Talkin Sox with Dan

Where baseball fans gather for commonsensical, opinionated Red Sox banter.

A Thought on John McDonald

Photo courtesy of mopupduty.com

On Saturday, the Red Sox acquired John McDonald from the Phillies. McDonald, a 38-year old utility infielder, isn’t a game-changer. He’s not going to make the Red Sox significantly better than they were on Friday. But he did get me thinking about Jose Iglesias.

During Iglesias’ abbreviated tenure with the Red Sox, I, along with many others, believed that if he could hit .240, his sparkling defense would make him a worthwhile everyday player in the major leagues. Detractors had their doubts that the Cuban defector could even do that. Their arguments were not unfounded. Iglesias did little in the minors to show that he could be at least serviceable offensively in the big leagues. Defensively, however, the slender Iglesias was nothing short of spectacular. His glove was always major league ready.

Like Iglesias, McDonald is a defensive wiz who can play multiple positions in the infield. Baseball lifers like, Brian Butterfield, gush over McDonald’s prowess as a defender. This year is McDonald’s fifteenth in the major leagues. His career batting average is a paltry .235. McDonald is known across baseball as being a hard working pro, a guy who knows his role. But being a nice guy who works his butt off doesn’t get you a decade and a half if the bigs. The ability to come off the bench after not seeing action for a week and play well above average defense at more than one position? Yup. That will do it.

I’m not saying Iglesias couldn’t turn out to be a better player than McDonald. There is no doubt that he possesses more raw talent. But if you were to ask me if Iglesias has a better chance of being a .320/.368/.397 hitter (his current 2013 slash line) throughout his career or a player in the mold of McDonald, I would take the latter — and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

McDonald will join the Red Sox for the stretch run. He represents what Iglesias could very well become–a utility infielder who is almost never looking for a job. In turn, McDonald also represents why Ben Cherington should be praised for trading Iglesias to acquire Jake Peavy. It was the correct move.

Saying Thank You

Photo courtesy of bostonglobe.com

Clay Buchholz hasn’t thrown a pitch in a game since June 8. That’s over two months ago. 70 days, to be exact. Buchholz was 28-years old went he tossed his last pitch against the Angels back in the early part of the summer. The slender right hander will eventually take the mound again in 2013, and when he does, he will do so as a 29-year old.

It’s been awhile.

Before Buchholz went on the shelf, the Red Sox were 38-25. Since June 9, they’ve have gone 34-27. The Red Sox were in first place when Buchholz was injured in early June. They’re in first place as of Saturday afternoon. Buchholz’ teammates have picked him up. They did more than just weather the proverbial storm. Imagine if the Red Sox fell precipitously standings during Buchholz’ absence. Let’s say they tanked. It would’ve gotten ugly. The silly summer-long sports talk radio comparisons between Buchholz and the always tough-as-nails Patrice Bergeron and the laundry list of injuries he played with during the Stanley Cup playoffs would have been replaced with much more venomous rants, blaming the righty for refusing to pitch at less than 100 percent.

Sure, Buchholz has been and will be the butt of a few jokes. He hasn’t helped himself throughout this process, either. When a pitcher feels discomfort (not to be confused with general soreness) in his shoulder, it’s unreasonable to ask him to pitch until he feels completely healthy. It’s probably not unreasonable to ask him to refrain from vocalizing that to the media. Nevertheless, throughout this nine week process, Buchholz has been adamant that he wants to be 100 percent the next time he toes the rubber.

I don’t blame Buchholz for wanting and waiting to pitch until he feels totally healthy. His arm is his meal ticket, and it’s not like he’s saving his bullets for a huge payday either. He isn’t facing free agency for quite some time. Buchholz is a pitcher with a big arm who doesn’t have the frame to match it. He needs to feel healthy and confident when he pitches. It’s understandable.

