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MLB: David Ortiz’s Contract with the Boston Red Sox Looks Like Grand Larceny

Some potential Hall of Famers have had a hard time finding work this winter, while others have had to settle for rather humbling deals.

The Minnesota Twins signed 40-year-old DH Jim Thome to a 1-year, $3 million deal, and Tampa Bay came to terms with 38-year-old DH Manny Ramirez on a 1-year deal for just $2 million. Ramirez made $45 million over the past two seasons, so that’s quite a pay cut.

Thome had 25 homers and a 1.039 OPS over 340 plate appearances last season. Ramirez had a .298 average and an .870 OPS over 320 PAs.

The Oakland A’s signed 36-year-old DH Hideki Matsui, to a 1-year, $4.25 million deal. Matsui batted .274 with 21 homers and 84 RBI for the Angels last season. Though not a HOF candidate, Matsui can still produce, and the A’s got him at an affordable price.

Meanwhile, 35-year-old free agent DH Vladimir Guerrero is still seeking a job.  Of the 11 players last season who hit at least .300, had 25 homers and 100 RBI, Guerrero had the fewest strikeouts (60). Yet no one wants him?

On the other hand, David Ortiz had an .899 OPS over 600 PAs last season and received a 1-year, $12.5 million extension from the Red Sox

After two years of precipitous decline, the 35-year-old Ortiz brought his average back up to .270 in 2010 and led the team with 32 homers and 102 RBI. 

Yet, given the recent developments in the DH market, it looks like Ortiz held a gun to the Red Sox and robbed them blind.

Remember those stories about him possibly being upset about having to take a 1-year deal? That seems highly doubtful now. To the contrary, he must feel like one very lucky man.

From 2005-2008, Ortiz had a strikeout percentage of 16.4 and a home run percentage of 6.2. However, over the last two seasons, Ortiz’s strikeout percentage leapt to 22.6 percent, while his home run percentage dropped to 4.9 percent.

Ortiz struck out a career-high 145 times last season, eclipsing his previous career-high of 134, set in 2009. Setting career highs in strikeouts in back-to-back seasons, at his age, is an ominous sign.  Over his first five seasons in Boston, Ortiz batted .302. But those days are now long gone. Over the past three seasons, his batting average has dropped to just .257.

Without question, Ortiz is a player in decline, and he will be grossly overpaid this season. He is probably worth $5 million per year at this point, but the Red Sox didn’t want to deal with a malcontent in their clubhouse or on their bench this season.

If Ortiz has another year that mirrors the last, the Red Sox will feel satisfied with his high price tag. If he underperforms though, they will have to take solace in the fact that it’s only a 1-year deal. 

Ortiz should feel grateful for his current pact. Never again will he merit a contract with such a high annual value. He will be lucky to make half his $12 million salary in 2012. 

Plus, the slugger’s place in Red Sox history seems quite secure, another reason for him to feel content.

With 291 homers as a member of the Red Sox, this season Ortiz will join Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans as the only Red Sox players with 300 home runs. That’s some pretty fine company. And, with 932 RBI with Boston, he could become just the sixth player to drive in 1,000 runs with the team (joining Yastrzemski, Williams, Rice, Evans and Doerr).

Additionally, with 349 career homers (as a member of the Twins and Red Sox), Ortiz has a reasonable shot at 400 for his career. He needs to average about 25 homers over the next two years to reach the mark, which is certainly possible.

Unlike his contemporaries at the DH spot, Ortiz didn’t have to take a pay cut and resort to 1-year deal with a new team this winter. 

The pay cut will come in 2012, but hopefully it will be with Boston. If Ortiz performs up to par, that would be the best thing for both him and the Red Sox.


Sean is a freelance writer and creator of Kennedy’s Commentary, a dedicated Red Sox blog. He has written for Baseball Digest and other magazines, newspapers and Websites.

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Boston Red Sox: Starting Rotation Key To Team’s Success in 2011

In order to be the World Series contenders that many people expect them to be this season, the Red Sox will need all five of their starters to pitch up to their potential. 

Last season, Red Sox starting pitching was inconsistent, at best. Despite the rash of injuries, poor starting pitching—more than anything else—was the reason for the Sox’ disappointing season.

In 2011, the Red Sox will return an intact rotation, comprised of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daiuske Matsuzaka. 

Without question, Lester and Buchholz have become the staff aces and are among the elite pitchers in the game. Both pitchers are only 26 years old, still improving, and should contend for the Cy Young this season.

Lester finished fourth in the AL Cy Young Award voting after going 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 225 strikeouts last season. He overcame a slow start (0-2, 8.44 ERA) and finished the season as arguably the best pitcher in the AL, posting a 19-7 record, 2.81 ERA and 9.89 strikeouts per nine innings. 

For his part, Buchholz went 17-7 with a phenomenal 2.33 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.

However, after that young, dynamic duo, the rest of the Sox’ starters were huge disappointments.

