What do the Red Sox need to capture the American League East in 2013? Everyone is talking about pitching, because pitching is what is available, but what the Sox need is hitting. They need to fortify the soft spaces in their line-up. And maybe a relief pitcher.
First, we have to concede that there are two positions that don’t always command offense: shortstop and catcher. Those are acceptable soft spots in the line-up, and in those roles we have Jose Iglesias and Jerrod Saltalamachia. Stephen Drew? He was a mistake from the beginning. He has his streaks, but he does not make up for hitting slumps in the field. Iglesias does, and his presence at shortstop makes the whole infield better.
But if you concede two soft spots in the line-up, you can’t have three. Drew is the odd man out, and furthermore he is fragile, like his brother, J.D., who was equally fragile and erratic at the plate. So the Red Sox should trade for a consistent hitter, like Michael Young, and shore up the bottom of the line-up.
While we’re talking about defense, let’s consider platooning Mike Carp and Mike Napoli at first base, so the infield is tighter. Napoli may improve, but he is a defensive liability at first. Why not play him against left-handers, since he hits them so well, and play Carp against right-handers, since he has more experience at first base?
Finally, the bullpen. It has been hopeless in the last week, allowing opponents to stretch their leads beyond recovering. We need relievers who attack the strike zone. Craig Breslow and Matt Thornton are not attacking anything. Koji Uhehara and Junichi Tazawa show more aggressiveness and could be solid set-up men. Bring in another closer, and they could be even more effective.
As for the starting rotation, the Red Sox already have some exciting prospects in Brandon Workman and Drake Britton on the squad. One of these pitchers can certainly fill the fifth starting spot, supporting Lester, Lackey, Dempster and Dubront. They just need good support in the bullpen and more consistent hitting.
Clearly nothing will be resolved until the top of the Red Sox line-up resumes hitting, but once they get on base, they will need help from the bottom third to keep rallies alive. So bring in a live bat to toughen up the bottom of the line-up. The Red Sox need to be in every game, regardless of what devastating opponents take the mound.
I see that Jonathan Papelbon, unlike a host of other relievers, acquitted himself well on Opening Day and got his first save with the Phillies. I’m glad for him, because he is a fierce competitor and deserves some success for his dedication to his craft and his team. But I’m thrilled that I don’t have to watch him painfully labor through another ninth inning.
For Papelbon and many other relievers, every pitch is a game unto itself with an exposition, rising action, a climax, and a falling action. That works well for the final pitch of the game or even in an intense rivalry like the unforgettable contests with the Yankees. But for Papelbon every pitch was like that and his deliberation was exhausting and deadening at the same time.
Relief pitchers will argue that they can break the rhythm and concentration of the batter and take control of the face-off by setting their own pace, but no one else on the field is going to argue that the ninth inning should go three times as slowly as the first eight. The drama quickly becomes melodrama, as it becomes possible to go the refrigerator between pitches. It is almost as annoying as the way commercials interrupt more frequently as an hour-long television show enters its final fifteen minutes.
This pitch is brought to you by . . .
Of all the ways to speed up the game of baseball, the timing of pitches seems the most plausible to me. Sure, it will return some advantage to the batter, and it could cost the reliever some mistakes in location, because he can’t recalibrate from the previous pitch. But the game should be played “with all deliberate speed”, not at the pace of retirement. Batters stepping out of the batter’s box should be controlled as well.
I noticed Papelbon pitching more briskly in Spring Training, so I’m curious if he will keep the pace during the regular season. It seems like pitchers who work quickly have more confidence, more of the “here-it-is-give-it-your-best-shot” approach. Most of them are effective. I love the Tigers’ Doug Pfister for that approach. He’s always ready to throw before the batter is ready to hit. I’m sure his infielders appreciate it as well. No napping before the wind-up.
How do you spell “relief”? A brisk, but determined reliever keeping the game moving. Good luck to the gritty and sometimes comical Jonathan Papelbon. I’ll miss that fierce stare into the catcher, but I won’t miss the extra trips to the refrigerator.