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Red Sox Face Second Half Challenges


With the All-Star Break Game now behind them, the Red Sox could not be happier with their current situation.  They are playing at a phenomenal .694 winning percentage and are on a pace to win a team record 112 games, which would shatter the team record of 105 wins set in 1912.  Their 68-30 record is the best in the major leagues, and they hold a 4 ½ game lead over the second place Yankees in the American League East. 

Photo courtesy of nbcsports.com


You can say what you want about a weak schedule (and I have), but as former Patriots Head Coach Bill Parcels used to say, “You are what your record says you are.”

As Red Sox fans, we know it is never going to be that easy.  Despite their success to this point, the Red Sox will face additional challenges that will make it difficult to maintain their lofty winning percentage and the lead in the AL East.  Here are a few things to watch for in the second “half” of the season.

Schedule

Of the Red Sox remaining 64 games, 27 will be against opponents either playoff bound or in the thick of a playoff race.  The Red Sox still have ten games left with the Yankees, though seven of these will be at Fenway, with only one three game series left in the Bronx.  The Red Sox will also play Central Division leading Cleveland for the first time this season (seven games/four at Fenway), and have a three game series remaining with Houston at Fenway.

Notable series remaining:

·        July 30th and 31st vs. Philadelphia
·        August 2nd thru 5th vs. the Yankees
·        August 14th and 15th @ Philadelphia
·        August 20th thru 23rd vs Cleveland
·        September 3rd thru 5th @ Atlanta
·        September 7th thru 9th vs. Houston
·        September 18th thru 20th @ the Yankees
·        September 21st thru 23rd @ Cleveland
·        September 28th thru 30th vs. the Yankees (final games of the season)

September is looming as particularly challenging for the Sox, with 12 of 20 games to be played against Cleveland, Houston and the Yankees, with a stretch of six consecutive road games in New York and Cleveland.  These games will undoubtedly play a huge role in deciding the American League East Champion, with the loser relegated to the dreaded Wild Card Play-In Game.

Injuries

The Red Sox managed to overcome their share of injuries in the first half.  Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts each missed significant chunks of time on the disabled list, and Dustin Pedroia has missed all but three games.  However, injuries began to mount right before the All-Star Break that will be a factor to start the second half and into the stretch run.

Pedroia continues to suffer setbacks in his recovery from off-season knee surgery.  He has returned to Arizona to continue his rehab, which is not an encouraging sign for his return this season.  Eduardo Nunez and Brock Holt had settled into a platoon at second base in Pedroia’s absence, and while Holt has performed better than expected, Nunez has been a disappointment both at bat and in the field.  The recent shoulder injury suffered by Rafael Devers will now elevate both Nunez and Holt to full-time status, further exposing their deficiencies.

Christian Vazquez broke a finger diving head-first into second base which required surgery that will sideline him for six to eight weeks.  Regrettably, Vazquez was beginning to show signs of turning around his slow offensive start within the past couple of weeks.  He had been doing the bulk of the catching, though Sandy Leon had settled in the rotation as the de facto catcher for both Chris Sale and Rick Porcello.  With Vazquez now on the shelf for an extended period, Leon will handle to the bulk of the catching duties and Blake Swihart will likely get one or two starts a week as the back-up.

The need to use Swihart as the back-up brings positives and negatives to the Red Sox.  Swihart finally has a defined role to justify his spot on the roster, and a regular turn behind the plate may get his bat going and help the Red Sox determine if he has any actual value as a catcher.  However, Swihart was one of the few potential trade chips the Sox could have used to acquire help in the bullpen or at second base.  With Swihart now needed to back up Leon, the Sox trade options are even further diminished.

The Red Sox also lost Eduardo Rodriguez to a severely sprained ankle in a freak mishap while covering first base.  Though the ankle will not require surgery, it is projected that six to eight weeks of rest will be needed for Rodriguez to heal and rebuild his arm strength for a return to the rotation.  Rodriguez had solidified his spot in the rotation as the fourth starter, and his loss, coupled with injuries to Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz, severely weaken the Red Sox depth at starting pitching.

Wright is also on the disabled list with knee inflammation, and he is expected to return relatively soon.  Pomeranz has struggled to regain his mechanics and velocity on his rehab stints in Pawtucket, and is not slated to return to Boston for at least a couple of turns through the rotation.  This leaves the Red Sox in the short-term with a rotation of Sale, Porcello, David Price, Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez.

Johnson and Velazquez have filled in admirably in their spot starts.  The Red Sox are 7-0 in their starts, however, neither has been able to give more than four plus innings, putting a strain on the bullpen.  The Red Sox will need a healthy Rodriguez to return to the rotation for the September stretch run.  The prospect of Pomeranz return to the rotation is questionable, and his best chance for contributing may come in a bullpen role.

The lack of depth in the starting rotation will not only affect the won-loss record, it may also affect how the Red Sox manage their staff for the remainder of the season.  If Wright and Johnson are pressed into the rotation, there will be no one available to make critical spot starts in double headers or to simply give the front end of the rotation an extra days rest in the dog days of summer, keeping them fresh for September and October.

Bullpen

The late inning bullpen troubles getting to Craig Kimbrel have been well documented.  Carson Smith, Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree and more recently Brandon Workman have all taken turns as the eighth inning bridge to Kimbrel, each with mixed results.  The Red Sox also have no viable left-handed option in the pen in high leverage situations, and they lack a sinker-baller to induce a double play when needed. 

Smith has since blown out his shoulder and, after throwing the team under the bus with claims of overuse, has most assuredly thrown his last pitch in a Red Sox uniform.  Tyler Thornburg finally returned and has been somewhat encouraging in limited use.  At this time Thornburg is far from the dependable arm that will be needed in those tight situations that are sure to come later in the season and into the playoffs.

Trade Deadline

The Red Sox have needs on their major league roster in the bullpen, at second base, in the outfield, and now in the starting rotation.  All other contenders have needs of their own as well.  The difference is the Red Sox have neither the prospects to offer in a trade or the salary cap flexibility to take on new salary.  Don’t expect them to make any significant moves at either the July 31st or August 31st trade deadlines.

The Yankees have the prospects and the salary cap flexibility to make deals, not that salary issues have ever been an issue for the Bombers.  Look for them to go after a starting pitcher or two to add to replace a struggling Sonny Gray.  A veteran bat at a corner infield spot should also be on the Yankees shopping list.

Like the Red Sox, the Astros and Indians each have bullpen issues to address at the deadlines.  The Astros recently demoted troubled closer Ken Giles to Triple A, and the Indians have been decimated by injuries in the pen.  Each are expected to go hard after former Orioles closer Zach Britton.

The Red Sox may make a minor deal to add depth similar to the move already made to bring in Steve Pearce.  The Pearce deal was a nice move by Dave Dombrowski, but a move of that type is not going to be a difference maker.  The Red Sox are relying on the return to health of a number of key veterans to bolster them for the stretch run.

If Rodriguez’ ankle heals in time, if Pomeranz can find his fastball, and if Thornburg can return to his 2016 form, the Red Sox can make a run at the World Series.  If only one or two of those happen, it will be a struggle to win a series.  If none of those key players can return, or if they suffer another significant injury to one of their stars, another early playoff exit could be in the cards.  Either way, it should be fun to watch.


Follow Bill on Twitter @BTravers_BSoT. 

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