Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wagner Power Painter Should Help Red Sox

Billy Wagner joining the Red Sox makes sense for all involved parties.

The Mets are off the hook for the remainder of the nearly $3.5 million owed to him this year. Wagner gets to join a team in a pennant race that has genuine World Series aspirations. And the Red Sox get an additional lefty veteran to pair with Hideki Okajima in their bullpen.

Wagner, a six-time All-Star, has 385 career saves, which is sixth all time. The 5’10” flame thrower has been a beast throughout his career, possessing a 2.39 career ERA and 1,070 strikeouts in 820 innings. That is a phenomenal strikeout to innings ratio. And opponents are batting a paltry .189 against him.

Reportedly, the Sox didn’t have to give up much in return—just two minor leaguers to be named later, only one of whom is on the 40-man roster. And neither is expected to be an upper level prospect.

Having another lefty, especially a power lefty, will really help Terry Francona and the Sox down the stretch. The two keys to the deal are these: the offense has to continue to produce, giving the bullpen comfortable leads to hold, and Wagner needs to be healthy.

To that end, Wagner has been clocked in the mid-90s in his two appearances since his return. That’s a reason for optimism, and surely why the Red Sox felt confident in making the move.

But they were equally confident about Eric Gagne two seasons ago, and he had two-thirds of a season behind him to prove that he was both healthy and effective. That didn’t work out too well. And Wagner has made just two appearances—both in the past week—since rehabbing and recovering from Tommy John (elbow ligament) surgery last September.

Wagner wants to protect his elbow from re-injury. Yet, over the next six weeks (and hopefully more), he also wants to showcase the health of his elbow and prove that he still has closer stuff.

The Sox also want to protect their invest down the stretch, and won’t use him in back-to-back games. But what about October, when it’s all-or-nothing, do-or-die? Whose interests will the Sox put up front, theirs or Wagner’s? If they’re not planning on re-signing him, Wagner’s health won’t be nearly as big a concern to them as to him.

How fully his elbow has healed in the intervening 11 months is yet to be determined, but his two appearances so far—though a very small sample—are promising. In those two appearances, Wagner pitched two innings, giving up no hits, no runs, and one walk, while striking out four.

And Wagner has a lot riding on this himself. He asked the Red Sox to promise not to pick up his option for next season so that he can try to secure a longer, more lucrative pact elsewhere. Considering that Wagner is 38, it will likely be the last long term deal he ever signs, and he wants to cash in big one last time.

Initially, Wagner also wanted the Sox to promise not to offer him arbitration next year, making him more desirable to other clubs. But the Mets were under no such obligation to make such an offer and would surely have done so in an effort to get two compensatory draft picks when he signs elsewhere.

It’s important to note that there is no guarantee that Wagner will be classified as a Type A free agent. Wagner’s lengthy absence and significant injury could affect that. If he doesn’t pitch well for the Sox down the stretch, he would almost certainly lose that status.

The Sox were expecting Eric Gagne to be a Type A free agent after the 2007 season, but he was eventually listed as a Type B, giving the Sox just one compensatory draft pick when he signed with the Brewers.

The point is, there are no guarantees regarding future compensation. The Sox can only hope to get two players if Wagner signs elsewhere, and that they are better than the two minor leaguers they parted with to acquire the former All-Star.

In the meantime, Wagner will get to know his teammates and try to blend in with the reportedly excellent clubhouse chemistry in Boston. His introduction to Jonathan Papelbon should be interesting.

Papelbon now says his remarks questioning Wagner's readiness to pitch were "taken out of content."

Verbiage aside, how could his remarks possibly have been taken out of context? He was specifically talking about Billy Wagner potentially joining the Red Sox, and his entire quote was attributed.

Papelbon has never been accused of being a genius.

Athletes always use that same lame excuse; "My words were taken out of context," as if that somehow negates what they previously said.

In Papelbon's case, they were taken out of content. That's another matter entirely.

For the Wagner acquisition to pay off, he has to prove that he is fully recovered. The Sox offense, defense, and starting pitching will all have to do their parts as well. Time will tell.

