Boston Red Sox

First Pitch: Red Sox turnaround could come sooner than you think

876263.jpg

First Pitch: Red Sox turnaround could come sooner than you think

It was a year and two weeks ago that the Red Sox sat above the American League East, owners of the best record in the American League.

Since then, of course, the bottom has dropped out on the franchise. They fired a manager, lost a general manager and began a precipitous drop from the top of standings to near the bottom.

The speed of the fall has been alarming. One September, the Sox were plotting their post-season pitching rotation; the next, they're facing another managerial change, unloaded more than a quarter billion in salary and are doomed to record their first losing season since 1997.

Lately, conventional wisdom has suggested that the Sox face a long, daunting rebuild to return to contender status. After experiencing buyer's remorse on long-term deals for underachievers such as Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, the team has vowed to act more disciplined in its spending, emphasizing that it won't fall prey to the lure and quick
fix of the free agent market.

That, too, suggests a painfully slow rebuilding process, one that depends on the development of the team's farm system. Since most of the team's best prospects -- Jackie Bradley Jr.; Matt Barnes; Xander Bogaerts -- aren't expected to contribute until 2014, it would seem Red Sox fans are in for a wait before the team is ready to contend again.

But that's not necessarily the case. And here's why:

1) Turnarounds are quicker in baseball.

Last year, the Oakland A's won 74 games and finished a distant third in the American League West. They then traded 40 percent of their starting rotation and their closer and most expected that they would battle to stay out of the West cellar.

Instead, the A's are leading the A.L. wild card chase and are nipping at the heels of the division-leading Texas Rangers, who own the best record in the league.

The Baltimore Orioles are another example of what a difference a year can make. A year ago, the Orioles won just 69 games and finished last in the East. Today, they're tied with the New York Yankees for first place and are in position to return to the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

More evidence? The Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds, who each won 79 games last year, lead their respective divisions with less than three weeks remaining in the 2012 regular season.

The NFL loves to boast of its parity, where teams can go from losers to Super Bowl contenders in the span of a single season and teams aren't consigned to years of futility. But baseball's path from bottom to top is every bit as quick at times.

2) A representative nucleus is in place.

Even after dumping Beckett, Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez, the Sox have a solid core of players in their prime around which to build: Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Andrew Bailey represent a solid foundation of players from 28-30, all in their prime.

Add in Will Middlebrooks and retain David Ortiz and suddenly, the picture isn't nearly as bleak.

And remember: no one is suggesting that the Sox will win 95 games and be the favorites to reach the World Series. But in baseball's new world order, featuring a second wild card spot in each league, winning in the neighborhood of 85-88 games is tantamount to being in contention for the post-season.

3) The other teams in the East have their own issues.

The Tampa Bay Rays stand to lose B.J. Upton to free agency, further diminishing an already weak lineup. There are questions whether the Rays can afford to retain James Shields -- who has a 12 million option for 2014. Such a contract would represent almost 20 percent of the team's current entire payroll.

The Orioles, as surprising as they've been, aren't likely to sustain this success. They stand to become the first team ever to win more than 90 games and still be outscored by their opponents. That suggests that they're playing considerably over their heads this season and aren't nearly as good as their record suggests.

One baseball executive recently pointed to the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks as precedent. The Diamondbacks managed to go 90-72 that season while winning the N.L. West, despite being outscored by 20 runs over the course of the season. The following year, the Diamondbacks returned to earth with an 82-80 mark, and the yer after than, they were 22 games under .500.

Even the Yankees may be susceptible. The same team which worries about the dropoff shown this year by CC Sabathia and crosses its fingers that 40-year-old Andy Pettitte will be a part of its post-season rotation has significant pitching concerns going forward. Nick Swisher is headed for free agency, they don't have an everyday catcher under control past this fall. Next season, they'll have to find a way to extend both Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson -- both eligible for free agency after 2013 -- and still stay under the luxury tax threshold.

