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Boston Red Sox Fans Should Have a Vested Interest in the 2011 All-Star Game

Surprise, surprise. The Boston Red Sox are exactly where the preseason pundits thought they would be in mid-June: sitting comfortably atop the AL East with the second best record (42-27, .609) in all of Major League Baseball.

The strength of the teams play over the last month and a half has been quite remarkable, actually. After averaging around 5.05 runs per game last season, good for second best in the majors, they’ve upped their offensive output to around 5.32 runs per game, the best mark in the league.

The Red Sox have always been a strong offensive team, but their surge at the plate this year has been evident. By just looking at some of the lopsided final scores the Red Sox have put up over the last week and a half––10 to four, 14 to one, 16 to four, 11 to 6––it’s easy to see the explosive potential the Red Sox enter each and every game with.

But what does this all have to do with the All-Star Game? Well, quite a lot actually.

As we all know, the All-Star Game is used to determine home field advantage in the World Series. It might be big-headed of this Red Sox fan to start thinking about the World Series this early, but for obvious reasons, the World Series is the ultimate end-goal for this team. Considering the talent on the team, anything less would be a disappointment to Red Sox fans.

And, besides the obvious home field advantage that an American League All-Star victory would ensure, it would also give the Red Sox an extra game to use the designated hitter.

The start of interleague play has uncovered quite a conundrum for the Red Sox. Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz, easily the teams two best hitters this year, both can’t play in the field at the same time.

Ortiz––whose position in the field is first base––is one of the few full-time DH’s left, and he’s easily the most productive of the bunch. Gonzalez is an above average fielding first baseman with no real ability to play another position.

So, when the Red Sox make the trip to play in National League stadiums, they’re going to have to make the tough decision of who to sit. There is no right answer; logically, it would be detrimental to leave either man’s bat on the bench, or to play them both in the field at the same time. It’s a lose-lose situation.

The Red Sox can juggle this problem comfortably enough for the nine road games they will play during the interleague period.

But, come October, if the Red Sox continue their strong play and make a successful run at the fall-classic, they’re going to have a serious problem on their hands.

The best thing Red Sox fans can do is pull up a chair and root, root, root for the American League come July 12th. Home field advantage is important, but nowhere near as important as being at full strength for four games, as opposed to three, in the World Series.

In years past, it was easy to feign mild interest in the All-Star game without caring too much about the final result. But, if you have any hope for the Red Sox returning to postseason glory in 2011, you’ll be vehemently glued to your television set late on a Tuesday night in July, willing to put up with Joe Buck’s dry commentary, and maybe even willing to silently root for a couple of Yankees to get a hit.

Dan is a Boston Red Sox featured columnist. Follow him on twitter @dantheman_06

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Boston Red Sox: Late Meltdown Proves MLB Umpires in Need of Attitude Adjustment

The Boston Red Sox were fortunate to escape with a 9-8 victory over the Oakland Athletics on Saturday afternoon. It took 14 long innings and five hours, 17 minutes of play to achieve, but J.D. Drew’s dramatic game-winning single made it worth the wait for all those involved.

While the final result was sweet for Red Sox fans, the ninth inning was bitter. The Sox were up 7-3 with just three outs left. For closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has been squeaky clean almost all year long, a four run lead was more than enough.

But Pap was roughed up for four runs, three of them earned, before he was ejected for arguing balls and strikes with home plate umpire Tony Randazzo. Frustration in Pap’s case was understandable: Prior to his ejection, a ground ball that should have ended the game was miffed by normally sure-handed Dustin Pedroia. Shortly after that, catcher Jason Varitek was tossed for arguing balls and strikes with home plate umpire Randazzo as well.

My beef isn’t with Papelbon’s support, however. While he shouldn’t have been in a position to blow a save, he didn’t pitch well, one of the few times all season that he hasn’t looked sharp.

The more pressing issue is that of the attitude of MLB umpiring, for today’s Red Sox-Athletics game was emblematic of an overarching trend which has gripped baseball. 

More and more do MLB umpires insert themselves into altercations without warrant. In some cases, like today, the umpires are the aggressor in verbal arguments. Today, Randazzo removed his mask, stepping out in front of the plate, an overreaction to a mild roll-of-the-eyes of Papelbon, instigating the altercation that led to Pap’s ejection.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona didn’t have much to say in his postgame press conference, but he indicated that he didn’t thing Randazzo handled the situation all that well:

“I thought [home plate umpire] Tony [Randazzo], got a little aggressive there and Pap…once he charged him…I can’t get out there quick enough, I wish I could.”

