Extra Bases

Ask Amalie: Sox falling far behind

It was theirs, and then it wasn’t. As the Red Sox came back and gave it back last night, enduring a crushing walk-off loss to the Yankees in New York, it was hard not to think that the game could have sealed their fate this season. In the midst of their hardest stretch of the year, the Sox have begun their road trip going 1-3 and sinking to a game under .500. They have dug themselves a hole, and are going sinking deeper by the day, especially with games against the Yankees, Twins, Phillies, and Rays still to come in the next week and a half. That’s not exactly easy.

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This is just too tough of a division in which to fall so far behind. The Sox currently stand at 8.5 games out of first place, behind a Rays team that seemingly can’t lose and a Yankees team coming off a World Series title. One of them will be playing golf in October, and it looks as if — barring a significant and immediate turnaround — that could be the Red Sox. As Dustin Pedroia said, before last night’s loss, “Every game’s crucial. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We’ve dug ourselves a hole. We’re trying to play well and get back in this thing. We’ve got to play good baseball. We know the Yankees and Tampa and the Blue Jays are playing great too. We’re going to have to play well for a long period of time to get back in this, and we’re confident that we can do that.”


So, as we wait for the Sox to finally make good on that, we have a mailbag full of questions, dealing with the Sox struggles and Mike Lowell’s future and the minor league system. You might be shifting over to the Celtics, at least for the time being, but make sure to take time to send in a question for the version in two weeks, as the Sox get through (or not) this crucial part of the season. For now, enjoy the mailbag.

Jim from Readington, New Jersey asks: It’s been pretty painful watching the Red Sox play this year. At what time, do you think Theo will try to shake things up and make a trade, do you think he will give it another month?


Answer: It’s really far too early for any team to make a significant move. We generally don’t see trades happening this early, and especially not big trades. Teams need to learn more about themselves, whether they’ll be in the race or not, whether they’ll have anything to sell or buy. For example, with the way that the Padres have started off the season, there would be no reason for general manager Jed Hoyer to move Adrian Gonzalez. He simply wouldn’t do it, not with a reasonable contract and a team that’s winning and another year and a half of time before he becomes a free agent. That might not be the case by June July, when most mid-summer trades occur. Theo Epstein has been asked about whether any moves could be forthcoming and he has downplayed the possibility, saying that the phones have been quiet and talk has been at a minimum at this point. That’s not to say that it won’t happen, just not quite yet.


Dana from Los Angeles asks: We have seen Jeremy Hermida, Bill Hall, and Jonathan Van Every on a regular basis, absent Mike Cameron & Jacoby Ellsbury. I would love to see Josh Reddick get a few starts. He was near the top of major league baseball hitting this spring. He covers ground defensively. He needs the consistent ABs at the major league level. Why not throw him in now?

Answer: The Sox did bring Josh Reddick up to the majors earlier, immediately after Mike Cameron went on the disabled list. He played in three games, with a .167 average. But he’s only 23 years old, and the Sox want/need to see additional improvements in his game, which they believe will only come with playing every day in the minor leagues. So he’s continuing to work there, to play as much as he can. He still figures into the Sox’ plans. They like him, and have been impressed with what he’s been able to do in spring training (a terrible time to evaluate players, by the way) and in the minors. But he has also struggled quite a bit in the minors this season, backing up the Sox’ desire to get him more at bats and more consistent at bats. He’s hitting just .192 with a .230 on-base percentage at Pawtucket, so it’s clear that he must correct some issues before he heads up to the majors, even as a desperately needed replacement for the two starters who have been out for more than a month at this point.


Gregg from Chicago asks: Do you foresee the Red Sox revisiting trade talks with the Rangers for Mike Lowell and who might they have their eye on? I really enjoy the mailbag and your great work covering the Red Sox.

