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Musing in the Rain: Red Sox Reflections During Tuesday's Delay

BOSTON - MAY 08:   The Boston Red Sox grounds crew pull the tarp on the field during a rain delay in the fifth inning against the New York Yankees on May 8, 2010 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
BOSTON - MAY 08: The Boston Red Sox grounds crew pull the tarp on the field during a rain delay in the fifth inning against the New York Yankees on May 8, 2010 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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As rain falls, delaying the beginning of Tuesday night’s game in the Bronx, I find myself wondering whether mother nature may be a Red Sox fan -- one who simply cannot bear to watch another installment of mediocrity from her beloved team from Boston. Could it be that this display of precipitation is merely a case of maternal instincts taking over, and that she, like any good mother, is just doing everything in her power shield her loved ones from what she considers impending doom?

While that thought is likely a direct byproduct of Monday’s meltdown -- as well as a slight overdose of caffeine fused with my own personal frustrations towards the season -- there’s no arguing that the correlation between last night’s game and all those that preceded it to this point is, unfortunately, undeniable.

Monday night’s starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka allowed five first-inning runs to the Yankees’ offense, and in all too familiar fashion, the Red Sox found themselves in an early hole. However, the offense again produced double-digit hits, along with five home runs, and ultimately owned a two-run lead heading into the final inning -- a lead that would be squandered by more faulty relief pitching in yet another closely contested loss.

A fitting end that mirrored so much of what has led Boston to where they are now -- where exactly that is, nobody is quite sure.

While the starting pitching to this point has seemed all over the place, the sub-par defense can‘t claim the same. On the other hand, that the "feeble" offense -- supposedly disabled by the off-season departure of Jason Bay -- has been terrific, all things considered.

So, with the Red Sox entering Tuesday night under .500 and in fourth place of a loaded American League East -- and in this backwards, upside-down and inside-out world that is the Red Sox’s 2010 season -- it’s hard to imagine being able to accurately predict what’s ahead. However, that is a task that Theo Epstein will ultimately face when constructing any type of plan regarding the remainder of the season -- which brings me to the overall theme of the proceeding.

With the aforementioned in mind, the rain comes as a sort of blessing in disguise. Aside from the whole "mother nature theory," the delay affords me the opportunity to touch on a few topics and storylines that particularly stand out following the first quarter of the season, and how they may play a role in its outcome.



Less-Than-Relieving Relief Pitching

Gone widely unmentioned entering the season, and for the most part even during the season, one of the biggest weaknesses in relation to 2010’s installment of Red Sox baseball seems to be the bullpen. Initially, the offense was thought to fill that role after the team spent the off-season filling roster holes with more defensively-oriented replacements, to compliment their upgraded pitching rotation, with an eye on becoming less dependent on the offense for victories. With what was -- and still is in most cases -- considered one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball, the idea was that the majority of bullpen usage would come from the late-inning specialists [Okajima, Delcarmen, Bard, Papelbon], which on paper seemed fine. However, as the starters struggled early on, more burden was placed on the middle relief -- something that was not at all fine.

Of those that primarily make up the front end of the bullpen -- Scott Shoeneweis, Scott Atchison, Ramon Ramirez -- who have combined for 38 appearances already, not one has an ERA under 5.00; not to mention they have combined to allow eight home runs and twenty-one walks in those games (40 combined innings pitched). This is a trend that surely cannot continue.

Their struggles, if nothing else, provide a good segue into my next topic.


Too Close For Comfort

The bullpen’s inability to perform has proved detrimental to the Red Sox’s success in close games. Of Boston’s twenty losses, ten have been decided by two runs or less. Not surprisingly, the bullpen as a whole has been tabbed with nine losses already this season. For comparative purposes, they are on pace to accrue almost forty losses by the season’s end; last season, the bullpen totaled approximately half of that.

The number of losses in close games can be taken a number of ways. Optimists can argue that if just a handful of those games had gone the other way, the Red Sox would be sitting relatively pretty at this point in the season, given the circumstances. On the flip side, Boston has also won twelve games decided by two runs or less, opening the door for the same argument, only in reverse.

