Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

YOU CAN NEVER HAVE ENOUGH PITCHING

Especially young pitching. Kason Gabbard and Jon Lester are cheap and will be under the Red Sox control for years to come. They should both be part of the Sox future rotation. Neither should be traded now.

Jon Lester's sudden call up from Pawtucket is as intriguing as it is uplifting.

Of course we all wanted to see him put an exclamation point on his return from cancer treatment and prove that he was healthy enough, and fully prepared, to pitch at the big league level again. After showing so much poise and potential last season, many of us knew he was just the kind of young man who would be successful at battling cancer.

And after going 7-2 last year for the Red Sox, we all wanted to see what the 23-year-old could do this season.

But Lester struggled recently in Pawtucket, making his immediate return seem unlikely. Sox management said they wanted to see him put together a string of strong Triple A starts before calling him up. But that didn't happen after a forearm strain sidetracked Lester's return. In 14 starts at Triple-A Pawtucket this season, Lester was 4-5 with a 3.89 ERA. But the organization's main concern was that he had just 51 strikeouts in 71 2/3 innings, and opponents hit .250 against him in Triple A.

When you factor in Kason Gabbard's impressive performances of late, the return of Lester seemed improbable until the September call-ups.

Without question, Gabbard has earned his spot in the Sox rotation. The rookie has allowed three or fewer hits in four straight starts. Now 4-0, Gabbard is unbeaten in his last eight starts, two of them last year. The young lefty has won all five of his starts at Fenway Park and is the third pitcher in franchise history to win his first five major league starts at home, following George Winter in 1901 and Boo Ferris in 1945. No one has won more than five.

A 29th-round draft pick by Boston back in 2000, Gabbard earned his most recent win almost exactly a year -- 364 days, to be exact -- after his major league debut. With a string of strong performances, his ERA has dropped to an impressive 2.97.

And now the more highly-touted Lester, the best story in the world of sports in some time, has another win under his belt after stifling the Indians last night in Cleveland over six innings. Lester's line; Ninety-six pitches, five hits, three walks, two runs, and six strike outs.

But here's the rub; Curt Schilling will be back in less than two weeks, and something's got to give. The Sox have six starters for five rotation spots. What will they do? And what are they thinking with this call up?

Clearly, Julian Tavarez had to go. He hadn't given his team a fair chance at winning in quite some time. In his last five starts, Tavarez was 0-4 with a 7.71 ERA. But with Gabbard taking Schilling's spot and Lester called upon to replace Tavarez, what happens when Schilling returns? This is the question on the mind of nearly every Red Sox fan.

Was Lester's inaugural start just a showcase for interested teams? One has to hope not. His is an inspirational story of courage and perseverance. Red Sox Nation has fallen in love with this kid. And the team seems to feel similarly. The organization has had nothing but high hopes for Lester since drafting him in the 2nd round of the 2002 draft.

In fact, Lester has been among the Red Sox top prospects for the last few years. Sox fans heard the hype about him over the intervening years and eagerly anticipated his arrival to the big league club. Then last year he finally provided a taste of all that he was capable of, before anaplastic large cell lymphoma sidelined him with the first serious challenge of his young life. But he rose to the occasion, like a warrior, and won. That's tenacity. That's what you look for in a pitcher.

Fighting cancer may have made Lester mature more quickly, and it has certainly proven his mettle. He has shown tremendous attributes; confidence, determination, and poise -- these are the things that make a successful big league pitcher.

The Sox are a veteran team, but they have played lackluster baseball since the start of June. Lester's return could spark and inspire a club that needs just such a lift at this time. Lester's teammates were clearly pulling for him and reveled in his success. Couple that with the mantra that championships are built on pitching, and that young pitchers like Lester are relatively cheap and can remain under a team's control for years to come. Why would the Sox trade this kid?

Perhaps to get Mark Texiera. But with Scott Boras reportedly seeking at least $20 million annually for Texiera's services after next season, the cult-hero Lester seems like an awfully high price to pay.

But perhaps Lester isn't the one being dangled.

Maybe the Sox question whether Gabbard can maintain his sterling touch once teams start getting a better scouting report on him. Perhaps the Sox think he's pitching above his potential right now and that this is the time to trade him, while his value is at its pinnacle.

If someone has to go back to Pawtucket upon Schilling's return, so be it. As of now, Gabbard has earned his spot. But both of these young lefties should be part of the future.

As the old saying goes, you can never have enough pitching. The Red Sox appear poised to fill the gaps when Tim Wakefield and Schilling both retire, or aren't tendered new contracts. The Red Sox rotation could get much younger with Gabbard and Lester joining Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Under that scenario, the future has never looked brighter.

Of his return, Lester said he just wants to, "come back and be with these guys and do this for a long time."

The Red Sox should grant him his wish. And while they're at it, they should grant that same opportunity to Kason Gabbard as well.