This incident marks the second time this year where Francona, who is normally reserved in his critique of umpires and personnel around the league, has criticized an umpires handling of an ejection. Following an ejection in early May, Francona had harsh words for umpire Joe West:

“Joe, as we all know, always wants to be in everybody’s business. That was me and [umpire] Angel [Hernandez]. Joe didn’t have anything to do with it. Didn’t appreciate what he did. I think he was wrong…He was grabbing me. I didn’t appreciate that. I thought he was out of line.”

Overzealous umpiring is not just a Red Sox problem, it’s a baseball problem. In no other sport do umpires have as much of a free reign to exhibit personality as in baseball. Again, umpires are as much the instigator in disagreements as players and managers.

Ironically enough baseball umpires face little beleaguerment when compared to sports like football and basketball, where referees have to turn a stone-face towards rampant complaining and whining.

Too often do major league umpires think they’re bigger than the game. If you were to ask an umpire—although you can’t because they aren’t required to speak to the press—they would tell you that they’re never wrong. Every call they make and every action they take is undoubtedly correct…at least in their minds. To admit anything else is a sign of weakness.

Major League Baseball’s product is on the rebound. PEDs seems to be on their last breath, and the game is becoming much more well-rounded and exciting to watch. But the umpiring isn’t doing the game any favors.

Fans don’t pay to watch a group of four men officiate for three and a half hours. All drama incited by umpires is bad for the game. Bud Selig isn’t likely to do anything about this, as he’s stepping down in 2012. The next commissioner of baseball would be wise to crack down on this problem.

Dan Hartel is a Boston Red Sox featured columnist. Follow him on twitter @dantheman_06.

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Fantasy Baseball: Jed Lowrie Makes for an Intriguing Watch List Candidate

Chances are, if you’re a committed fantasy manager, you have at least one team where you’re not particularly happy with the standing of your middle infield. 

The depth and injury questions that characterize the upper tiers of both second base and shortstop provide a perplexing issue for fantasy managers.

For those of us who opt out of overpaying for big names, finding consistent production—especially in deeper leagues—can be an problem.

So, when a guy comes along with the potential for high impact and eligibility at both shortstop and second base, it’s good to take notice. Jed Lowrie fits that description, and he’s available in just four percent of Yahoo leagues and 0.9 percent of ESPN leagues.

Much of Lowrie’s fantasy relevancy stems from the stellar end to his 2010 campaign. After struggling with injury for most of his first two seasons in the bigs, Lowrie was finally healthy last season.

He became a regular in the much-maligned Red Sox infield over the final two months of 2010, and he put up some rather gaudy numbers, albeit in a small sample size:

Lowrie 2010: 55 G, 197 PA, 9 HR, 31 R, 24 RBI, 1 SB, .287/.381/.526 slash line, 12.7% BB rate, .240 ISO, .393 wOBA, 143 wRC+.

Lowrie suffered from a wrist injury for a good chunk of his first two seasons in the bigs (2008-09), and as a result, his power was almost non-existent. He struggled to drive the ball, hitting just four HR in 382 PA’s, a 1.1 HR percent.

But last year, Lowrie showed the ability to drive the ball, an indication that he was no longer hindered by his wrist problems. His nine home runs in 197 plate appearances translates to a 4.6 HR percent.

The caveat with Lowrie, however, is the incumbent shortstop, Marco Scutaro, who—at least for now—has the starting gig. After a breakout 2009, Scutaro returned to form with a less-than-stellar not-quite-terrible 2010:

Scutaro 2010: 150 G, 695 PA, 11 HR, 92 R, 56 RBI,5 SB, .275/.333/.388 slash line, 7.6% BB rate, .112 ISO, .319 wOBA, 93 wRC+.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought Lowrie deserved more of shot to win the starting job than he got this Spring. Little separates them defensively and it doesn’t take advanced statistical analysis to discern that Scutaro’s ceiling lies much lower than Lowrie’s.

But Red Sox manager Terry Francona is a “Scutaro guy.” In a season which the team had issues just getting players onto the field, Scutty gave them 150 games (second highest on team) and 695 PA (highest on team), despite suffering through a myriad of injuries for most of the season.

