I told you the Orioles were not finished yet. Despite all the proclamations that Baltimore was finished and could not hang in with the Red Sox, it became apparent this past weekend that the Sox are not going to run away with the A.L. East. Which, in a way, is a good thing, because the excitement of a three (or four, if Toronto gets one more starter) team race for one playoff spot (assuming that the Twins are the front-runner for the wild card) would be delicious. Of course, I do not know that I could handle the stress of watching the Sox battle it out in the last weeks of the season with the accursed Yankees and other A.L. East foes.
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RED SOX GRADES:
Catcher: Jason Varitek/Doug Mirabelli: A-
An A for Varitek, who is finally making the next step up to the best catcher in the A.L. Mirabelli has been a bit inconsistent at the plate this season after being a potent bat for the previous two seasons.
First base: Kevin Millar/John Olerud: D+
Millar has been awful. His OPS (on-base plus slugging average) is almost .150 points below last year. How he continues to get playing time is beyond my comprehension. He is awful in the field as well. At this point, I would rather see Robert Petegine get a chance than keep writing Millar into the lineup. Olerud has done well, but the batting average is starting to level off. At this stage of his career, Olerud is best used as a spot starter and defensive replacement. The Sox need to address this position by either finding another position player and moving Ortiz to first, or prying a decent first baseman away from someone for minimal prospects.
Second base: Mark Bellhorn: C-
Smellhorn just continues along his mediocre way at second. He is just o.k. defensively, and his offense is severely lacking, despite what the Bill James gang says about his ability to draw walks and work pitchers deep into counts. His on-base percentage is low and his slugging average is abysmal. His OPS down over .120 from last season, and that is the main reason the Sox need help at second base. The best answer is Dustin Pedroia down at Pawtucket, who, as long as he continues to hit AAA pitching, should be up by August 1 to take over second base full time.
Shortstop: Edgar Renteria: B
Somehow, the Edgar must go club has been quieted down. Edgar is settling in about where he was expected to be. On-base percentage is equal to last year and slugging is down just a notch. On defense, there have been too many errors, but I think that as he adjusts to new parks, he should be fine. I will Renteria a bit of the benefit of the doubt and expect continued consistency at the plate and on the field.
Third base: Bill Mueller/Kevin Youkilis: C
Mueller has continued the slow decline at third base since his initial season with the Sox in 2003. His OPS went from an excellent .938 in 2003 to .811 last year to .796 so far this season. I like Mueller, he is a gamer, but if there is no power coming from a corner infield position, the player had better be contributing another way. While Youkilis has not been significantly better than Mueller this season, he does offer the potential to improve the position. Why Tito has been reluctant to make the change to Youkilis eludes me. Somehow, I feel this is a case of Tito sticking with the guys who brought him to the promised land last season, and while I admire the loyalty, I think it is time to put 2004 in the rearview mirror and start doing what is best for 2005, 2006, and beyond.
Left field: Manny Ramirez: A
Slump, what slump? Manny should move toward .300 in the second half of the season. The OPS may be down, but the RBIs keep coming (on pace for 150). Manny has improved significantly in the outfield and his baserunning gaffes are few and far between. He may not be worth $20 million a year, but that is what Dan Duquette gave him for a contract. Rather than focus on the money, focus instead on the fact he is one of the three or four best right-handed hitters in baseball right now (Pujols, A-Rod, Manny, Vlad); although, if the contract is to be focused on, remember that compared to Giambi, he is a steal.
Center field: Johnny Damon: A
Yes, he is an idiot. Yes, he has no throwing arm in centerfield. Yes, too many balls drop over his head and on the warning track. Yes, he does not steal enough bases (and that may be by design, so blame the manager). But he has had a heck of a season at the plate. At age 31 in his prime at a position that has no comparable free agent and many teams in need, expect Damon to break the bank this winter; however, I doubt that Theo and Larry and the gang are going to be the ones to give him the mega-contract he has positioned himself to receive. I really thought that the book distraction and self-marketing would be a distraction to him this season, so extra kudos to Damon for being able to put it all aside and go out and put his work in and have a great season.
