The Red Sox have won four of five games entering a four-game series in Anaheim. As Boston begins the set with the surging Angels, it continues to analyze what it has at all levels. It's early, but attrition will begin to play a part in how this roster is managed going forward.
Our weekly edition of the Red Sox Lineup, nine thoughts on the local nine, takes a look at some of the issues involved in roster management, as well as a few other items of note.
1. General manager Theo Epstein said this spring that he wanted to bolster the organization's catching depth. With Jarrod Saltalamacchia struggling, does that depth become an even more precious resource? If so, it's important to watch what's going on down on the farm. To do so, it might be safe to look past Pawtucket. Luis Exposito is impressive, but needs a bit more seasoning, and new addition Michael McKenry is off to a slow start.
In Portland, however, is the intriguing tandem of Ryan Lavarnway and Tim Federowicz. Lavarnway is the offensive stud of the pairing, who has apparently made some strides defensively. Federowicz is noted as an outstanding defensive catcher, but he entered Wednesday hitting .361 with two homers in his first nine games.
2. The other area of "flux," if you will, is shortstop. However, this is one of those good problems to have. If Jed Lowrie stays hot, he'll stay in the lineup. But if the Sox need to go to Marco Scutaro at shortstop for a day, they won't suffer any and can find at-bats for Lowrie in other ways. That said, with Lowrie on the rise, the 35-year-old Scutaro seeing more time on the bench and youngster Jose Iglesias knocking on the door, there figures to be a few teams interested in the services of Scutaro.
The timing might be right for Boston to pull something off. Not only does it have needs (pitching depth, specifically), but there are teams that could use someone like Scutaro — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Minnesota. These are all teams that could start him or use him in a part-time role (might need Boston to eat a bit of the salary for that to occur). It won't happen just yet, but if we get midway through the year and Scutaro is playing twice a week or so, look for a change.
3. Clay Buchholz was picked by several publications to have one of the more severe declines in his numbers. The 2010 season was a very fortunate one for Buchholz, they said, citing a .261 average on balls in play, well below the norm.
Well, his BABIP is even lower and his strand rate is even higher right now, showing he continues to find his way out of pickles, but Buchholz, as a whole, has been uneven out of the gate. He did get his first win of the year Wednesday in Oakland, but walked four, gave up his sixth home run in 20 1/3 innings and needed 102 pitches to get through 5 1/3.
There could be several factors involved in the slow start. For one, Buchholz had some rocky outings near the end of spring training that cut down his pitch count. He may still be building himself up in terms of strength right now, as evidenced by a reduced velocity compared to last season (fastball speed down nearly two mph from last year). Also, could the loss of Victor Martinez be hurting him? Those two developed a pretty strong working relationship last season, which was one of the factors in Buchholz's breakout campaign; with Martinez behind the plate in 27 of his 28 games, Buchholz had a 2.13 ERA.
It's early, but these are some things to think about. Perhaps the fact that his pitch count has increased in each outing is a sign he is getting stronger and will be back to his normal self soon.
4. It feels as if it is a near-given that Rich Hill will be with this team soon. Hill had already impressed in spring training (8 2/3 scoreless innings) and is building off that at Pawtucket, where he is 1-0 with a save and a 1.69 ERA (before allowing three runs Wednesday night, Hill had thrown 21 1/3 scoreless innings overall since joining the organization last year). With Hideki Okajima having a horrid debut Tuesday night in Oakland, the search for left-handed help might continue. That is, if the Red Sox feel the definitive need to have one.
Hill underwent a recent transformation to his delivery. His arm slot has dropped, an alteration that the organization feels will make him extremely tough on lefties, even though he already has been so in his career. Hill is out of options, so the team will want to be a bit more sure of things before they bring him up. That could be sooner rather than later with the way things have gone with lefties so far.
5. On the subject of Pawtucket, there are two players whose fast starts could mean something for the big club going forward.
Second baseman Tony Thomas, acquired in the Robert Coello deal this winter, is batting .375 (12-for-32) with three homers, one triple, two doubles, 11 RBIs and three stolen bases. Yamaico Navarro, who plays third base but can move around a bit, is hitting .333 (16-for-48) with five doubles.
Whether Jed Lowrie completely supplants Marco Scutaro or not, there will be a time when the Red Sox need another utility infielder. Navarro would be a logical choice, as he has a taste of the major leagues and showed a very capable glove this spring. Thomas is rather limited to second base as far as infield positions are concerned, so his lack of versatility might hurt him in that regard — he is essentially an insurance plan in the event of injuries. Still, if those two continue to swing a hot bat, the Red Sox might be willing to give them a shot if an extra infielder is needed for a few days, or for an even longer period of time.
6. One of the "concerns" regarding the Red Sox when they entered the season was a lineup leaning too far to the left, and how that might hurt them once a good southpaw was on the mound. Well, they just went through a stretch in which they played six lefties in a span of seven games, and were 4-3. The guys who provided the biggest concern (J.D. Drew, David Ortiz) have had remarkable success against left-handers, posting a combined .342 (13-for-38) mark with a pair of home runs. Boston's batting average against lefties is 16 points higher than the other side and an OPS 45 points higher.
Although the offense has struggled as a whole, there are no immediate issues when it faces southpaws. A versatile roster has helped in that regard, as have the turnarounds of Drew and Ortiz.
7. Do we give Dustin Pedroia enough credit for his defense? He has a Gold Glove Award and a reputation as a quality defender, but, the more he is out there, the more we are reminded of his brilliance. Pedroia has made a half-dozen plays, or more, that are of the get-out-of-your-seat variety, as well as every routine play. He leads all second basemen with 63 assists, despite playing in fewer innings than each of the next 10 guys on that list. Some of that is coincidental; opposing hitters may just be hitting many balls to second base. But if you watch Pedroia game in and game out you realize how often he turns those fringe plays — that others would either boot, or never get to — into outs. Pedroia's UZR rating of 2.7 is nearly twice that of his nearest competitor, and, of course, he has not committed an error.
8. In case you missed it, Wednesday was the 99th anniversary of the first game ever played at Fenway Park, a 7-6, 11-inning win over New York (David Ortiz had a walk-off hit). Wednesday also marked the announcement of plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the old park in 2012. Befitting a team and a place that has such a strong connection with the fans, the Red Sox organization is asking fans to take part in the preparations for the party by submitting ideas, memories and stories on www.fenwaypark100.com. Also included in the plans is the sale of bricks upon which fans can leave a personalized message to be housed in the concourse inside gates B and C, as well as a sale of seats that have been taken out as part of the 10-year renovation.
9. Since we are on the subject of ancient baseball history, did you see the story about how the 1918 World Series may have been thrown by some members of the Chicago Cubs? In analyzing some of the plays that may have been involved in any schemes, it is even more interesting to note one other aspect of that series.
There were thousands of empty seats at Fenway Park for each of the three games the city hosted. The probable reason is World War I and its effect on the country at the time. Because of the conflict, the season was shortened, and the Fall Classic was actually played in the summer, in early September. Still, wouldn't the weather be even better then? Hard to imagine, when tickets for the Cubs and Red Sox' meeting in 2011 are going for hundreds of dollars, that a World Series between the two would lack attendance. It was a different time, for sure.