EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 1, 2009

Despite early success, Sox have issues

Bill Burt

Two months into the 2009 season, we know this about the Boston Red Sox: They are good, sometimes very good, like yesterday in Toronto.

The good guys won 8-2 and improved to 29-22 overall, just a half-game out of first place in the American League East. They got an ace-caliber start from Jon Lester (six innings, 12 K's), a clutch hit from Dustin Pedroia (three-run homer in the fourth), and an admirable performance from the bullpen (three innings, one run).

But if we want to be critical and break out the microscope, we can see that these Red Sox are quite flawed.

They are flawed in ways that a great pitching staff might not be able to overcome. Not only that, but the New York Yankees are no longer in the rearview mirror. They are here, in first place, and playing as well as any team in baseball. That's always a cause for concern, especially when they were written off as mere wild card contenders at best in 2009.

But the Red Sox are on our plate. The fact that they have unparalleled pitching depth is a good thing. But could it haunt the Sox with their entire staff being very healthy?

It's not easy being Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. Here are five issues he and the Sox can't avoid dealing with much longer:

1. Shortstop.

Despite all the great things Theo Epstein has done as GM since 2002 — and the good far outweigh the bad — butchering this position has been the worst. Julio Lugo simply isn't good enough defensively to play the position on a full-time basis. While toting a decent bat with Jed Lowrie on the disabled list, Nick Green is even worse. Even Lowrie appeared to be entering a sophomore slump (1 for 18) before his injury in April.

The point is that the Red Sox need defense more than offense here. Will they buy out Lugo? Will Lowrie, a solid defender, get the job when healthy? Will Theo make a trade? If he does, will defense win out over offense?

2. Dice-K.

The Red Sox have several pitchers who will be ready to perform at the major league level in a few weeks — Clay Buchholz, John Smoltz and Michael Bowden — and quite honestly, the worst pitcher on the staff in 2009 has been Daisuke Matsuzaka. His nickname should be "Frustrating-K" or, better yet, "Dilemma-K."

The two-time MVP of the World Baseball Classic has pitched in four games this season and the Red Sox have lost all four of them. His longest outing (April 9 against Tampa Bay) ended with one out in the sixth inning. The Red Sox can't send him to the minors and they're not going to put him in the bullpen. He is going to start, frustrating or not.

3. Keeping Buchholz happy.

Buchholz gets an "A+" for wearing a happy face while pitching for Pawtucket, but he is frustrated. Why? Because he is ready to pitch every fifth day in the majors.

As many teams call up their prized minor league pitchers — including recent Sox opponents the Twins and Blue Jays — none of whom are of Buchholz's ilk, his patience will wear thin. Remember, Smoltz was signed to a one-year deal to be in the rotation by mid-June. Buchholz has allowed more than two runs only once in nine starts for the PawSox and he has given up just 29 hits in 55 innings.

4. Bullpen.

The Red Sox bullpen is not a problem. To the contrary, it has been the strength of the team since opening day, allowing the Sox to continue to thrive despite some shaky performances from the starting rotation.

The additions of Ramon Ramirez and Takashi Saito have been as good as expected. Ditto for Justin Masterson and Hideki Okajima.

Is Manny Delcarmen eventually going to be the odd man out? While his numbers are very good (1.23 ERA, 18 K's) there may not be enough innings to go around if the rotation continues to improve. Delcarmen could probably net the most in a trade, besides Masterson, if the Sox want to put a package together to get a power hitter. But Delcarmen is only 27 and could be a career setup guy after Saito leaves.

Do you send down the impressive Daniel Bard, whose fastball has touched 99 mph, for the sake of freeing up space? Bard is ready to pitch for the Red Sox on a consistent basis. There are too many good arms here and not enough spots.

5. Big Papi.

This might be the biggest gorilla on the club's shoulders. David Ortiz has been the face of the franchise since he started hitting clutch homers here in 2003. His loosey-goosey nature and ability to keep the Sox in a game even when trailing 4-1 in the eighth inning is (or was) legendary. But now, the entire franchise is walking on eggshells when it comes to Ortiz.

Understandably, nobody wants to talk about it. Worse, the lineup is out of whack. Terry Francona's biggest concern in dropping Ortiz from the third hole was creating a new, crazy lineup every day (e.g. Pedroia batting leadoff yesterday). But the bigger issue is you can't afford to have a designated hitter who can't hit for power or average.

The Red Sox won't survive August and September without Ortiz finding some semblence of production. Not only are his power numbers shockingly low (one home run, 18 RBIs), but his strikeouts are up and his walks are down.

What will Theo do? Will he trade for a 30-homer guy? Will he replace Ortiz?

Big Papi deserves the benefit of the doubt, but how much longer can that last?

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E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.