Answer: Thanks! Honestly, Gregg, I’m not sure that those talks are going to be revisited, though that’s not to say that the Sox wouldn’t ship Lowell out somewhere. Even though David Ortiz has started to hit better of late, hitting .360 with a 1.025 OPS over his last six games (and with six home runs in May), there is no guarantee that he will continue to be this player. It is interesting, though, that the Sox have clearly decided to run with the run that Ortiz is on. They used him against lefthanded pitching over the weekend instead of Lowell, and Lowell’s playing time has seemed to diminish even further. Lowell has clearly been following which teams need a righthanded bat, and would obviously like a trade. That might still happen, though I’m not sure whether the Rangers would be the favorites. The Mariners could also be a destination for him, depending on the Ken Griffey, Jr. situation. But it also wouldn’t be a horrible idea for the Sox to keep Lowell around, just in case the recent spurt that Ortiz is on isn’t going to continue throughout the season. He is also good insurance at three positions (third base, first base, and designated hitter), in case of injury or ineffectiveness, but that wouldn’t prevent the Sox from shipping him out if the price is right.


Andy from Reston, Virginia asks: Hey Amalie — once again great work as always. Love your perspectives. I asked Peter Abraham this question in a recent chat and I’d like your opinion as well. You mentioned in your last mailbag at this is a bridge year — though not of the same ilk as what we thought Theo meant. Does this team despite it very rough start (coupled with the hot starts of Tampa and New York) have what it takes to turn it around?

Answer: I think there might be two different questions here. Can the Sox be competitive for the rest of the season? But also, can the Sox still make the playoffs? On the former, I think it’s certainly possible, as we had seen better play from them on the homestand (less so on the road trip). They have finally been able to hit, certainly better than many of thought they would in the offseason, though their defense is still unsettled in some areas and their starters are still putting them in holes early. The big thing, for me, is the pitching. The Sox obviously have not pitched the way anyone anticipated, led by the struggles of Josh Beckett. He had some time off, partially as a strategy to get him back and partially because of his back spasms, which ends with tonight’s start. So, in other words, yes, I do think that the Sox can turn it around. But can they make the postseason? Let’s go to the numbers. We’re going to assume that the Sox will need at least 98 wins to make it, a slightly higher mark than the normal 95 because of the strength of the Rays and Yankees. They have 19 at this point, with 123 games to go. They would need to play .642 baseball over the rest of the season to get to 98 wins, after having played under .500 for the first six weeks. So, while I’m not guaranteeing that the Sox will be sitting at home n October, I do think it would take some serious luck (and possibly some injuries to key Yankees or Rays) to get them to the point where they can extend their season.


Frank from Barrington, Rhode Island asks: Welcome back, Jonathan Papelbon! The fastball is moving wickedly, he’s using three pitches, not walking people. How did he do it? Why did it suddenly click? He looks like the closer we had three years ago. Thanks for your great work, Amalie.

Answer: Thanks for the question, Frank. That was all true, before last night’s debacle. It was strange to see Jonathan Papelbon go from mixing his pitches well in recent outings, and had not allowed an earned run since April 24. But you probably noticed that Jonathan Papelbon threw 19 fastballs in his 19 pitches against the Yankees last night. It was strange and surprising, given how good the Yankees are offensively. It’s unclear why he went back to throwing solely heat, and it clearly wasn’t effective, as he gave up home runs to Alex Rodriguez and Marcus Thames to take the loss. But even with his last outing, Papelbon has generally been going through a significant change. He had improved his pitch mix, and had molded his slider into a pitch that can be used in any count rather than one that makes his manager and pitching coach nervous. He abandoned his splitter at points last season, which obviously became an issue for him. And, according to all involved, Papelbon was smart enough to recognize his weakness and work on it. I put a similar question to John Farrell recently — essentially why and how did this happen? “There’s been an increase of personal awareness, not just in terms of the stuff that he has on a given night, but a conscious effort to not be as predictable or exclusively using his fastball as he trended toward that way last year,” he told me. Farrell also said, “He’s been so successful as primarily a fastball pitcher — and by no means is he not a fastball pitcher. He’s clearly a power pitcher with more attention and time devoted toward the development and the overall use of the slider. To me, the biggest change is that he’s throwing his split more for strikes earlier in the count, rather than it always being a put-away or wipeout type of pitch.” But if he’s going to head back to his fastball-heavy repertoire, that’s not a good sign. It’s not effective and, as we saw last night, it can be downright dangerous.