Right field: Trot Nixon: B
Trot has been, well, Trot. Consistently good has been his calling card and this season is no different. I think the team would be better served keeping him in against left-handed pitching and giving him a shot to hit these guys. One thing this season is he has really cut down on the strikeouts. The Red Sox really missed Nixon last year as Gabe Kapler (why in the name of God would they bring this bozo back? Is my sister-in-law Shannon taking over as GM?) was abysmal in his place. Jay Payton was doing well as his back-up, but Payton could not handle the bench role and has punched his ticket out of town.
Designated Hitter: David Ortiz: A+
Big Papi is the DH and most clutch hitter in baseball. He was cheated out of the MVP last season and certainly showed the Anaheim/California/Los Angeles Angels why he, and not Vlad, was the MVP last season. Any questions?
Starting Rotation: B-
Bronson Arroyo: B
Arroyo has started strong, weakened, and then rebounded well. Arroyo should settle in as a very good number four starter. It would be a shame for him to lose his spot in the rotation when Schilling is back as a starter in late August (yes, I believe he really will return to the rotation, no matter how well he does).
Matt Clement: A
Superb. The best free agent signing of the first half of the season. He is a well deserved All-Star, and I would love to see him continue to pitch well and pick up 20 wins.
David Wells: C
Wells has been inconsistent, either being shelled or pitching a gem. He needs more consistency. A big second half by Wells could be the most important lift for the Sox.
Tim Wakefield: B
Wakefield, as usual, has been hot and cold, good and bad, and consistently eating innings. Take away his starts without Mirabelli behind the plate, and his ERA drops to under 3.00.
Wade Miller: C-
Miller has been maddeningly inconsistent, and at the present, seems to be the most likely to lose his spot in the rotation.
Keith Foulke: C-
I hope the scope of the knee does the trick, but a month to get off the mound and get mentally set to pitch will probably do more good for Foulke. Expect a return to form for the stretch run. Yes, that would get me booted off WEEI for even suggesting it, but Foulke is a good pitcher who broke down physically. Knees are kind of important for a pitcher, after all.
Alan Embree: D
Where to start? Just when he seemed to be ready to turn it around he went right back to the stink-tank. The fastball is still there. He needs an NBA fake injury to settle down for two weeks and get back on track.
Mike Timlin: B
Not an all-star performance, but he has been consistent.
John Halama: C
He has done a decent job as a spot starter and long reliever; better than the numbers, actually.
Jeremi Gonzalez: B
I think Gonzalez could help this bullpen a lot. He is a decent pitcher who should be groomed to be a set-up man for the big club. In the bullpen, if he could add a few MPH to the fastball, he would be a great set-up man.
Mike Myers: B
Facing lefties only, it is an A. Everyone else, it is a D. Use him right, and he will be effective in his role. Man, I should have been a lefty!
Scott Cassidy, Matt Mantei, Anastacio Martinez, Cla Meredith et al. What to say?
Without Jay Payton, the outfield takes a hit, as no one knows how Adam Stern will do at the plate. He is a good fielder, though. Alex Cora should be a significant upgrade over Ramon Vazquez. Youkilis should be starting. Olerud is a good backup at first. Mirabelli should hit more in the second half. All-in-all, some decent depth.
If someone had told me in March that Curt Schilling would have one win at the all-star break, and that Keith Foulke would be on the D.L. with a an ERA over 6.00, and yet the team would still be in first place, I would be ecstatic. I am ecstatic. The team has holes, yes, and is inconsistent, but they are still doing well all things considered. I mean, this is not the New England Patriots. With the Patriots, anything less than 14-2 is a disappointment. They are, again, a threat to the 1972 Miami Dolphins. That team is just plain stacked from top-to-bottom at every position.
But the Red Sox are on the right track going into the trading deadline. I would rather Theo keep the prospects and miss out on the playoffs than make a trade that is of benefit to this season only. This team actually has prospects coming to AA and AAA, and it would be a shame to trade them off.
Some players have exceeded expectations, some have met them, and others have disappointed: I guess that is baseball.
The key questions for the Sox are: how will Foulke and Schilling will pitch in the second half when they return? Will Clement keep winning? Can Wells show some consistency and step up? What is up with Wade Miller? Is Alan Embree ever going to get back on track? Will Bronson Arroyo make it impossible to send him to the bullpen? Will the bullpen find any level of consistency?
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