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Red Sox midseason report card

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 13, 2009 09:14 AM

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Editor's note: Check out the interactive version of Mazz's midseason report card, which allows you to grade each player and see the aggregate reader grades as well as Mazz's.

Midway through this season, the Red Sox are exactly who we thought they would be: playoff contenders with a remarkably deep pitching staff and an effective offense, factors that have made them as viable a championship threat as anyone in baseball.

Are the Sox perfect? Heck no. Depending on what happens with Mike Lowell, the Sox may need help on the left side of the infield. Regardless, they could probably use a lefthanded hitter. The No. 3 spot in the rotation remains a black hole and the bullpen, in a best-case, scenario, could probably use a lefthanded specialist.

Still, all things considered, the Red Sox concluded a solid first half with Josh Beckett's shutout of the Kansas City Royals and are on pace for 99 victories. With that in mind, here are this year's midterm grades (in alphabetical order):

POSITIONAL PLAYERS

Jeff Bailey (C) -- The classic platoon candidate, he is 10 for 25 (a .400 average) with a 1.220 OPS against lefthanded pitching, just 6 for 52 (a measly .115 average) with a .515 OPS against righthanded pitching. The Red Sox knew all of this coming into the season, though Bailey probably has played a little more against righties than they might have liked. Regardless, he has given them everything he should have -- nothing more, nothing less.

Rocco Baldelli (B) -- Signed to back up J.D. Drew and spot start against lefthanded pitching, Baldelli has celebrated his return to New England by batting .328 with a .900 OPS against southpaws. Availability really hasn't been too much of an issue, but only because the Red Sox have managed his workload quite carefully. Among players who essentially spent the entire first half with the team, no one has fewer at-bats against righthanders (27).

Jason Bay (A-) -- The last couple of weeks have been tough -- a .153 average and 25 strikeouts in 17 games -- but prior to that, he established himself as a candidate for the American League Most Valuable Player Award. During the break, the Red Sox are expected to talk with his agent about a contract for 2010 and beyond. At the moment, while earning $7.5 million, he is eligible for free agency and could be in line for something in the range of $15 million annually.

J.D. Drew (B) -- As improbable as it seems, the Red Sox rank third among all AL teams in OPS from the right field position, behind only the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins. (Stuff like that makes you wonder if Theo Epstein knew what he was doing when he gave Drew $14 million a year.) On the whole, Drew has been healthy and involved, now assuming the role of leadoff hitter. Has he been All-Star-caliber? No. But all the way around, pretty solid -- as usual.

Jacoby Ellsbury (A-) -- Don't look now, but the dynamic young center fielder is now growing consistent. Ellsbury hit .287 in April, .308 in May, and .313 in June. Since the start of last season, nobody in the game has stolen more bases. For now, the Red Sox are quite content to have him providing offense from the bottom third of the lineup. Long-term, he needs to find his way back to the top of the order, or, perhaps, even the middle.

Nick Green (B+) -- Are you kidding? Given the injury to Jed Lowrie and the continuing defensive issues with Julio Lugo, shortstop could have been a train wreck. Green hasn't been great, but on the whole he's been very good. And since May 18, among all major league shortstops with at least 30 games at the position, no one has made fewer errors. Seems as if the Wes Welker look-alike has more than Welker's face; he has his hands, too.

Mark Kotsay (B) -- Kotsay missed much of the first half recovering from injury, but where would they be without him now? With Mike Lowell out, Terry Francona has the option to play Kotsay at first and Kevin Youkilis at third, especially against righthanded pitching. Against righties, Kotsay is .281, albeit with relatively little power, and the defense has been good, as usual. Again, the dropoff could have been huge here. What a luxury to have on the bench.

George Kottaras (C+) -- Admittedly, there hasn't been a heck of a lot of offense, but again, that's not the point. Thanks to the Josh Bard experiment in 2006, we saw what could happen when Tim Wakefield gets paired with a new catcher. Kottaras has seven passed balls and opponents have stolen successfully on 22 of 26 attempts against him -- but those numbers are a product of the knuckler. In the end, Wakefield has 11 wins. The catcher gets some credit there.

Mike Lowell (B) -- Make no mistake: The first two weeks after the break will be critical because the Red Sox need him healthy and productive. Among all AL teams, only the New York Yankees (Alex Rodriguez) and Tampa Bay Rays (Evan Longoria) have had a better OPS from their third basemen than the Red Sox. Lowell has lost half a step in the field, but his hands remain among the best in baseball. The long-term question for the Red Sox is obvious: Can he hold up?