Beckett, Lackey and Matsuzaka combined for over $39 million dollars in salary and an unimpressive 4.84 ERA.  For comparison’s sake, the entire payrolls of the 2010 Pirates and Padres were the same as, or less than, what that Boston trio made.

Beckett and Matsuzaka fell prey to injuries and never found the form that had made them successful in the past. Lackey was hardly the pitcher the Red Sox were expecting when they signed him last winter and had a lackluster first season in Boston.

Beckett posted a career high 5.78 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. Over the previous three years with the Red Sox, he was 49-23 with a 3.71 ERA and sub 1.20 WHIP. 

Lackey posted a 4.40 ERA, the first time his average exceeded 4.00 since 2004. And his 1.42 WHIP was tied for the highest of his career (2003). 

Matsuzaka went 9-6 with a 4.69 ERA. Though he had moments of brilliance (like his one-hitter against the Phillies in May), they were far too infrequent and he typically looked like a shadow of the pitcher who went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA in 2008. 

Though the Red Sox let Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre walk, two of their premier hitters in 2010, the offense should be at least as good (if not better) with the additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.

But after scoring 818 runs last season (good enough for second in the AL), offense was not the Red Sox shortcoming.

One weak spot—the Red Sox bullpen—should improve markedly this season with the additions of Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler.

However, for the Red Sox to win the AL Pennant, and ultimately the World Series, all five of their starters must stay healthy and pitch their absolute best in 2011. All of the Sox’ starters need to consistently make quality starts and go deep into games, taking pressure off the bullpen.

As we saw last season, the Red Sox cannot get by on offense alone. Amongst AL teams, the Red Sox were first in total bases, second in homers, second in runs, second in slugging and third in on-base percentage.

Yet, the Red Sox won just 89 games and missed the playoffs. It was just the second time since 2002 that the Sox failed to win 90 games, and just the second in 13 seasons that they failed to finish in first or second place in the AL East.

All that offense in 2010 couldn’t overcome the disappointing efforts of three-fifths of the rotation.

Red Sox starting pitching allowed 517 runs in 2010, fifth worst in the AL. Their 1.35 WHIP was also fifth worst in the AL. Additionally, Red Sox starters allowed a league-high 383 walks, well above the league average of 330, and hit the most batters in the league (45).

The upside is that Sox starters struck out a league-high 833 batters, held opposing batters to a .254 average (fourth-best in the AL), and gave up just 89 home runs, lowest in the league.

Unless the rotation repeats the latter statistics and not the former, the Red Sox new lineup and bullpen won’t matter much.

On paper, at least, the Red Sox appear to be the team to beat in 2011. But now they actually have to go out, play the games, and win. There are always surprises. Who picked the Giants to be World Series Champions at this time last year?

It’s long been said that pitching wins championships. Without it, the Red Sox may be just another in a long list of overpaid, underachieving teams through baseball history.


Sean is a freelance writer and creator of Kennedy’s Commentary, a dedicated Red Sox blog. He has written for Baseball Digest and other magazines, newspapers and Websites.

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Losing Victor Martinez Saves Boston Red Sox Money, Creates Big Hole In Lineup

The Red Sox lost Victor Martinez to the Tigers because they were outbid by $8 million dollars over four years. That amounts to just $2 million per season.

While the Red Sox were willing to offer Martinez the four-year deal he wanted, they weren’t willing to go to $50 million for him.

But the Tigers were. 

The Red Sox made two separate offers to Martinez: a three-year deal worth $36 million and a four-year deal worth $42 million.

Even though Martinez and his agents made it clear to the Red Sox on Monday night that he was prepared to accept another offer elsewhere, the Red Sox held their ground. In the end, Martinez accepted Detroit’s four-year, $50 million offer. 

Even the Orioles, who offered just $2 million less, outbid the Red Sox.

The Red Sox were unwilling to go to four years, $52 million with Johnny Damon, which ended up being a regrettable decision by Theo Epstein. They can only hope that their decision with Martinez doesn’t end up being similarly regrettable in the next couple of years.

The Red Sox now have a gaping hole in the middle of the order that needs to be filled by opening day. Fortunately, that is more than four months away. There is time to find a suitable, or superior, replacement. 

But one thing is for sure; the Red Sox won’t get the same kind of production from their catcher next season, no matter who it is. Martinez is one of the two or three best offensive catchers in the game today, behind Joe Mauer, and along with Brain McCann.

Martinez is a career .300 hitter, which is especially impressive for a catcher. Excluding the 2008 season (in which he was injured), Martinez has averaged 18 homers and 83 RBI each year since he became a full-time player in 2004.

While those are nice numbers for a catcher, the RBI and home run totals are not particularly striking. In fact, Martinez has hit 25 homers just once and driven in 100 RBI just three times in his eight full seasons in the majors. As a first baseman or DH, those numbers would be rather pedestrian.

