BOSTON (CBS) — After two straight seasons of playing virtually no meaningful baseball after the All-Star break, the Red Sox find themselves firmly in the American League playoff race in 2016 with a 49-38 record. They sit just two games back of the Baltimore Orioles for the AL East lead and in a virtual tie with the Toronto Blue Jays for the two AL Wild Card spots.
There are still six teams within 5.5 games of the Red Sox and Blue Jays for the wild card, so it’s shaping up to be an entertaining second half of the season, to say the least. But that doesn’t mean the Red Sox don’t enter the All-Star break with their share of questions about how they got to where they are at now and where they will go from here.
These are the ten questions you should be asking about the Red Sox as the book closes on the first half of the season and Boston wonders what to expect with its talented but flawed baseball team.
1. Will David Price pitch better in the second half?
Price ended his up-and-down first half with perhaps his best start of the season, an eight-inning gem against his former team, the Tampa Bay Rays. Scattering four hits and a walk over eight shutout innings, Price said he was “never discouraged” by previous poor outings and stayed consistent with his message of confidence in his ability to pitch like the ace the Red Sox need him to be.
Still, Price has a 4.34 ERA on the season, a very high number for a $30 million pitcher. However, he has historically performed slightly better after the All-Star break than before: he has a 3.03 career ERA in the second half of the season, compared to 3.31 in the first half. He is 21-7 with a 2.92 ERA in his career in September and October during the regular season, so he and the Red Sox are hoping for more of the same.
2. Can Steven Wright keep up his Cy Young pace?
As much as Price has been somewhat underwhelming in his first season with the Red Sox, knuckleballer Steven Wright has arguably saved the team with his unexpectedly outstanding first-half performance. He leads the American League with a 2.68 ERA and is fifth in the league with 10 wins. If he can flirt with 20 victories and remain near the top of the league in ERA, he will surely earn some Cy Young votes.
However, recent history has not been kind to Cy Young-caliber knuckleballers in the second half. Tim Wakefield was on another level in 1995 with a 1.61 first-half ERA, but was 5-7 with 4.86 ERA from August on. Even when R.A. Dickey won the National League Cy Young award with the Mets in 2012, his ERA jumped from 2.40 in the first half to 3.09 in the second. Still good, but a drop-off nonetheless. Considering the unpredictability of the knuckleball, should a similar regression be expected from Wright?
3. Who will fill out the back of the rotation?
Price hasn’t always been at his best and Wright (an to an extent, Rick Porcello) has exceeded expectations, but the top of the Red Sox rotation has been more-or-less stable, if underwhelming. It’s the back end of the rotation that has been an unmitigated disaster.
Eduardo Rodriguez has yet to get going after expectations were high on him to anchor the top of the rotation after Price, while Joe Kelly has struggled to stay healthy or produce when he’s on the mound and Clay Buchholz has been the same old underachieving Clay Buchholz. No one else in the system has stepped up and seized a role in the rotation, so where is that help going to come from?
The team recently hinted at Buchholz sticking in the rotation down the stretch and Kelly moving to the bullpen upon returning, so the answer in the rotation isn’t likely to come from within the system. That begs the next question …
4. Will Dave Dombrowski trade for a starter?
The Red Sox president of baseball operations has made two recent moves to address issues on the offense and pulled the surprise move of swinging a trade for Brad Ziegler in the wake of Craig Kimbrel’s freak knee injury. But he has yet to address easily the biggest problem the Red Sox have right now: what about that rotation?
The team has reportedly been scouting Philadelphia Philies starter Jeremy Hellickson and Oakland A’s lefty Rich Hill, the latter of which pitched well for the Red Sox at the end of last season. So while it appears that Dombrowski could be prepared to make a move to help out the middle or end of the rotation, it’s still a front line starter the team needs.
However, the price for a high-end starting pitcher could be too damn high for Dombrowski. Which leads to this …
5. Will an elite prospect be traded at the deadline?
Yoan Moncada made his presence felt at Sunday’s All-Star Futures game in San Diego and recently jumped to the top spot on Baseball America’s midseason list of the top prospects in all of baseball. So while there may be no truly “untouchable” players on Dombrowski’s list, Moncada is as close as they come to it.