Julio Lugo (D-) -- With or without the game-winning hit in Baltimore, his offense has been decent. The problem, obviously, is that the defense has been a disaster. Among all big league shortstops with at least 200 innings at the position, Lugo has the lowest fielding percentage in baseball. (Read that again.) The Sox finally may be forced to make a decision on him in the coming days, and we all know it's time. One thing: It's not always his fault.

David Ortiz (C-) -- Strange season, eh? At his lowest point, on June 2, Ortiz was batting .186 with one home run and 18 RBIs and a .566 OPS in 47 games. Since that time, in 34 games, he leads the Red Sox in home runs (11), RBIs (29), and OPS (1.011) while looking very much like the Big Papi of old. One good month does not undo two positively terrible ones, but Ortiz certainly is getting there. Looks like this could be a respectable year after all.

Dustin Pedroia (A-) -- The reigning American League MVP hasn't hit for quite the same power he did a year ago, though some of that has to do with the way teams are pitching him. Especially at Fenway Park, few dare to venture to the inner half of the plate against him. Still, Pedroia has been a catalyst for these Sox and ranks among the league leaders in runs, doubles, and hits. As usual, the defense has been rock solid. The love affair continues.

Jason Varitek (B+) -- Know where the Red Sox ranked last season among the 30 big league clubs in OPS from their catchers? That would be 26th (and 13th in the AL). Know where they rank this year? Fifth (and third). Varitek isn't quite the All-Star catcher who backstopped this team at the height of his career, but he's had a nice first half while giving the Red Sox more from the position than just about any team in baseball. Nice comeback. Nice story.

Kevin Youkilis (A-) -- Factoring in his stint on the disabled list, here's what his numbers project to over 162 games: 35 home runs, 116 RBIs and 123 runs scored -- and those come despite a recent stretch during which he batted .194 over the span of 28 games. Now Youkilis looks like he's getting hot again -- all while shuttling between first base and third base effortlessly. With a good second half, he will be in the thick of the MVP voting again.

INCOMPLETE -- Aaron Bates, Dusty Brown, Chris Carter, Jonathan Van Every, Jed Lowrie, Gil Velzaquez.


PITCHERS

Daniel Bard (B+) -- Can't you just see the confidence growing? After getting knocked around by the Phillies on June 14, Bard has 12 strikeouts and three walks while allowing just six hits (all singles) in his last eight appearances covering 10 innings. There has been some indication recently that Terry Francona may start using him in more important situations, which speaks volumes. If this kid gets it rolling, a very good bullpen will get even better.

Josh Beckett (A) -- After a shaky month to start the year -- Beckett had a 7.22 ERA at the end of April -- the last 13 starts have been sterling. During that time, Beckett is 9-1 with a 2.14 ERA while limiting opponents to a .204 batting average. He has been everything an ace is supposed to be -- and he has been healthy, which can only make you wonder what might have been in October 2008. With any luck, of course, the Sox will get to find out this year.

Manny Delcarmen (A-) -- Since the start of last season, there are just 17 relievers in baseball who have pitched at least 100 innings and maintained an ERA of 3.00 or better -- and the Red Sox have four of them. Along with Jonathan Papelbon (of course), Hideki Okajima, and Ramon Ramirez, Delcarmen is in that group. Maybe he's more of a middle man than a true setup guy, but the results generally have been good. And like the others, he has proven durable, too.

Jon Lester (B+) -- His struggles lasted about two weeks longer than Beckett's -- Lester had a 6.51 ERA on May 15 -- but what has happened since has been nearly Pedro-esque. In his last 10 outings, Lester is 6-2 with a 2.01 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 67 innings, the latter of which translates into 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Don't look now, but the Red Sox may have themselves the best lefthander in baseball.

Javier Lopez (F) -- OK, after a solid 2008, the early part of 2009 was a disaster and earned him a demotion. Lopez got used in some situations out of desperation -- he really isn't suited to face righthanded batters -- but he also allowed lefties to bat .429 against him with a 1.110 OPS. Still, in case anyone hasn't noticed, much of the damage against the Sox bullpen of late has been done by lefthanded batters. This team really could use a lefthanded specialist.

Justin Masterson (C-) -- What we have here, for lack of a better word, is a bit of a regression. Masterson was one of the keys to the bullpen last season, but recently he has looked like the most vulnerable reliever on the team. His problems against lefties are growing -- a .314 average, .370 OBP and .832 OPS -- and he's been a big part of recent bullpen meltdowns against Baltimore and Kansas City. These are probably just growing pains, but watch closely.