Jim from Hopkinton, Massachusetts asks: Curious why Theo and the Red Sox always get positive press for their farm system. Only one good pitcher (Bard) has come up and over the past three years, and few Sox minor league batting averages have been over .250. I believe the overall batting for Double A and Triple A was .220 in 2009. All the impact hitters always seem to be 2-3 years out — could it be as much a result of a good PR system as true potential. Its not like we have traded top talent lately.

Answer: Not sure that’s exactly fair. The Sox have also produced Clay Buchholz over the last three years (unless you count him a product of 2007, and he’s really not, despite throwing his no-hitter that year.) Think about the era that produced Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury. They also brought up Jed Lowrie, though his impact has been limited by injuries, and Michael Bowden. There has been a brief lull, which is likely to continue this season, before guys like Josh Reddick and Lars Anderson and Ryan Kalish and Anthony Rizzo are ready to move up. Add them to Jose Iglesias and Casey Kelly and Felix Doubront, and there’s significant talent in the system. As we’ve discussed in this space before, the Sox shifted their drafting philosophy in the middle of that time, going for guys with higher upsides out of high school rather than closer-to-the-majors college players. That has created a void that has lasted a few years, though there is quite a bit of talent in the pipeline, according to talent evaluators. I would tell you that overall batting average for Double A and Triple A isn’t exactly the best way to judge the talent that the Sox are developing. There are many players in the system, especially at the Triple A level, who are organizational players. They aren’t likely to make any impact at the major league level, if they even get there, and can often skew statistics. Ultimately, I believe the Sox have a very good minor league system, with a lot of talent on the way, but much of that is projection and much projection doesn’t eventually pan out. We won’t know the truth for another couple of years.


Carol from Dartmouth, Massachusetts asks: Who (or what) is Zippy Chippy???

Answer: Good question! I probably should have explained that in my last mailbag. Zippy Chippy is a racehorse who never won a race against other horses. When Darnell McDonald was at Triple A Rochester, they organized a Man vs. Beast race between a player and a horse. McDonald got the honors, and lost to Zippy Chippy, as detailed in John Powers’s story from last month. Zippy Chippy, who is still alive, ended up winless in 100 races.

Jamie from Wallingford, Connecticut asks: OK, got all pumped to see the Red Sox future by going to the star-studded Sea Dogs game tonight. Just for fun I took a look at the stats and saw that Jose Iglesias (who I am fired up to watch) has 7 errors in this young season and leads the team in that stat by a decent margin. What gives? You guys (writers in general) have pumped this guy up to be the second coming of Ozzie Smith (OK, exaggerating a bit, but you get the point). Please shed some light on this, Thanks!


Answer: Yes, Jose Iglesias does have a lot of errors, the seven that you mentioned. But you have to remember that Jose Iglesias is just 20 years old. He has phenomenal hands, but that doesn’t mean that he has all of the fundamentals needed to play at the major league level now. That’s the point of the minors, to develop both his hitting and his fielding more, to get him to the point where he can be more sure-handed. He certainly seems to have the skills to get to that level, to be among the best-fielding shortstop in the majors. But he’s not there yet, as evidenced by some of the mistakes he’s made. The good news for the Sox is that reports out of Portland have been good, that he’s willing to take as many ground balls as necessary, willing to put in the work and the effort to improve both his offense and his defense. I haven’t had a chance to watch him since spring training, but he impressed me (and most there) with his ability. Too many errors in his first try at the minor leagues doesn’t mean that he won’t get to the level he needs to eventually.