The next six weeks will be a proving ground for both Billy Wagner and the Red Sox—and hopefully a mutually beneficial time as well.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Tarnished Penny: Brad Penny Hurts Red Sox and Must Go

At this point, it's reasonable to ask if Brad Penny will, or should, ever make another start for the Red Sox.

Against the Yankees on Friday night, Penny lasted just four innings, allowing eight earned runs on 10 hits. In all, the burly righty allowed 11 base runners and recorded just 12 outs in his rather brief outing.

With the loss, Penny's record now stands at 7-8, making him the only Sox pitcher with a minimum of 10 starts that has a losing record.

As further evidence of his futility, Penny's ERA jumped to a bloated 5.61, which is 37th in the AL.

At this point, Penny can only be described as an outright bust for the Red Sox. He has just one win in his past 11 starts, to go along with a 6.37 ERA during that span, dating back to June 23.

Not once in his 24 starts this season has Penny made it through the seventh inning, the worst streak in the Majors. It is a level of ineptitude not experienced by a Red Sox pitcher since 1954.

It is part of a disturbing and long term trend; Penny has not finished the seveth inning since May 24, 2008.

With such consistently brief outings, Penny has been a drain on the Sox' bullpen all season.

Over 131.2 innings this year, Penny has given up 160 hits (7th in AL) and 42 walks. Those 202 base runners have resulted in a 1.53 WHIP.

Far too often, Penny lets batters reach base, and ultimately too many of them score. Opponents are batting .351 against him, and his 82 earned runs are tied for third in the AL.

With Tim Wakefield due back next week, and Paul Byrd close behind, you have to wonder if the Red Sox have seen enough of Penny and are ready to move on. The activation of either pitcher will necessitate a corresponding roster move, and Penny could well be the odd man out.

Indeed, Junichi Tazawa is young and green, and he was forced into action way too soon. At the least, it was far sooner than the Red Sox had planned for or wanted, But at this point, even he may be a better proposition than Penny.

We'll know more about Tazawa's readiness during his start against the challenging Yankee lineup this afternoon.

To this point, the young Japanese righty has managed three brief outings, and surely has an innings limit.

The Sox are also anticipating the return of Daisuke Matsuzaka next month. But, like Penny, he too can only be relied on for limited innings, despite allowing a wealth of runs.

Something has got to give. It's impossible for the Red Sox to maintain playoff hopes with three starters who can't consistently pitch at least six innings.

The Sox can't go on like this with Penny any longer. There's only so much room on the roster and they need an innings eater. It's a good bet that either Wakefield or Byrd will give them more than Penny can.

The Sox rolled the dice on Penny and it hasn't worked out. Okay, you could day it's backfired miserably.

One way or the other, Penny hurts the Sox more than he helps and it's time for them to cut bait and move on before he causes any further damage.

The bullpen, and the team as a whole, can't take any more of Brad Penny.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Red Sox Don't Look Like a Playoff Team

With 45 games left in the season, the Red Sox find themselves in an unexpected position — fighting for a playoff spot.

Once possessing the best record in the AL, the Red Sox have hit the skids and are now one game behind the Rangers in the Wild Card hunt.

At the All Star break, the Sox were 20 games over .500 and held a three-game lead over the Yankees. As recently as July 19, they were still in first place.

However, the Sox have fallen flat and appear out of gas. Boston is 6-9 this month, and 12-17 since the break. Once viewed as the premier team in the AL, the Sox suddenly find themselves fighting for respectability.

Having dropped two of three against the Rangers this weekend, the Sox are now 2-7 against Texas this season, giving them a decided disadvantage in any tie-breaker. The two teams do not play each other again this season.

After rallying to score six runs in the ninth against Texas on Friday night for an 8-4 victory, the Sox combined for just five runs over the next two games. Most futilely, the Sox were 0-10 with runners in scoring position in those two contests. It was hardly a surprise; in fact it was part of a trend.

Before the All-Star break the Red Sox were hitting .281 with runners in scoring position (third-best in the AL). But since the break, they're hitting .233 (13th in the AL).

