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This will be my year

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 1, 2010 02:31 AM

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mcdonald51102.jpgAdios, April. Thanks for . . . well, not much.

The Red Sox closed out their wretched first month with an appropriately aggravating 5-4 loss to the lousy Orioles tonight, and they'll head into May with an 11-12 record, which is unacceptable for such a talented (if somewhat disjointed, for the time being) roster.

 While there has been a suspicious sprint among certain groups of media and fans to declare the "run prevention" mantra a permanent black mark on Theo Epstein's resume, the truth is that the disheveled Red Sox have been mistake-prone and perhaps worse, uninteresting, pretty much since the day they bid farewell to Ft. Myers.

They've been a bummer and bore. But that doesn't mean it's ovah before it really began. Sure, the remarkable Rays (17-6) and the Yankees (15-7) are playing up to their vast capabilities, and my personal miscalculation in evaluating the division was underestimating Tampa Bay. I mean, I knew they would be very good -- I wrote more than once that the three best teams in the American League resided in the East Division. But I didn't know they were this good, at least until they wiped out the Sox in four straight at Fenway. I'm a believer, wholeheartedly.

But here's the Sox' main hope: Logical improvement from their large cast of underachievers and some not-out-of-the question regression from the Rays and, especially, the Yankees, whom I'm thinking the Sox will be battling for the wild card -- that's how much I believe in the Rays.. 

That in mind, let's take a quick and extremely unscientific look at those players who are likely to improve or decline as the season progresses among the AL East's alleged Big Three. Maybe this will give you hope about what's to come with the Sox. Or maybe the reminder of their shabbiness will just serve to annoy you more. As always, let me know in the comments.

(Note: Yeah, the following stats are from before Friday's games. I'd update them, but it's 1:26 a.m., and I'm ancient and completely gassed. Plus, it's dark in this blogger's basement, and all this talk about "The Human Centipede" has me nervous. You understand.)

RED SOX

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Victor Martinez:
.247, 1 HR, 70 OPS+. He's habitually streaky -- last April he hit .386 with a 1.080 OPS in April -- and you remember how great he was after coming over to the Sox last July 31. A hot streak has to be in his immediate future.

Kevin Youkilis:  .282, .862 OPS, 3 homers. He's one of the elite hitters in the AL (second to Joe Mauer in OPS last season, a spot ahead of Mark Teixeira). There's a good change he'll remind us of that in the new month; he's a lifetime .336 hitter with a 1.004 OPS in May.

Adrian Beltre: .320, .745 OPS. Yeah, that's a nice (if somewhat empty) batting average, but consider this question from my chat today: Will Beltre hit his first homer before David Ortiz hits his second? The power outage needs to end soon.

Jon Lester: 1-2, 4.71 ERA. Given his history of awful Aprils, not to mention his extremely encouraging last start -- seven innings, one run, 11 Ks against the Jays -- it's fair to assume that he'll again become one of the AL dominating pitchers now that the calendar has turned. No worries here whatsoever.

J.D. Drew: .182, .282 OBP, not nearly enough dirt on his helmet. He'll be 35 in November -- a little older than at least I think of him being -- and in that regard it's fair to wonder if his decline may start soon; he has whiffed in 24 of 85 plate appearances, an alarming rate. But I tend to think one 3 for 4 game will get him on his way to becoming one of the most productive outfielders in the league yet again.

Josh Beckett:
7.22 ERA. He's always been something of an enigma -- the blisters, the nagging injuries, the strange lack of command from time to time, his inability to solve the Blue Jays. But his ERA this April was precisely the same as it was last April. I suspect his season-ending numbers (17 wins, an ERA below 4.00) will also be similar to his final stats from 2009.

David Ortiz: .154, .308 slugging, .549 OPS. He has to be better. Otherwise, the career of one of the most important athletes in Boston sports history -- and that is not an exaggeration -- will come to a sad conclusion. No, I'm not supposed to root. But you know I'd be lying if I said I didn't hope Papi somehow found his way, against all the odds.

They are what we thought they were:
Dustin Pedroia (thank heavens for him); Jonathan Papelbon (still gets it done, just with more drama); Daniel Bard (watching him duel for triple digits with Neftali Feliz has been one of the small joys of the season so far; giving up a dinger to Miguel Tejada, not so much); Marco Scutaro (.282, .734 OPS).