Andy from Long Lake, New York asks: Quick question; with Varitek off to a great start in a back up role (.342 avg, 10 R, 6 HR, 10 RBI), is it likely the Sox would look at re-signing him for next year to serve in the same role? I’m sure money would play a big factor, but as a lifelong Sox fan I’d hate to see him leave to be a backup someplace else. Thanks!

Answer: Of the few guys with expiring contracts — Jason Varitek, Ortiz, Lowell — I think that Varitek has the best chance of coming back. As long as he is content with his role as a backup and the price is right, I would think that the Sox would have some interest. He has demonstrated, at least so far, that he has the ability to produce in his current role, as he gets the time he needs to prepare for each game and as he gets the time he needs for his 38-year-old legs to recover from each outing. The Sox will need to sign or trade for two catcher next season, as both Varitek and Victor Martinez are free agents and it appears that no one from the minors will be ready for a role in the majors. Depending on how the Sox solve their primary catcher role, I could certainly see the Sox paying for another short-term return engagement for Varitek — as long as he’s amenable to that.


Tony from Prattville, Alabama asks: I was under the assumption the Sox had some type of exclusivity rights when it came to the playing of “Sweet Caroline” (and “Shipping up to Boston”?) during Fenway games. Imagine my surprise (and shock) when I heard both songs recently played at a home game of the Double-A Montgomery (Alabama) Biscuits baseball team, minor league baseball’s Southern League affiliate of..the Tampa Bay Rays! The fans even got into “Sweet Caroline” just like the Fenway faithful…I was stunned. I guess imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery! Thanks… Boston Fan Stuck in Dixie, Tony


Answer: There’s no such exclusivity, Tony. “Sweet Caroline” has become traditional at Fenway Park, and “Shipping up to Boston” has become synonymous with Papelbon, but there’s nothing more to it than that. We’ve heard those songs played at a couple of opposing ballparks — Camden Yards and Tropicana Field come to mind — when the Sox are in town to tweak the visitors, especially when the Sox are on the losing end.

Matt from Cambridge, Massachusetts asks: Why is Martinez still batting third? The No. 3-hole is usually a team’s best hitter or run producer (see Pujols, A. or ’04 Manny or ’05-’07 Ortiz). He’s not their best hitter (that would be Pedroia or Youkilis) and he doesn’t drive in runs anymore. He’s basically a rally killer. Why not flip him and Drew?


Answer: I’m sure you saw that Martinez was dropped to fifth in the Sox order last night against the Yankees. Francona said that the move was to provide balance in the order, and had a lot to do with how well J.D. Drew has been hitting, as well. Of course, you probably also noticed that Martinez took to the fifth spot with a vengeance, hitting two home runs in last night’s game. It was interesting that Francona made the decision to drop him in the lineup. Throughout his tenure, Francona has demonstrated a desire to stick with his players, especially in terms of leaving them in a single place in the batting order. It took a long time for Francona to drop Ortiz from the third spot in the order last season, for example. It also took a long time for him to move Jacoby Ellsbury out of the leadoff spot when he was struggling there at times last season. Francona would prefer to leave his key players — with few exemptions, notably Drew and Kevin Youkilis — in their accustomed spots until they absolutely prove they cannot perform, though he obviously made the move with Martinez. For that matter, here’s a quote from Dave Magadan on why he’s seen Martinez struggling of late, from before yesterday’s two homer performance: “I think it started as a small mechanical thing, stride was really long, and he’s such a good, handsy hitter lefthanded that he wasn’t using his hands,” Magadan said. “So I think he’s been a little better lately, but I think you get to a point where you start trying to get three hits in one at bat. He gets a little bit anxious. He hit some balls hard that didn’t fall in for him. Maybe alleviate some of the load on his shoulders by dropping him down in the lineup.”

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