But Martinez’s offense wasn’t the Red Sox’ primary concern. His age (32 next month) and defensive shortcomings were the things that gave them pause. Martinez threw out only 27 of 99 base-stealers last season. 

And the Sox also had questions about Martinez’s game-calling skills. Red Sox pitchers had a 4.28 earned run average throwing to Martinez. With other catchers, Sox pitchers had a 4.05 ERA. Additionally, opponents had a .738 OPS with Martinez behind the plate —just above the American League average—and a .706 OPS with other catchers.

The Red Sox felt that Martinez would only remain an effective catcher for perhaps the next two seasons and that he would then need to shift to first base or DH after that. While they felt he would be worth the price of a top-notch catcher for the first two years of the contract, they didn’t feel he’d be worth $12.5 million per season beyond that.

However, it’s interesting that the Sox are willing to pay David Ortiz (who can’t hit lefties) $12.5 million to DH when the going rate is $6 million—tops. They’ll also wind up paying Jonathan Papelbon nearly $12 million next season, despite his regression. And J.D. Drew will will continue to be wildly overpaid in 2011, making another $14 million. 

Yet, the Red Sox deemed that Martinez—a switch-hitter who crushes left-handed pitching—was not worth $12.5 million per year for the next four years.

The money they’ve saved can be spent elsewhere to address other needs. While the Sox may go with an inexpensive platoon of Jarrod Saltalamachia and Jason Varitek behind the plate, they will need to make up for loss of Martinez’s offense somehow. And should they also lose Adrian Beltre, there will then be two gaping holes in the lineup.

If Saltalamachia ever delivers on the promise that so many scouts and talent evaluators have seen in him for so long, he will be quite a bargain for the Sox. His big body and swing make 18 homers and 83 RBI seem within reason. That would make up for the loss of Martinez for a whole lot less money.

The names Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Justin Upton and Adrian Gonzalez have all been mentioned as potential Red Sox targets. The reality is the the Red Sox may now need two of them—or two hitters of the same caliber—to maintain their high-powered offense.

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David Ortiz: Is Big Papi Era About to End for Boston Red Sox Nation?

David Ortiz struck out three more times yesterday, reminding us that he has truly become an all-or-nothing hitter. 

Ortiz now has 109 whiffs in 340 at-bats this season, which means he’s striking out a whopping 32 percent of the time.

The Boston DH’s strikeout total is third highest in the AL, behind Austin Jackson (114) and Carlos Pena (111). For the record, the latter two are both position players who make an impact defensively, at least mitigating some of the impact of their frequent strike outs.

However, Ortiz’s 24 homers are fourth in the AL and tied for 10th best in baseball. And his 73 RBI are 10th in the AL and 16th in baseball.

The Red Sox have a big decision to make with Ortiz this winter. Do they pick up the $12.5 million option on his contract, which would pay him about twice what other DHs around the league are making?

Or do they try to renegotiate the deal to two years at roughly the same price? 

Would Ortiz even be willing to accept the same dollars for two years instead of one?

Despite his power resurgence, Ortiz is only hitting .259 this season, and just .209 against lefties.

In previous years, he was considered a one dimensional player because he couldn’t field. Now he’s even more one-dimensional because he can only hit for power. 

Ortiz has just 88 hits this season, putting him on track for less than 120 for the entire year. That’s a paltry sum. During his peak years with the Red Sox (2004-2007), Ortiz averaged 174 hits a year. 

Ortiz is an important figure in the Red Sox’ success this decade. A member of two World Series winners, he has become the face of the franchise and is a truly beloved figure throughout New England. 

In fact, Ortiz is one of the few players universally loved throughout baseball. Remember how his peers cheered for him during the Home Run Derby in Anaheim last month? 

Ortiz is one of baseball’s goodwill ambassadors. He is a smiling, lovable character that fans and players alike seem to gravitate toward and root for.

Without question, Big Papi’s place in Red Sox history is secure; his 283 homers with the club are fifth best all time. If Ortiz returns to the team next season, he will join Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans as the only Red Sox players with 300 home runs. That’s some pretty nice company. 

And, with 903 RBI as a Red Sox, he could become just the sixth player to drive in 1,000 runs with the team (Yastrzemski, Williams, Rice, Evans and Doerr).

In addition, with 341 career homers (as a member of the Twins and Red Sox), Ortiz has an outside shot at 400 for his career. Assuming he hits 10 more this season (which is a conservative estimate), Ortiz would need to average about 25 homers over the next two years to reach the mark.

The question is whether he will get a chance to do it with the Red Sox. 

A player like Adam Dunn may be a far more attractive alternative to the Red Sox. Since 2004, only Albert Pujols (279) has more homers than Dunn (272).

At 30 years of age, Dunn is younger than the 34-year-old Ortiz, and he is a better, more consistent run producer. Dunn also offers more versatility in that he can play first base and the corner outfield positions, though not particularly well. Right field at Fenway could be a disaster for the 6’6″, 285 pound behemoth. 