On any given day, at least half of the Red Sox lineup looks completely impotent. David Ortiz is batting .221, Jason Varitek .223, Nick Green .233, Brian Anderson .236, JD Drew .254, and Alex Gonzalez, the newest Red Sox, was bating just .210 before joining the team.

There are automatic outs all over the Boston lineup and it's killing them. After producing the third-most runs in baseball during the first half, the Sox lineup is tied for 16th since the break.

The Sox offense benefits from playing at Fenway, scoring 5.66 runs per game at home, third best in the majors. But away from home their production falls by more than a full run, scoring 4.57 runs per game, 13th best.

The starting rotation, once the envy of the AL, is full of question marks once they get past Josh Beckett and Jon Lester.

John Smoltz was a bust, and the same can be said of Brad Penny. The burly right-hander has won just once in his past 10 starts and is now 7-7 with a 5.22 ERA. He has not made it through the seventh inning in any of his 23 starts this season, the most in the Majors. It is a level of ineptitude not experienced by a Red Sox pitcher since 1954.

Clay Buchholz is 1-3 with a 4.45 ERA. He has allowed 59 base runners in just 32.1 innings. Buchholz is unproven in the regular season, much less the playoffs.

Junichi Tazawa has made just two starts and has a 5.40 ERA. Could anybody realistically expect him to perform in October if the Sox somehow turn things around and extend their season? Not likely.

Tim Wakefield is 43 and on the DL for the third consecutive season during the stretch drive. Due to sciatica, Wakefield is now walking with a limp and it is unclear if he can even field his position. Don't count on him being the solution, much less the savior for the Sox rotation.

Daisuke Matsuzaka is expected back sometime next month. But he hasn't pitched since June 19 and is 1-5 with an 8.23 ERA this season. Matsuzaka averaged just 4.4 innings per start before going on the DL The Japanese righty never made a quality start this season, and lasted six innings just once in his eight starts. He can't be expected to pitch meaningful innings down the stretch and is not a playoff-caliber pitcher at this time.

Paul Byrd is Paul Byrd and hasn't pitched in the Majors since last October. Enough said.

What is evident is that the Red Sox rotation is not playoff-caliber, and is largely staffed with a combination of old, injured, ineffective, and unproven pitchers.

As a whole, the Red Sox have fared well in the familiar confines of Fenway Park, going 38-18 there this season. But on the road, it's another story entirely. The Sox are a below average team away from home, compiling an uninspiring 28-33 record.

That's not good enough to get them into the playoffs, much less through the playoffs.

On July 1, the Sox were 23-20 on the road, which was the fifth best road mark in baseball. Since the All-Star break, the Sox are 5-13 on the road, compared to 7-4 at home.

If only they could play all their games at Fenway.

The ugly truth for the Red Sox and their fans is that this is not a great team, and probably not even a playoff team. That's a bitter pill to swallow since the Red Sox and their fans expect to see October baseball in Boston each and every year.

That isn't likely this time around.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Jacoby Ellsbury: Hail to the Thief

Before the Red Sox leave Texas on Sunday, Jacoby Ellsbury may have staked his claim in the club's record book. Tommy Harper’s single-season steals record seems poised to fall.

Ellsbury stole his 53rd base on Saturday night, overtaking Tris Speaker for second best by a Red Sox. Ellsbury is now just one steal away from Harper’s team record set back in 1973.

The Red Sox haven't had many speedsters in the intervening 36 years, and Ellsbury has opened a new dimension in the team's game.

Ellsbury is the first Red Sox player with multiple 50-steal seasons, and just the third player in team history to reach the half-century mark.

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

Rank Player Year SB

1. Tommy Harper 1973 54
2. Jacoby Ellsbury 2009 53
3. Tris Speaker 1912 52
4. Jacoby Ellsbury 2008 50
5. Tris Speaker 1913 46
6. Tris Speaker 1914 42
6. Otis Nixon 1994 42 (strike season)
7. Harry Hooper 1910 40
7. Billy Werber 1934 40

As you can see, the Sox earned their reputation as a team that didn't steal many bases, going 20, 39, and 21 years without a 40-steal season from any player. Before Ellsbury accomplished the feat last season, it had been 14 years since the last player, Otis Nixon, had stolen as many as 40 bases.

