It’s been two weeks since the Sox home opener, when I posed 10 questions about the team’s potential, its problems, and its psyche. Let’s see if any of those questions have been answered by recent developments.
1. Starting Pitching. Jon Lester is still not pitching like Jon Lester—whether it’s the one we’ve enjoyed for half a decade or the one we imagine will win a Cy Young one of these days. As of today, he is winless and lugging around an ERA of 6.00 and a WHIP of 1.50. Only Clay Buchholz has a worse WHIP among the starters. Speaking of Clay’s awful start, opponents are batting a whopping .340 against him, and he gave up 5 homers to the Yankees last weekend. Is he just shaking 9 months’ worth of rust off or is there some lingering issue with his back or mechanics that is preventing him from getting the ball down in the zone? His last start was better—he got his ERA a little bit under 9.00—but he’s clearly been outperformed by everyone else in the rotation, which has some scribes wondering if Buchholz might end up being the guy who loses his spot if Aaron Cook and/or Daisuke Matsuzaka join the rotation within the next month. Meanwhile, Josh Beckett is rounding into form and seems focused on being a good pitcher instead of a flamethrower. Felix Doubront has been very solid and currently leads the team in ERA. The suddenly potent offense has made up for the ongoing pitching struggles, but it seems like this rotation should end up being quite good once the kinks are worked out and Cook and Dice-K come back into the fold.
2. Bullpen. New guys Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon are still out of the picture. Alfredo Aceves has recorded a few saves since the home opener, though only one of them was without incident, which is putting it politely. Daniel Bard had to be used as a setup man earlier this week, but he’s back in the rotation for today’s start at Chicago. Matt Albers induced a much-needed double play the other night with runners in scoring position, and Morales has shown some positive signs. Scott Atchison, Vicente Padilla, and Junichi Tazawa have given quality innings, and Rich Hill is on his way back from post-Tommy John rehab. (Justin Thomas is obviously going back to the minors.) All in all, it’s been a decent week for the bullpen after a three-week horror show. Still much room for improvement. And I still don’t think Aceves is up to the task of being a closer. He gets too amped up, which makes his fastball straighten out. If he can’t figure out a way to close the adrenaline floodgates he is going to a) take someone’s head off, and b) blow a lot of saves. Rob Bradford thinks the bullpen can survive without Daniel Bard. I’m not so sure that’s the key question, with Bard potentially being bumped out of the rotation.
3. Can Jacoby Ellsbury do it again? Well, no. He’s out for another month at least, after subluxing his right shoulder. And given that the injured shoulder is the one he leads with when swinging the bat, it could take a while for him to find the stroke that made him an MVP candidate last year. The Sox have to hope that Ryan Sweeney (10 doubles already) and Cody Ross (5 homers, 15 RBI) continue to overachieve, and that Marlon Byrd plays a solid CF.
4. Adrian Gonzalez. Still not seeing much power from A-Gon. He’s 8th on the team in slugging and 6th in batting, yet he’s been driving in enough runs in sacrifice situations to get to 14 RBI. Remember he started off slow last year but then he had about 7 homers in the span of a week and looked like the MVP until his surgically repaired shoulder got tired
from the stupid Home Run Derby. I think it’s safe to put him down for .320/30/110. Meanwhile, given the extension Joey Votto just signed and the crazy money that Albert Pujols is getting for not producing in Anaheim, Gonzalez’s contract won’t be a sore subject. With $67 million worth of this year’s penciled-in personnel languishing on the DL, that’s a very good thing.
5. Duh—Carl Crawford. I’d hoped that Crawford was going to get back from his bad wrist and make up for Ellsbury’s absence. That’s when the baseball gods said “Bwah-hah-hah-hah, we’ve only just begun to torment this man!” and strained the UCL in Crawford’s throwing elbow. Gotta wonder if favoring the bad wrist caused the elbow injury. Either way, this guy is having one of the worst two seasons I’ve ever seen from a big-time free agent. After the announcement about the elbow, Peter Gammons tweeted “Red Sox lesson from Crawford debacle:when paying $100+M, make sure after agent gets fee he works with team to help adjustment to new market,” later adding “Carl’s insecurities and hence overwork contributed [to the injuries].” Tony Mazz thinks the Crawford signing was a bust when it happened, and there’s no chance whatsoever of it ever paying off.
6. Dice-K 2.0. He’s still rehabbing, but once his 30-day rehab assignment is over he has to be brought up. Will he be inserted back into the rotation? In whose spot? Will his new elbow allow him to go after hitters or will he still be a confounding nibbler? I wonder what, if anything, it means to Daisuke that Yu Darvish is now in the league. Motivation?
7. Catching. Saltalamacchia and Shoppach were stinking it up in the first few weeks. Now? They are 3rd and 5th, respectively, on the team in SLG, and Salty has 4 home runs. In the last 5 games alone, Salty has 5 extra-base hits and 7 RBI. That’s Player-of-the-Week material.
8. Curt Schilling. I’ve managed to not read or hear a word from Schilling in the last three weeks, and I was elated that his busy schedule prevented him from being at the 100th Anniversary festivities. As long as the Sox are winning—they’ve won four straight for the first time since last August—I don’t expect to hear any more theories about how Valentine is clubhouse poison. I do expect Schilling to warn us that Barack Obama is surely waiting for a second term to unleash his grand socialist agenda, but perhaps we have a few more months before we have to hear about that.
9. The Hangover. Terry Francona changed his mind and attended the 100th Anniversary, though not without going out with a bit of a bang—he supposedly pulled off his Sox jersey and tossed it into the stands. The Sox are still on last place in the division, but nobody else has run away with a Rangers-like record, so a measly three games in the loss column separate the Sox from the first-place Rays. Oh, the Orioles are also in first place, tied with TB at 12-7, but really, does anyone think Baltimore will end up over .500? Meanwhile, Bobby V has been behaving himself, with the most recent scandal being a fabricated Daily News story from spring training about Mike Aviles getting yelled at by the manager, which all alleged parties—including Dustin Pedroia—vehemently denied. Bottom line: As long they win, the hangover from last season will not be an issue.
10. Killing the Kitsch. Peter Abraham and Dan Shaughnessy and many other writers were aghast when “Sweet Caroline” was played and enjoyed in the middle of the Yankees epic comeback against the Sox last weekend. I was, too. If the the TD Garden doesn’t play the Gino video on the jumbotron when the Celtics are getting blown out, then “Sweet Caroline” should not be played in analogous situations at Fenway. It makes the fans look frivolous.