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Sunday, April 22, 2012

How to Jumpstart the Red Sox

The major league baseball season is 162 games long, so it is hard to get to overwrought about the performance of a team or player two weeks in. However, there are clearly major issues with the Boston Red Sox, seemingly incapable of righting the ship from last year’s historic collapse. After losing a 9-0 lead to the New York Yankees yesterday, Red Sox Nation is literally reeling. Generally speaking, injuries and lackluster pitching have contributed mightily to their early season struggles, but it is also painfully obvious that they are missing the competitive spark inherent in all successful teams. While they have a long road back to find their winning ways, there are a number of steps that could be taken immediately that might jumpstart that process.

Get Mike Aviles out of the leadoff spot: Since Jacoby Ellsbury went down with a dislocated shoulder last week, Bobby Valentine has mainly relied on shortstop Mike Aviles as his leadoff man. I like Aviles more than most, but he is horribly miscast at the top of the order. His .318 career OBP does not make him an attractive option at the top of the order.

Dustin Pedroia, an on-base machine, is the natural choice to slide into leadoff, but he has expressed his disdain for that role in the past. In the interest of not creating yet another dour Sox player, it makes the most sense to leave him be and look elsewhere. That leaves Ryan Sweeney as the best fit. He has been one of the hottest Boston hitters to start the year, isn’t afraid to take a walk, and can be plugged anywhere in the lineup. His .345 career OBP isn’t awe-inspiring, but he has a mark almost 100 points higher than Aviles this season and is more than capable as a replacement until reinforcements like Ellsbury and Carl Crawford arrive from the disabled list.

Let Ryan Lavarnway play: Lost amidst the team’s struggles has been the bland play of the catchers, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach. Salty has gotten the lion’s share of playing time, but strikes out too much and is barely hitting .200. Shoppach has hit alright, but is also a prodigious whiffer. Neither will ever be accused of being Gold Glove winners. So, why not give someone else a shot to see if they can do better?

An intriguing option is currently languishing in Pawtucket. Last year Ryan Lavarnway hit 32 home runs in the minors, with a .376 OBP, and is off to another solid start this year.  Unfortunately, he has the label of not being able to play catch at the major league level despite having done alright in the high minors. As long as he can catch or knock down most of what gets thrown at him, why not give him a shot to see what impact he can make with his bat? The upside would be adding to an already potent offense, with the downside being him proving his detractors right once and for all.

Shake up the pitching staff: The pitching staff has been the most disappointing part of the Red Sox miserable start. Granted, the team has endured one of the toughest initial schedule in the majors, but their 6.00+ ERA and the inexcusable number of home runs they have allowed has made pitching the major weak spot. Again, using the same argument as the catchers, that the status quo is not getting the job done, why not try something drastically different?

The first move should be switching the roles of Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves. Bard’s high 90’s stuff doesn’t play up quite so well in the rotation and he has struggled with his control in his first few starts. He flourished as a reliever the past few seasons and moving him to starter may have been a mistake. Making him the closer would inject the end of the bullpen with somebody possessing overpowering stuff and give it a little bit of the swagger it has been missing. It may seem unfair to demote Bard after such a small sample size in the rotation, but the Red Sox should have never moved a known commodity out of their pen. Even though Bard may not like it, moving him back is what is best for him and the team.

Aceves was devastated upon being informed that he had not made the starting rotation out of spring training. Being installed as closer after Andrew Bailey’s injury did little to soothe this bulldog’s feelings. Aceves has lesser stuff than Bard, but his warrior mentality on the mound is best suited for starting. The way he pitched as a long reliever and spot starter in the past proved how effective he can be in longer stretches.

There seems to be the belief that Bard should remain as a starter because he is the better pitcher. While it is hard to argue that his stuff is more dominant than Aceves, is he really the better pitcher. Consider the following comparison of their career numbers:

Aceves- 3.00
Bard- 2.98

Aceves- 1.086
Bard- 1.093

Aceves- 148
Bard- 149

The total sum outcome of swapping Aceves with Bard could mean a significant upgrade for both pitching units and be a potential huge catalyst for turning the season around.

The Red Sox may remain stubborn; believing that sticking with their current plan will eventually work out. However, that approach is simply not acceptable in the uber-tough American League East. The suggestions outlined above are not kneejerk reactions to a tough first couple of weeks. They are solid baseball moves that make more sense than how the Red Sox opened the season. Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and if the Red Sox realize that playing the best percentages give them the greatest chance of getting the best results, they may still turn this season around yet. 


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