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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

49 Wins, 38 Losses

The Boston Red Sox are 49-38 at the All-Star Break. That happens to be - with one extra win - the same record as last year's World Series winning team, which pulled into the Midsummer Classic at 48-38. Even better, that 49-38, good only for second place (7 behind the Yankees) last season, leads the suddenly claustrophobic AL East thusfar in 2005. The Yankees are 2.5 games behind, and they still trail Baltimore by half game. Even better news: 49-38 also reflects exactly their split of games at Fenway and road games. 49 of their first 87 contests have been away from Boston, where they have been only 25-24. Of the remaining 75 games, 43 will be at Fenway, where the Sox are a much more impressive 24-14. Sox opponents will be hearing more "Tessie," more "Sweet Caroline," and more "Dirty Water" from here on out.

Before all that, though, this is a good time to take stock. We'll start with the bad stuff and get to the good stuff later.

The bullpen, a key part of the team's success in 2004, has been a fiasco this season. Keith Foulke and Alan Embree, along with new acquisition Matt Mantei, have been awful. Mike Timlin's 1.69 ERA looks good superficially, but he has a horrendous record with allowing inherited runners to score and the league is hitting .272 against him. (He has surrendered only 1 dinger this year, so it's not all bad.) Situational lefty Mike Myers has been the best of the bunch, not that that's saying all that much. The marginal scrubs and pitching prospects brought in to help have been marginal scrubs and pitching prospects who didn't look anywhere near ready for prime time. The good news is that it's hard to picture the bullpen getting any worse than they are now; the bad news is that it's hard to picture them getting all that much better either. Foulke and Mantei are on the DL, Timlin and Embree have a lot of mileage on them, and John Halama and Jeremi Gonzalez are castoffs from the Devil Rays. I'm not sold on the Curt Schilling-to-the-bullpen idea but I suppose it can't hurt too bad. That they are 49-38 with this motley crew (hmm..maybe Vince Neil could outpitch a couple of these guys) is pretty astounding. Sox fans will recall that the bullpen was a disaster early in 2003 but turned into a strength late and into the playoffs, so there is some hope. Bullpen performance is notably volatile.

The starters have been up and down. Schilling has been mostly absent and his few contributions were anything but. David Wells (6-5, 5.00 ERA) and Tim Wakefield (8-7, 4.05) have been on the roller coaster; their stats don't look great but each has contributed more in terms of quality starts than the stat lines suggest. Bronson Arroyo, expected to be banished to the relief corps in Spring Training, has been generally solid (7-5, 4.02) - he's tamed much of his wildness, has gone deep into some games, and has been their best starter other than Matt Clement, who has done about as much (10-2, 3.85) as one could have reasonably expected from him on his way to a deserved All-Star selection. On the one hand, Wade Miller (2-3, 5.03) has been something of a disappointment; on the other hand, I wasn't even sure he'd pitching at all until this point of the season. One of them may end up getting bumped for Schilling's return before long; Arroyo is the most talked about, but Miller has been the least impressive of the five overall. Wells and Miller would be hard to banish to the bullpen at this point, which is why the paths of least resistance of sending Wakefield or Arroyo to relief are being discussed.

But an offense that has scored 473 runs can atone for a lot of the sins of the pitching staff. Their lineup is nearly half the starting American League All-Star team, and none of them are undeserving of the honor. Manny Ramirez started out a little slowly but rebounded a bit to 275/361/949 to go with 22 home runs and a league-leading 80 RBI. David Ortiz has equalled his breakout 2004 with a 2005 statistical line of 314/396/585 to go with 21 dingers and 75 driven in. Johnny Damon has a 25-game hit streak going while hitting 343/386/473 - fewer walks and a bit less power than last season, but just as effective. Jason Varitek has 13 homers and a 301/367/525 line that exceeds even the optimistic projections for his 2005 season. Trot Nixon's been no slouch at 296/377/484, and he's even hitting lefties reasonably well, which had been the biggest knock on in prior years. Bill Mueller has contributed a solid 285/389/406 and Kevin Youkilis has filled in for him and others admirably well; before long Youks will get his chance to shine in a starting role, methinks.

Not everything has gone quite so well; Kevin Millar's 262/342/368 (a first basemen with a 368 SLG?!) suggest that his run may be over, though John Olerud has filled in for him nicely at times. Mark Bellhorn's offensive contributions are underrated - he walks at a good clip and has considerable doubles power - but you can only be so effective hitting .221 with a league-leading 102 whiffs. Edgar Renteria has been something of a disappointment with his 272/327/387 line, which consisted of a pair of hot streaks in May surrounded by his looking utterly lost at the plate; even worse, he's batted with men on base more times than anyone else in the lineup and is therefore bouncing into twin killings at an alarming rate. His defense has been good though, and he's shown enough hitting talent in his career that he'll be hitting better before long.

All in all, this is a great offense, and with an aging pitching staff with more question marks than Matthew Lesko's suit, it needs to be.

The next test for the team comes right after the All-Star game; four games at Fenway against the Yankees. Dropping 3 of 4 at Camden Yards last weekend (for the third year in a row, the Orioles seem determined to hand the AL East to the Yankees) means that the Sox could find themselves mired in third place if they get swept. With each crisis comes an opportunity though; they have the chance to put another nail in the New York postseason coffin. I remain confident the Orioles will eventually go away if left to their own devices as their vulnerabilities in their lineup and starting pitching will sink them and that any chance the Blue Jays had of staying in the hunt got sidelined with their ace Roy Halladay.

There's more competition than ever for the Wild Card; everyone but the Royals, Devil Rays, and Mariners can call themselves playoff contenders now. The Twins are going to have a hard time catching the White Sox but have a similar record to the teams vyying for the AL East, and the Indians aren't far behind them. Texas is very much in the mix, just like last year and Oakland is coming on strong after limping out of the gate. Unlike last year, though, Detroit and Toronto are clinging to playoff aspirations at this juncture. Overall, there's less margin for error than in the last two seasons, when the Sox were able to fall back on the Wild Card. They were good enough to beat the Yankees (but didn't) last year, and they are good enough this year; the difference is that that's probably going to be a pre-requsitite for October play in 2005, just like it was before 1995 (incidentally, the last time the Sox found themselves in first place at the break.) The AL East has all but gotten used to getting two playoff spots, something they may not get this time around.

It'll be a bumpy ride, but I still think these Sox have what it takes to try and make another run at following up last year's storybook finish with a sequel featuring the same happy ending.


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