So, at least for now, Lowrie is on the fringe. Currently, he’s serving as the teams super-utility infielder, and he’s managed to get himself at least one at bat in seven of the team’s eleven games thus far.

He’s regularly splitting time between first, second, third and short, and he’s made two starts at short and one at third already.

But Lowrie is also 7-16 (.438) to start the season, one of the few hot bats on a Red Sox team that has stumbled to a 2-9 start and a .230 team average.

Scutaro, on the other hand, is 5-29 (.172), one of the five regulars hitting below the Mendoza line.

Even before the season started, there was speculation that Lowrie could seize the starting job from Scutaro. Now, with the team’s slow start, those voices have only grown in magnitude.

It’s become apparent that Lowrie, when playing to his fullest ability, is the better player by a significant margin.

Lowrie offers the Red Sox a number of advantages over Scutaro. His plate discipline is the real deal; Scutaro has a career OBP of .336. He’s a switch hitter capable of hitting anywhere in the order; Scutaro only operates as a number 8-9, or a number 1 hitter.

He’s a line-drive/flyball hitter who could be a doubles machine if given a full seasons worth of at bats, and who appears to have average-moderate power; Scutaro is mostly a singles hitter with below average power.

Perhaps most importantly, a Lowrie-Scutaro flip wouldn’t drastically alter the dynamic of the team. Lowrie could continue to fulfill his “utility” role—in the sense that he can continue to play various positions when the Red Sox shake up the lineup—while starting the majority of his games at short.

Marco Scutaro has spent the majority of his career as a utility man, and he can backup the shortstop and second base position more than adequately.



At this point, Lowrie is worth a speculative add in deep mixed leagues and AL only formats.

In shallower mixed leagues, he should be at the top of your watch list. The Red Sox haven’t given any indication that they intend to make Lowrie the full time starter, but it seems illogical to keep the player with a great deal of upside on the bench, especially when he’s outperforming the starter.

If Lowrie were to suddenly find himself with a starting job, consider him a must-own in all formats.

Lowrie would likely bat anywhere from 6-8 in a starting role, although he could move up to the fifth spot if the Sox sit David Ortiz against a tough lefty.

He’ll likely have on base machines like Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez hitting not too far in front of him, so the chance for RBI will be there even if he’s batting lower in the order.

Position eligibility is also something to consider. He’s already qualified at second and short; he could end up with third and even first base eligibility before the season is out.


Dan is a Boston Red Sox featured columnist and a baseball fanatic. You can follow him on twitter @dantheman_06.

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Boston Red Sox: The 10 Worst Trades They Ever Made

Boston Red Sox baseball is a mere five days away, but before the season starts, it’ll be good for Red Sox fans everywhere to catch up on their history.

The Red Sox have a lengthy past, as they were part of the American League’s eight original teams in 1901. With that long history comes a very detailed record of trades and transactions.

I’ve been tasked to present 10 of the most maligned deals, and here they are.

As a collective body, it’s good for Red Sox fans to revisit the bad teams that dogged the franchise for decades. It keeps us grounded in the team’s most fruitful era since the early 1900’s.

Dan is a Boston Red Sox featured columnist. Follow him on twitter @dantheman_06.

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Fantasy Baseball: What To Do with Jed Lowrie and Jarrod Saltalamacchia

It’s that time of year again. The time when managers pull out their stat sheets, turn on the computer and enjoy the smell of virtual hot dogs, peanuts and beer (okay, maybe not that).

It’s fantasy baseball season.

My focus here today is on two players, Jed Lowrie and Jarrod Saltalamacchia of the Boston Red Sox, and what their potential fantasy impact could be in 2011.

Neither are particularly leviathan in their projected fantasy outlook for next season; they aren’t at the top of anyone’s cheat sheet.

Moreover, the pair are interesting bubble candidates; not necessarily players you should draft, but players you should certainly keep an eye on.

For starters, they share a number of desirable fantasy traits. They both play in shallow positions (shortstop/second base for Lowrie, catcher for Saltalamacchia), and they both figure to be part of one of the better offenses in the game, giving them a greater chance at accumulating runs and RBI.

However, there are a few things that separate the two. Let me start by examining Lowrie.

Injury-plagued season after injury-plagued season, the-26 year-old Lowrie finally showed why exactly the Red Sox have so much faith in him.

The beneficiary of a depleted team falling fast in the playoff race, Lowrie got ample playing time during the final two months of the 2010 campaign.

