Saturday, August 18, 2007

Sox Bats Showing Positive Signs

I think one thing was made clear today. David Ortiz is healthy. A day after tying a game in the 8th inning with a 2-run double, Ortiz scored the winning run with a grand slam home run. It was his seventh hit, and his second home run in his last three games. Ortiz has been hampered by a shoulder strain and sore quadriceps most of the season. If Ortiz is now healthy, it would be as if the Red Sox just picked up an extra slugger to help them down the stretch.

Ortiz hasn't been the only hot hitter of late. The Red Sox hottest hitter, Julio Lugo went 2-4. He's now 8 for his last 19 (.421) and coming into tonights game has hit .357/.383/.500 in August. And while J.D. Drew only got one hit today, it was his sixth hit in his last three games.

If the Red Sox bats get hot now, it may be enough to put away the division. With less than 40 games left in the season, a give game divisional lead isn't as easy to overcome as one might think. In order for the Yankees to catch the Red Sox, their winning percentage down the stretch would have to be .128 points higher than that of the Red Sox. To give you an idea of what a difference that is in level of play, it's significantly more than the current difference in winning percentage between the Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays. With the Red Sox having the easiest September schedule in the league, according to opponent winning percentage, that ground will be rather difficult to be made up.

Is Buchholz the Next Papelbon?

In 2005, with the Red Sox in the heart of a pennant race, they got a boost from a 24-year-old righty named Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon first came up as a starter on the last day of July for a spot start. Papelbon was then recalled from Triple-A Pawtucket in mid-August but he didn't stay a starter for long. The Red Sox, in need of bullpen help, and wanting to limit the young pitcher's innings, were quick to move Papelbon to the bullpen.

The Red Sox did go on to make the playoffs, finishing the season with an identicle record to the Yankees. However, they then went on to be swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Chicago White Sox. It was no fault of Jonathan Papelbon though. Papelbon pitched four scoreless innings in the postseason of 2005, allowing only two baserunners.

A couple years later, 23-year-old righty Clay Buchholz may find himself playing a similar role down the stretch. Like they did with Papelbon, the Red Sox would like to limit the innings pitched by Buchholz. And one way they could do so and get some value out of him down the stretch, would be to add him to the bullpen.

Buchholz could likely find success in such a roll. One reason why Jonathan Papelbon made such a good reliever was because his superb control. In his minor league career, Papelbon walked only 2.53 batters per nine innings of work. Buchholz has been even better in that category, walking only 2.34 batters per nine innings. Papelbon also demonstrated an ability to strike batters out, striking out 9.71 batters per nine innings of work. Buchholz trumps Papelbon in this category as well. In his minor league career, Buchholz has struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings of work.

Both players came to the major leagues with about the same amount of experience in the upper levels of the minor leagues. In 2005, Papelbon pitched 87 innings at the Double-A level, before being promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket where he pitched 27.1 innings. This year, Buchholz has pitched 86.2 innings at the Double-A level and 30.1 innings at the Triple-A level.

Buchholz has made one relief appearance this year with Double-A Portland.

Gagne Needs To Struggle... Somewhere Else In the Pen

The only fortunate part of the Gagne deal is that the Red Sox didn't give up any real prospects to get him. Not only were Murphy and Gabbard mediocre prospects, they didn't have a place in the Red Sox organization either. Ahead of Murphy stood Brandon Moss and Jacoby Ellsbury. Ahead of Gabbard stood a lefty with higher upside - Jon Lester.

As for Gagne however, it's clearly time to give him the Rudy Seanez treatment. Gagne was never a necessity. Before the Red Sox signed him, they already lead the league in bullpen ERA. Perhaps Gagne will turn things around, but at this point that's something he should have to prove from the front of the bullpen, not the back. The Red Sox can't afford to keep pitching Gagne. He's already lost 3 games in 7 appearances. If not for Gagne, the Red Sox would likely own an eight game division lead.

The reason the Red Sox signed Gagne in the first place was to lighten the load for Hideki Okajima. And it was good to see them protect Okajima. With five more appearances, Okajima will have set a career high in that category. The Red Sox will now have to find another pitcher to spell Okajima down the stretch. It's not as if that will be an issue however.