But Dunn has said he is willing to DH, and the Red Sox would presumably use him in that capacity the vast majority of the time. However, his versatility is a great asset.

Going forward, the best DH for the Red Sox is one that offers them the versatility of being able to field a position, as well as hit for power, drive in runs, and get on base. At this point, Ortiz doesn’t adequately fulfill all of those objectives.

Indeed, Ortiz can still get draw a walk; his 61 free passes are fifth best in the AL and are tied for 11th in baseball. But, due to his declining average, Ortiz’s on-base percentage has suffered in recent years.

In his first five seasons in Boston, Ortiz batted .302. But those days are now long gone. Over the past three seasons, Ortiz is batting just .254. 

Defensive shortcomings aside, with his advancing age, declining batting average, and high strikeout totals, Ortiz isn’t the same player he was a few years ago when he among the game’s most potent offensive forces. 

As a result, free agency won’t offer as many options as it once would have. There is no question that Ortiz is suited only for the American League.

For his part, the affable Red Sox star says he would like to finish his career with the club. 

“I’m going to tell you, I ain’t going nowhere,” Ortiz said last month, in reference to his contract status.

Ortiz isn’t just thinking about his option-year either; he says he wants an extension. However, if he intends to stay, it will be on the Red Sox terms.

The only question at this point is whether he’s willing to play two seasons for essentially the price of one. The Red Sox will almost certainly decline his 2011 option and seek to renegotiate the base price down, perhaps seeking to fill it with performance incentives instead. 

Will Ortiz’s ego get in the way of such a decision?

There is no doubt that Ortiz is heavily invested in the local community, which could impact his decision. Aside from his numerous charitable works, he is a co-owner of the recently opened Big Papi’s Grill in Framingham, MA.

We’ll soon find out how much he wants to remain a member of the Red Sox, and if the team believes there are better alternatives available this offseason.

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Boston Red Sox: Season May Already Be Over

Weeks ago, most of Red Sox Nation seemed to give up on the idea that the Sox could overtake the Yankees and win the AL East. The conventional wisdom was that the team was now fighting to overtake the Rays for the Wild Card spot.

But things have recently changed. 

In the last 10 games, the Yankees are 5-5, while the Rays have gone 9-1, tying New York for the AL East lead. 

For their part, the Red Sox are 6-4 in the last 10 games. But they are just 8-9 since the All Star break, putting them 6 ½ in back of the Yankees and Rays for both the AL East title and the Wild Card. 

It is increasingly looking like 95 wins won’t be enough to get the Sox into the postseason this year. To win 100 games, they will need to go 40-16 the rest of the way, which includes 10 games against the Yankees, six against the Rays, and seven against the first-place White Sox.

I’m not here to say that’s impossible, but it’s fair to say it’s highly unlikely.

The Red Sox are the walking wounded and look like a MASH unit. Last night, Eric Patterson, Ryan Kalish, and Daniel Nava played in the outfield. Who could have imagined that in April? Most fans had never even heard of any of them.

Jason Varitek, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury are all out. As customary, Terry Francona never knows when JD Drew will be hurt and unable to play.

Drew has played in 94 games so far this season. If he plays in the remaining 56 (an unlikely scenario), he will reach 150 games, or four more than he’s ever played in any season of his 12-year career.

Francona is dealing with unpredictability on a nightly basis. 

Darnell McDonald has played in more big league games this season than in his entire career with three previous clubs. And when the season started, who could have guessed that Bill Hall would have appeared in 76 games and have over 200 at-bats for the Sox? That’s more than Varitek, Ellsbury, and Cameron; simply unpredictable.

The surprising Red Sox offense has suddenly cooled. In the 17 games since the break, the Sox have scored more than four runs just six times. And they have scored three or less seven times. 

Increasingly, Red Sox starters have to be dominant, and go at least seven innings, for the team to win. The Sox’ bullpen has been lamentable, to say the least, this season.

Yes, there are still waiver deals that can be completed in August, but it’s likely that none of them will have significant impact. For better or worse, this is the team.

Yes, they will eventually see the returns of Varitek, Pedroia and perhaps even Ellsbury (don’t hold your breath). But by then, it may be too little, too late.

To further add to the team’s woes and misery, Kevin Youkilis was placed on the 15-day DL today due to a ruptured muscle in his right thumb. If the muscle fully tears, it would result in a serious injury requiring surgery. Such an injury could potentially affect his career.

As it is, Youkilis’ season, like that of the Red Sox, is in jeopardy. 

In this decade, it’s unusual to declare that the Red Sox season is over and lost in August, but at this point, that seems to be the case.

One hundred wins is just wildly unrealistic.

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Tim Wakefield May Have Made Final Start For Red Sox

Watching Tim Wakefield pitch last night in Oakland, I couldn’t help but think it might have been his final start with the Red Sox; not just this season, but ever.

With Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett returning to the rotation today and Friday, respectively, Wakefield will be the odd man out.

