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Red Sox Fan’s Guide to September: What We’re Watching Now

NEW YORK: Ryan Kalish #55 of the Boston Red Sox hits a double to get team mate Yamaico Navarro #56 home against the New York Yankees during their game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
NEW YORK: Ryan Kalish #55 of the Boston Red Sox hits a double to get team mate Yamaico Navarro #56 home against the New York Yankees during their game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
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With the deal-to-end –all deals behind us and any illusion of making a playoff run now behind us, Red Sox fans could easily be excused for turning their attention to Patriots football or the new seasons of Treme and Boardwalk Empire during the months of September. The Red Sox have missed out on the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, but it has been a long time since the Red Sox were done playing meaningful games at the start of September. It is sad state of affairs, but it doesn’t mean that there is no reason to watch this coming month. September brings roster expansion and this season there is nothing stopping the Red Sox from giving significant playing time to many of the young and promising players that will arrive in Boston at the end of this week.

There are also a number of intriguing plotlines revolving around experienced players, the coaching staff and the front office as the season winds. While the games that remain are lacking in meaning in the context of the 2012 pennant race, these games could tell us a great deal about what we can expect in 2014 and beyond.

After the jump, I’ve broken down a number of things that I think are well worth focusing on as the final month of baseball begins.

The Bobby Valentine Soap Opera: Even the largest trade in baseball history has not completely taken the drama out of the Red Sox clubhouse. On Friday, Alfredo Aceves was suspended for three games for "conduct detrimental to the team" after blowing up at Valentine when he was not given the opportunity for the save. Aceves childish behavior is not Valentine's fault, but the incident still does not help his case for retaining his job.

The trade that sent Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto may have removed the perceived ringleaders of dissent against the manager but it probably has not done much to secure his position for the future. Valentine’s handling of the younger players that are coming up and his ability to communicate is definitely something to watch over these final 33 games. If the communication between coaches and players does not improve and the team does not begin playing more intelligent, focused baseball, it will be impossible for the Red Sox to justify sticking with Valentine. He needs to prove that he can now run the team without creating additional distractions.

Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury: With Will Middlebrooks out for the season, the two position players left on this roster who matter most to the 2013 team are Pedroia and Ellsbury. Both players struggled with injuries this season. For Ellsbury, that meant missing almost half of the season. For Pedoria, it meant depressed offensive production and the worst batting line of his career. Assuming neither is traded this off-season, the 2013 Red Sox will need these two players to return to the MVP-level production they gave us in 2011.

The past few weeks have been encouraging for both players. Pedroia has been a force of nature recently hitting .340/.398/.553 in August and showing no signs of slowing down. Ellsbury has not been anywhere near as productive, but he has been better than the 274/.319/.388 season line he owns thus far, particularly when it comes to the average and on-base element. In the last two weeks (and 61 plate appearances), Ellsbury is hitting .310/.344/.431. He needs to flash some more power- and a home run yesterday is a good start- but he is finally hitting again and appears to be fully recovered.

Jon Lester: Lester has had one of the most incomprehensible seasons I have ever seen this year. In April and May, he was striking out batters a lower rate than at any point since his first season as a major leaguer. At times, he was able to succeed by inducing groundballs with his sinker, but overall he was below average by both ERA and Fielding Independent Pitching Metrics (FIP).In June, the strike outs started to return and combined with a newly reduced walk rate, Lester looked ready to reassert himself as the staff ace. It didn’t happen. In July, his walk rate shot up and a high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and an extremely high home run rate lead to an ugly 9.36 ERA for the month, his struggles reaching a new low on July 22, as he went just four innings, allowing eleven runs on eleven hits and five walks.

The intensity of Jon Lester’s struggles this season have nearly erased the memory of the pitcher who was a legitimate Cy Young contender in 2010 and among the most dominant strike out pitchers in the game in the previous three years. While Clay Buchholz may take over the role of staff ace in 2013, Jon Lester could be the biggest wild card for the Red Sox next season. If he gets back to his pre-2012 form, Boston could once again boast two aces at the top of their rotation and there have been signs that he can do just that. In August his ERA has been a much more reasonable 3.12 and his walk rate, BABIP and home run rates are all back down below league average. He has lost almost one mile per hour on his average fastball velocity since 2010, but it is still in line with his career average. Most importantly, though, he has matched his slightly declining strike out rate with an improvement in his walk rate. He may not continue to post some of the highest strikeout rates in the game from this point on, but he can be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher with the stuff he has had in August.

Can Ryan Lavarnway Catch: Ryan Lavarnway has been a favorite of ours here at Over the Monster. The Yale product did not start catching until he was in college and has been dogged by questions about his ability to stick at the position since being drafted in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. This season he made enormous strides behind the plate, being named the best defensive catcher in the International League by AAA coaches. Even with that honor on his resume, Red Sox fans have gotten a look at some of the challenges he faces as he transitions to the role of a big league catcher since his call up at the start of August.

The biggest issue with Lavarnway’s game is his ability to stop wild pitches and passed balls. In 62 innings thus far, he has allowed three wild pitches and it is easy to see that he struggles with breaking balls in the dirt. That will be an important hurdle for him as he learns to catch this staff. Both Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz feature good curve balls and they like to drop them below the zone when they are ahead of hitters. Lavarnway needs to show he can handle that and make pitchers feel comfortable throwing any pitch in any count. He will also need to work on his game calling abilities and his throwing (he has thrown out just 20% of runners at the major league level), but handling the staff is the top priority. Thus far, Lavarnway has worked tirelessly to stick behind the plate and that work ethic has carried further than many experts originally thought. His bat is still a concern as well, but he has hit at every level thus far and should hit in the majors eventually. The real test right now is on defense.

