EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 17, 2013

Except for bullpen, Sox at top of the class

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — Eight walkoff wins, a bunch of hairy faces, a dominant John Lackey and a gritty second baseman who has committed just one error — this team has been fun to watch.

At the All-Star Break, the Boston Red Sox have the best record in the American League (58-39) and a 2.5 game lead in the AL East standings. All this comes after winning just 69 wins and finishing in last place in 2012.

It was an incredible first half. The Red Sox have exceeded all expectations. Now, it is time to reflect on the first half and look ahead to the final two and a half months.

THE STARTING PITCHING

Grade: B+

The reason the Red Sox haven’t made the playoffs since 2009 is poor starting pitching. This year, Boston starters have the second best ERA (3.82) in the American League and the best AL record as a result.

More unexpected than Boston’s first-half surge is John Lackey’s first-half dominance. Since Clay Buchholz (neck) went on the disabled list, Lackey has been the staff’s ace with a sparkling 2.78 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 93 strikeouts and .236 batting average against in 100.1 innings.

Lackey and Felix Doubront have been Boston’s two best pitchers since Buchholz was injured and Jon Lester began struggling around mid-May. Doubront has a 3.91 ERA for the season, but a 2.54 ERA in his past eight starts. He is finally reaching his potential.

But with the Tampa Bay Rays surging — winners of 14 of their past 16 — Boston will have difficulty keeping the AL East lead if Buchholz (9-0, 1.71 ERA in 12 starts) doesn’t return by the end of July or early August.

Ryan Dempster (4.24 ERA) is here to be an inning’s eater. He’s on pace for 184.1 innings. He must go deeper into games more consistently in the second half.

Don’t expected Boston to be in on the Matt Garza and Cliff Lee sweepstakes. The Red Sox won’t trade any top prospect because they still are building toward the future. Beyond Garza and Lee, the starting pitching market is thin.

Brandon Workman, who did not allow Oakland a hit until the seventh inning Sunday, likely will remain in Boston’s rotation until Buchholz returns.

THE BULLPEN

Grade: D

The Red Sox already have had four different closers, the bullpen is ranked 24th in ERA (4.10) out of the 30 major league teams and their relievers have blown 14 of 34 save opportunities.

Joel Hanrahan was brutal before undergoing Tommy John surgery, Andrew Bailey blew four saves over an 18-day span in June to lose the job and Junichi Tazawa received some time as closer while Bailey was on the DL and didn’t look completely comfortable in the role.

Koji Uehara became the closer June 21 and has converted seven of nine save opportunities since. He has dominated as both a setup man and closer with a 1.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP.

But Uehara’s durability is an issue. He is on pace to throw 70.1 innings. The most he has thrown in a season since entering the major leagues from Japan in 2009 is 66.2 innings in ‘09. He pitched just 36.0 innings last year and manager John Farrell originally didn’t want to use Uehara in back-to-back days.

Bailey has mixed his pitches well recently and has done the job in high-leverage situations. He could return to the closer job later in the second half.

Don’t expect the Red Sox to acquire Jonathan Papelbon. He should not even be on their radar considering he is signed through 2015 with a vesting option in ‘16 and has blown five saves since June 17.

The Red Sox are more apt to add another Matt Thornton-type who they trust in high-leverage situations but wouldn’t cost them a top prospect. One possible addition could be Chicago righty reliever Jesse Crain who is an All-Star this season, has a 0.74 ERA in 36.2 innings and is expected to come of the DL soon. Workman and LHP Drake Britton are internal options.

THE OFFENSE

Grade: A-

The Red Sox have the best on-base percentage (.350) and OPS (.793) as well as the most extra-base hits (338), runs (498) and total bases (1,493) of all 30 major league teams. They are second in batting average (.277) and slugging percentage (443).

The lineup has been anchored by Dustin Pedroia in the three hole and David Ortiz in the cleanup spot. Pedroia is tied for the major league lead with 37 multi-hit games. David Ortiz is third in the majors with a .606 slugging percentage and 1.008 OPS.

Boston has struggled somewhat against left-handers with the 10th best batting average (.255) in the majors, but they have an 18-11 record vs. southpaw starters.

