Well, we are nearly halfway through the season, and already the Red Sox have made changes to the team. With Julio Lugo and Jed Lowrie going down early on due to injuries, Nick Green had to play full time.
No one expected much out of him, but he has surprised the fans with his range, his gritty play, and his surprising ability to hit for average. The beginning of the year also saw the 2008 ALCS rival Tampa Bay Rays return to Fenway and take two out of three from the Sox.
While Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Daisuke Matsuzaka struggled early on, Tim Wakefield turned in one of the best starts to a season in his life. New pitcher Brad Penny, meanwhile, gave the Sox the innings and starts they needed to keep their bullpen fresh and the team in the game.
Perhaps the most painful moment of the season early on was to watch David Ortiz. The Big Papi of years past slimmed down this offseason, but his bat disappeared on him, too. Through April and mid May, Ortiz was hitting under .200 with no home runs.
It got so bad, David himself told reporters to write down “Papi Stinks." Terry Franconca moved him from his customary No. 3 spot. It got so bad, he went 1-14 in a series against the Angels, and 0-7 in one game, and Francona sat him for the whole Seattle series.
Thankfully, things have started to turn around for the Sox. Ortiz has raised his batting average from .185 on May 31 to .213 on June 21. He also has added five home runs to the one he hit in mid May. Beckett and Lester have turned things around. Jed Lowrie is expected back within the All-Star Break, and Nick Green hit a walk-off home run this past Sunday.
The offense has been going even without contributions from Lugo and Ortiz, as Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis have carried the team to the best record in the American League. Mike Lowell, returning from hip surgery this off-season, has returned to his 2007 World Series MVP level.
The bullpen has been an absolute revelation, as Ramon Ramirez, Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, Manny Delcarmen, and Takashi Saito have formed a bridge to get to closer Jonathan Papelbon.
Newcomer Daniel Bard has brought triple-digit heat and a nasty slider from the minors, and proved his worth in a save situation against the Phillies on June 12th, striking out the side on blazing gas and a dirty hook. There are no holes in the bullpen that can be detected.
With Daisuke Matsuzaka headed to the DL, John Smoltz has returned to the majors, for the first time stepping onto a major league mound without a Braves uniform on.
There can be no doubt that the Red Sox have become the best team in baseball now, with their ability to combine pitching prowess, killer hitting, and gritty defense to dominate teams such as the Yankees and Philadelphia.
Jason Bay: Since his arrival last year at the trade deadline, which saw Manny Ramirez depart, Bay has been the anti-Manny in many regards. While continuing to slug home runs and drive in runs by the bushel, he has brought quality defense and a calming influence to the clubhouse.
It is little wonder he is the leading vote-getter for outfielders for the AL All-Star Team, as he has consistently produced in the clutch this year for his team.
Kevin Youkilis: Greek God of Walks? This guy has continued to improve every year, to the point where he was the third place candidate for MVP last year. With his ability to play Gold Glove defense at third and first, and his prowess at the plate, Youkilis has evolved into a professional hitter.
Ramon Ramirez: While lately he has been roughed up, Ramon has been the main setup guy for Jonathan Papelbon. Brought over in a trade with Kansas City for Coco Crisp, Ramirez has been a dependable, hard-throwing reliever to whom Francona has not hesitated to turn the ball over.
Brad Penny: Signed for a paltry $5 million, he has turned his career around in the fifth spot of the rotation. Bringing his velocity back to the mid 90s, he has also become a valuable trade piece to get valuable players back in exchange. A shortstop of the future, perhaps?
Nick Green: No one expected anything out of this guy. He was depth for the organization, they thought. But then Lugo and Lowrie went down, and Green had to step up. He has done very well this year.
While he has made his share of errors in the field, he has also brought more range to a shortstop position where Julio Lugo was not showing any ability. His ability to hit has also impressed many, as he has shown an ability to hit fastballs.
Tim Wakefield: The elder statesman of the Red Sox has had everything change on him this year. Normally the tough-luck loser, unable to get run support, this year he has been dominant AND received offensive help.
