The poor start to the Red Sox season came as a surprise to many. Especially since the offense, which seemed suspect to many at the start of the season, has been a force.
The Red Sox are fourth in baseball in runs, second in homers, third in doubles, fourth in OPS, and sixth in OBP. And they've done all that without Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron for most of the season.
However, the team built on pitching and defense has been surprisingly deficient in both areas for much of the season.
The Red Sox starter's cumulative ERA of 4.54 is 21st in MLB and ninth in the AL. That's something no one could have predicted, especially with a front three of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey.
And far too often, Red Sox fielders have looked like the Keystone Kops on defense. At times, their bumbling futility has been nothing short of jaw-dropping. But some of those dramatic and egregious misplays have overshadowed the fact that the Red Sox 27 errors are ranked ninth in the AL, and their .985 fielding percentage is fourth in the AL.
Recently the team's defense, pitching, and overall performance, have been trending upward.
The Red Sox have now won four straight, seven of eight, and 15 of 22. And they've succeeded against a succession of winning teams, such as the Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers, Twins, Phillies, and Rays.
But the Sox started the season terribly against the Rays and Yankees and, despite their recent hot streak, are still 6.5 games out of first as a result. Boston is now 26-21, the first time they've been five games above .500 this season.
There are 115 games yet to play, and if the Sox manage to win 60 percent of their remaining schedule, they'll wind up with 95 wins – exactly the number the club figures it needs to qualify for the playoffs each year.
While finishing in first in the AL East may be a lofty goal at this point, the Wild Card spot suddenly seems a lot more realistic.
The starting pitching finally seems to be coming around and looks like the staff that everyone had been expecting. With the exception of Lackey's last outing, six of their last seven start have been fantastic.
Sox starters are 6-1 with a 1.44 ERA in the last seven games.
There have been some surprises, such as Josh Beckett's 1-1 record and 7.29 ERA.
However, Clay Buchholz seems to have finally delivered on all that promise. Buchholz's 3.07 ERA leads all Sox starters, as do his six wins. And he has the most wins (12) of any AL starter since last August 19.
There are plenty of other reasons for optimism, as well.
Dustin Pedroia's home run and RBI totals are well ahead of his 2008 MVP season.
Adrian Beltre leads the Red Sox with 56 hits and a .327 average. The odd thing is that the Sox signed him for his defense and 25-homer potential. But Beltre has just three homers and seven errors. Despite his lack of power, Beltre is hitting lights out so far, which is something no one ever expected.
Kevin Youkilis is having an MVP-caliber season, batting .316 with three triples, 10 HR, 29 RBI, and a stunning .458 OBP, which is second highest in the Majors. He also leads the Majors in walks (28) and runs (40).
The question for the Red Sox is how they can improve by the trade deadline.
The Sox have a number of veterans with expiring contracts, such as David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek, and Victor Martinez. Aside from Martinez, none of them have a lot of trade value. Aside from that, their more productive, youthful players are guys they've built their team around (Youkilis, Pedroia, Ellsbury), or are veterans on short-term deals (Beltre, Cameron, and Marco Scutaro).
Mike Lowell can still hit and may still have some trade value. Lowell had three doubles on May 3, becoming the first player since 1952 to accomplished that feat eight times in his career. He surpassed George Brett, who did it seven times. Lowell needs regular at-bats to maintain his rhythm, something he won't get in Boston.
A Rangers official told the Globe's Nick Cafardo last week he’d love to get Lowell in Texas. The Rangers are looking for a righthanded hitter who can produce.
Martinez's defensive deficiencies are the primary reason the Sox have held off on negotiating an extension with him. There are serious concerns about him at catcher going forward, and it's likely the Sox view him as a first baseman / DH in the future.
The Indians said Martinez wore down catching every day, and that it affected his hitting. Unfortunately, he got off to a very slow start this year. Given his defensive deficiencies, if he doesn't hit, he has little value behind the plate.
Depending on the team's record in July, Jonathan Papelbon's name will likely surface in trade discussions.
Boston's closer hasn't been as dominant as in the past, and has been trending downward in recent years.
This year, he's 1-3 with a 3.00 ERA, which is well below is career 1.92 ERA. Over 21 innings he's given up 14 hits, 11 walks, and hit one batsman, amounting to 25 baserunners. That's a WHIP of 1.25, which is decent. And he has fanned 16 batters, which is also decent. However, none of this amounts to the dominance he once showed.
It's hard to envision the Red Sox giving Papelbon the multi-year deal he is seeking before 2011, especially with Daniel Bard waiting in the wings.
Incredibly, Papelbon recently suffered his first regular season blown save since last July.
But because it was against the Yankees, and because of the way the team was playing, it was magnified.
Yet, it was the first walk-off home run given up by Papelbon in his five-year career, which is simply amazing.
Coming into that game, Papelbon had made 22 straight conversions. The only other time he allowed two homers in a game was to Minnesota's Justin Morneau and Jacque Jones in his major league debut on July 31, 2005,
With the exception of Game Three in last year's ALDS, he's been pretty solid and reliable.
To even consider trading him this season, the Red Sox would have to appear to be out of contention by the trade deadline, something that suddenly seems less likely.