Monday, April 09, 2012
The futility of reliever Mark Melancon is emblematic of the Red Sox early struggles this season.
With an Opening Day payroll of $173.2 million — up 7 percent from 2011, and the third highest in baseball — there are great expectations for the Red Sox this season.
After two consecutive third place finishes, despite a payroll among the top three in the game, much more is expected of the Red Sox this season.
After blowing a nine-game September lead — the biggest September collapse in the history of Major League baseball — there are great expectations that this group of Red Sox will somehow atone for that ignominy.
After replacing their General Manager, manager, right fielder, shortstop, closer, set-up man, and two-fifths of the starting rotation, there is great pressure on the Red Sox to right the ship and be more than merely competitive this season.
With a roster of high-priced superstars (nine players on the Opening Day roster are former All Stars), much is expected of the Red Sox. There is no room for excuses this season.
It's time to put up and shut up. It's time to live up to all of that potential, and all of that payroll.
But great expectations can lead to great disappointment.
The Sox bullpen imploded on Opening Day, making everyone miss Jonathan Papelbon rather quickly. After two games, the Red Sox had scored a grand total of three runs and were 0-2.
And then came Sunday's debacle in which Red Sox relievers blew two saves in a single game. Leads of three runs and two runs were overcome by the Tigers in the 9th and 11th innings, respectively.
It marked just the just seventh time in team in team history that the Sox scored 12 runs and lost. The last time it happened was on May 31, 1970 against the White Sox. That gives a sense of just how rare a meltdown of that magnitude is.
Though this is a new season, the Red Sox have picked up right where they left off last year; losing baseball games. In fact, having dropped the first three games of 2012, the Sox have now lost 23 of their last 30 games going back to last season.
Now comes the hysteria, the accusations, the finger-pointing and reports of dissension within the ranks.
On Sunday, ESPN's Buster Olney wrote about clubhouse dissension and its effect on the Red Sox, saying, "The splinters in the clubhouse festered long before the start of spring training," and that the Sox "have internal issues that need to get resolved."
Peter Abraham, of Boston.com, said there is clearly a chasm between Red Sox pitchers and hitters.
Given what has transpired over the past few days, those are very bad signs.
The Red Sox bullpen has allowed 10 earned runs on 18 hits in 11.1 innings. The offense scored just three runs over the first two games en route to losses. Yesterday the team scored 12 runs on 18 hits and still lost.
One can easily imagine how, on a divided team, the pitchers and hitters could blame each other.
The loss of Andrew Bailey could neither be prevented nor predicted. But it has thrown the Red Sox pitching staff into disarray. A key link in the chain was rather suddenly removed, and now the whole chain doesn't seem to work.
The most obvious solution is to make Daniel Bard the closer, the role he had seemingly been groomed for over the past couple of seasons. The Sox could then slide Aaron Cook into the rotation. Cook had a nice spring and a solid start for Pawtucket last week, in which he threw seven innings of shutout ball.
Cook is a sinker ball pitcher who, after a couple of injury-riddled seasons, is finally healthy. The veteran righty could play an important role for the Sox this season. As a sinker baller, he gets lots of ground ball outs and is unlike any other pitcher on the Sox staff. And Cook is yet another former All Star.
However, Cook has a May 1 out-out clause in his contract, and he will use it. Given the way he's pitched over the past month, some other team would love to have him. The Sox desperately need depth and can't afford to lose Cook.
The wise choice is to promote him to the big league club and make Bard the closer, a position he seems rather well-suited for.
At this point, there is no real reason to worry about shortstop, Carl Crawford, or the outfield in general; the Sox have tons of outfield depth. The one thing they don't have enough is solid, reliable pitching.
After the loss of Bailey, the Sox can't afford to lose anyone else to injury. Yet, Josh Becket cryptically noted that his right thumb will likely need surgery at some point. Should that become necessary at any time this season, or if Beckett is so affected that he pitches anything like he did last week in Detroit, this season will be over rather quickly for the Sox.
With this much payroll, this many star players, and so much to prove (really, so much to atone for after last season's disaster), it wasn't supposed to be like this.
While so much of the American League improved over the winter, at this stage, it doesn't seem the same thing can be said of the Red Sox.
Moving Bard and Cook into their proper roles may be all the Sox can do to bail themselves out before fully sinking.