With nine wins already this year, he has been among the leaders in baseball in wins. He is in consideration to be selected to his first All-Star appearance this year.
David Ortiz: Papi showed up to camp this year lighter, and, everyone hoped, stronger. Instead, he didn’t hit a home run until May 20, then fell back into a slump. Recently, Ortiz has gotten his swing back, but this season can only be looked upon as the possible future for a Boston sports icon.
Julio Lugo: He is everything Nick Green is not. He was never a journeyman looking to latch on with somebody. He also does not have the ability any longer to hit, run, field, or throw. He is a $9 million bench player now, and is expected to be cut once Jed Lowrie comes back.
Daisuke Matsuzaka: Daisuke entered the year returning from the WBC, and in his first bullpen this spring did not impress. After spending time on the DL earlier this year, his performance has continued to drop. He is now on the DL with a weakened shoulder, and it is not known when he shall return.
On the Bubble
J.D. Drew: Theo Epstein's $70 million outfielder has not performed since his arrival to the expectations of the fans. While providing good defense in right field, he has a demeanor that makes fans feel he doesn’t care. He also is not the offensive force many thought he would be, and has not played to the expectations given to a player with such a salary.
Beckett/Lester: While their performance lately has greatly reverted to 2007 and 2008, respectively, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester both struggled to start the season.
They both were quite susceptible to having bad innings, and both gave up plenty of long balls. They have reverted to their dominant forms, however, and are expected to continue on into the postseason.
Where the team is Strong
Hitting: Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay, and Mike Lowell have become consistent producers for the team, driving in most of the runs this team has scored. With David Ortiz on the rebound, and 2008 MVP Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the order, expect even more offensive production from this team.
Bullpen: Each pitcher out in the Red Sox bullpen has the dominance to lock down innings. Ramirez, Okajima, and Masterson form the setup corps, while Delcarmen, Saito, and Bard each give the Sox options in the middle innings. Jonathan Papelbon is still one of the most dominant closers in the game today.
Depth: With Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden chomping on the bit to get into the majors, and John Smoltz returning to the majors, this team has a seemingly endless pipeline of pitching in case of injuries, or, in Matsuzaka’s case, ineffectiveness.
Where the Team is Weak
Bottom half of the order: Jason Varitek started the season strong, but has cooled of considerably lately. Gre en, while performing well, is no Derek Jeter. Julio Lugo is about to be jettisoned from the team, and Jed Lowrie will, hopefully, be cable to provide better production than Nick Green will out of the nine hole.
Bench: Assembling a good bench is difficult. Tim Wakefield’s personal caddy, George Kottaras, has proven adept at catching the knuckleball, and provides a potentially good bat.
His minor league stats, however, have yet to translate to the majors. Julio Lugo is done for, and won’t be getting much, if any time, on the field. Mark Kotsay is a capable fielder, but is nowhere near the hitter he used to be.
As for Rhode Island native Rocco Baldelli, his mitochondrial disorder keeps him from being physically healthy to play every night, and the lack of playing time that results prevents him from getting into a grove. The team has no viable infield defensive replacement until Lowrie returns, and Green can shuttle around the infield to spell guys.
What the Team Needs To Do
1. Get Daisuke Matsuzaka back healthy and ready to compete. He has won 33 games in two seasons at the major league level, and can produce big for the team when everything goes ok.
2. Dispose of Julio Lugo: At $9 million a year, this former Tampa Bay Devil Ray is hogging bench space and can’t help the team.
3. Keep John Smoltz healthy: In his golden days, Smoltz was among the very best pitchers in baseball. His grit and experience, especially in the postseason, will be invaluable to a team with younger pitchers on its staff. If he can be 75 percent of what he used to be, he will be worth every penny.
4. Find a good utility guy for the team: While Nick Green may be the utility infielder when Jed Lowrie comes back, this team could use a major league veteran to help share the load. Jack Wilson? Orlando Cabrera? Omar Vizquel?
Really, there isn’t a whole lot this team needs. Health is the biggest question. If Josh Beckett stays healthy, and David Ortiz continues to hit like he has lately, the rotation and lineup will fall in line respectively. This is a team with an eye on October.