Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Friday, June 30, 2006

TRUTH IN ADVERTISING

Jason Johnson certainly had to be feeling the pressure as he took the mound for the Red Sox last night in Miami. Pitching in his very first game for the Sox, Johnson was entrusted with the task of maintaining the team's 12-game winning streak, third best in club history.

The big question was if Johnson would be up to that task. After all, he'd just recently been released by the woeful Cleveland Indians, who were seven games under .500 and fifteen games out of first place when he was designated for assignment.

And before the first inning was over, Johnson proved that his 55-94 career record was no fluke.

Some of us had reason to speculate that maybe Johnson's pitiful career record was the result on having played on such poor teams, the sort that had never won more than 78 games in his career. Perhaps he was never given enough run support. But then there was his dismal 5.96 ERA this year, which was only marginally better than his career ERA of 4.95. Maybe all of his teams, in each of ten assorted seasons, played poor defense. Some of us were optimistic, hopeful even.

So much for the benefit of the doubt. After giving up more hits and runs than innings pitched -- six hits and five runs in just four innings -- the 32-year-old Johnson reminded us that he should probably be in the minors, or perhaps thinking about the next phase of his life.

Right now, Johnson probably feels horrible. This was not a good way to introduce himself to his teammates, or the fans. But though he was facing the challenging task of maintaining the team's winning streak, taking the mound for this particular Red Sox team would be an ideal scenario for any pitcher. Though they lost to the Marlins tonight, the Sox set a new Major League record with their 17th straight errorless game. The Sox infield plays the kind of smooth, seamless defense that most pitchers can only dream of.

But Johnson couldn't take advantage of it, giving up three runs in the first and two more in the second, digging himself a big hole in the process. It was one that he, and the rest of the team, could never get out of. The big righty's command was entirely lacking; he hit two batters and uncorked a wild pitch that resulted in a run.

It was the wrong night for such a meltdown, as Johnson came up against a premiere young lefty and was completely overmatched by him. Dontrelle Willis yielded just two runs in seven strong innings. The D-Train gave up seven hits, while striking out seven, en route to his fifth win of the season. The Marlins' offseason fire sale has certainly hurt the record of last year's 22 game winner.

Johnson had a difficult time just recording outs; eight of the first eleven batters he faced reached base, and five of them scored. It should have been little surprise to anyone, including Theo Epstein. Tonight's loss was the fifth straight for Johnson, and the 11th in his last 12 outings. That's pathetic.

The large contingent of Red Sox Nation on hand -- resulting in the Marlins largest home crowd this year (32,194) -- let Johnson hear their displeasure. It'll be ugly if he has another outing like that at Fenway.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Many were wondering why Kyle Snyder, after his sharp performance at Fenway just twelve days ago, wasn't given the start. In five innings of work against the Nationals, the 6'8" Snyder had a career-high six strikeouts and allowed three runs on just four hits. Hopefully he'll be recalled from Pawtucket where he pitched effectively again this week.

It isn't that Johnson, and the Red Sox, lost and that a fantastic winning streak was broken. All streaks eventually have to end, as will this remarkable record-setting errorless streak. The problem was the futility with which Johnson pitched, how little control or confidence he displayed, and that he couldn't even keep his team in the game. He simply wasn't competitive tonight, and that won't inspire confidence in anyone else either.

Ultimately, Johnson came as advertised, and his ERA and record didn't lie. No one should feel deceived or let down. He did the best he could, as I'm sure he always has, but that just isn't good enough for a team hoping to reclaim a post-season birth and a World Series championship.

I never thought I'd long for Matt Clement so much. Get well soon, Matt.

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

Saturday, June 24, 2006

THE TENTH STARTER

Picking up Jason Johnson from the Indians wasn't much of a gamble for the Red Sox -- financially at least. Cleveland will pick up about half of Johnson's remaining $3.5 million salary this season, leaving just a $500,000 buyout on the remaining $4 million due next season. That won't break John Henry's bank.