So here we are. A clean bill of structural health from Dr. James Andrews has provided Buchholz with the necessary peace of mind he needed. Since then, he’s completed a couple of solid bullpen sessions. The plan is to throw another high intensity bullpen on Saturday before facing teammates in a simulated game. From there, the righty will head out on a minor league rehab assignment for a start or two. After that, barring any setbacks, Buchholz will be ready to rejoin the Red Sox rotation.

And he owes his teammates a big ‘thank you.’

I’m not looking for Buchholz to go around the Red Sox clubhouse shaking his teammates’ hands for picking him up during his absence. I am, however, expecting him to pitch well. He has the ability to help carry the Red Sox to an American League East title. He elevates them from a playoff contender to a legitimate World Series contender.

I don’t see Buchholz filling out any thank you cards to anyone, but if he can recapture his early season form for two months, no one will remember the nearly three months he missed.

That would serve as the best ‘thank you’ of all.

A Thought About PEDs

I was listening to Sports Sunday on WEEI with Rob Bradford and Dale Arnold this morning, and the pair was discussing the report that Alex Rodriguez approached former NFL star and admitted steroid user Bill Romanowski to arrange a meeting last May between himself and Victor Conte, the founder of BALCO. According to Conte, the meeting only concerned Rodriguez obtaining legal substances. Bradford and Arnold asked the question, and I’m paraphrasing, “do these guys ever learn?”

I thought it was an important question. Is there a chance that a player, like Rodriguez, is actually, in some way, addicted to using PEDs? This isn’t to be confused with a chemical addiction, like an alcoholic or someone who can’t seem to quit smoking. Instead, it has more to do with the feeling of “can I perform at the highest level without using PEDs?” I feel confident stating that Rodriguez was a great player. I’m also confident that he is a repeat offender of Major League Baseball’s drug policy.  As MLB continues to crack down on PEDs, I think the need to provide some sort of preventative measures to reduce recidivism is necessary.

I’m not suggesting that players like Ryan Braun or Rodriguez need to go to some rehabilitation facility  or undergo some sort of intervention. But I do think Major League Baseball needs to at least investigate ways to prevent players from using, getting caught, and using again. As a fan, I’m interested in watching a great game being played on the level. Anything that can be done to preserve that, whether it is for rookies, veterans, or players who may have already violated the drug policy, is absolutely worth it.

Silver Linings

Photo courtesy of nesn.com

The Red Sox are in the middle of a critical stretch which includes ten games against the Yankees, Rays, and Orioles—three teams within the division that possess solid pitching and records over .500. It’s a heck of a way to start the second half of the season for a team that could use a bullpen piece or three.

Monday night’s loss, as deflating as it felt at the time, shouldn’t be perceived as anything more than it was – a divisional loss against a hot team. Matt Moore was absolutely fantastic. Nothing more to it.

In fact, as losses go, this one was not a particularly bad one. It was actually an excellent demonstration of how the Red Sox have been able to play at or around .600 baseball for most of the season when no one believed that they could sustain that level of success before the year began. And that’s before Jon Lester decided to post a 93 ERA+ through his first 20 starts of the season, and Clay Buchholz’ status went from Cy Young candidate to Missing in Action.

This team is deep. Last night reinforced that point.

With Buchholz on the shelf until at least some time in late August, the Red Sox have turned to 24-year old Brandon Workman. The tall Texan began the season pitching with Double-A Portland before receiving a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket in early June.

Meanwhile, Allen Webster, despite his eye-popping stuff, failed in his attempts to claim Buchholz’ rotation spot. In six big league starts, Webster posted a robust 9.57 ERA while walking 4.8 batters per nine frames. He simply was not ready. Alfredo Aceves filled in admirably at times, but the Red Sox have deemed his on-field performance not worth the baggage that comes with being, well, Alfredo Aceves.

Enter Workman.

