The 2014 Red Sox have 16 games under their belt and are off to a 7-9 start which is three games out of first in the AL East ( more on that at the end of this piece). Not exactly the beginning to their world title defense the fans ( and likely the team) were hoping for but there have been positives to the start.
Here are a few random notes and thoughts on the Sox so far.
First, this note is a little late, but it is was thrill attending the home opener ( along with Barry and Brandon) and be able to witness the Red Sox receive their 2013 World Series rings. The entire ceremony which included the marathon bombing survivors and families, the Boston Pops, banners from previous championship teams, the Dropkick Murphys, and former Pats, Bruins, and Celtics
(hello, Leon Powe), and their title trophies, and so much more. Despite dropping the game to Milwaukee it was a great day with great atmosphere.
The Red Sox offense has not been up to its usual standards so far, especially there has been a lack of hitting with runners on base. There is a fine line between reasons and excuses sometimes, but I think you have to chalk up some of the scoring paucity to the typical cold April weather. In addition the Red Sox have been unable to put the full starting nine on the field with Shane Victorino having missed all 16 games and Will Middlebrooks going down with a calf injury the day after the home opener ( in that game Middlebrooks hit a missile of a home run into the monster seats). Victorino was supposed to have started his minor league rehab in Portland three days ago, but the Sea Dogs have been postponed each of the last three days due to the cold, rainy weather. Let's get all hands on deck before deciding this offense has been permanently damaged by losing Ellsbury, Salty, and Drew. ( it hasn't, I believe)
Speaking of injuries the Red Sox seemed to have dodged three cannonball sized bullets on that front. Dustin Pedroia had injured his wrist during the home opener, and missed a Yankee game last weekend. But upon returning to Boston, the MRI showed only some inflammation, no fracture. He received a cortisone shot and only missed two games. It is very hard to imagine this squad going forward successfully if Pedroia had to have missed a significant remainder of the year. Another dodge was Mike Napoli only ( I say only only, but did you see that finger sticking sideways, yeech) dislocating rather than breaking his finger after a head first (hands first??) slide into second base. Napoli not only has the all important job of hitting behind David Ortiz, but at this point of the new season, he leads the Sox in home runs, RBI, batting average, hits, and on base percentage. In other words damned near everything. The last of the three injuries the Red Sox appear to have weathered with minimal effect is the stiffness in Koji Uehara's shoulder. Two years ago while pitching for Texas, Uehara missed 66 days with a similar sensation in that area. His MRI testing came back clean and Koiji returned to the hill last night and had a save to end the road trip. There is some thought that as the MRI suggests, there is nothing really wrong, it is just Koji being a little concerned based on the 2012 episode. Let us hope the Red Sox have truly dodged this one as well.
As haphazardly as the offense has begun, the pitching for the most part has been outstanding. To me this is a strong sign that this Red Sox team is still well positioned to take the AL East. Both Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront have left something to be desired in some of their starts, but have glimmers of their abilities. But the other three starters have all been strong each time out. Jon Lester, after taking a perfect game into the sixth and outdueling Chris Sale for the win last night, has put up outstanding starts in each of his four trips to the mound. Veterans John Lackey and Jake Peavy have each turned in strong starts in each of their three appearances so far. Lester's ERA is 2.17 and John Lackey, with a small hiccup in last start, is at 3.86. Jake Peavy leads the starting staff at this point at 1.91.
The bullpen has been every bit as good as the rotation, even with Koji missing a week. Newcomers Burke Badenhop and Edward Mujica have had their up and downs so far and will hopefully adjust to pitching in Boston. Andrew Miller returning from last year's mid season foot injury seems to be rounding into shape. Miller's ERA is 1.50 and his control seems to be coming around with seven strikeouts so far. The three stalwarts of the 2013 pen, Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, and Craig Breslow ( after returning from the DL) all have an ERA of 0.00. Another pitcher with spotless 0.00 ERA is newcomer Chris Capuano. The long time National League starting pitcher and Massachusetts native seems to be thriving in the Boston bullpen and has pitched some keys innings.
It was really great to see Xander Bogaerts go deep for the first time in the young season last night, off All Star Chris Sale no less. It was a real blast, and although the measurement of home run lengths seem to not be official at times, this one is being reported at 444 feet. Bogaerts only had one home run in majors last year on September 7th at Yankee Stadium off Jim Miller (not exactly Chris Sale). That bomb was reported at 443 feet. I know there are stats for everything these days, but you have to wonder if any big leaguer has ever hit his first two home runs for a combined 887 feet! For those of you wondering where Xander' home run power has been remember this note. In the last two seasons at Salem, Portland, and Pawtucket, Bogaerts has hit two April home runs. He has hit 33 after April.