Theo Epstein took the optimistic view that Johnson’s 2.85 to 1 ground ball to fly ball ratio -- third-best in the American League -- and the Sox number one defense would be a prefect match.

The gamble here is sending Johnson -- and his 55-94 career record -- to the mound every fifth day. It might be best if Johnson faces a lineup consisting solely of right-handed batters. Left-handed hitters are batting .403 against him. If you're not worried yet, Johnson has allowed the fourth most hits (108) and thrown the fifth most wild pitches (6) of any pitcher in the league.

At the least Johnson can eat up innings -- he's pitched at least 189 in four of his last five seasons. Let's hope the middle of the order homers twice... with men on base... every time he pitches.

Right now he's throwing better than David Wells or Lenny DiNardo, and no worse than Matt Clement. But in all fairness to the latter three, each of them is on the DL right now.

Johnson says that since he's never been on a team that had the chance to make the playoffs, he's excited to become a member of the Red Sox and get an opportunity to step up and pitch the way he knows he really can.

That first opportunity, or test (depending on how you see it), will come on Saturday against the Marlins in Florida. Johnson will be the tenth different pitcher to start a game for the Sox this season, joining a rotation that has struggled to find solid candidates for the four and five spots.

Welcome to Boston Mr. Johnson, and best of luck to you.

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

Thursday, June 22, 2006

THE JUICE MAN?

Reliever Keith Foulke, on the 15-day disabled list since June 13 due to tendinitis in his right elbow, is still experiencing inflammation and isn't ready to throw yet. Foulke was scheduled to begin throwing on Monday, but his arm wasn't well enough to proceed as planned.

When asked about his recovery, Foulke sounded less than optimistic, saying that he still hoped to make something of the season. The reliever said that he was "unable to touch his face" over the weekend. That can hardly be viewed as a vote of confidence.

The 33-year-old has battled injuries the past two seasons and has appeared in only 72 games. He pitched in that many games in his first year with the Sox, during his run as the closer for the eventual 2004 World Series champions.

This season, Foulke is 2-1 with a 5.63 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 32 innings. Before 2005, Foulke had posted an ERA under 3.00 in six consecutive seasons.

Some have speculated that Foulke's sudden decline could be the result of steroid use, or perhaps other performance enhancing drugs such as human growth hormone (HGH) or insulin-like growth factor (IGF). Who's to say if the rumors have any merit, but Foulke did play in Oakland (the heart of BALCO country), has displayed a volatile personality, and experienced a rapid breakdown after a sharp rise to dominance from mediocrity. It's enough to lead some to wonder if he was on the juice.

We may never know. But then again, new names have been - and will continue to be - revealed as the MLB investigation proceeds. That reality is likely making a number of players very nervous, and perhaps enough to make Keith sweat.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

ANOTHER CASTOFF REELED IN

With seven starting pitchers coming into spring training, the Red Sox never imagined that they'd be left with only three of them by June. Such is the improbability of baseball.

But just three months later, David Wells is unlikely to return, Matt Clement is a huge question mark, Lenny DiNrdo an unproven commodity, and all three of them are on the disabled list. The Red Sox have had to get creative, and resort to flotsam, to find their replacements.

GM Theo Epstein was able to acquire yet another castoff on Wednesday when he picked up right-handed sinkerballer Jason Johnson from the Indians. While the terms were reportedly a player to be named or cash, Theo Epstein indicated that the compensation to the Indians would simply be cash. Despite this, the Indians will still pay the bulk of of Johnson's remaining $4 million salary.

Cleveland designated Johnson for assignment on Tuesday and the Sox acted immediately to shore up their hobbled rotation. Johnson will make his debut for the Sox in a July 1 start at Florida, when the team will need a fifth starter once again. However, he was immediately added to the 25-man roster, and the newly acquired Kyle Snyder -- another unwanted and released pitcher -- was optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket.