Including Monday night, he has made two major league starts. His line? 12.1 innings pitched, nine hits, four earned runs, three walks, and a 2.92 ERA. Opposing batters are hitting a meager .214 against him. Workman carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the A’s in his debut, and he settled down last night against the Rays after a shaky first inning. Both Oakland and Tampa Bay would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, so it’s not as if Workman has faced the Astros and the White Sox in his two starts. In fact, the Rays are behind only the Orioles, Tigers, and Red Sox in team OPS in the American League. The A’s are more towards the middle of the pack.

Webster was not ready for the majors. Workman, on the other hand, certainly appears equipped to contribute down the stretch.  He deserves a ton of credit for working hard and performing well, but the Red Sox front office should be commended for building the organizational depth up to the point where the team can confidently pluck guys like Workman from their farm and expect good results. We’re only two summers removed from this, after all.

Now, as the deadline approaches, the Red Sox are in an interesting position. They do not have any glaring holes on the roster with the exception of the bullpen, an area where pieces should come easily and at a relatively inexpensive cost. They could pursue a starter, like Jake Peavy, to fortify the pitching staff and move Workman to the bullpen. Or the team could decide to pass on the starting pitching market at the deadline and only look to augment their bullpen.

To be honest, I’m fine with either choice. My ambivalence towards the situation derives from knowing that the Red Sox finally have enough depth in the organization to support a quality team in Boston.

And despite the loss, last night was a perfect example of just that.

Happy Lackey Day

Photo coutesy of bostonherald.com

Every single day you spend on this earth is a gift. But some gifts are simply better than others.

John Lackey will toe the rubber for the first place Red Sox today at 4:05 PM, and things just couldn’t be better.

Kind of crazy, right?

Clay Buchholz, far and away the most talented pitcher on the staff, has pitched 18.2 innings in the past two months. Your Opening Day starter, Jon Lester, has been worse than a league average hurler. Lester’s ERA has ballooned since his hot start to this season and now sits at a bulbous 4.58.

And yet, the Red Sox are 59-39. In first place. Playing north of .600 baseball.

Huh?

It really is quite remarkable how the team has been able to sustain such a high level of success without Buchholz pitching and with Lester being relatively bad at baseball.

Last night’s starter, Felix Doubront, deserves a great deal of credit (I could write a separate piece on how fun it has been to watch the young lefty right the ship after a dreadful start to the season. Check out his numbers since May 16. Go ahead. I’ll wait). But it is Lackey who has assumed the role of Team Ace. He is the horse. He is the stopper.

Since May 19, Lackey has made 11 starts, roughly a third of a starting pitcher’s season. In those games, Big John Stud compiled a 2.32 ERA while punching out 66 batters in 73.2 innings. During the stretch, Lackey has held opposing hitters to a stingy .219 average.

He passes the eye test too. The burly right hander looks in command on the mound, dotting his fastball and going to his secondary stuff when necessary. Lackey’s delivery is free and easy. To put it simply, he is pitching with a healthy arm that he trusts. An argument can be made that this is the first time Lackey’s pitched pain-free since arriving in Boston in 2010.

When Big John takes the mound today at Fenway against the New York Yankees, he will bring with him a 2.78 ERA, a mark that is good for fourth among American League starting pitchers. He trails only the great Felix Hernandez, the portly Bartolo Colon, and the superb Hiroki Kuroda.

In years past, Sunday night’s C.C. Sabathia, Lester matchup would be tabbed as the best duel of the series. But not this summer. Not this series.

Instead, it is Lackey taking on Kuroda today at a steamy Fenway Park, and it should be a lot of fun.

Update: Lester will not pitch Sunday night. Dempster will go in his place in order to get the lefty a bit more rest.

A Defense of John Lackey

Photo via examiner.com

Ok. I didn’t tell the truth. This is less of a defense of John Lackey and more of an indictment of the fans who blindly criticize the 34-year old right hander. Things have gotten a bit silly.

——

John Lackey is the best active starting pitcher on the Boston Red Sox.

And it’s not particularly close.

