Adam Kaufman

A week into the Red Sox’ season, there’s plenty to like (and dislike)

2013 Red Sox WS banner.jpg

Yes, the Red Sox are a sub-.500 team at 3-4 and, no, they never held such a distinction last season. But this new campaign is barely underway. Seven games represent a mere 4.3 percent of the pre-playoff schedule. Boston still has as good a chance as any team in the American League East to win the division, and none of the other clubs are off to great starts either (see the first-place Rays and Yankees, each 4-3). There’s a long, long way to go.

But, considering Boston was swept only once in 2013 and never at home and the fact that’s already changed in 2014 with Milwaukee’s celebration-spoiling visit to Fenway Park’s Opening Weekend, there’s been panic throughout the Hub.

A week in, nothing’s perfect, but it’s far too early for irrational frustration. There’s plenty to like outside of selfies and ring ceremonies and an awful lot to dislike, too. The sad truth that 2013 is officially behind us might lead that list.

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Like: Starting pitching
The rotation was a strength for this year’s Red Sox entering the season and, to this early point, that’s held true. Jon Lester has looked sharp in his first two outings, posting a 2.51 ERA, though poor defense behind him and an irregular lack of run-support has kept the contract-hungry ace winless. A 2-0 John Lackey has picked up right where he left off in October, fellow veteran Jake Peavy has been effective, and Felix Doubront pitched better in his first start than a 5.06 ERA would indicate. As a staff, they have a 3.56 ERA. Only one of the five hurlers has disappointed, which brings me to…

Dislike: Clay Buchholz
Safe to say the Sox weren’t expecting Buchholz to allow six runs and a career-worst 13 hits in his season debut, all while failing to make it out of the fifth inning. The guy who went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 2013 was unrecognizable against the Brewers. Instead, the fifth starter who normally has top-of-the-rotation stuff showed a dip in velocity and all-around discomfort as he labored through a chilly night. A regression from last year was already expected, but not to his 2012 numbers, when he had a 4.56 ERA. However, it was probably just one awful start.

Like: Opportunity for youngsters
The 2014 season, while still promising in a very balanced division, may in some ways be the bridge year fans expected a year ago before an unlikely championship run. Despite worries that he might get off to a Dustin Pedroia in 2007-esque start, Xander Bogaerts has been tremendous at the plate (.360/.448/.440) to begin his first full regular season. He’s worked counts, shown great poise, and appears exceptionally comfortable against Major League pitching.

Jackie Bradley Jr., Pawtucket-bound before Shane Victorino was placed on the disable list, has also grown more comfortable with each opportunity. The Red Sox could have gone with more veteran role players with Victorino out, but they’ve fortunately elected to take advantage of Bradley’s skill in the field while simultaneously giving him a chance at the plate rather than limiting him to late-game defensive-replacement use. It’s early, but he’s started to capitalize after a miserable spring. With three hits and two key runs batted in on Monday, he’s batting .375 with an .813 OPS.

Dislike: Health concerns
While it’s nice Bradley is in Boston as opposed to down I-95, the big club’s early injuries and lack of depth in certain areas is already something to note. Victorino played admirably through his various nagging ailments in 2013 on the way to one of the best years of his career, but it’s fair to ask how long such production can last when durability is an ongoing problem. The projected part-time leadoff hitter has yet to play a game because of his hamstring and he’s been held away from the team because of the flu or an illness out of Contagion, and no one knows exactly when he’ll return.

Will Middlebrooks was just starting to get comfortable at the plate when he joined Victorino on the DL because of a calf strain. A calf strain. That will require two weeks on the shelf. Without him, some have revisited the Stephen Drew discussion, though his return seems unlikely at this point (as it should be). But, in Middlebrooks’ absence, the Sox are forced to get by with some combination of Jonathan Herrera and newly-signed journeyman Ryan Roberts, creating a large, powerless gap in the lineup.

David Ortiz hasn’t missed time, save for an unusual early-season off-day, and he’s swung a good bat, but he’s moving a bit gingerly, which is something that will be worth monitoring.

Like: Grady Sizemore
The three-time All-Star hasn’t been perfect in his return from more than two years away from the game, but the fact he’s here at all is something to appreciate. Moving past the Disney script waiting to be written, Sizemore has looked good overall. He’s had some ups and downs at the plate (two multi-hit games around a 1-for-10 slump, resulting in a .278 average), but he’s taken a few free passes, run well on the base-paths, and the center fielder’s defense has been excellent. I maintain this will be the steal of the winter for general manager Ben Cherington.

Dislike: Uncertainty in leadoff spot
In seven games, Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, and Sizemore have all had a crack at trying to replace Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the order, with Nava seeing the bulk of the opportunities. So far, it hasn’t worked out well. Red Sox leadoff hitters are batting .143 (4-for-28) with just two walks and a .273 on-base percentage. Victorino is expected to see some time there upon his return in a platoon with Nava unless something changes in the next week or so. Don’t be surprised if Bogaerts or Bradley gets a shot, too, but I think Sizemore will wind up the primary option as the season evolves. Big picture, his experience dating back to his time in Cleveland and presence as a table-setter (if healthy) slots the rest of the order best.

Like: Bullpen
Similar to the starters, the bullpen has been terrific with rare exception. Seven relievers have combined for a 2.14 ERA with 12 strikeouts per nine innings over 21 frames to begin the year, and a 39-year-old Koji Uehara continues to be laughably impressive. To this point, the robotic closer has allowed just three hits to the 16 batters he’s faced. Junichi Tazawa, Springfield native Chris Capuano, Brandon Workman, and Andrew Miller have all also been near flawless, while only Edward Mujica has disappointed.

Dislike: Lack of timely hitting and defense
With runners-in-scoring position, Boston’s batting just .175 (much improved after Monday’s 4-for-13 performance) with 13 RBI and a .494 OPS. Moreover, the team’s run-production drops sharply after the first three innings (12 runs in innings 1-3 vs. 12 runs from the fourth inning on), a key reason for the shortage of magic that engulfed Fenway seemingly night after night in 2013.

As troubling as some at-bats have looked, the play in the field has been an almost constant source of frustration. The Red Sox have averaged an error per game and along with those miscues have come a slew of mental mistakes and blunders that also could have been counted as errors. Injuries have forced some players out of their normal positions and others have experienced growing pains, all resulting in one of the worst defensive performances in the league to start the year.

Like: Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli
Pedroia and Napoli were two of the only hitters on Boston’s roster with production you could more or less pencil in before the season began. Pedroia, with his surgically-repaired thumb, is off to a strong start and, fortunately, is still healthy (which wasn’t the case at this time last year. Napoli, meanwhile, is a model of consistency. He homers and strikes out, rinse and repeat. He leads the Red Sox with seven RBI.

Dislike: Daniel Nava and A.J. Pierzynski
Nava, known for his ability to get on base, hasn’t done so very often through his first several games. The switch-hitter ranked fifth in the AL with a .385 OBP in his first full MLB season, but that number sits at .219 this year. Again, it’s early. As for Pierzynski, his numbers are not only down from last season’s success with the Rangers, but he’s been remarkably irritating to watch at the plate on account of his poor plate discipline. The free-swinger sees just 1.9 pitches per plate appearance, which ranks last in the majors among players with 20 or more trips to the dish. Alas, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

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