Take your pick. You've got Delcarmen, Timlin and Snyder, all with an ERA of 3.50 or better. Either Delcarmen or Timlin would likely be more than sufficient in setting up Papelbon. If I was the manger I'd go with Timlin. Timlin had 19 years of experience in the role coming into this season and lately he's been lights out. In his last 17 outings, he's allowed a run in only one of them. Delcarmen has also been very good but he's been pitching the 7th inning lately and I like him just fine there.

Francona has a history of being stubborn with bad relievers. Hopefully it won't cost us too many games down the stretch this year.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Future of Red Sox Rotation On Display

One thing I really like about what Epstein's done with the Red Sox, is the collection of good, young power pitchers he's put together. In the bullpen there's Jonathan Papelbon (1.93 ERA, 0.88 WHIP) and Manny Delcarmen (2.19 ERA, 1.18 WHIP). Both strike out more than a batter an inning. Right now however, I want to take a moment to focus on the Red Sox rotation.

The heart of the Red Sox rotation, for the next three years at least, will likely by ace Josh Beckett. Beckett currently leads the league in wins (15) and is in the top ten in ERA (3.24), WHIP (1.11) and strikeouts (140). And in the current market, Josh Beckett is very reasonably priced, averaging an annual salary of less than $11 million a year through the year 2010. Josh Beckett will start game two of today's double header.

And another pitchers who figures to play a large role in future Red Sox rotations is 23-year-old Clay Buchholz. Buchholz is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. He began the season at Double-A Portland where he lead his league in both ERA and strikeouts. He's since made six starts at the Triple-A level. In those starts he had an ERA of 3.26 and a WHIP of 1.02 while striking out 14.26 batters for every 9 innings of work. Clay Buchholz will make his major league debut in game one of today's double header.

And there is also Daisuke Matsuzaka of course. Matsuzka is signed through 2012, and he's currently 7th in the league in wins (12) and 4th in strikeouts (164).

From youngest to oldest, Clay Buchholz is 23, Daisuke Matsuzaka is 26 and Josh Beckett is 27. All three starters will be under contract with the Red Sox through at least 2010.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Red Sox Surprise By Promoting Two Players

It had long been expected that the Red Sox would promote Clay Buchholz for game one of tomorrow's double header. That wasn't the only promotion the Red Sox announced today however. In a bit of a surprise move, the Red Sox have decided to promote outfield prospect Jacoby Ellsbury as well.

The role that Buchholz will play is rather clear. He will make a spot start and then be sent back down to the minors to make room for Ellsbury. The role of Ellsbury however raises some questions. With the Red Sox needing to make room on the roster for Buchholz, it was rumored that Wily Mo Pena was on the way out.

It seems strange however that the Red Sox would promote Jacoby Ellsbury if that was the case. Ellsbury would give the Red Sox two left-handed backup outfielders. The move's especially strange considering that the Red Sox signed Bobby Kielty to play against left-handed pitchers. It's possible that the Red Sox could be releasing Eric Hinske for the time being. Hinske has struggled at the plate this season, hitting below the Mendoza line. He'll be a free agent this offseason.

This will be Ellsbury's second major league stint. He made his major league debut earlier this season and hit .375/.444/.438 in 16 at bats. For Buchholz, it will be his major league debut.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Waiting On the Announcement

Tomorrow, Terry Francona is to announce who will be starting game two of Friday's double header against the Angels. Multiple sources are reporting that it will be super prospect Clay Buchholz. And with Julian Tavarez pitching two innings in today's game, all major league options for a spot starter appear to be exhausted. The Red Sox have reportedly been planning on using Buchholz since last Saturday, so what's taken so long? They want to free up a roster spot first.

It appears that the Red Sox are on the verge of dealing Wily Mo Pena. He would be the logical choice, as he cleared waivers last Tuesday and can now be dealt. It wouldn't be much of a surprise as the Red Sox have been looking to unload the defensively challenged outfielder for some time. Pena is to be replaced by Bobby Kielty, currently waiting to be called up from Pawtucket. And as soon as Buchholz makes his major league debut and is sent back down, Kielty will be called up.

Buchholz is certainly something to be excited about. In the words of Rotoworld, "Buchholz is among the elite pitching prospects in baseball and has moved very quickly this season." I could spend plenty of time talking about the 23-year-old right-hander (his birthday was yesterday) but I think his numbers speak for themselves.