Daisuke Matsuzaka (F) -- However you want to slice it, Matsuzaka's 2009 season has been nothing short of a train wreck. In his eight starts, Matsuzaka went 1-5 and the Red Sox went 2-6. (Overall, the No. 3 spot in the rotation has produced a 6-12 record; the Sox are otherwise 47-22.) In 35 innings, he allowed an astonishing 78 baserunners. Let's hope this is all the result of a fatigued shoulder -- and not the sign of dwindling effectiveness.

Hideki Okajima (A-) -- Take away one wretched outing in the 11-10 implosion at Baltimore on June 30, and Okajima has a 2.17 ERA over the balance of the first half. Since the start of 2007 season, Okajima ranks in top 10 of all major league relievers in ERA (minimum of 150 innings). The point? Don't take this guy for granted. He's durable, reliable, and effective against both lefthanders and righthanders. Any team would love to have him.

Jonathan Papelbon (A-) -- OK, fine, so the performances have not been quite as pleasing to the eye as those in years past. We all have seen some slippage here. That said, Papelbon looked as sharp as he has all year during Friday night's 1-0 win over the Royals and he remains one of the truly dominating closers in baseball. As worrisome as some of his outings have been this year, ask yourself this: What would the Red Sox do if he were lost for any period of time?

Brad Penny (B) -- Expectations make all the difference here, but after a horrid April (8.66 ERA), Penny has settled into that No. 5 role quite nicely, posting a 3.79 ERA. Sure, the Red Sox would love to see him go a little deeper into games, but at the back end of the rotation, his primary responsibility is to give them a chance to win. He's done that. As Josh Beckett said, when you get right down to it, how many teams have five starters better than this guy?

Ramon Ramirez (A-) -- Ramirez has hit a wall lately -- he has a 5.02 ERA in his last 16 games -- but don't kid yourself. He's been one of the best setup men in baseball. Since the start of last season, in fact, only five relievers in the game (minimum of 100 innings) have an ERA lower than Ramirez' 2.53 -- and one of them is Jonathan Papelbon. In the Boston bullpen, nobody needs the All-Star break more -- and nobody is more deserving of time off.

Takashi Saito (B-) -- There was lots of hype when the Red Sox picked him up to be their third-day closer, but let's be honest. This hasn't turned out quite as the Sox hoped. In part because the Sox bullpen has been healthy Saito hasn't really been employed in any situations of consequence. The Sox are just 14-17 when he pitches, which tells you that Terry Francona is more comfortable using him when the team is behind. Overall, he's been fine. But he's expendable.

Tim Wakefield (A-) -- Went back and looked at the game logs, and he had two real clunkers: at the Angels on May 13 and at Toronto on May 29. Excluding those, Wakefield went 11-1 with a 3.53 ERA. Not bad for a 42-year-old guy, eh? Of course, all of the starts count and we cannot pick and choose, but the bottom line is that Wakefield already has won more games than he did during all of 2008. As Terry Francona says, he always seems to give the Sox a chance.

John Smoltz (C+) -- A bad one, a good one, a bad one, a good one. Sounds a little like the Curt Schilling of 2007, no? Remember, Smoltz is here for late August, September, and October, and the Red Sox are building him up with that in mind. There are going to be some inconsistencies along the way, but the club can afford that given the depth of its staff and rotation. Starting after the break, we should look for slow, steady improvement. The goal is to peak late.

INCOMPLETE - Michael Bowden, Hunter Jones.

MANAGER

Terry Francona (A) -- Well, here we are again, and the Red Sox are atop the division, looking like the class of the American League. There have been no flare-ups to speak of. The pitching staff has been handled well. Francona is in the first year of a three-year contract extension -- and he's the first manager in Boston to begin a sixth season in roughly 60 years. Some of us never thought this was possible, but have we reached the point where the manager has New England's complete confidence?

GENERAL MANAGER

Theo Epstein (A) -- His biggest test has yet to come -- that would be the trading deadline -- but let's examine his offseason moves: Smoltz, Penny, Ramirez, Green, Baldelli, Kotsay; meanwhile, Junichi Tazawa is tearing it up in the minors. The Mark Teixeira failure could have long-term implications -- was that his fault or ownership's? -- but Theo has scored big on the lesser investments. Now all he has to do is sign Jason Bay. After all, what are the alternatives?

Tony's Top 5

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The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
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For 2011 Red Sox, there was plenty of blame to go around Oct. 1, 2011. The disgraceful collapse of the Red Sox stoked the fire in all of us.
3
Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in June 4, 2012. Improbably, the Celtics pushed the Heat to the limit.
2
Thrill is back for Patriots Jan. 30, 2012. Another Super Bowl has even Bill Belichick musing.
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You’ve got to believe June 15, 2011. On the morning of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, we all had reason to believe.
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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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