Change of Sox hasn't helped…yet

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The Red Sox went into the All-Star break at 43-43 and that felt about right. Their offense scored the second most runs in baseball in the first half, but was prone to team-wide slumps. The starting pitching was mostly dismal, but saw a few shining moments from Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and even Aaron Cook. The bullpen looked like a disaster in April, but by July, it had the third-best earned run average in the American League.

One trend that has defined the 2012 season is that almost every change has been for the worse. September’s collapse aside, the 2011 Red Sox played like the team with the best roster in baseball, which they may very well have been. Something had to change after the team fell apart and while the core of the team is back in 2012, some personnel did turn over.

General Manager Theo Epstein bolted for Chicago in the offseason and former assistant Ben Cherington took over. Cherington’s first few moves included trading rightfielder Josh Reddick, who has emerged as one of the best outfielders in the American League, for reliever Andrew Bailey, who has yet to throw a pitch for the Red Sox due to injury. Jed Lowrie, who has been the best shortstop in the National League this year, at least offensively, went to the Astros for Mark Melancon, who did his best work for the Red Sox when he was exiled to Pawtucket. Clayton Mortenson, the reliever obtained from Colorado in the Marco Scutaro trade, has been serviceable, but has only thrown 20 big league innings so far. That’s seven Wins Above Replacement (per fangraphs) shipped off for three relievers who have thrown a combined 36 innings for Boston (and accumulated 0 WAR, in case you were wondering). Ouch.

What about last year’s Red Sox bullpen? Jonathan Papelbon left for Philadelphia, where he’s struggled, but he is striking out more batters per nine innings than any current Boston reliever. You may remember Daniel Bard, the closer-in-waiting, who was moved to the rotation only to walk more batters than he struck out, including six in 1.2 innings in the June 3 start that bought him a trip to Pawtucket.

Cherington’s other high-profile move has been the worst of all. Terry Francona, probably the best manager in Red Sox history, left on ugly terms and was replaced by the inimitable Bobby Valentine, who has likely cost the Red Sox several games in 2012. It’s hard to put a number on a manager’s effect on a baseball team, so I won’t make too much of the team’s .500 record despite having outscored opponents by 43 runs in the first half. I will point out though that Valentine loves to hang a pitcher out to dry (see Bard’s bases-loaded walk, his seventh of the day, long after he should have been pulled against the Rays on Patriots Day, or Josh Beckett’s 126 pitches in a loss against the White Sox immediately before he missed the start that kicked off the golf controversy).

I’ll also point out Valentine’s willingness to use strategies that have been proven fruitless again and again, like the intentional walk (see the one issued to Hideki Matsui on July 14 right before Matt Albers walked in the tying run) and the sacrifice bunt (like the one hot-hitting Pedro Ciriaco botched with no outs and a runner on second an inning later, killing what looked like a game-tying rally). Valentine’s favorite bunter, Nick Punto, was also used repeatedly as a pinch hitter and allowed to bat for himself with the game on the line despite his sub-.200 batting average and the presence of better hitters on the bench (including a few pitchers, 70-year-old coaches, and the batboy).

As if his in-game decisions and his Dusty Baker-esque propensity toward hitting low-OBP guys in the leadoff spot are not enough to sink the Sox’ ship, Valentine’s done further damage off the field. His criticism of Kevin Youkilis’ work ethic in a TV interview led to a situation in which the Red Sox had to trade Youkilis for pennies on the dollar. That move should work out in the long term for Boston, with Will Middlebrooks apparently ready to take the third base reins, but like all the rest of the changes surrounding the Red Sox, it hasn’t played out well so far. Youkilis is batting .316 with the White Sox, and has driven in the game-winning run five times in his first 15 games in Chicago. Middlebrooks, meanwhile, has just five hits since Youkilis left and has struggled defensively at the hot corner.

