Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Thursday, July 19, 2007

MIRED IN MEDIOCRITY

The Red Sox haven't looked like a division leader, much less a Pennant threat, in quite some time. Something's got to give. But what can be done?

For the Red Sox, the first homestand of the second half isn't shaping up nearly as well as anyone had hoped for, or had a right to expect. Playing two sub-.500 teams, the Sox have gone a disappointing 3-4 after splitting a four game series with Toronto and losing a three game series to Kansas City.

But in truth, this type of play has become commonplace for the Red Sox since the start of June. On May 29th, the Red Sox held a 14 1/2 game lead in the AL East. But let's forget about May. That was soooo long ago. Let's just talk about the last two months.

On June 2nd, the Red Sox held a 13 1/2 game lead over the Yankees. But then began their current morass of mediocrity. The Red Sox proceeded to go 13-14 in June, and are now 7-8 in July. That means for the last two months the Red Sox are a combined 20-22, or two games below .500. And over that period, the Sox lead has dropped to just seven games. With a losing record since the start of June, the local nine must now be considered below average -- at least until they prove otherwise. Their early season success is masking just how bad they've been as of late.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Red Sox went into the free agent market last winter and spent a combined $91 million on Julio Lugo and JD Drew, and an additional $103 million on Japanese phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka. But to be fair, Matsuzaka really hasn't been part of the problem. It's been the offense, long the heart of the Red Sox game, that has been the problem. And Lugo and Drew, the expensive offseason acquisitions, have been at the heart of this problem.

As of Monday, the Sox were batting just .237 (77 for 325) with runners in scoring position, dating back to June 4 at Oakland. This offensive slide coincides with their losing record over that period.

Manny Ramirez is having the first off year in his illustrious career. Since 1995, Ramirez has never hit fewer than 26 homers in a season. That streak could be in jeopardy. And he is also hitting 21 points below his career average at present.

Then there is David Ortiz and his torn meniscus. Unlike Ramirez, in Papi's case at least we have clear problem to which his power outage can be attributed. After hitting a club record 54 homers last year, Ortiz is on pace to hit just 28 this year, assuming he plays in all 68 remaining games -- a highly unlikely scenario. The knee won't get better on its own and, despite his stellar .321 average, Ortiz won't be the same hitter who struck fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers until he has surgery and recovers fully.

So what's the remedy? Another potent bat would seem in order.

Wily Mo Pena was supposed to be that guy when the Sox traded for him before the start of last season. Hitting a healthy .301 in limited action last year, Pena showed all the potential that had been talked about for years. But this year he has simply gone in reverse.

The Red Sox had hoped to get the sometimes slugger 400 at-bats as a reserve this season. That would have been a first for the 25-year-old; his career high is 336 in 2004 with the Reds. But that's not going to happen. In fact, it won't even be close.

Pena currently has a meager .210 average in 124 at-bats. Mired in a continued slump dating back to June 13, the reserve outfielder is hitting .146 in 41 at-bats, and has struck out 21 times without hitting a home run. In 52 at-bats since June 1, Peña has hit just one home run. Called upon to pinch hit 10 times this season, he's 0 for 10 with four whiffs. And that's the good part.

Playing the outfield, Pena looks more like Willie McGinnest than a major leaguer. His lumbering misadventures would be comical if he weren't playing for the Olde Towne team. On the occasions when he has played in the field, you can almost hear a collective gasp from the crowd at Fenway when a ball is hit anywhere near him.

The truth is, Wily Mo will never be anything more than a designated hitter, which means he has to be an American League player. But stuck playing behind the best DH in the game -- perhaps ever -- the kid will never get a chance to play regularly, much less develop, with the Red Sox. Pena is on pace for 217 at-bats this season, which would be his fewest since he was with Cincinnati in 2003, his first full season in the big leagues.

This year, Pena was supposed to improve upon his plate discipline. Poor pitch selection resulted in 90 strikeouts in 276 at-bats last season. If that ratio seems high, it is; Pena struck out an incredible one-third of the time. But this year the problem has become even more unbearable; Pena has struck out a staggering 42% of the time.

But at times last year, Pena revealed his latent potential by hitting a career-high .301 with 11 home runs, 42 RBI, and 36 runs in 84 games. The limited playing time was largely due to injuries. That performance should have raised his trade value and possibly netted a decent return. That was then, this is now. As it now stands, it's difficult to discern Pena's assets in order to persuade a potential trading partner. At this point, the acquisition of Pena can only be described as "Epstein's Folly."

Theo Epstein said Pena was supposed to provide the Red Sox with a fourth-outfielder option who could help the team immediately. And Epstein also saw him as a young player who could potentially be a middle-of-the-order hitter when players currently in those roles reach the end of their contracts. The former has never come to pass, and the latter likely never will either.

