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Numbers crunchers

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  July 13, 2010 08:19 PM

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0713lester.jpgThe All-Star break couldn't have arrived soon enough for the Red Sox, who deserve kudos for managing to go 51-37 in the first half despite the relentless gnawing of the injury bug. Terry Francona, AL manager of the year? He's in the argument.

In my lifetime of following baseball, I can't recall the Red Sox ever being ravaged by so many injuries in such a short stretch, save for August 2006, when horrible news seemed like a daily occurrence.

While the roster is depleted right now -- Josh Beckett, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Victor Martinez, Mike Cameron, and Jason Varitek all missed significant time in the first half due to injury -- there are plenty of reasons for optimism, too. With the reinforcements

With general manager Theo Epstein undoubtedly spending the three-day break analyzing his ball club, we figured there's no better time to do the same.

Here, then, is our most recent revision of our 1-25 rankings of the players on the Red Sox roster, which was last updated for Opening Day.

True, we published this sucker yesterday in gallery form, but I wanted to tweak it and elaborate here. Keep in mind, this is not so much an argument about the Most Valuable Player, but a 25-1 countdown of the players on the Red Sox roster based on importance, contribution, and potential going forward. Convuluted? Vague? Hey, it's what I do.

But there's plenty of fun in the arguing. Stop by the comments and let me know what you think.

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25. Felix Doubront (Previous ranking: None): Scott Atchison, who has been better than some bigger-name holdovers in middle relief, probably deserves a spot on this list. But he's our 26th man today, because we're giving the final slot to the 22-year-old southpaw Doubront, who has flashed the stuff of a future standout and the poise of a veteran in his two starts. Here's hoping he sticks around as a high-reward alternative in the bullpen, because the staff is deeper with him a part of it.

24. Manny Delcarmen (23): Just as enigmatic as ever, the 28-year-old righthander had an encouraging start to the season (a sub-2.00 ERA in 21 appearances through May), but suffered a horrendous June (12.96 ERA and 2.88 WHIP in 12 appearances ) and ended up on the DL with forearm issues. The Red Sox are going to need him going forward. But depending upon him is risky matter.

23. Ramon Ramirez (19): In the first half of 2009, he had a 2.33 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. In the second half of '09, those numbers rose to 3.48 and 1.65, respectively. This year? 4.79 and 1.31. If he doesn't reverse the downward trend (save for the mildly improved WHIP), he could find himself joining the other Ramon Ramirez in Pawtucket.

22. Jeremy Hermida (20): The most difficult omission from this list is Daniel Nava, who delivered an unforgettable moment when he walloped a grand slam on the first major league pitch he saw and filled in ably (.890 OPS) in the tattered outfield. But Nava has options remaining, and he's likely to return to Pawtucket when Hermida, who contributed some big hits early in the season but has been out since June 9 with a Beltre-induced rib injury, returns.

21. Darnell McDonald (NR): It's been a swell season for feel-good stories between the contributions of Nava and McDonald, a 31-year-old former first-round pick who had just 68 games of MLB experience entering 2010. McDonald, who can play three outfield positions relatively well, has a little power and a little speed, and is a capable bunter and pinch hitter, has been a godsend for the Sox, batting .270 in 67 games. It took him years to get his chance, but it's clear he belongs in the major leagues. It almost makes you wonder why he never got a real chance before.

20. Bill Hall (24): Sure, the price tag is steep -- he's probably baseball's only $8 million utility man, though the Brewers are footing the brunt of the bill. But he's done his best to earn his loot, providing remarkable versatility (19 starts in left field, 13 at second base, 6 in center field, 4 in right field, and 3 at shortstop -- and he even pitched in mopup duty once) and occasional pop (7 homers) on a team that always seemed to need an injury replacement at one position after another.

19. Hideki Okajima (16): After three seasons as a dependable and crucial member of the Red Sox' 'pen -- albeit one who regressed slightly in both '08 and '09 -- the lefthander has fallen apart this season, with a 6.00 ERA, a 1.89 WHIP, and . . . well, you get the point. The numbers are gruesome for the 34-year-old, and he's also battled back issues. If he doesn't improve soon, Epstein will have no choice but to find a lefty setup man to fill the void. We'd like to nominate Scott Downs, please.

