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August 24, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Can the Red Sox Make the Playoffs?

by Marc Normandin

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0:0000:00    With fewer than 40 games left on the schedule, time is running out for the Boston Red Sox in 2010. Mathematically they are still in the pennant race, and in a sport like baseball where the strangest things can and do occur, being mathematically in it is sometimes all you need—ask the 2007 Phillies how that worked out. That being said, the oddities of baseball aren't enough to rely on—can the Red Sox still make the playoffs, or are their efforts from here on out wasted given the seasons of the rival Rays and Yankees?

It was a given that one of the teams from the American League East's three-headed monster was going to be left to watch the playoffs from the comfort of their living rooms, but on paper, Boston was the least likely of the trio to do so when the season began. If you disagree, think of it this way—we're talking about a team that has lost significant playing time from Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Victor Martinez, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Mike Cameron, in addition to having to use Kevin Cash as the starting catcher when Jason Varitek also went down. Those aren't the lone injuries—plenty of hitters and pitchers landed on the disabled list at least once besides that group—but the fact that they are a handful of games out of the wild-card possession with all of the above occurring is nigh miraculous.

The club will never be 100 percent healthy this year. Pedroia returned, which was a cause for celebration, but he's already back on the disabled list because his foot wasn't fully healed. Youkilis is out for the year, and though he believes he could be back in time for the playoffs, the Sox need to get there first. Ellsbury is in the same boat, as he is supposed to miss 4-6 weeks, and Cameron's surgery will keep him on the shelf until 2011. Martinez is back, but his thumb injury may be sapping his power production—he's hit a paltry .271/.313/.364 since returning from the DL. Varitek may be back soon, but expecting him to hit at the level he did over his first 105 plate appearances is asking a bit much, especially given his recent track record of below-average offense.

The current Red Sox lineup has Ryan Kalish in left field (he began the year in Double-A Portland), Darnell McDonald in center (a minor-league free agent who began the year in Pawtucket), Jed Lowrie at second base (missed the beginning of the year with mono), and Mike Lowell at first base (relegated to the bench because of the off-season signing of free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre and also on the DL at times because of thumb problems and post-surgery issues with his hip) at first base. Kalish has fewer than 100 major-league plate appearances and is still dealing with the growing pains associated with being a 22-year-old rookie in the AL. McDonald has hit well enough (his .277 TAv puts him as above average in any outfield spot except for right field), but he isn't a suitable replacement for the expected production of Cameron or Ellsbury. Lowell's .245 TAv is not just below the league average for hitters, it's over 40 points below the first base average—he's dragging the team down, and with Carlos Delgado hitting the minor-league disabled list this weekend, the Sox may be stuck with Lowell there at least until Varitek returns and Martinez can move from catcher to firstbase.

Boston has been able to deal with the injuries to this point because players like McDonald, Daniel Nava (.280 TAv), and a resurgent Bill Hall (a .271 TAv and nearly 300 plate appearances playing everywhere except for catcher and first) have played surprisingly well and Lowrie and Kalish have also had short bouts of effectiveness. The thing is, to compete with the other juggernauts in the East, they need better players than this—with the cavalry now out for the year, it's going to be difficult for the stand-ins to put up the kind of fight Boston requires. Adding Johnny Damon via waivers from Tigers wouldn't do much for the team's chances, as he's no better at this point than Nava. As it stands, the Red Sox have lost 7 percent on their playoff chances in the past week, and have an 18.5 percent chance at the playoffs despite a 92-win pace—that's an uphill battle even if they were completely healthy.

Things would be easier if Boston was without other flaws, but the lineup isn't the only place to be hit hard by injuries. Josh Beckett hasn't looked like himself for much of this year, and though he's been unlucky, his back injury has messed with his command and he's not using his curveball as often. John Lackey has not been the ace Boston thought when they signed him as a free agent last winter, and there are concerns he won't be that kind of pitcher in the future (though his K/BB ratio has improved in the second half and changed the short-term outlook for him). The Sox need one of these two to step it up over their remaining starts in order to help out Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The starters need to be more consistently effective because Boston's bullpen is in shambles. For much of the year, it has been Daniel Bard, Jonathan Papelbon, and whoever hadn't failed much recently coming in as the third option. Looking at the breakdown of their WXRL tells you how things have gone: Their third-"best" reliever, Ramon Ramirez, was traded to San Francisco Giants, the next option, Dustin Richardson, is back at Triple-A Pawtucket, and Felix Doubront, in 6 2/3 innings out of the bullpen, has accumulated the next-most value. Moving Tim Wakefield and Michael Bowden to the bullpen has cost the Sox more than a half-win in 25 2/3 innings, and though placing Hideki Okajima to the disabled list was an excellent example of addition by subtraction, the Red Sox  still lack a viable third option out of the 'pen.

Taking a deeper look, you can see that outside of Bard and Papelbon, no Boston pitcher deals in high-leverage situations. Manny Delcarmen is the lone active reliever with a Leverage score over 1.0, and he's been replacement level all season. Okajima is next in line after the pair above, but he cost the Sox a full win in the standings over 32 2/3 innings. Failure to pick up a useful reliever on the waiver wire or at the trade deadline has helped to doom Boston's chances. Even if the Red Sox are still in the race mathematically, if they can't find one soon, the 'pen is going to continue to cost them games.

A lineup missing two of the most productive players in all of baseball, a defense missing four important gloves, a bullpen without depth and a rotation with a pair of struggling Texans makes this a playoff run that most likely will not have a happy ending. Every aspect of this team is now flawed due to injuries, whereas at the beginning of the season they were overflowing with so much talent that the potential problems of the bullpen almost didn't matter. As stated, Boston could make the playoffs—in the sense it hasn't been eliminated from contention yet. Saying the Red Sox will make the playoffs is a case of poor analysis as all of the evidence points to the start of an early offseason and a September with more 2011 focus than 2010 in Boston.

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox,  Year Of The Injury

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