----

The Red Sox, of course, can't expect to back themselves into contention. They'll need to make some smart, cost-efficient decisions this winter and hope that some of this season's underperformers -- led by Lester and Buchholz -- rebound. And perhaps crucially, the organization must fix its own internal issues and given a second chance, hire the right manager for the job.

But it can be done. A bounce-back won't require miracles or, even, multiple years.

Rangers' Darvish has Red Sox on no-trade list

rangers-darvish-072717x.jpg

Rangers' Darvish has Red Sox on no-trade list

Not that they need him -- they have other, far more pressing needs than starting pitching -- but the Red Sox couldn't get Yu Darvish, the subject of trade rumors with the deadline approaching, even if they wanted to.

Per Ken Rosenthal:

Interesting that last year's two World Series participants, the Cubs and Indians, are with the Red Sox on Darvish's no-trade list, which indicates he made these decisions based on factors other than chasing a ring.

The Sox' biggest worry, of course, is that the Rangers will trade Darvish to the Yankees, who are short of starting pitching. But the talk more and more is that Texas -- light years behind Houston in the A.L. West race but only 4 1/2 games back of Kansas City for the second wild-card spot -- will hold onto its ace right-hander at least until the end of the season.

Drellich: Strikeout records or rest for Chris Sale?

red_sox_chris_sale_2_072517.jpg

Drellich: Strikeout records or rest for Chris Sale?

BOSTON -- Savor Sale. And maybe save him, too.

Down the stretch, the Red Sox could have some tough choices to make with Chris Sale, who’s on his way to having a great all-time season, particularly for a starting pitcher this century. 

Should the Red Sox let the lefty loose on Pedro Martinez’s club record of 313 strikeouts and 13.20 Ks per nine innings, both set in 1999? Or, if at all possible, should the Sox hold Sale back some nights, with an eye on preservation and the postseason?

If Sale keeps up his present pace, he’s taking down Pedro in total Ks.

After Tuesday’s 4-0 win over the Mariners, Sale is 21 starts into the year and has 211 strikeouts. He leads the majors in strikeouts per nine innings, at 12.80, and is averaging seven innings per start. A projected schedule for the rest of his season, one that’s just a guess and works in several turns on five days rest, has a dozen starts remaining for Sale. That would give him 33 on the season. 

If each one lasts seven innings, he’d finish with about 232 1/3 innings in the regular season and 330 strikeouts (based on his performance so far).

Those whiffs come at a cost, though. Sale is averaging a major league-high 110 pitches per game after 115 tosses Wednesday. Justin Verlander is the next closest, at 107 1/3 pitches per outing.

If the American League East stays tightly packed, there may be no way the Sox can reasonably afford Sale breaks. They’re already making an effort to get him five days rest rather than the normal four. 

But if there are nights when the Sox can comfortably keep Sale’s pitch count closer to 100, or pull him after six innings rather than seven, should they?

Most players and teams would say the postseason is what everyone plays for. Sale all year has avoided talking about the Ks.

“I have a job to do,” Sale told reporters in Seattle on Wednesday after fanning 11. “I’m not here for strikeouts. I’m here to get wins. That’s all that really matters at the end of the day, honestly.”

It’s not all that matters, though. People want to see history made. Red Sox fans might even tune in for it. (Secretly, Sale might even like the idea.)

Sale, the modern-day Randy Johnson, has not allowed a run in 20 2/3 scoreless innings since the All-Star Break, a span of three starts. He has a 1.04 ERA in July with 56 strikeouts. Every one of his road outings this year has included at least nine strikeouts, and 14 of his 21 starts overall have featured 10 or more.

Unsurprisingly, the only Sox pitcher with more double-digit strikeout games in a season is Martinez, who had 19 in 1999 and 15 the next year. The last time any pitcher had 14 double-digit K games was 2002, when Curt Schilling had 14 and the Big Unit had 15.

Records may fall, but there's a balancing act waiting to unfold.