A veteran who's pitched in parts of nine Major League seasons, the 32-year-old Johnson was 3-8 with a 5.96 ERA in 14 starts for the Indians this year. He is third in the American League with a 2.85 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, and should only benefit from the Sox impeccable, and Major League leading, defense.

The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Johnson is 55-94 with a 4.95 ERA in 229 Major League appearances, 213 of which have been as a starter. Last season, Johnson led the Tigers with 19 quality starts, going 8-13 with a 4.54 ERA.

Johnson's lackluster record may be a bit deceiving; the early years of his career were played for a weak Orioles team that never won more than 78 games in any of his five years there -- and as few as 63. Johnson's next stop was a two year stint with Detroit, pitching for a Tigers team that won 72 and 71 games, respectively. And this year, Johnson's Indians team was a disappointing seven games under .500 and fifteen games out of first place when he was designated.

The point is that bad teams don't just have bad pitchers -- they usually have bad defense and bad offense too. Yet Johnson may be as unimpressive as his ERA, or worse, his record. That remains to be seen, but it won't take long to find out.

One way or the other, with both Snyder and Johnson now in the organization, the Sox have inexpensively sought to improve their overall pitching depth. Epstein managed to preserve the farm system by not doling out the organization's talented prospects, and the trade deadline is still over a month away.

But we shouldn't hold our collective breath. With six AL teams in striking distance of an AL playoff spot, and nine in the NL, lots of teams will seeking to upgrade their pitching via deadline trades. The competition will be stiff, and the pickins' will be slim. There are no guarantees that Dontelle Willis, Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt will be available or obtainable. And if any of them are, the price will be steep. No one in Red Sox Nation would react well to a trade involving Jon Lester (especially after tonight's remarkable 6 inning, three hit, one run, 10 K outing) or Craig Hansen. And with the bullpen in such disarray, who really wants to part with hometown boy Manny Delcarmen at such an early stage in his career? Mike Timlin, Rudy Seanez, Keith Folke, and Julian Tavarez all could be gone next season and will need to be replaced. Delcarmen could be a part of the Sox bullpen for many years to come.

Expect Dustin Pedrioa and or David murphy to be traded before any of the young pitching talent. Until then, let's hope that a combination of Johnson and or Snyder can fill out the fifth spot and help the Sox win some games every fifth day against the competition's impotent bottom-of-the-rotation starters.

Monday, June 19, 2006

SNYDER'S SURPRISE

The scouting report on Kyle Snyder noted a good changeup and an average curve. That was only half right. In his first start for the Red Sox, Snyder threw the curve ball quite effectively, and at the end of the night came away with just his third big league victory.

In five solid innings, the vertically gifted righty had a career-high six strikeouts and allowed three runs on just four hits. Snyder's only miscues were the solo homers he surrendered to Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen, but because he allowed so few baserunners, those runs didn't come back to haunt him. Doing more than enough to keep his team in the game, Snyder came up with a performance no one could have predicted.

Coming into tonight's contest, the 28-year-old's major league record (spanning 2003 to 2006) was 2-9 over 29 games, including 19 starts. As unimpressive as the record was, Snyder's 5.91 ERA was equally unflattering. And this season, with Triple A Omaha, he was 0-4 in 10 games (nine starts), with a 3.88 ERA, 43 K's and just nine walks in 60 1/3 innings.

So whatever Snyder's shortcomings were, control wasn't one of them.

But in his only appearance with Kansas City this year, Snyder allowed nine runs (five earned) on 10 hits in two-plus innings. That June 8th debacle was enough for the Royals, and they put the 6'8" righty on waivers. The Red Sox, as desperate as they are for pitching, were willing to take a flier on a guy who couldn't find a spot in the worst rotation in baseball.