18. Jason Varitek (21): The consummate pro has gracefully accepted his reduced playing time in his 14th season with the Sox to become everything you'd want in a backup catcher -- and then some. Varitek has an .871 OPS in 105 plate appearances, with seven home runs, and while he's renowned for his rapport with pitchers, the Sox have missed his bat more since he's been sidelined with a broken foot. Who would have thought that would be the case before this season?

17. Tim Wakefield (18): The 43-year-old knuckleballer has been as inconsistent as the flight of his trademark pitch, with a 3-7 record and a 5.22 ERA, which if extended over a full season would be his highest since his 5.48 ERA in 2000. His value is in his durability, and he has remained injury-free thus far.

16. Mike Cameron (12): Give him credit for his toughness, though at times his willingness to play through obvious injury has given credence to the notion that trying to "gut it out" can sometimes be detrimental to the team. On the plus side, there he's been swinging the bat very well lately (.298, three homers, .808 OPS in his late 60 plate appearances), and with good health he's capable of reaching double figures in homers for the 12th straight season. Here's hoping he's a hell of a fourth outfielder next season.

15. Daisuke Matsuzaka (17): It's often an excruciating experience to watch him pitch, particularly in the first inning, when he's notoriously inconsistent. (Throw strikes . . . throw strikes . . . please throw strikes . . .) But taking aesthetics -- not to mention the hype of what he was supposed to be when he arrived before the 2007 season -- out of the equation, he's been relatively valuable, finishing the first half, with a 6-3 record and a 4.56 ERA after Sunday's 7-inning, 3-hit gem against Toronto. And he's already thrown more innings (65) than he did all of last season.

14. Jacoby Ellsbury (7): To say it's been a tumultuous season so far for the speedy outfielder would be a massive understatement. A year after stealing a franchise-record 70 bases, he's played just nine games, suffering a rib injury in an April 11 collision with third baseman Adrian Beltre. Innuendo about his willingness to play through injuries and the increasingly contentious relationship between him and the team over the diagnosis of his injury have only served to magnify his absence. What happens in the second half is pivotal in regard to the direction of his Red Sox career.

13. John Lackey (6): A disappointment in every way but the win column. Lackey, who signed a five-year. $82.5 million contract in the offseason, has nine victories, but he's been subpar in every other meaningful category. His ERA is 4.78, he's allowed 135 hits in 113 innings, and his WHIP of 1.60 and SO/BB ratio of 1.48 are beyond alarming. The Red Sox thought they were getting a third ace, or at least a very capable No. 2-type starter. Instead, he's pitched like a one-man tribute to Pat Rapp.

12. Josh Beckett (5): Honestly, we can't decide if we have him too high or too low. His first half couldn't have been much worse -- before being sidelined with a back injury, he had one win and a 7.29 ERA in eight starts, and this came after he signed a lucrative contract extension during spring training. But he is close to returning after an encouraging rehab start at Pawtucket Sunday, and his potential impact can't be underestimated going forward. This much we are sure of: It's imperative that he finds his usual good form in the second half if the Sox are going to play meaningful games in October.

11. Marco Scutaro (13): Sure, his predecessor Alex Gonzalez is having a terrific season in Scutaro's old neighborhood in Toronto, but anyone who says they saw his 17-homer first half coming is probably a member of Gonzo's family. Scutaro has been essentially what the Sox expected when they signed him in the offseason: a respectable fielder who gets on base at a decent rate (.348 OBP) and has tough at-bats. No complaints, and no revisionist history.

10. J.D. Drew (9): You know it's been a freaky-deaky season when he's Mr. Durable in the outfield, but there's Drew, fourth on the club in games played (78) despite sitting against the occasional tough lefthander. At the plate, he's been his usual productive self, with 10 homers, a .275 average, and an .836 OPS, and his defense and baserunning have been stellar as always.

