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Red Sox are MLB’s best, but concerns loom entering playoffs

Posted by Adam Kaufman  September 27, 2013 01:33 AM

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“God forbid we should feel good about this team for five minutes.”

Those were the words of a good friend of mine upon telling him I’d be writing a column expressing some concerns for the Red Sox entering their first postseason since 2009.

He’s right. On the surface, there’s very little to complain about. Boston’s dominant at home (53-28), efficient on the road (42-35), has a winning record during the day, at night, against every division, in extra innings, and probably when it’s a full moon. The Sox have been as consistent as teams come with a .500 mark or better each and every month of the season, and they’ve elevated themselves to the top spot in Major League Baseball with wins in 22 of their last 32 games.

With fourth or fifth-place projected finishes in the East distant in the rear-view mirror and now just lumps left in pundits’ throats, the Red Sox have as good a chance as any club in baseball to win the World Series.

But that confidence doesn’t come without some cautious optimism that a number of important pieces will turn their luck around.

Will the rotation remain dominant?

Red Sox starters have posted a 3.84 ERA this season, 10th best in the majors and third in the American League. However, as good as ace Jon Lester has been – and he has with a 1.80 ERA in his last nine starts, and a 2.7 WAR to pace all big league pitchers since the All-Star Break – the men behind him in the rotation have had their struggles.

Clay Buchholz 3.jpg

Clay Buchholz has been more than reliable in three starts after neck and shoulder ailments kept him out for three months, but regaining his command has been a work in progress. One benefit he should enjoy is having more than a week between starts after one final tune-up Friday. Buchholz is 3-0 with a 0.53 ERA and 0.88 WHIP this season on six or more days of rest.

John Lackey and Jake Peavy on the other hand, have really faltered of late. Lackey may have been the one to pitch the Sox into the playoffs, but he’s posted a 4.75 ERA in his last six starts. That’s better than Peavy, who’s got a 5.40 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP in four outings this month.

Two of the four pitching to their abilities could easily carry Boston through a five-game opening-round series, but it will likely need another arm to take the reins should a trip to the ALCS be waiting.

How will the Red Sox bridge the gap to Koji?

Middle relief has been a chief concern for the Sox much of the year. Boston relievers have a 3.60 ERA to rank 19th in the majors, and the team is a lousy 28th overall with a successful save rate of just 59 percent after 23 blown chances, tied for fifth in the game. The seventh inning has been particularly bad, as the club has amassed a 3.87 ERA.

The bullpen has been bailed out time and time again, courtesy of the Sox’ 36 come-from-behind victories and 22 in their last at-bat, but that’s not a reliable winning formula, especially in a postseason series.

Closer Koji Uehara has been otherworldly with a 0.23 ERA in 35 appearances since July 2. Craig Breslow has thrived as well, showing a 0.38 ERA in 26 games dating back to July 22, but other areas of the ‘pen have giant questions.

All three righthanded setup men come with warning signs:

Junichi Tazawa has a 2.94 ERA to date, but it’s ballooned as a result of a 5.58 ERA over his last 13 outings. In the seventh and eighth innings, when he’ll be needed most, he has a 3.40 ERA.

Brandon Workman looks lost. While he has plus-stuff, his control is erratic, and opponents are hammering the ball when he’s on the mound. The starter-turned-reliever has a 7.15 ERA in 16 games out of the bullpen, including a walk every other inning. Opponents are hitting .309 with a .902 OPS off the rookie, and he has a 9.00 ERA in those pivotal seventh and eighth frames.

Ryan Dempster.jpg

Ryan Dempster hasn’t regularly pitched in relief since 2007, though he’s quite accomplished doing so. Since transitioning to the bullpen, the veteran has thrown two scoreless innings, the most recent frame (8 pitches) much easier than the first (26). Is he ready for the inconsistent schedule and give-it-your-all-at-a-moment’s-notice mentality that comes with working from the ‘pen?

Then there’s southpaw Matt Thornton. If he indeed makes the roster, will he be the lefty specialist the team acquired him to be, or the guy whose 2.70 ERA in the second half has disguised a .357 batting average against?

How about Felix Doubront? Should he find himself in the group, he’ll be a reliever. If not for the team’s depth upfront, he couldn’t have made a much better case to be a starter after his regular season. Can he channel that frustration into something positive?

Will nagging injuries be a problem?

Daniel Nava has been phenomenal this season, and Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp have had more than a few instances of beard-tugging excitement, but the success of Boston’s outfield contingent, both offensively and defensively, will largely depend on the contributions of Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino.

Each has been bothered by injuries of late – Ellsbury’s foot and Victorino’s … everything – but they looked great Wednesday night in Colorado. Will the two be able to play hurt for what could be another month of baseball? If not, will Jackie Bradley, Jr. be ready to step in? He should read some of Ellsbury’s book, ideally the 2007 chapter.

All eyes are on Mike Napoli’s foot, too, after four straight games out of the lineup. The soon-to-be free agent has positively raked in his postseason career, and he’s been fantastic of late to the tune of a .321 average, 1.212 OPS, 6 homers, and 16 RBI over his last 19 games. Sure, he’s struck out 30.3 percent of the time, but check out those numbers again and tell me you wouldn’t take a few swings-and-misses.

Can the offense keep it up?

Ellsbury, Victorino, and Napoli are all big reasons for Boston’s offensive dominance in 2013.

The Red Sox lead the majors in runs scored (830), OPS (.792), slugging percentage (.444), and stolen base effectiveness (86.4%). They’re tied for first in on-base percentage (.348), and near the top in a number of other categories, including average (.275, 2nd), walks (572, 3rd), swiped bags (121, 4th), and home runs (173, T-7th).

By the same token, the Sox have been shut out 11 times and had their issues with many of the league’s elite pitchers, some of whom they’re all but certain to see sooner than later.

Having players healthy is the first step, and getting them to perform is the second. Can they continue to rally when necessary? Drive in runners with two outs and men in scoring position? What about when pinch-hitting?

And what will David Ortiz do? At 37, he’s had one of the best regular seasons of his career. But he’s also batting just .164 with 5 RBI in his last 14 playoff games.

Is Farrell ready for the October?

John Farrell.jpg

Seemingly, yes. The eventual AL manager of the year has said all the right things since returning to Boston and, for the most part, pushed the right buttons. John Farrell was the pitching coach on the 2007 championship team and two subsequent playoff squads, but he’s never managed at this point. Fittingly, how he handles his pitchers and the uncertainty in the bullpen may well determine whether the Sox have one opponent left or three.

The good news is, several members of this hairy group of heroes have played postseason baseball and eight, win or lose, have appeared in the World Series. A number of viable concerns exist, but experience and leadership aren’t among them.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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