In 197 PA, he finished with 9 HR, 24 RBI and a .287/.381/.525/.907 slash line. The sample size is small, but he certainly did a number of great things at the plate.

For starters, he improved his career HR/PA ratio from 1.1 percent (2008-2009) to 4.4 percent in 2010. That’s going from a HR every 96 at-bats during his first two seasons to a HR every 22 at-bats last year.

What accounts for this surge in power? In my opinion, it’s the fact that his wrist (which he’s struggled with during his professional career) was finally healthy, allowing him to fully drive the ball.

Lowrie also posted a .381 OBP and a 12.7 BB percentage, which are more in tune with his career minor league averages (.380 OBP, 13.3 BB percentage) over a much larger sample size.

But what do all these numbers really mean? When it boils down to it, Lowrie proved last season he can be comfortable in his approach on the big league level, and given a clean bill of health, he can be very effective.

For fantasy purposes, Lowrie is invaluable in the sense that he’s qualified in two scarce positions (second and short) and could be qualified in another two (first and third) before the season’s end.

This year, shortstop is a nightmare (especially in AL-only formats); unless you happen to own Troy Tulowitzki or Hanley Ramirez, nothing is guaranteed. Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins and Derek Jeter form the barely-palpable second tier of shortstops, and none of those three inspire much confidence in their owners.

There will be many owners looking to pass on spending a high pick on a shortstop this year and rightfully so. Other than Tulo and Han-Ram, investing a pick in the first four or five rounds on a shortstop could prove to be a big mistake.

So, naturally, there will be many a manger looking to scrape the bottom of the barrel when it comes to value.

Considering the lack of depth at the six hole, Lowrie could certainly be a dark horse candidate for value pick of the year. The only thing standing in his way is the incumbent shortstop in Boston, Marco Scutaro, and questions of how exactly the Sox plan on using Lowrie.

It seems as if he’ll at least start the season as the team’s super-utility man, filling the void left by Bill Hall. But, given his production during the final months of 2010, it might be hard to justify not having his bat in the lineup on a consistent basis if he were to replicate last year’s success.

If an injury were to open up consistent playing time for Lowrie, or if he just flat-out wins the job, I think he should be considered “ownable” in all formats. His position eligibility makes him a nice late-round flier in deeper formats and a definite watch-list addition in all formats once the season starts.

Saltalamacchia, on the other hand, differs from Lowrie in that we know he’s going to get the majority of the starts behind the plate for the Red Sox this year.

And if you are unable (or unwilling) to nab the Mauer’s, Posey’s and V-Mart’s of the fantasy world, you could also find yourself looking for a bargain behind the plate.

This spring, Salty has been busy developing relationships with the members of his team, especially the staff for which he will be responsible. Everything I’ve heard and read from the players is full of nothing but praise for his work ethic and improvements behind the plate.

Yet, while Salty might be a solid player for the Red Sox in 2011, that doesn’t necessarily mean his fantasy impact will be better or worse than expected.

Maybe it’s a cop-out, but I think it’s nearly impossible to predict what Salty will do offensively in 2011, as he’s never really been in a situation like this before.

His MLB service time has been sporadic at best, and he’s never been outright handed a starting job like he has with the Red Sox.

He could take the job and run with it, finally living up to (or at least exceeding) everyone’s expectations for him. He could be hitting .230 in July, but we just don’t know because his situation this year is so radically different than any other he’s been in during his career.

We do know this, though: he’s 25 and still young. He’s a switch-hitter who is going to get a career high in at-bats (barring injury), near the bottom of what will likely figure to be one of the best lineups in baseball. 

He seems to be having a great camp so far, and expectations for him offensively will be relatively pressure free.

I’m not predicting a break-out season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what happened. I think in his case, it’s best to take a wait-and-see approach. If you want him in a fantasy draft, he’ll be available to you (he’s ranked 1032 in Yahoo fantasy baseball leagues). In all likelihood, he won’t be drafted in most formats, so he’ll be available on the waiver wire once the season begins.

I think most managers should at least keep an eye on Salty. His youth and his stake in the Red Sox make him a definite player to watch during the 2011 season.

Dan is a Boston Red Sox featured columnist. Follow him on twitter @danhartelBR.

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Boston Red Sox: Good News for Rotation As Beckett, Lackey, Daisuke Report Early

The Boston Globe’s Red Sox insider Peter Abraham told NESN today that Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka are among the earliest arrivals to spring training for Boston.

