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Red Sox may be on the road to nowhere

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 19, 2010 08:23 AM

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The schedule says that the Red Sox are heading west, but let’s be honest. It feels like they’re going south.

And fast.

A mere half-game out of first place – yes, first place – as recently as two weeks ago, the free-falling Red Sox dropped a 4-2 decision to the Texas Rangers yesterday to fall a spongy 6 1/2 games (seven in the loss column) behind the New York Yankees in the American League East. In the AL wild card race, the Red Sox trail the Tampa Bay Rays by four in the loss column. Now comes a 10-game road trip during which the Yankees (vs. Los Angeles, vs. Kansas City and at Cleveland) and Rays (at Baltimore, at Cleveland, vs. Detroit) have noticeably softer schedules, which cannot help but make one wonder if the trading deadline will have any significance at all.

This is an unusual thing to say at this stage of the schedule, but the Red Sox’ season might be at stake in the next 10 days.

"We can’t keep waiting for the injured guys to come back," center fielder Mike Cameron told reporters following yesterday’s latest setback, the Sox’ eighth in the last 11 games. "We need to go out and win some games."

The need is indisputable.

The capability is something altogether different.

Of course, we all know the score here. The Red Sox are beat up and, finally, the injuries have caught up with them. Nonetheless, there are 70 games to play in this 2010 season, and the Red Sox already have proven that they are capable of beating first-rate competition when their house is in order. Following a dreadful 4-9 start to this season, the Red Sox went 45-23 over the next 68 games, a winning percentage of .662 that ranked first in baseball during that period and that translates into 107 victories over the course of a 162-game schedule.

During that stretch, the Red Sox beat bad teams and good ones. They pitched and hit. And they did so while getting virtually nothing from Jacoby Ellsbury and Josh Beckett, suggesting they could be even a shade better.

Beckett (Friday) and Clay Buchholz (Wednesday) are both due back this week, but their impact is debatable given the current state of a patchwork lineup. Over the weekend, John Lackey and Jon Lester pitched well enough to win; Lester suffered a loss and Lackey needed the late-game heroics of Kevin Youkilis to escape with a no-decision. Over the last 11 games, the Red Sox have batted .228 and scored 45 runs, the latter of which includes a 14-run outburst against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Do the math. That means the Red Sox have averaged 3.1 runs per game in the remaining 10 contests. Even general manager Theo Epstein’s projected run-prevention machine would have had a hard time winning with that.

With regard to the upcoming schedule, the Red Sox seemingly will catch one rather sizable break: during a four-game stop in Seattle later this week, they will face every Mariners starter except wonder boy Felix Hernandez, who is scheduled to pitch Wednesday. Still, do not underestimate the opponents on this trip. The Oakland A’s (tonight through Wednesday) and Angels (next week) both have winning records at home, and the Mariners (the poster boys for run prevention this year) are close to .500 at the spacious Safeco Field. A healthy roster would be favored to win three times in a four-game set at Seattle, but the current band of Red Sox comes with no guarantees, no matter the opponent.

Over the weekend, curiously, Red Sox officials confirmed to Globe baseball reporter Nick Cafardo that the luxury tax could be a deterrent with regard to the trading deadline. If this didn’t sound alarms, it should have. With the Red Sox already over the $170 million threshold, they stand to pay a 22.5 percent tax on every dollar they commit from here. That might sound like a sizable amount, but given the size of the operation, it isn’t.

Assuming the Red Sox were never really in the market for a superstar-type acquisition – and doesn’t this confirm it? – consider the following. They obviously need bullpen help. Let’s say they could acquire a reliever with a $6 million salary. With the schedule more than half over, the remaining salary on that player projects to about $2.6 million. A tax of 22.5 percent on that amount would come to about $583,333, which brings the entire cost of the acquisition to about $3.2 million.

Know what that means? It means the Red Sox are already hinting that they’re unwilling to invest another $3.2 million in this team, which seems odd for a club with the second-highest payroll in baseball.

Of course, depending on what happens over the next 10 days, Epstein may not be faced with a decision at all. If the Red Sox go, say, 4-6 on this trip and the Yankees and Rays go 7-3, the Red Sox will trail Tampa by seven in the loss column and New York by a whopping 10 games on the morning of July 30. The season will be 100 games old. Epstein will almost certainly take a hands-off approach and, even with bodies set to return, the Red Sox will be nearing life support.

Presumably, Red Sox players know and understand this.

Whether they can do anything about it is another matter entirely.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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