As of Thursday, April 17th the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox sit in last place in the American League East.
A scant 15 games into the season and with only 147 games to right the campaign, New England’s fan base is rapidly striking the panic button. A six win and nine loss start to the season has the fans turning to the message boards, social media, and radio call-in shows to express their displeasure with the team’s cold start.
Injuries have served as a hindrance early on, as closer Koji Uehara has been on the shelf with a shoulder injury. The 39-year old had tightness, but it’s not believed to be a serious injury, and therefore steered clear of the disabled list.
In Uehara’s absence, former St. Louis’ closer Edward Mujica filled in at the back of the bullpen. Despite one bad game early in the season versus Milwaukee, Mujica has helped mitigate the loss of Uehara allowing just one run in his other four appearances. Junichi Tazawa and Chris Capuano have tossed a combined 16-plus shutout innings to start 2014. Lefty reliever Andrew Miller and Craig Breslow have been strong early and young Brandon Workman has continued to impress out of the bullpen as he did last offseason.
The pitching has been decent, with the bullpen strong and starters Jon Lester and Jake Peavy setting the tone. While Clay Buchholz has had some hiccups, he and John Lackey are both averaging over eight strikeouts per nine innings. The only starter who has really failed to impress is young left-hander Felix Doubront, but there’s plenty of time to right the ship.
On offense, the Red Sox have had injuries as well, with starting rightfielder Shane Victorino yet to appear in a regular-season game and starting third baseman Will Middlebrooks’ lodged on the disabled list with a calf strain, after playing just a few games. In addition, the team lost second baseman Dustin Pedroia a few games to a wrist injury and first baseman Mike Napoli suffered a dislocated a finger sliding into second base.
The injury issues have required some shuffling to the lineup, as rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. has now taken over in the outfield rotation for Victorino. Reclamation project Grady Sizemore and veterans Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava have struggled to make up for the loss. Nava has struggled mightily with just seven hits in his first thirteen games. Gomes is batting just .212 with fifteen strikeouts in ten games.
The loss of Napoli has thrusted backup Mike Carp into more playing time at first base, while taking away the bat of Napoli, who leads the team in hits, home runs, RBIs, batting average, slugging average and OPS. With Pedroia’s hitting affected by the wrist injury, rookie Xander Bogaerts’ still adjusting to playing shortstop at the major league level, and designated hitter David Ortiz scuffling, it has been the offense keeping the Red Sox from winning with regularity in the first fifteen games of 2014.
In 2013, the Red Sox were helped on their World Series run by a powerful offense. The team scored 853 runs during the season, which was first in the American League. The squad launched 178 home runs, drew 581 walks, and batted .277 with a team OPS of .795 – which easily led the league.
Through 15 games in 2014, the Red Sox have only scored 53 runs (11th in the American League), hit only 12 home runs, and are batting only .236 with a .666 OPS. With a team ERA of 3.40 (fourth in the American League), the blame for the early season struggles falls clearly on the offense.
While injuries are a part of the issue, there are other adjustments the Red Sox are making on offense. Rookie shortstop Bogaerts and third baseman Middlebrooks were expected to add pop to the bottom of the order. While Bogaerts has acquitted himself as well as, or better than the departed free agent (still unsigned) Stephen Drew, the other offseason changes are areas the offense has shown cracks.
The loss of free agent Jacoby Ellsbury to the rival New York Yankees, starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia to the Miami Marlins, shortstop Drew, and with injuries to Pedroia, Middlebrooks, Napoli, and Victorino has decimated the lineup. Having to lean on Ryan Roberts, Mike Carp, Jonathan Herrera, and a struggling A.J. Pierzynski in the lineup has made Boston vulnerable so far in the month of April.
Obviously, no rational fan is expecting the Red Sox offense to continue to struggle, as they have in the first few weeks of 2014. According to BaseballProspectus.com (subscription required), the Red Sox are still projected to win 81 of their remaining games and edge out Tampa Bay and pull away from the Yankees. However, to do so, the Red Sox need to have their core players lead the charge.
With improved wrist health, Pedroia should begin producing numbers more in line with his career averages. Napoli’s finger injury, while gruesome looking at the time, is not likely to keep him out of the order for an extended period. Middlebrooks and Victorino’s return gives the batting order a young right-handed power hitter for the bottom, and their top-of-the-batting-order steadying influence.
With Ortiz expected to heat-up at the plate as the warm weather returns, expect the Boston bats to ember, as a long, cold New England winter finally concludes. As the new growth of spring gives way to nature’s summer blooming, expect the Boston lineup to follow suit. With their strong bullpen and quality starting pitchers, the Red Sox will stay in contention in an improved American League East.
So, don’t fret Boston fans. The warmer it gets outside, so does the team.