With Ortiz's nagging knee injury, time off could be good for him down the stretch. The ugly truth is that he's just one play away from going on the DL, a moment that could come at any time. That unseemly possibility was exactly the kind of thing that Wily Mo was supposed to insure against. But at this point, who would invest in that policy? If you can't play him, you've got to hope that some AL team will take him for someone -- anyone.

But Pena, alone, probably isn't attractive enough. In that case, perhaps he could be packaged with one of the Red Sox minor league outfielders, David Murphy or Brandon Moss. Neither looks like he has a chance at cracking the roster any time soon. But as a result, neither has much trade value either. Another possibility is Portland Sea Dogs' shortstop Jed Lowrie, who could also be packaged and used as trade bait. However, considering Lugo's anemic performance this season, the team may have its own plans for Lowrie next year. The question is whether he'll be ready by then. If he is, the Sox would have a very young, very cheap, homegrown middle infield for years to come.

The Red Sox would almost certainly consider moving any combination of these young players if there is any interest in them. But that's the big question. Will anyone come calling? None of them can help the Sox this year, unless they are used in a trade. Cellar dwellers will be looking to dump expiring, or expensive, veteran contracts in exchange for the chance to rebuild with younger, cheaper players. The Red Sox can only hope they find an interested party for any of these players and not the more desirable prospects such as Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Jacoby Ellsbury.

The other distinct possibility is trading Coco Crisp. The speedy center fielder has been a disappointment at the plate since he broke his finger stealing a base at the beginning of last season. Crisp had no homers in April and finished the month hitting a paltry .149. In May, he hit one home run and raised his average to a still disappointing .235, making everyone worry that it was more than just a slow start.

But then in a three-game series against the Braves, Crisp hit three homers, including two in one game. That sparked a bit of a resurgence, and since then he has started to heat up. Crisp hit .330 in June, and is currently hitting .286 this month, raising hopes that he could once again regain the form that allowed him to hit .297 and .300 in back-to-back seasons with Cleveland. He's got a long way to go, but at least he's going in the right direction. At present, Crisp is hitting just .266, with five homers and 30 RBI.

But Crisp's defense has been stellar, and spectacular catches have become routine for him. His blazing speed and athleticism have made him a virtual human highlight reel.

Just how good has Crisp been defensively? Consider this: he has just one error in 509 chances with the Sox, and the longest error-less streak for a Sox center fielder -- ever. His last, and lone, error with the club was on July 21, 2006. This year Crisp has a perfect fielding percentage. He may not produce a lot of runs, but he sure prevents them. That’s a very important, and perhaps overlooked, contribution.

But if the Sox think that Crisp is their best trade bait, and that Ellsbury is ready to assume his duties in center, then perhaps Crisp is the odd man out. Given his offensive struggles dating back to last year, he probably wouldn't provide a lot in return by himself. But as part of a package with Pena, Moss, Murphy or Lowrie, perhaps a deal can be struck that would help the Sox right the ship and make a run for the Pennant down the stretch.

Getting a healthy Curt Schilling back might be the best second half acquisition the Sox can hope for, and the emergence of Kason Gabbard is another reason for optimism. Based on his performances, the fifth spot in the rotation should be his. It would certainly be an upgrade over the present fifth starter, Julian Tavarez.

As bad as the offense has been, the appearance of Tavarez has almost guaranteed a loss. By the time Tavarez wins his next game, more than a month will have passed. Since his June 20th victory in Atlanta, the Sox' fifth starter hasn't gotten past the sixth inning. In that ugly span, Tavarez has given up 26 runs, 20 earned, in 23 1/3 innings over five starts.

Tavarez sports a 5-8 record and a swollen 5.27 ERA. His season low for ERA was 4.39. If you’re looking for the weak link in the rotation, look no further.

But putting the veteran righty back in the pen would solve the problems created by the absence of Brendan Donnelly and Joel Piniero, and the erratic nature of Mike Timlin, all righties. That, in turn, would keep the Sox from having to deal for another right-handed set-up man. And Manny Delcarmen finally appears to be delivering on his promise, as well.

Jon Lester provides even further insurance for Schilling's injury, though he's struggled of late for Pawtucket. And having two rookies in the rotation during a playoff hunt won't cut it. But the Sox would undoubtedly like to keep Lester and their other prized prospects. However, with a team so fully entrenched in what can only be described as mediocrity – if we’re being polite -- the organization may feel the need to make a move in order to inject some life into this lackluster team.

We can only hope that they won't act in desperation and make a regrettable move. Wily Mo Pena, anyone?

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