Jackie Bradley, Jr. had been optioned to Pawtucket at the end of spring camp, but got a reprieve when Victorino pulled a hammy in the final exhibition game. Over the first sixteen games, Jackie has seemingly taken full advantage and secured a regular spot in center field. His defense in center and right field, when asked to play there, has been spectacular at times. But mostly Bradley, Jr.'s defense is something you need to behold day in and day out. He is always where he needs to be on defense, and glory be he can actually throw, a novelty in the last decade or two for Boston in center field. I said seemingly has secured a spot because there are a couple of issues still lurking. First, JBJr did struggle somewhat on this recent road trip and his batting average is down to .227. But his OBP, always a key part of his game in the minors, is at .346. The only two Red Sox regulars with higher OBP are Mike Napoli at .400 and Bogaerts at .397 (David Ross is at .389). The other scenario which could still send Bradley, Jr. back to AAA when Victorino is activated (likely next week) is the fact he does have options and could be sent back. The other players in this equation seem to be Daniel Nava and Mike Carp. You could include Johnny Gomes, but his right handed bat, if nothing else, keeps his roster spot. Nava also has an option left, even though he has been in the bigs for the last year and a half. Due to Daniel's slow 2014 start some are advocating this rather than send down Bradley, Jr. The other move would be to trade or release Mike Carp. To me Daniel Nava and Mike Carp are pretty much the same player, or at least could have the same role on this team. If your outfield is Grady Sizemore, Bradley, Jr., and Victorino from left to right (and it should be!) with Gomes as a right handed hitting 4th/5th outfielder, then Nava or Carp are the 4th/5th outfielder who is also a backup first baseman. After watching Mike Carp try to play left field at Fenway for the home opener (unsuccessfully, I might add) if it comes down to this choice keep Nava and trade Carp. I think you could trade Carp for something of some value, a minor leaguer likely, rather than have to release him. There is at least one rumor out there that the Sox do not want to designate Carp for assignment and then not be able to find a trade partner because they are concerned the Yankees would snap him up if he is released. The other reason given for keeping Carp over Jackie is to hang on to as many players as possible. I get this but if the Sox need another corner out fielder I believe rookie Bryce Brentz could help with that and provide another right handed bat. It comes down to this for me: is this team better with Jackie Bradley, Jr. or Mike Carp on it?
Tonight the Red Sox come back to Fenway to begin a seven game home stand with Baltimore for four games and three next week with the Yankees. This will begin their longest stretch, weather permitting, at home this season, 15 of the next 18 through May 8th will be at Fenway. Besides the O's and New York the Sox will host the Rays, A's , and Reds after a three game stop in Canada to play the Jays. The upcoming Oriole series will include a Sunday night ceremony remembering the Marathon bombing victims and survivors as well as the first Patriots Day Monday morning game(who in the hell came up with a schedule that has a Sunday night game before the AM Patriots Day game?) since the bombing of the Marathon finish line. This may represent some closure on the 2013 season and all of these upcoming home games may give ample opportunity for this version of Red Sox to move upward in the AL East.
Lastly, I want to go back to my opening paragraph which mentioned the Red Sox current 7-9 record leaving them three games out of first. How important is a winning April? I did some research recently using the nine most successful teams in the last 60 years or so for the Red Sox. I did not go back further than that because the seasons started late in April then. The nine teams were the six pennant winners 1967, 1975, 1986, 2004, 2007, and 2013, plus two teams that went to Game 7 of the ALCS: 2003 and 2008. Finally I included the 1978 team which won 99 games but unfortunately came up short trying to win #100.
Of these nine teams only one had a losing April, the '75 club went 7-9. The teams from the 2000's on this list played especially well with W-L records of 18-9, 15-6, 16-8, 17-12. and 18-8. So about 89% of these strong Sox clubs had a winning April. I certainly have not given up on the '14 Sox having a winning April, but just in case I have found a corollary to my original "truth". Since this year's AL East has been bunched together so far, I checked these same nine Red Sox teams to see what their standing to first place was at the end of play on April 30. Even though 89% is a strong indicator I have found another that is 100%. All nine of the aforementioned Sox teams were within at least three games of first place at the end of April. The '75, '78, and '03 teams were 3 games behind, the others ranged from 2 games behind to 3 1/2 ahead( 2007). If the Red Sox are looking to repeat, it seems over the next two weeks they should get over .500 and certainly need to stay no further out than their current three games behind.