The Red Sox have dropped two of the first three games of the 2009 season. No cause for alarm; it's far to early for that.
But what makes it sting a bit is the fact that they were at home, where they have the best winning percentage in baseball over the past six seasons (.652), and they lost to their newest rival – the defending AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays.
We've all become accustomed to the Red Sox wining their home series, as well as beating up on the lowly Rays. Things are changing. At the least, the Rays have changed.
I must say up front that I have been dubious about the Rays' ability to repeat the success of 2008. After they won the 2006 AL Pennant, the conventional wisdom was that the Tigers were a young, up and coming powerhouse that would contend for years to come. They had speed, defense, power, pitching and a seasoned, successful manager. That didn't quite work out for the Tigers.
I wouldn't be surprised if the same happened to the Rays and they fall back to earth. But, simply by this small three-game sample, perhaps I'm wrong.
For decades, the Red Sox have been a team built on offense. They have had an offense perennially stacked with big boppers and have relied on the long ball to win games. And the Sox of this decade are no exception. From 2003-2008 (the Theo Epstein/Terry Francona era) the Sox have averaged nearly six runs per game. Those days may be a thing of the past.
This version of the Red Sox seems to be built on pitching and defense. Offensively, the current lineup is laden with question marks. Mike Lowell, David Ortiz are aging and coming off injury. JD Drew and Julio Lugo are inconsistent and coming off injury. Their reserves may need reserves; Mark Kotsay will soon return from back surgery, and Rocco Baldelli may be incapable of being an everyday player ever again. George Kottaras has played five career games in the Majors and Chris Carer has played nine. Nick Green is Nick Green. And will Jacoby Ellsbury or Jed Lowrie ever fully mature and develop?
The truth is, the only sure things in the Red Sox nine-man lineup, or bating order, are Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay; that's one-third, folks.
I'm not throwing in the towel by any means; again, it's far too early for that. The Sox will have one of the best starting rotations in baseball (if not the best), and perhaps the game's best bullpen. The team has solid defenders at almost every position. But they will have to keep runners off the base paths, and runs off the board, to win. They can no longer rely on three-run homers to win games, or to vault them back into the lead in late innings.
There are many questions on this year's Red Sox; more so than in the club's recent run of success, going back to 2003. Even the vaunted pitching staff has reasonable questions; can Tim Wakefield remain healthy? At age 42, can he remain effective? Will Brad Penny's arm endure the rigors of a full season? Will pitching in the WBC cause Dice-K to run out of gas earlier in the season? Can he manage to give the team at least six innings per start? Can Jon Lester repeat last year's success? It was just one season, after all. Can Josh Beckett put last season's health issues behind him? Is Clay Buchholz ready to step up and become a big league pitcher? Can he ever fully live up to the hype and the promise?
I'm not trying to be negative. I'm asking legitimate questions that have to be asked. This team is shrouded in uncertainty.
The good news is that the Yankees have their issues as well, as do the Angels. There is an excellent chance that the AL Wild Card will once again come from the East this year. Who it will be is anybody's guess, as is who will ultimately prevail as division champs. The Rays will have the kind of pressure on them this year that they've never faced before. They stepped up and answered the initial round of questioning quite nicely in the past few days, however.
Though the Sox have significant and serious questions, at this point they still seem to have as good a chance as anyone else in the AL East, or the entire AL for that matter. All teams have questions; most are just an injury or two from falling right out of contention. The difference for the Red Sox this year, unlike in recent years, is this; there are no givens any longer.
Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.