Weekend watch: Make-or-break for Red Sox, Rays, D-backs
This weekend features several matchups among contending teams — Dodgers versus the Giants, White Sox versus Rangers, A's versus Orioles — but while they jockey for position near the top of the division and Wild Card standings, our eyes are upon the fringe element. A few teams aren't clear about whether they're buying or selling, with the results over the next few days possibly altering the equation before Tuesday's nonwaiver trading deadline.
Boston Red Sox (49-50) at New York Yankees (59-39)
Who made this schedule? Nearly two-thirds of the way through the season, the Sox are finally taking their first trip to the Bronx. With five losses in six games, they've fallen under .500 for the first time since late May, and they're now just (choose another discouraging split) 11-16 since trading Kevin Youkilis, 8-13 since the calendar flipped to July, 6-7 since the All-Star break and the return of Jacoby Ellsbury and 3-6 since losing David Ortiz to a strained Achilles tendon. Ellsbury has hit .327/.340/.442 since returning, but Carl Crawford has yet to heat up, hitting .219/.265/.219 since his own return, and Boston is scoring just 3.86 runs per game in July while yielding 4.90.
Indeed, while the lineup is almost whole — Ortiz is out of his walking boot and nearing a return — the pitching remains a problem. Friday's starter, Aaron Cook, has fewer strikeouts than homers (three and four, respectively) in his 36 innings pitched, suggesting his 3.50 ERA is living on borrowed time. Saturday's starter, Jon Lester, was raked over the coals for 11 runs via five walks and nine hits — including four homers — in four innings during his last start. He's carrying a 5.46 ERA thanks to three consecutive disaster starts (more runs allowed than innings pitched), while the Sox have lost seven of his last nine starts dating back to the beginning of June, and 18 out of 26 dating to last September 1. Sunday's starter, Felix Doubront, has the best ERA of any of Boston's regular starters, and that's at a beefy 4.54. As a unit, their rotation ranks 12th in the league in ERA (4.85) and 11th in quality start rate (47 percent), with Cook (68 percent), enfant terrible Josh Beckett (59 percent) and Doubront (53 percent) the only ones delivering more often than not.
CEO Larry Lucchino says that general manager Ben Cherington is authorized to make a "bold" move, and the Sox have scouted frontline starters such as Matt Garza, Zack Greinke and Josh Johnson as a means of shoring up the pitching. Even so, Garza is now essentially off the market due to fluid buildup in his triceps, and the other two will be prohibitively costly and heavily sought, with neither providing enough to help the Red Sox make up 4 1/2 games in the Wild Card standings, where they're running seventh. Cherington is also said to be seeking a shortstop to upgrade beyond Mike Aviles, who's hitting just .257/.281/.404 and is part of a defense that ranks eighth in the league in defensive efficiency at .693, two points below average, but the market isn't exactly chockful of difference-makers on that front either.
A beating in the Bronx isn't likely to lead the Sox to conclude they should be sellers rather than buyers, not with the game's second-highest payroll, two straight seasons of missing the postseason and considerable egg on the faces of Lucchino and owner John Henry over what has transpired since Theo Epstein and Terry Francona were forced out after last season's collapse. Even so, a decision to sell may be the real bold move. Outfielders Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney, catcher Kelly Shoppach and relievers Matt Albers and Vicente Padilla would make useful complementary parts for the right contender, while Ellsbury, a free agent after 2013 who is said to be likely to test the market, could be an intriguing centerpiece for a much bigger deal.
The Rays are 10-11 in July, 6-7 since the All-Star break and 36-40 since Evan Longoria last played a big league game; they're now 8 1/2 back in the AL East and 2 1/2 back in the Wild Card. Yet perhaps more than any of the other eight teams who can loosely be called Wild Card contenders, they've given signs of selling rather than buying. Attendance that's running 13th in the league may be a factor, as is the Rays' penchant for zigging as the rest of the field zags; like Billy Beane's Moneyballin' A's, this is a team in search of the next market inefficiency. As noted yesterday, the Rays have explored the market for James Shields, who has affordable club options for 2013 and 2014, with the Angels among the teams interested, along with the Rangers and Dodgers. Meanwhile, the field of frontline starters shrank yet again with the news regarding Garza's triceps, to say nothing of reports regarding the Marlins' steep demands for Johnson . The Rays also have pending free agents in B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena; neither has put up strong numbers (.247/.310/.383 for Upton, .195/.324/.353 for Pena), but the market doesn't have a whole lot of impact bats right now, and both could appeal to buyers based upon their track records, the latter with first base particularly weak. A rough weekend against the Wild Card-leading Angels could bring clarity to the Rays as to which direction to turn.