It's the time of year (after maybe opening day) that every baseball fan across the country, regardless of what team they're rooting for, can look forward to. Teams in competition have the ability to play their best team every day, using what September callups they want to bolster the troops, giving an occasional offday, and to rest the veterans once that elusive playoff spot is secured.
The teams that have been out of contention since day 2 (or even arguably, before) at last get a chance to bring up some fresh young players and see if they have what it takes to contribute to a major league team.
It's a spark of excitement for everyone, but this year, the Red Sox are stuck in a kind of purgatory between the two places and there is some question of whether it is time to do everything to try to get the team hot and race into that last playoff spot, or to cut their losses and evaluate a few more players for the future.
The Red Sox are, of course, used to the first option. As essentially perennial contenders in this century, it is officially to the point where, as a Red Sox fan, it is a little disconcerting that we may be rooting for other teams come October 6.
There's a solid argument for either approach, really. Accuscore simulations show that there is a 3% chance at this point of the Red Sox making the playoffs, which is small, but may well be worth fighting for. The fact of the matter, is that when it comes down to it, there may not be a whole lot of difference in the two approaches.
The reason for this is that, really, the way this year has gone, everyone who is likely to be coming up to Boston has already been there this year (Francona already said as much on WEEI yesterday). The guys we would be seeing, if everyone had remained healthy, would probably be Saltalamacchia, Reddick, Kalish, and maybe even Navarro, and those are all guys who have already been to the majors. The big questions for 2011 are also important questions to answer for 2010 if the team wants to comete:
-Is Saltalamacchia ready to contribute at the major league level?
If he is, then not only does that affect the 2011 team, but it means that probably the best possible lineup in 2010 probably involves him catching with Victor Martinez playing more first base than anything else. Lowell just hasn't been producing much at first base, and if the team wants to legitimately compete in the last month, he may not cut it at first base.
- Are Josh Reddick or Ryan Kalish able to succeed against major league pitching at this point in their careers?
In a perfect world, Cameron and Ellsbury would have both put up similar offensive numbers to what they did in 2009, with plus defense throughout the outfield. In the real world, between the two of them, they will have played less than half a full season, with some pretty unimpressive numbers. In their absence, the outfield has seen much more than expected of Darnell McDonald, Bill Hall, Daniel Nava, and even Eric Patterson (all guys who, had the season gone according to plan, might have been in line for a september callup, but nothing more). Kalish, after a hot start, has cooled down significantly, and Reddick has not impressed in the majors so far. Both, however, have appeared to provide better defense than the other options and Reddick has been absolutely destroying the ball in AAA the last month. If he comes up to the majors and can keep that up, not only is he worth looking at for 2011, but he would be one of our best outfield options for the remainder of the year. Kalish, if he can overcome this slump, is probably a better outfield option than even what we'd started the year with.
-Can we improve the bullpen from within, or are we going to have to overspend on multiple free agent relievers this offseeason?
Obviously this has been an issue the whole season, and at this point, it's kind of a situation where we've got very little to lose. Most of the bullpen has just been atrocious this year, but we've also gotten rid of two of the worst offenders. At this point (actually from a point about 2 months ago), there's nothing to lose by putting in the rookies we know little about rather than the veterans we know will not contribute positively to the club. This means, if we need a high pressure lefty until Doubront is back, Richardson should be getting this call because, while he has control issues, we have firmly established that Okajima is practicing to pitch for the 2011 home run derby. MDC might as well have gone because, with the mop up duty that he had essentially taken over, there's basically nothing to lose by putting out a guy with some question marks instead.
-Will Jed Lowrie be able to be an everyday major leaguer, or is he going to be doomed to living on the bench?
This is a situation we haven't heard as much about as I'd like. Lowrie missed significant time and action this year because of mono. He took a long time recovering, which made a lot of sense; he lost a ton of muscle mass and it is not easy to get back into professional athlete shape after being practically immobile for a couple of months. Still, at this point, it's been 6 or 7 months since he first disappeared in Spring Training, and his conditioning should be pretty well at the point where he should be able to play nearly every day. I'm not sure if at this point, he's sitting frequently because he doesn't feel well enough to play frequently or if he is sitting because Francona wants to be extra cautious with him after the team essentially made his wrist injury much worse in the past. I would like to hear which it is, however, because frankly, with the state the team is in, Lowrie is offensively and defensively the best choice to be playing at second base (or occasionally short if Scutaro needs a rest) every day. I would just like to know what the situation is. I still think he's the best possible shortstop for 2011, but if he can't get his conditioning back, he's not really a reliable option.
Anyways, these are a few of the questions that we should be starting to answer, not just for 2011, but for the remainder of 2010. Basically, my main contention here is that regardless of whether the Red Sox want to say they're still in this or not, they should be making the same basic moves and trying the same things in either case, so they might as well keep trucking and fight until they win a playoff spot or are mathematically out of this race. It doesn't matter if us fans want to say "it's over" or not, the fact is that they're going to continue to play to win and play the best baseball they can.
Feel free to discuss below. IF you were managing this team, is there anything you would do differently, depending on whether you considered the team contending or not contending?