2012 Boston Red Sox: Why They Will Contend in Tough AL East Division

Stephen Sikora@sjsikContributor IMay 15, 2012

The Sox pitching needs to improve in order for them to have a shot at the playoffs
The Sox pitching needs to improve in order for them to have a shot at the playoffsWinslow Townson/Getty Images

Although the Boston Red Sox have won their last four games, they currently sit in last place in the AL East with a 16-19 record. Many pundits have counted them out for the season and expect they’ll finish around .500 or below.

The reality is that while the Red Sox have gotten off to a slow start this season, they will be competing for the top spot in the division well into September.

The Sox have been carried so far by their championship-level offense, which has scored 194 runs, second in the MLB to only the Texas Rangers led by Josh Hamilton.

David Ortiz has led the way with a .346 batting average and 26 RBIs, both top-five in the league. Dustin Pedroia is his usual self, and the Sox have gotten quality contributions from newcomers Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney, and rookie Will Middlebrooks.

But Boston has missed Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, who have played seven games between them this season due to injury. If either Ellsbury can come back and pick up where he left off last year, or if Crawford can return to his pre-2011 form, the offense will be even better.

This is a team that’s given 56 at-bats so far to expected reserve outfielder Darnell McDonald and his .179 batting average. Having Ellsbury, Crawford or both back and hitting well for Boston should give them an even bigger boost to an already formidable attack.

While their offense is one of the best in the league, the reason the Sox currently sit in last place to start the year is because of their dreadful pitching.

They’ve given up 187 runs, which is the highest figure in the MLB—not something you’d usually associate with a pitching staff led by Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz.

Lester has been a model of consistency for the Sox the past few years, sporting an ERA between 3.21 and 3.47 for each of the past four seasons. His complete game last night lowered his ERA to 3.71, and he looks to be back on track to another fine campaign.

Beckett has an ERA of 5.97 after his last start when he gave up seven runs in less than three innings, an outing in which manager Bobby Valentine suggested Beckett was tipping his pitches. Beckett had a 4.10 ERA in his career with the Sox, a number that’s inflated by his adjustment year to the AL in 2006 and his injury-filled 2010 campaign.

This is a player who had a 2.89 ERA last season; he should be able to turn it around and finish another solid year with a sub 4.00 ERA.

Buchholz, on the other hand, sports an 8.31 ERA and 1.97 WHIP, both last in the majors by far.

Although he hasn’t looked good all year, he showed signs of improvement in his last start, giving up three runs in six innings. Buchholz has the pitching repertoire to succeed—he’s had seasons of 2.33 and 3.48 ERAs—but just needs to harness his stuff properly.

If he continues to fail, the Red Sox have the pitching depth to replace him. Aaron Cook has looked great in Triple-A ball, and Daisuke Matsuzaka is close to returning from his elbow injury.  

Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard have both been strong at the back end of the rotation, and the first-time starters should continue to improve as the season progresses.

The bullpen started off rocky but has pitched well of late, with Alfredo Aceves looking more and more like an elite closer after each outing.

The pen should get a boost both when Andrew Bailey returns from his thumb injury and when Mark Melancon gets called up from the minors. Although the former Astros closer looked terrible in his work with the Sox earlier this season, Melancon has struck out 19 batters in 11 innings in Triple-A without giving up a run and should be back to being a solid reliever when he gets another shot in Boston.

Poor pitching to start the year is the reason the Sox currently stand at three games under .500. As long as their offense continue to hit, once the pitching stabilizes they should be back in contention for the AL East crown.

Baseball’s a long season, and with only 35 out of 162 games played, the Red Sox surely have a chance to finish first in one of the toughest divisions in baseball.