He cited, in each player, their improved physical condition. With that, Red Sox Nation sighs a collective breath of relief.

Abraham went on to report that Lackey had lost as much as 15 pounds this offseason, while Beckett and Matsuzaka were all looking noticeably slim.

While Lackey was never hurt in 2010, he certainly struggled with his performance and game-to-game consistency (14-11, 4.40 ERA, 1.42 WHIP). Beckett and Matsuzaka both struggled with injury, combining for just 46 of the team’s starts and an ERA well over 5.00.

GM Theo Epstein was quoted in Abraham’s report regarding the status of all three: “I think it indicates they’re highly motivated and feel good about the winters that they just had…the guys who had really good winters and want to show off the shape that they’re in and the progress that they’ve made, they show up early.”

“It’s nice to see these guys out here. Every single one of them looks in improved condition.”

Physical shape is no small matter, especially when pitching in a high leverage market like Boston. We’ve seen guys like Beckett and Matsuzaka struggle with the consistency of both their on-field performance and their ability to stay on the field itself.

If both of these guys are in peak physical condition, it should do wonders for both their overall performance and mental psyche, getting off to a fast start and maintaining a high level of success will rally Red Sox Nation behind a player, and vice versa.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, most notably, has a history of failing to arrive healthy to camp. In 2009, he appeared in just 12 games after suffering a shoulder strain related to his work with Japan in the World Baseball Classic.

In 2010, he suffered back, shoulder, and neck injuries early on and was limited to just 25 starts.

Beckett also struggled with injury last season, appearing in a career-low 21 games.

There are few in baseball who question Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz at the top of the Red Sox rotation. Both are young and on the rise, finishing in the Cy Young conversation last season. The biggest question coming into 2011 was how the rest of the rotation would shape out.

While the Red Sox haven’t yet answered that question, they’ve taken a huge step in the right direction. It seems as if Beckett, Lackey, and Daisuke are all making the personal sacrifices necessary to the team’s success.

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Boston Red Sox Add to Bullpen Depth, Agree To Minor League Deal For Dennys Reyes

The Boston Red Sox agreed to terms with left-handed pitcher Dennys Reyes on a minor league deal earlier today.

Earlier this offseason, Reyes had a $1.1 million deal in line with the Phillies, before it was nixed for unknown reasons.

The 33-year old and 14-year major league veteran posted a 3-1 record, 3.55 ERA, and 1.45 WHIP in 59 appearances with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010. He owns a 4.18 ERA and 1.55 WHIP over his lengthy career.

Reyes had primarily pitched in the National League before a three-year stint with the Minnesota Twins from 2006-2008. During that span, he appeared in 191 games (63.7 per season), and posted a 2.14 ERA and 1.27 WHIP.

Reyes joins the ranks of Hideki Okajima, Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Felix Doubront, and Lenny DiNardo as likely competitors for one of the final two spots in the Red Sox bullpen, including the role of lefty-specialist.

The Red Sox bullpen, which was horrendous last season (4.24 ERA, 12th in AL), now has some much needed depth on the major league level and in the minors. Fans heard a lot of talk about Jonathan Papelbon and his eight blown saves last season, but much of his troubles could be considered a trickle-down effect from having little depth in the middle innings, where the Red Sox certainly lost the majority of their games.

As such, the Red Sox bullpen projects something like this for 2011:

Closer: Jonathan Papelbon

Set Up: Daniel Bard

Set Up: Bobby Jenks

Middle Relief: Dan Wheeler

Long Relief: Tim Wakefield

Lefty Specialist: TBD*

Final Spot: TBD*

*Hidecki Okajima, Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Felix Doubront, Lenny DiNardo, Scott Atchison, Matt Fox, Matt Albers, Randy Williams, Michael Bowden all in competition for final two spots. Also, prospects Kyle Weiland and Alex Wilson could be ready by the middle of the season if need be.

Dan is a Boston Red Sox featured columnist. Follow him on twitter @danhartelBR.

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Boston Red Sox: Could Jonathan Papelbon Benefit from Addition of Another Pitch?

Jonathan Papelbon‘s recent “struggles” in Boston have been well documented. Between his increasing contact and walk rate, and his penchant to occasionally melt down in dramatic fashion, Papelbon looked (gasp) downright hittable at certain points during the 2010 season.