Though Wakefield was unhappy with his move to the bullpen earlier this season, given the way he’s pitched this year, he can’t rightly complain. The 43-year-old pitcher is just 3-8 in 16 starts this season, with a 5.58 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP. 

Considering Wakefield’s age (he’ll be 44 next month) and poor performance this year, it’s entirely possible — if not likely — the Sox will decline to bring him back next season. If that is the case, Wakefield has had a fascinating and overachieving career.

After being released by the Pirates on April 20, 1995, Wakefield was signed by the Red Sox six days later. The knuckle-baller has been with the Sox ever since, becoming the team’s longest-tenured player in the process. That longevity has advanced Wakefield in the Sox’ record book.

Wakefield is the Red Sox career leader in starts and innings pitched, and he is second to Roger Clemens in strikeouts. 

However, Wakefield is also the Red Sox career leader in many less desirable categories, such as hits allowed, runs, earned runs, walks, and hit batsman. And in each of those categories, Wakefield leads by a long shot.

Trailing Clemens by only 70 Ks, it is possible that Wakefield could overtake the former Red Sox star next season.

More importantly to Wakefield, his 178 Red Sox victories put him just 14 behind Clemens and the legendary Cy Young. It was Wakefield’s intention to surpass the two most famous Red Sox hurlers by the end of next season.

But with just three wins in 16 starts this year, that is looking increasingly less likely. As much as the Red Sox might like to see Wakefield reach the strikeouts and wins milestones, they don’t want to see him hanging on just to do so. 

After pitching 108 innings this season — third most on the team — Wakefield has certainly had his chances. No one can reasonably argue otherwise.

If Wakefield were to have gotten within striking distance of the two records this season, bringing him back next year would be a no-brainer. Loyalty aside, the PR and marketing opportunities alone would make it worth the Red Sox’ while.

But with Wakefield pitching poorly and now headed back to the pen, his chances of surpassing Clemens and Young seem doubtful. And as much of a good soldier as Wakefield has been — a true leader both on and off the field — the Sox won’t bring him back if they don’t think he can give them a chance to win consistently.

Wakefield’s knuckleball hasn’t just frustrated opposing hitters; it’s also frustrated a host of Red Sox catchers and managers. While Wakefield can often confuse and confound hitters, when he gets hit, he often gets hit hard. In addition, costly passed balls and wild pitches are to be expected.

Because Wakefield’s primary pitch is so unpredictable, his starts are equally unpredictable. Each time he takes the mound, the results seem to be to a roll of the dice. Consistency has never been Wakefield’s strong suit.

With all of this in mind, it’s conceivable that we have finally seen the last start in Tim Wakefield’s enduring career.

If it was indeed Wakefield’s final start, it’s quite fitting that it was such a mixed bag, which has defined his career.

Staked to a 4-0 lead in the second inning, Wakefield couldn’t hold on, surrendering four runs in the bottom of the third. Wakefield loaded the bases on a double, a walk, and a hit batter. The runs then scored on a double, a passed ball, and a sacrifice fly.

All of it was par for the course during a typical Wakefield outing.

But, as is also customary for Tim Wakefield, he then shut down Oakland over the next three innings, allowing no further runs. The mixed performance was vintage Wakefield.

If it was indeed his final start, all we can say is, Thanks for the memories, Tim. Thanks for all the effort. Thanks for being a man of such great character and integrity.

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Lackluster John Lackey Facing Must-Win Game

John Lackey has been nothing less than a tremendous disappointment this season. 

After signing for more than $82 million in the offseason, certainly a lot more was expected of him than he has provided.

In 18 starts, Lackey has given the Red Sox 118 innings, which is the good news. 

However, Lackey has a 4.78 ERA and opponents are batting an astounding .298 against him. 

Of equal concern, Lackey has given up far too many walks (46) and hasn’t had nearly enough strike outs (68).

Lackey has surrendered 135 hits to along with those 46 walks, resulting in a whopping 181 base runners in his 118 innings. That amounts to a stunning 1.60 WHIP. 

Folks, that ranks 107 out of 109 MLB pitchers—simply abysmal. 

If batters don’t reach base, they can’t score. But in Lackey’s case, they do both far too often.

The fact that Lackey has a 9-5 record is misleading. The Red Sox are 9-9 in the games he has started this season. 

Luckily, he plays for a team that has scored the most runs in baseball. Lackey, in particular, benefits from extraordinary run support each time he pitches. In fact, no other Red Sox pitcher has been so fortunate. 

If Lackey were pitching like the guy the Red Sox thought they were getting, he might be undefeated with all that run support.

However, Lackey is 1-2, with a 5.61 ERA in his last three starts. 

And Lackey’s last outing, against the Blue Jays one week ago, was an unmitigated disaster: 4.2 innings, eight hits, seven runs (all earned), six walks, and two strike outs. 

In those 4.2 innings, Lackey threw a highly inefficient 105 pitches—just 58 for strikes.

