Boston Red Sox: 5 Reasons to Believe This Team Is a Contender Again

Douglas Sibor@dcsiborContributor IJune 28, 2012

Boston Red Sox: 5 Reasons to Believe This Team Is a Contender Again

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    After dropping the opening game of their series against the Miami Marlins on June 11, the Boston Red Sox’ record sat at an abysmal 29-32. Since then, the Sox have won 11 of their 14 games, and by doing so have emerged as a contender in the AL East.

    A look at the standings today shows the Sox in a tie for third place in the division, the highest they have been all season long.

    Their rise back to respectability has been a total team effort; both the offense (6.4 runs per game) and the pitching staff (3.9 runs allowed per game) have elevated their level of play during their impressive streak.

    Perhaps the most encouraging part of this resurgence is the myriad ways in which the Sox have won games. They really have done it all: they’ve won games that have been close throughout, blown teams out, held off opponent comebacks and have staged late rallies of their own.

    The heroes have been faces both new and familiar: everyone from David Ortiz to Will Middlebrooks to Scott Atchison has played a central role in a Sox win.

    This group is finally starting to resemble a team, something that even a short time ago would have seemed impossible. They have seemingly found the spark that had been missing all year, and finally look to be building a ton of momentum heading into the second half of the season.

    There are many reasons for the Sox and their fans to be optimistic about the team’s chances going forward. Here are five of them:

The Starting Pitching Will Improve

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    The return to form of the Sox starting staff has already paid huge dividends. Their improvement in ERA over each month of the season (5.28-4.89-4.33 from April to June) correlates directly with the team’s improving monthly win total (11-15-14 and counting).

    It’s also fair to say that Sox fans have not seen the best of these hurlers yet. Josh Beckett and Felix Doubront have been solid, but the other three main starters (Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz) can all be expected to improve.

    Buchholz’s medical issue could not have been timed worse due to how well he was pitching, but he has at least avoided the type of physical ailments that derailed him last season. Lester will find at least some of the consistency that made him the ace of the Sox rotation last year. Matsuzaka will only improve as he continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery.

    With Aaron Cook and Franklin Morales ready to go in case someone falters or gets injured, the Sox rotation is primed for a big second half. 

They Will Get Healthier

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    At this point, it would be practically impossible for this team to get less healthy. At different points the Sox have ably weathered injuries to their closer (Andrew Bailey), their entire starting outfield (Carl Crawford, Cody Ross and Jacoby Ellsbury, along with pretty much every backup they had), their starting third baseman (Kevin Youkilis), their former MVP second baseman (Dustin Pedroia) and two of their top starters (Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett).

    When looking at that list, it’s remarkable that this team has even managed to stay around .500 all season.

    It finally feels as if this team is starting to return to health. Ross has returned. Beckett will be back on Sunday. Ellsbury, Crawford and Bailey are all rehabbing and will be going on minor league assignments soon. Buchholz will be back just after the All-Star break.

    With the day-to-day grind of a 162-game season, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. A three game losing streak can feel catastrophic. However, the patience the Sox have had as they wait for their stars to return will soon pay huge dividends.

Trade Deadline Help

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    The Sox have never been shy about making a splash at the July 31 trade deadline, having either acquired or traded a big name in almost every year of former GM Theo Epstein’s tenure. Questions have persisted as to whether the Sox will be buyers or sellers at the deadline this season, but with the team’s run of good play the answer seems obvious.

    In one month’s time, the Sox will certainly know more about what pieces they need to make a pennant push in the season’s final two months.

    They have depth in the bullpen and in parts of their minor league system, which gives them two different types of enticing trade pieces.

    If GM Ben Cherington wants to make a significant move, he will have his share of options. He has shown excellent decision-making skills thus far, and there’s no reason for Sox fans to think he won’t make the right roster choices at the deadline.

Fewer Distractions

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    Kevin Youkilis will forever be a beloved member of the Red Sox organization. His all-out style of play and the two World Series winners he was a part of make him an immortal around Boston.

    However, he had to go.

    The Youkilis-Will Middlebrooks situation had the potential to drag down the entire team. It was a no-win situation; the Sox had two capable bats and only one person could play.

    While no solution was perfect, Cherington made the right choice in trading Youkilis.

    With the disgruntled third baseman now in Chicago, any distraction he may have provided is gone. The Josh Beckett golf drama, too, is a thing of the past.

    Indeed, it feels like Bobby Valentine has started to get comfortable in his role as manager, and clubhouse harmony appears to have finally arrived.

    The key for the rest of the season will be for the Sox to keep the focus on the field, rather than any shenanigans off it. After all the hubbub of the first half of the season, the second half should be a breeze.

Lots of Division Games Remain

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    Although the Sox currently sit 6.5 games out of first, this deficit could get significantly smaller in a very brief period of time. Here’s the breakdown for divisional games the Sox have left to play:

    Yankees: 13

    Orioles: 9

    Rays: 9

    Blue Jays: 9

    With 40 games left to play in the division, there will be ample opportunities for the Sox to quickly reposition themselves and alter the AL East landscape. The Sox have not fared well in the early going against divisional opponents (13-16), with many of these losses coming when they struggled mightily at the start of the season.

    Now that they have momentum on their side, the Sox should be able to make up some ground. Even a modest improvement will not just keep them in the division race, but will also put them in prime position to at worst land one of the AL’s two Wild Card slots.