Deep, experienced Red Sox ready for postseason run
Offseason additions nicely complemented talent already in place in Boston
With six American League teams vying for the two AL Wild Card spots and three National League Central clubs dueling for the division title (with the surging Nationals keeping them on their toes for the NL Wild Card spots), the postseason picture is far from complete.
But the playoffs are at least in sight, and we'll gear up for them by taking an in-depth look at the October-bound clubs and what it will take for them to reach the World Series.
We begin with the Boston Red Sox, who hold a commanding lead in the AL East. All stats are through Tuesday.
Let's dispense with the usual discourse right off the bat, OK?
Chemistry is not the reason the 2013 Red Sox are on the verge of sealing the franchise's first division title in six years. Chemistry was not the reason behind the 2011 collapse or the ill-conceived, short-lived and overwhelmingly unsuccessful Bobby Valentine era.
Certainly, chemistry can be a byproduct of the bigger picture. But the Red Sox are here, on October's doorstep and possibly even en route to their first 100-win season since 1946, because the pitching strength that evaded them for too long has returned and because the additions Ben Cherington and Co. made last winter augmented what was a pretty darn good core.
Boston's staff ERA (3.76) is the lowest it's been in 11 years and nearly a full point lower than it was a year ago. It is attributable to Jon Lester's resurgence, John Lackey's return to relevance, Felix Doubront's progression, Jake Peavy's arrival, Koji Uehara's lights-out 'pen performance and Clay Buchholz being arguably the best pitcher in baseball when healthy this year.
The Red Sox's MLB-best offensive output (5.2 runs per game) is guided by the fact that they have nine qualifying position players with an adjusted OPS above the league average, including two -- David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury -- who struggled to stay on the field last year, one -- Daniel Nava -- who had not yet established himself as a regular and four -- Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew and Jonny Gomes -- who were acquired in the offseason.
Don't get me wrong. The chemistry is nice and all. But when you've got so many guys performing at such a high level over such a long period, how could you not enjoy each other's company?
John Farrell and his staff deserve praise for earning the trust and respect of their players and changing the culture of a proud franchise that had gone astray. But beyond that obvious narrative are the more tactical aspects they've incorporated. The pitchers rave about the game plans put together by Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves -- plans they've executed artfully.
There's no other way to say it: Boston is a force. The Red Sox are a force because they are as deep, experienced and road-tested (the way they've run away with what had been a daunting division deserves applause) as any club entering October, and their division lead affords them the opportunity to line up their pitching staff and dole out some late-season rest where it's needed.
The beards, the laughs, the palpable camaraderie are all great things -- well, most of the beards, anyway. But the Red Sox win because they're well-prepared and they've got a ton of talent.
The bats: Nobody has been better than Boston at getting on base (.349) or slugging (.444), and in a related development, nobody has scored more runs (793). The Red Sox are among the most patient offenses in the league, averaging 4.03 pitches per plate appearance. Pedroia, Victorino and Ellsbury have all been good for more than five Wins Above Replacement.
The arms: The starters' ERA (3.87) is good for third in the AL, and Red Sox starters have worked more innings (921) than any other AL club. Those innings have helped a bullpen that's endured the injuries of Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey while trending more toward the middle of the pack. Farrell will have to decide how to fill out that bullpen beyond Uehara, Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman and Junichi Tazawa, with left-handers Franklin Morales and Matt Thornton among the candidates
The MVP: You can make a case for Pedroia, Ellsbury, Victorino or even Uehara, and you wouldn't necessarily be wrong. But I'm casting my vote for Ortiz, who, with a .308/.395/.559 slash line, 27 homers, 94 RBIs and an adjusted OPS 56 percent better than league average, is providing near-historic output for a 37-year-old. The last link to the 2004 championship club, Ortiz has made his oft-scrutinized two-year, $26 million extension look like a steal.
The ace: Buchholz was on his way to AL Cy Young Award consideration before he was sidelined by neck and shoulder woes in early June. He missed three months, only to return this month and toss 11 innings in his first two starts without allowing an earned run. Buchholz is a force, and his arm will be fresh for October. But I'm giving the "ace" tag to Lester, who has been a workhorse all season (accumulating 201 1/3 innings to date) while going 14-8 with a 3.75 ERA, including a 1.96 ERA over his past three starts. Even with Buchholz back in action, it would not be a shock to see Farrell give Lester the Game 1 nod in the AL Division Series. Whatever the order, Boston has a strong one-two punch on its hands.
The unsung hero: Having been cut from his college team and worked his way into the professional picture by grinding it out in junior college and independent ball, Nava was always a good story. But he made a good story even better by dedicating himself defensively at first base and the outfield over the winter, and the strides he made on that side of the ball gave Farrell reason to make him a regular in the lineup. Nava has served a super utility role wonderfully, seeing time in all three outfield spots and first base while contributing a .303/.389/.448 slash line.
The pressing question: When will Ellsbury return to the lineup, and at what level? Ellsbury has been out with a non-displaced fracture in his foot since Sept. 5 and has not yet resumed baseball activities. The Red Sox insist he'll be ready for October, but will rust be a factor for the center fielder and leadoff man? Furthermore, will the foot issue hamper Ellsbury on the basepaths, where he's swiped 52 bags this season?