By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Maybe, in a perfect world, where nobody gets hurt and everybody plays up to his potential, the Boston Red Sox would be the finest team in all of baseball.

Fenway Park would be full of happy fans, and tickets would cost more than $5 on second-party sites. “Red Sox Nation” would be a thriving one, with the baseball team atop the league standings and “Sweet Caroline” sounding oh so good every single night.

But we don’t live in a fantasy world; we live in the real world. And in the real world, the Boston Red Sox are not very good at baseball.

No, not after losing two of three to the lowly Oakland A’s, a team that ranks dead last in hitting in Major League Baseball, a team with the second-lowest payroll in the majors at $55.37 million, and a team that might be good enough to compete for a championship in Triple-A.


That’s the team that rolled into Fenway Park fresh off two losses in Baltimore and won two out of three, outscoring Boston 9-5 in the two wins, and it’s a team that sits at 13-13, a .500 record that the 11-13 Red Sox wish they had instead.

Instead, they don’t, and the Sox head into their off day exposed for being mediocre.

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In addition to sitting comfortably in dead last place in the AL East, the Sox have now been outscored 133-132. For perspective, they’ve finished a season with a negative run differential just once since 1998, and that was the disappointing 2006 season that ended with an 86-76. In the other 13 seasons, the Sox have averaged a plus-134 run differential.

The long and short of it is that we’re not used to seeing the Red Sox look like this, just as we’re not used to seeing good seats available for $10 before a game.

But both are true, and we may have to get used to it.

The perfect picture was provided in the ninth inning last night. With the Sox trailing by three and a runner on first, manager Bobby Valentine called upon a pinch hitter for Ryan Sweeney. The 27-year-old Sweeney has been one of the few bright spots for the Sox this year, as he’s hitting .361 with a .953 OPS. He’s also hitting .350 with runners in scoring position, .857 in the ninth inning and .444 in late and close situations.

Yet the manager – who’s as much a cause for the team’s mediocrity here as any player – didn’t like the lefty-lefty matchup with Brian Fuentes on the mound, so he brought in a pinch hitter. That pinch hitter was Darnell McDonald. That’s the same Darnell McDonald who was hitting .205 overall and an impressive .000 in late and close situations (0-for-8).

McDonald – surprise of all surprises – flew out on two pitches.

It was just one moment of a season made of millions, but does anything more accurately portray the state of the 2012 Red Sox than Darnell McDonald being used as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of a close game?

Of course, it’s not McDonald’s fault that as a career .249 hitter he was thrown into the game, and it’s not entirely Valentine’s fault for being so short on options (Sweeney is hitting just .111 against lefties this year). It’s no one person’s fault, really, though there’s a guy in charge of the Cubs right now who certainly doesn’t have the cleanest hands around.

The problems are plentiful.

For one, the Sox have $75 million in salary on the disabled list – that’s $20 million more than the entire Oakland payroll – in John Lackey, Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Andrew Miller, Bobby Jenks and Andrew Bailey. That certainly hurts, but still, don’t point to that as the sole reason the Sox are two games under .500 in early May. Lackey and Matsuzaka posted 6.41 and 5.30 ERAs last year, respectively, while Jenks had a 6.32 ERA and 2.23 WHIP. Ellsbury was an MVP candidate, sure, but Youkilis and Crawford hit a combined .256 last season.

Is there really that much reason to believe that the Sox would be much better than 11-13, even if all of those guys were healthy?

Of course not, and that’s also due to the performance of the players who actually are on the field. The Red Sox’ team ERA of 5.45 ranks 29th out of 30th. Their 1.49 WHIP ranks 28th, and their batting average against is .276, good enough for 26th in the bigs.

Just how bad is that?

The 5.45 team ERA is 2.20 runs worse than that of the San Diego Padres, who are 9-17 this season and have the lowest payroll in the sport at $55.24 million. It’s 0.77 runs worse than that of the Kansas City Royals, who are 7-16 and have the fourth-lowest payroll. The Red Sox have allowed just three fewer runs than the Minnesota Twins, who at 6-18 are the undisputed worst team in baseball.

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Despite David Ortiz’s resurgent April, and the steady contributions of Dustin Pedroia, Mike Aviles and Cody Ross, the Red Sox’ best players simply aren’t acting like it.

Adrian Gonzalez is hitting .250 and is now hitless in his last 17 at-bats. Jon Lester is 1-2 with a 4.65 ERA, and Josh Beckett isn’t much better at 2-3 with a 4.45 ERA. The two “co-aces” are averaging just 6 1/3 innings per outing, and Beckett will miss his next start because he’s sore from throwing 126 pitches Sunday in Chicago.

Daniel Bard may well be a great starter one day, but that day is not today, when he is averaging five innings per outing and has a 4.38 ERA (on the plus side, that leads the team!). Clay Buchholz, an All-Star in 2010, leads the team with three wins but has an 8.69 ERA, which is the worst such mark in the majors among qualified pitchers.

Few of us expected the Red Sox to be true World Series contenders heading into the season, but could any of us have thought they’d be this bad so soon?

Probably not, and the mirage of winning seven of eight against the Twins, White Sox and A’s (teams that are a combined 31-43) almost made us think this Red Sox team was at least a little bit better than we might have thought.

Alas, thanks to the Oakland A’s coming into town and taking two of three from the not-so-mighty Red Sox, we now know without a doubt that Boston’s baseball team is just not very good.

It’s a reality we can no longer avoid.

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or follow him on Twitter@michaelFhurley.


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