It's worth noting that Nixon stole 42 bases in just 103 games that season, due to the 1994 player's strike. Who knows how many he would have snatched in a full campaign?

Ellsbury started the season strongly, seemingly on a mission to break Harper's 36-year-old mark. Being that it's only only mid-August, there's no telling what Ellsbury's new record will be come season's end, but 60 steals doesn't seem unlikely.

That was once unimaginable for a Red Sox player.

In less than three full seasons, Ellsbury has already moved into seventh place on the team's all-time stolen base list. That should tell you plenty about the Red Sox and their tendency to steal bases, or lack thereof.

Harry Hooper holds the club record with an even 300 steals, achieved in 1647 games over 12 seasons. With 111 thefts in just 286 games, Ellsbury should be halfway there by next season.

If he stays healthy, Ellsbury could surpass Hooper in about four years, which would be a rather remarkable accomplishment—especially for a Red Sox player.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Red Sox are in Trouble

Watching Brad Penny pitch last night was just the latest sign that the Red Sox are in trouble.

Once again, Penny couldn't pitch into the 7th inning. The big righty went six innings, giving up five runs on six hits, allowed two walks, and struck out five.

Penny, now 7-6, has not gone seven innings in any of his 21 starts this season, which is the most in the Majors. It's also the longest single-season streak by a Red Sox pitcher since 1954.

Due this latest weak outing, Penny's ERA rose again, to a lofty 5.20.

And there's little reason for optimism tonight. John Smoltz, he of the 2-4 record and 7.12 ERA, takes the mound in the Bronx against the Yankees. Feeling any better, Red Sox fans?

Smoltz spent 20 years building an impressive resume in Atlanta before the Braves bid farewell to him after reconstructive shoulder surgery. Apparently they were onto something. There was little reason to believe that a 42-year-old pitcher could remain effective after having his labrum surgically repaired. Yet the Red Sox held out hope and took a shot on the former star.

Theo Epstein's signing of the aging veteran was widely described as "low risk, high reward." Perhaps Smoltz's guaranteed $5M salary is low risk by Red Sox standards, but it's a reward he hasn't yet earned. What's worse, there is plenty of risk to the team, and the bullpen in particular, every time he takes the mound.

And then there's Clay Buchholz, he of the supposedly limitless upside and potential. Other than a brilliant no-hitter in just his second big league start two years ago, we haven't seen anything to be inspired by since then. The alleged wunderkind has allowed 40 base runners in just 19.1 innings this season, resulting in a 2.02 WHIP. Opponents are batting a vibrant .337 against Buchholz, and his ERA stands at a hefty 6.05.

Buchholz will be 25 in 11 days. Having made starts in each of the last three seasons, he's past the point of being a prospect now. It's time for him to put up or risk becoming the latest "can't miss kid" who missed, unable to live up to the hype.

In their last starts, Penny, Smoltz, and Buchholz have combined for 16 innings, 23 hits, and 17 earned runs. Believe it or not, Penny and Smoltz had been even worse in their previous starts.

The Sox are so desperate that they signed 38-year-old Paul Byrd to a minor league contract this week. Byrd, with a 108-93 career record and 4.38 ERA, hasn't pitched since last October. But right now, he's better than any other available options. That's how bad things are at the moment for the Sox.

If you think Tim Wakefield is the answer, think again. Though Wakefield is having a very good season (11-3, 4.31 ERA), he is 43 and has been derailed by shoulder issues in each of the last two seasons. However, that shoulder is secondary to his current ailment; sciatica.

The condition is so bad that Wakefield may need a second cortisone shot to treat it, and the sciatic nerve is now radiating all the way down to his left calf.

Said Wakefield, “I’m just depressed that this isn’t progressing the way I want it to progress. I’ve got zero strength in my left calf due to the nerve. I’m just waiting for it to get better.”

Earlier this week, the Sox veteran said the pain had been so bad that he could “barely walk.”