Lackey was advertised as a big time pitcher who would step up when it was his turn to take the mound. But so far, he looks like a No. 5 starter—not the purported ace we were all expecting.

With losses in seven of their last nine games, including two straight, today’s game qualifies as a “must win” for Lackey and the Red Sox. In that sense, it really is time for Lackey to step up.

The Red Sox are 3.5 games out of the Wild Card, it is July 17, and the clock is ticking on their season. By the time all their regulars return, there is a danger that it won’t even matter any more.

If there is such a thing as a “must win” game in July, this is it.

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Daisuke Matsuzaka Dazzles and Disappoints

Daisuke Matsuzaka is the proverbial box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.

Last Saturday night, against the defending NL champion Phillies, Dice-K threw a one-hitter over eight innings, allowing no runs, walking four, and striking out five.

Then in his next start, Thursday night versus the Royals, this was his line: 4.2 innings, eight walks, one hit batsman, one strikeout, three earned runs, and just two hits. Plus, he threw a wild pitch that scored a run.  The eight walks matched his career high, and five of them came in the fifth, when he allowed all three runs.

The guy is both maddening and tantalizing. You never know what you’re going to get from him on any given outing. At times he looks like an All Star, while at others he looks like a Double A pitcher. 

If Matsuzaka is defined as the Sox’ No. 5 starter, then he’s as good, or better, than most in the AL. This season he is 3-2 with a 5.77 ERA.

The problem is all the hype Matsuzaka came with. He came with a fine international pedigree and was supposed to be an ace, not a No. 5.

Matsuzaka’s command and control problems are now the stuff of legend. Including hit batsmen, the 29-year-old righty has put 248 runners on base in his career without granting them a hit. And he’s done that in just 466 innings. When his 427 career hits are added in, Matsuzaka has allowed a total of 675 base runners, for a 1.45 WHIP during his four-year career.

In short, the inability to consistently throw strikes severely limits Matsuzaka’s effectiveness. 

For more than three years, Matsuzaka had been whistling his way through the graveyard and flirting with disaster. After holding opponents hitless in 24 consecutive bases-loaded at-bats, the inevitable finally occurred against the Yankees on May 17. It marked the first time Matsuzaka allowed a run in such a situation since April 8, 2007.  

Such a streak was pure luck, and it was simply amazing that he got away with it for so long.

But Matsuzaka has become accustomed to such situations. Though he has held batters to 1-29 with the bases loaded over the past few seasons, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been costly. 

In his six bases-loaded plate situations against the Royals on Thursday night, Matsuzaka issued a walk, got four outs, and threw one costly wild pitch that resulted in a run.

The two runs brought Matsuzaka’s total with the bases loaded to 11 since 2008. Walks and wild pitches can kill a pitcher.

In his best season, 2008, Matsuzaka led the Majors by walking 13 percent of all batters he faced and he led the AL with 94 walks. Yet, he also led the AL by stranding 81 percent of the base runners he allowed. However, if a pitcher puts himself in those positions often enough, he will inevitably end up getting burned.

Despite Matsuzaka’s success that year (18-3, 2.90 ERA), it’s important to note that no pitcher had ever won at least 18 games in so few innings pitched. And Matsuzaka has never had another season in which his ERA was even close to 2008’s, registering 4.40 in 2007, 5.76 in 2009, and 5.77 this year.

Which brings us to Matsuzaka’s other significant limitation; innings pitched. Matsuzaka throws far too many balls, resulting in high pitch counts, early exits, and overtaxed bullpens.

In his first season (2007), Matsuzaka averaged 6.4 innings per start. That has dropped in each successive season, to 5.8 in 2008, and 4.9 in 2009. This season, Matsuzaka is averaging 5.7 innings per start. But that is largely based on his eight-inning outing against the Phillies. Excluding that start, Matsuzaka is averaging just 4.9 innings per start, much more in line with his history. 

Because he takes so long to warm up and get loose, Matsuzaka is not a candidate for the bullpen. So that is not an option for the Red Sox. For better or worse, he is a starting pitcher.

Many Sox fans surely feel that it is time to cut ties with Dice-K and just move on. The problem is, after this season, he still has two years left (2011 and 2012) on a contract that will pay him $10 million each season. Beyond that, he also has a full no-trade clause.

The question is whether Dice-K even has any value at this point. After all, he is a starting pitcher with serious command issues. His inability to throw strikes and eat up innings has undoubtedly hurt his value.

Clearly, the highly competitive AL East, with its high-output lineups, is not the best place for a pitcher like Matsuzaka. Perhaps he would be better off in the National League, especially on a West Coast team that would put him closer to his native Japan.

In recent years, the Red Sox have made deals with NL teams for pitchers who couldn’t cut it on Boston; Jeff Suppan, Joel Piniero, Brad Penny, and John Smoltz all found some degree of success in the NL after flaming out in Boston.

