LONGSHOTS: First-place Sox are making the grade
by Dave Long
Not that it matters, but I’m probably not like most baseball fans around here. Baseball’s a warm-weather thing to me. Thus I’m not into the renewal-of-life thing that many rhapsodize about as opening day approaches, which I barely even notice.
That’s been especially true the past couple of years as the Bruins and Celtics have become viable again. Following their playoff battles is much more interesting than watching cold-weather or dome baseball that is only going on in the first week of April because the owners are trying to squeeze every last cent out of the game even when the product suffers. Plus seeing a manager like Joe Maddon and his players wearing baseball hats with earmuffs sewn into them as they did at Fenway Park in the season opener and the World Series just doesn’t compute.
That doesn’t mean I don’t know the collective ERA of the Sox starters is higher than Timothy Leary in his prime or that David Ortiz leads Wily Mo Pena in their personal 2009 homer battle. It just means I don’t enjoy watching until it’s warm — which I’d like to blame on Bud Selig, but this started long before he took the job.
The good news is after the first glorious-weather week of the spring, the baseball season has arrived for me. And it happened to coincide with the conclusion of the season’s first quarter. So as I was catching up with those who’ve been with it since opening day here’s what I found:
The Good: Given they’re in first place as this is being written, there are many things that fit here. At the top of the list is the sensational job by the bullpen, which has five regulars and seven guys overall (counting Michael Bowden and Jonathan Van Every) with ERAs below 3.00. Ramon Ramirez has been dazzling in going 4-1 with a 0.79 earned run average. Also in this category is Jason Bay, who reminds me of a latter-day Tony Conigliaro. The lanky righty’s stroke is perfectly suited for Fenway, as Tony C’s was back in the day. His 13 homers and 44 RBI at the turn project to a better-than-Manny-ever-did 52 and 176. Wow!
The Bad: The starting pitching. Thank goodness for ageless Tim Wakefield or this would be in the ugly category. While he may not stay that way all year, in going 6-2 he’s been the only consistent starter and that has been big. Shortstop defense goes here too. The combined 12 errors by Nick Green and Julio Lugo project to 48 and that’s only acceptable if it’s 1929 and they’re replacing Joe Cronin the year the Hall of Famer made an astonishing 62 errors in 143 games with the Senators.
The Ugly: I hate to say it, but it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room — the struggles of David Ortiz. As I write this he’s hitting .195 with one homer and 18 RBI. Ugh.
Questions answered: The two biggest coming in were what Jason Varitek would do at the plate and how Mike Lowell would respond after hip surgery. So far so good, although Varitek’s .248 average, surprising eight homers and 20 RBI are close to the .281, 3 and 16 he had on May 24 during his 2008 train wreck, so he’s not out of the woods yet. As for Lowell, his 8/32 power numbers aren’t too far off from the 9/37 he had on the same date during his 2007 career year. I’m convinced on Lowell.
Taken for Granted: There’s been little chatter over Dustin Pedroia hitting .329 and being on pace to score 140 runs and hit 56 doubles. Guess that happens if you’re rookie of the year and MVP in back-to-back years. Though he did have 28 RBI at this time last year to 2009’s 15 and he’s got just one homer after hitting 17 last year. And then there is Kevin Youkilis, who has turned out to be much better than I ever thought he would be. Billy Beane got it right about him.
Improvements needed: Getting Ramirez from KC justified trading Coco Crisp (hitting .234, 3 HRs and 14 RBI). However, Jacoby Ellsbury’s improvement makes it even better. He’s hit better to start, as evidenced by his .297 average and 19-game hitting streak. And he’s had some exciting moments like scoring from second on a wild pitch and stealing home in the same series sweep of the Yanks. Still his .322 on base percentage is 110 points lower than AL leader Victor Martinez and his 23 runs scored in the lead-off spot lags behind Pedroia’s 34.
Biggest on-field issue: What to do about Ortiz and the three hole. How long before you move him out? And if it comes to this, how long before you say we need a new DH?
Biggest off-field issue: Hey, Theo — Jason Bay’s become what you expected J.D. Drew to be — right? And with the Ortiz struggles possibly permanent shouldn’t you get the free-agent-to-be left fielder signed NOW!!
Injured list: Given the injury history and age of several key guys, this is what I thought could derail the season. And with Kevin Youkilis, Dice-K, John Smoltz, Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie and Mark Kotsay having already been on the DL, they’re ahead of my over-under. But their depth (and the minor league system’s as well) is admirable. Especially the pitching, which is further enhanced by the versatility of Justin Masterson, who my friend Charley Cannon accurately likened to the 1978 Bob Stanley for his ability to start, spot start, long relieve and be an eight-inning guy.
Good Stuff Still to Come: Most interesting is probably Smoltz being on the horizon. A healthy, productive Smoltz deepens the rotation and provides a proven clutch performer for when the games count most.
Trade bait: A healthy Smoltz probably makes Brad Penny expendable, especially with Clay Buchholz blowing people away in AAA. And thanks to the economy, this will be the biggest salary dump year ever. Thus there could be some very interesting names popping up as the deadline looms. Penny won’t bring a three hitter or a shortstop, but along with the young talent in the minors he could figure in a blockbuster to get either if Theo is of a mind to do that.
Prayer that won’t be answered: A deal with cash-strapped Florida that would send Penny, Lowrie, Bowden and one more good young player, not named Buchholz, Daniel Bard or Lars Anderson, for Hanley Ramirez to play short and bat third.
First-quarter grade: A balancing act. On the downside the starting pitching gets a D, the shortstop an F, as does Ortiz. But the relief pitching has been tremendous and despite Papi’s struggles they’re scoring 5.5 runs, on pace to hit close to 200 homers and project to win 98-100 games. So B+.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.