While the Sox are trying to remain optimistic, they don’t realistically expect Wakefield to return for a couple of weeks. Wakefield said trainers told him a person typically requires 6-8 weeks to recover from sciatica, yet he’s still hoping for a quicker return.

The Red Sox expect that Daisuke Matsuzaka will be ready to pitch again in September. But since he won't be stretched out, the best they can hope for is 4-5 innings per start. That would be pretty typical; this season, Matsuzaka has averaged just 4.4 innings per start, and last year just 5.8 innings per start. If 4-5 innings is all the Red Sox can reasonably expect from him, it will put excessive strain on an already overworked bullpen.

They will miss Justin Masterson.

Matsuzaka is just 1-5 this season, with a bloated 8.23 ERA. Opponents are batting .378 against him, his WHIP is 2.20, and he has zero quality starts in eight tries. For the Japanese righty, this season has been an outright bust.

Despite his success last year (18-3, 2.90 ERA) it's important to note that his 18 wins were achieved in the fewest amount of innings of any pitcher to have ever won at least 18 games.

And there was a lot of good luck and good defense at play as well; Matsuzaka loaded the bases an incredible 15 times last season without allowing a run. That kind of good fortune always runs put eventually.

Amazingly, the Red Sox may find themselves counting on minor league pitchers Michael Bowden (3-5, 3.40 ERA at Pawtucket) and/or Junichi Tazawa (0-2, 2.38 ERA at Pawtucket) before the year is through.

That's a frightening prospect when you're entering the stretch drive of a Pennant race with your season potentially on the line. Do you really want to see either of those inexperienced pitchers in meaningful games in September, with the season potentially hanging in the balance? How fair would that be to a pair of 23-year-olds?

But the Sox may have no other reasonable choice. Truthfully, this may be as good as it gets.

On Monday, teams began putting players on trade waivers, a process that will continue throughout August. Clubs with the worst records get first dibs, in ascending order of record.

While many teams will attempt to dump salary, some may be planning ahead and adding for next year, while others will simply try to block their closest competitors. That's how second place could potentially be an advantage to the Red Sox. However, the Rays could throw a wrench in the works just to thwart the Sox.

But let's face it; great pitchers aren't typically found in August. The Paul Byrd's of the world are what's usually available. That means the Red Sox aren't likely to pull a difference maker off the waiver wire, so don't hold your breath.

Theo Epstein publicly stated that he didn’t feel there would be any quality pitching available after the July 31 deadline. Take him at his word.

The Sox have 56 games remaining, or just over a third of the season. There is still time to get it right, but considering that three-fifths of the rotation is ineffective, it's hard to be optimistic.

After Josh Becket and Jon Lester, the Sox just roll the dice each time another starter takes the mound, and that probably won't get them into the post-season.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

If Only Victor Martinez Could Pitch

In last year's ALCS, the Red Sox were outgunned offensively by the Rays. The loss of Mike Lowell, due to a hip injury, hurt the Sox considerably.

After Lowell's subsequent surgery, there were concerns that he wouldn't be 100% ready and completely effective this season, which is why the Sox made a bid for Mark Teixeira during the winter. When that fell through, the Sox brass held its collective breath and hoped for the best.

To the surprise of many, the season started well for both Lowell and the Sox. But when he faltered due to his still healing labrum, the rest of the offense faltered with him.

The Sox initially added Adam LaRoche to the lineup. But he isn't the type of player who could single-handedly buoy the Sox lagging offense. The left-handed first baseman was simply an insurance plan in case a larger deal couldn't be consummated.

In Victor Martinez, the Sox found the versatile weapon they were looking for; a switch-hitting first baseman/catcher who can also DH effectively.

And, in a move that seemed a bit peculiar at first glance, the Sox also dealt for Casey Kotchman. Another left-handed first baseman, Kotchman has less power than LaRoche (6 HR this season). However, the addition of Martinez made that less important. The Sox simply felt Kotchman could handle being a part time player better than LaRoche. The at-bats and playing time will be diminished with the multi-faceted Martinez on the roster, a player who can catch and play first, as well as DH. Most of all, LaRoche is a free agent after this season, but the Sox can control Kotchman for the next 2-3 years.

