Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Saturday, May 27, 2006

STAND OR FALL

The Red Sox were advertised as a team built on pitching and defense this year. So far, that's been mostly, but not entirely true.

To begin with, their starting pitching has been good, thanks to Curt Schilling (7-2. 3.80 ERA) and Josh Beckett (7-1, 3.80 ERA), but not great. After all, Tim Wakefield, the designated number two starter, is 3-6 with a 4.57 ERA. Some would argue that he hasn't been given adequate run support, but that doesn't explain the ERA. Then there's Matt Clement, with his 4-4 record and disturbing 6.31 ERA. And the Lenny DiNardo experiment didn't fare so well.

Yet, the Sox have battled through, not knowing who their number five starter will be. Instead they've relied on Schilling, Beckett, and the incredible defense that ranks number one in the AL, with only 15 errors in 45 games. But that isn't all. The Sox have discovered a surprisingly potent offense to go along with their stellar defense.

For all the talk of how much offense the Sox sacrificed to put a greater emphasis on pitching and defense, the offense has been quite similar to last season's explosive team. The Sox are hitting .281, sixth best in baseball, and slightly better than the average they had through this time last season. They're averaging 5.5 runs, nearly identical to last season's 5.6 average, and have hit home runs at roughly the same pace as well (53 in 45 games this season).

But questions about the starting rotation persist. Does anyone really believe that this staff, as currently constructed, can advance to the World Series, much less win it? I'd say they're clearly one starter short of that objective.

So, tonight was a big night in David Wells' quest to prove that, at age 43, he still has what it takes to pitch in the Bigs -- namely an indefatigable left arm, plus pinpoint accuracy and control.

And Wells didn't disappoint. In 4 1/3 innings, Wells gave up five hits, and only one run. Wells customary accuracy was once again on display, as he didn't issue a single walk. Forty one of his fifty three pitches were strikes, an impressive 77% ratio.

But then disaster struck, or more namely a line drive off the bat of Travis Lee in the fifth inning, and Wells was down for the count. Initial reports are that the injury is just a deep bone bruise to is surgically repaired right knee, and it may not be career threatening. We'll know more in the coming days, but let's hope for the best. Boomer looked impressive in his short stint on the mound at Fenway.

Even if he is able to return, whether or not Wells is the long-term solution for the remainder of the 2006 season is entirely unknown. His worn knee could still fail him, and the team, at any time.

There's always the possibility, or fantasy, of Roger Clemens coming back to Fenway as a Red Sox. But how old and stale has that story become? Clemens has been perpetually set to retire since 2003, and he still can't seem to make up his mind. And it should be noted that although he had great success in the NL, his last five seasons in the AL (all with the Yankees) resulted in an ERA of 4.01. That's certainly better than Wakefield and Clement, but Clemens will also be 44 in August. Simply put, he'll never again be the pitcher he once was, and to expect as much is to welcome disappointment. The legendary pitcher he was in the 80's and 90's is no longer. Clemens will be a shadow of his former self if he returns to the AL once again, even if he pitches for only half a season. That's not to say that Clemens wouldn't help the Sox, but there may be better alternatives available.

It would be nice to see the Sox to make a run at Dontrelle Willis. The D-Train would be a fine addition to the Sox staff, and would anchor the rotation for the next decade. But to get him they'd need to part with highly touted prospect Jon Lester.

In nine starts at Pawtucket this season, Lester is 3-4 with a 3.13 ERA. In 37 innings, he's given up just 33 hits and 13 earned runs. If that's not impressive enough, Lester has 37 K's and only 17 walks. Lefthanders are hitting just .120 (3 for 25) against him, righthanders .254 (30 for 118), and 60% of his pitches have been strikes. Impressive numbers. His losing record is clearly deceiving. Since he's averaging more than one strikeout, and less than one hit, per inning, it's evident that Lester isn't getting much run support. We could see him in the rotation before the year is out, if he's not traded for Willis.

Willis is the only kind of player the club could conceivably move Lester for. But why would the Sox trade one 22-year-old lefty for another 24-year-old lefty? It's simple. One is already a proven Big League commodity, while the other simply possesses potential. There are plenty of "can't miss" kids in Triple A who miss in the Majors. Does anyone remember Brain Rose? How about Carl Pavano? Other than one good season, his career has been marked by nothing but hype, and injuries.

So, the Sox will have to maintain their hot bats, and their remarkable defense. We'll wish the best for David Wells, meanwhile hoping that Clemens shows up in a Sox jersey or, even better, that the Sox can ride the D-Train to World Series glory.

Barring any of that, Jon Lester may be able to -- may have to -- make a meaningful contribution before the year is over, much like Jonathan Papelbon did last year. But putting such outsized expectations on a rookie is both unfair and unrealistic.

The more likely scenario is that the Sox will need to go out and make a trade for a veteran pitcher -- likely a free agent -- at the trade deadline, just like every other contender will be attempting to do.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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