One year removed from a 69-93 disaster, the Boston Red Sox are a really, really good baseball team.
At 72-49, sporting the second-best run differential (+105) in the American League, the Sox are four games up in the American League East race. According to ESPN.com's postseason predictor, the team has a 94.9 percent chance of qualifying for October baseball.
Amazingly, they've achieved this status while playing almost as many games (58) without Clay Buchholz on the roster as they have with him (63) healthy and available.
With a deep, talented roster and late-inning magic pushing them atop the division, the team has done a remarkable job in the absence of a pitcher who was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA upon exiting the rotation with neck and shoulder issues.
Now as Buchholz, after countless trips to the MRI machine and Dr. James Andrews, attempts to ramp up his throwing and rehab in time to join the rotation before the season expires, his potential presence looms large.
It's quite possible, especially in the aftermath of the Red Sox's deal for Jake Peavy, that the team doesn't need a healthy, productive Buchholz to reach October. On June 8, the last of Buchholz's 12 starts this season, Boston was 38-25, holding a one-game cushion in the AL East standings. Since that day, the team has gone 34-24 but expanded the division cushion to four full games over the now second-place Tampa Bay Rays.
For the Red Sox, the difference between winning the division or dropping down to a do-or-die, one-game wild-card playoff will be a major factor over the next six weeks, but the chance to get through October looms even larger.
The ability to add an arm that graduated from good to Cy Young-caliber could be the difference between an early exit or a deep, sustained run through the postseason.
If Buchholz can return to the form he was displaying before injuries derailed his season, Boston can undoubtedly represent the American League in the World Series. A top four of Buchholz, Peavy, Jon Lester and John Lackey is good enough, buoyed by the highest-scoring team in the league, to navigate the perils of short series.
Over the next few weeks, as Buchholz progresses from throwing off a mound to rehab games to the pitfalls of the minor league season ending, creating a hurdle in order to build up innings, the big picture must be taken into account for Boston.
Of course, a long losing streak or injury to another top starter could expedite the timetable and necessity of Buchholz's return. However, if the team continues to hold a cushion in the race for a postseason berth, the process of landing a healthy Buchholz shouldn't be taken lightly.
If the 29-year-old needs another month to return from a rehab stint, so be it. After years of inconsistency and/or health problems, the team must do everything it can to bring back the Buchholz of April, May and June.
For all the talk now about Felix Hernandez, Max Scherzer, Hiroki Kuroda and Yu Darvish, they all might be looking up at Buchholz in the AL Cy Young race if injuries hadn't crept up.
For teams like the Rays, Rangers, Yankees, Athletics, Indians, Royals and Orioles, a close eye will be kept on the rehab reports and health of the impending Red Sox ace. A quick return could expedite the Sox towards an AL East title, leaving multiple teams scrambling for two wild-card berths.
On the other hand, a slower return could bring the Red Sox back to the pack, leaving the specter of the AL East crown up for grabs. While that could bring excitement to the race, and, in theory, give more contenders a shot at October, the cost would be a fresher and potentially healthier Buchholz when October does arrive.
Would a healthy Clay Buchholz make Boston the American League favorites?
Major league teams can add players through waiver-wire deals for the remainder of August, but no other postseason contender can add a pitcher with a 1.71 ERA to the fold for the stretch run.
Buchholz's rehab timeline and outcome will shake up the AL postseason races through September and October.
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