The results? A career high in ERA (3.90), WHIP (1.23), BB (28), HR (7), losses (7) and BS, ahem…Blown Saves (8). I still believe Papelbon is one of the best relievers in the game, but the fact that his yearly salary and peripheral stats are ballooning in direct proportion to each other doesn’t bode well for his future in Boston.

With plenty of late inning relief help (Bard, Jenks, Kyle Weiland, Alex Wilson) waiting in the wings, a cost-conscious organization like the Red Sox just isn’t going to tolerate such performances for such a hefty price tag beyond this season.

However, while Papelbon may be letting more batters on base, I’m not so sure it’s his control (hear me out). There’s one theory that I’ve had for awhile now that I’d like to share.

Essentially, I believe that Papelbon’s fastball is no longer as nasty as it once was. Because of this, he’s no longer able to blow the hitter away. He’s had to work harder to get batters out, and as a result, he’s struggled. It sounds simplistic, but allow me to explain further.

If you’re a Red Sox fan, you’ve seen what I mean. How many times have you seen Pap get into a full count, only to have fastball after fastball fouled away before Pap either walks the batter or surrenders a hit?

From 2006 to 2008, Papelbon appeared in 85 total bases loaded situations, an average of 28.3 per season. But from 2009-2010, Pap appeared in 88 total bases loaded situations, an average of 44 per year. It doesn’t take a mathematical whiz to see the increase.

Papelbon started his career with the ability to reach back into the upper 90s (I’m talking 97, 98 MPH). We would see a constant barrage of vicious, nearly unhittable fastballs on a nightly basis. Now, like many relievers, Papelbon doesn’t throw as hard as when he once came into the league. He’s more often in the 94 to 96 MPH range.

But he still throws his fastball the same way he did when he came into the league: with reckless abandon. That, coupled with the fact that his splitter all but disappeared in 2009 and was spotty at times in 2010 has yielded the negative spike in peripheral stats that I alluded to at the top of the article.

Pap got away with certain things earlier in his career that he no longer can get away with. While his fastball is generally fast, there’s not much more to it than that. It doesn’t cut, it doesn’t sink. It goes straight. Plain and simple.

The difference in a couple of miles per hour on a straight fastball in the major leagues is humongous. An elevated fastball at 98 MPH can still be effective if it misses its intended target by a few inches. Not so when it’s traveling (with no deception whatsoever), at 93, 94 or 95 MPH.

But, as you can probably tell by the title, the intended purpose of this diatribe isn’t to blame Papelbon’s decreased velocity for his struggles. I’m perfectly happy with the fact that his velocity just isn’t what it once was; virtually every big league pitcher goes through a dip in speed at some point in his career.

Rather, I have an issue with Pap’s lack of adjustment. He pitches the same way as when he came into the league…only he’s not the same pitcher that he was when he came into the league.

Granted, I still think he’s a very good pitcher, but one who could use a right smack upside the head. He’s got all the talent in the world, but hasn’t yet made the necessary changes that will lengthen his career and could one day put him in the same category as guys like Dennis Eckersley, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.

Allow me, if you will, to take another aside, and briefly examine Pap’s current repetoire. He throws a straight fastball, which I have already mentioned, as well as a splitter and a slider. His split is pretty good, even if it was a tad bit inconsistent last season. His slider, as far as I’m concerned, is some sort of ambiguous spinny-thing that he attempts to throw at the bottom of the zone. It’s horrendous, and he rarely throws it.

For all intents and purposes, Pap is a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and splitter. 

The fundamental design of the splitter is to throw it out of the strike zone. It’s most effective when it ends up out of the reach of the batter, preferably somewhere around his ankles. 

So, that leaves just one pitch that is designed to be thrown within the strike zone, his fastball. As I’ve already mentioned, his decreased velocity and lack of movement has made it rather hittable as of late. 

I’m a full believer that all of Papelbon’s problems stem ENTIRELY from the fact that he’s primarily a one (strike) pitch pitcher. Back in the day, when his fastball was in the upper 90s, it didn’t matter that he didn’t have a suitable complement to it. But it does now.

Think about it. Batters are getting deeper into counts with Papelbon than ever before (as I’ve already proved), because his fastball is no longer as deceptive. 

When a hitter works a full count with Pap, they are sitting on his fastball. His splitter poses little threat; a pitcher isn’t going to risk throwing a pitch that is designed to finish outside of the strike zone (his splitter) in fear of walking the hitter, especially if there are runners on base.

