Where Do The Sox Go From Here?

I was all ready to write a lengthy, and well supported by stats, piece on why the Red Sox need to trade Kevin Youkilis. And fast.

And now I just don’t know.

Last night the Red Sox, behind the frustratingly inconsistent Daniel Bard, beat Justin Verlander and the Tigers. Beat ‘em good. Pedroia was out with a torn adductor muscle in his thumb that apparently happened three weeks ago and was re-aggravated Monday afternoon doing what he does: diving for a grounder to throw out a batter at first.

Youkilis didn’t have a great night, but he’s batting around .300 since coming back from his injury and he’s getting those hits in clutch moments. Middlebrooks, Youkilis’s biggest upstart rival on the team, is hitting .308 but needs some seasoning on both sides of the plate before becoming an everyday big leagues player. I don’t think the Sox should send Middlebrooks back down to Pawtucket, but nor do I think you deal Youkilis quite yet. When he’s healthy, which he seems to be, Youkilis is good for around .300 average and 20+ home runs.

But the Middlebrooks situation creates an awkward Middlebrooks at third, Youkilis at first, Gonzalez in RF deal that really screws over the two veteran players in favor of an upstart rookie. Of course, as long as Gonzo is hitting only .268 he’s gonna get the short end of that very expensive stick.

The Sox biggest problem is that they just keep losing players. The highest profile players on the DL are Crawford, Ellsbury, and Matsuzaka, who should all be back during a nebulous time period around the All-Star Break. But even the players who have stepped up in the absence of the marquis players are getting hurt now.

Darnell McDonald, Cody Ross, Aaron Cook (only made one appearance, during which he got the nastiest laceration on his leg I think I’ve ever seen). Now Saltalamacchia is day-to-day with some kind of lingering illness and Pedroia could go to the DL for as long as a month with his thumb issue. Most fans are just fine with Kelly Shoppach playing for Salty. No sane Sox fan wants to see the disaster that is Nick Punto start for Pedroia.

So, how does this team keep winning? I know, they’re just one game over .500, but they’re only 3.5 games back and they’ve gone 7-3 over the last 10 games. I guess the better question is how is this team not losing?

I think a big part of it can be found in the 7, 8, and 9 spots in the outfield last night.

LF: Daniel Nava. Has been making great catches and playing good defense. And he is a completely different player at the plate from the Nava we saw in 2010. Yeah, he hit his first MLB pitch out for a grand slam, but this time around his average is .034 higher and this on base percentage is .429 (vs only .351 in 2010). Nava has learned to see pitches better. Last time he had 46 strikeouts and 19 walks in 161 at bats (.286 SO%, .118 BB%). This year he’s had 58 at bats with 14 SO and 14 BB (.241 SO%, .241 BB%). Fewer strikeouts and more walks. That’s the very definition of an improving hitter.

CF: Scott Podsednik. He’s played all over. AL, NL, East, Central, West. Podsednik’s career average is .280 and he’s only got 42 home runs in his 10+ year career. But in the 6 games he’s played in Boston? He’s hitting .467. He’s also had some great saves in the outfield this week. There is no way he keeps up the average, but he’s a solid outfielder who is likely to be better than Marlon Byrd in the field and better than Darnell McDonald at the plate until Jacoby Ellsbury gets back.

RF: Ryan Sweeney. Ryan Sweeney is a great Fenway right fielder. In every way that JD Drew was a disappointment, Ryan Sweeney is not. His career average is .285, but it’s trending up. His .265 in Oakland last year look anomalously low and he’s batting .315 in 130 ABs this year. And in the wicked-tricky right field at Fenway he has shined. He dives for fly balls with great timing and skill. He plays that weird curving wall by the Pesky Pole like a natural. I could even see him taking a header into the bullpen to steal a home run away. Sweeney is going to end up as a long-term fixture on this team.

What else?

The other big factor is the settling down of the bullpen. Last night saw 6 different pitchers on the mound. After Bard left, after a respectable if not lights-out 5.1 innings, Bobby Valentine used almost every tool in his toolbox to get the W. It seems like he’s figured out the rolls that each of his pitchers can fill each night. Aceves is a good closer most nights. Atchison is a great long reliever that can get you a couple of scoreless innings if needed. Padilla is a setup guy that is off-and-on but really good when he’s on. And he throws at least one eephus pitch each outing and that makes me super happy as a baseball fan. The other guys are more situational guys that can come in and get one or two outs. They’ve sent the worst of the bunch back down to Pawtucket.

It does seem like Bobby V is figuring this team out, even though it seems to change on him week-to-week with injuries and acquisitions. And maybe he’s learning from mistakes made in the early weeks of the season. At least he isn’t getting the boos from the Fenway faithful that he was getting earlier.

I honestly have no idea where this Red Sox team will end up this year. They’re only 3.5 back right now. But the Orioles and Rays are on pace to win 95-100 games. To get near that, and have any significant hope for the playoffs, the Sox need to start playing near .550-.600 baseball. They’ve got to win 70 out of the next 133 games. And they’ll have to have a September completely unlike last year.

It is possible that they will drift along playing just-over-.500 baseball until the mid-summer when Ellsbury and Pedroia get back to 100%.⁕⁕ Maybe Dice-K will come back better than ever with good control and a better work ethic under Bobby V and pitching for a contract. Maybe he’ll replace Bard (or the declining Buchholz) and they can fill out the bullpen some more. Maybe Nava and Middlebrooks will continue to shine and become long-term left-side solutions. Maybe some trade-deadline magic can make things better roster-wise.

Nothing would surprise me about this team any more.

Last year in Pawtucket Middlebrooks hit .333 and .302 in Portland the year before. But it’s still a bit early to call his .300+ in the major leagues a reliable stat. He’s only got 91 at bats and may start regressing to his natural mean.

⁕⁕I have completely, totally given up any hope of Carl Crawford living up to his contract. I’ll believe it when I see it.