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After Rough April, Is It Already Time For Red Sox Fans to Panic?

(Photo by Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

We know. The Red Sox just had their worst April since 1996, but are we completely screwed?

No. Not yet at least.

Because it’s all we’ve seen, it’s not hard to imagine that the team that has shown up is the one we’ll have all season. The truth is that things will change, whether it’s internally or through a big accusation remains to be the question. With two key injuries, a handful of underachievers, too many close-game losses, and New York and Tampa off to blazing hot starts, the Sox have earned no better than a “needs improvement” on their first report card.

Sticks, stones and broken bones

The most obvious issue with the 2010 Red Sox to date has been the absence of outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron. Cameron, acquired by the Sox almost solely for his reputation in centerfield, was a dud in the field and at the plate before he was sidelined with a lower abdominal strain. He does not have a single RBI in 11 games this season and holds a .964 fielding percentage – over 20 points below the league average for his position.

While Cameron is an overall concern, Ellsbury’s health is his only issue going forth. The timetable for each outfielder’s return is still unknown, and that’s a big problem. It doesn’t take Peter Gammons to realize that no team is going to win any division – never mind the AL East – with Jeremy Hermida, Jonathan Van Every and/or Darnell McDonald in the starting line-up. Ellsbury’s impact on the team has been discussed a lot lately now that he’s been on the bench; it’s pretty clear that his spark at the top of the line-up and in the outfield is missed. Marco Scutaro has done pretty well out of the leadoff spot, but would without question be much better suited as the number nine batter in front of Ellsbury.

History repeats itself, hopefully

The Sox haven’t had this bad of a start since ’96, but it hasn’t been too long since they had a losing month. In July 2008, they were 11-13, but came back in August with an 18-9 record.

For a better – and more promising – sample, take for instance last year’s World Series Champion Yankees. The Bombers were 12-10 last April, posting a 3-6 record against the AL East and up until August 6 were 0-8 against the Sox. They were as far back as 6.5 games out of first place, before they eventually got as high as 10.5 in the lead, and ended the year with 102 wins. (That’s a 17-game turnaround in the standings.)

This year’s Red Sox are 6-10 against AL East opponents, have upcoming series against New York and Toronto, and are currently 6 games out of first (pending the late Rays game). After getting swept by the Orioles, the Sox have two big weeks ahead of them. They can overcome the bumps and bruises they’ve endured so far, but in their inopportune position, they will need to get their act together immediately before the Rays and Yankees run away with the division.

Too close for comfort

The Sox have lost 11 games by three runs or less, including a 1-5 record in extra innings. If they had scored one more run in the first nine innings of those five overtime losses, their record would be 18-8 – one win behind the Rays. It would seem as though they need to immediately acquire a big bat, but the Red Sox will most likely look to solve the problem by getting their current hitters back on track.

Victor Martinez has one home run and is hitting .242 in 99 at bats; not to mention has been incredibly ineffective controlling base runners. David Ortiz is back to his early 2009 form and up until the series against Baltimore, J.D. Drew had been useless at the plate.

Despite the fact that they were just swept, they showed signs of improvement that carried over into the first two games of the LA series. Martinez has terminated the last four out of five stolen base attempts, while Ortiz recently had a 2 home run game and Drew is white hot going 11-24 with 8 runs, 3 home runs and 7 RBIs in the past six games.

Jeremy Hermida, McDonald, and Van Every have surpassed expectations, but that won’t last long. If Cameron and Ellsbury’s injuries keep them off the field for too much longer, the Sox will need to look elsewhere for that extra offensive push – although it’s without question that they are already exploring their options.

Other Options Out There?

Outfielders Darin Erstad and Jermaine Dye remain unsigned, but don’t seem like plausible signings for the Sox unless Cameron and/or Ellsbury will be out for more than half the season. Even if that were the case, signing either veteran is rather unlikely, but possible. Eric Byrnes, who was released on May 2 by the Mariners, would be a much more realistic fit for a minor league deal with the Sox as a short term fix.

Chances are that the change to come will not involve Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez either, who is in the final year of his contract. The Padres are off to a 16-9 start and have a promising young team that can make a push for the playoffs. Gonzalez’s contract status, which at first seemed to improve the Red Sox chances of acquiring him, is actually now hindering their chances as the Pads will likely hold onto him so long as they are still in the race. The recent Ryan Howard contract extension set Gonzalez’s price tag in the $25+ million range, a salary the Padres will not be able to afford. Keeping him this season gives them a chance to win this year without breaking the bank.  In order for the Sox to get him as soon as possible, it would cost players that will impact the Padres this season like Ellsbury and Clay Buccholz  – a price the Red Sox will be reluctant to pay.

This leaves the door open for the Brewers’ Prince Fielder, who is also currently in the final year of his deal. While it would require at least Buchholz and a few top prospects, Fielder should be the main target for the Sox. With complaints about the team’s “boring offense,” the Sox could use a fun slugger like Fielder in the middle of their line-up – a model that has boded well for them in years past.

It shouldn’t require any help from the outside for the Sox to get their act together; they’re one of the best teams in the game on paper. The question we need to ask is will they be able to recover from this bad start or is this who they really are?

The pitching has shown improvements, and will be more consistent as the season matures. There’s too much talent there for it to continue on the way it’s been. The Sox’ bats are starting to wake up, but the main concerns Red Sox fans should have rest in the health of Ellsbury and Cameron. Once they are back in the line-up, it will be easier to gauge what kind of team the Sox have going forth. If they don’t return soon, however, it’ll be time for the Sox to make some moves if they want to keep up with the Yankees and Rays.

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