Designated hitter Johnny Damon of the Tampa Bay Rays bats against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
The Red Sox are playing a double-header against the Tampa Bay Rays later on today, and to prepare for that series, friend of the site Erik Hahmann from DRays Bay asked a few questions back-and-forth for their "Deep Thoughts" series of articles. Rather than rub the Red Sox consecutive sell-out streak in his face and remind him of how poorly Tampa Bay draws in comparison, I asked him a few things about a rookie pitcher and a few former Red Sox that are currently playing down in Florida.
Erik: If the Red Sox had one weakness, however small, it was the depth of the starting rotation. They hoped that issue is solved with the addition of Erik Bedard, who the Rays face tomorrow. Outside of Lester and Beckett the other three spots are a question mark. How do you feel Bedard is going to fare with the Sox? Are you worried about his injury history at all?
Marc: Bedard has an injury history, for sure, but it's been somewhat overblown as of late. He had labrum surgery in his throwing shoulder, an injury that, not that long ago, he may not even have come back from. Setbacks are part of the process, and a second surgery, to remove a cyst, was performed. I'm concerned, in the sense that he is a pitcher, and pitchers are inherently risky from an injury perspective -- probably a little bit more than I am for your average hurler -- but I'm not panicking with each pitch thrown.
The Red Sox will be careful with him. He had a reduced workload in his first two starts, as they ramp him back up. The important starts for him are presumably in October, and they won't risk losing him for that month.
Johnny Damon is getting an awful lot of playing time for a team that has a lot of prospects and young players to test out, isn't he? Why is he in the lineup rather than any of those options?
Erik: I wish I had an answer for that one. Since the All-Star break he's hitting .207/.286/.288. It's not like he was lighting the world on fire before the break either, putting up a respectable but not great .756 OPS. At this point his value is mainly in his veteran presence and clubhouse leadership. He doesn't even have a cool beard anymore. Those things are fine and dandy but the Rays aren't making the playoffs, so I'm not sure how important they are.
The player I'd like to see get the bulk of the DH at bats from here on out his Russ Canzler. He's only 25 and is hitting .320/.405/.548 at Triple-A Durham. I don't see any reason to keep him there. I'm sure he'll be part of the September call ups, but would he help the team more than Reid Brignac currently is? That's a slam dunk "yes".
Jon Lester starts tomorrow. While he's been fantastic, he hasn't been quite as fantastic as the past three seasons. I mean, what gives? He can only muster a 3.49 xFIP? pfft.
Marc: His strikeout rate is down a bit, to "just" 8.6 per nine. That's about the only major change. He had a few starts where his command just vanished, and it has hurt him a bit. The walks have been a bit out of control in August, but there doesn't seem to be anything worth getting worked up over here. Boring answer, I know, but Lester occasionally just has some issues for a few starts, and then goes back to being Jon Lester. In fact, last September, after a somewhat so-so August, Lester struck out 49 hitters in 38-1/3 innings, and brought his K/9 all the way to 9.7. Not quite worried just yet.
Speaking of lower strikeout rates, whither Jeremy Hellickson's punch outs? Rookie growing pains in the AL East, or something more for the 24-year-old?
Erik: For the most part I'll chalk it up to being a rookie in the A.L. East. He's generating a 20% whiff rate on his changeup, which is excellent but also down from 24% last season. However, I'm hesitant to base anything off 2010. He threw only 36 innings and had the surprise factor working for him. Now that teams have seen him more than once they've adjusted accordingly. It's his turn to counter. He's too smart of a pitcher not to. I'm worried less about the strikeout rate and more about his increased BB/9. It currently sits at 3.35, which would be his highest since A-ball in 2007. It's hard to strikeout many batters when you're fastball sits at 90 mph. In 2008 and 2009 James Shields succeeded with a strikeout rate similar to Hellickson's, but has kicked it up to over 8.00 the past two seasons. The two possess a similar skill set, so I'm sure Hellickson will learn a lot from his teammate.
Switching to the offensive side of things for the Sox, can you explain what Carl Crawford's season has been like as a fan? What is your opinion on the reason for his less than stellar performance?
Marc: April was rough -- you could see him pressing at the plate, and he just wasn't having very good plate appearances. Since then, though, he's been pretty good, hitting .292/.324/.447 with 24 extra-base hits in 264 at-bats. The defense is obviously good, but there is some learning to be done with the Monster behind him.
I don't think it's the kind of offense that many fans expected when they saw the dollars in his contract, but Crawford's value is in other areas of the game, too, not just in his bat. No one is going to pitch around Crawford in order to face Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Josh Reddick, given the way they have broken out this year, so it's not a huge surprise his walks are down compared to when he was in Tampa Bay's admittedly less imposing lineup. As he becomes more accustomed to hitting in Fenway -- using the wall and triangle to his advantage for doubles and triples -- his offense should improve. You get the sense that he's going to the focus of a lot of people's unhappiness, though, just because of the contract, regardless of his performance.
What do you want the Rays to do about first base in 2012?
Erik: I'm guessing "bring back the 2007 version of Carlos Pena" isn't an option? Casey Kotchman has obviously had a fantastic season. The question Andrew Friedman needs to answer is what the likelihood is of Kotchman being a productive player next season. If they think he can come close to replicating his 2011 campaign then I'll be interested to see what type of contract the Rays offer him this off season. I think Kotchman will get his share of interested suitors; the losers of the Pujols and Fielder lotteries have to turn somewhere. Personally, I'd like to see the Rays try and acquire someone -- Yonder Alonzo? -- via trade. The aforementioned Russ Canzler could also earn a shot at first, yet another reason to bring him up sooner rather than later.
The Red Sox are the World Series favorite in the American League. We know anything can happen in a short series, but how confident are you their ability to win the pennant?
Marc: You'll hate this answer, because you probably already know it, but the team is good enough to win the pennant. Of course, any team that makes it to October is good enough to win the pennant, because, as you said, anything can happen in a short series. As much as we may hate to admit it, given how good Boston has looked during the year, in a five-game series against, say, the Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer could make quick work of Boston's lineup, and then the series is over before you know it, even though one team was clearly superior heading into the matchup.
I do think they are capable of making it to the World Series and winning it, though, even without Clay Buchholz in the rotation. The offense is ridiculous and the defense is well above-average, and with no more Andrew Miller or Tim Wakefield starts once they go to a four-man rotation, the pitching will look much better, too. But let's not get ahead of ourselves -- we've (thankfully) got plenty of baseball left on the schedule.