The Boston Red Sox didn’t get off to a very good start this year.
The last time the Cleveland Indians saw the Red Sox, it was the first week of the season and the Tribe pummeled Boston in a three-game sweep. The losses dropped Boston to 0-6—not a good start for a team that had entered the season as the favorite to win the AL pennant.
But as the Red Sox prepare to take the field tonight to kick off another three-game set with the Tribe, they will do so as a completely different team. Boston has been scorching hot of late; the Red Sox now sit just a half-game behind the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East, and they’ll be looking to make up some ground at Progressive Field over the next three days.
To get some more perspectives on the Tribe’s guests, I talked to not one, not two, but three Red Sox writers from around the blogosphere: SB Nation Boston‘s Gethin Coolbaugh of, Fenway Faithful Report‘s Alastair Ingram, and Matt Sullivan from Over the Monster. Here’s what they had to say about
WAHOO BLUES: The sky was falling in Boston earlier this year, but now the Sox are just a half-game out in the AL East and Baseball Prospectus gives them 87.7% odds of making the playoffs. How do you see the rest of the year playing out for the Red Sox?
GETHIN COOLBAUGH: Based on their recent success, very well. The Red Sox surprised many by losing their first six games (three against your Indians) and getting off to a 2-12 start. Ever since, they are 23-11. Adrian Gonzalez described it best, saying that he was never worried about this team because their roster is just loaded with talent.
While I think the Red Sox will continue in their winning ways for the remainder of the season, there is still one major obstacle – the New York Yankees. As long as these two teams are in the same division, they will always be locked in a battle for first. In the end, we all know the likely result – one wins the AL East, the other grabs the wild card. Right now, I’d say that the Red Sox are still in solid position to win the division, but you can never count out the Yankees.
ALASTAIR INGRAM: On paper, there’s no question that the Red Sox should win the AL East. The Yankees have a lot of question marks in their starting rotation and the Rays may not have the horses to sustain their success. Boston’s three-headed monster atop the rotation of Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester is among the best in baseball, and the Sox’ success hinges on those three arms. The lineup (with the exception of Carl Crawford) is finally starting to hit the way it should and the bats can win a lot of games on their own. If the back end of the bullpen (Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard) holds up, then the Sox don’t have any glaring weaknesses.
MATT SULLIVAN: When things were going really terrible early on it was easy to see why. Guys like Youk, Crawford and Gonzalez were playing way below the level you expect from them and with the exception of Josh Beckett, our pitching was just awful. It was hard to watch, but I don’t think too many intelligent fans really thought it would last. There were some bad breaks, some tough losses, but the team just looked rusty and unprepared for the start of the season.
Since May, things have turned around completely. This is the team we thought we had all along. Our top pitchers can all take over a game the way Beckett has done several times, but every starter on the club can give the team a chance to win with the lineup we have. The depth Theo has assembled is impressive and we are starting to see it really factor into the AL East race. Going forward, I think we are in great shape. No team goes through 162 games without struggles and Boston has already put some behind them. I think they will be well equipped to handle a very tough, three team race for the AL East and the Wild card spot.
WB: Carl Crawford has been awful, and it’s not just his .254 BABIP—he looks worse at every aspect of the game. What’s going on there? Is this a small sample size or is it time to be genuinely concerned?
GC: It’s always concering when your brand new left fielder (worth a cool $142 million) struggles. Still, based on his career production, I’m not too worried long term. Crawford was pressing too hard at the beginning of the year and that caused him to struggle. You have to remember, he’s never been in a situation like this before in his career. In Tampa Bay, while he became one of the league’s most renowned outfielders, he was playing in a market where baseball just isn’t front and center. In many ways, he slid under the radar. He went from one of the worst baseball markets in Tampa to one of the best in Boston.
It’s rare that you find players who can make the switch with the snap of a finger – that’s one of the reasons that Adrian Gonzalez is so valuable. Until Crawford begins producing more, it will certainly be concerning. But for now, I don’t believe any one should be genuinely concerned.
AI: Crawford’s major issue has been his inability to hit fastballs, something he did with ease throughout his career in Tampa Bay. Crawford has been a ground ball machine, he isn’t driving the ball the way he did last year with the Rays, and he’s looked over-matched in far too many at-bats this season.
