The Cleveland Indians head to Boston today to kick off a four-game weekend series at historic Fenway Park. This is the first time the Tribe and the Red Sox have met this year, so I talked to Over the Monster‘s Matt Sullivan about Boston’s slow start, the new guys in charge of the team, and the incredible Will Middlebrooks. You can also read my answers to Matt’s questions on Over the Monster.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: The Red Sox obviously weren’t planning to be at the bottom of the AL East more than a month into the season. How worried are you about this slow start?
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t pretty concerned. I still believe in the core talent on this team but they have to make a huge turnaround and they have to do it soon. The offense is still among the AL’s best and that is definitely sustainable. After a miserable start, the bullpen is starting to come together and it looks like it could be strength by the end of the year, especially if Andrew Bailey is effective when he finally returns. Given some of the injuries the Red Sox are dealing with (Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, Bailey, etc) it probably could be a lot worse.
That said, there are some real problems with this team and they aren’t going to be fixed overnight. The top starters, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, have been inconsistent and number three starter Clay Buchholz has been a disaster. Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard are both major upgrades for the back end of the rotation, but both young starters are fairly inefficient and have a hard time pitching late into game. They both figure to face innings limits as well and since they have been the two best pitchers thus far, that is serious concern.
The other major concern now is that the hole the Red Sox have dug is too deep to get out of. To win 95 games, which would be a good bet for the AL East winner, the Red Sox would need to play .619 baseball from here on. Even if the division winner only needs 92 games, they will have to win at a torrid pace to recover from this terrible start. They could do it, but with few easy wins in the division and questions in the rotation, the outfield and the bench, I don’t think they will compete for the division. With the new Wild Card slots and with a one game playoff, even if they can make the playoffs, it will be to play in that one game crap shoot.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: New manager Bobby Valentine seemed to be a controversial hire this winter. What do you think of him so far?
I didn’t like the hire when they made it and I absolutely hate it now. Hiring Bobby Valentine was an irrational, knee-jerk reaction to the collapse that took place last September and the possible rewards always seemed dwarfed by the incredible risk. Thirty-eight games in and Bobby Valentine has been a horrible field manager and he has already had one serious run in with his own players after the idiotic comments he made about Kevin Youkilis. Unless this team does play .619 baseball from here on and win 95 games, I would shocked and disappointed if isn’t fired at some point this year. His hiring was a mistake and failing to acknowledge that at some point this year will only compound that mistake.
I could forgive the reckless comments if I thought he knew what he was doing in the dugout, but it’s pretty clear he does not. He has overextended the starters time and time again, despite signs that they were tiring—obvious signs too, like walking three straight batters, dropping their arm slot or multiple loud outs. That has compounded the starters’ struggles and put the relievers into tougher spots then a quicker hook would have. He is also just now figuring out how to use his relievers. Until he was sent down, Valentine continually used career minor leaguer Justin Thomas in high leverage situations, even though he was the last player to make the team out of camp and had a career ERA and FIP over 5.00. As bad as the bullpen was early on Valentine added to those struggles by leaving guys in one or two batters too long and doing a terrible job of mixing and matching players.
In my opinion, Valentine talks a far better game then he manages. He belongs in the press box where he gets paid to talk. He is far more interested in being on camera than being prepared for the next game. He has had to apologize for poor decisions at least three times, once, he didn’t know the opposing starters handedness and he admitted to having almost no fall back plans to deal with the injuries and ineffectiveness. The sooner the Red Sox have a real manager, whose sole focus is on winning games, the better.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: Speaking of new faces, GM Ben Cherington is also in a new place for 2012. Are you happy with what he’s done in Boston so far?
Ben Cherington has been a mixed bag thus far, but unlike Bobby Valentine, I have confidence that he will be a very successful in the long. This offseason was a very difficult one for Boston and, besides Bobby Valentine’s hiring and the agonizing Theo Epstein compensation battle, he did a good job handling some very tough tasks. The Red Sox were never going to resign Jonathan Papelbon at $15 million a year and trading Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney could be an absolute steal if Bailey can return healthy and effective, since Ryan Sweeney has looked fantastic thus far. His courage in moving Daniel Bard into the rotation is another fantastic sign for the future. Thus far Bard has been the Red Sox best starter by ERA and second best by FIP. He had to endure endless second guessing from the minute that move was announced, but he stuck to his guns and he has looked brilliant for that so far.
The Mark Melancon trade looks terrible right now, but the logic behind it was sound. I would rather have Jed Lowrie on the bench than Nick Punto, but the loss there is marginal. In shipping off Marco Scutaro to save some money, Cherington disappointed me by not getting anything better than Cody Ross with that extra cash, but the first few innings that Clayton Mortensen has thrown show that he could be more than I expected and turn that trade into a win for us.