One thing, however, that can be agreed upon unanimously is the fact that the Red Sox haven’t yet played their best baseball -- mainly as a result of rarely, if ever, being at full strength. Which [among other things] makes Theo Epstein’s job that much harder when addressing the prospects for the remainder of the season, and in turn, his relative game plan. I don’t think that anyone, Epstein included, knows exactly what to make of the first quarter of the season. It’s difficult to jump ship on any team that costs as much as this one, but it’s even harder when that team hasn’t had a chance to play near its potential -- which makes the upcoming weeks so important.


Near-Sighted Approach To The Long-Term

With imminent improvements to the performances of crucial players such as Josh Beckett, Victor Martinez, Hideki Okajima and Daisuke Matsuzaka -- along with the returns of both Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron -- the next couple of weeks should help provide a clear picture of just exactly where this team stands heading into the remainder of the season.

In the event that Boston does in fact turn it around, there are a couple of storylines that warrant attention.

The DH position is a particularly interesting one. Although David Ortiz’s production has seen a positive increase in the past couple of weeks, his strikeout rate is still appalling and his on-base percentage would barely make a good batting average -- two very unappealing characteristics for someone whose sole job is to hit. If the Red Sox find themselves primed for a playoff run later in the season in spite of this, Ortiz could be in for a rude awakening. Rumors regarding players like Adrian Gonzalez have always lingered, but with the Padres’ infatuation with Clay Buchholz, who has pitched very well this season, it’s hard to imagine anything happening on that front as the Red Sox appear to have made the wise choice in holding onto Clay to this point. However, with the Brewers’ season growing increasingly grim by the day, the name Prince Fielder has begun surfacing with more frequency. It is unlikely that Milwaukee will be able to retain Fielder after the completion of his contract, and their farm system could use replenishing -- especially in regards to starting pitching. With Michael Bowden sitting in Boston’s farm system representing an upgrade to almost any spot in the Brewers’ current rotation, the Red Sox have an affordable centerpiece to any package of prospects that could potentially land Fielder -- especially when you consider that by the time a spot opens up for Bowden in Boston, he’ll have to compete with the likes of rising star Casey Kelly for it, making him expendable to some degree with his age considered.

Similarly, Mike Lowell has recently gone on record as being frustrated with his playing time. His situation becomes intriguing in the event that the Red Sox get back on track, as he would make an enticing portion of a package that could help strengthen the middle relief portion of Boston’s bullpen [assuming the Red Sox would be willing to eat a large percentage of his contract].

However, if the Red Sox continue to occupy the bottom part of the American League Standings, there are some other players also worthy of monitoring.

Daniel Bard has emerged as one of the best set-up men in baseball, and his eventual takeover of the closing duties in Boston is seemingly inevitable. This potentially opens the door for the exit of Red Sox all-time saves leader, Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon has made it clear that he will demand top-dollar from whatever team he settles with long-term, and it appears unlikely that Boston is willing to adhere to that. Quality relief pitching is a hot commodity around the trade deadline and Papelbon could represent a nice return for the Red Sox from any interested teams in the event that they remain out of any playoff picture.

Victor Martinez, despite playing poorly to this point in the season, will likely also command top-dollar when he hits the free agent market following the season. While Boston thinks highly of Martinez as a player, it remains unclear what their intentions are regarding his expiring contract, and he could be attractive trade-bait for teams in search of some late-season upgrades offensively. Another player, like Lowell and Papelbon, that will likely be greatly effected by the results of the upcoming weeks from a team standpoint.

While you may think the Red Sox have been a disappointment to this point in the season, the fact of the matter is that we have yet to even see the real Red Sox. If such a depleted version of the team has played well under the circumstances, and with the season still being relatively fresh, general manager Theo Epstein isn’t the only Red Sox follower that should be reserving judgment.

There are a lot of situations that offer positive light on the remainder of the year, and I have a strange feeling that this rain-delayed Tuesday night game against the Yankees will be the thrilling beginning to Boston’s 2010 turnaround -- which will ultimately result in a World Series Championship.*



*This last paragraph may or may not have been added following the conclusion of Tuesday night’s game.