Let's hope the Red Sox keep both young lefties and enjoy the fruits of that decision.

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?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

GABBARD'S STOCK RISES

With his complete-game shutout over the Royals, rookie Kason Gabbard may have increased his value, answered some questions, and solved some problems.

Perhaps the Red Sox got more than they expected when Kason Gabbard was called upon to make spot starts in Curt Schilling's absence. The rookie was supposed to be in the rotation just long enough for the veteran hurler to heal his shoulder and resume game-action. But the way he's pitched may have changed that plan.

In five starts this season, Gabbard is 3-0 with a 3.38 ERA. Equally impressive are the 25 strike outs and just 21 hits in his 29.1 innings. Those numbers help explain the 25-year-old lefty's recent success.

His season's highlight came in the complete-game shutout over the Royals last night at Fenway. Gabbard looked like anything but a rookie while surrendering just three hits -- all singles -- and one walk in route to a 4-0 victory. The dominating performance was punctuated by eight strike outs.

But with Schilling expected back by the end of this month, or perhaps the beginning of August, what will that mean for Gabbard?

For his part, Schilling seems optimistic about his impending return. After throwing 31 pitches in two innings of a simulated game against four Sox batters yesterday afternoon, he sounded somewhat confident.

"Hopefully, I'll be better than I was at any point during the season earlier in the year," Schilling said. "From a feel standpoint. From a performance standpoint."

As to the health of his shoulder compared to when he went on the DL, Schilling said: "There's no comparison. I was throwing the ball 84 miles an hour in Atlanta. I thought I threw the ball well [today]. My arm didn't feel anything like it did at any point this season. I take that as a good thing."

A healthy and effective Schilling would go a long way toward making the Red Sox a World Series contender once again. It would also keep them from having to make a hasty deadline deal for another starter. And that's exactly how he sees it.

"My goal is to come back and have an impact and literally be a kind of trading-deadline pickup and be effective and win a lot of games between now and the end of the World Series," said Schilling.

Replacing pitcher of Schilling's caliber is very difficult and would be costly. A Roy Oswalt or a Dontrelle Willis would be an expensive acquisition requiring the Red Sox to part with some their valued core of prospects, such as Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and/or Jacoby Ellsbury. You can bet that it would require a pair among this prized trio to land a frontline starter.

Schilling was a key component in the Red Sox 2004 championship season and, if he's healthy, he would go a long way toward helping the club to another this year. Terry Francona gave further reason for optimism after Schilling's session yesterday.

"He threw the ball in his bullpen, and today, better than at any point since he arrived in spring training. That's a very fair statement," said Francona.

That says a lot about Schilling's 6-4 record and 4.20 ERA. He's had to fight for all of it, and it hasn't come easy. Even in his best game this season, the one-hit performance against Oakland, Schilling said he didn't feel "extraordinary," but simply lucky. "I didn't do anything exceptional. They hit balls right at people."

That said, the return of a healthy and vibrant Schilling to the rotation's three-spot would be a shot in the arm for a team that has been just average over the past month. Furthermore, keeping Gabbard at number five would give the Sox an even better rotation down the stretch. Sox fans have been concerned about the fifth starter role all season long, and the answer appears to have been found -- in house. What's more, the move would deepen the bullpen with the addition of a righty set-up man, Julian Tavarez.

Gabbard's stellar performance was just the third complete game of the season by a Sox pitcher, the others by Daisuke Matsuzaka and Curt Schilling. In getting there, Gabbard threw an economical 107 pitches and faced just three batters over the minimum. That allowed for a quick and economical game, lasting just 2 hours and 18 minutes.

Gabbard's feat was special and placed him in some pretty good company. He became the first Sox rookie to throw a nine-inning shutout since Paul Quantrill, on July 4, 1993 at Seattle. He is the first Sox rookie since Roger Clemens, on July 26, 1984, to throw a nine-inning shutout at Fenway, and the first lefty rookie to spin a shutout at Fenway since Roger Moret did it on September 24, 1971.

The Sox rotation certainly could use a lefty, and at this point Gabbard appears more prepared for big league hitters than Jon Lester. In fact, as strange as it may seem, Gabbard's surprising success may actually benefit his former Pawtucket teammate in that it might keep the Sox from being reactionary and making a hasty trade that could cost them Lester.

While Gabbard's rise through the organization wasn't nearly as heralded as that of Jonathan Papelbon, Lester, or Clay Buchholz, his immediate value is even greater than the latter two. Clearly, his recent outings have raised his trade value, but the Red Sox seemed determined to continue their youth movement and promote the minor league players they've drafted and developed.

Hanging on to Gabbard is certainly much less expensive than the acquisition of a multi-million dollar veteran, which would also cost the team its prized prospects. That, in turn, would allow the Sox to focus on other needs, such as trying to add one more bat to its struggling offense.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.