Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Can the Red Sox Win With So Many Injuries?

The Boston Red Sox currently sit in second place in the AL East with a record of 47-31. They are only one game behind the New York Yankees and lead the American League’s wild-card race by two games on their closest rival, the Tampa Bay Rays. With the Red Sox in the thick of the playoff hunt as we near the half-way point of the season, the recent slew of injuries has to have many people worried.

Starter Josh Beckett has been out since May 18th with a lower back strain, and is expected to make a rehab start before the All-Star break and should return sometime in July. However, when he has been healthy this season, he has not performed well. In 8 starts for the 2010 season, Beckett is 1-1 with a 7.29 ERA. His only win came in his second start of the season, an 8-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals. How walk rate has risen this season from allowing one every 16.1 batters in 2009 to one every 11.2 batters this season. His strikeout rate has fallen from one every 4.4 batters in 2009 to one every 5.3 batters in 2010. Beckett seemed to have lost a bit of velocity of his fastball early in the season, but we’ll have to wait and see if he can regain some of that upon his return and hopefully he will be able to improve his numbers.

Clay Buchholz, one of the Red Sox’ best starters this season, suffered a hamstring injury during his last start against the San Francisco Giants on June 26th but is expected to miss only one start and avoid a trip to the disabled list. This is good news for Sox fans, and Buchholz has the most wins on the team while posting a 10-4 record and is third in the AL with a 2.45 ERA. Fans should expect to see Buchholz back July 6th when the Red Sox face Tampa Bay.

Losing two of your top five starters is never easy to overcome. But the Red Sox have managed to do well, but are now running into problems with their starting lineup. When they faced the Rays on Tuesday night, they did so without five key members.

When Jacoby Ellsbury collided with teammate Adrian Beltre on April 11th, he fractured his ribs and was placed on the disabled list. The speedy outfielder returned on May 22nd to play only three games before returning to the DL with the same injury. Ellsbury later claimed that he returned too soon and that probably worsened his condition. Without Ellsbury in the lineup, the Red Sox have lacked a true stolen base threat. Ellsbury stole 50 bases in 2008 before swiping 70 last season when he set a Red Sox record.

Replacing Ellsbury in left field, at least until June 9th, was Jeremy Hermida. The Red Sox acquired him in an off-season trade with the Marlins and has been a disappointment this season hitting just .217/.268/.384. Like Ellsbury, Hermida fractured his ribs while playing left field.

Since the injury to Hermida, playing time in left field has been split between Bill Hall (.179/.258/.214 in 9 games) and rookie Daniel Nava (.294/.368/.490 in 14 games). Nava clearly has the statistical advantage over Hall, but is it enough for the Red Sox to stick with the rookie instead of looking outside the organization for help?

Ellsbury currently has no clear timetable for his return and Hermida is expected to be out until after the All-Star break, so barring any more injuries, the Red Sox will have to go with an outfield involving Hall, Nava, Darnell McDonald, Mike Cameron and J.D. Drew until the others return. Of those five, only Cameron and Drew were expected to be part of the regular starting lineup this season. Though players like Nava and McDonald have been pleasant surprises, with McDonald even outperforming Cameron offensively.

Moving to the infield, Jed Lowrie has been out all season due to mononucleosis, but he would not have had a spot in the starting lineup anyway with guys like Dustin Pedroia, Marco Scutaro and Beltre ahead of him. Still, it would have been nice for the Red Sox to have Lowrie come off the bench in tight games.

Speaking of Pedroia, the 2008 AL MVP suffered a broken foot in a game against the Giants on June 25th and is expected to miss about six weeks. At the time of the injury, Pedroia was having another All-Star calibre season hitting .292/.370/.502 while leading the team with 8 stolen bases and making only 2 errors in the field in 73 games.

In the 3 games that Pedroia has missed, Hall has been the second baseman going 3-for-9, which is a little better than he had done while playing in left field.

Making it to the DL a few days before Pedroia was the lightly-used Mike Lowell. While appearing in only 31 games this year, Lowell has struggled to the tune of a .213/.308/.350 slash line which is well below his numbers from last season and his career average. Being used as primarily a pinch hitter this season, Lowell has only started 10 of the 31 games he’s played in all year leading many people including himself to believe that he no longer has a role on the Red Sox. This has lead to speculation that he would be traded before July 31st, but this latest hip injury has other teams wondering whether he will be able to return to full health before the trading deadline.

With Pedroia, Lowrie and Lowell out, the Red Sox are missing a good core of infielders. But luckily for them, Pedroia is the only starter on the team.

Two days after Pedroia’s injury, catcher Victor Martinez broke the thumb on his catching hand and is now expected to return immediately after the All-Star break. Still, with Martinez out of the lineup, the Red Sox will have to rely on rapidly aging veteran Jason Varitek, a player who has seen his numbers drop consistently over the past 5 seasons.

Essentially, the Red Sox have some great depth in their organization that should help them get through this troubling time. Almost any other team would be crippled with injuries to star players like Pedroia, Ellsbury and Beckett. But the Red Sox have other guys who can fill those holes. The only worry now is what will they do if something happens to the backups or the rest of the team?

J.D. Drew has never played more than 140 games in his time with Boston and has a history of shoulder problems. Beyond Varitek, who do the Red Sox call on for catching help? Can Gustavo Molina be expected to be effective as the team’s starting catcher if both Varitek and Martinez are out? Or would they trade for another catcher?

The next two weeks will be tough for Terry Francona and company as they look to catch the Yankees and build upon their league in the wild-card race. With five more games to go against Tampa Bay and three games against each of Baltimore and Toronto, the Red Sox will play eight games against two of the teams chasing them down in the standings. If they can hold their ground until the All-Star break, they should be in good shape to make a run at the playoffs. If not, we may see another team leading the way.