That doesn’t mean the Red Sox don’t have other elite prospects that could be dealt for a starting pitcher at the trade deadline, like outfielder Andrew Benintendi. But the hope is that neither he nor Moncada would be on the move unless it is for another ace pitcher like Jose Fernandez or Sonny Gray. Dombrowski has a tendency to somewhat overpay at times in terms of prospects, so keep your fingers crossed that he sticks to the mid-level prospects for mid-level talent.
6. Can David Ortiz stay healthy (and productive) down the stretch?
There’s no doubt that David Ortiz’s final season has been a magnificent one so far, batting .322 with 22 home runs. But the 40-year-old also had to battle through issues with his feet and general soreness that comes with the kind of tread he has on his tires. Ortiz is no guarantee to stay fully healthy in the second half – and even if he does, can he keep up his current pace?
The good news is, Ortiz was able to stay healthy and produce last season after the All-Star break – in fact, he was even better, batting .325 with 22 home runs in the final 66 games of the season as opposed to .231 with 15 homers in the first 80. So if you’re wondering whether Ortiz can keep it going like he is right now, he’s already proven that it’s certainly possible.
7. Will Xander Bogaerts or David Ortiz win the batting title?
The Red Sox shortstop and All-Star Game starter has taken a major leap forward in 2016, sitting third in the American League with a .329 batting average, one spot behind his teammate David Ortiz. But Bogaerts had spent much of the season leading the way in that category before dropping off in recent weeks; he’s batting just .206 in July and perhaps the time off this week will do him some good.
That doesn’t mean Bogaerts is out of the AL batting race, however. He has to pick it back up soon if he wants to keep pace with Jose Altuve’s league-leading .341 average, but he’s certainly in the hunt. A hot-hitting Bogaerts and Ortiz down the stretch would certainly bode well for the Sox’ chances of winning the AL East, so the hope should be that one of the two can regain the top spot in the batting race by season’s end.
8. Can the Red Sox bullpen hold up?
As big of a question mark the Red Sox rotation is, the bullpen is not without its own share of issues. Closer Craig Kimbrel needs to miss time after a freak injury, Koji Uehara appears to be breaking down at age 41, and Dombrowski was forced to bring in Brad Ziegler to try and stabilize things.
That doesn’t mean that the bullpen can’t improve in the second half. Kimbrel will need to pitch better in non-save situations when he gets back, but for saves he’s as reliable as they come, and Dombrowski may not be done making moves. It’s just hard to envision this team having any ability to make a legit playoff run if they don’t have this crucial part of the team in order. Improvement in the second half is possible, but it’s absolutely essential and an urgent need for Dombrowski and the team right now.
9. Will they challenge the Orioles for the AL East crown?
The Baltimore Orioles surged to the top of the AL East in June and have been a consistent threat to the Red Sox all season, blasting home runs at a ridiculous clip and getting career numbers out of key members of their pitching staff. It will be a tall task for the Red Sox, who are 4-6 against Baltimore on the season, to catch up to them, especially with the Blue Jays trying to do the same.
Still, the Red Sox sit just two games back in the AL East and the division could very well come down to September, when the Red Sox play the Orioles seven times – three games at Fenway Park, four at Camden Yards. They also play the Blue Jays six times in September and October.
It’s just great to probably have a good reason to watch those games, for a change. Speaking of September …
10. Will the Red Sox’s top prospects make an impact in the major leagues?
Dombrowski has a track record of promoting high-end young talent from Double-A straight to the major leagues, viewing Pawtucket as an unnecessary step for elite prospects like Moncada and Benintendi. So will we see the two young stars in the major leagues before the end of the season?
Not to speak out of school about a World Series, but … in the Red Sox’s last two World Series title runs, they have gotten contributions from their youngest up-and-coming stars down the stretch and through the playoffs. It was Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester in 2007, and Bogaerts in 2013. Hopefully, you can add Moncada or Benintendi to that list come October.