Decline
Jason Varitek: 
.323, .774 slugging, 4 homers. I love him as the backup/Beckett caddy, and he has been terrific at the plate this season. But to suggest he should get more playing time is to forget that he started similarly fast last year (4 homers, .881 OPS in April) only to get worn down as the season progressed. Keep him fresh and keep him in this ideal role, and he'll remain  very valuable, though I suspect the 1.138 OPS may decline ever so slightly.

Darnell McDonald:
.333, 2 HRs, 1.084 OPS in 28 plate appearances. It's been a wildly fun story, one of those improbable developments that bring  a small joy to the long season. And I know  he really doesn't belong on this since he's essentially the epitome of a replacement-level player, not one of those guys you were counting on coming out of Ft, Myers.  Everything they've gotten from him has been a pleasant bonus. I'm addressing his status only because I've been getting a lot of e-mails and questions suggesting that Mike Cameron may not have a job when he gets back. And that's foolish. McDonald has a chance of sticking with this team -- be worried, Bill Hall -- because he does a lot of things well: He runs well, can play all three outfield positions, has a decent arm, and can pop one out of the ballpark from time to time. But at age 31, it's pretty well established what he is, and there's a better chance of his flaws (read: sliders and curves) being exposed with more playing time than there is of this being a story with many more feel-good chapters. One more thing: I'd really, really like to be wrong about this.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

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Ben Zobrist:
.250 avg., .699 OPS, no homers. The slow start may suggest otherwise, but I remain convinced that his breakout 2009 in which he finished fourth in the AL in OPS was no fluke. And his new long-term contract is further confirmation; the Rays know what they have.

They are what we thought they were
Pretty much everyone, which is kind of scary. Among 'em:  Jason Bartlett (.316, no power . . . last year was an aberration), Evan Longoria (.329, .961 OPS, an MVP-in-waiting), Carl Crawford (.347, .961 OPS, the same slugging and OBP numbers as Longoria), B.J. Upton, Soriano (their first legit closer since they've been a contender), David Price (the devastating slider, AWOL for much of last season, appears to be back), Carlos Pena.

Decline
Matt Garza: 4-1, 2.06 ERA, 1.14 WHIP. He's pitching right now like Jon Lester is his opponent in every start. The Expectorator is very good, but he's not quite this good.

The bullpen: No one among closer Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Lance Cormier, or Dan Wheeler has an ERA higher than 2.79 or an adjusted ERA above 155 (Cormier in both cases). If that doesn't change, they'll clinch the division by August.

NEW YORK YANKEES

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Mark Teixeira:
2 HRs, .139 avg, .559 OPS. His OPS is .001 higher than J.D. Drew's and .015 higher than Papi's. Yup, that's a lousy April . . . and yet, it could be worse. Go figure.

Javier Vazquez: 1-3, 9.00 ERA, 1.80 WHIP. He has to be better than this . . . doesn't he? Let's ask Kenny Rogers and Ed Whitson for their opinions.

Alex Rodriguez: .250, 2 HRs, .778 OPS. He'll probably have his 35/100 by season's end. But in the meantime, he doesn't hurt to daydream of an early decline for baseball's world-champion narcissist.

Curtis Granderson: .230 avg., .313 OBP, 2 HRs. To be honest, he's in this section only because I'm mildly wary of underestimating him again. He's a nice player who does some things well, but he's not Bernie Williams II.

They are what we thought they were
Phil Hughes (loved him as a Rot League sleeper this year, and he's fulfilling it so far); Nick Swisher; Brett Gardner (.306 with no power -- seems about right); CC Sabathia (3-1, 3.12 ERA).

Decline
Robinson Cano: .407, 1.235 OPS, 8 HRs. I wouldn't be stunned if he won an MVP award at some point in his career -- hell, maybe this year. But over a full season, his current adjusted OPS (233) would tie Ted Williams in 1957 for the ninth-best in baseball history. Probably not happening.

Derek Jeter: .311, 3 HRs, 14 RBIs, .792 OPS. Doesn't it seem like he's always hitting .311? Get old already, will ya?

Andy Pettitte: 3-0, 1.29 ERA. He'll be 38 in June. Get old already, will ya?

Mariano Rivera:  Six saves, 0.00 ERA. Stupid indestructible robot. Blow a fuse already, will ya?

Jorge Posada: .316, 5 HRs, 12 RBIs, 1.086 OPS. Get old al  . . . wait, he had to pinch-hit last night after getting drilled by a pitch Wednesday? Possible SI cover jinx? The beginning of the end? We'll take it.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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