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Touching All the Bases

Five Reasons the Red Sox are Still Worth Watching in the Season's Final Months

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As I noted in the non-Minihane section of today's media column, NESN's ratings for Red Sox telecasts (as of July 9) are down 24 percent from the same date last year and 29 percent from their final 2013 average rating of 7.3

That's a steep fall, and one that is unsurprising. The drop coincides with the World Champions' descent in the standings. A NESN spokesman noted that the ratings tend to rise later in the season. But that also seems to me to work in conjunction with the ball club's success.

Usually they're in contention in September, turning the corner to October. Even those of us who are often willing to extend the benefit of the doubt have recognized that it's not happening this year.

But as the second half -- or final 67/162ds in the spirit of precision -- there are still reasons to watch the Red Sox. This isn't a replica of the Bobby Valentine-led disaster of '12. It's more like '87, when the likes of Ellis Burks, Mike Greenwell, Todd Benzinger, and Sam Horn arrived/blossomed to replace holdovers who were injured, ineffective or rapidly aging.

Unlike '12 and the Summer of Ciriaco, there is real promise on the way from the farm system -- much of it has already arrived at Fenway.

The young players are a major part of the future and a significant part of the present, and many are among my five reasons to continue to watch the Red Sox during this title-defense-turned-bridge-year:

1. To see what Xander Bogaerts can do at shortstop: Yes, even I can admit the Stephen Drew move is a disaster; you know how hard it is to try to spin a .487 OPS as a positive? Very hard. (Now I'll wait over here while you admit he was a fine player during the good times of '13.) I don't believe for a moment that Drew's signing led to Bogaerts's hellacious slump -- the kid went on an All-Star-caliber tear when the signing was announced, and while he stopped hitting when Drew arrived, I don't think it was seeing his face that caused him to suddenly flail at sliders away. But Drew is useless to this team in its current state, and there's no better time than the final couple of months of a transitional season to find out once and for all whether Bogaerts can handle the position. Oh, and this: Bogaerts will hit. Soon. It's his turn to adjust, and it's going to be a rude awakening for AL pitchers when he does.

2. To enjoy Jackie Bradley Jr.'s development as the center fielder of the present and future: First, he should win a Gold Glove this year. He won't, because he doesn't have the reputation yet and -- how foolish is this? -- he doesn't hit enough to win a defensive award I am not exaggerating when I say he is the most complete defensive center fielder I have ever seen play for the Red Sox. As for the bat ... well, it's been a process. But there's also been progress. He has an .866 OPS in 35 plate appearances in July. It's a small sample size, sure, but one upon which we can hang some hope. I'll say it again: He's a lot like Mark Kotsay, and that is winning praise.

3. To figure out which players can play where: You hear a lot of bleating on sports radio -- well, always, actually -- but especially over the last few weeks regarding the Red Sox' willingness to play Brock Holt and Mookie Betts at positions in which they are not familiar. Some of that is out of necessity because the outfield is such a mess, but it's also worth finding out. Holt clearly has taken to the Mr. Everywhere role, and while he's not going to hit for power like Ben Zobrist (nor is he a natural shortstop like the reliable Tampa Bay Ray), he sure looks like he can be what Bill Mueller was early in his career. There's more risk with Betts, especially if you remember how a different Red Sox management team messed up Donnie Sadler by jerking him around from position to position, and it's apparent that he is too raw and doesn't have the reps yet to play the outfield well on the regular basis. But given the state of the Sox -- there's not a ton of pressure right now -- it's all right if such a dynamic prospect learns on the job. And I betcha Betts mixes in enough highlights to remind us that he's going to be special once he gets through the growing pains.

4. To get familiar with the Red Sox' new lefthanded ace ... Cole Hamels! Oh, I'm kidding. Just give Jon Lester his $140 million already, will ya? Before he throws three no-hitters in a row and the price goes up to $160 million. You know, I'd be on board with acquiring Hamels, who is essentially the National League's version of Jon Lester, if circumstances were different. If the Sox were in contention, who wouldn't love the idea of a big three of Lester, Lackey, and Hamels, who was the Most Valuable Player of the 2008 NLCS and World Series. But as a replacement for (and leverage against) Lester? C'mon. The shorter terms on Hamels's contract -- four years at $90 million, with a $20 million club option for a fifth year when he's 35 -- is not worth giving up the prospects the Phillies would demand. Just sign Lester, and if/when the Sox are in the race at this time next year, then considering a deal Hamels might make sense.

5. To watch Christian Vazquez's superb defense: I'm not going to go all hyperbolic on you and compare him to Pudge Rodriguez, because that's just nuts. But I do believe it's fair to consider him an honorary Molina brother, especially since the Molina brothers themselves give him such treatment. And remember: the finest of the Molinas, the great Yadier, never had an OPS above .708 in his first three-plus seasons. It's not entirely nuts to wonder if Vazquez could someday be a reasonable facsimile of one of the most respected and valuable catchers in baseball over the past half-decade or so. Also: We may also be watching prime trade bait. With Blake Swihart emerging as the best catching prospect -- and one of the top dozen to 20 best prospects overall -- in baseball, Vazquez could end up as an enticing piece in a blockbuster trade at some point. Hey, have I ever mentioned this guy Giancarlo Stanton? ...

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