Not Dead, But ...

The Red Sox have been knocked around by winning teams since late June; now it's time to make a coldhearted call
August 16, 2009

When the Red Soxobtained Victor Martinez from the Indians on July 31, it appeared to create agood kind of logjam on the roster: too many quality hitters for too few lineupspots. For a team that had scored a mediocre 4.2 runs per game in the two weeksleading up to the trade deadline, Martinez came at just the right time, and hisfive-hit performance in an 18-run outburst against the Orioles on Aug. 2 seamedto be immediate confirmation that he was the final piece of the Sox puzzle for2009.

Then the Sox leftBaltimore, and the euphoria quickly faded. In their next six games—all lossesto the Rays and the Yankees—the Sox scored just 14 runs, a stretch thatincluded a 15-inning shutout last Friday night in New York, which ended on awalk-off two-run homer by Alex Rodriguez. Up by three games in the AL East onJuly 17, the Sox were 6½ games out of first at week's end. In that 3½-weekstretch 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 anabove-.500 team.

The blame forthis stretch falls squarely on the once-formidable offense, which has scoredthree runs or fewer in half of its games since July 18. Last week Sox pitchersheld the Rays to two runs in 12 innings and the Yankees to zero in 14, only tobe let down by the lineup and eventually lose both games. The Red Sox bullpenhas been solid since the All-Star break, with the top seven relievers combiningto allow just 19 earned runs in 63 2/3 innings.

The performanceof Boston's up-the-middle players has especially hamstrung the club thisseason. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia is having a fine year, though it's down anotch from his MVP season in 2008. Nick Green, Jed Lowrie and the since-tradedJulio Lugo, however, have combined for some of the worst shortstop play in themajors: 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 58attempts), 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 logjamwas temporarily eased last weekend in their showdown with the Yankees becauseleftfielder Jason Bay, their second-best player this season, sat out the firstthree games with a hamstring strain. But that forced Kevin Youkilis, their bestplayer and a solid infielder, to play left, where he looked unsure of himself.The intermittent availability of third baseman Mike Lowell due to chronic hipproblems has created playing time as well, and catcher Jason Varitek'smidseason fade—through Sunday he had hit .153 with no homers since the All-Starbreak—had made it easier to occasionally sit the captain. When everyone who canplay the infield and outfield corners, DH and catcher is available, it's clearthat Martinez, Bay, Youkilis and J.D. Drew should play nearly every day, andthat Lowell, Varitek and David Ortiz should share the remaining at bats in theother two lineup spots.

The last of thosenames is the elephant in the room. Even before the recent revelation that he ison a list of players who allegedly tested positive for a banned substance in2003, the Sox star was having a difficult year. His .219 batting average, .308on-base percentage and .408 slugging percentage—which projects to be the worstfull season of his career—would be inadequate for a middle infielder, butthey're absolutely crippling from a designated hitter. His brief hot stretch inJune has been long forgotten; Ortiz has just a .208/.271/.377 line since theAll-Star break.

Ortiz bringsnegative baserunning value, and batting him in the middle of the lineup is justproviding an escape hatch for opposing pitchers. In a 13--6 loss to the Yankeeslast Thursday, Ortiz failed with two runners on in the first, third and fifthinnings, hitting into a particularly damaging double play in his second atbat.

The onlyqualification to be a DH is to hit, and Ortiz doesn't seem to be able to dothat any longer. Any way you look at the Sox talent, Ortiz appears to be theodd man out. Even if Lowell cannot play on a given day, the Sox are better offwith Youkilis at third, Martinez at DH and Casey Kotchman, another deadlineacquisition, at first. Kotchman (.277/.350/.410) has outhit Ortiz this seasonand plays excellent defense.

The Red Sox, wholooked to be on cruise control as recently as three weeks ago, are now in afull-fledged fight for the wild-card spot, tied with the surging Rangers and ahalf-game ahead of the Rays at week's end. The Sox can no longer afford toexperiment with various alignments or wait for Big Papi to come around. As thedecision to designate 42-year-old righthander John Smoltz for assignment lastweek shows, this is no time for sentiment. With the additions of Martinez andKotchman, Ortiz is no longer qualified to be in the Red Sox lineup.

Now on SI.com
Nearly killed in his first big-league at bat, a comeback kid tells of it atSI.com/bonus

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by DAMIAN STROHMEYERDOG DAYS Pedroia looked steamed, but the Sox offense remained cold in a weekend rout at the hands of Rodriguez (inset) and the Yankees. PHOTODILIP VISHWANAT (GREINKE) PHOTOPhotograph by DAMIAN STROHMEYER THETIME HAS COME With Boston's excess of bats, benching Big Papi is the club'smost logical choice.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)