The questions for the Red Sox obviously go well beyond August, beyond September, beyond an October they are almost certain to miss again for the third straight year. The questions for the Red Sox now run into 2013 and well beyond, and some of them simply do not have easy answers.
A mere 40 games now remain in the 2012 Boston baseball season, and even Red Sox officials seem prepared to publicly concede defeat in the wake of Sunday night's 4-1 loss to the New York Yankees. In the overhyped American League wildcard race, the Red Sox are now just one game ahead of the wretched Seattle Mariners. Carl Crawford is finally headed for surgery, perhaps as soon as Tuesday, and the Sox are indisputably headed down a drain they have been circling for some time.
Here are six issues to consider over the final six weeks, in any order you choose:
1. The starting rotation. We all know the problem. Fixing it is another matter entirely. Since they last won a playoff game in 2008, Red Sox starters have ranked eighth, sixth, ninth and now 11th in the AL in ERA. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey are all under team control through 2014, and their combined base salaries next year total $41.6 million.
Now ask yourself this: if the Red Sox can only shed one contract among that group, who goes? Barring a trade offer that the Red sox simply cannot refuse, Lester obviously stays for an assortment of factors, not the least of which are the facts that he is the youngest and cheapest. Maybe the Sox are trying to tell us something with developmental updates on Lackey, whose return to the mound is critical if the Sox are to have any chance at unloading him.
Felix Doubront, Franklin Morales and Clay Buchholz all warrant the chance to pitch regularly next year. How the Sox solve this issue -- not to mention the ones in their clubhouse -- will go a long way toward determining any chance for success next year.
Good luck, Ben Cherington.
2. The manager. Barring a rainout, the Red Sox will play their final game of the season in New York on the night of Wednesday, Oct. 3. If Bobby Valentine is still the manager beyond Oct. 4, Red Sox fans would have the right to further question the decision-making process on Yawkey Way.
Valentine is hardly to blame for the ills that affect this franchise. But the decision to hire him has been an unmitigated disaster, creating problems on multiple levels that have affected the team all year.
John Farrell is everybody's choice as the next skipper, but that might not be as easy as it sounds. What would it take to get him? Would Farrell even want to work in this clown car? Again, the challenges for Cherington here are considerable, and Cherington must do more than find a manager who can win both the support and respect of his players.
He must build a coaching staff that help get the Red Sox' pitching woes straightened out.
3. Jacoby Ellsbury. If the Red Sox are to be believed -- and they shouldn't be -- part of the reason there have been no real long-term discussions about Ellsbury is the inconsistency of his production. In the last four years, Ellsbury has posted an OPS of, in order, .770, .485, .928 and .653 while playing in 153, 18, 158 and 42 games. So what is he? A perennial 30-30 player? Or a delicate piece of crystal?
If and when agent Scott Boras takes Ellsbury to free agency following next season, the Sox would garner a compensatory selection somewhere in the top 50 of the 2014 draft. If Cherington can get more than that now -- particularly if it helps the Red Sox pitching situation -- he needs to seriously consider moving Ellsbury now. (Many scoffed when we suggested the Sox do this last offseason, when Ellsbury's trade value was stratospheric.)
Of course, the Sox would need to find a temporary replacement for Ellsbury in center field pending the development of Jackie Bradley. And if the Sox believe they can win with Ellsbury next year, then keeping him becomes an obvious priority.
But at the moment, this team has a lot of work to do.
4. Catcher. Since early June, Jarrod Saltalamacchia has batted .186 with 67 strikeouts and 33 hits. His production has now dropped considerably in the second half of each of the last two seasons, and the pitching staff hasn't exactly developed under his watch.
Meanwhile, Ryan Lavarnway may be here to stay, though he, too, comes with obvious questions.
Offensively, keeping Saltalamacchia and Lavarnway together in a straight platoon might make a great deal of sense next year because of the strengths of each -- Saltalamacchia against righthanders, Lavarnway against lefthanders. (The manager, if it is someone like Farrell, also could have a big influence here.) But if the Red Sox have doubts, Cherington must consider moving one of his two young catchers, particularly if part of a larger deal.
The catching on this team is a problem of debatable degree, but a problem nonetheless.
5. Shortstop. Mike Aviles got off to a nice start this season, but the dip was beyond predictable. In his last 69 games, Aviles has batted .238 with three home runs and an OPS of .594. The more he plays, the worse he gets, which is why Aviles both began this season and ends it as a 31-year-old utility man.
Maybe Pedro Ciriaco is a find, maybe he isn't. Maybe Jose Iglesias will hit enough, maybe he won't. Regardless, the one thing we can say with certainty is that either may bring strengths Aviles does not -- Ciriaco with speed and perhaps with the bat, Iglesias indisputably on defense -- and there is simply no reason for Aviles to be the starting shortstop of this team anymore.
If the Sox want to keep Aviles as a utility man, fine. But shortstop is really the only position in the infield that needs any look at all because, assuming health, the Sox have good answers at first, second and third bases.
6. Daniel Bard and the bullpen. Nearly three months have passed since Bard last threw a pitch in the major leagues, and little has changed. In 28 appearances (covering 29 innings) at Triple-A, Bard has 29 walks and a 7.45 ERA. In his last 10 outings, he has 14 walks in 9.2 innings. Moving Bard to the rotation may go down as one of the worst decisions in Red Sox history since the mishandling of Craig Hansen.
Wow. What a mess.
Overall, the bullpen this season has been decent, though it hasn't been nearly as good as everyone would like to think. Alfredo Aceves is simply not a closer. Keeping Andrew Bailey on the active roster has proven to be a challenge throughout his career, and Mark Melancon is hardly the setup man the Sox envisioned when they acquired him. The Sox must find a reliable power arm between Aceves and Bailey if they even want to come close to replicating what they had here during their championship years.
Bard is obviously a key question here.
But like many other things on this Red Sox team, he simply cannot be counted on anymore.
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