The remains of the season: Boston Red Sox

After winning the World Series in 2007, the Boston Red Sox decided to stand pat. They were mentioned frequently in Johan Santana trade discussions, but they ultimately didn’t make any major trades or free agent signings. Instead, they trusted that their crop of young players would be good enough to augment the core of the 2007 team and make a return trip to the playoffs.

If the season ended today, the Red Sox would indeed make the playoffs. But they’re still looking up at the surprising Tampa Bay Rays, and they have the New York Yankees and either the Minnesota Twins or Chicago White Sox right on their heels in the wild card race. Let’s take a Clint Eastwood-themed look at how they got where they are. (Note: All stats are through Monday’s games.)

The Good

The starting rotation has been the biggest strength so far for the Red Sox.

Of the five pitchers currently in the Boston rotation, four of them have been at least good. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester have been fantastic, although Matsuzaka did miss some time to injury. Tim Wakefield has been very solid, cutting about a run off his 2007 ERA. And Josh Beckett has been good despite not being the dominant ace he was last season.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Red Sox have four of the 25 best healthy starting pitchers in the AL, which is quite a feat.

Even two of the fill-ins (Justin Masterson for nine starts and Bartolo Colon for six) have been good.

All together, Boston has gotten a 3.86 ERA from its rotation, which is even better than the 4.21 mark from last season.

The offense has been quite good, mostly thanks to Kevin Youkilis, who has taken his game to another level, and J.D. Drew, who has bounced back nicely from a very disappointing first season in Boston. Both sport an OPS just south of .950.

Dustin Pedroia is following up his Rookie of the Year campaign with a similar effort his sophomore season. And Manny Ramirez was hitting better than he did in a subpar 2007 effort.

The bullpen has also been mostly good for the Red Sox, although it gets maligned frequently. Jonathan Papelbon is his typical dominant self at closer and Hideki Okajima, Javy Lopez and David Aardsma have all been good.

The Bad

The reason the bullpen gets brought up as a weakness is because two of the four pitchers mentioned above (Lopez and Aardsma), tend to not pitch in the most crucial, late-inning situations. After Papelbon and Okajima (who draws some criticism himself because his off nights are particularly tough to watch), Manny Delcarmen has generally been Terry Francona’s third-favorite reliever. And while Delcarmen hasn’t been flat-out awful, he’s been nowhere near as good as he was in 2007.

One player is noticeably absent from the good category: David Ortiz. Boston’s fearsome slugger started the season in a terrible slump. Then, just as he was getting back to his normal level, he injured his wrist. Ortiz returned in late July and has put up solid if not spectacular numbers since then. However, he felt something click in his wrist in his final at-bat Monday, and it’s unclear whether it’s a problem. At this point, it’s unclear how effective Ortiz will be the rest of the season or even if he’ll make it through the rest of the season.

The Ugly

The captain and two kids.

When Jason Varitek signed his last contract extension with the Red Sox, it was clear that the final year of that deal might be a problem. It is. Varitek’s offense has completely disappeared, as he’s hitting just .220 and getting on base at a .311 clip.

While everybody knew things might go south for Varitek this season, people had high hopes for rookies Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz.

Ellsbury was a dynamic addition to the Red Sox for the stretch run and in the playoffs, and Buchholz threw a no-hitter in September. This season has been a much different story.

Ellsbury is hitting an anemic .259/.323/.352 and has even begun to struggle on the basepaths, getting thrown out on three of his four steal attempts in July after going 34-for-38 in the first three months. He’s gotten worse as the season’s gone along, as his monthly OPS has fallen from .853 to .771 to .591 to .566.

Buchholz has struggled mightily in two separate stints with the Red Sox this season, posting a 5.94 ERA in 13 starts. He’s striking out plenty of hitters (8.7 per nine innings), but he’s also issuing a lot of walks (4.5 per nine innings) and batters are finding it pretty easy to get hits off him.

Unforgiven

Ramirez seemed on the verge of leaving Boston several times during his career with the Red Sox, either because he asked to be traded or because the team was growing tired of his “Manny Being Manny” moments. Each time, however, the moment passed, everybody made nice and they moved on together.

This season promised to be the most peaceful of his Red Sox career, as a happy-go-lucky Manny arrived at spring training and announced he wanted to end his career in Boston. Alas, somewhere between February and July, Manny went back to being Boston’s (20) Million Dollar Baby, missing games for questionable reasons, complaining about his contract and opining that the Red Sox didn’t deserve him.

This time, apparently, he went too far, and the players and coaches alike decided they’d had enough of him. GM Theo Epstein obliged and sent Ramirez along with A Fistful of Dollars (OK, I’ll stop now) to the Dodgers while bringing in Jason Bay from the Pirates.

However, this isn’t a disaster. As Alex Eisenberg wrote Monday, swapping Ramirez for Bay, once you factor in defense and baserunning (not to mention attitude), may not make the Red Sox any worse this season, and it certainly makes them better next season.

The Schedule

The toughest series remaining for the Red Sox are Friday through Monday at the Chicago White Sox, Aug. 26-28 at the New York Yankees and Sept. 15-17 at Tampa Bay. Those 10 games are against three of the four teams fighting with Boston for a playoff spot, and they’re all on the road, where the Red Sox are an abysmal 24-33.

If the Red Sox can keep themselves in or near playoff position through Aug. 28, they figure to be in pretty good shape. After that series at Yankee Stadium, Boston will have 28 games left, and 19 of them will be in Fenway Park, where the Red Sox are 40-16.

As far as the quality of the teams the Red Sox have left, starting tonight Boston has 49 games left. About half of them (24) are against teams that are middle of the pack, within six games on way or the other of .500. Five of the other 25 are against teams worse than that, while 20 are against teams better than that. So it’s not an easy schedule.

Outlook

A great deal hinges on Ortiz’s wrist. If he’s able to play and hit the way he has in the past, the Red Sox have a lineup with dangerous hitters in the first six slots. If he can’t play or can’t play up to his abilities, it will greatly weaken the lineup.

With a healthy Ortiz, the Red Sox have no real weakness. The starting lineup will be very strong, the rotation in loaded and the bullpen is good enough, especially with Papelbon at the back of it.

The Red Sox still have the best run differential in the AL, which means even though they don’t have the best record in the league, they’ve fundamentally been the best team in the league over the first 113 games. If they continue to score 5 runs a game while only allowing 4.1, they’ll almost certainly make the playoffs, whether they pass the Rays for the AL East title or hold off the Yankees and the AL Central runner-up for the wild card.

However, because they haven’t taken full advantage of their impressive performance thus far, they’ve left themselves no margin for error. A serious injury (whether to Ortiz or another key player), a slump or just a bad bounce here and there could keep them from having a chance to defend their title.

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