It seems the only changes that have worked for the Red Sox are the ones made out of necessity. When the team had outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Jason Repko, and Darnell McDonald on the disabled list at the same time in May, they had to call up Daniel Nava, who’s carried a .379 on-base percentage and played great defense in left, leaving fans to wonder whether Carl Crawford will even be an improvement.

Similarly, reliever Franklin Morales was pressed into starting duty when Beckett and Buchholz hit the DL together in June and Morales struck out 24 in his first three starts, giving up just four total earned runs. Even Aaron Cook, who has struck out just two hitters all year, threw a complete-game, two-hitter against the Mariners in a June 29 spot start. Necessity, for the Red Sox, is the mother of adequacy.

With the Red Sox still fighting for a Wild Card spot, but struggling to push their record more than a few games above .500, some fans and writers are calling for more change. Starting pitchers like Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels and Ryan Dempster may be available at the trade deadline and would certainly represent upgrades over the current rotation. The bullpen, as strong as it’s been, could always use a boost. Should they make a change now?

Here’s a vote for the status quo. Ellsbury is back in the fold and should put a charge into the offense. Crawford doesn’t inspire maximum confidence, with multiple body parts in various states of repair, but Nava is a good fourth outfielder and a guy the team can count on if Crawford winds up back on the shelf. Cody Ross has been better than expected in right field, and Ryan Sweeney is a passable platoon partner.

Adrian Gonzalez is starting to hit again, though it remains to be seen if he’ll ever figure out how to hit a ball out of Fenway Park. Dustin Pedroia is the heart of this team- perhaps its best hitter, almost certainly its best fielder and allegedly a leader in the clubhouse. Mike Aviles has hit for some power and provided surprisingly good defense at short. While Middlebrooks has a lot of room to grow in terms of defense and patience, we know he can hit.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s power has developed, to the tune of 17 first-half home runs. Kelly Shoppach has been above average on both sides of the ball.

Almost any trade deadline pickup would be a relief upgrade over Matt Albers, but a swap may not be necessary to exile him. Bailey is due back soon and may assume the closer role. Melancon hasn’t given up a run or walked a batter in his last 10-plus innings, and has struck out 10 over that time. A bullpen of Bailey, Alfredo Aceves, Morales, Scott Atchison, Vicente Padilla, and Melancon could be very effective down the stretch.

That leaves the rotation, naturally, as the target of an upgrade, and it certainly would be nice to see Greinke or Hamels in a Red Sox uniform, but are we sure such a move is necessary? Neither Jon Lester nor Josh Beckett has pitched as well as expected, but both are keeping the walks down and pitching better than their ERAs indicate. The only option is to keep throwing those guys out every fifth day and hoping for shades of past glory. Buchholz, once the worst pitcher in baseball, hasn’t had a disastrous outing in almost two months, and his strikeout and walk rates are both trending in the right direction. Felix Doubront has been serviceable and represents the future, so there’s no sense in moving him from the rotation.

That leaves the fifth spot, currently occupied by Daisuke Matsuzaka, as the only variable. While Matsuzaka’s newspaper stats (0-3, 6.65 ERA) look ugly, he’s striking out more batters than he has since 2009 and walking fewer than ever. If he can keep the ball in the park, he can be the fifth starter on a contending staff. If he can’t, Morales can step in as a starter and Andrew Miller or Rich Hill can get lefties out in the bullpen.

It would be naive to assume that the Red Sox play the second half in perfect health after the perfect storm of injuries that derailed their first half. That said, their roster is built to contend for a championship, and there is a better plan B in place than there was last year, when the team had no answer for Buchholz’s absence late in the year.

Trading for a starter could add a win or two, but this team is probably a favorite to win one of the two Wild Cards if the stars stay healthy and a train wreck if they don’t. Depleting the farm system to pick up another high-priced pitcher who may not survive in the brutal AL East might make little difference in the short term and slow progress in the long term.

Change has been a dirty word for the 2012 Red Sox. Let’s keep things the same and see if a few healthy players can lead the way to October baseball.

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