The acquisition of Martinez was a coup for the Red Sox. The Venezuelan native is a high character, solid clubhouse leader who will fit in well this year and next. However, he is not the long term solution at catcher.

Scouts note that Martinez is not great defensively, doesn't have a great arm, and regularly squatting behind the plate makes his legs fatigue, which affects his hitting. In addition, he's 30-years-old and has never caught a knuckleball.

Martinez is making $5.7 million this season, and the Sox can bring him back for $7 million next year. After that, he will be eligible for free agency.

To obtain Martinez, the Sox surrendered Justin Masterson, plus minor league pitchers Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price. Masterson will likely be a very solid starter (which the Indians plan to use him as next year), but he needs to learn to get lefties out. And scouts think Hagadone will be a very good big league pitcher. It would have been fun watching him develop in the Sox organization.

However, the Sox hung onto Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, Michael Bowden and Junichi Tazawa, all of whom are either in the Majors or could be very soon. The rotation will need new blood next year; John Smoltz and Brad Penny will be gone. And although Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield will both likely be back, that still leaves at least one open spot.

Wakefield is now 43 and can't pitch forever. He's been on the DL for three consecutive years, and requires a specialty catcher that can handle the knuckleball. Those things make him a liability. It's yet to be determined if Martinez can effectively be his battery-mate.

All in all, getting Martinez was a good move, especially considering that the Sox didn't have to give up their very best prospects.

That said, the Sox may eventually regret not trading Buchholz when his value was at his zenith. He will be 25 this month and is not developing as anticipated.

The Texas native has not made it out of the sixth inning in any of his four starts this year, and his ERA is 6.05. That's especially worrisome considering that last season he was 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA.

There is still time for him to shine, but that time is running out. If he continues on this path, the word "bust" will be tossed around liberally and his value will have plummeted precipitously.

It would be unfortunate if Buchholz becomes the latest cautionary tale in over-hyping and over-valuing a prospect, and then refusing to trade him for a quality Major Leaguer when his value is peaking.

Brad Penny has not gone seven innings in any of his 20 starts this season, which is the most in the Majors. It's also the longest single-season streak by a Red Sox pitcher since 1954. He is currently 7-5 with a lofty 5.07 ERA.

John Smoltz is 42, recovering from shoulder surgery, has a 2-4 record, and a 7.12 ERA.

In their last starts, Buchholz, Penny, and Smoltz have combined for 15 innings, 24 hits, and 19 earned runs. That has hurt the bullpen, and it cannot continue.

All of which makes it clear that the Red Sox need a pitcher and may have missed a vital opportunity at the deadline. They might soon regret that.

It wasn't for lack of tying; we now know that Theo Epstein made creative bids for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez, before landing Martinez.

If only Victor Martinez could pitch.

However, the Sox needed ofense too, and they addresed that with Martinez, but not before exhausting all attempts to secure Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres. We may not have seen the last of that foray.

The Red Sox and Padres could certainly rekindle those trade talks in the offseason. Casey Kotchman, under control for the next two seasons, could be a component in such a deal. That flexibility made Kotchman more attractive than LaRoche, who is a free agent at season's end.

Under such a scenario, Martinez would assume full-time catching duties, but that creates problems, as earlier noted.

Ultimately, the Sox needed a starter and couldn't make it happen. They can only hope that more of their vaunted prospects continue to pan out. But does anybody really think that either Bowden or Tazawa is ready to step up this year and help the Sox in a Pennant drive, much less in October?

Does anyone really envision Dice-K being the rotation's savior, swooping into Fenway wearing a cape emblazoned with the Japanese rising sun? Unlikely.

The truth is, as presently constructed, the Red Sox do not have a playoff-caliber pitching staff. And the August waiver period is unlikely to change that. Paul Byrd was not the answer last year, and pitchers of that caliber are usually all that's available at this time of year.

Aside from that, all lesser teams can block the Sox in any attempt to land another starter anyway.

That spells trouble for the Olde Towne Team. They needed offense indeed, and Martinez will surely help in that regard.

But they also need pitching, and there seems to be no answer in sight.

If only Victor Martinez could pitch.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.