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Breaking down the Red Sox season so far

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  July 10, 2012 03:03 PM

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Red Sox are essentially no-shows here at the All-Star Game, David Ortiz the lone representative of the team unless you want to count Wally The Green Monster.

But the state of the Red Sox was the topic of conversation around Kauffman Stadium. People are asking visitors from Boston whether the 43-43 Sox are on the verge of falling out of the race or headed for the postseason once their injured players return.

The prediction here hasn't changed since April. The Red Sox are a third-place team that does not have the starting pitching to reach the postseason. That fact has been made all the more apparent by the performance of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett so far.

Let's look at what has transpired and some guesses at what is to come:

First-half MVP: Is there any choice here but Ortiz? Big Papi is having nearly a career season with a 1.013 OPS and 22 home runs. He has walked more (51) than he has struck out (47) and even played first base admirably in the interleague games. Ortiz also has been a clubhouse liaison for Bobby Valentine.

For a player who looked done in the early part of the 2010 season, Ortiz is enjoying a career renaissance.

First-half Cy Young: How about the job Franklin Morales has done? A lefty specialist, he was turned into a starter and has pitched superbly in three of his four starts. He also switched roles without complaint and put the team ahead of his individual needs. If only there was more of that.

High point: The 100th anniversary celebration at Fenway Park on April 20. That the Sox lost to the Yankees, 6-2, almost didn't matter because the day was that special.

Low point: That would be the next day, April 21, when the bullpen blew a 9-1 lead and the Sox were beaten 15-9. It was truly hard to believe a team could go from playing so well to so poorly within the same game.

Surprises: Vicente Padilla and Scott Atchison have been bullpen stalwarts. ... Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney, expected to platoon in right field, have been solid everyday players when needed. ... Felix Doubront turned into a good, solid No. 4 starter. ... Will Middlebrooks arrived ahead of schedule and played so well that it forced the trade of Kevin Youkilis. ... Alfedo Aceves is a heart attack waiting to happen but has been an effective closer. ... Mike Aviles, his .283 OBP aside, has done a professional job at shortstop. ... Daniel Nava returned from oblivion and has an .815 OPS in 52 games. ... Jarrod Saltalamacchia has performed well beyond expectations as the catcher, hitting with power and showing leadership. ... Andrew Miller, a wretched starter in 2011, is a reliable lefty specialist.

Disappointments: Dustin Pedroia was hitting. 266 before he went on the disabled list. ... The Sox are 7-11 in games Lester has started. ... Daniel Bard imploded as a starter and is now searching for his lost control in the minors. The Red Sox really botched that one up. ... The gerrymandered coaching staff has been an obstacle to success. Why hire Valentine to manage and stick him with house men loyal to the front office as coaches? ... Beckett has pitched well enough to be much better than his 4-7 record indicates. But his attitude embodies what has gone wrong with the franchise. It's probably not fair to say he doesn't care. But he works hard to give that impression. ... Daisuke Matsuzaka is a disaster again. ... Mark Melancon, obtained to be the primary set-up man, was demoted and is now back as a mop-up guy.

Hard to figure: Adrian Gonzalez has six home runs and that's pretty awful for a guy who hit 98 the three previous years. He also has become uncharacteristically impatient at the plate, drawing only 23 walks. But Gonzo also unselfishly played right field for 18 games. Yes, 18. He also has 27 doubles, the most in the AL, and is on pace to drive in 90 runs. If there really is a hot streak coming, he can salvage his season. If not, he'll be one of the scapegoats for 2012.

Missing in action: Carl Crawford, Andrew Bailey, Jacoby Ellsbury. That trio holds the key to the second half. Pedroia, too.

Bobby Valentine. Love him or Hate Him: He plays to win every game, going for it with the bullpen. That's refreshing given the "everything will be fine" attitude that sunk the team in 2011. But keeping an emotional distance from the team, while long his style, is a sharp departure from Terry Francona and Valentine should have blurred those lines a little more than he has. If the players want more communication, meet them halfway. There's a sense around Fenway that Valentine sees things one way and the front office another. John Henry should be playing more of a role to bring the sides together. The Red Sox appear to be too focused on inter-office politics instead of winning. Say this for the Bobby V: he manages the bullpen spectacularly and comes up with lineups that score a ton of runs. What else do you want from your manager?

What to watch for: Some scouts believe Aviles will wear down in the second half. It has already started, perhaps, given that he was 10 of 45 (.222) before the break. ... Saltalamacchia has already caught 61 percent as many innings as he did last season. He also needs to be monitored. ... Gonzalez has been too good of a player in his career not to get really hot for a month. ... Pedroia will come back with a vengeance. But can his battered body keep up with his spirit? ... How Middlebrooks adjusts to scouting reports will be interesting to watch.

Key player of the second half: Lester is capable of being an ace, as good as anybody in the game. If he flips that switch, he can carry the Sox into the playoffs. If he meanders along the same path he has so far, they have no chance. Lester has become too reliant on his cutter and his secondary pitches, trying to fool hitters instead of burying them with his four-seam fastball. You used to watch his starts and wonder if he had no-hit stuff that day. When is the last time you thought that? Lester also has to put aside the negativity. His glaring at umpires reeks of insecurity and all too often his starts seem almost painful as he slows down and labors on the mound. Lester would seem to have everything in the world going for him. He has a beautiful family, a World Series ring, financial security, respect in the clubhouse and he beat a terrible disease to become an inspiration to thousands. So why is he so grouchy?

One way this can go: Ellsbury plays to his 2011 level, Lester becomes Lester and the Red Sox go on a tear. Pedroia returns as his old self and Gonzalez starts to pile up RBIs. The deep bullpen remains reliable and Clay Buchholz joins Lester as a top-tier starter. The Sox win 45 of their remaining 76 games and sneak into the wild card game with 88 wins.

Another way this can go: The returning players, rusty from three months of inactivity, play that way. The starters remain wildly inconsistent as Doubront and Morales wear down because of the workload. Gonzalez continues what for him is a down season and Ortiz comes back to earth a bit as free agency becomes a distraction. As it becomes apparent the team is going nowhere, the blame game begins between Valentine and the front office.

How it will go: Probably somewhere in the middle. The Red Sox have played like a team that will win 81-85 games and that's probably what they are. Not awful, not great. They just are.

Somewhere along the way, the franchise became too concerned with being entertaining instead of winning baseball games. They're paying for those sins now and that will continue until GM Ben Cherington is allowed to clean house and remake the roster.

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