Good move for the Sox, it seems. Apparently someone did their homework on Snyder and perhaps he can be of help to the team again this season. The speculation was that Snyder would be sent down to Pawtucket after this start, but his sharp performance likely turned some heads, and perhaps changed some minds. Immediate word after the game was that Jermaine Van Buren was optioned to Pawtucket and Craig Hansen was recalled. Snyder remains safe, at least for now. Jon Lester may fill David Wells spot in the rotation -- to which he may never return -- but Matt Clement remains a question mark, at best, and Snyder could come in handy again this season. It's still only June.

Sure, the game had other highlights; Manny Ramirez's 453 career home run, which moved him past Carl Yastremzski and Jim Thome, and into a tie with Gary Sheffield for 28th on baseball's career list; Gabe Kapler's return to the starting lineup for the first time since rupturing his Achilles' tendon last Sept. (his eventful return included two hits, highlighted by an RBI double, and a fine catch in right); and four scoreless innings from the combination of Van Buren, Javier Lopez (each of whom also started the season in Triple-A), Rudy Seanez and Mike Timlin, who earned his first save of the year.

So there was good news all around, but none better than the surprise performance of power-forward-sized pitcher who seemingly came out of nowhere and may have earned himself a place in the rotation in the process -- or at least another start in coming weeks.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

PAPELBON MOVES ALONG

On Friday night, in Atlanta, Red Sox rookie closer Jonathan Papelbon picked up his 21st save of the season, moving into a tie with Jeff Reardon (21 in 1990). In doing so, Papelbon passed Rick Aguilera (20 in 1995), John Wyatt (20 in 1967), and Sparky Lyle (20 in 1970) on the Sox single-season saves list.

Then this afternoon, the power-pitching rookie matched Dick Radatz (1965) and Bob Stanley (1984) with his 22nd save of the season.

Believe it or not, with just two more saves (which will likely come before this month is over), the hard-throwing youngster will, incredibly, enter the top ten for single-season saves by a Red Sox closer. That 24th save will also tie the Sox rookie record for saves, currently held by Dick Radatz.

Next up, each with 24 saves, are Derek Lowe (2001), Tom Burgmeier (1980), and Dick Radatz (1962) -- good enough for 10th place on the list.

As promised, I will continue to update Papelbon's performances and chart his progress as he moves along. With each successive outing, Papelbon continues to make his case for Rookie of the Year. As it stands, the Louisiana native's 20 successful save opportunities to start this season are an MLB rookie record.

Here's a look at the Red Sox all-time single-season saves leaders:

1. Tom Gordon - 46 saves in 1998

2. Derek Lowe - 42 saves in 2000

T- 3.Ugueth Urbina - 40 saves in 2002
Jeff Reardon - 40 saves 1991

T- 4. Jeff Russell - 33 saves in 1993
Bob Stanley - 33 saves 1n 1983

5. Keith Foulke - 32 saves in 2004

T- 6. Heathcliff Slocumb - 31 saves in 1996
Bill Campbell - 31 saves in 1977

T- 7. Lee Smith - 29 saves in 1988
Dick Radatz - 29 saves in 1964

T- 8. Jeff Reardon - 27 saves in 1992
Ellis Kinder - 27 saves in 1953

T- 9. Lee Smith - 25 saves in 1989
Dick Radatz - 25 saves in 1963

T- 10. Derek Lowe - 24 saves in 2001
Tom Burgmeier - 24 Saves in 1980
Dick Radatz - 24 saves in 1962

Thursday, June 15, 2006

TRADE RAISES QUESTIONS

The Red Sox acquisition of 28-year-old lefty reliever Javier Lopez from the White Sox is a curious one.

Lopez is 2-1, with 12 saves and a stingy 0.55 earned run average, in 26 appearances for Triple-A Charlotte of the International League.

Lopez has held lefthanded hitters to a lowly .171 (6-35) batting average. Equally impressive, Lopez's groundball/flyball ratio is 64/25 (72%), the second best in the International League and fourth best in all of professional baseball (MLB and minors) among pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched.

The question is, why would the White Sox let go of a reliever with such impressive stats in exchange for David Riske, a reliever who proved himself to be inconsistent and unreliable (0-1 with a 3.72 ERA in eight relief appearances) for the Red Sox this season.

