by Jason Howard Kelly
How’s that dirty water tasting right now, Boston?
Today marks the first day of June and the Boston Red Sox are in first place in the AL East. If I’m being honest that is not something I was expecting to say at this point in the season. Like many Red Sox fans I approached the 2016 season with a certain measure of both optimism and skepticism. Back in April, as the season was getting underway, I strongly believed that this year’s Red Sox team would be much improved over the 2015 team. However, I never expected this team to get off to such a lightning fast start, and it’s nearly impossible for me to not get excited about the prospects of playoff baseball in Boston this October.
Therefore, I’m no longer holding back. I am officially excited and optimistic about the 2016 Boston Red Sox. I know that several Boston media pundits disagree with my optimism, such as Tony Massarotti, who has infamously been telling Red Sox fans to, “keep it in your pants”. Sorry, Tony, but I’m not going to keep it in my pants, especially after watching Mookie Betts swat three homeruns last night against Baltimore. He is just one of the many reasons to be excited about this team.
The Red Sox offense has been undoubtedly the most thrilling offense in all of baseball this year. They lead the league in most offensive categories and show no signs of slowing down any time soon. There is not an easy out anywhere through the lineup, and it is a lineup that is quickly becoming a fearsome force throughout the entire league. This Red Sox team is being lead, once again, by David Ortiz. At 40 years old, and with retirement looming at the end of the season, Ortiz is having a legendary final run with the Red Sox. He is currently leading the American League in RBIs through the first two months of the season, and he is 4th in the league in both total homeruns and batting average. What we are seeing from David Ortiz right now is truly rare and we, as fans, would be stupid not to appreciate every single moment of it. Ortiz’s production so far this season has even got some Red Sox fans wondering if he will actually go through with his retirement. Personally, I still think he’ll go through with it, but that’s another blog for another day.
Luckily for the Red Sox they do not have to depend solely on the 40-year old Ortiz to provide them with offense. The youth of this team is shining just as brightly as Ortiz so far this season. The combination of Xander Bogaerts (age 23), Mookie Betts (age 23), and Jackie Bradley Jr. (age 26) has created one of the most powerful youth movements in all of baseball. Bogaerts currently leads the league in hits and batting average, and has been playing stellar defense at shortstop to boot. Jackie Bradley Jr. also put his name in the Red Sox record books this year with his 29-game hitting streak, which is the 4th longest in Boston Red Sox history. That is no small feat considering the number of legendary players who have played here in Boston. Mookie Betts got off to a slow start in April, but if his 3-homerun night last night is any indication then he is well on his way back to prime form.
Another young Red Sox player who deserves a lot of props is their catcher, Christian Vazquez. Vazauez started the year in the minor leagues after recovering from Tommy John Surgery, which caused him to miss the entirety of last season. The Red Sox started this season with Blake Swihart behind the plate, a switch-hitting catcher known more for his bat than his glove behind the plate. The Red Sox quickly made the switch after an up-and-down start to the season in April, and the move has paid off. Swihart may very well be a good major league catcher some day, but right now Vazquez is ahead of him defensively. The Red Sox knew that that they were sacrificing some offense by putting Vazquez behind the plate, since he is not known for his bat, but the lineup is powerful enough to make up for it. Vazquez has definitely made a difference at catcher. The entire pitching staff looks more confident with him calling the shots behind the plate, not to mention the fact that opposing baserunners won’t dare run on his cannon of an arm.
The offense and defense has been the highlight of this team so far this year, but what about the pitching? The pitching staff was by far the biggest concern of most Red Sox fans entering this 2016 season. David Price and Craig Kimbrel were strong additions this past offseason, but would that be enough to erase the last place finish from 2015? Oddly enough those two strong additions have both struggled so far this season in Boston. Kimbrel has blown a couple of save opportunities, and David Price still has a very high ERA through the first two months of the season at 5.11. Luckily, this has not hurt the Red Sox because other pitchers like Rick Porcello (7-2, 3.68 ERA) and knuckleballer Steven Wright (5-4, 2.45 ERA) have stepped up and have both become prominent members of the Red Sox rotation. That, along with the return of Eduardo Rodriguez, has added a much-needed stability to the rotation. One could argue, also, that with David Price’s track record he will eventually figure things out and return to form sooner rather than later. Perhaps the most significant move involving the rotation has been taking Clay Buchholz out of it and moving him to the bullpen. Buchholz has been a disaster this season, and he showed no signs of turning it around after the first two months.
I believe the rotation is poised to actually become a strength of this team, provided that Porcello and Wright continue to pitch well. Price will come back strong in this second half of the season. He has been far too good for far too long to suddenly fall apart and become a negative in the rotation. Eduardo Rodriguez had a decent start in his return to the rotation last night in Baltimore, and he will only get better as he puts in more work with Christian Vazquez and becomes more comfortable with his knee brace.
There is one glaring issue with this Red Sox team: the bullpen. The Red Sox seemingly have a strong back end of their bullpen with the trio of Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, and Craig Kimbrel. However, there are still some problems with that trio. The first problem is that all of those pitchers are right-handed pitchers. If the Red Sox come up against a lineup with strong, left-handed batters then they are at a disadvantage. The only left-handed relievers that the Red Sox have in their bullpen are Tommy Layne and Robbie Ross Jr., who are both decent, but not great, options out of the pen. The second issue is that both Tazawa and Uehara are vulnerable to being overused. Uehara is 40 years old, so the Red Sox must be extremely careful with how much they use him in order to prevent injury. Tazawa has bemoaned the number of innings he’s been asked to pitch for the past two seasons and claiming that it has had a negative effect on his performance. I think Tazawa is right, and manager John Farrell must exercise caution when using those two out of the bullpen. The season-ending injury to Carson Smith is a huge blow to this team. When healthy, Smith is a viable 7th inning or 8th inning option out of the bullpen. He is a young pitcher who is incredibly tough to hit for opposing right-handed hitters. It would behoove the Red Sox to try and acquire a strong bullpen arm at the trade deadline. Preferably, I think they should target a powerful left-handed pitcher because, honestly, I just don’t have that much faith in either Robbie Ross or Tommy Layne going forward.
That is my only complaint so far this season. I think the bullpen could be, and should be, stronger than it currently is. That goes to show just how strong this Red Sox team is right now. The offense is dominant. The defense is sharp and consistent. The starting pitching is good and has the potential to be great. The Red Sox really do have the closest thing to a complete package right now in the league, so how can I not be excited?
I wouldn’t be opposed to another Duck Boat parade. Just saying….