Don’t be surprised if Red Sox top prospect, 20-year-old Xander Bogaerts, get promoted from Pawtucket to Boston at some point.

Bogaerts could play third, Jose Iglesias would remain at shortstop and Stephen Drew, when he returns from the DL, could be a $9.5 million backup.

FoxSports.com reported yesterday that the Red Sox and Yankees have interest in seven-time All-Star infielder Michael Young who is batting .288 in 89 games for Philadelphia.

THE DEFENSE

Grade: B

The Red Sox are 12th in the majors for fewest errors (51).

Dustin Pedroia is a pleasure to watch at second base. He has committed just one error in 437 chances. He and shortstop Jose Iglesias make for one of the league’s best double-play combos. Iglesias has such quick reflexes and hands that some have mentioned him in the same sentence as Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino cover a tremendous amount of territory in the outfield. Victorino has six outfield assists. His arm and range are special.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s defense and game-calling has improved and Mike Napoli has been solid at first.

MANAGER/COACHING STAFF

Grade: A

New manager John Farrell and new pitching coach Juan Nieves have done a fantastic job making Boston pitchers much more aggressive.

Red Sox hurlers are second in majors with 819 strikeouts and 8.52 strikeouts per nine innings. The 819 strikeouts mark the second most all-time at the break behind this year’s Tigers staff (863). Boston pitchers ranked 20th in the majors in strikeouts last year.

The Red Sox’ .598 winning percentage is .172 better than their .426 mark at the All-Star Break in 2012. That’s the largest turnaround in the majors this season.

The coaching staff and manager is a big reason for the turnaround. They all are great communicators and they all have oodles of experience and demand respect. Third base coach Brian Butterfield is one of the hardest working and most respected coaches in baseball. He also is

The Farrell era so far seems a lot like the Terry Francona era. That’s a good thing.

BASEBALL OPERATIONS STAFF

Grade: A

GM Ben Cherington and his staff did a nice job putting together a group of players who are clubhouse leaders, enjoy baseball, have fun together and completely have changed the clubhouse atmosphere in a positive manner.

Cherington continues to stress the need to build through player development and to find ways to fix the team internally before making external moves. He is showing an equal importance for this season and future seasons.

TOP FIVE PLEASANT SURPRISES

1. Jose Iglesias SS/3B: He’s in the running for AL Rookie of the Year batting .367 in 180 at-bats. Who would have thought he would have taken away Will Middlebrooks’ job?

2. Daniel Nava, LF: He is batting .288 with a .374 OBP and is on pace for 111 RBIs.

3. Lackey: We’re seeing 2007-Lackey when he led the league in ERA (3.01). Who would have ever thought he would be so enjoyable to watch, especially after posting a 6.41 ERA in 2011 and then needing Tommy John surgery?

4. Shane Victorino, RF: Many thought he was on the decline offensively but he has a .290 average in 245 at-bats.

There is a negative: He’s missed so much time that if he plays all the rest of Boston’s contests this season (which won’t happen), he will appear in just 129 games, fewer than any other major league season in his career.

5. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C: His .341 on-base percentage is 34 points higher than his career mark.

His .795 OPS is 65 points higher than his career high.

FIVE MOST DISAPPOINTING

1. Jon Lester, LHP: He was 4-0 with a 3.11 ERA in April, then had a 3.92 ERA in May. Since then though, he’s been horrific. He had a 7.62 ERA in five June starts. The opposition is hitting .295 against him with two outs and .306 with 0-2 counts.

2. Will Middlebrooks, 3B: He had a .192 average and .228 OBP in 53 games before being demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket where he has been inconsistent.

3. Stephen Drew, SS: He has a dismal .233 average and .313 OBP. He has been solid defensively.

4. Alfredo Aceves, RHP: Not only does he have a bad attitude, but he also has an iffy ERA (4.86 in 37.0 innings).

5. Joel Hanrahan, RHP: Can’t blame him entirely for his bad performance because he needed Tommy John surgery. But the Red Sox thought they were getting a lockdown closer. Instead, they are paying him over $7 million to do nothing.