Since Papelbon’s splitter and fastball are now closer in velocity then they once were, his splitter is exponentially less effective. A splitter’s value is dependent upon a pitcher’s ability to set up the hitter for it with other commanding pitches. Since Pap’s fastball is no longer as commanding, the splitter is rendered less effective.

Because his splitter isn’t set up properly by his fastball, Papelbon ironically has to throw his fastball more, despite the fact it’s not as good as it once was. And because it’s not as good as it once was, he’s operating in more and more situations where runners are getting on base earlier into outings.

It’s just one vicious cycle that keeps repeating itself.

And, while Papelbon’s walks increased to a career high last season, I would argue that it’s not necessarily a decrease in control.

For instance, his K/9 last season was 10.2, right at his career average of 10.4, and his highest average since 2007. His 66 strike percentage was also par for the course (career average of 67 percent).

His 21 percent swinging strike ratio was actually his best mark since 2007, and his 24 percent balls in play ratio was right at his career average of 23 percent, and tied for his best mark since 2007. His line drive ratio was 19 percent, his lowest average since 2006.

I could keep going with the stats, but, essentially, they all point to one thing. In 2010, Papelbon was getting swings and misses and keeping the ball in play at a similar (or in some cases better) rate to what he’s done across his career.

So, I would not contend that it was inaccuracy that caused the upward trend in walks. Pap is pitching in the same fashion as in the rest of the career. But, (yes, again) his velocity has decreased and batters have started to figure him out.

As a result, he’s had to battle harder, and he’s presented himself with more scenarios to walk batters. I wouldn’t characterize his increase in walks as a result of wildness, rather a result of the fact that the game has become more of a mental grind than it ever has before.

It’s evident that Pap isn’t operating with the same ease of motion and unabashed swagger that defined his persona earlier in his career. He’s still confident as hell, but his struggles appear (at least to me) to have taken him down a notch.

So, finally, we get to the almighty question. Does Jonathan Papelbon need to add another pitch to his arsenal? I think he does.

I think he needs a second pitch that he can throw for strikes, something to distract hitters from his occasionally juicy fastball. 

Changing the eyeline of the hitters and keeping them off balance is one of the most important tools that a major league pitcher can utilize. Jonathan Papelbon’s fastball-splitter combination doesn’t do enough of that.

Unless Pap is going to severely improve his slider, I’d like to see him at least try to bring another pitch into the fold this spring. I’m not a pitching coach, but a fastball with movement (cut, two-seam), or an offspeed pitch (curve, change), could do him some good.

His fastball is no longer as deceptive, and subsequently so isn’t his splitter. The introduction of a third reliable pitch would completely change the dynamic of Jonathan Papelbon’s repertoire. Suddenly, he’s no longer as predictable. The effectiveness of all his pitches, his statistics, and the number of zeros in his contract next offseason will all significantly improve because of this.

It’s rare that we see relievers, especially of Jonathan Papelbon’s pedigree, add another pitch into the fold. I hold only small hopes that he attempts to do this, but I think it could completely revitalize his career if he did.

But then again, what do I know…right?

Dan is a Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics featured columnist. Follow him on Twitter @danhartelBR.

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What Will Dan Wheeler’s Role Be With the 2011 Boston Red Sox?

For the Boston Red Sox, this offseason has been quite momentous. They landed Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the two best available offensive (and two of the best defensive) players.

But, when you take into account that the Red Sox still had one of the best offensives in baseball last season, and that both Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez—one and two in terms of importance to the Red Sox offensively last season—the additions of Crawford and A-Gon might not have much of a short-term difference in the production the Red Sox see offensively.

Rather, the improvements made in the bullpen—namely the additions of Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler—will have the most impact. The Red Sox had the 12th lowest reliever ERA in the American League last season (4.24). While much was made up of Jonathan Papelbon’s struggles to nail down games, it was really the middle of the bullpen that performed the poorest.

Ramon Ramirez, who was lights out in 2009—2.84 ERA in 70 games and 69.2 innings of work—saw his ERA rise to 4.46 in 44 games and 42.1 innings of work last season. He went from being arguably the most consistent facet of the Red Sox ‘pen in 2009 to the least reliable in 2010. He was shipped to the Giants at the trading deadline for a minor leaguer.

Other noticeablely shoddy seasons came from Manny Delcarmen—4.70 ERA in 48 games—and Hidecki Okajima, whose ERA rose to a career high of 4.50. Delcarmen was sent to the Rockies via waivers in August, and Okajima remains a question mark coming into the 2011 season.