Despite his performance on the mound, it is not uncommon to hear fans railing against Lackey, still infuriated by what they saw on the diamond from him in 2010 and especially in 2011. This isn’t a rational sort of argument like “man, Jon Lester needs to stop nibbling and just attack the strike zone.” Nope. Not at all. It’s personal. There are more than a few Red Sox fans who legitimately want Lackey to fail.

These arguments are almost always presented in similar fashions. Basically, Lackey is a bum who is a terrible at baseball. Lackey shows up his teammates on the field. Lackey is a bad human being.

I can’t pretend like Lackey has pitched well for this team. He signed a five-year deal with the Red Sox after the 2009 season and has been both a disappointment and a disaster. The disappointment came in 2010 when he was 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA. Glossing over his stats that season, it’s reasonable to say that Lackey was a bit unlucky, but he still tossed 215 innings. When it was all said and done, Lackey was essentially a league-average pitcher in 2010 (99 ERA+). The disaster came a year later when Lackey — who was pitching with a badly injured elbow — was downright awful. He posted a 6.41 ERA, walked 3.2 batters per nine innings, and was a grossly below league-average pitcher (67 ERA+). Tommy John surgery and a year away from competing has made a world of difference. In 2013, he’s started 14 games and sports a stingy 2.81 ERA–good for sixth in the American League. His fastball reaches 95 MPH and sits at 93. His walks per nine is at 1.9. Lackey is healthy and good at baseball.

Lackey can be demonstrative on the mound. He will occasionally throw up his hands after a ball is misplayed or a call goes against him. But guess what? His teammates love him. He’s known for taking young pitchers under his wing and is a positive influence in the clubhouse, no matter what detractors may think.

I’m not going to delve deep into why critics of Lackey consider him to be an intrinsically bad dude. It’s not my business. But I would challenge you to think about difficult times in your life. Now imagine those trying times being played out in the public eye. It can’t be fun.

If you’re someone who simply doesn’t like Lackey, I offer a second challenge: Judge him not by what has occurred during his first two years in Boston but rather what he is doing on the field right now.

I think you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised

Measuring Stick

Photo via rotoprofessor.com

 Just over a month ago, on May 3, the Red Sox lost to the Texas Rangers by a score of 7-0. They didn’t know it at the time, but that loss would start a swoon for the Sox that would span 11 games and drag the club through three cities –Arlington, Boston, and St. Petersburg. When the dust settled, the Red Sox had gone a miserable 2-9, getting swept by the Rangers, losing three of four to the Twins at home, losing a three-game set to the Blue Jays at Fenway, and dropping the first game of the series against the Rays.

When the Red Sox touched down in Texas in early May, they were 20-8. When Fernando Rodney nailed down the save for the Rays at Tropicana Field on May 14, the Sox found themselves at 22-17. Maybe their scorching start to the season was nothing more than an aberration, a mirage.

The Red Sox were reeling.

Since May 14, however, the Red Sox have gone 13-6. They’ve won games in the clutch. They’ve won tight games and been on the favorable side of blowout victories. The Red Sox are back in first place and possess a record to be proud of at 35 wins, 23 losses. At this point, it is safe to say that they are a pretty good team.

And again, here come the Rangers.

The first place Texas Rangers will visit 4 Yawkey Way for a three-game series that begins Tuesday night. It’s been roughly one month since these two teams squared off, and really, not much has changed. Both squads sit atop their respective divisions. Both have solid pitching — each team is in the top three in the American League in ERA–, formidable bullpens, and the ability score runs in bunches. However, just like it was last months, the Rangers are simply a better team than the Red Sox at this point.

But that doesn’t mean the Sox can’t do anything to alter that perspective. Winning this series will go a long way in proving that this team is for real, that they belong with Texas and Detroit, the true powerhouses of the American League.

This isn’t the first time the Red Sox have been tested this year, and it won’t be the last. But this one is a little more important the ones the have preceded it — at least as a barometer for exactly how good this team really is.

The exam begins Tuesday night at 7:10.

