Posted: Wednesday April 13, 2011 1:05PM ; Updated: Wednesday April 13, 2011 3:44PM
Jon Heyman
Jon Heyman>DAILY SCOOP

Worrymeter says no reason for Red Sox, Pujols to sweat slow starts

Story Highlights

Scouts still think Boston will be a contender in the American League East

Albert Pujols is hitting just .200 with one home run but should turn it around

The Rays could be in trouble, and Phil Hughes is concerned about his velocity

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Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Daisuke Matsuzaka
Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Daisuke Matsuzaka are two of the players causing concern for Red Sox fans.
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It's funny how the Red Sox say nobody should be panicking because of their bad start and yet manager Terry Francona has already penciled in their new, struggling $142 million man Carl Crawford to four different places in the lineup -- 1, 2, 3 and 7. Which could be a sign of concern, or even indecisiveness. At the very least, it's some mixed signals for a team with a $170 million payroll that isn't playing like it.

When asked about Boston's awful beginning a few days ago, Derek Jeter, himself starting slow, responded, "Does anyone think Albert Pujols will hit (.200)?'' referring to King Albert's sluggish start.

The point is, it's early.

But it's later for some than others. For instance, no baseball person could be found this week who doesn't think the 2-9 Red Sox will still be a major force in the vaunted AL East. The response of one scout was typical: "I wouldn't say they are sure to win 100 games like everyone was saying, but they are going to be very good.''

Still, folks are starting to notice a few flaws. As one scout put it, "I saw some cracks in spring training.''

Josh Beckett's brilliant two-hit performance over eight innings against the rival Yankees last Sunday allayed the biggest fear, which was that Beckett was going south just as his $68 million contract was kicking in. But there are still at least four, shall we say, imperfections: 1) No one seems sold on starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia; 2) they have no lefthanded relievers who could be described as above average ("I'm not sure why they gave up on Dennys Reyes so quickly,'' one scout says); 3) with so many major changes, especially at key spots like catcher and pitching coach, they may still be in a getting-to-know-you phase; 4) Daisuke Matsuzaka may have nothing left.

Two scouts who followed Salty, who is hitting .154, this spring say they don't expect much, and one says he thinks veteran Jason Varitek, who caught Beckett's gem, will become more prominent. Still, that scout says, "I like everything Varitek brings to the party. But how many games can he catch?''

It's also been difficult getting everyone on the same page when there's a new catcher and a new pitching coach. While coach Curt Young came highly recommended from Oakland, he is trying to replace John Farrell, almost a pitching coach legend, at a time Red Sox pitching is struggling. The 25-year-old Saltalamacchia, meanwhile, is not only new to Boston, he is as green as the monster, having never played 100 big league games in a season.

The struggles of Matsuzaka (0-2, 12.86 ERA) are only more worrisome than some others, as Clay Buchholz (0-2, 7.20) and John Lackey (1-1, 15.58) have been startlingly disappointing so far, as well. Buchholz's early troubles could be attributed to his new contract, which might have been "weighing on him,'' one Red Sox person speculates. As for Lackey, he just may not be an ace anymore. "He's probably a No. 4 starter on a good staff now,'' one scout says. "He's a command/control guy with not a lot of margin for error.''

Meanwhile, as for Matsuzaka, one scout says, "His stuff disappeared the last two years.'' The problems don't end there, either. While the bullpen has two possible closing alternatives should Jonathan Papelbon falter, their lefty situation is even weaker than most teams. Their lefties in the 'pen are Hideki Okajima, who is currently in the minor leagues, and prospect Felix Doubront, who was supposed to be starting in the minors.

Crawford also is struggling. One scouts says, "He wasn't good in spring,'' while another points out that there's an adjustment to Boston. He's joined below the Mendoza line by teammates Marco Scutaro (.172), Jacoby Ellsbury (.189) and Kevin Youkilis (.172). It isn't necessarily all that comfortable in Boston now but no one seriously thinks Boston will be anything less than stellar offensively. "It's too early (for them) to panic,'' one competing GM says.

