When the Red Sox obtained Victor Martinez from the Indians on July 31, it appeared to create a good kind of logjam on the roster: too many quality hitters for too few lineup spots. For a team that had scored a mediocre 4.2 runs per game in the two weeks leading up to the trade deadline, Martinez came at just the right time, and his five-hit performance in an 18-run outburst against the Orioles on Aug. 2 seamed to be immediate confirmation that he was the final piece of the Sox puzzle for 2009.
Then the Sox left Baltimore, and the euphoria quickly faded. In their next six games—all losses to the Rays and the Yankees—the Sox scored just 14 runs, a stretch that included a 15-inning shutout last Friday night in New York, which ended on a walk-off two-run homer by Alex Rodriguez. Up by three games in the AL East on July 17, the Sox were 6½ games out of first at week's end. In that 3½-week stretch all but one of their wins came over the woeful Orioles and Athletics. In fact, dating to June 27, Boston had just one win, in 13 tries, over an above-.500 team.
The blame for this stretch falls squarely on the once-formidable offense, which has scored three runs or fewer in half of its games since July 18. Last week Sox pitchers held the Rays to two runs in 12 innings and the Yankees to zero in 14, only to be let down by the lineup and eventually lose both games. The Red Sox bullpen has been solid since the All-Star break, with the top seven relievers combining to allow just 19 earned runs in 63 2/3 innings.
The performance of Boston's up-the-middle players has especially hamstrung the club this season. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia is having a fine year, though it's down a notch from his MVP season in 2008. Nick Green, Jed Lowrie and the since-traded Julio Lugo, however, have combined for some of the worst shortstop play in the majors: poor at the plate and, in Green's case, mistake-prone in the field. Centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury steals bases at a high rate of success (50 in 58 attempts), but with a .348 on-base percentage and just 27 unintentional walks, he's still a work in progress as a leadoff batter.
The lineup logjam was temporarily eased last weekend in their showdown with the Yankees because leftfielder Jason Bay, their second-best player this season, sat out the first three games with a hamstring strain. But that forced Kevin Youkilis, their best player and a solid infielder, to play left, where he looked unsure of himself. The intermittent availability of third baseman Mike Lowell due to chronic hip problems has created playing time as well, and catcher Jason Varitek's midseason fade—through Sunday he had hit .153 with no homers since the All-Star break—had made it easier to occasionally sit the captain. When everyone who can play the infield and outfield corners, DH and catcher is available, it's clear that Martinez, Bay, Youkilis and J.D. Drew should play nearly every day, and that Lowell, Varitek and David Ortiz should share the remaining at bats in the other two lineup spots.
The last of those names is the elephant in the room. Even before the recent revelation that he is on a list of players who allegedly tested positive for a banned substance in 2003, the Sox star was having a difficult year. His .219 batting average, .308 on-base percentage and .408 slugging percentage—which projects to be the worst full season of his career—would be inadequate for a middle infielder, but they're absolutely crippling from a designated hitter. His brief hot stretch in June has been long forgotten; Ortiz has just a .208/.271/.377 line since the All-Star break.
Ortiz brings negative baserunning value, and batting him in the middle of the lineup is just providing an escape hatch for opposing pitchers. In a 13--6 loss to the Yankees last Thursday, Ortiz failed with two runners on in the first, third and fifth innings, hitting into a particularly damaging double play in his second at bat.
The only qualification to be a DH is to hit, and Ortiz doesn't seem to be able to do that any longer. Any way you look at the Sox talent, Ortiz appears to be the odd man out. Even if Lowell cannot play on a given day, the Sox are better off with Youkilis at third, Martinez at DH and Casey Kotchman, another deadline acquisition, at first. Kotchman (.277/.350/.410) has outhit Ortiz this season and plays excellent defense.
The Red Sox, who looked to be on cruise control as recently as three weeks ago, are now in a full-fledged fight for the wild-card spot, tied with the surging Rangers and a half-game ahead of the Rays at week's end. The Sox can no longer afford to experiment with various alignments or wait for Big Papi to come around. As the decision to designate 42-year-old righthander John Smoltz for assignment last week shows, this is no time for sentiment. With the additions of Martinez and Kotchman, Ortiz is no longer qualified to be in the Red Sox lineup.
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