Boston Red Sox: 5 Players Who Must Step Up in the Second Half

Sterling Xie@@sxie1281Correspondent IIJuly 10, 2013

Boston Red Sox: 5 Players Who Must Step Up in the Second Half

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    At 53-37, the Boston Red Sox are the best team in the AL East. 

    While most expected a rebound from the 69-93 debacle in Boston last season, even the most optimistic Red Sox fans were probably hoping their team would simply be competitive. 

    Of course, the Sox have been much more than adequate, sporting the best offense in baseball, while also demonstrating pitching depth that has been absent in recent years.  Nonetheless, there are still nearly three months left in the season, and as 2011 showed, it only takes one bad month to submarine a team's campaign.

    It's not always easy to find disappointments on a first-place team. If the following five Red Sox players rebound to their preseason expectations, it's not unreasonable to believe that they could propel Boston from being a very good team to being an elite team.


    *All stats courtesy and updated as of Wednesday, July 10.

5. Stephen Drew

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    When the Sox signed Stephen Drew, they were expecting solid, if unspectacular, offensive and defensive production. 

    While Drew's overall slash line of .233/.313/.409 is relatively in line with the American League shortstop average of .248/.301/.354, the veteran hasn't been as steady as advertised.

    Drew started the season poorly, hitting .154 through the end of April.  While he's picked up the pace since, there are still vast discrepancies in his splits, including a .183 average against lefties and a .168 average on the road.  

    That wouldn't be such an issue if the Red Sox could afford to platoon him with Jose Iglesias, but given Will Middlebrooks' struggles and demotion to the minors, the team needs Drew to perform with the consistency of an everyday player. 

    Most distressingly, Drew's injury-prone habits are resurfacing, as the shortstop was placed on the DL last week with a hamstring injury.  Drew also began the year on the DL with lingering concussion symptoms.

    Nobody is asking Drew to come on in the second half and hit like Troy Tulowitzki, though no one wants him on the DL as often as Tulo either.

    Still, considering Iglesias' absurd BABIP that leads all players with at least 150 at-bats, the Sox could once again experience offensive instability on the left side of their infield.

      Drew must stay healthy and hit more consistently, if only to provide balance in the lineup. 

4. Jonny Gomes

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    For all its strengths, the Red Sox's offense is short on right-handed power. 

    Mike Napoli's month-long slump has exacerbated this weakness, leaving the team with a paltry .728 OPS against left-handed pitchers.  That pales in comparison to their .835 mark against right-handed pitchers, signifying a team with a dangerous platoon split.

    Even assuming that Napoli turns things around this season, the Red Sox could still use a reliable right-handed power source in pinch-hitting situations.  Helmet-punting heroics aside, Jonny Gomes hasn't exactly lived up to the same billing he had when the Sox signed him over the offseason.

    Gomes' isolated power (ISO) is just .169 this season—a solid mark, but well below his excellent .209 career mark.  Examining his splits, he has actually batted for a lower average against left-handed pitchers.  That has led switch-hitter Daniel Nava to get virtually every start, though Nava is significantly stronger from the left side.

    Gomes is the only part-time Red Sox player on this list, but his potential contributions should not be understated.  The AL East is loaded with quality left-handed starters like CC Sabathia, David Price and Wei-Yin Chen, who are among the pitchers the Sox will have to battle for the division crown. 

    For all his faults this year, Gomes has shown a propensity for clutch hits, batting .344 with runners in scoring position.  It is imperative that the Sox can rely on him for late-inning at-bats in what will surely be a tight division race.

3. Andrew Bailey

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    There's no secret to the struggles of erstwhile closer Andrew Bailey, who has given up far too many home runs, which some might say was predictable given his fly-ball tendencies.

    While Bailey's pitching style garnered solid results in Oakland's spacious stadium, it has gotten him into significant trouble in tiny Fenway Park this season.

    Bailey's 2.42 HR/9 rate is well above his career average of 0.84, and his HR/FB ratio is an eye-popping 21.2 percent for fifth-worst among American League relievers. 