Lopez has not allowed a run in his last 9.1 innings over eight appearances. But of concern is his 6.09 ERA over three big league seasons (2003-05). However, as a big leaguer, Lopez has allowed just 22% (26 of 118) of inherited runners to score while holding lefthanded batters to a .246 batting average.

And since Lopez set a Rockies' rookie record with 75 appearances in 2003, issuing just two earned runs in his first 30 appearances, one has to wonder why Colorado let him go, and why he's been pitching in Triple A for the White Sox?

As for Riske, Theo Epstein said his expendability was due to the team's glut of righthanded relievers, hinting that the trade could also clear room for the eventual return of Craig Hansen.

Though Sox' relievers rank sixth in the American League with a 4.29 ERA, even Epstein acknowledged that it's hard to believe, since only Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Timlin have shown consistency. "Behind [those two] we're looking for someone to step up. We really need someone to assert themselves there and help Tito."

Something had to be done. On Sunday, Keith Foulke pitched just two innings, surrendering four runs on seven hits, with two strikeouts and one wild pitch, before going on the DL.

On Tuesday night, Julian Tavarez hit a batter, gave up a ground rule double, and intentionally walked the next batter, before surrendering a walk-off grand slam to Jason Kubel in the 12th inning. Tavarez has now allowed eight runs in just seven innings this month.

Then last night, Jermaine Van Buren allowed a single and three walks in the sixth - walking in a run - before exiting with the bases loaded. His successor, Manny Delcarmen, threw a 3-and-1 fastball to Justin Morneau which went soaring to the opposite field for a grand slam.

The two grand slams -- both hit by lefthanded hitters off righthanded pitchers -- highlighted the Sox' need for a lefthander, something their bullpen had lacked, until now.

But the pen isn't the only concern. With David Wells' status uncertain, Lenny DiNardo's ineffectiveness before going on the DL, David Pauley showing the need for more fine-tuning in Triple A, and Mattt Clement looking like a shadow of the free agent pitcher the Red Sox signed in the winter of 2004, more help will be needed in the starting rotation.

Epstein said the Sox will continue to look internally for starting pitching, but acknowledged that he will also explore options outside the organization, and look to the trade market in an effort to fulfill the team's needs.

As will every other contender.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

PAPELBON'S POWER & PROWESS

Rookie Jonathan Papelbon's consecutive saves streak was finally snapped on Friday night, and yet he still earned a win for his efforts. But along the way, during the extraordinary streak, Papelbon joined Dennis Eckersley as the only two closers to go a perfect 20 for 20 in save opportunities.

What Papelbon has done so far this year has been quite remarkable. After going 10-10 in save opportunities to start the season, Papelbon was named the American League Rookie of the Month for April. Then on May 26, when he recorded his 17th save against the Devil Rays, Papelbon set a rookie record for most successful save opportunities to start a season. And with just five more saves, Papelbon will set a new Red Sox rookie record for single-season saves, currently held by Dick Radatz (24).

Presently sitting atop 20 saves, Papelbon is already tied with Rick Aguilera, Jim Willoughby, and Jack Wilson for 24th place on the Red Sox all time saves list. The young closer is on pace for 57 saves this season, which would be a new single-season club record, and good enough for 9th place on the all-time club list.

Papelbon is now tied with three former Red Sox closers who each had 20 saves in season; Rick Aguilera (1995), John Wyatt (1967), and Sparky Lyle (1970). The hard-throwing youngster will soon pass Jeff Reardon (21 in 1990), Dick Radatz ( 22 in 1965) and Bob Stanley (22 in 1984) on the single season saves list. After that -- and likely before the month is over -- Papelbon will incredibly move into the top ten list for single-season saves by a Sox closer.

