McAdam: First-half Red Sox report card

McAdam: First-half Red Sox report card
July 16, 2013, 11:30 am
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In a season that has been a pleasant surprise, a number of Sox players have earned high marks for their performance.

(USA Today Sports Images)

It's that time of year: report card time.
    
The Red Sox sit in first place, which few would have predicted and have managed, at the very least, to rinse out the stink of the previous 18 months -- no small feat.
    
It will be fascinating to see what the next 2 1/2 months bring, but given what they've achieved to date, anything less than a playoff spot will be both a surprise and a huge disappointment.
    
The grades, then:

STARTING PITCHERS
    
JON LESTER    
Lester remains an enigma. Is he the rebounding ace who started the season winning his first six decisions? Or is he an inconsistent veteran who has won just twice in the last two months? In his last three starts of the first half, he seemed to be both, alternately. He's clearly improved on last year when he won just nine games and posted an ERA dangerously close to 5.00. But how much better? And can he be counted on going forward -- for the final 2 1/2 months and the postseason? Grade: C+

CLAY BUCHHOLZ
Unlike with Lester, there's no debating his performance. He's a perfect 9-0 with a sparkling 1.71 ERA. But his durability is another thing. Perhaps Buchholz is too fragile to ever reach the 200-inning level that front-of-the-rotation starters regularly deliver. When he took the mound, he was dominant. But he needs to do that 30 times a season, not 20 or so, as has been his habit. Grade: A

RYAN DEMPSTER
The big question when the Sox signed Dempster to a two-year deal last winter was, after spending almost all of his career in the National League, how his stuff would adapt to the American League East. To date, with the exception of a start or three, he's fared pretty well. His won-loss record isn't necessarily indicative of how he's pitched, since Dempster has frequently been the victim of poor run support. In the second half, it would be nice of Dempster could pitch deeper into games. Grade: C

JOHN LACKEY     
Is there a bigger surprise than Lackey from the first 96 games of the season? Coming off Tommy John surgery, he wasn't counted on for much, and when he came off the mound a handful of innings into his first start with a biceps setback, it looked like he'd be a non-factor. Instead, with Lester struggling to be consistent and Buchholz sidelined for the past six weeks, Lackey has, improbably, been the team's best starter. His record, too, is misleading: with better support (and luck), he'd be in double figures in wins by now. Grade: A-

FELIX DOUBRONT
In early May, with his pitch count soaring every start and his command sketchy, Doubront seemed in danger of forfeiting his spot in the rotation. But some side work with pitching coach Juan Nieves helped him vary his between-start routine, speed up his tempo and become more aggressive. Result? Doubront has been superb for the past two months, finally coming closer to making good on his potential. Grade: B

RELIEVERS
   
ANDREW BAILEY
It may or not suggest something about Bailey that his best work has come in a non-closing role. He inherited the ninth-inning spot by default when Joel Hanrahan went down for the season with an injury, but didn't fare well. Prior to that, he was brilliant as the team's eighth-inning option, and he's since performed well in a set-up capacity since forfeiting the closer's job with three blown saves in five chances. The Sox would like to give him the ninth again, but that will come with its risks. For now, there's no arguing with the job he's done in the seventh and ninth. Grade: B-

KOJI UEHARA
Uehara is emerging as one of the best values from last winter's free-agent market. In spring training, the Sox openly voiced concerned about over-use, but he's proven remarkably durable and consistent. True, he blew two saves, but in the eight that he's converted, he's pitched a clean inning (no baserunners) every time. Grade: A-

ANDREW MILLER
When Miller suffered a season-ending foot injury, it was a huge blow to the bullpen. After a strong 2012 that saw him finally harness his command, Miller had emerged as one of the most dominant lefty relievers in the game, averaging a stunning 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings while showing improved control. It seems cruel that, after bouncing through three organizations and various roles, that Miller, just as he was figuring everything out, was lost for the remainder of the year. Grade: B+

