The Cleveland Indians’ quest to get their momentum back is about to get harder.
For all the big news the Tribe has had off the field—however you feel about the trades, the acquisitions of Ubaldo Jimenez and Kosuke Fukudome were exciting—the Indians have had a lot of trouble having success on it. They haven’t won a series since before the All-Star Break, and they blew a great chance to stop the streak around against the Kansas City Royals this weekend. So instead, they’ll have to do it at Fenway Park.
The Indians and the Boston Red Sox (66-40, 2 games ahead in the AL East) have met six times already this season. Cleveland swept the Crimson Hose in a three-game home set in April, but the Red Sox took two of three from the Tribe when they returned to Progressive Field in May.
To get a better idea of what the Indians should expect from their opponents the third time around, I talked to Over the Monster‘s Matt Sullivan and SB Nation Boston‘s Ben Buchanan about the Red Sox’ deadline deals, Dustin Pedroia’s hot streak, and Justin Masterson’s return to Boston. Here’s what they had to say:
Read my answers to Matt’s questions at OvertheMonster.com.
LEWIE POLLIS: The Red Sox would have to drop nine games in the standings to miss the playoffs and Baseball Prospectus gives them 99.7% odds of playing into October. Are you worried at all about that?
MATT SULLIVAN: I think Red Sox fans are all pretty confident in our ability to get into the playoffs. Our lineup alone could probably carry us that that far. Barring a string of injuries on par with 2010, I am not worried about making it to October. This Sox team has been very streaky though and there are real concerns about our chances in the playoff. With Clay Buchholz possibly done for the year and almost definitely out until October, starting pitching is a real concern in a short series. After Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, we have nothing but question marks.
BEN BUCHANAN: With the Angels and Rays having failed to make any real improvements at the deadline, it does seem as though the wild card spot, at least, is essentially safe. Really, the arms race between your Indians and the Tigers would seem to make one of the Central teams the greater threat, but it’s just that much harder to drop 13 games in a 60-game span.
I don’t really have any concern that the team is going to get complacent anytime soon. This is, after all, a team which started the year 2-10, and one filled with guys who understand that the playoffs are just a different monster entirely. We’ve seen some dramatic collapses in Red Sox history, but I’m not terribly worried that we’ll add this team to that list.
LEWIE POLLIS: Boston managed to find an extra pitcher at the deadline, picking up Erik Bedard as well as prospect Josh Fields. What do you expect out of Bedard this season and Fields going forward? Are you going to miss any of the prospects the Red Sox gave up?
MATT SULLIVAN: Bedard was an important trade for us to make, even if he was the third choice after Kuroda and Harden. Without Buchholz, we would have to depend on Tim Wakefield and either Andrew Miller or Alfredo Aceves for the remainder of the season and in October. Wakefield is not as durable as he once was and while he can still be very good when the knuckle ball is working for him, he is far from reliable. Miller has been a very good placeholder but he isn’t as good as his win-loss record might suggest. His 5.36 ERA is pretty well in line with his FIP and SIERA numbers. He still has poor control, walking as many as he strikes out. With Bedard, we take away at least one of those back end starters, most likely Miller and replace him with a solid third starter. The injury risk is the only real concern. A healthy Bedard is certainly an big upgrade for us.
Josh Fields is more of a reclamation project, very similar to Andrew Miller actually. He has a “big arm” which the Red Sox scouts always seem to jump at, but like Miller he has not developed any control just yet. Our front office loves to take these guys on when other teams give up on them. So far it hasn’t yielded much, but one of these days it will work out and they will look like geniuses. Remember Randy Johnson’s control issues?
BEN BUCHANAN: Unfortunately, Bedard isn’t perfect for that role. It’s impossible to really “expect” him to do that. If he’s healthy, I kind of expect him to do more—he’s almost always been a real impact pitcher when he’s anything. But he could well be on the disabled list after two starts. I’m not worried about his blowing up in his return—rust can do that to a guy—but it’s really just a matter of crossing our fingers and hoping he doesn’t break something.