    Since being removed from the closer role, Bailey has given up just two hits and one earned run, albeit off of another home run.  Still, the Sox didn't trade for a middle reliever, so they'll probably give Bailey every chance to reclaim the closer role.

    Unfortunately, he's already done significant damage to the bullpen's long-term health by stretching out other relievers to atone for his mistakes.  Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara have both battled fatigue at various stretches of the season, and we're barely more than halfway through the season.  It is fair to wonder if either will have anything left if the Sox make it into October.

    A look at Bailey's fastball velocity doesn't suggest any decline, although that's been by far his weakest pitch.  That brings his struggles back to the initial point—what if his fly-ball tendencies are simply unsuitable for Fenway Park?

    That seems like a flimsy excuse, given the successes of previous fly-ball pitchers like Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield.

    Nevertheless, it's hard to explain Bailey's struggles any other way, unless he is perhaps still suffering from the biceps injury that sent him to the DL earlier this season.  If Bailey cannot help stabilize the back end of the bullpen, that could be the Achilles' heel that sinks the Sox's dreams.

2. Will Middlebrooks

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    No Red Sox position player has been a bigger disappointment than Will Middlebrooks. 

    After a promising rookie season, the Sox thought enough of Middlebrooks that they brought in virtually no insurance plan at third base.

    But behind his otherwise solid obvious stats were some disturbing peripheral stats.  Middlebrooks struck out a hack-tastic 24.5 percent of the time last season, a number he is only slightly exceeding this year.  His solid .288 average was buoyed by a relatively fortunate .335 BABIP.  This year, Middlebrooks has been unlucky, and the .221 BABIP has shrunken his batting average to catastrophic levels.

    It's clear such a high strikeout average is unsustainable for anything other than a "three true outcomes" player, something the Sox hope that Middlebrooks does not develop into. 

    Brian MacPherson of The Providence Journal provided a sobering outlook on the third-baseman's future:

    Most ominous about what Middlebrooks did last season was that he struck out 70 times and walked just 13  more than five strikeouts per walk. So far this season, he's struck out 60 times and walked nine times  — more than six strikeouts per walk. It's not getting better. It's getting worse.

    It's a rare hitter who strikes out five times for every walk, let alone six, and still manages to grow into a productive hitter. Only 28 hitters since 2000 have endured the 5-to-1 ratio in at least 250 plate appearances while 25 or younger, and few have gone on to do much of note in the major leagues.

    The list does include some success stories, like Chris Davis and Carlos Gonzalez, but there are far more along the lines of Corey Patterson and Angel Berroa. 
    If Middlebrooks does not break out of his slump, the Sox might need to move uber-prospect Xander Bogaerts to third base to shore up a premium position.

1. Jon Lester

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    I have previously broken down Jon Lester's struggles in greater detail, but the signs have been better after a rough June. 

    Though it's been just two starts, his July ERA has leveled out, even if opponents are still batting well against him.  His strikeout totals remain down, but then again, he hasn't been that kind of pitcher for a couple of seasons now.

    Even through his struggles in June, Lester has been resolute in denying any fatigue or mechanical issues.  As such, the Sox can probably expect him to once again eclipse the 200-inning mark for the fifth time in the past six seasons. 

    And yet, with Clay Buchholz's injury issues and the relative mediocrity of the rest of the staff (John Lackey's resurgence notwithstanding), it may not be good enough for Lester to simply be an innings-eater. 

    After his start against the Padres, Lester acknowledged as much himself, according to Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald:

    “No, I mean like the rest of the season,” Lester said. “I don’t want seven. I want the whole season."

    ...Screw the team-is-doing-pretty-good pablum. Lester talked about winning a whole bunch of games in a row, and he said it with an air of confidence. I half expected him to pull a Pedro and talk about drilling the Bambino in the arse, or getting all Schilling by barking out guarantees about winning a World Series. 

    It's a tired cliché, but pitching really does win in the playoffs.  There's a reason the Giants have won two of the past three World Series despite a fairly punchless offense

    Lester is the type of ace who can steal a series for the Sox in October.  He's improving, but he will need to peak by season's end to give the Sox any legitimate World Series hopes.