JUNICHI TAZAWA
For whatever reason, Tazawa hasn't been as effective as he was a year ago. His velocity is down, and as demonstrated again last Saturday night in Oakland, he seems to often struggle with inherited runners. Was Tazawa's strong showing in the final two months of 2012 a mirage? Or can he get straightened out in time to give the Sox another power arm for the late innings? Grade: B-

CRAIG BRESLOW
After missing some time at the start of the season, Breslow has emerged as a dependable late-inning arm, capable of getting out both lefties and righties. He is far from overpowering -- with 19 strikeouts in 32 innings -- but he's efficient. The one danger, with the loss of Andrew Miller, is how much he'll be used in the second half as John Farrell's lefty options dwindle. Grade: B+

FRANKLIN MORALES
Morales stepped in for two starts -- one good, one poor -- but his main role is as a lefty long man out of the bullpen. Problem is, he has a hard time staying healthy. A back injury and a pulled pectoral muscle have sidelined him off-and-on since spring training, and even when he's healthy, he's been somewhat inconsistent. Grade: C-

ALEX WILSON
Wilson began the year well, with six consecutive scoreless innings. But he was far too inconsistent thereafter. From May 21 through July 8, he compiled a 8.78 ERA and allowed an OPS of .985. Wilson allowed too many baserunners by too often falling behind in the count and having to throw fastballs in fastball counts. Grade: D

ALFREDO ACEVES    
As usual, the Red Sox never know what they're going to get from Aceves. In three spot starts, airlifted into the team and quickly returned to Pawtucket, Aceves was brilliant, giving the Sox a chance to win each outing. But when he's been called on out of the bullpen, he's been far less dependable, and even seemingly disinterested at times. It was hard not to notice the detachment from the rest of the team last week on the West Coast. That, coupled with another poor effort in relief, sent him back to the minors, where he'll presumably stay -- until the Sox are ready to issue another day pass for a spot start, that is. Grade: C-

INCOMPLETE: Jose de la Torre, Steven Wright, Rubby de la Rosa, Pedro Beato, Allen Webster, Clayton Mortensen, Daniel Bard, Brandon Workman, Matt Thornton.

POSITION PLAYERS

DAVID ORTIZ
The baseball card says 37 years old, but ageless is more like it. After missing the first 15 games due to lingering Achilles issues that date back to last July, Ortiz has been a force at the plate, leading the team in slugging, homers, RBI and OPS, as if he's somehow turned the clock back to 2004. He's also been remarkably durable since returning to the lineup, easing fears that he would have to be managed delicately throughout the season. If he's not the first-half MVP, he's certainly the player whom the Sox could least afford to lose. Grade: A

MIKE NAPOLI
When Ortiz missed the first three weeks of the season, Napoli's bat carried the Red Sox offense, providing cleanup production. He had a rough June, producing just two extra-base hits and, of course, the strikeout totals are a little off-putting. But streakiness and strikeouts aside, Napoli has been what the Sox hoped -- a right-handed power bat to balance out the lineup. His play at first has been better than expected and his troublesome hip has been, to date, a non-factor. Grade: B

DUSTIN PEDROIA
Finally healthy -- as long as you don't count that thumb injury that he quietly played through for the first month -- Pedroia is having his best season since 2008, when he was named American League MVP. He may not profile as your typical No. 3 hitter (he has just six homers), but Pedroia is among the league leaders in virtually every other offensive category, from batting average to OBP to total bases to runs scored. He's also enjoying another standout year defensively at second, with just one error in 95 games played. Grade: A

STEPHEN DREW
Every time it seems like Drew is ready to break out at the plate, it turns out to be a mirage. Most of his 31 RBI have come in bunches. The Sox hoped that Drew would give them some extra-base pop at short. Instead, he's probably been better defensively than offensively. He's committed just three errors and all the defensive metrics illustrate above-average range. Grade: C-

WILL MIDDLEBROOKS
Two words: massive disappointment. Middlebrooks was supposed to be a mainstay at third base after a strong half-season in 2012. Instead, he frequently looked lost at the plate and finds himself having to rebuild his career from Pawtucket. Middlebrooks has since acknowledged that he perhaps wasn't as focused as he should have been, which is disturbing for a young player with three months of service time in the big leagues. The Sox could use his right-handed power bat in the second half, but he'll have to earn his way back. Grade: F

