Through the 50 some off games that have taken place this year, standings and play are remarkably different from last year.
Yes, there are some holdovers: the New York Yankees in last place, the Texas Rangers having good bats and bad pitching, and the Arizona Diamondbacks doing well.
But there are some serious differences. For one, the Tampa Bay Rays are in first place in the AL East and have the best record in baseball. And the fact is, they deserve it. But I am not going to analyze the Rays, I am going to look at my beloved Boston Red Sox.
There is no doubt the Red Sox are having a good year, it's not quite the great year, the 35-15 year they had last year but it is good, especially considering all the injuries and Julio Lugo's bad glove.
But even so, there is a problem and it is neither of those two. The problem is one that has plagued the Sox in the past, one that had been reversed for the two World Series runs and one which ultimately needs to be fixed in order for the Red Sox to win: the bullpen.
Last year the Red Sox had one of the best bullpens in baseball, come the eighth inning the game was over (at least until Eric Gagne was singed). Last year the middle relief was fantastic too: Manny Delcarmen came up and had an ERA just over 2.00, Javy Lopez got out almost all the righties he faced, and Mike Timlin found himself in the second half.
This year there is a difference. Manny Delcarmen has lost his confidence, something that I think began last October with Jhonny Peralta's home run in Cleveland. Delcarmen has some good games and innings, last night for example, but for the most part he is horrible. He is not relying on his curveball enough and it has translated into a high 5.14 ERA.
Javy Lopez has found the laws and now righties hit him better than lefties but he CANNOT find the plate. It seems every time he gets on the mound he is already down 2-0.
I think he is just not good, a first pitch home run to Jack Cust in Oakland, which is probably due to the fact that he has gotten behind so many hitters that he must be aiming the ball early in an at bat.
Mike Timlin should retire. We have been saying this for the past three years and every year he amazes us. I think this year is the end of that but it is also the way in which he is used.
Why bring Timlin into a tie game in the ninth inning? I have nothing against Terry Francona at this point, I think he does a great time managing his 96 wins a season but Timlin has got to go.
His high 6.89 ERA does not cut it. I think he should take the Roger Clemens treatment (not steroids) and begin the season in July. Last year he was horrible at the beginning, then he got injured, came up in July and was lights out.
Yes, all these are problems; Craig Hansen is a problem too. He needs time to regain his confidence and not have all his inherited runners score. He is not pitching well, but he is not pitching as badly as his ERA suggests.
There are many problems with the bullpen, but it seems to me the biggest problem is its biggest asset.
Jonathan Paplebon is a great closer. He has had some bad outings this year but that is mainly because no one can hit him hard and they end up getting bloop singles or broken bat liners that are not hit hard enough to catch.
His ERA is higher than in the past and I think this is the reason; as well as the fact that hitters are getting used to him. The fact is that he is no Mariano Rivera, no one is.
But Paps' biggest problem is the protection they put him through. Yes, he has gotten more four out saves then all of last year, but because of the arm trouble he has had in the past he cannot be used as much as the Sox would like to use him.
This is the problem. Last night against the Seattle Mariners any other team would have had their closer on the mound in the ninth, even though he pitched the day before.
In the least Okajima should have been in. But Paps is fragile and so is Okajima. His breakdown last year was a major problem and obviously we don't want it to happen again. But the Sox have a problem with their two best relievers: neither can pitch too much.
This is the problem. The Red Sox need a closer and set-up guy who can come in almost every day. They need a Mariano Rivera or a K-Rod! We all criticize the rest of the bullpen because it looks like they are all so bad, but they are not the problem.
The Sox would not have lost so many games if Okajima and Paps could have come in instead of rest, but that is not they way the team is set up. The Sox need another reliever: they need Hansen to step up to the plate and get ready to close, Delcarmen to find himself again, and they need to make a trade and get another reliever.
Yes, Paps is the closer but they need another, someone who is just as overpowering who can come in on days when Paps in resting, or set-up when Okajima needs a rest.
The Sox are the best team in the game, they are far better than last year, far better than 2004, but if there's one thing we know, being a far better team on paper means nothing.
We all must remember that for the last few years the Yankees always start slow, but they will be coming and when they do the Rays and the Sox better watch out. Especially since there is not a 14 and a half game lead as a cushion this year, and the time when teams show themselves is just beginning.