Finding Hope in an Another Abysmal Red Sox April
Oh, for it to be March again, back when there was unlimited potential for the baseball season. Instead it’s late April, and for the third straight year, the Boston Red Sox are off to a horrendous start. In case you’re looking for a silver lining, there doesn’t appear to be one. After the last two poor Aprils the Red Sox missed the playoffs. Still, simply noting that bad Aprils lead to missed playoffs is probably too simplistic a reading of the 2012 Red Sox. After all, the 2011 version of the Red Sox would have made the playoffs easily if not for an historically awful September. In fact, while there are plenty of reasons to be discouraged about this year’s team, there’s also plenty of reasons to see potential improvement.
Let’s start with the bad, since it’s much more apparent. First off, the Red Sox pitching has been abysmal. They’ve allowed 100 runs on the season already, nine more than the next worse pitching staff, the Minnesota Twins. It’s hard to pinpoint one problem for the Sox pitching staff that can be easily fixed since everyone has been either terrible, or at best inconsistent. There have been some calls to return set-up-man turned starter Daniel Bard to the ‘pen — and they probably got louder after Bard came in to last night’s game against the Twins and stopped the go-ahead run from scoring from third base — but for reasons I’ll explain later, that would be a mistake.
The second major problem for the Red Sox has been injuries to their outfield. Against the Twins last night, the Sox started (from Left to Right) Cody Ross, Marlon Byrd, and Ryan Sweeney. Prior to the season, Ross and Sweeney were expected to form a platoon in right field with Jacoby Ellsbury in center and Carl Crawford in left. While Sweeney has been hitting very well and Ross was Monday’s hero with two home runs to tie the game and put the Sox ahead, the current outfield is a significant downgrade — defensively if nothing else — from what Boston expected to have in the offseason. You’ll note that I haven’t listed Bobby Valentine among the Red Sox problems. That’s because with how bad the pitching has been, I don’t see how Bobby V really could have made a difference either way. It isn’t as if the Red Sox have been losing a ton of very close games.
These problems aside, there are reasons for Red Sox fans to be hopeful. First, the pitching staff won’t remain this bad. Some of the pitchers — Matt Albers comes to mind — are probably past their usefulness, however, others have been victims of bad luck and small sample sizes. Alfredo Aceves may not morph into Jonathan Papelbon, but he’s not going to carry a 24.00 ERA for the rest of the season either. At the same time, the Sox have gotten much more out of the back end of their rotation than they could have imagined. Felix Doubront is striking out 11.25 batters per nine and Daniel Bard has a 9.49 K/9 mark and a 3.25 FIP. Bard may be struggling a little with walks, but simple arithmetic shows that moving him to the bullpen would be wasteful — turning 150 or more innings at that FIP into 75 or so is dumb.
A second reason for hope is that the Sox outfield should be improved over last year’s model once Crawford and Ellsbury return in the next two months. Sweeney has a 1.051 OPS so far on the season and is mashing righties to a 1.206 OPS. Meanwhile Ross has a .973 OPS himself (1.1015 against lefties). Even with a normalization in stats, the Sox’s right field platoon should be an upgrade over what JD Drew and Josh Reddick provided in 2011.
Finally, the schedule is about to get much easier for the Red Sox. They started the season with series @ Detroit, @ Toronto, vs. Tampa, vs. Texas, and vs. New York. All of those teams should be playoff contenders in 2012 and facing them all in a row would be a tough task for anyone, let alone a team with as many outside distractions as Boston. Contrast that with the next few series that the Sox play: @ Minnesota, @ Chicago, vs. Oakland, vs. Baltimore, @ Kansas City, vs. Cleveland, vs. Seattle. With that run of cupcakes, it’s not out of the question that the Sox could be in first place by the time they face of against the Rays on May 15th. If you think that’s irrational, take a look at that schedule one more time.
So what can the Red Sox do to ensure that they’re sitting pretty in May? I have a couple suggestions:
1. Stand Pat
Bobby Valentine was probably right when he called Saturday’s loss to the Yankees “rock bottom.” It’s hard to imagine things getting much worse. I’ve already outlined the reasons why I think moving Daniel Bard to the bullpen would be a mistake, but the Red Sox do have a pitching dilemma of sorts. Veteran starter Aaron Cook has a 1.33 ERA in AAA and can opt out of his contract in May. Cook is a former all-star and losing him for nothing would hurt, but simply giving him a rotation spot isn’t without significant risk. He’s been pretty bad the last two years, and he’s currently walking more hitters than he’s striking out in the minors, which is a major red flag. Still, the Red Sox run the risk of Bard and Doubront wearing down as the season progresses, so here’s what I propose: a six-man rotation. It’s not something often seen, but given that Bard and Doubront haven’t had a full season starting in the majors yet, and that Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz haven’t exactly been durable over the courses of their careers, it makes some sense. If Cook proves ineffective, Boston could move back to the five-man rotation, or try the six-man configuration again once Daisuke Matsuzaka is healthy.
2. Trade Kevin Youkilis
Bobby Valentine made an unforced error by talking about Youkilis on the radio, but there’s a kernel of truth to his statements. I don’t know about Youk’s desire to play, but his effectiveness as both a hitter and a fielder has diminished significantly. Meanwhile, heir apparent Will Middlebrooks is slugging .757, with eight homers in AAA including a recent stretch where he went deep in four straight games. Middlebrooks would offer an immediate defensive upgrade over Youkilis and he has little left to prove in the minors. Youkilis’ value is likely at an all-time low, and there aren’t a ton of obvious trade partners, but the Sox do have the flexibility of pitching him as both a first baseman and a third baseman. Perhaps the Dodgers, with their surprising early season run and gaping holes at both third and first would be willing to take a look? The best case scenario would involve Youkilis’ bat waking up a little to make him more attractive, but it’s pretty clear that his days as the Red Sox third baseman are numbered.
This April has been a tough pill to swallow for Red Sox fans, but it’s still too early to panic, especially when there are plenty of reasons for optimism.