Yes, I realize that technically the Sox aren't officially eliminated from the AL Central race. However, that hardly seems to matter right now. The Palehose have only won two of their last ten games and have generally looked awful doing it.
Pretty much everything has gone wrong at some point during this stretch. The bullpen has been brutal, the offense has done little in the clutch, the defense has been iffy and they've even mixed in a few brutal starts.
If you watched the last week of Sox baseball like I have, it's hard to envision the team making a run to pass the Tigers.
So what doomed this talented but underachieving team, and more importantly, can it be fixed in 2010?
I think just about ever Sox fan knows how frustrating their defense has been. Besides a lack of range at many positions, only two teams in baseball have committed more errors than the Sox. If you're a fan of those advanced fielding stats, the Sox were about eighteen range runs below average and had an ultimate zone rating of -27.2.
They have a knack for screwing up a relatively simple play and giving their opponents several gift runs.
Will it get any better? I think it can, but whether it will or not is another story.
Jermaine Dye, their worst defensive outfielder by a wide margin according to ultimate zone rating, is likely out of the picture in right field. They'll also have Alex Rios for the full season, who is a plus outfielder.
They could also benefit from improved defense from their young players. Gordon Beckham has greatly improved his defense from the beginning of the year, and if he could cut down on his frequent mental mistakes Alexei Ramirez could be a plus defender at shortstop (he already has an above average ultimate zone rating this year).
However, they'll still likely be a below average defensive team. Rios is the only position player on the roster that projects to be a plus fielder, and depending on Ramirez to figure things out could be hazardous.
They could also use a right fielder since Scott Podsednik doesn't have the arm to play center and often struggles on deep flies and Carlos Quentin isn't a strong enough defender to move to right.
Though it looks relatively average on paper, the pen has seriously let down the team of late and does not look dependable for next year as it is currently constructed. The team hasn't been able to get through the late innings without getting lit up of late, which makes it hard to win given their other issues.
Barring a fairly surprising move, Bobby Jenks and Matt Thornton will be back, giving them two fairly dependable relievers. The highly overworked D.J. Carrasco will also probably return as the long reliever.
Unfortunately, they are probably stuck with Scott Linebrink given his contract and Tony Pena will also be part of the bullpen since he is newly acquired and relatively cheap.
They will likely need to sign or acquire another dependable righty, as I doubt Octavio Dotel will return. That would give them six relievers before adding any young players that may get a shot.
It's hard to predict how much better or worse this group will be given the unpredictability of relievers. All it takes is one hot streak or cold streak and their ERA's could vary significantly.
As long as they add another dependable right hander, I think they'll be okay. Combine that with getting a solid year from either Linebrink or Pena and that could be a strong pen. However, it could also swing the other way if they don't add anyone and both of those guys struggle again.
The back end of the rotation
Though Mark Buehrle, John Danks and Gavin Floyd have been solid at the top, the Sox haven't gotten enough quality starts from the back end of the rotation.
A lot of that falls on Jose Contreras, as he's been far from dependable most of the year. Though he strung together some nice starts in July and August, he was brutal for the rest of the season and has been basically useless of late. His ERA could be a lot higher if not for a whopping 14 unearned runs, several of which were on his own errors.
The fifth spot wasn't any better. Bartolo Colon was highly erratic and Clayton Richard was inconsistent as well before he was traded.
This is one area that should definitely be better next year barring significant setbacks. With the addition of Jake Peavy, the rotation will be four deep with quality starters instead of only three. Hot prospect Daniel Hudson could also be a major factor at the back end of the rotation.
However, one has to be a bit worried given Peavy's recent elbow troubles. If he isn't 100 percent and/or Hudson struggles early in his MLB career, they could end up in a similar situation to this year. When combined with the previously mentioned bullpen struggles, that could result in some serious problems.
This is what bothers me the most. If you look at their lineup on paper, there aren't really any glaring weaknesses. If you count Rios as a bench player (I know he isn't really, just trying to make a point), their lowest on base plus slugging percentage from their August regulars is Alexei Ramirez at .730. That's pretty solid.
The problem is that none of their hitters are truly exceptional and several of them have been highly inconsistent. Jermaine Dye, arguably their MVP of the first half, has essentially been M.I.A since the All-Star break, hitting only .179 with two extra base hits since then. Alex Rios has done basically nothing at the plate since the trade. Gordon Beckham has been ice-cold in August, hitting only .220. Konerko, Thome and Quentin can all go into funks when they're not driving the ball. Pierzynski and Ramirez have little plate discipline, so they can get in funks where they can't get on base.
The problem is that most of these guys will be back and I'm not sure how much they can do about it. I think that unless Kenny gets trade-happy Dye will be the only guy to go, and that Thome will come back on a cheaper deal. I really hope that they can add some kind of consistent hitter in right field to help balance out their lineup a bit (Matt Holliday and Jason Bay are pipe dreams, but Bobby Abreu would be nice).
Guys simply have to start hitting. Rios has been better than this before and Beckham is only a rookie, so there's some reason for hope there. Carlos Quentin should also probably settle in to a level of production somewhere between this injury-riddled season and last year's career year, which will obviously help.
The bottom line is that they have far too many talented players to keep playing this way, and with Peavy in the rotation their pitching should get much better.
However, as this recent stretch of poor play has shown, they still have some holes and simply have to be more consistent.
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