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Three Red Sox who should improve and three who could falter in the second half

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  July 17, 2013 04:09 PM

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One of the most fun things among the many fun things when it comes to the 2013 Red Sox is their roster-wide knack for picking up the slack for each other.

Sure, there have been constants ? Dustin Pedroia has been typically exceptional, Daniel Nava made himself essential, David Ortiz is having a vintage year, Koji Uehara is a bullpen savior and a team-unifying riot in the same sort of way Adrian Beltre was.

But this team ? or the individuals on this team ? have really had a gift for good timing. When one slumps, another surges. Clay Buchholz wins his first nine decisions, gets hurt, and John Lackey morphs into the borderline ace he was for so many years with the Angels.

Will Middlebrooks can't escape his sophomore malaise, and Jose Iglesias arrives to provide an unfathomable seven-week Paul Molitor imitation while playing a mean third base.

Felix Doubront becomes the trusted lefty when Jon Lester falters, Jonny Gomes gets hot as Nava has his first hiccup, and on and on it has gone. It really has been a total team effort.

Of course, as the second half (or the first of the final 65 games, anyway) begins tomorrow, we know that the pattern will continue, that some will rise while others will fall as the Red Sox – this terrific team – makes its push for October. Here's how I see it playing out.

THREE WHO WILL STEP UP
1. Mike Napoli
Can't think of another Red Sox player who has seen the pendulum of public sentiment swing back and forth so many times in such a short period. It seemed to me most fans approved of the original three-year, $39 million deal he was supposed to sign over the winter before it was put on hold because of concerns about a degenerative problem in his hip. When the Sox ultimately signed him for one year and $5 million plus significant incentives, the common theme seemed to be, "Why bother? He's damaged goods." Then, when he got off to a ferocious start -–27 RBIs in 26 games in April – the sports-radio revisionism was that he should have been signed to that three-year deal all along. Do I have that right? I think I have it right. Now that he's gone cool for a couple of months, he's relatively out of favor again. The inconsistency is frustrating, but given Napoli's history, the last thing you should do is give up on him at midseason. (Make that the second-to-last-thing: The last thing is benching him in favor of Jeff Mathis.) Over his seven-plus season career, Napoli's OPS in the second half is about 80 points higher than in the first (.909 to .823). The resurgence is happening already – his OPS is .853 in July, which is traditionally his second-best month after September.

ellsburyfinn718.JPG2. Jacoby Ellsbury
I still hold out a small shred of hope that there's a power surge in his immediate future, maybe not to the extraordinary 2011 levels (32 homers, 83 extra-base hits) but enough to get him into 12-15 homer range at season's end. But if it doesn't happen, well, I'm fine with accepting him for who he is, which as I've written a couple of times already is essentially a duplicate of his 2009 self. Ellsbury has played 88 of the Red Sox' 97 games, putting up a .305/.368/.422 line with 36 steals, 33 extra-base hits, 59 runs scored, and the usual excellent defense in center field. That's not a disappointment; that's a very valuable player. His career OPS in the second half is about 25 points higher than it is in the first, and given that this is a contract drive, it's reasonable to expect big things the rest of the way. Just not 2011 things.

3. Andrew Bailey
Confession: I have about as much confidence in this one as I do with, oh, Bailey coming on with a one-run lead in the ninth and Chris Davis digging in to the batter's box. I considered others who might step up for this spot – Jonny Gomes, Matt Thornton, Shane Victorino – but ultimately I settled on Bailey for a couple of reasons. He has pitched exceptionally well at times – in April, he whiffed 20 in 13.1 innings over 13 appearances with a 1.46 ERA. He seems to be coming around again – he's struck out nine in his last 6.1 innings and has not allowed a run in four July appearances. And because the Red Sox would be foolish to give up real prospects for pretty much any "proven" closer who doesn't answer to the name Mr. Rivera, he's probably going to get another shot to make the ninth inning his own. If he's healthy – always a big if with him, I know – he can and will do the job.

THREE WHO WILL SLOW DOWN
saltyhamiltonfinn718.JPG1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Saltalamacchia is eligible for free agency after this season, and while I've gone on record as saying I hope the Red Sox sign him, the keep-him-or-let-him-go debate is easily made both ways. My pro-Salty argument: Catchers are often late bloomers and he's coming into his prime at 28, his power is legitimate, he works extremely hard, he's become more selective (he has eight fewer walks this year than last in 161 fewer plate appearances) and he probably won't break the bank. But the flaws are also obvious: He's inconsistent defensively, terrible at pitch-framing, and strikes out in almost exactly a third of his plate appearances. Based on last year, when he put up a .200/.286/.371 line in the second half, it's fair to wonder if he will wear down again. It's too bad David Ross got hurt for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that he and Saltalamacchia would have made a terrific platoon.

2. Mike Carp
Gifted from the Mariners during spring training, Carp has been one the Red Sox' chief overachievers, with eight homers and a .975 OPS in 149 plate appearances. Could the progress be real? I suppose it could, since this his age 27 season and he's had some success before (12 homers in 79 games two years ago). If he does sustain it, he could find himself in the mix for the first base job next year. But I'm not ready to buy in just yet. While he's consistently pounded righthanded pitching (1.034 OPS), his season has actually be a series of peaks and valleys (he had a .554 OPS in May and at .683 in June). His top three career comps are Brandon Belt, Bryan LaHair, and Yankee-I-barely-remembered Andy Phillips. Seems like appropriate company.

3. Jose Iglesias
You know the refrain: If he can hit .260 in the big leagues, he'll be a starting shortstop for a dozen years because of that golden glove ... And I agree. Always have, actually -- I just didn't think he could hit .220, let alone .260, and I don't think any of us still know what his normal performance level is. All we know is that he's been exceptional and exceptionally lucky so far this year, and it's been a blast to watch. It's not disparaging what he's done to acknowledge that a .367/.417/.461 line isn't sustainable without divine intervention and/or a sacrifice to the BABIP gods. The funny thing is, hitting .260 at this point would be a major letdown. Even after a little two-week slump before the break (he has a .478 OPS in the last 10 games, and is at .586 in July), he would need to go hitless in his next 73 at-bats to fall to .260 -- or 13 for his next 123, or 26 for 173. That's not going to happen. But even as he comes to back to earth to some degree, it's good to know that the pattern on this team is already established: Someone will likely pick up the slack for him, just as he did for Middlebrooks.

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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