Four concerns facing the first-place Red Sox

Four concerns facing the first-place Red Sox
July 2, 2013, 12:00 am
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The Red Sox enter July in first place, at 50-34, with the best record in the American League and a 2 ½-game lead in the AL East. It’s a place very few prognosticators had picked for the Sox before the season began.
 
The Sox are 5-1 on their current nine-game homestand, with San Diego coming into Fenway Park for three games beginning Tuesday. They took three of four over the weekend from the Blue Jays, who had been on an 11-game winning streak before their disappointing road trip. Before that, the Sox swept a two-game set from the Rockies.
 
The Sox have won 17 series this season, tied for most in the majors. They lead the AL with 431 runs, a +80 run differential, and a team on-base percentage of .349. Their team .276 batting average and .444 slugging percentage are second in the AL. Although they have hit 86 home runs, sixth in the AL, they lead with 184 doubles. Their 82 percent success rate on stolen base attempts (63-of-77) leads the league.
 
There is a lot to like about the Red Sox. Perhaps more than most would have thought at the before the season.
 
But there is also cause for some concern. Here are some questions facing the Sox:
 
What do they do with the closer’s job?
Koji Uehara was appointed the closer on June 21 after Andrew Bailey (tied for the AL lead with five blown saves) and Joel Hanrahan (two blown saves) lost the job to injury and ineffectiveness. But, after three lights-out outings, recording saves in three consecutive games, Uehara suffered a blown save on Sunday before earning a win when the Sox pulled off their seventh walk-off win of the season. Manager John Farrell has said he would attempt to monitor the innings for the 38-year-old Uehara. Can Uehara hold onto the job for the rest of the season, or should the Sox find someone else?
 
Should the Sox consider other pitching changes?
The pitching staff leads the league with 300 walks issued. The bullpen has suffered 13 blown saves -- tied for second-most in the AL -- in 29 save opportunities. Also, when it comes to holding runners, Red Sox pitchers haven't been great. Opponents have stolen 59 bases in 78 attempts, third-most in the AL.
 
The bullpen has a 4.14 ERA, better than just three other pens in the AL, with just 16 saves, fewest in the league. In 243 1/3 innings, the pen has given up 33 home runs with a .421 slugging better and .752 OPS, better than only the Astros in both categories, with a .255 opponents’ average, a .330 on-base percentage, and 1.39 WHIP, better than just the Astros and White Sox in both categories.

Manager John Farrell has said getting Bailey adjusted to his now middle-relief role will help to get other roles in the bullpen straightened out. But will that be enough? Since designating Clayton Mortensen for assignment on Saturday, the Sox have had just six relievers available.
 
What to do with third base?
Will Middlebrooks -- who most believed would be the everyday third baseman this season after supplanting Kevin Youkilis as a rookie last season -- has been exiled to Triple-A Pawtucket after struggling in the majors, hitting .192 with nine home runs, 25 RBI, 60 strikeouts, a .228 on-base percentage, and .389 slugging percentage in 53 games. He missed 16 games from May 24-June 10 with a low back strain.

Jose Iglesias, the best shortstop in the organization, had taken over nearly flawlessly at third base before shortstop Stephen Drew was injured on Friday. Since then, the Sox have called up both Jonathan Diaz and Brandon Snyder, who have each started at third in the last two games, respectively.

Meanwhile, Middlebrooks, who was sent back to Pawtucket on June 25, has hit in five straight games since being sent back, and went 2-for-4 with two home runs, three runs scored and four RBI on Sunday. He cannot be recalled until 10 days after he was sent down, unless a player at his position is placed on the DL – a move the Sox are for now disinclined to make with Drew.

The Sox could also consider other additions or changes.There has been talk of the Sox pursuing the Phillies’ Michael Young, who is batting .287 with a .753 OPS, five home runs, and 21 RBI in 76 games this season. The 36-year-old Young has made 69 starts at third, with six errors, and appeared in three errorless games at first.
 
Is Ryan Lavarnway the Sox’ catcher of the future if Jarrod Saltalamacchia is lost to free agency?
Saltalamacchia got a much-deserved day off on Sunday. Since David Ross’ last game before being placed on the 60-day DL with a concussion, Saltalamacchia – who has appeared in 62 games behind the plate with 57 starts and 56 complete games – had caught 12 of the Sox’ 14 games before Sunday. That included both ends of a doubleheader on June 18 against the Rays and all 27 innings of that three-game set against the Rays in less than 36 hours.

Overall, he is batting .262 with eight home runs and 31 RBI this season. But, since June 15 Saltalamacchia is batting .205, going 9-for-44 with just two extra-base hits (both doubles), three RBI, five walks, and 21 strikeouts. He finished June tied with the Rockies’ Carlos Gonzalez for third-most strikeouts in the month, with 36, (behind the Orioles’ Chris Davis with 41 and the Indians’ Mark Reynolds with 40).

With Ross out until at least the middle of August, this could be Lavarnway’s chance to show what he can do. But, he will need the playing time to do so. He has appeared in six games this season -- with three starts -- but Sunday's game was his first in a week.

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