As for Josh Fields, it’s possible the Red Sox see something to help explain his ineffectiveness in the years since he was drafted 20th overall in 2008. At the same time, that was probably the case with Andrew Miller, and the returns have been less-than-stellar. Maybe the Sox can take advantage of some of the potential he once had, but at the moment, it’s hard to imagine Sox fans will really have much cause to remember his role in the trade in years to come.
LEWIE POLLIS: In one of the lowest-profile deals of the week, the Red Sox acquired Mike Aviles from the Royals. Was the infield insurance worth dealing Yamaico Navarro and Kendal Volz?
MATT SULLIVAN: That’s certainly debatable. Many fans seem to hate this deal. Aviles is 30 years old and has never shown some signs that he can hit, but he hasn’t been consistent at the plate and his best seasons are all driven by high BABIP. He is capable of playing anywhere in the infield and that is the real draw for us. He hasn’t been a full time shortstop since his rookie season, but UZR loves him there, with 11.3 UZR/150 for his career. The need for insurance at shortstop was certainly there. My guess is that the front office felt that Navarro couldn’t handle shortstop in the major leagues and that made him very expendable. With Sutton we have a guy who can cover 3B and 2B and who hits better than Navarro, but he can’t play short. With Jed Lowrie’s healthy completely uncertain, we had to have a guy who could fill in at SS.
I don’t think anyone will miss Volz, either. He was dominating high-A, but doing so at 23 years old. He’s a fringe prospect at this point, if he does make it to the show, he isn’t likely to be much more than a middle reliever.
BEN BUCHANAN: I think there’s more to this than just Theo going after a backup infielder. Looking forward, it’s been hard to see any way the team has anyone but the combination of disappointment and fragility that is Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie at the position in 2012. Obviously, there’s not a lot to love about this season, but Aviles’ numbers change rapidly based on massive fluctuations (year-to-year) in BABIP. Over his career, he’s actually produced solid numbers for a starter at that offensively-bankrupt position. For now, though, he at least gives us an insurance policy on Jed Lowrie.
I don’t love the deal that was made, though. Yamaico Navarro and Kendal Volz both seem to have higher ceilings then Aviles at their position, and given his year-to-date his value should have been nearly non-existent.
LEWIE POLLIS: What the heck has gotten into Dustin Pedroia? As recently as June he had a sub-.700 OPS, and now fWAR has him second only to Jose Bautista as the best player in baseball. What changed?
MATT SULLIVAN: One thing that didn’t change is his defense. Pedroia is a phenomenal second baseman and a good deal of his WAR value always comes from his glove work. Even when he was struggling at the plate, he was doing amazing things in field and that has just continued.
At the plate, he has stopped swinging and missing. Pedroia has had one of the lowest swing strike rates in baseball throughout his career. For whatever reason, early in the year, he was swinging and missing at a very average rate, leading him to strikeout rates that you just never see from him, in May his K% was 15.6%, double his career rate. It started to go down in June, and in July it was just 4.7%. His plate discipline was good even when he was struggling, but the strikeouts were the real drag earlier in the year.
The thing I can’t explain is his power. In spite of his size, Pedroia has always had some pop. Pitchers typically stay out the outside against him, because he doesn’t get beat high and in and that is the only pitch he really just crushes regularly. In July though, his power has been off the charts. Guys who are 5’9 don’t put up .313 ISO’s too often, but that is exactly what he has done. Last week, he took a pitch low and away to the opposite field for a home run, which he never see him do. He is squaring up everything right and while he might not maintain the .380 BABIP he had in July, he isn’t just getting lucky. He is hitting everything hard, to all fields.
BEN BUCHANAN: Simply put, he knows he’s healthy. On June 9th Dustin Pedroia had his knee examined to see if he needed surgery. The results showed he was completely fine, and since that date he’s hit about as well as any player in the majors. He’s always been playing top defense, but now he’s able to really trust that his right knee will hold up when he puts his weight on it, allowing him to return to his usual style of hitting, including those ugly looking swings at ugly looking pitches that somehow make contact and extend at bats or lead to some of the oddest line-drives the world has ever seen. It doesn’t hurt that he’s really taking advantage of every high-and-inside fastball opposing pitchers throw to him. I really wonder if there’s ever been a less true commercial than that one for MLB The Show a few years back.
