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Red Sox appear postseason bound

Sports

Red Sox appear postseason bound

So much has gone better than planned for the 2013 Red Sox, but with a month to play, some weaknesses have been exposed. The rotation lacks a dependable ace, the bullpen has been decimated by injuries and with home runs in short supply, the team’s league-leading on-base percentage has led to far too many stranded runners. Can this team hang on for the rest of the season?

Starting pitching may seem like the biggest impediment to the Red Sox winning the division, but they put a competent starter on the mound nearly every night. If Clay Buchholz’s return exiles Ryan Dempster to the bullpen, Boston can expect competitive outings more often than not from Buchholz, Felix Doubront, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Jon Lester.

The bullpen is a different story. Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, who were expected to anchor the bullpen, and Andrew Miller, who was one of the most effective relievers for much of the first half, are all out for the season with major injuries. John Farrell has pitched 20 different men in relief, trying to find a dependable bridge to Junichi Tazawa and the excellent Koji Uehara. While Alex Wilson, Drake Britton, and Pedro Beato may not be the answer, a restocked rotation might help, as Brandon Workman has had some success out of the bullpen and former closer Dempster is likely to be more effective in that role. If Craig Breslow or Matt Thornton emerges as a shutdown lefty and Workman and Dempster can retire righties in the middle innings, this bullpen can be formidable again.

Offensively, the Red Sox are perhaps baseball’s best team, sitting near the top of the league in batting average (.273), on-base percentage (.345), and slugging percentage (.437). They’ve also stolen more bases (99) than any American League team except the Royals and Rangers. Individually, most of the lineup has been streaky all year, with strikeouts a major problem, especially where Mike Napoli and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are concerned. But in Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, the top of the lineup is anchored by veterans with proven track records of offensive success. This team should continue to score runs.

In order to win the division and avoid the play-in game, the Red Sox will have to hold off the Rays, Orioles, and Yankees. Tampa’s pitching gets all the credit, but its offense is solid as well, ranking fourth in the majors in weighted on-base average. Baltimore’s otherwise-average offense is threatening as long as Chris Davis is raking and its defense is the second-best in baseball according to ultimate zone rating. The Yankees hovered just above .500 when their offense was decimated, and with Alfonso Soriano, Curtis Granderson and (like it or not) Alex Rodriguez back in the lineup, they have the bats to support their excellent pitching staff in a late-season run.

With 30 games to play as of this writing, the Red Sox project to win 94 to 95 games. Their remaining schedule is tough, with 16 dates with Baltimore or New York and a series apiece against the defending league champion Detroit Tigers and Rays. Boston has played well against good teams, so a strong finish is very possible. Expect 93 to 94 wins.

The Rays play a lot of games against American League West teams, with just one series remaining against each division opponent. With its pitching rounding into form, look for Tampa to stay neck-and-neck with Boston and possibly overtake the Red Sox late in the year.

Baltimore will see a lot of the Red Sox and Yankees and it’s hard to imagine the Orioles’ pitching holding up against those bats. Their bullpen isn’t what it was in 2012 and no Orioles' starter strikes fear into opponents. They’ve played admirably all year given their talent level and an 85- to 87-win season will be an impressive accomplishment.

The Yankees finish the season with 17 games against Boston, Tampa and Baltimore and 15 against teams with losing records, including a closing series in Houston that could be a difference-maker if they’re still in contention. While they seemed to be buried for much of the season, a 21-11 finish would give them 90 wins and a likely Wild Card spot. Such a finish is certainly not guaranteed, as CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes have struggled and this team hasn’t consistently scored runs all year, but with a refortified lineup and Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova leading the rotation, it’s not out of the question that Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour ends with another playoff appearance.

There is a very good chance that the Red Sox win the division and start the playoffs at Fenway Park against the Rangers. For a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2009, a date with Texas, a team that established itself as an annual contender in 2010, would signify a fresh start- a revamped Red Sox team venturing down a new road.

At this point, we can’t dismiss the possibility that the Red Sox make the playoffs via the Wild Card, earning a one-game showdown with the Yankees. There’s nothing new about Boston and New York, who play each other 18 or 19 times a year and played two chilling, seven-game series in the postseason a decade ago. Major League Baseball and Fox would love nothing more than a winner-take-all showdown between its two most marketable teams.

I’d prefer a root canal.

 

Bryan O’Connor writes for Replacement Level Baseball Blog
(replacementlevel.wordpress.com) and High Heat Stats (highheatstats.com). Follow him on Twitter at @replevel.