As promised, here are five reasons for Red Sox fans to go ahead and panic (you know want to).
1) Injuries: With the division so stacked, any AL East team looking to make it into the playoffs needs to put its best team on the field for the majority of the season. Injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron have prevented that from happening in Boston for much of this young season. The impact would actually be much worse if Darnell McDonald had not stepped up and played well when given the chance.
Every team has to suffer through some loss of playing time from their regulars, but losing both of the players on the roster capable of playing center at the same time is particularly tough. Cameron may be back soon, but Ellsbury could be a question mark for some time. With a number of older players in prominent roles, the Red Sox need to stay healthy from here on to have a real chance at making up lost ground and I don’t like the odds on that bet at all.
2) Josh Beckett: Josh Beckett has been very inconsistent so far. In 7 starts, he has been good 3 times and awful 4 times. His walk rate is up, his strikeout rate is down and his FIP is almost a run higher than his career average. He has a negative value for every pitch except his cutter. Is this just early season rust? Is it the start of a slow decline? With a shiny new contract just hammered out, Sox fans really need to hope it is just the former.
One source of panic fuel with respect to Beckett comes courtesy of Baseball-reference’s similarity scores. Beckett’s most comparable case through age 29 and in each of his last three seasons by age is Kevin Millwood. Millwood experienced a declining strikeout rate and rising walk rate beginning around his age 30 season as well as a jump in his FIP. Beckett had been better in both categories in his age 28 and 29 seasons than Millwood was, but the close parallel in numbers is enough to induce some queasiness. If Beckett’s numbers continue to follow this trend through the season, it might be time to stock up on the Pepto.
3) Old and In the Way: It seems silly to waste any more time lamenting David Ortiz’s early season woes, so I will spare you. In fact, the platoon of Ortiz and Lowell is looking like it might shape up to be fairly productive. Unfortunately, that, in itself, is a problem. Ortiz cannot play anywhere in the field and Lowell could not convince potential trade partners he could return to fielding duties during spring training. The flexibility that is provided by Youkilis’ ability to play both first and third, and Martinez’s ability to shift to first is essentially negated by carrying two position-less players. This leaves Boston with Bill Hall as the sole backup at every infield position at the moment and limits Francona’s ability to rest players without losing a significant amount of offense. It also means that the Red sox will likely lose Darnell McDonald when Ellsbury returns, as he will have to pass through waivers if they do not have a roster spot open.
4) The AL East: The main reason everyone is panicking around Boston is simply the current standings. Just above .500, the Sox are 5.5 games back of Tampa Bay and 5 games behind the Yankees. They are even a game behind Toronto, for god sakes. This is ground that can be made up, certainly, but with the talent on both the Yankees and the Rays, it is a big gap to overcome. The worst thing for Sox fans, however, is that they will have to do so playing 52 more games against AL East opponents against whom they are currently 5-12. They will play the next three series against teams in their division on the road, just to add fuel to the panic fires.
Further, in the first six games against the Yankees, Boston has allowed 43 runs while scoring 30 and in four games against Tampa Bay they have allowed 24 runs while scoring only 9. These are small samples sizes, of course, but the message, thus far, is clear: the Red Sox have been over matched by the Yankees offense and by the Rays pitching. While both of the Yanks and the Rays are likely to experience some rough patches along the way, they have put some wins in the bank early and right now they both look better than Boston.
5) Help on the Way?: While I noted before that Theo and Co. are among the best at addressing the teams needs in season, this season is conspiring to make that difficult. Sox fans are taking it for granted that Adrian Gonzales will be playing in Fenway one day, but the Padres early season success might be pushing that day further away. In addition, the front offices emphasis on high school prospects in recent years has left fewer quick fix options available down on the farm (as evidence by the reacquisition of Jonathan Van Every). With players like Josh Reddick and Lars Anderson needing more seasoning at the AAA level, few position players from the farm system are ready to fill in. Also, in contrast to recent years, the bullpen cannot count on the addition of an impact arm coming from the minors in the way it did with Daniel Bard, Justin Masterson and Clay Buchholtz.
As such, additions will likely come from outside the organization and thus cost more. Such moves are unlikely to be reasonable this early in the year and therefore, the team on the field now needs to be the team that turns things around. If the Red Sox have to wait for personnel changes to return to contention, they will likely have waited too long.