Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sox Spring Struggles Continue

The Red Sox were booed off the field after Thursday's loss to Toronto (CBS Boston)
The Red Sox lost again last night, 1-0 at Tropicana Field on a pinch hit, walk-off double by Cole Figueroa, the latest no-name member of the Rays to channel his inner Dan Johnson/Jose Lobaton and sink the Sox with a clutch hit.

The reeling Red Sox, coming off a nightmare homestand in which they dropped all six games as they were swept by the Tigers and Blue Jays, have now lost eight in a row. Their last win came 10 days ago. Last year, their longest losing streak was three games. This year, they haven't even had a winning streak that long.

But as we get deeper and deeper into the season, it's becoming painfully obvious that this year's team, despite returning many of the same players, is not last year's team, which won 97 regular season games and the World Series.

The most notable difference has been the hitting, which has been a problem since day one. The 2013 Boston Red Sox fielded the best offense in baseball, leading the majors in runs scored and a host of other categories. This year's offense has been one of the worst in the league, ranking in the bottom five in runs, hits, home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and total bases.

Much of their struggles can be blamed on the absences of Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and the recently returned Stephen Drew, as their replacements (Jackie Bradley, Jr., Grady Sizemore, A.J. Pierzynski) have not been up to snuff. Without Ellsbury, Boston's been much less aggressive on the basepaths, reverting to the station-to-station team they've generally tended to be throughout their history (with the exception of last year, when they ranked third in the AL in steals and were the most efficient basestealing team in baseball).

That's fine if you're following the Earl Weaver playbook, relying on walks and three-run homers, but this year's club has been light on power. With the exception of David Ortiz, nobody is providing pop--Papi is the only regular with a slugging percentage above .420. In fact, Ortiz accounts for nearly one-third of Boston's longballs thus far, contributing 11 of their 37 big flies.

He, Mike Napoli, and Xander Bogaerts are the only Red Sox position players who have not disappointed. Last year, the Red Sox had an OPS+ of 108 or better at every position except third base. This year, the same can be said of only three positions; second base, shortstop and DH. The outfield, comprised of Bradley, Sizemore, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, and Daniel Nava, has been atrocious, batting a combined .220/.291/.339. I bet the Red Sox wish they had Nelson Cruz right about now.

So without power, speed, and the ability to manufacture runs (the Sox have a .678 OPS with men on base), scoring has been an issue all season long. Boston's averaging just 3.94 runs per game, well below last year's league leading total of 5.27. If the Red Sox are going to catch fire and turn their season around, the bats need to wake up.

Until they do, most of the blame for Boston's sluggish start rests on their shoulders. The pitching has been very good for the most part (with the exception of last week, when Boston starters proved incapable of putting together a quality start), compiling the league's sixth-lowest ERA. Before Felix Doubront landed on the Disabled List with a strained shoulder after his most recent start, the original/intended rotation had failed to miss a start. Jon Lester and John Lackey have been stellar at the top of the rotation, with Lester looking like a Cy Young candidate again and Lackey proving that last year's revival was no fluke. Jake Peavy was great before his last two turns yielded 20 hits, and 11 earned runs, spiking his ERA by almost a run-and-a-half.

The rest of the rotation has been a disappointment, though. Clay Buchholz has been an unmitigated disaster, starting this season as poorly as he did 2012. Nothing seems to be physically wrong with him, though, so as long as he stays healthy (a big if for him) he should pitch better. Peavy has allowed a home run in every start, a disturbing trend, to say the least. He's been inconsistent and might not be much better than Ryan Dempster was last year. Doubront failed to take the step forward that many were hoping for in his third season, and is now hurt.

On the bright side, the bullpen, aside from Edward Mujica, has been terrific. Of the eight relievers Boston's used this year (excluding Mike Carp's catastrophic five-walk inning), Mujica's the only one with an ERA over 3.10. Everyone else--Burke Badenhop, Andrew Miller, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman, Chris Capuano, and of course Koji Uehara--has been fantastic, which is why the bullpen's collective ERA currently sits below three, at 2.97. The 'pen is Boston's biggest strength at the moment.

But a good bullpen only gets you so far. The Sox aren't going anywhere until they start scoring runs and supporting their pitchers. Drew's return will help in that regard, but they still have major holes to address at third base (Will Middlebrooks has been terrible again), behind the plate (Pierzynski and David Ross aren't cutting it), and in the outfield, where Bradley, Nava, and Sizemore look lost offensively.

 John Farrell's daily Joe Maddon-esque juggling hasn't worked, so I think it's time for him to stop tinkering and settle on a lineup. Bat Bogaerts leadoff, Dustin Pedroia second, Ortiz, third, then Napoli, Gomes, Drew, and Victorino. Playing musical chairs with the batting order isn't going to make whoever hits near the bottom of it magically disappear, and this is a veteran team that would appreciate some stability.

It's very rare that a Red Sox team, playing half its games in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball, doesn't hit, so I have to believe the offense will come around as the weather warms. But this unit is too old and thin to be the run-scoring machine it was last year. The lineup has too many weaknesses and probably won't be much better than average offensively, unless they make some major changes at the trade deadline (still more than two months away).

Incredibly, Boston's horrible start has not doomed their season. Despite dropping eight in a row, they're still only six games out of first place in the shockingly mediocre AL East. The Red Sox are still very much in contention, and with a few good weeks could surge right back to the top the division. If the offense clicks, Buchholz figures it out and the Sox stay healthy, they'll be fine.

But dammit, they need to start hitting. And soon.

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