Red Sox, Yankees, and the Importance of Pitching

Photo via bostonglobe.com

Have the Yankees gotten outstanding performances from throwaways like Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells, and Lyle Overbay? Absolutely.

But that doesn’t tell the real story behind their surprising 30-23 start to the season–a season where the shiny toys like Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez have spent most, if not all of their time, collecting dust on the shelf. Hell, even their band-aid third baseman, Kevin Youkilis, has spent quite some time on the disabled list (he’s made just 72 plate appearances).

It’s much more fun to talk about Hafner and Crew, but in reality, it has been the Yankees’ pitching that has stepped up in the absence of so much offensive firepower. C.C. Sabathia has been reasonably good. Hiroki Kuroda who is roughly 100-years old has been stellar as the Yanks’ early season ace, and their bullpen, especially the backend, has been quite effective with David Robertson and the ageless Mariano Rivera serving as the anchors.

Unlike the Yankees, the Red Sox have hit relatively well in 2013. Heading into the weekend, the Red Sox league Major League Baseball in runs scored at 274. The Yankees? 218. The Twins have plated more runs than the Bronx Bombers, while playing in two less games.

The Yankees, despite lacking the usual amount of thump in their lineup, have been able to win a bunch of games because of their pitching. They are tied for second in the American League with the Tigers in team ERA at 3.66. That’s pretty darn good. And the Red Sox are right there with their rivals. A team ERA of 3.79 in the AL East is nothing to be ashamed of.

These two teams meet this weekend for the first time since Opening Day. The Red Sox in first. The Yankees in second. They’ve won a combined 63 games, and it is due in large part to guys like Sabathia, Kuroda, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz. It’s fitting that all four of them are scheduled to pitch over the next three nights.

It should be fun.

The Red Sox: Observations and Opinions

Photo courtesy of sportsillustrated.cnn.com

Terry Francona will return to manage a game at Fenway Park on Thursday night. For Francona, his vantage point will much different. He hasn’t managed a game against the Red Sox at 4 Yawkey Way in nearly 14 years. Back in 1999, Tito was at the helm of the not-so-good, very mediocre Phillies. Fast forward to 2013, Francona is back in the saddle. This time, it’s with the Tribe. It’s expected to be a wet, rainy night at the Fens on Thursday. And I’m sure Tito thinks his return as an opposing manager is not a big deal. But the banners, the wins, and the memories make for a much different argument. If in fact Francona doesn’t believe Thursday night is a big deal, he’s wrong. It most definitely is.

— On Wednesday night, ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted this:

Olney has connections that pretty much everyone could only dream about, but I see that statement as pure, relatively uninformed, speculation. First of all, Jacoby Ellsbury hasn’t even been displaced from his usual leadoff spot yet. And really, that probably couldn’t happen until Shane Victorino and his hamstring are feeling good enough to get back on the field. The idea of sitting a player like Ellsbury who has a major league track record — as head-scratching as it may be — in favor of guys like Mike Carp and Jonny Gomes is absurd.

So maybe Olney is talking about some of Pawtucket’s young stars? Well, Jackie Bradley Jr. is back on the field, but he is still recovering from biceps tendinitis and isn’t playing every day. Olney later went on to mention that Bryce Brentz is an option. Brentz is a talented power hitting outfielder with eight home runs on the year, but he is not on the 40-man roster. That means the Red Sox would have to make room on their 40-man before even thinking about adding him to their 25-man roster.

Would the Red Sox really make roster-altering moves because Ellsbury is simply struggling? I don’t believe there is even a small chance that happens.

— Speaking of struggling hitters, Will Middlebrooks continues to disappoint at the plate and, at times, in the field. There is no doubt that the young third baseman is playing through pain after colliding with David Ross and injuring his ribs. Even before the injury, however, Middlebrooks was scuffling. Late in the game on Tuesday night, Middlebrooks came to the plate against the White Sox’ reliever Jesse Crain with the bases loaded and one out. He struck out, swinging at a ball outside of the strike zone. The talented right handed hitter has been very frustrating, despite hitting for a fair amount of power and delivering a clutch two-out, two-strike double that plated three runs and ultimately won the game in the ninth inning against Fernando Rodney last week.