So when the Sox added Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler to the ‘pen for the 2011 season, they made a drastic improvement on their biggest weakness.

For analysis’ sake, I won’t delve much into Jenks’ value to the team. Long story short, he should help spell Daniel Bard, who appeared in 73 games and 74.2 innings of work. Both statistics were fourth highest among AL relievers.

I want to examine Dan Wheeler, probably the Red Sox who has gotten the least attention, but one who could end up having the most significant short-term impact. Despite the mark of guys like Gonzalez, Crawford and Jenks, Dan Wheeler will be the team’s biggest asset in the middle innings, which is where the Sox struggled the most in 2010.

Let’s start with the basics. For a good portion of his 11-year major league career, Wheeler has been one of the more reliable middle relievers in baseball. From 2004-06, Wheeler posted a 2.49 ERA in 160 games with the Houston Astros. After a rough 2007, which saw an ERA over 5.00 and a midseason trade from Houston to Tampa Bay, Wheeler posted a 3.24 ERA from 2008-10 in 203 appearances for the Rays.

So that being said, how will Dan Wheeler be used as a Red Sox? Certainly, he’ll be the guy who gets the call in the sixth and/or seventh inning. He’ll be the guy called on when a starter exits early, or when the Red Sox need an arm to get one guy out. His value as a middle reliever is already evident.

However, there’s another aspect of Wheeler’s game that I find intriguing. At least last year, Wheeler did exceptionally well in getting left handed batters out. Despite the fact that Wheeler is a right hander, and one with a fairly lackluster career average against left-handed batters (.275 opponent batting average; .833 OPS), Wheeler actually had better numbers last season against lefties than he did against righties. Lefties batted just .154 (as compared to .222 for RHB) with an OBP of .227 (as compared to .287 for RHB).

What accounts for this drastic change? Last season, Wheeler threw his slider 30 percent of the time, and his cutter 15 percent of the time. Both were highs for his career in Tampa Bay. He also threw his fastball just 47.5 percent of the time, a career low with the Rays. As a result, he gave up just three HRs to left-handed batters in 2010; he has been prone to giving up the long fly against lefties during his career.

It seems as if Wheeler made a conscious effort to keep the ball in the park last season and force weak contact. While this may have been the case, Wheeler was the beneficiary of an anemic .103 BABIP (batting average against balls in play) against left-handed batters last time. At the same time, his xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching), was a very high .472 against lefties last year.

Either way, the Red Sox might very well need Wheeler to fill the role of quasi-lefty specialist in 2011. It’s no secret that left-handed bullpen help is the Red Sox’ biggest weakness right now. Guys like Okajima, Andrew Miller, Rich Hill provide depth, albeit uncertainty for the Red Sox as far as left-handed relievers go.

The two left-handed pitchers in the Red Sox system of note are Drake Britton and Felix Doubront. There’s no chance we will see Britton in Boston this season, and the Red Sox project Doubront as a starter. I imagine that they’d prefer he spends his entire season as a starter, whether in the minors or majors, unless absolutely necessary.

Given the bulk of right-handed relief help that the Sox have (Pap, Bard, Jenks, Wheeler, Kyle Weiland and Alex Wilson in the minors), I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Sox make some sort of move to bring in left-handed relief help during the season if none of their options pan out. It’s unlikely they bring in someone with a high profile or pay anything expensive for him, but they could definitely bring in some more arms. Let’s just hope it doesn’t become a rotating door.

Dan is a Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics featured columnist. Follow him on Twitter @danhartelBR.

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Boston Red Sox: 13 Bold Predictions for the 2011 Season

Boston Red Sox: 13 Bold Predictions For The 2011 Season

You’d be hard pressed to find a team who did more to significantly alter their look this offseason than the Boston Red Sox. In fact, I’ll go on record right here: the Red Sox had the best and most momentous offseason of any team in baseball.

But that being said, there are a number of questions to be answered. Where do the new guys fit in? How will the rest of the squad be impacted? Who’s due for a good year in 2011?

Hopefully, I’ll shed some light on the state of all things Red Sox.

Also, pitchers and catchers report in less then a month…which sounds oh, so sweet. Theo knows what I’m talking about.

Dan is a Boston Red Sox and Celtics featured columnist. Follow him on Twitter by clicking this link.

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