He’s been a lot better in May (.275) than he was in a dreadful April (.155), but he’s still only walked a total of seven times this year. Crawford isn’t known for his patience at the plate, but he’s not giving himself any chance to use his speed, arguably his most valuable asset. He’s hit .300 or better in five of the last six seasons, so hopefully this is just an extended slow start for the $140 million man. Hey, he does have three walk-off hits.
MS: I am a bit concerned now, because it has been a season long issue. Crawford is not a typical Red Sox player in that he doesn’t have exceptional plate discipline. He lives on contact more than guys like Drew, Youkilis and Pedroia so his lousy BABIP drags him down more than it would those guys, but he just doesn’t look confident at the plate yet either.
He is also a guy who gets much of his value from being a great defender and I haven’t seen that from him yet. Left field at Fenway can help poor fielders make up for a lack of range, but a great fielder in position can play shallow and take away a lot of hits. We need Crawford to make that adjustment and once again be a great defensive player just as much as we need him to start hitting.
WB: Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s last few games notwithstanding, catcher has been a black hole in Boston’s lineup. Is it time to bring in someone else?
GC: I had the chance to interview Saltalamacchia on Sunday night after the game at Fenway Park for a story I wrote for WEEI.com, and based on his comments, he truly seems like he’s getting his act together. He’s batting .389 with three homers and a double in his last five games, so at the moment, there’s no need to go out and make a move.
However, we all know that players go in and out of slumps all the time, so it wouldn’t be a smart decision to stick with Salty for the rest of the year based on the glimpses he’s show now. After all, that’s been the problem with Saltalamacchia ever since he’s been in the bigs – he’s a player with loads of potential that just hasn’t found a way to unleash it yet. Maybe this is the start of it, so for now, I’d stick with the status quo. Ask again in June and it may be a different discussion.
AI: The Sox were kicking the tires on external catching options like Bengie Molina a few weeks ago, but Saltalamacchia is beginning to look more comfortable behind and at the plate. He has homered in three of his last four games and has at least one hit in eight of the last 10.
More importantly though, he hasn’t been the same defensive liability that he was in April when the majority of his throws to second base sailed or bounced into center field. Red Sox Nation isn’t exactly confident in Saltalamacchia at this point, but it’s not ready to ship him out of town either.
MS: Absolutely not. I just put up a piece on Salty today actually. He has been one of the best catchers in the AL since his low point on April 22. He is only 25 and has never been secure as a starter for any length of time. In the past thirty days his wRC+ is 118, nearly All-Star level for a catcher. There is a small sample size issue of course, but that is true of Saltalamacchia’s whole career. He has never had more than 310 plate appearances in a season.
To me, he looks like a rookie catcher, just finding his footing in the pros. That isn’t how he is viewed, but it is not far from the truth. I think he will be at least a league average catcher on both sides of ball. That isn’t something you find too often on the waiver wire or without sacrificing talent in a trade.
WB: Long term, is there room for Jed Lowrie in Boston? What happens with Jose Iglesias comes up for good?
GC: The longer Jed Lowrie continues to contribute, the longer they’ll keep Iglesias in the minors. My sense is that the Red Sox’ management will try to squeeze every last bit of production out of Lowrie before making the move to call up Iglesias.
The “problem” with Iglesias, if you can even call it a problem, is that he’s not ready to hit at the major league level just yet. Iglesias is hitless in six major league at-bats this seasons, although he has scored two runs as a pinch runner. Iglesias’ defensive skills have never been in questions – he’s a pro-level defender with a AA bat (he’s hitting .222 – 22-for-99 – with AAA-Pawtucket). Once Iglesias gets it going at the plate, the pressure’s all on Lowrie. If Lowrie goes into a funk that he just can’t get out of, the Iglesias watch is on!
AI: Jose Iglesias has the potential to be a Gold Glove shortstop, but his bat is nowhere close to Major League ready. Jed Lowrie is the Sox’ starting shortstop for the foreseeable future until Iglesias develops some plate discipline in the minors. Lowrie has been one of Boston’s most consistent hitters this season and he’s finally healthy for the first time in his Major League career. The Sox drafted him out of Stanford with the assumption that he could play every day in Boston, and they’re not about to change that opinion.
If Iglesias is ready in a year or two, it’s conceivable that Lowrie could be traded, but the more likely decision would be a move to third, which would allow the aging Kevin Youkilis to become a DH when David Ortiz has moved on.