LEWIE POLLIS: Who’s taking the mound for the Red Sox this series, and what should Tribe fans know about them?
MATT SULLIVAN: We have John Lackey in the first game. Lackey has become a punching bag for fans this season, but his last three starts have been good. He doesn’t strikeout too many, but when he is on he does hurt himself with the walk much. He has a low 90’s fastball, a slider, curve and change up. He features the slider the most among his breaking balls and its probably his best pitch at this point.
Josh Beckett pitches the second game. He has the second best ERA in the AL behind Jared Weaver and that is due in part a .220 BABIP. Even so, Beckett has been fantastic this season, striking our 7.78 per nine while walking just 2.5 HE is limiting home runs thus far, which is important for him after the last two season when he posted high HR/FB rates.He has a mid-90’s fastball and a low-90/high 80’s cutter and also throws a absolutely dominating curve ball and change-up. With Jon Lester going down for a few weeks with an injury, Beckett has been the anchor of the staff recently.
Tim Wakefield will take his second shot at 200 wins in the third game. He was very good in the last game he pitched with the wind helping out his knuckleball and torturing his catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He throw the knuckleball 95% of the time and will sneak a mid-to-low 70’s fastball in on occasion. You never know what to expect from Wake, if he has the knuckler dancing he can handle any line up you throw at him, if it isn’t moving, it’s basically batting practice.
Jon Lester faces our nemesis Justin Masterson in the final game. Lester has made two strong starts since returning from the DL. He was especailly impressive in his last start against the White Sox, allowing four hits and just one walk while striking out eight in an eight inning, 98 pitch performance. He is a rare combination of a high strike-out high ground ball rate pitcher, making it very tough to score runs when he is on the mound. Like Beckett, he throws a mid-90’s fastball and low 90’s cutter, and has a great curve and a great change up to go with them.
BEN BUCHANAN: It’s hard to say for certain, given the Bedard trade, but for now it’s looking like John Lackey, Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield, and Jon Lester are headed your way, which is basically the best the Sox have.
Josh Beckett has been freakishly good this year, and isn’t likely to give up more than three earned runs. After struggling to add a cutter to his repertoire in years past, he seems to finally have the pitch working again, and his ability to snap off the sharp 12-6 curveball is back as well.
Jon Lester appears to be all the way back after a precautionary trip to the disabled list. The Indians seem to have some trouble against southpaws, and they don’t get all that much better than Lester.
Tim Wakefield is Tim Wakefield, and is about as likely to give up eight runs in three innings as to go into the eighth with a perfect gave intact. Really, though, of late he’s been much more prone to the explosion, so the Sox will have to be looking for a slugfest here.
The real question is John Lackey, who has been surprisingly effective in his last four starts. His ERA of 2.52 in that period is impressive enough when combined with a 21:4 K:BB ratio, but it’s really inflated by having the defense fail him in the first innings of his games against Tampa Bay and Kansas City. It’s getting to the point where I’m actually finding some faith in him.
LEWIE POLLIS: What’s your prediction for the series?
MATT SULLIVAN: I think we will take three of the four game series. Masterson is always tough on us but given that he is matched up against Lester, I think that game is too close to call. We have two very questionable starters going in this series with Lackey and Wakefield, but the team is playing excellent baseball right now and at least one of the them will probably get bailed out by the offense, which has been hitting double digits in runs all over the place lately (though Kansas City’s pitching might have helped us out a few time in that respect).
I think we will see some great baseball though and I am looking forward to the Huff vs Beckett match up and the Masterson vs Lester. The Indians have some new faces and I am interested in seeing the difference Fukudome makes to the line up. I am glad we will not see Ubaldo (as I understand it), but in a way I wish we would. I guess that will have to wait until October.
BEN BUCHANAN: The homer in me that tilts all the close matches in Boston’s favor says 3-1 Sox, with Boston taking what seems like a mismatch in Beckett – Huff and relying on their offense to get to Masterson enough to back up Lester. I don’t love our chances in Wednesday’s game, which leaves basically John Lackey, which is where the homer leanings come into play.