The one major negative for Cherington was the managerial search. The common perception is that he lost out to the wishes of owner Larry Lucchino in the end, resulting in Bobby Valentine getting the job over Gene Lamont. Regardless of what really happened in the search, it was an overly laborious process and he appeared unable to act quickly and decisively. If that was really because of ownership’s involvement it may not be an issue going forward, but I do worry that Cherington could be slow to make decisions and miss out on opportunities.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: Will Middlebrooks‘ promotion is the big story out of Boston right now. How good is he going to be?
Will Middlebrooks has been just incredible in his first few games and Red Sox fans are certainly excited by what he brings to the table. I think his perfect-world ceiling he would be comparable to Adrian Beltre. He is going to be a big walks guy and he could be prone to striking out, but he has good contact ability, good plate coverage and 30+ home run power. His glove is going to be among the best in the game at third as he matures and he has a fantastic feel for the game. He should be a regular 3-4 win player and peak at 5-6 when he gets some good luck on batted balls. He will probably take some lumps this year as pitchers adjust to him and learn how to get him out but he is definitely looking like a very good player coming into his own.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: Who’s pitching for the Red Sox this weekend, and what should Tribe fans expect from them?
Game 1 will be Josh Beckett, who has been very up and down thus far. He isn’t the dominant strikeout pitcher he has been in the past so far. He has compensated by relying more on his cutter and that seems to be working pretty well. His biggest problem this year has been home runs. If he can keep the ball in the park he can survive even without his best strike out stuff and he will typically pitch deep into the game if the score is close.
Game 2 will likely be Clay Buchholz, though if anyone ever needed to miss a start, it would be him. Buchholz has been terrible this season and it is hard to pinpoint exactly why. He lost most of last season to a stress fracture in his back and, while that injury is not issue for him right now, he may have adjusted his mechanics to prevent it from recurring and lost his swing and miss stuff in the process. His change up has gone from an elite pitch that generated 22 percent whiff rates to one that only misses 6.4 percent of swings. His fastball is also missing far fewer bats. He has adjusted some by relying more on his curve and his cutter, but he is no where near as effective as he was back in 2010.
Game 3 will be Felix Doubront, who has been great thus far. His last start didn’t go too well and his ERA took a big hit, but he has the best FIP of anyone on in the Red Sox rotation and his strike out ability is impressive. The groundball rates haven’t been there yet, but another wise he has been very comparable to Jon Lester. He throws a four seamer, a two seamer, a cutter, a big 12-6 curve and a change up. He throws the four seamer and two seamer equally around 30 percent each and relies on his curve as his primary off-speed pitch. His four seamer has a great deal of rise and averages 92. The two seamer moves to his arm side and has less rise but comes in at basically the same speed. He reserves his cutter and change up for righties primarily but he does mix them in to lefties in rare occasions. Doubront’s weakness is his control. Like Lester his fantastic strikeout abilities are tempered by his walk rate, but thus far the walks have not hurt Doubront too much. He isn’t going to pitch late in to the game regularly right now, but he is typically very effective.
Game 4 will be Daniel Bard. Despite all the hand-wringing about his conversion to a starting pitcher, that move looks great right now. He hasn’t been fantastic by any means, but for a first year starter he has shown a lot of potential. He has three pitches, a four seam fastball, a slider and a change up. His four seamer is still mid to upper 90’s with tons of rise and he uses it to get a ton of ground balls (50.7 percent). His slider is devastating when it’s on, gettting lots of swings and misses. He can vary the speed, making it like two different pitches, a slower 80 mph one with extra downward movement and a slightly faster 83-85 mph version that has more horizontal movement. His change up is still a work in progress, but it is coming along well and when he feels good about it he can use it to righties as well as lefties. It averages around 85 mph and has less rise and more arm side movement than his four seamer.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: What’s your prediction for the series?
If this series is anything like the Red Sox other series so far this year, I think the team will be lucky to split the series with the Indians Boston is playing poorly right now and I don’t see Bobby Valentine finding any solutions in the next day or two. The offense will probably take at least one game and I would hope that one of the pitchers not named Buchholz can give us a plus start and a chance to win. I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost three out of four either though, at this point, when the starters do pitch well for 6 or 7 innings they get left in past the point of effectiveness and the game is handed over to a shaky bullpen. Eventually, I think the starters will settle down some and the offense catch fire, but I don’t expect that time to be this weekend.