MS: To those of us at Over The Monster, that is pretty strange question at this point. Jedi is very similar to Ben Zobrist with the Rays. He gives you tons of flexibility and has a bat you want to sneak into your lineup any way you can. I might be more optimistic than most about his play at short, but he doesn’t have to stick their to stay on the team and in the lineup.
Long term, I think he shares time at 3B, DH and provides security at SS and 2B. Youk is getting older and probably will not be an elite defender at 3B anyway. He and A-Gon will get increasing amounts of AB’s at DH even if Papi hangs on for another year. Even if Jose Iglesias takes over short completely next season, Lowrie will make room for himself somewhere on the field.
WB: Who’s taking the mound for Boston this series, and what should Indians fans know about them?
GC: Unfortunately for the Indians, the Red Sox have their best starters slated for the series – Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett and John Lester. Buchholz has been very good in his last four starts, allowing just four runs and striking out 22 batters while collecting three wins. Still, Buchholz (who hasn’t faced Cleveland yet this year) was inconsistent to start the year, so there’s always a chance for an off night.
Beckett, on the other hand, is pitching about as well as anyone in baseball. In his last four starts, he’s allowed one earned run in 23.1 innings and has fanned 20 batters. And then, there’s Lester. He’s 6-1 with a 3.68 ERA and 63 K’s this season. In his only start against Cleveland this year, he pitched seven scoreless innings while striking out three. As for Beckett, he gave up three earned runs on five hits in his only start against Cleveland.
AI: Unfortunately for Indians fans, they will see Boston’s best three arms this week in Cleveland. Clay Buchholz is 3-0 in May with a 1.40 ERA, Josh Beckett has the best ERA (1.73) among American League starters, and Jon Lester is the unquestioned ace of the staff despite three straight shaky outings. All three are strikeout pitchers capable of pitching deep into the game (although Buchholz threw a career high 127 pitches in his last start), and if they’re able to go seven innings it’s probably bad news for the Tribe.
MS: First up is Clay Buchholz, who gets to take on our good friend Justin Masterson. Clay throws a fastball with some different grips, a four seamer around 93 mph, a two-seamer around 92mph, and pitch F/X lists him throwing a cutter around 91mph, though it is likely that it is really just his slider which has little vertical movement. He throws a good curve as well, but his best pitch is the change up. When it is working, it can be reminiscent of Pedro’s, in the way it falls off the table and baffles opposing batters. Clay struggled in his first few starts but he has been fantastic as of late. The biggest change is his improving walk rate. He is walking less than 2 hitter per 9 on the year, which Sox fans are extremely excited about. That has been the only thing keeping him from being a truly elite pitcher so far in his career.
Josh Beckett should start Tuesday, though he did suffer back spasms in his previous start and had to exit early. Beckett has been dominating thus far thanks in large part to his curve ball, which has been incredible so far this year. He is throwing the cutter more than in previous years as well and locating the ball at the corners with both fastballs very well. Varitek has become more or less his personal catcher for the time being and it seems to be working out great.
In the third game, Jon Lester is slated to start. Lester strikes out as many batters as anyone in baseball, except maybe Tim Lincecum. He hasn’t been particularly sharp in his last two outings but he can fight for five or six even when he doesn’t have his best stuff. He throws a mid 90’s fastball, a cutter, curve and change-up, all of which are very effective when he is on. Lester is also a fairly extreme ground ball pitcher (though not at Masterson’s level). On the season he has gotten grounders 54%. He looks like he will be a perennial Cy young candidate for the next few years.
WB: What’s your prediction for the series?
GC: In baseball, any sport really, it’s never smart to predict a sweep. But this Red Sox team is simply white-hot right now, so I see them winning two out of three games in the series. More specifically, the Indians get to Buchholz and the bullpen tonight, but Beckett and Lester silence the Tribe’s bats to take the last two games in the series.
AI: The Indians have the best home record (18-4) in baseball, but the Red Sox are the hottest team around right now. They’re 23-11 since an abysmal 2-10 start and this is an entirely different team than the one that got swept at Progressive Field during the second series of the season. I expect the Sox to take two of three in this one behind their strongest starting pitchers and a scorching hot Adrian Gonzalez (.376, 8 HR, 26 RBI in May).
MS: I think Masterson will continue beating on his former team, but Beckett and Lester help us come away with the series win. Offensively, I think it will be a relatively low scoring series for both teams, despite their proclivity for scoring. I think it will be some great baseball. Cleveland has the pitching to match up with Boston and both teams can grind out runs.