The Red Sox are in first place, but that doesn't mean they've peaked.
Coming into the season, we knew that April could be rough. Here was a Red Sox team that wasn't entirely sure of where its pieces fit. Who of the many question marks in the rotation could be trusted? How would the uncertain pieces of the lineup play out? Would this be the 2015 team that fell to last, or the late-season bunch that almost managed to fight their way out of the cellar?
They had all these questions, and then Eduardo Rodriguez and Carson Smith got hurt, and the picture just got murkier still.
But here they are on May 2nd, in first place, with Carson Smith on the way back, and Eduardo Rodriguez not far behind. Not only can these Red Sox stay in first--they might even be able to build on their lead.
Let's start with the rotation, because that's probably the most difficult thing to figure out. Remarkably enough, Rick Porcello might just be the most reliable part of that group right now. He's looked good since the start--even when he was giving up those homers to guys like Encarnacion and Bautista, it was clear this was more a matter of good hitters being good hitters than a mediocre pitcher being a mediocre pitcher. And it's not like the mechanism for this is a mystery. He's throwing his sinker again. His sinker is good. Why did he ever stop?! Why must you mess with what works Red Sox? What did you do to David Price?!
Alright, so Price. He hasn't been good. But he hasn't been good for the whole month, so this is something that the Red Sox are at 15-10 in spite of. If you take David Price and have him pitching the way both expectations and his peripherals would suggest he should, then this Red Sox rotation actually starts looking scary.
In the right way. Not the 2015 way. That rotation was also scary.
And then there's Eduardo Rodriguez, and this is a big one: the promise for more from outside. Bring in Rodriguez to fill one of the two uncertain spots (be it for Kelly's vacated spot, or perhaps auto-loss Buchholz), and get the Red Sox through another month looking good, and you can bet that Dave Dombrowski will be looking to re-invest in this team to get it over the top. We might not be talking about dumping the likes of Moncada, Benintendi, Devers, or Espinoza to add an ace, but a trade for a reliable #3? Sure, why not?
Look, it's not all upside on the mound. Steven Wright just isn't going to be this dominant throughout the season. But he's damn sure a major league starter. Perhaps more than any other type of pitcher, the results of a knuckleballer can be treated as a random variable. Generally speaking, if it's good 50% of the time, that's enough for not just a #5 starter, but a pretty good one. And Wright has been good so regularly in his career now that it's become extraordinarily unlikely that Wright falls below that 50% threshold. In fact, it's getting pretty hard to believe he's not a decent bit higher. It's hard to have faith in any knuckleballer before they show they can do it in the majors. But now that Wright has a 3.44 ERA over 133 innings, it's just hard to doubt that he can hang.
So, even if Wright regresses some, the arrival of Rodriguez, a rebound from Price, and perhaps an extra piece should make for a solid rotation in combination with him and Porcello for these Red Sox going forward.
That rotation was the real question mark for this team. The bullpen? Please. Yeah, there were a couple rough outings to start. If you're still worried about Craig Kimbrel, then you haven't been watching him throw completely unhittable fire. Koji might not be quite the Koji of old, but he doesn't have to be with Kimbrel in the mix. The Sox finally have Tazawa's workload under control, and they managed that even before Smith made his way back. Add in Heath Hembree finally making good on the hope the Giants had for him for so long, and now Boston's pen is looking five deep before you even get to guys like Robbie Ross Jr., Matt Barnes, and Tommy Layne, who just...haven't been bad.
And finally...the lineup. And what a lineup it's been. The Red Sox are second only to the Pirates in offense this season (by wRC+), and lead the runs scored race in the AL by 19 over the second-place Detroit Tigers. David Ortiz is having one of the best seasons of his career, Xander Bogaerts is not only making good on his 2015 performance, but improving on it. Dustin Pedroia is quietly hitting like he used to back in the 2008-2011 days, and Travis Shaw is now nearly 350 plate appearances into his career with an .845 OPS. It's time to start believing in that.
Yes, Brock Holt has, as per usual, fallen off after an insanely hot start. But if Holt is a streaky player, maybe he and Jackie Bradley Jr. can just balance eachother out, with the latter having completely picked up the slack in his absence. Bradley is now hitting to an .826 OPS over exactly the same number of plate appearances as Shaw dating back to last season. The only starters hitting below average thus far are Hanley Ramirez, whose more balanced approach to hitting has been completely undermined by a lack of contact, power, and patience (which, y'know, are kind of the big three), and Christian Vazquez, though he certainly showed last night he can occasionally run into one. Dellin Betances still doesn't know what hit him.
Look, it's not all going to be sunshine and rainbows. The players who are having career years right now won't necessarily finish the season looking quite so excellent. Regression to the mean will pull the Red Sox down, but it will also lift them up. When you start out well, it's a little more likely the negatives will outweigh the positives in that regard, but it also means you're starting from a higher point and can afford to lose a bit more.
And when looking beyond that regression, it's all upside for the Red Sox. They don't necessarily have to invest many more starts in the likes of even-year Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly. Instead, they get to give those starts to Eduardo Rodriguez, try out some of the guys from Triple-A, and maybe add in another arm from outside. Their uncertain bullpen that cost them games early on has settled down and now stands to lock up games as early as the fifth or sixth inning if the Red Sox really need it.
It's not always going to be 7-1 streaks. The Red Sox might not run the table at the top. But they've got the pieces to be the class of the AL East, and they've gotten through the information-gathering period with a 15-10 record, setting them up to put the right 25 men together for the rest of the season. It's still early, and it won't happen immediately, but they're in position to take off, and don't even have a hole to dig themselves out from.