Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Starting Pitching Is The Red Sox Problem

Josh Beckett exemplifies the Red Sox woes this season

It's the middle of May and the Red Sox are 13-19, six games below .500 and and 7.5 games behind the first place Baltimore Orioles.

Which is stranger; the Red Sox' place in the standings, or the Orioles'?

No matter, Red Sox fans don't concern themselves with the Orioles. What we are all wondering is what the hell happened to the Red Sox?

Coming into this season, most people had reasonable expectations. After last season's epic collapse, no one was talking about this club winning 100 games, or when the next World Series parade would be scheduled.

In fact, expectations were tempered this time around. Many even doubted whether the Sox could attain their annual organizational goal of 95 wins. The question was openly asked if the Red Sox would finish in third place for the third consecutive season, or if they could actually slip into fourth place.

But no one in their right mind expected this. This Red Sox team is a shambles. It is atrocious. The team has just a .500 record (8-8) on the road, and yet that is better than their 5-11 record at Fenway Park. It's hard to believe.

The Red Sox have now played 20 percent of their 2012 schedule. This sort futility isn't an anomaly anymore. It's fair to judge his team for what it is; a failure. The Red Sox have been at .500 just two times this season and never above.

Let's put one thing to rest: the Red Sox are not too old. They've got players in their prime all over the field. Thirty-six-year-old David Ortiz is the only "old" guy, and he's tearing the cover off the ball this year.

In fact, the entire Sox offense has been amazing at times. They've scored at least 10 runs eight times this season, more than any other team in baseball. Among Major League teams, the Sox are 4th in runs, 4th in batting, 4th in slugging and 7th in OBP.

The defense has certainly been suspect at times, but the Sox .988 fielding percentage is the third best in all of baseball. That's amazing given that the Sox are playing without one-third of their projected starting lineup (Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis), all of whom are All Stars.

No, the defense is not to blame.

The Sox lost their closer, Andrew Bailey, before the season even began, which forced everyone else into roles they weren't accustomed. But the bullpen is not the problem either. Red Sox relievers have a 1.66 ERA in May.

The Sox bullpen has allowed just nine earned runs in 48.2 innings over nine games this month, and 11 in the last 68 innings going back 17 games. No, the pen is not the issue either.

The problem comes down to one thing above all else: starting pitching.

This season, Red Sox starters have a 6.01 ERA, ranking 29th in the Major Leagues. Only the Twins have a higher mark.

Therein lies the problem. It's the same thing that led to the collapse last September and it's never been addressed.

The Red Sox have just 13 quality starts this season. Only one Red Sox starter, Jon Lester, is averaging six innings per start, and he has a 4.29 ERA.

The weakness of the rotation is putting a huge strain on the bullpen, yet the relievers are still responding well. The Sox have been in some long extra-innings games recently, placing a tremendous burden on the pen. Yet, those guys have gone long stretches without giving up a run. They have stepped up when needed and cannot take the blame.

From the beginning, some people doubted rookie Felix Doubront (5.01 ERA) and even converted set-up man Daniel Bard (4.83 ERA). But no one was expecting this level of futility from Lester, Josh Beckett (5.97 ERA) and Clay Buchholz (8.31 ERA).

The Sox need to get healthy fast and they also need to shake up their roster with a trade. That said, most teams aren't looking to deal in May. The trade market won't start to take shape until June, and it won't really heat up until July. That's when players will have the most value -- if the Sox can hold on that long. However, they already appear to be out of contention in May.

It's a matter of honestly evaluating player value. No team wants to take on the huge contract of an under-performing player. And journeymen have limited value.

Yes, with the sudden emergence of Middlebrooks, the Sox would love to trade Youkilis. But what team wants a guy who has been on the DL for four straight seasons and who hasn't played in more than 136 games since 2009?

Youkilis is making $12.5 million this year. He batted .258 last season and was hitting .219 this season before going on the DL.

But Youkilis is very versatile, can play both first and third, and is a career .288 hitter. He gets on base consistently (career .389 OBP) and always has a nice OPS (career .878).

Youkilis not done. But he's 33 and not aging well. Perhaps a team with a genuine chance at the playoffs will show some interest since Youkilis' contract expires after this season. There is a $13 million club option for 2013.

Josh Beckett is a cancer. He takes no responsibility for anything he does. Trading him would send a powerful signal to the team that no one is untouchable.

But Beckett is a 10/5 player and would have to approve any trade, which means he can veto any trade.

Furthermore, he's chronically injured and is not an ace. Since August 8, 2011, he's 6-7 with a 5.44 ERA.

Becket is under contract through 2014 at nearly $16 million per season. How can the Sox possibly find a taker? What club would want that guy right now at that price? Beckett only has a decent season every other year.

The Sox are in a pickle. They need a players-only meeting. They have to fix this internally because they should be better than this. But where is the leadership? Who can, or will, step up and say, Enough is enough?

By the time the Sox can make a significant trade in July, their season may already be toast. But they will still need to address team chemistry and leadership for next season.

However, winning can be the balm for bad chemistry. No one talks about team cliques or self-indulgent players when a club is winning. But when it is losing regularly, all the ugliness rises to the surface.

One way of another, Youkilis and Daisuke Matsuzaka will come off the books at the end of this season, clearing more than $25 million in payroll space. That will help. But the team will still have Crawford and John Lackey on the roster — two under-performing players with bloated contracts.

The Red Sox represent THE cautionary tale about big free agent contracts. Buyer beware.

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