Which Young Outfielder has a Future with Boston: Ryan Kalish has already been recalled and he is the primary candidate to land a starting job, but he may not be the only one to get called up at the end of this week. Che-Hsuan Lin has already landed in Boston once already this year and since he is on the 40-man roster, he is almost certain to be with the team in September. Juan Carlos Linares may also get a shot with the big league club this fall. The team will need to add Alex Wilson to the 40 man roster to keep him from the Rule 5 draft, but they have a few spaces to play with and could free up more roster space and playing time by letting Scott Podsednik go.

Kalish is the player most of us want to see. Despite underwhelming performance in his brief call-ups this season and in 2010, Kalish still has the potential to be a solid everyday player for the Red Sox. His patient approach at the plate has yet to translate to the major league level and as a result, he has been striking out far too much in his limited playing time thus far. As he sees more playing time, look for him to have some longer at bats and make pitchers work. If he does that, it will be an excellent sign even if the results are not quite there yet. Defensively, he is capable of enough range to handle center in a pinch, but the major question seems to be his arm and how that will play in right.

Che-Hsuan Lin is a 23 year old from Twain prospect who brings elite defensive ability, excellent speed and a very patient approach at the plate to the table. All of that would make Lin an extremely intriguing player if he had some ability to drive the ball. Lin has struggled to produce reasonable batting averages at the AAA level thus far. In two seasons at that level and almost 800 plate appearances Lin has just a .241/.325/.304 line. He does square the ball up well and he has virtually no power in his swing. However, he makes a great deal of sense for the 2013 as the fifth outfielder and top pinch running and defensive replacement option. Even with his poor hitting skills, his strike zone judgment helps him get on base and once there, he is an excellent runner stealing 145 bases in six minor league seasons while getting caught just 45 times. For a team that has gotten away from the grinding, patient approach that brought the Red Sox their greatest successes, Lin is certainly worth a look and deserves some consideration for the final bench spot.

Linares is a 27 year old Cuban defector who has hit fairly well in his two seasons in the minors. He has split the 2012 season between AA, where he dominated the much younger competition with a .333/.403/.538 batting line and AAA, where he held a solid if unspectacular .298/.324/.471 line. He has the reputation for being a solid defender in all three outfield positions with an average throwing arm. Like many Cuban players, he lacks plate discipline, but unlike Lin, he does have the ability to drive the ball when he gets a good pitch to hit. If Linares gets playing, the main thing to watch will be his ability to handle major league pitches, particularly breaking balls. Like Lin, he may be a useful role player for next season.

There could even be an outside chance that Bryce Brentz or Jackie Bradley Jr. (if healthy) get a chance this September and obviously any playing time that they get would be a major reason to tune in. However Kalish, Lin and Linares are far more likely to play this coming month and all three are interesting players that could factor into the team next season and beyond.

Can Jose Iglesias Hit At All: With Will Middlebrooks done for the year and Nick Punto (Finally!) gone, Pedro Ciriaco and Mike Aviles are now basically playing shortstop and third base everyday. Ciriaco has been a pleasant surprise but his extremely undisciplined plate approach is enough to make me skeptical about his ability to be anything more than a bench player. Aviles has been a very good with the glove, but he is still the free-swinging hitter he has always been and his offensive production has been predictably subpar. He has just 79 weight Runs Created Plus (wRC+) this season. These two players are fine fill-ins at the offensively challenged position, but neither is a long term solution.

Jose Iglesias could be that long term solution. He is going to be an elite defender at the major league level. There is very little question about that. However, he has never been able hit consistently in the minors and the questions about his bat are serious enough that they may limit him to being just a bench player at the highest level. There is hope though. Iglesias has seen 396 plate appearances at AAA Pawtucket and posted his highest walk rate (6.8%) and lowest strikeout rate (11.6%) thus far. He has shown no power at all (with just a .040 Isolated Power average) but that is never going to be his game. Those improvements should earn him a chance to show that he can do the same in show. With major league shortstops hitting for an average 85 wRC+, the bar an elite defender like Iglesias does not need to set the world on fire at the plate, just show that he can be approach the level of an Aviles.

Rotation Contenders: With Josh Beckett out of the picture and Daisuke Matsuzaka out there on waivers, the may be a few starts available for one or two players who could look to stake their claim on a starting spot next year. There is certainly no shortage of options. Despite struggling terribly in his last start, lefty Franklin Morales should continue to start now that the Red Sox have removed some of the competition. It is possible that relievers Junichi Tazawa or Clayton Mortensen, both who came through the minors as starters, could get a look, but it is hard to imagine either being removed from roles they have been somewhat successful in right now. Drake Britton, Stolmy Pimental, Zach Stewart and Daniel Bard are already on the 40 man roster and could get a shot while the Red Sox play out the year. Knuckleballer Steven Wright would be another interesting option. The odds are that most of these minor league players won’t get anything more than a chance to spend some time in the dugout, but as of right now only Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester are listed as probable pitchers on the team’s site.

The Red Sox cannot just sit players like Cody Ross, James Loney or Mike Aviles until the season ends to give all of these guys a large amount of playing. Some of the players called up in September will see just a handful of at bats or innings and many will not play at all. However, with the hopes of a playoff berth all but completely gone, young talent is now one of the best reasons to watch Red Sox baseball. It is a different kind of excitement from that of the down-to-the-wire pennant race, but it is still Red Sox baseball. For me, that is reason enough to watch most nights.

What are you watching for as this season winds down?