Five keys to the second half for the Red Sox

Five keys to the second half for the Red Sox
July 19, 2013, 12:45 pm
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With a 2 1/2 game lead in the American League East as the second half begins, the Red Sox are positioned to return to the post-season for the first time since 2009.
     
Positioned, but hardly guaranteed.
     
Sixty-six games remain in the regular season and a lot can happen from now and the end of the regular season.
     
Here are five issues for the Red Sox to navigate the rest of the way:


1) Clay Buchholz
Manager John Farrell recently labeled Buchholz the most important player for the Red Sox in the second half -- given what he can mean if he's healthy.
     
But Buchholz hasn't pitched since June 8, and given the recent soreness he's experienced in bullpen sessions, won't pitch until August.
     
Buchholz was arguably performing like the best pitcher in the American League when he went down (9-0, 1.71). The amazing thing is that the Sox have lost little ground since he was sidelined, thanks to the work of Felix Doubront and John Lackey.
     
But it's unclear whether the Sox can continue to maintain that level of play without Buchholz for the long-term. And looking ahead to October, should the Sox manage to reach the post-season without Buchholz, who would be their Game 1 starter? Indeed, do they even have a bona fide No. 1 starter without him?
     
Should Buchholz return in the next three weeks, it may be that his shutdown will keep him fresh the rest of the way. But right now, every start that he misses only ratchets up the anxiety level for the Red Sox.


2) The trade deadline
The Red Sox, acting aggressively, have already made one bullpen acquisition in the wake of the injury to Andrew Miller, obtaining lefty Matt Thornton from the Chicago White Sox.
     
But the Sox continue to pursue other bullpen options and would like a righthanded set-up option to provide additional depth. Names such as Jesse Crain and Francisco Rodriguez continue to be linked to the Sox.
     
If Buchholz continues to be sidelined, will that lead the Sox to go after a starter? It seems that Matt Garza -- the best of a mediocre lot -- will be dealt in the coming days, or before the Red Sox likely have a definitive read on Buchholz's prognosis.
     
Unless the Sox get really creative, or make a decision to move some of their high-end prospects, it seems a front-line starter is unattainable. At that point, is it worth getting a middle-of-the-rotation arm to boost the staff's overall depth?
     
Third base insurance could be another option on the team's shopping list, with Michael Young mentioned prominently.


3) The bullpen
The four-day All-Star break could be a big boost to a bullpen which at times was overtaxed during the first-half.
     
(Despite playing the most games of any American League team before the All-Star break, the Red Sox were just eighth in relief innings pitched, a number which reflects the improvement the starters showed in the last month, regularly getting deeper into games. It's worth noting, however, that the team was only 10th in bullpen ERA in the first half).
     
Farrell has said that in a perfect world, Andrew Bailey would return to the closer's spot and Koji Uehara would again be a set-up weapon, with his ability to lefties out making him more versatile and valuable in the eighth or ninth innings.     

But Farrell also said he sees no need to switch back while both pitchers are excelling in their current roles. Still, this will bear watching.
     
The most important bullpen arm in the second half may well be Junichi Tazawa, who has been far more inconsistent this season than last and whose velocity has taken an alarming dip.


4) Health
Despite some big, long-term losses in the bullpen (Miller, Joel Hanrahan) and, of course, the five-week absence of Buchholz, the Red Sox have been relatively healthy, especially when it comes to their key position players.
     
The injuries that have been incurred by the position players have been mostly the nagging variety (Jacoby Ellsbury; Shane Victorino).
     
What's remarkable is the amount of games the Sox have gotten out of mainstays Dustin Pedroia (95 of 96 games played) and David Ortiz (missed five games since being activated).
     
Not incidentally, those two are also the toughest players to replace. Should anything happen to either one, the Red Sox would be severely impacted. No one can come close to giving the team the production that Ortiz has, while Pedroia remains their best two-way player.


5) The left side of the infield
When the 2013 season got underway, Stephen Drew was the projected starting shortstop --though he missed the first week dealing with a concussion -- and Will Middlebrooks was the third baseman.
     
At the halfway point, Drew is injured again, with Jose Iglesias at short and rookie Brock Holt and journeyman Brandon Snyder splitting time at third.     

Middlebrooks, meanwhile, is at Triple A, attempting to rediscover the stroke that enabled him to hit 15 homers in less than half a season a a year ago.
     
How will the infield shape up when Drew returns and Middlebrooks makes it back?
     
Obviously, Iglesias, who has made huge strides at the plate, has to be playing somewhere everyday. Is it possible, as one scout recently ventured, that by September Iglesias is the everyday shortstop, Middlebrooks is back at third and Drew becomes the utility player? Perhaps.
     
And just to add further intrigue: can Xander Bogaerts somehow force his way into the picture before the season is out?