MLB: What Is Wrong with the Boston Red Sox?

Devin HigginsContributor IIIJuly 9, 2012

MLB: What Is Wrong with the Boston Red Sox?

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    As Major League Baseball celebrates the All-Star Break, the Boston Red Sox find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

    At 43-43, they sit at the bottom of the always cutthroat AL East, tied with the Toronto Blue Jays and 9.5 games in back of their arch rival the New York Yankees. In fact, the Yankees are very much "The Daddy" so far in 2012, having taken five of the first six meetings with the Sox this season, including three of four this past weekend.

    Boston was 3-7 in their last 10 games and had five game losing skids twice already, narrowly avoiding dropping six straight with Saturday's 9-5 win at Fenway to wrap up the doubleheader. 

    Expectations are always high when it comes to the Red Sox and their fans. Despite two World Series wins since the magical 2004 backdoor sweep of the Yanks in the now-mythical ALCS, Red Sox Nation (of which I am admittedly a born-and-bred citizen), has not been tolerant when the club's taken even a half-step backwards. 

    But the Red Sox have not finished the season below third place since 1997, according to Baseball-Reference.com. It was also the last time they managed to win fewer than 80 games (they finished 78-84) in the season.

    The question is what's wrong with this year's Sox and what, if anything can they do to stay in the playoff chase?

1.) Lineup

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    On paper, the Red Sox batting order isn't having a terrible season by any stretch.

    • 2nd in Runs
    • 6th in Batting Average
    • 8th in On Base Percentage
    • 4th in Slugging Percentage

    The lineup is once again anchored by "Big Papi" David Ortiz, who at 36, is having his best season since 2007, when he hit .332 with 35 HRs, 117 RBI, and a .445 OBP.

    So far, he's hitting over .300 and already has 22 HRs and 57 RBI, but there's only so much that he can do, and the rest of the lineup has yet to find its groove.

    To be fair, since sending the struggling Kevin Youkilis to Chicago, his replacement at 3B, Will Middlebrooks has hit a promising .298 with 10 HRs and 37 RBI, but he is still a developing player at age 23. 

    But former AL MVP Dustin Pedroia struggled in the first half of the season, posting just a .266 BA with six homers and only 33 RBI. So far, he's on pace for his weakest season since his rookie year in 2006. Mix that with the injuries the team has suffered (which I'll get to in a second), and you have a team that can hit, but isn't able to stay consistent enough to generate runs when needed.

    All told, this is the most easily correctable issue for the Sox as Jacoby Ellsbury and Pedroia come back from the DL.

2.) Pitching

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    It's one thing to be able to get guys across the plate, but it doesn't help much if you can't keep opponents from doing the same.

    Right now, the Red Sox rotation is 10th in the AL in ERA at 4.22. The only teams with worse production off the mound are Kansas City, Toronto, Cleveland, and Minnesota. Of those teams, only the Indians have managed to keep themselves out of the basement in their respective division.

    Even the lowly Seattle Mariners have a better pitching staff, despite having the worst record in the American League. They've still allowed 24 fewer runs to their opponents than the Sox have.

    Overall, the Sox rank 21st in pitching. The Yankees are ninth, Tampa Bay is 10th, and the Orioles are 19th.

    Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard all are struggling with keeping runs at a minimum. Lester, especially after taking over as the Ace from Beckett, has a 5-6 record with an ERA of 4.49 in 18 starts. 

    The bullpen is not doing much better as closer Alfredo Aceves also has an ERA over 4.00, and only 36-year-old Scott Atchison and 29-year-old Matt Albers have ERAs under 3.00.

    And considering Daisuke Matsuzaka has done nothing to warrant the fuss that the Red Sox went through in signing him three years ago, finding a way to stop the bleeding and shore up the pitching staff should be the first thing on the front office's agenda.

3.) Injuries

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    Wanted: Outfielders. Catching and athleticism preferred. Reliability a must.

    I know I wasn't the only one who wondered what the heck the Red Sox were thinking when they signed former Tampa Bay LF Carl Crawford to that insane 7-year, $142 million contract in 2011.

