have the potential to be so he shouldn’t be too hurt about losing out to superior talents.  But if he can’t mentally get into the role the team is asking of him, I’m not sure how much use that he has to the team.

Daniel Bard seems more concerned about his own role than the good of the team

Aceves may not be comfortable with his role but at least he doesn’t publicly refuse to do it like Daniel Bard has.  Bard came out before last night’s game and made it clear that he had no intention of returning to the bullpen full time.  What is interesting about that is that the last time I checked Bard didn’t make the personnel decisions on the team, Bobby Valentine did.  It’s one thing for a bona fide leader like Pedroia to be openly question the manager but apparently Bard forgets the horrendous September he had last year not to mention the fact that he didn’t even secure a spot in the starting rotation until his last several starts of spring training.  I’ve never seen a pitcher who has accomplished so little so publicly throw egg on his manager’s face like Bard did with his pregame comments last night.  That level of diva-ness is generally reserved for the big guns such as Pedro and Roger.  One thing that Bard apparently didn’t learn from his former bullpen mate Papelbon is humility.  As much as a show off and an over the top personality that Papelbon was at least he was a team player.

Make no mistake about it, these guys want to start for one reason and one reason only – money.  Maybe they are just personally selfish guys or maybe it’s an overall attitude that younger pitchers are taking around the league as a whole.  I’ve noticed a few of the young Tampa Bay pitchers act like spoiled children on the mound at times.  Apparently the $60 million over 5 years that Papelbon earned on the free agent market wasn’t enough.  Whatever the reason the Red Sox desperately need to find someone to close out games and the fact that neither of these guys seem to want to step up is incredibly disappointing.

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Red Sox/Rays series recap

If I told you on Thursday that the Red Sox would win 3 out of 4 from the Rays you’d be pretty excited.  That’s exactly what The Red Sox did this weekend on the backs of some great pitching and some timely hitting.  The only blemish of the weekend was a 1-0 loss on Marathon Monday in which Daniel Bard went into the 7th inning with a shutout.

Beckett was impressive in 8 innings on opening day at Fenway

Success in baseball starts with your starting pitching and after the first 6 games on the road there seemed to be a lot of questions about the Red Sox’ starting pitching staff.  The Sox starters answered the call in the 4 games against Tampa.  Josh Beckett started thing off with a superb 8 inning effort against the Rays at the home opener.  Beckett’s velocity was still hovering around 91 MPH but he had better location than he did in his first start and he kept the Rays swinging early in counts.  Beckett seems like a new pitcher and at least for this game it worked.  Clay Buchholz had a horrendous beginning to his start in game 2, giving up 4 runs in the 1st inning and throwing 43 pitches in the first 2.  Like Beckett Buchholz started locating his pitches better and getting the Rays to swing early in counts.  This resulted in him pitching through the 7th inning while the Sox’ offense put Buchholz in line for a win.  Buchholz hadn’t pitched in 10 months so it seems like the rust was starting to wear off during his 2nd start of the season.

Doubront has put together two solid starts for the Sox

The young guys in the rotation were equally as impressive as the veterans.  Felix Doubront had another solid outing on Sunday, keeping Rays’ hitters on their toes with a mix of change-ups and curve balls to go with his 95-96 MPH fastball.  Doubront tallied 7 strikeouts in 5 innings and only gave up 1 walk despiting reaching 90 pitches in the 6th inning.  He gave up 4 runs but like Buchholz, kept the Sox in the game.  Doubront needs to work on his pitch count but that’s not anything surprising for a young pitcher.  The best pitching performance of the series may have belonged to Daniel Bard, who pitched shut-out baseball for 6 2/3 innings on Monday morning.  He had 7 strikeouts himself but was undone by his 7 walks, including the one to walk in the only run of the game.  I can kind of see why Valentine left Bard in their, he wants him to get experience in those tough situations, but this one cost them the game.  Like Doubront, Bard needs to cut down on his pitches.  Bard was outstanding for most of the day however, mixing in his nasty curve ball to go along the with his fastballs.  One thing that’s for sure is that there is a boatload of potential in the back of the Sox rotation right now.  How they come to realize it will be interesting to watch

Morales may end up being the main setup guy for the Sox

It wasn’t just the starting pitchers who were impressive in this series.  The bullpen, much maligned after the 1st 6 games, is really starting to come together.  Aceves pitched two clean innings, including one for a save on Sunday.  He’s now sat down the last 9 batters that he’s faced after his horrible start.  Is he the long term answer at closer while Andrew Bailey is hurt?  Maybe not but you’ve got to feel a hell of a lot better about him now than you did a week ago.  I’ve always been a Franklin Morales fan and he has the look of a bonafide set-up man with his consistent 96 MPH fastball.  “The Monster” Vicente Padilla has also slotted in nicely in the back of the bullpen for the Sox.  Scott Atchison continues to be an unsung hero in the ‘pen with a sub-2.00 ERA in the early going.  The bullpen always needs to feel itself out in the early part of the season and things eventually fall into place, even if it’s not how you thought it would look.  Right now the bullpen is looking much, much better than it did in Detroit.

Big Papi is on fire in the early going for the Sox

As good as the pitching was in the series the offense was the offense.  They exploded for 31 runs in the first 3 games against the highly touted Rays’ young pitching staff.  Only veteran Jason Shields could slow them down in the final game of the series.  Big Papi was a monster going 9-for-16 during the series and continuing his torrid early season pace.  The Sox only got home runs from Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia on the road in the first 6 games but got a HR from 5 different players in this series including 2 each from Mike Aviles and Cody Ross.  The loss of Jacoby Ellsbury is big but Mike Aviles picked up the slack in the lead-off spot by going 5-for-13 along with the two bombs, both of which put the Red Sox ahead late in the game on Saturday and Sunday.  Kelly Shoppach was a spark plug at the bottom of the order when he was in there, going 4-for-7 in his two starts.  He also gave his the most entertaining moment of the series when he slide 10 feet from the bag and had to literally dive head first into 2nd base on a steal attempt.  He was safe and it was his 1st career steal on his 1st career attempt.

Aviles has been one of many contributors in April

Defensively the Sox were solid, getting some good plays out of Cody Ross in center and right field as well as Ryan Sweeney in right.  The infield is playing really solid defense right now, early season fears of Mike Aviles’ inability to man the shortstop position on a consistent basis seem to have been quelled.  Tampa has run all over us in recent years but the Sox kept them at bay.  It was something emphasized in the off-season, either by bringing in a big arm like Kelly Shoppach at catcher or by having the coaches work with the pitching staff to do a better job at holding runners on.  Whatever it is is working because people aren’t running all over the Sox this year like they have in the past.

The two things that people will remember about Bobby Valentine this series was what he said about Youk and leaving Bard in the game a little too long.  His coaching staff has done a great job so far though.  Him and McClure have worked great with the bullpen and are really hitting their stride in that regard.  He seems to be moving the lineup around nicely.  Aviles seems like a nice choice to replace Ellsbury for now and he mixes in guys like Shoppach and Sweeney perfectly.  Many said this team would be lucky to win 4 games on this tough home stand against Tampa, Texas, and the Yankees.  They have 3 already and, with Lester and Beckett pitching the two game series against the Rangers, could have the 4 wins wrapped up by the weekend series against the Yankees.  Whatever you want to say the beginning of this year looks like it’ll be a far cry than the debacle that started last season.

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