Here's a look at the Sox single-season saves leaders:

1. Tom Gordon 46 saves in 1998

2. Derek Lowe 42 saves in 2000

T- 3.Ugueth Urbina 40 saves in 2002
Jeff Reardon 40 saves 1991

T- 4. Jeff Russell 33 saves in 1993
Bob Stanley 33 saves 1n 1983

5. Keith Foulke 32 saves in 2004

T- 6. Heathcliff Slocumb 31 saves in 1996
Bill Campbell 31 saves in 1977

T- 7. Lee Smith 29 saves in 1988
Dick Radatz 29 saves in 1964

T- 8. Jeff Reardon 27 saves in 1992
Ellis Kinder 27 saves in 1953

T- 9. Lee Smith 25 saves in 1989
Dick Radatz 25 saves in 1963

T- 10. Derek Lowe 24 saves in 2001
Tom Burgmeier 24 Saves in 1980
Dick Radatz 24 saves in 1962

Moving forward, I will update Papelbon's efforts and chart his progress as he moves up the list. What we are witnessing is extraordinary and quite unique. Papelbon will certainly be a candidate for Rookie of the Year, and quite possibly for the Cy Young Award, as well.

The Red Sox are quite fortunate to have Jonathan Papelbon in their bullpen, and Red Sox Nation is certainly fortunate to be able to bear witness to his remarkable exploits and achievements this season.

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

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

The bad news tonight was that the Red Sox lost to the Yankees again, falling 1 1/2 games behind New York in the AL East standings.

The good news was that it was a close game (2-1), largely due to the efforts of rookie pitcher David Pauley, who was making just his second Major League start. Going 6 2/3 innings, Pauley scattered eight hits and gave up just two runs against the potent Yankee offense.

A sinker ball pitcher, the 22-year-old kept the ball down and recorded 13 ground outs, five fly outs, and two strike outs. In all, Pauley threw 98 pitches, 61 for strikes.

The only blemish on Pauley's otherwise impressive night was a solo shot to Bernie Williams in the fifth. Pauley was cruising along through the seventh, retiring the first two batters of the inning, before giving up an infield single to Miguel Cairo on a groundball that just slipped under his glove. He'd love to have that one back. Johnny Damon singled immediately, followed by a four-pitch walk to Melky Cabrera. Bases loaed.

The unreliable Rudy Seanez came on in relief and quickly proceed to walk in the winning run. Pauley deserved better. Sure, he was responsible for the runners on base, but what kind of reliever walks in the winning run? Julian Taverez walked in a couple last week, but that lead was too big to blow despite Mr. T's efforts. The Sox bullpen has issues.

The starting rotation has its own issues, such as what happened to Josh Beckett in game one, Matt Clement in general, and who the fifth starter will be. The first two remain a mystery, but judging by tonight's performance in hostile Yankee stadium, the Sox may have found their fifth starter -- or some insurance in the event that David Wells can come back and be effective. Even if that happens, the Sox are just an injury -- or a mental meltdown -- away from needing Pauley's services again, and may consider themselves fortunate to have found a determined young sinker baller pitching in Double A ball.

Who would have thunk it?

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

DRAFT DAY DELIGHTS

The marathon 50-round baseball draft began today and finishes tomorrow. Of particular note, the Red Sox had four of the first 44 picks, and seven of the first 103.

With nine selections in the first five rounds, the Red Sox, are tied with the Braves for the most picks. Though the top of the draft was widely regarded as weak, without any obvious "can't-miss" prospects, early indications are that the Sox have done well.

With their first pick, at number 27, the Sox chose high school center fielder Jason Place. The 6'3", 205-pound, 18-year-old hit .478 over the course of his high school career, including .544 this season. Scouts see Place as a five-tool player.

As a result of the free agent loss of Johnny Damon, the Sox also had the 28th pick and used it to select Daniel Bard, a 6'4", 200-pound pitcher from UNC Chapel Hill. The 20-year old righty is projected as a No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher in the majors.

With five of their seven remaining picks, the Sox chose pitchers -- three righties and two lefties. Four are college players and one is a high schooler.