Indeed, despite those struggles, on the 1-10 scale of the Worrymeter, where 10 is the highest, the Red Sox only merit a 3. Here are five more of the most surprising bad starts and whether there should truly be cause for concern, plus where each one falls on the Worrymeter.

1. Phil Hughes

Hughes, the Yankees' 24-year-old starter who used to throw 96 mph as a reliever, has had trouble cracking 90 mph in his first two outings this year, continuing a trend from spring training. He threw on the side the other day but couldn't tell if he had his missing velocity back. Even Hughes admits he's concerned. "It's obviously something to be worried about. This is my job, my livelihood. It's worrisome.''

Worrymeter: 8

2. Rays

With Evan Longoria out for now and Manny Ramirez out forever, their offense seems quite a bit short at the moment, leading to their 3-8 start. Carlos Peņa's replacement at first base, Dan Johnson, is somehow managing to bat lower than Peņa, who didn't even crack .200 last year. Johnson is at .122 which isn't that much worse than Ben Zobrist (.190), Matt Joyce (.138), Sean Rodriguez (.190), and John Jaso (.190) and actually better than the departed Ramirez (.059), who "looked great this spring,'' one scout says, before his average, his career and his reputation all took a turn for the worse. The Rays have tried to make up for their slumbering offense with aggressiveness and versatility, and newcomers Sam Fuld (a team leading .594 slugging percentage for the superb fielding and supposedly light hitting little sparkplug) and Eliot Johnson help in that regard. The bullpen also remains a major question mark. Joe Maddon somehow pulled together a seeming ragtag bunch last year, turning it into the top group in the league. Good luck with this crew. "The guys he has now are a lot younger and don't have the track record," a scout says. "I'd be concerned about that bullpen, and they are concerned.''

Worrymeter: 7

2. Derek Jeter

He's hitting .206, raising concerns in the Bronx that, at the least, maybe that four-year deal wasn't the greatest of ideas for the soon-to-be 37-year-old. Jeter has hit an inordinate number of weak grounders and has only one extra-base hit so far. He won't admit he's worried, but others are wondering whether his adjustments to his stride (he eliminated the stride this winter, and now it's back occasionally) is a tipoff to troubles. But others say not to read too much into so few games and a bit of tinkering (the great Yankee Don Mattingly was famous for doing the same thing). Jeter himself said, "It's only nine games.'' Even so, the speculation persists. Jeter supporters point out he's been through bad streaks before, sometimes when he wasn't completely healthy. But one scout says, "He's been tardy'' (on pitches), and another flat out says, "He looks done.'' That's doubtful. But one thing's for sure, and that's this. "I'm done talking about it,'' he says.

Worrymeter: 4

4. Giants

Defending a title is tough, and the 5-6 Giants have teams gotten some early competition out West from the hot-starting Rockies and rival Dodgers. Once scout sees the Giants as third best team in the division. But, he adds, "with their pitching, you can't count them out.'' That's definitely the case, but their pitchers can't be happy about the defense they see behind them at the moment. As one scout noted, they have limited range at second base (Freddy Sanchez) and "none'' at shortstop and third (Miguel Tejada and the slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval, respectively). And that says nothing about right field, where Aubry Huff "just doesn't have the skill to do it,'' as one scout points out. They may have to return him to first base, and move big-time prospect Brandon Belt back to the outfield, which he played some in the minors last season. San Francisco won last year with an average defense, but this year's version is something less than that. Still, their pitchers get a lot of flyballs (Matt Cain) and strikeouts (the other of the big four), so they may still survive with defense that's not as good as most.

Worrymeter: 1

5. Albert Pujols

For a while, he was missing his protector in the lineup, Matt Holliday, who missed a few games after having his appendix removed. Whether that was the cause, Pujols' slow start -- .200, one home run, four RBIs -- is surely only an aberration. It's certainly a different year for the three-time NL MVP because it's his free-agent year, but nobody expects that to affect him.

Worrymeter: 0

 
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