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Five questions about the resurgent Red Sox

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 28, 2012 08:00 AM

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Five Red Sox questions at least worth discussing, in no particular order, as we approach the midpoint of the 2012 season...

1. Will the Red Sox make any substantive acquisitions before July 31?

This assumes, of course, that the Sox will be buyers and not sellers, something that is still very much in question, despite the team's recent stretch of good play. So far this year, the Sox have stretches where they have gone, in order, 4-10, 7-1, 1-8, 16-6, 1-7 and 10-3. And before anyone suggests that the schedules of most teams would reflect that kind of erratic behavior, bite your tongue. That is simply not true.

At the moment, the Red Sox are just 1-1/2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Angels (tied) for the two American League wildcard spots, which is a little deceiving. Overall, the Sox are on just an 85-win pace. They won 90 games a year ago. The only difference is that there is an extra playoff spot, which has lowered the bar for postseason eligibility.

Nonetheless, the Red Sox may very well be in contention precisely one month from now. They saved a few bucks on the Marco Scutaro trade a few more on the Kevin Youkilis deal, but they now seem to be guarding their prospects more than ever before. With the changes in free-agent compensation, it simply does not make sense anymore to give up prospects for a veteran player who can walk at the end of the year.

In case you haven't noticed, the Red Sox have been much more conservative at the last two trading deadlines than they were at the previous two. In 2008 and 2009, they acquired Jason Bay (in the Manny Ramirez deal) and Victor Martinez, respectively. Since then, they have focused on people like Erik Bedard (2011), Mike Aviles (2011), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (2010), acquisitions that were either low-cost angled far more toward the future.

This year, assuming the Sox are not selling, bet again on something relatively conservative. The Sox have been far too frugal since the end of last season to suggest otherwise.

2. Will the starting rotation ever really find its groove?

If and when the Sox do make a deal at the deadline, a durable starting pitcher would seem to be the priority. The Red Sox needed innings last fall and tried to acquire them by placing Daniel Bard in the starting rotation, an experiment that exploded into a spectacular ball of fire and has since been scrapped.

Going into last offseason, durability was chief among the concerns in the Boston rotation -- and still is. Of all the projected starters, Jon Lester was the only one with any real track record of recent durability, something that is again holding true. Since Bard went to Pawtucket, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz have landed on the disabled list.

As for Felix Doubront, who has been a nice story overall, his last four starts have produced a 6.65 ERA and an opposing OPS of .961. Doubront already has pitched more innings this year (85.1) than in any season since 2009, and he has never pitched more than 129.1 innings in any professional season.

By the simplest definition, the best starting pitchers are generally consistent and durable. The Red Sox currently do not have even a single one of those - and they haven't all year. Given the likelihood of a conservative approach at the deadline, is that likely to change?

3. Is the performance of the bullpen more of a reflection on Theo Epstein and Terry Francona or on Cherington and Bobby Valentine?

Let's put it in these terms: would you rather have Bard and Jonathan Papelbon at the back end, or Vicente Padilla and Alfredo Aceves? The efforts of Valentine, in particular, have been nothing short of sensational in this area given the relative shortage of personnel with which to work, particularly after the Sox lost Andrew Bailey (injury) and Mark Melancon (ineffectiveness) before the season was a couple of weeks old.

Valentine has not been afraid to think outside the box here, most notably with Scott Atchison, whom Francona used primarily when the Red Sox were behind. In 2010 and 2011, the Sox were eight games under .500 when Atchison appeared in a game, 42 games over when he did not.

This year, the Sox have won in each of Atchison's last six appearances, including Tuesday's win over Toronto, and he has become a major contributor when entrusted with greater responsibility. That is largely a reflection on Valentine, who has consistently put his relievers in a position to succeed.

Will it continue? That is hard to know, especially given the reported issues some Sox relievers (and coaches) have had with the number of times Sox relievers have warmed up. Entering Wednesday, Red Sox relievers had walked the second-fewest batters of any bullpen in the league despite the fifth-most innings. If that changes, at least we'll know why.

4. Will Carl Crawford help the Red Sox or hurt them?

Look at this way: Last year, the Red Sox ranked a surprising fifth in OPS (.723) from the left field position, a number that Crawford >694 overall, .701 in LF) brought down. This year, the Sox currently rank fourth thanks largely to the combined production of Cody Ross and Daniel Nava, the latter of whom currently has a .913 OPS overall, a .923 OPS as a left fielder and an .843 OPS (with a .412 on-base percentage) as the leadoff hitter.

Given the investment the Red Sox have made in Crawford -- seven years, $142 million -- he obviously deserves the chance to play when he returns from the disabled list. Still, Valentine kept Will Middlebrooks in the mix when Kevin Youkilis returned from the disabled list and he would be wise to do the same with Nava, who is an even better story now than he was in 2010.

Is Valentine bold enough to put Crawford on the bench if the multimillionaire is outplayed by the undrafted 29-year-old? Valentine's history suggests yes, which would create quite a story over at Fenway Park. But then, one of the problems with the Red Sox over the last year or so is that too many individuals have placed themselves ahead of the team.

It's about production, boys. Not paychecks.

5. What should the Red Sox do with Jacoby Ellsbury?

Ellsbury is linked to Crawford in many ways, and not solely because both could return to the club at roughly the same time. Last season, Ellsbury turned into perhaps the very best leadoff hitter in baseball, meaning he will likely supplant Nava atop the lineup. The Red Sox subsequently could be left with a group including Nava, Crawford, Ross, and Ryan Kalish for the remaining two outfield spots, which could have Valentine doing a lot of mixing and matching. (We also should mention Ryan Sweeney.)

With Ellsbury, the greater questions concern the long term, particularly as he approaches free agency in the fall of 2013. Agent Scott Boras is likely to eye a deal for Ellsbury worth in excess of at least $20 million per season -- the amount the Sox gave Crawford. There is little to suggest the Sox will extend themselves to that extent, and the new compensation rules mean the Sox will get just one draft pick (and not two) if they lose Ellsbury to free agency.

Think about that. In the past, the Sox could let players like Papelbon walk with the knowledge that they would get two selections as compensation -- all inside of the first two rounds. Now they will get just one. The Sox would be far better off trading a player like Ellsbury for an established prospect than rolling the dice in the draft, which produces mixed results.

If the Sox are in contention, Ellsbury is going nowhere. But between and Opening Day of next season, assuming the Red Sox regard Ellsbury as impossible to sign, trading him would be the best course of action.

And under the circumstances, it might be the Sox' best chip in acquiring the starting pitcher they need.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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