I don’t like Middlebrooks’ approach right now. When I watch his at-bats night in and night out, it feels like he is doing a lot of guessing, rather than recognizing the spin of the baseball out of the pitcher’s hand. Middlebrooks is a big, strong kid who can hit the ball to right field with authority. I’d like to see more of that. The good news is that the season is still relatively young. Middlebrooks is a good month/month and a half away from a much more respectable slash line than what he is sporting these days — .208/.243/.423. Ick.

Red Sox, Blue Jays: What to watch for

Photo via weei.com

The pitching matchups. The Red Sox, on paper, have the upper hand on the 9-17 Blue Jays in each of the three games during the series. Jon Lester will take the mound on Tuesday–opposed by Brandon Morrow. Clay Buchholz draws Mark Buehrle on Wednesday, while Ryan Dempster will take on either Josh Johnson or J.A. Happ. The Jays’ starting pitching, like much of their team, certainly does not lack talent, but the Red Sox hurlers are absolutely rolling right now.

Lester’s demeanor. The big lefty is an emotional guy. And he has no problem admitting that. However, I firmly believe that when Lester doesn’t get a close call (or two or three) he can let his emotions negatively affect his pitching. I’m confident that John Farrell has had discussions with him about showing up umpires while he is on the mound–like he did during his last start on Wednesday. It just doesn’t help your cause as a pitcher. Nevertheless, as long as Lester is pitching well, I don’t care if he gives the umpire the finger (seriously don’t do that — you’ll get ejected). But when his antics begin to affect his ability to execute his pitches — that’s when it becomes a problem.

Jose Bautista is back. The powerful right handed hitter did not play in any of the three games against the Red Sox earlier this month due to a minor ankle injury. He will be back in the Jays’ lineup this time around and is 10-45 against Lester with four home runs to his credit. (Side note: Brett Lawrie is back too. And he is an important player. I also really appreciate his hard-nosed approach to the game).

Jose Reyes is not back. He is nursing a severe left ankle injury suffered in mid-April during a game against Kansas City–a devastating blow for a struggling Blue Jays team. Reyes, as he so often does, showed us why the Marlins, the Jays, and a myriad of other teams salivated over acquiring his services as he blistered the baseball around the Rogers Centre in Toronto during the early-season series against the Sox. The guy is an elite talent at a primer position. We’ll wish him a successful recovery, but we certainly won’t mourn his absence during the next three games.

— (Keeping up with the theme) Shane Victorino‘s back. Literally. His back. It’s sore. According to reports, there is only inflammation present, and, by all accounts, the Red Sox are determined to keep Victorino off of the disabled listed. It’s worth noting that Jackie Bradley Jr. was back in Pawtucket’s lineup on Tuesday serving as the designated hitter. That is a solid indicator that Victorino will in fact be able to avoid a trip to the DL. However, he will not be in the lineup on Tuesday night. Daniel Nava has served admirably in right field.

The closer situation. Joel Hanrahan was officially activated by the Red Sox today. Although Farrell has not formally disclosed who will work the ninth during the next save situation, he has indicated enough to make fans believe it will be Andrew Bailey who gets the ball.

If that is the decision, I agree with it. Bailey, by and large, has been outstanding in Hanrahan’s absence. His stuff plays in the ninth–his fastball has shown a tremendous amount of life. And when he is healthy, he has proven to be excellent. For now, I would leave Bailey alone and ride things out.

Update: CSNNE.com’s Sean McAdam reported that Farrell informed both Bailey and Hanrahan that Bailey would remain the closer. Look for Hanrahan to work a few low leverage situations as he is eased back from his hamstring injury.

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