JOSE IGLESIAS
Two words: massive surprise. After a brief stay with the big club in the first week of the season, he returned to Pawtucket, where he struggled to hit .200 and seemed bored to the point where he didn't run out ground balls, resulting in a disciplinary benching. Whether that got his attention or whether he's one of the rare players who plays to the level of the competition, Iglesias seems intent on sticking in Boston. Thrown into third base, a position he had barely played, he was typically brilliant with the glove. But what shocked everyone was his offensive transformation. Through some infield hits and bloopers, he managed to flirt near .400 for most of the first half. Grade: A

DANIEL NAVA
At the start of the season Nava looked like a role player, unable to claim regular playing time. But not for the first time, he surpassed expectations and forced himself into the lineup on a nearly full-time basis. He's made himself into a better-than-average corner outfielder and his ability to produce in big spots at the plate -- including improved performance from the right side -- has him fourth on the team in RBI. Grade: B+

JACOBY ELLSBURY
Those hoping for a return to 2011 form have been disappointed, as Ellsbury's power -- which was manifest in his 32-homer season in 2011 -- has yet to return. But after a sluggish start, and the usual nagging injuries, Ellsbury began to take off in late May and hasn't slowed since. He may not be hitting the ball out of the ballpark, but he's getting on base regularly, covering lots of ground in the outfield and stealing bases at an incredible rate of efficiency (36-of-39). Grade: A-

SHANE VICTORINO
Victorino's play in right field has been a revelation. It's no stretch to suggest that he's the best the Red Sox have had at the position since Dwight Evans, right down to the plus-arm strength. He's proven to be a smart baserunner, too. One concern remains: his reckless, aggressive playing style has led to a handful of nagging injuries, which have limited his day-to-day availability. It will be interesting to see how he holds up in the second half. Grade: B

MIKE CARP
Carp didn't look like much in spring training and he didn't get off the bench in the first week of the season. But ever since, he's made the most of his playing time, providing a valuable lefty bat off the bench, with surprising flashes of power (.606 slugging percentage). He can be an adventure in the outfield, but that's not why he was brought here. Grade: A-

JONNY GOMES
Perhaps thanks to limited playing time, Gomes took a couple of months to get untracked. But for the past month, he's been more of what the Red Sox though they were getting: a hard-nosed, tough out who beats up left-handed pitching. Defensively challenged, but capable of delivering at the plate in big moments (two walkoff homers) and a formidable clubhouse presence. Grade: C

JARROD SALTALAMACCHIA    
Still streaky at times, Saltalamacchia has been at least a little more consistent at the plate. His homer output is down, but he's on pace for nearly 40 doubles and his OPS is an impressive .795. Plus, he's become a better receiver and though the numbers don't always reflect it, he's improved his throwing, too. Grade: B

DAVID ROSS
While he was healthy, Ross was pretty much as advertised: a veteran presence behind the plate with a good way with a pitching staff and a cannon for an arm. He didn't produce at the plate except for some occasional power. His second concussion of the season has sidelined him into mid-August. His return from the stretch run could be a big boost. Grade: C-

INCOMPLETE: Ryan Lavarnway, Brock Holt, Brandon Snyder, Jackie Bradley Jr., Jonthan Diaz. 

MANAGER

JOHN FARRELL
In just over three months, the doubts that existed about Farrell's managerial chops have disappeared. He set the proper tone in spring training, stressing a commitment to the game and to one another, while overseeing the revamping of veteran pitchers Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester and John Lackey. He's squashed player problems (Alfredo Aceves) and devised lineups based on merit. One concern to keep an eye on: overtaxing the bullpen arms. Grade: A-

GENERAL MANAGER

BEN CHERINGTON
As always with GMs, Cherington gets judged on what he did before the season started and what he'll do by the end of July at the deadline. His offseason moves have largely worked (Napoli, Uehara, Victorino), though others have been a bit spotty (Drew, Hanrahan). He gets credit for being aggressive enough to find a lefty to replace Miller weeks before the deadline. Grade: B+