The Sox were also in search of a catcher and some power bats to fill out their system. With that in mind, the Sox chose Jonathan Still, a 6'3" 215-pound catcher from North Carolina State University. The 21-year-old bats right and is considered a solid power hitter. The Sox also chose first baseman Aaron Bates from North Carolina State. Another power hitter, the 6'4", 232-pound Bates is rated as one of the best hitters in this year's class.

The draft hasn't been good to the Sox in over a decade. Before Craig Hansen, who was chosen No. 26 overall last year, the last Sox first-round pick to reach the majors with the club was Nomar Garciaparra, taken in 1994.

There are plenty of superstars who've slipped in previous drafts -- Dontrelle Willis (eighth round, 2000), Albert Pujols (13th round, 1999), Roy Oswalt (23d round, 1996), Mark Buehrle (38th round, 1998), and Mike Piazza (62d round, 1988).

Lets hope the Sox have landed a gem of their own.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

HOW GOOD ARE THEY?

With their win today, combined with a Yankee loss, the Red Sox once again find themselves back atop the AL East standings after a brief, one day, fall into second. How good is this year's team?

Well compared to last year's club, which won 95 games and got into the playoffs, pretty comparable.

Through 54 games, this is how the current team stacks up to last year's edition:

2006 2005

Wins 33 30
HR 67 57
OBP .366 .361
Team Average .278 .280
Team ERA .460 .476
Saves 21 12
HR Allowed 66 52
Errors 20 36

So what does this infer? Well, for starters, this team is at least as good as last year's -- if wins are the primary indicator -- and secondarily, the power hitting has improved (to the surprise of many) while the team's ability to hit and get on base has remained about exactly the same. Concerns about an offensive decline were premature and overstated.

Perhaps the most eye-popping statistic is how far the team's error total has fallen, which bears out Theo Epstein's commitment to defense this year. That's been of great benefit to Sox pitchers, though their numbers don't necessarily bear that out. Just think of how much worse things could be.

The team's Achilles' heel last year was pitching, and -- though it was advertised to be much improved -- pitching is this team's significant weakness once again. The team ERA has improved just marginally, but the homers allowed are way up. The one shining success is the bullpens' 36 saves. Rookie Jonathan Papelbon has already singlehandedly amassed as many saves (20) as the entire bullpen did collectively in 2005. That's a marked improvement, and one we can all be grateful for.

The most amazing thing, however, is that the Sox have managed to be this successful despite the middling contributions of Matt Clement (now finally over .500 but with a 6.68 ERA) and Tim Wakefield (4-7, 4.05 ERA). Even Josh Beckett is now sporting a 4.46 ERA, though that's overshadowed by his 7-2 record. But most of all, the rotation has been without a regular fifth starter all year, and has gotten mostly weak efforts from David Wells, Lenny DinArdo, and David Pauley. Pauley will continue his trial by fire this week in the Bronx, but he'll be on a short leash and won't be given much room for error.

Because of the double-header on Saturday against Texas, the Sox will likely call up 22-year-old lefty Jon Lester to make his Major League debut. Hopefully he's as good as all the hype that's surrounded him for the past couple of years, because at this point the beleaguered rotation could use an injection of talented, capable youth. As we saw last year, offense will only take a club so far -- namely a first round playoff exit, if they're lucky to get that far again. The AL is much more competitive this year. Wining the division may provide the only invitation to the post season.

In the meantime, the Sox will remain patient at the plate and try to keep feasting on opposing pitchers.

As Tiger rookie pitcher Zach Miner said, "That's probably the best-hitting team in baseball, and they just wouldn't swing at anything out of the strike zone."

That plate discipline and patience have worked wonders so far this year, and were on display again today as David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez hit two of Boston's four homers and drew two of its three bases-loaded walks in the Sox victory.

The Sox will need more of that, and they'll also need some pitching help from either inside or outside the organization, if they're to fight their way back into the post season again and repeat the World Series glory of 2004.

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