Boston Red Sox: 5 Things We've Learned Through the First 19 Games
The first 19 games of 2014 have gone a lot different for the Boston Red Sox than the same stretch last season. At this point in 2013, they were in first place, owners of a 13-6 record with a two-game lead on the Baltimore Orioles.
Now they're 9-10 and two games out of first place.
After winning the World Series last October, general manager Ben Cherington made some crucial roster decisions. He sought external options to fill holes at catcher and in the bullpen but felt the vacancies at shortstop and center field could be handled by their minor league prospects.
So far, he's technically been right, but it's been a much more inconsistent month of April than the organization would like.
Still, they find themselves in the thick of things in the American League East and are ready to do battle as the regular season moves toward the summer.
Here are five things we've learned about the Red Sox now that the first month of the season is more than halfway over.
Statistics sourced from MLB.com.
The Lineup Misses Jacoby Ellsbury at the Top
Jacoby Ellsbury had a successful run over his seven seasons with the Red Sox. He helped bring two world championships to Fenway Park, while also leading the league in stolen bases on three separate occasions.
Injuries prevented him from staying on the field at times, but when healthy, Ellsbury was a given at the top of Boston's lineup. That continuity helped players after him get in a groove at the plate, like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz.
Watching him leave for the New York Yankees over the winter certainly stung, but the front office felt handing him a seven-year deal was too risky in the long term. It remains to be seen how things play out over the life of his contract, but Boston is missing him setting the tone at the top of the lineup right now.
Ellsbury is currently hitting .338/.395/.441 with eight stolen bases for New York, something manager John Farrell would love to insert into his leadoff spot. With Shane Victorino on the disabled list, he's tried both Grady Sizemore and Daniel Nava but has most recently been sticking with Jackie Bradley Jr. for that role.
Those hitting first in the order own a .225/.337/.387 line. Boston's slow start this season can be attributed to an inconsistent offense, and the ineffectiveness of the leadoff spot can be considered the main culprit.
Xander Bogaerts Will Experience Growing Pains
Stephen Drew struggled to a .111 batting average in 54 postseason at-bats, but his steady glove at shortstop kept him in the lineup. Cherington wasn't desperate to re-sign Drew because of the late-season emergence of Xander Bogaerts.
Already one of Boston's top prospects, the team wasn't expecting him to make such a big impact last October. He ended up shifting from shortstop to third base while Will Middlebrooks got benched.
He responded, hitting .296/.412/.481 in 27 at-bats.
It's easy to look at what the 21-year-old did last fall and expect him to continue throughout the entire regular season. Unfortunately for Red Sox Nation, it will have to deal with his growing pains.
Coming into this season, he only had 18 games and 44 regular-season at-bats to his name. Opposing pitchers are beginning to learn his strengths and weaknesses at the plate, and he'll soon have to show how he adjusts.
He endured a tough start to the spring but finished strong, posting a .278/.350/.481 line in 54 at-bats, and he carried that into the season, hitting .271/.411/.356 in 59 at-bats.
Bogaerts will go through rough patches throughout the year, as every player does. In order for him to be an asset from the start, he needs to minimize the length of those rough patches.
Also, he must provide solid defense, as he’s already cost the Red Sox a game or two with his errors. Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston caught Bogaerts keeping a positive mindset on an April 15 throwing error:
“You can use it two ways,’’ he said. “I could be down and keep going down from there, or I could use it as a turning point, something to move on, turn my season around from that play.’’
The next night, he reached base five times. As he grows into a solid major leaguer, Boston will enjoy watching that kind of resiliency.
Shane Victorino's Presence Is Very Important
Victorino proved to be a worthy acquisition, hitting .294/.351/.451 with 15 home runs and 61 RBI last season. He only hit .216 in the playoffs but drove in 12 runs through 14 games, being a crucial piece to Boston's championship puzzle.
It was a jab to the gut for the Red Sox when he was placed on the DL right before Opening Day with a hamstring strain. However, it wasn't known how much his presence would be missed until a few days into the season.
The outfield depth has taken a huge hit in his absence. Sizemore is having a good start, and Bradley is providing as much of a boost as possible, but Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava have been struggling mightily for most of the year.
Their prolonged slumps have forced Farrell to mix and match his outfield configuration to see which one works the best for his inconsistent offense.
The 33-year-old doesn't run as well as he did earlier in his career, but Victorino swiped 21 bases in 2013, while bringing big-league experience to the leadoff spot. His return will allow Farrell to have some continuity in the lineup, as opposed to changing things on a nightly basis.
Victorino did start his rehab assignment this past weekend with Triple-A Pawtucket, so it shouldn't be long before he returns to the majors. From what the offense has done so far this season, he will be welcomed back with open arms, and with hopes that he'll inject some energy and consistency into the lineup.
Pitching Is Their Greatest Strength
Entering 2014, it was thought that Farrell's pitching staff would be a strength of the team. The staff's complete turnaround from 2012 to 2013 is a big reason why it captured its third World Series title in 10 years.
The inconsistent offense has prevented Boston from getting off to a better start, but it's been the pitching that has kept it competitive thus far.
Its 3.44 ERA ranks ninth in baseball, while its team WHIP of 1.28 is 16th-best. Solid performances from Jon Lester (2.17 ERA, 1.03 WHIP) and Jake Peavy (1.93 ERA, 1.18 WHIP) have been leading the way. Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront started slow but have settled down to a degree in recent appearances.
Koji Uehara has continued his dominant performance from last season, not giving up a run in seven innings, while converting all four save opportunities. Thankfully, the problems he experienced with his shoulder weren't serious, and he avoided a trip to the DL.
Uehara is actually just one of four Red Sox relievers that currently own an ERA of 0.00. The rest of this club includes Chris Capuano, Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa.
John Lackey has gotten hit hard in his last two starts, and Edward Mujica hasn't adjusted well to the American League, but the staff is certainly as advertised from this spring. To compete in a tough division such as the AL East, a strong group of pitchers is important toward having success.
Competing in the AL East Will Be Tough
Usually one of the deeper—if not the deepest—division in baseball, the Red Sox knew winning the division again wouldn't be easy. Some teams made significant improvements over the winter, but those acquisitions are also paying off on the field in the season's first month.
The Yankees spent over $500 million this offseason, but big questions remained with regard to their starting rotation and infield. However, they took three of four in their first meeting of the year with Boston and find themselves in sole possession of first place with an 11-8 record.
The Toronto Blue Jays didn't make significant changes but are looking to bounce back after a disappointing 2013 campaign. So far, they're keeping pace with New York.
The Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles are currently at the bottom of the division but will be fierce competitors. Only a two-game difference lies between last place and first place.
Boston is in the middle of an April where it's playing 19 games within the division, posting a 5-5 record so far. If the Red Sox plan on staying in playoff contention, they must find a way to beat them. They did that last year, posting a division-best 44-32 mark.
The AL East is a good test for any postseason-bound team. It's like playing half of the regular season in a playoff-type atmosphere. Boston came out of its 162-game schedule as division champions last season, and then went on to win the World Series. That shouldn't have been a surprise, as it was already battle-tested through tough divisional matchups.
If the Red Sox succeed at that again in 2014, it should bode well for their playoff future.
Matt's baseball opinions have been featured on MLB Trade Rumors, Yahoo! Sports, MetsBlog, Amazin' Avenue and Mets Merized Online. To keep up with Matt, you can follow him on Twitter.
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