Matsuzaka wouldn’t make a playoff roster, considering the pitchers ahead of him. Yet a team with playoff hopes, such as the Red Sox, will need much better starts from the back of their rotation just to qualify for the playoffs. 

What Matsuzaka’s current trade value is, and how much the longer the Red Sox will continue to roll the dice each time they send him out to the mound, is an unknown at this point. But we may have answers to those questions by the trade deadline. 

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Boston Red Sox Suddenly Coming Alive

The poor start to the Red Sox season came as a surprise to many. Especially since the offense, which seemed suspect to many at the start of the season, has been a force. 

The Red Sox are fourth in baseball in runs, second in homers, third in doubles, fourth in OPS, and sixth in OBP. And they’ve done all that without Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron for most of the season.

However, the team built on pitching and defense has been surprisingly deficient in both areas for much of the season.

The Red Sox starter’s cumulative ERA of 4.54 is 21st in MLB and ninth in the AL. That’s something no one could have predicted, especially with a front three of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey.

And far too often, Red Sox fielders have looked like the Keystone Kops on defense. At times, their bumbling futility has been nothing short of jaw-dropping. But some of those dramatic and egregious misplays have overshadowed the fact that the Red Sox 27 errors are ranked ninth in the AL, and their .985 fielding percentage is fourth in the AL. 
Recently the team’s defense, pitching, and overall performance, have been trending upward.
The Red Sox have now won four straight, seven of eight, and 15 of 22. And they’ve succeeded against a succession of winning teams, such as the Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers, Twins, Phillies, and Rays.  
But the Sox started the season terribly against the Rays and Yankees and, despite their recent hot streak, are still 6.5 games out of first as a result. Boston is now 26-21, the first time they’ve been five games above .500 this season.
There are 115 games yet to play, and if the Sox manage to win 60 percent of their remaining schedule, they’ll wind up with 95 wins – exactly the number the club figures it needs to qualify for the playoffs each year.
While finishing in first in the AL East may be a lofty goal at this point, the Wild Card spot suddenly seems a lot more realistic.
The starting pitching finally seems to be coming around and looks like the staff that everyone had been expecting. With the exception of Lackey’s last outing, six of their last seven start have been fantastic.
Sox starters are 6-1 with a 1.44 ERA in the last seven games. 
There have been some surprises, such as Josh Beckett’s 1-1 record and 7.29 ERA.
However, Clay Buchholz seems to have finally delivered on all that promise. Buchholz’s 3.07 ERA leads all Sox starters, as do his six wins. And he has the most wins (12) of any AL starter since last August 19. 
There are plenty of other reasons for optimism, as well.
Dustin Pedroia’s home run and RBI totals are well ahead of his 2008 MVP season. 
Adrian Beltre leads the Red Sox with 56 hits and a .327 average. The odd thing is that the Sox signed him for his defense and 25-homer potential. But Beltre has just three homers and seven errors. Despite his lack of power, Beltre is hitting lights out so far, which is something no one ever expected.
Kevin Youkilis is having an MVP-caliber season, batting .316 with three triples, 10 HR, 29 RBI, and a stunning .458 OBP, which is second highest in the Majors. He also leads the Majors in walks (28) and runs (40).
The question for the Red Sox is how they can improve by the trade deadline.
The Sox have a number of veterans with expiring contracts, such as David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek, and Victor Martinez. Aside from Martinez, none of them have a lot of trade value. Aside from that, their more productive, youthful players are guys they’ve built their team around (Youkilis, Pedroia, Ellsbury) and veterans on short-term deals (Beltre, Cameron, and Marco Scutaro).
Mike Lowell can still hit and may still have some trade value. Lowell had three doubles on May 3, becoming the first player since 1952 to accomplished that feat eight times in his career. He surpassed George Brett, who did it seven times. Lowell needs regular at-bats to maintain his rhythm, something he won’t get in Boston.

A Rangers official told the Globe’s Nick Cafardo last week he’d love to get Lowell in Texas. The Rangers are looking for a righthanded hitter who can produce.

Martinez’s defensive deficiencies are the primary reason the Sox have held off on negotiating an extension with him. There are serious concerns about him at catcher going forward, and it’s likely the Sox view him as a first baseman / DH in the future.

The Indians said Martinez wore down catching every day, and that it affected his hitting. Unfortunately, he got off to a very slow start this year. Given his defensive deficiencies, if he doesn’t hit, he has little value behind the plate.

Depending on the team’s record in July, Jonathan Papelbon’s name will likely surface in trade discussions.

Boston’s closer hasn’t been as dominant as in the past, and has been trending downward in recent years. 

This year, he’s 1-3 with a 3.00 ERA, which is well below is career 1.92 ERA. Over 21 innings he’s given up 14 hits, 11 walks, and hit one batsman, amounting to 25 baserunners. That’s a WHIP of 1.25, which is decent. And he has fanned 16 batters, which is also decent. However, none of this amounts to the dominance he once showed.

