We’re a third of the way into the season, and after another rough start the Boston Red Sox have clawed their way past the .500 mark into this dogfight of a division race. They’ve done so on the strength of improved starting pitching, stellar relief pitching, and a host of bats who’ve kept the offense chugging along despite numerous injuries. Bobby Valentine seems to have settled in (no controversies lately), and he’s doing a masterful job of managing both the bullpen and the revolving door between the dugout and the disabled list. Speaking of which, let’s review who’s been injured so far this season.
Of the projected opening-day position players, half of them have been on the DL. Carl Crawford hasn’t played yet this year and with a bad UCL he may end up out most of the season. Jacoby Ellsbury played just seven games before his shoulder injury sidelined him for what will end up being at least two months. Kevin Youkilis missed 25 games with a bad back. Ryan Sweeney missed a week with a concussion, and his platoon mate Cody Ross has missed a few weeks with a small fracture in his foot. In other words, on any given day since the start of the season, the lineup has featured anywhere from one to three Boston outfielders who were on the bench or not on the roster at the start of the season. (Even some of the backup outfielders have gone on the DL.) Despite the rash of injuries, the team has been one of the best in the league over the last month because fill-ins like Daniel Nava have overachieved, stars like Adrian Gonzalez have been willing to play out of position, Jarrod Saltalamacchia has turned into a slugger, and a bullpen full of veteran no-names has been the best bullpen in baseball. A lot of people who were lamenting how “unlikable” this team was a month ago are now keeping quiet, and it’s because everyone on the team is making an effort to help the team win, and that includes guys like Scott Podsednik, Nava, Nick Punto, and other “AAAA” players who, frankly, may not be on the team come September.
To me, that’s going to be what’s most interesting about this season come mid July: What happens when the All-Star outfielders are healthy and some of the pitchers come back, too? And how about the left side of the infield? Do the Sox keep both Will Middlebrooks and Kevin Youkilis in case someone gets hurt, or do they go ahead and trade Youk as rumors and logic would suggest? Is Mike Aviles still your shortstop for the full year, or is there renewed interest in calling up Jose Iglesias, who is hitting better lately while Aviles has tapered off? Meanwhile, the bullpen has been outstanding, but would-be closer Andrew Bailey will be back at some point, Mark Melancon has straightened himself out in Pawtucket, Junichi Tazawa is available, and Aaron Cook and Daisuke Matsuzaka are due back as well. One of the latter two pitchers may get a spot in the rotation, as Daniel Bard is unraveling to the point of being a serious threat to opposing hitters. Unless Bard goes on the DL for a dead arm or a made-up injury, or he’s demoted outright, he too will be squeezed into the bullpen. If so, who are the odd men out? Nobody in the pen right now has done anything to lose his job, but it’s going to happen.
Ben Cherington is of course going to deny that he’s actively shopping Youkilis, but it seems obvious to the entire world that Youk is not long for Boston. Will Middlebrooks is the third baseman of the future, and Youk is in the last year of his contract. The Sox could eat a bit of Youk’s sizable salary and send him to a contender that needs a bat and a third baseman. Cincinnati seems like an ideal destination, as the Reds are in first place but need a third baseman (Scott Rolen is on DL and was playing terribly before that), and Cincy is Youk’s hometown. But I wonder if the Sox might do something more bold by trading several big names to get an All-Star quality starter and a couple of prospects. Ellsbury is coming off an MVP-caliber year, and with Scott Boras as his agent he will almost certainly go to whichever team ponies up the most money for his considerable talents after next season. With so much money already locked up in Crawford and Gonzalez, would the Sox even consider paying top dollar And with Ellsbury’s past disagreements with the medical staff, does he want to end up elsewhere? I’d love for him to stick around and have the kind of career that Fred Lynn would’ve had if he’d stayed in Boston, but I wouldn’t begrudge the Sox at all if they tried to get something for Ellsbury while the getting is good.
The kinds of moves Cherington makes over the next month will tell us a lot about what he thinks of his team’s chances this season. If the starting pitchers fail to get into a groove, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cherington set his sights on contending next year and beyond instead of going all in for this season, when there are too many teams that are capable of winning the World Series.