    My first guess was that the bartenders at the Cask & Flagon put then-GM Theo Epstein on the alcohol equivalent of a pitch count.

    After playing in just 130 games in 2011 and hitting a pedestrian .255, Crawford has yet to get under the Green Monster this season, and he has been dealing with an elbow injury, which could require Tommy John surgery and keep him out next season as well.

    As of this publication, Crawford also suffered a mild groin strain in his last rehab start for AAA-Pawtucket, but he still hopes to play this season.

    Not to be outdone, All-Star CF Jacoby Ellsbury has been snake-bit by the injury bug in two of the last three seasons. He played in all of 18 games in 2010 due to a rib injury, then had a strong comeback in 2011 and finished second in MVP voting. 

    But this year, Ellsbury had only played in seven games before a shoulder injury forced him out of the lineup. The Red Sox are hoping that he too will be back after the All-Star Break, but it stands to reason that if either Crawford or Ellsbury go down again, the front office might want to start looking at durable models who can consistently patrol the outfield and help out in the batting order.

4.) Bobby Valentine

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    Let's give Bobby Valentine a small modicum of a break, shall we?

    It's never easy replacing the guy who brought you the ultimate success, and I don't care if Casey Stengel were still alive (which he'd have quite a remark about I'm sure). Even he or Joe Torre would've had a really hard time taking over for Terry Francona in the Boston clubhouse.

    Why? Because Tito helped end The Curse and added another title on top of it. To even the average Red Sox fan, that makes him a god amongst men. To the diehards, he's still the only skipper they want to see in the dugout.

    Valentine hasn't exactly ingratiated himself to the Fenway faithful either. Where Francona knew how and when to play to the crowd and when to let his players do his talking for him, Bobby V is brash, outspoken, and will drum up publicity even at the expense of his players (See: Youkilis, Kevin).

    Under normal circumstances, a skipper of Valentine's ilk would get maybe three years to show he can win. But this is Boston, and the Red Sox have no interest in waiting 10 years for another ring, let alone 86.

    If Valentine can't find a way to win over both the crowd and the pundits at Fenway by the end of this season, he may not get a second chance to show that he was worth the investment.

5.) Red Sox Nation

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    Growing up in Boston, I knew why I hated George Steinbrenner, aside from the fact that he owned the Yankees.

    Steinbrenner symbolized to me all that was wrong with baseball ownership and fandom. Put a team together, expect them to win every game for six months, sweep the World Series, and anything else is complete and utter failure.

    To that end, every time the Yankees won, we hated them a little bit more because it solidified King George's theory. When they lost, it felt all that much better to rub it in the faces of my neighbors who had the audacity to wear pinstripes in my presence.

    That said, while I am a proud citizen of Red Sox Nation, I acknowledge that we've gone way over to the dark side in terms of our expectations.

    Looking at this year's roster, it doesn't scream perennial World Series favorite. It looks like a group of unknowns and veterans led by a high profile manager. Of the 2004 and 2006 championship teams, the only ones left are Ortiz and Beckett.

    There's no Jason Varitek. No Derek Lowe. No Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn, Kevin Millar, Trot Nixon, or Tim Wakefield.

    And there's definitely no Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez or Curt Schilling.

    Yet, we as fans seem to expect the same caliber of play from this year's group as we got from those legendary teams. Call me crazy if you want, but I think that may be a tad overreaching on our part. Like it or not, the Red Sox are in a rebuilding mode.

    After this season, Ortiz may be gone and with Theo Epstein now in the Windy City trying to rebuild the Cubs, Boston may very well find themselves looking up at the Yankees, Rays and even the Orioles for a while, as they've been able to retool more quickly.

    Does that mean the Nation should just give up? Course not. But sooner or later, all great teams come to the end of the line and a transition ultimately has to take place.

    The Celtics are reaching that point as are the Patriots, and the Red Sox are there.

    After being the sports capital of the U.S. for a decade, Boston and its fans need to accept the fact there could be lean times on the horizon.