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Yesterday, we featured the changes to the team from last year’s championship club. Today, we will look at how the team has performed in each aspect of the game and name the first half MVP.
The Red Sox have depth in starting pitching, a rarity these days, with returning veterans Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield anchoring the rotation. Jon Lester appeared to prove himself worthy of a spot and threw a no-hitter to solidify himself in that role. Clay Buchholz did enough last year to earn the right to open the season as the fifth starter, warming the seat for Colon’s eventual debut. Buchholz’ injury opened the door for Justin Masterson to take a turn in the role for a bit, eventually returning it to Buchholz.
The top four have been remarkably durable so far, losing Beckett briefly at the beginning of the season and Dice-K missed a few starts with a late-May/early-June injury. The staff is going deep into games more often than not, registering 53 quality starts in 97 games, good for fourth in the majors.
The bullpen is headlined by Papelbon, among the major’s best closers this season. His 2.43 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP are great numbers, but his 11.29K/9IP is the best among top-10 closers (greater than Francisco Rodriguez whose penchant for strikeouts earned him the nickname ‘K-Rod’). However, middle relief would be the one area on this team I would look to strengthen. Bullpen specialists and middle-of-the-game guys rarely make All-Star appearance and do not get their due.
However, one of the big reasons this team won last season was because of the almost mechanical work of the pen. We really got spoiled by Hideki Okajima’s lockdown eighth innings and Papelbon’s door-slamming ninth’s. Tavarez provided mostly solid long relief when called upon last season as well. This season, the long relief has been shaky and the late inning relief has been a white-knuckle ride for the fans. Okajima’s numbers look good (not as dominant as 2007′s), but he has been anything but consistent.
The offense has been as good as it was expected to be, ranking third in the majors in runs, sixth in home runs, and second in batting average and slugging. Dustin Pedroia is epitomizing the Red Sox mantra of getting on base and is among the ML’s leaders in hits. Jacoby Ellsbury is stealing a good number of bases for a team that has an aversion to running into outs, considering how well they can score.
Manny Ramirez went into power down as he approached 500 home runs, but is heating up recently. Kevin Youkilis has matured into an all-around hitter (and do not sleep on his defense), adding power to his ability to get on base. As much as I hate to admit it, J.D. Drew is the first-half team MVP, as he filled David Ortiz’ void in the cleanup spot. I was against his signing from the start based on his attitude and injury concerns, not to mention the long money he got, but I cannot deny him his due.
The offense only looks to get better, if it can remain healthy, as Big Papi is soon to return and Jason Varitek is only hitting .218. With Youk setting the pace, the Red Sox sport a .985 fielding percentage, just 3 points off the ML lead. The outfield has committed only four errors all season! For a player who gets a lot of grief, Manny has committed only one (of course, he gets days off from the field, especially with Ortiz out). He also has below average Zone Rating and Range Factor, so he does not field balls that most left fielders would. To his credit, Fenway’s left field takes work to field as well as he does.
The Red Sox cruised most of last year, but this year they have had to fend off the Rays and actually dropped five back just a week ago. The Rays should hang around a while longer, but to truly contend will need to add some pieces this month. The Yankees cannot be counted out yet either with all the talent on the team and money in the coffers.
Barring injury, the Sox just need a couple spare parts to repeat as division champs. Brian Fuentes, former Colorado closer, is being targeted by the Red Sox and Rays and would make a good addition to the pen. Unlike last year’s Gagne acquisition, making a trade for a former closer may work this time as Gagne seemed to let his ego get out in front of him. Last season’s additions also did not come at a large future cost as Kason Gabbard has not panned out yet, though it is always tough to part with starting pitching. The other part of the deal, David Murphy, is having a good season but never projected to fit in the future outfield.
The Red Sox have it all set up for a strong second half, having weathered the early season international tour, the Papi injury, and the sweeps in Tampa. They also have 34 of the remaining 65 at home and have a couple extra days off in the second half. This is a well-constructed team and there is no reason to believe Terry Francona cannot steer it to October.