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Excitement building, 10 stories high

THEO EPSTEINMidseason maneuvers? THEO EPSTEINMidseason maneuvers? (File/Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Tony Massarotti
Globe Staff / July 16, 2009
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Sure, the Red Sox have the best record in the American League. But the truth is they haven’t accomplished a darned thing yet. In some ways, their season has yet to even begin. In the wake of Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, baseball will enter the decisive second phase of the season beginning tonight. Wild-card standings now will be viewed daily in some cities. The Red Sox, like everyone else, have an array of issues and needs as the real games begin, even if they are in decidedly better shape than many of their fellow contenders. Here are 10 story lines to watch during the second half, beginning with the most obvious:

1. The Roy Halladay saga
Regardless of whether he ends up in Boston - and don’t hold your breath - Halladay is the kind of talent that could have an enormous impact on the playoff races. If any other American League club lands him, particularly if it’s the Yankees, Angels, or Rays, it could be enough to shift the balance of power in the league. And Halladay only may participate in 16-18 games. Long term, too, do not underestimate the impact of a Halladay deal - on multiple fronts. First, the team that acquires him (and signs him?) could be a factor for years. Second, if Toronto gets the talent in return that general manager J.P. Ricciardi is shooting for, it could be on the same path taken by the Rays and become a greater factor in the AL East.

2. Epstein’s deadline dealings
Halladay aside, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, as always, has been engaging in trade talks recently. The Sox have multiple needs - some greater, some lesser - and Epstein has been quite thorough in past midseason maneuvers. Among his constant objectives: improving the depth on the bench and in the bullpen. David Ortiz’s recent resurgence now makes him one of the lesser concerns - but given the uncertain status surrounding Mike Lowell, the Sox obviously are in the market for a productive offensive player who can settle at either of the corner infield spots. Because the best hitters in the Boston lineup generally are righthanded (Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jason Bay), a lefty bat would be of some preference. (This also would help safeguard against another dip from Ortiz.) The most obvious names include Nick Johnson and the switch hitting Victor Martinez, who could be part of the longer-term solution at catcher.

3. Who’s at short?
We all give thanks for Nick Green, but his career high for plate appearances (375) came in 2005, when he played for Tampa Bay. That year, Green batted .292 with a .797 OPS in his first 49 games, just .195 with a .572 OPS in his final 62. He hit the wall in mid-June. So far with the Sox, Green has batted .291 with a .793 OPS in his first 54 games and .133 with a .464 OPS in his last 16. (Uncanny, eh?) Obviously, the Sox are expecting Jed Lowrie back soon, which could mean the end for Julio Lugo. Regardless, don’t be surprised if Epstein spends significant time talking about shortstops as the deadline approaches. Defense remains the priority, but if Green starts to fade and Lowrie is not fully recovered from wrist surgery, the Sox may generate little offense from their shortstop during the second half.

4. The Yankees
At the moment, the Sox hold a three-game lead in the division with 74 games to play. Boston and New York have 10 games remaining, the first four in New York Aug. 6-9. The Sox have a whopping 8-0 edge in the season series, yet the clubs were tied for first place entering last weekend. Last season, the Sox (38-27) and Yankees (39-28) effectively played even after the break, but no team in baseball has done a better job of closing in recent years than the Yankees. Since the 2005 All-Star break, the Yankees have the best second-half record in baseball (186-109) and have bettered the Sox by 24 games, an average of six per half-season. Last year, the Angels and Rays were better than the Sox in the second half.

5. The leadoff man
Looking for an underpublicized weakness on the 2009 Sox? So far, they rank 13th among the 14 American League teams (and 25th among the 30 major league clubs) in on-base percentage from their leadoff hitter (.313). That fact recently inspired manager Terry Francona to settle on new leadoff man, J.D. Drew, whom he seems inclined to keep atop his lineup. So far, Drew has posted a .352 on-base percentage as the leadoff man, a number that would place the Sox ninth in baseball in OBP from the top spot. That’s a nice improvement from the overall team number of .313. The obvious problem is the Sox are sacrificing some middle-of-the-order power to do so, something that makes the health of Lowell (or the acquisition of another bat) all the more critical.

6. The bullpen
Though this is the obvious strength of the team - the Sox lead the AL in relief ERA (3.42) and rank third in baseball - the last two weeks have prompted some questions: Are the relievers getting tired? Are the Sox vulnerable against lefthanded batters? Has the early-season ineffectiveness of the starters caught up with the bullpen? Beginning with the unforgettable implosion against Baltimore June 30, Sox relievers are 2-4 with a 6.95 ERA in their last 33 2/3 innings while allowing opponents to bat .309 against them. Two meltdowns against the Orioles and Royals skew those numbers, but lefthanded batters went a combined 8 for 17 (a .471 average) in those games against Justin Masterson and Manny Delcarmen. Could Epstein be eyeing a lefty reliever, too?

7. The backup outfielders
In the grand scheme of things, the Sox clearly have bigger concerns than Mark Kotsay and Rocco Baldelli, each of whom made contributions in the first half - Baldelli largely against lefthanded pitching, Kotsay against righthanders. The fact that both can play center field also is a luxury few teams possess. So why does this need to be watched? Kotsay began the year on the disabled list and has been hampered by a calf injury of late. Baldelli went on the DL earlier this season and is an ongoing health concern. Thankfully, Jacoby Ellsbury and Drew generally have been available to play every day, but what happens if that changes?

8. The big fade
On every team, there are those players who finish strong . . . and those who fade away. So, while someone like Pedroia hit .345 after the All-Star break last season, it is worth paying some attention to players who have worn down in the past. Of course, the most obvious example is catcher Jason Varitek, whose career average in September (.229) is his lowest of any month. Before last season, when he was a force from wire-to-wire, Kevin Youkilis batted .306 in the first half, .244 in the second. Lowell’s career OPS in the second half (.761) is notably lower than in the first (.845).

9. The depth of the rotation
The Sox have more pitching than any team in baseball at the moment, but they still have some concerns. Tim Wakefield will be 43 next month and has had some physical problems late in the last two seasons. John Smoltz is 42 and, in effect, still rehabilitating. Daisuke Matsuzaka is on the disabled list and Brad Penny can put strain on the bullpen. Obviously, the presence of a healthy Jon Lester and Josh Beckett is a blessing and should keep the Sox out of long losing streaks. Assuming he is not traded, Clay Buchholz offers an additional option. But there is potential for some instability beyond the top two starters.

10. The schedule
Thanks to a 10-game homestand to wrap up the first half, the Sox actually have slightly more road games remaining (38) than they do home games (36). While that is not an enormous issue, the schedule in September is a little daunting, particularly during the majority of the month - when pennant races will be boiling. From Sept. 1-27, the Sox will play 17 of their 25 games on the road, a stretch that includes a 10-game trip to Baltimore, Kansas City, and New York from Sept. 18-27. While only the Yankees may be regarded as an elite opponent during that stretch, the Sox will be forced to play perhaps the most important games of their season away from Fenway Park. And though they return home for the final week, that also will conclude a stretch during which they will play the league maximum of 20 consecutive days.

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com

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