It’s hard to envision the Red Sox giving Papelbon the multi-year deal he is seeking before 2011, especially with Daniel Bard waiting in the wings.

Incredibly, Papelbon recently suffered his first regular season blown save since last July.

But because it was against the Yankees, and because of the way the team was playing, it was magnified.

Yet, it was the first walk-off home run given up by Papelbon in his five-year career, which is simply amazing.

Coming into that game, Papelbon had made 22 straight conversions. The only other time he allowed two homers in a game was to Minnesota’s Justin Morneau and Jacque Jones in his major league debut on July 31, 2005,

With the exception of Game Three in last year’s ALDS, he’s been pretty solid and reliable.

To even consider trading him this season, the Red Sox would have to appear to be out of contention by the trade deadline, something that suddenly seems less likely. 

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May, a Make or Break Month for Red Sox

The Red Sox are team still struggling to find their identity as they near the midpoint of May. 

Having dropped two in a row to the Yankees, the Sox are now back below .500, at 15-16. They find themselves in fourth place in the AL East, and 7.5 games behind the division-leading Rays.

The Red hadn’t strung together a winning streak of longer than three games this season, until they swept four in a row from the Angels this week. The offense suddenly awoke, outscoring the Angels 36-16. 

But now they’ve lost two in a row to the Yankees, losing the series before today’s game is even played. The Red Sox have proven themselves to be a team of streaks, and the winning variety haven’t been long, or frequent, enough. 

At this point, the Sox only solace is that the Yankees started 15-17 last season, then ended up with 103 wins and a World Series championship.

But things won’t get any easier for the Sox during the rest of May. After this three-game series with the Yankees, the Blue Jays — who are ahead of the Sox in the standings — come to town. After that the Sox go to Detroit, and then to Yankee Stadium. After that, they’re home against the Twins for two games before heading out to Philadelphia and Tampa. All of those teams are over .500, and three are division leaders. 

The Sox won’t catch a break until May 27, when they return home to host the Royals.

At that point, we should all know if the Red Sox have any chance of competing in the AL East this season. Though they’ve been without two-thirds of their starting outfield for nearly a month, many would argue that it’s already too late for a meaningful recovery anyway.

The Red Sox are essentially relying on the Rays and/or Yankees to collapse – perhaps due to key injuries – to get back into the playoff hunt. But a team wants to chart its own course, be responsible for its own fate,  and not rely on another team’s demise to provide hope or opportunity. Yet, that’s the reality the Sox are facing at this point. They are 1-8 against the Rays and Yanks this year, all at Fenway.

When they leave town Wednesday night, the Sox will have played 23 of their first 35 games at Fenway, where they have traditionally shined. However, they are 9-10 at home this season. 

The Red Sox offense has been better than predicted; the Sox are third in the league in batting average, homers, and runs.

However, the pitching and defense – the very things this team was purported to have been built on – have been disappointing, to say the least.

The Sox’ staff ERA is 5.11, putting them near the bottom of the American League. And it’s not the bullpen’s fault; the starter’s ERA is 5.21. This was supposed to be the best starting three, maybe four, in baseball. Not so much.

Adrian Beltre, who was alleged to be the best defensive third baseman in the AL, now has seven errors, and it’s only the second week of May. Believe it or not, Beltre has more errors than any other player in baseball. Indeed, Beltre’s .327 average has been a welcome surprise, but the Red Sox brought him to Boston for his defense.

Defense begins up the middle, and unfortunately Victor Martinez can’t play defense. He is simply a liability behind the plate. Bill Hall doesn’t belong in the outfield, and Jeremy Hermida is not a defensive standout either. 

May will be a definitive month for the Red Sox. By the end of the month, we will all know whether this is a playoff caliber team, or not. Management may already know, regardless of their optimistic pronouncements. 

Theo Epstein and Co. may have to make uncomfortable decisions about players such as David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, and even Martinez by the end of this month, or next. Lowell and Ortiz can’t run or effectively play defense, and at $12 million apiece, neither has any trade value. 

Martinez will be a free agent at season’s end and doesn’t appear to be the team’s catcher of the future. So, unless the club sees him as a DH or first baseman going forward, they may choose to trade him by the deadline. 

The Sox are not in a position to do a salary dump. No club will pick up any meaningful amount of Ortiz’s or Lowell’s remaining salaries, and JD Drew is also untradable. Even if the Sox believe the season is lost and want to groom Josh Reddick for a spot in the outfield, facing big league pitching, they can’t make room for him by moving the $14 million-a-year Drew, who is signed through next season.

The Red Sox may not be able to fix this team by the deadline, and considering that their payroll is already in excess of $170 million, owner John Henry may be unwilling to invest further in a team of overpriced underachievers.  

Considering the talent of their chief rivals in the AL East, May is a make or break month for the Red Sox. In just a few short weeks we should know if this team will buyers, or sellers, in July.

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