9. Jonathan Papelbon (8): While we'd hardly classify him as a heart-attack closer -- how soon we forget closer by committee -- it's obvious he hasn't been as dominating as he was a couple of seasons ago. His ERA (3.50) and HR/9 rate (1.5) are right around double what they were a season ago (1.85, 0.7), and his K/BB rate of 2.58 is a fraction of his remarkable 9.63 from the 2008 season. Still, he has 20 saves, and his improved command in June (11 Ks, just one walk) may hint at better times ahead.

8. Daniel Bard (15): As the Red Sox' chief -- only? -- setup man, the hard-throwing righthander doesn't accumulate many saves unless Papelbon is getting a night off. But make no mistake: He has saved the Red Sox bullpen thus far, posting a 1.90 ERA and an otherworldly 0.82 WHIP in 42.2 innings. One concern: Bard is sixth in the AL in appearances (41), and it's imperative that he's not overworked in the second half. The Sox were prudent about lightening his workload heading into the break.

7. David Ortiz (10): Was it really this April that Papi struggled so mightily -- .143, one homer, four RBIs -- that there was talk that the Red Sox might have no choice but to release him? It was, of course, but those gloomy days feel like a long time ago, for the newly crowned Home Run Derby champ has been mashing since May, when he busted out of his funk by batting .363 with 10 homers and 27 RBIs while winning AL Player of the Month honors. He finished the first half at .263-18-57 with a .945 OPS, truly excellent numbers considering how it all began.

6. Adrian Beltre (11): The third baseman who arrived on a one-year deal via Seattle is certainly among the quirkier Red Sox of recent vintage, whether he's dropping to one knee on his swing to throwing flat-footed from third base to pointing to the umpire on a check swing to habitually steamrolling left fielders to his "DON'T TOUCH MY HEAD!" antics with Victor Martinez. Idiosyncrasies aside, he's proven one of Theo Epstein's shrewdest recent signings, batting .330 with 13 homers and 55 RBIs. I hope he hasn't priced himself out of the Sox' plans, because he's fun to watch and I'd love to see him back here.

5. Victor Martinez (2): He got off to a frigid start, batting .238 with one homer in March and April . . . and his offense was better than his defense. It did not take him long to find his usual excellent form at the plate, slugging six homers in May and putting up .955 OPS in June, and he also settled down behind the plate. Sidelined since June 27 with a broken thumb, the Red Sox are counting the days until the switch hitter's return. Our hunch here is that a big second half -- similar to last year's

4. Clay Buchholz (14): The gifted righthander makes the biggest leap from our Opening Day rankings, and with good reason: He's emerged, at age 25, as a legitimate top-two starter in the Red Sox' rotation, going 10-4 with a 2.45 ERA and leading the AL in adjusted ERA (182). Given the underachieving and/or injury plagued seasons of certain other members of the rotation, the importance of Buchholz's emergence can't be overstated.

3. Dustin Pedroia (3): Of all of the injuries to plague the Red Sox, the most crushing blow of the first half for the Red Sox happened June 25 in San Francisco, when Pedroia broke his left foot with a foul ball, just a day after the first three-homer game of his career. The Laser Show is expected to be on hiatus for 4-6 weeks, though knowing Pedroia, he'll be back swinging from his heels sooner rather than later. For the Sox, his return can't come soon enough.

2. Kevin Youkilis (4): As his All-Star snub goes to prove yet again, Youkilis remains baseball's most unsung superstar. The gruff first baseman, who finished sixth in the AL MVP voting last season and third the previous year, has been more essential than ever to the Red Sox lineup, and he's delivered his typical big numbers, with 18 homers, 57 RBIs, a .981 OPS, and a 155 adjusted OPS.

1. Jon Lester (1): An 11-3 record, a 2.78 ERA, and the best H/9 ratio in the American League (6.5) -- and these numbers include those collected during a rough April (1-2. 4.78 ERA in five starts). We'll keep it simple: This is what a true ace looks like, folks. And perhaps a Cy Young winner as well.

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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