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Lemon aid

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  April 20, 2010 08:34 AM

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Panic is futile. Criticism of the product is not.

Can't hit. Can't run. Can't…field. Am I missing anything?

Not like I'm unveiling the drill to you, but here we sit 13 games into the season, and the 2010 Red Sox have shown their fans more empty promise than Lionel Hutz' pizza box. At 4-9, they're already six games out of first place in the AL East, which, granted, is a silly thing to worry about when they're still skating and dribbling in other sports.

Yet they're already just 1-6 against the Yankees and Rays, the two teams they must play at least .500 against if they hope to have any shot at October baseball.

And that one win, mind you, was gift-wrapped by the Yankees bullpen on Opening Night.

Critical mass it is not. But thus far the on-field product that the Red Sox have sold their fans is laughable.

Call it knee-jerk, but the reality is that this team's offensive woes didn't exactly go unpredicted during the offseason. Funny that Theo Epstein isn't boasting that J.D. Drew only has the 43rd best OPS among AL outfielders. The #hermidafordh calls lasted about as long as it took until his next at-bat. Mike Cameron gets some benefit of the doubt because of whatever is going on, but that play on Sunday can only fuel the snickers that didn't believe the reason the Red Sox didn't sign Jason Bay is because he was a below-average fielder.

Victor Martinez is playing himself right out of a contract with his hitting woes and defensive futility. In reality, the Red Sox could employ a brick wall behind the plate, and it would only have one fewer successful chance of throwing out a runner.

The David Ortiz chronicles have been broached, but really, he's only a significant chunk of a festering problem. The Sox were able to withstand Ortiz's struggles last season by virtue of an 11-game early season winning streak that calmed fears. One year later, it's not just Ortiz, but there will be a keen focus on how the Red Sox approach dealing with their cooked slugger. At some point it's going to be fair game to wonder which lasts longer: Ortiz's career in Boston or that phantom sellout streak.

For a team that prides itself on producing runs by getting on base, it's shocking to notice that the Sox are 11th in the AL with 40 walks (of which Kevin Youkilis has eight), 9th with a .313 on-base percentage, and 11th with a .739 OPS.

But never mind the offense, which we knew would stink anyway (yet to be fair, the Ellsbury injury hasn't helped matters). Red Sox starters are 3-5 with a 5.18 ERA, which isn't all bad when you consider Jon Lester has looked about as good as Joe Sambito this month. Still, that's dead-last in the AL. Red Sox starters have been hit at a .296 clip, just a shade better than whatever re-treads the Orioles are throwing out there these days.

You could argue, despite some hiccups, that Clay Buchholz has been the most dependable starter after Josh Beckett, and certainly would have a stronger case after John Lackey was re-introduced to the Fenway Park he's always known and loved yesterday. For all the hubbubabbaloo about Boston having the best, scariest starting staff in the game, not one of the guys on this staff brings a potential dominance night in and night out, not even Beckett. Lester will be great come late May, no doubt. But these Red Sox are so atrocious right now that it may be too late to care. Anyone else care to remember that Lackey hated playing here as an Angel, and that he has a 6.05 career ERA at Fenway Park?

While most have grown to appreciate the Lackey signing – including this guy – it's easy to be just as puzzled as you were in the offseason when you heard the news. For a team that needed to replace the production it was about to lose in Bay to toss millions at a pitcher seemed bordering on luxury in one area, while leaving the rest of the house to a second-rate maid service. I understand Epstein's bridge theory, not wanting to overpay for guys he doesn't want here long-term while kids like Josh Reddick, Ryan Westmoreland (God willing), and the guy they shunned last year, yet is suddenly back in their good graces, Lars Anderson (three home runs, 1.013 OPS at Portland) await to take the reigns. But so far this bridge work has elicited more ire from the public than the Neponset headache slated to begin this week.

Is there room for error? Isn't there always with the Red Sox? They'll likely pay someone else to employ Ortiz or Mike Lowell at some point, because that's among the things Epstein does best. Maybe Anderson is awarded first, Kevin Youkilis moves back to third and Lowell/Martinez take over the DH slot. Maybe you can pry Kurt Suzuki from the A's (Is catcher Epstein's new shortstop?). Maybe things will turn themselves around. Maybe.

You can't take too much from a four-game sweep in April. But the Rays leave Boston with Red Sox fans keenly aware that Tampa Bay may have the better team on paper, and on the field, which would mean there's two in the division now that fit that criteria. This weekend the Red Sox looked like a team that was stitched together with spare parts based on the franchise's questionable approach to the season. In essence, that's what they are, spare parts with no offensive or defensive gelling quality.

Yet. There's still time, of course. But the results have been so putrid that it's escalating Epstein's fix-it clock.

The Red Sox are a mess. The Rays and Yankees are not in the least.

While that shouldn't elicit panic, it should raise some questions about the lemon you were sold.

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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