Banged up and bruised, the Red Sox keep chugging along
The Red Sox will be a player this month in the days leading up to the trade deadline because the Sox, given their financial muscle and savvy front office, can be a player. And they should be. If C.C. Sabathia is going to be pitching for somebody other than the Indians in the weeks ahead -- and that seems pretty likely at this point -- the Sox should have a say in where the big lefty lands. And they probably will.
But unlike a lot of contenders -- almost all of them, truth be told -- the Sox don't have to make some headliney deadline deal for somebody like Sabathia. The Sox, as the standings show, have a pretty good team as is. They know that they can win it all with what they have. Again.
It's a beautiful thing to watch, how Boston goes about its roster-building and its roster-maintaining business. Others scramble. The Red Sox simply move a couple guys around. Others panic. The Sox just peer into their deep, versatile, talented pool of players and figure things out.
Is any good-to-great team in baseball as versatile as these Sox? Does any team plug its holes, patch its wounded, move its pieces around better than Boston? This is a talented bunch built to withstand the rigors of a long season, a squad that can take a punch and bounce right back.
"We have quite a few guys that can do a lot. That's the best way to be in the major leagues," says most-of-the-time first baseman Kevin Youkilis. "If you're a guy that can only fill one position, it's a lot harder. That's the whole key; having unbelievable guys, guys who just want to play ball and win."
The Sox have taken some licks in the first half of the season -- big ones, too, the kind that would devastate lesser teams -- and have trucked right along. Consider just some of the mini-emergencies that they have had to face so far:
Third baseman Mike Lowell, freshly re-signed in the offseason, misses almost three weeks of games in April with a sprained left thumb. Youkilis moves to third and offseason signee Sean Casey steps in at first. The Sox go 11-7. Casey hits .349 in the stretch.
Daisuke Matsuzaka lands on the disabled list with a rotator cuff strain, missing five starts. In eight starts as a fill-in (some since Matsuzaka's return), 23-year-old sidearming righty Justin Masterson, a second-round pick by the Sox in 2006, is 4-2 with a 3.75 ERA, allowing just 34 hits in 48 innings.
Designated hitter David Ortiz, who slumped early and then tore up his wrist, misses all of June and is still sitting on the DL. Manny Ramirez takes over as DH, giving up his spot in left field to Jacoby Ellsbury. Coco Crisp settles into center field and the Sox, even without Big Papi in the lineup, go 16-11 in June. They also hit more home runs and had a higher OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in June. Without Ramirez in left, they also field a much better defense.
Nobody on the Sox is more valuable than the Great Goatee, Youkilis, who has played 14 games at third base, 59 at first and has played both positions in a game six times this year. He's also made two appearances in right field, though they weren't starts. He is hitting .306, with a .376 on-base percentage, 13 home runs and 51 RBIs.
"I think guys like to be comfortable. We all like to be consistent in everything," Youkilis says. "But it's not that tough, as long as it's not like every day you're changing. If somebody goes down and you have to go in and play that spot for a week or two, that's not that bad."
Boston's ability to build a flexible, useable roster has been a combination of uncanny foresight and a little good fortune. Last winter, and as far back as the latter stages of the 2007 season, the raging speculation about the team's roster was what would happen with centerfielder Crisp, who seemed to be a sure trade-chip with the emergence of the speedy Ellsbury. General manager Theo Epstein, though, maintained that Crisp might well remain with the team, and when Boston received no legitimate offers over the winter, that's where Crisp was as the season opened. As it turns out, it was the perfect non-move.
With Ortiz out and Ramirez moving to DH, Crisp has been a staple in the outfield. He's started 53 games in center, where he plays a Gold Glove-caliber defense. He's also hitting much better. In his past 11 games, he's batting .366 with three doubles, a triple and three homers, jacking his average on the season to .276. He's also had 13 steals.
Ortiz's injury and Ramirez's move out of the field also have enabled rookie Ellsbury to keep his playing time up. Ellsbury, regarded mainly as a centerfielder, has flipped between left and center, playing center for all five games that Crisp missed when he was suspended for his part in a brawl with the Rays. Ellsbury -- hitting .267 with a .344 OBP and an American League-best 35 steals -- also has started 11 games in right field to spell J.D. Drew.
"We have guys who are willing to accept whatever role they're given," Ellsbury says. "It's good for the team, and it can be good for the individual player, too."
It's all good for the Sox, who undoubtedly will still make a run at Sabathia and other starters, though they're more likely to end up with some relief help along the lines of Kansas City lefty Ron Mahay. And, for the Sox, things probably will only get better. Ortiz will be back later this month, or early in August at the latest. Matsuzaka has returned and is looking healthy. Crisp is finished with his suspension and had two hits in a win over the Yankees on Thursday.
July 31 will come and it will go, and with or without some tabloid-shuddering deal at the trade deadline, the deep, versatile Sox will be fine. They'll be better than fine. They're going to be a player in September, when it really counts.