Fifty-seven games into the 2009 season, the Red Sox are 33-24, identical to the record they posted one year ago through the same number of games.
The Sox are just over a third of the way through their 162 game grind, and they find themselves a game out of first place with the best home record in the AL (18-8).
Going into the season, the Sox were projected to have one of the finest, if not the best, rotations in baseball. So far, they've been pretty good, with some noticeable hiccups. The Sox are tied for fourth in the AL with a 4.27 team ERA, thanks to a bullpen which is simply the best in baseball.
But that obscures the fact that the Sox starting five have been anything but stellar. In fact, they've been entirely lackluster. Josh Beckett (4.09), Tim Wakefield (4.50), Jon Lester (5.09), Brad Penny (5.85) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (7.33) have a combined ERA of 5.37.
Matsuzaka looks lost, surrendering 44 hits and 13 walks in just 27 innings, and has already lost more games than he did all last season.
Penny, though 5-2, has an ERA approaching six and is winning despite himself, owing his success to offensive support.
All of this provides some reason for concern, though the venerable John Smoltz and Clay Buchholz (4-0, 1.73 ERA at Pawtucket) lie in waiting.
Yet, there is additional reason for reassurance. Namely that after slow starts Beckett and Lester have been coming on as of late.
Josh Beckett Since May 5:
37 strike outs
6 quality starts
5-1 team record
And Lester, though 5-5, is coming off two absolutely dominating performances in which he threw a combined 15 innings, allowing just two runs on five hits. Oh, and then there were the whopping 23 K's. Lester leads the team with 85 strikeouts (in just 74.1 innings) and is on pace to break 200 this year.
And then there's the Red Sox bullpen, which has been lights out this season with a 2.76 ERA, the best in all of baseball. And it's been particularly good over the past month:
Since May 10
12 home runs (T-Fewest in AL)
Over that period, Hideki Okajima rode a streak of 16.1 scoreless innings, the longest on the Sox this season. Oki has rediscovered the form that made him so successful two years ago. He's deceptive and able to keep hitters off balance. He doesn't throw hard, but he gets hitters out.
Perhaps the biggest, and most pleasant, surprise so far has been the Sox offense, which ranks fourth in the AL in runs scored (300), home runs (66) and OPS (.804). And they've done it without the man who was formerly their most potent hitter.
Surely, the biggest disappointment this year has been the incredible vanishing act of David Ortiz. The man once known as Big Papi is no longer a big time, big game hitter and now routinely comes up small at the plate. Ortiz is batting a miniscule .197, with 55 whiffs and countless weak pop outs.
Ortiz had his eyes checked this week and the results were positive. So it's not a vision issue, a la Jim Rice. Ortiz simply, and suddenly, seems to have about as much pop as the feeble Julio Lugo.
Over the last three years, Ortiz has seen his average fly ball distance significantly drop from 310 feet in 2007, to 275 in 2008, to just 261 feet this season. That's almost at 50 foot drop-off from 2007, the career year in which he hit a club record 52 home runs. What were once home run balls now drop innocently into outfielder's gloves.
Red Sox management has been especially patient, cognizant of what Ortiz has meant to the team and the city since he arrived in 2003. But their Job-like patience is likely wearing thin. Internal and external solutions to the gaping hole in the order that is Ortiz are surely being discussed.
All kinds of names have been bandied about as possible trade targets. Adrian Gonzalez and Victor Martinez are the most desirable mentioned so far, but either would come at a prohibitive price — namely Buchholz, or possibly Lars Anderson. If Andersen is as good as advertised, that could be a big loss since he's the only true power hitter in the system.
Martinez is an excellent hitter who is currently sixth in batting in the Majors (.344) and has 20-25 home run power. But he has inconsistent game calling skills and is 30 years old. He is not the youthful solution at catcher, though he can play first base.
The Sox have long coveted Gonzalez, but Padres GM Kevin Towers described the 27-year-old as untouchable, noting that he is a cornerstone of a rebuilding franchise. With an MLB-best 22 dingers, even if made suddenly available, Gonzalez would generate wide interest and a huge asking price.
Yet, it's easy to envision the Sox anchoring him at first, Youkilis at third, and moving Mike Lowell to DH. Lowell is only under contract for one more year, and the team needs to think about the future anyway.
The Sox have had many inquiries about Buchholz and have never found any offers to be satisfactory. That's simply because good young pitching is harder to find than hitting, and it's what organizations build their teams around. Next year Wakefield, Smoltz and Penny could all be gone. The Sox will need Buchholz and he is poised for a good, long career, which he's only just beginning.
So the Sox will continue to listen to offers, and to make offers. Julio Lugo at half salary anyone? Good luck with that, Theo. The team presently has needs at DH and at shortstop. If Jed Lowrie gets healthy and returns soon, that would solve one problem.
Yet it seems inevitable that at least one trade will be executed, and room will still have to be created for Smoltz and/or Buchholz to join the rotation. Brad Penny, and his bloated ERA, is eligible to be traded one week from now. Despite his ERA, he may command some trade value. Pitching is always a prized commodity.
Undoubtedly, there will be some tinkering in order to make this competitive roster even better.
There is lots to like as is: Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedrioa and Jason Bay are all elite players and should be perennial All Stars for years to come. With his .302 average, Jacoby Ellsbury is proving he can hit Big League pitching and is ahead of last year's 50-steal pace. Mike Lowell is having as good a year as anyone could have reasonably expected. And Jason Varitek is on pace for 30 homers! WTF?
Yes, there are questions beyond Ortiz: Can George Kottaras ever be more than a once-a-week catcher and a .188 hitter? Can Rocco Baldelli, Mark Kotsay and JD Drew all stay healthy the rest of the season? Not likely.
But the Sox seem to have more answers than questions and appear to be built for the long haul and the post-season. With a wise trade or two, they could surely be a playoff team once again. And once you get there, who knows? Anything can happen.
Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.