2005 (Low Single-A) - 41.1 IP, 2.61 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 7.40 H/9 IP, 1.96 BB/9 IP, 9.80 K/9 IP
2006 (High Single-A) - 16 IP, 1.13 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 5.63 H/9 IP, 2.25 BB/9 IP, 12.94 K/9 IP
2006 (High Single-A) - 103 IP, 2.62 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 6.82 H/9 IP, 2.53 BB/9 IP, 10.22 K/9 IP
2007 (Double-A) - 86.2 IP, 1.77 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 5.71 H/9 IP, 2.28 BB/9 IP, 12.05 K/9 IP
2007 (Triple-A) - 30.1 IP, 3.26 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 6.82 H/9 IP, 2.37 BB/9, 14.24 K/9

No red flags. When trying to estimate how a pitching prospect may adjust to the majors, I generally look at a few things. First and foremost, I look at their BB/9 IP numbers. The most common issue with prospects when they're first promoted is that their control suffers from the nerves. Buchholz has very solid, consistent walk rates however.

Another thing to look for is how they translate to the Double-A level when their first promoted. The jump from Single-A to Double-A is typically the highest jump in talent level that a minor league pitcher goes through. Because of that, it can sometimes give you an idea as to how a pitcher will adjust to a jump in the level of competition. Buchholz was solid in that department as well. In fact, in his first Double-A level, Buchholz lead his league in ERA and strikeouts before being promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket.

It's unclear what role Buchholz will play on the major league team once the rosters expand in September. The Red Sox have maintained that they will remain very cautious with his innings. If they do so, they'd likely shut him down before the end of September. So if you're wondering what minor leaguers will play a large roll with the Red Sox in September, Jacoby Ellsbury is a much safer bet. Things could change however if Buchholz impresses with the Red Sox in the heart of a playoff race.

That's Why You Play the Game

And with that final out, Andy Sonnanstine who was 1-8 with a 6.30 ERA coming into today's game, just earned his second career win in the majors. If this was the playoffs (the Devil Ray's in the playoffs? I know, just indulge me) I would be upset about this game. But today, even after the Red Sox failed to score the tying run from second with no outs in the 9th inning, I find it hard to be upset with the effort they gave in this game. Let's not forget, the Red Sox were down 6-0 going into the 7th inning.

There are a few things I took away from this game. First of all, how unlucky can one pitcher be? Daisuke has certainly had a strange welcome to the majors, and this game was no exception. While he isn't clear of blame for today's performance, much of what happened was behind his control. Not only were there a few bloops hits that fell in just over the heads of the infielders, but there were a couple dribbling infield singles as well. Most of this hits that he gave up weren't hit very hard.

And such bad luck isn't anything new for the Japanese import. While overall, his run support has been pretty good, the runs never seem to come at the right time. Often, the Red Sox bats are at their quietest when Daisuke's pitching is at it's best. The majority of his losses on the season qualified as a quality start (at least 6 innings pitched while allowing three earned runs or less). Over those five losses, he has an ERA of 3.07. He's also received two no decisions in games which he lasted seven innings or more while allowing a single run.

Like I said, I just can't find it in myself to be disappointed over this loss. At this point in the season, it's a success whenever the Red Sox don't lose ground. Even when the both the Red Sox and the Yankees lose, the Red Sox still come out on top because they're still shrinking the elimination number. Even with a Red Sox loss today, the magic number still went down from 39 to 38.

And for those of you who declared Gagne a bust after just three appearances, you may want to reconsider. While it's still yet to be seen whether Gagne will work out or not, three appearances isn't enough to judge any reliever. Even the best relievers struggle. In fact, in his past three appearances, Mariano Rivera has allowed at least 3 hits and one earned run in each of them. And as far as relievers go, you'd be hard pressed to find too many who are better than him.

What troubles me much more than the troubles Gagne had in Baltimore, is the slump that Kevin Youkilis is currently in. Youkilis is arguably the most underrated player on the Red Sox. With his "legendary" plate discipline, he's usually the table setter for the big bats. Since the All-Star break however, Youkilis has hit only .226 and has gotten on base at a rate of only .350. He's been in an especially vicious slump lately. Over the last 6 games he has only two hits in 24 at bats. Ouch.