By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The Red Sox have 103 wins. They've schooled the American League this season and currently have the highest grade point average in all of baseball. But with the semester about to close and final exams around the corner, it appears they need to break out the flash cards on a few subjects. We'll see if they can answer these critical questions before Oct. 4.
1. Will Chris Sale be ready for the postseason?
After the lefty wobbled down the stretch and was eventually knocked out in Game 1 of the ALDS last year, the new Red Sox coaching staff entered spring training committed to preserving Sale, hoping for a better pennant push in 2018. And they made good on that promise: through 22 starts, he’d tossed 12.1 fewer innings and delivered 181 fewer pitches than in the previous campaign, when John Farrell rode him like Secretariat.
It wasn’t a huge gap - he remained among the league leaders in both categories - but it was the cumulative equivalent of skipping a couple of starts. Sale still pitches like a maniac every time he takes the hill - just look at his August 12 start outing against Baltimore when, coming off the DL, he struck out 12 batters and allowed one hit in five innings of work. And then, of course, he returned to the shelf.
The ace has ‘started” twice in the last week, and it was the Cliff’s Notes version each time - a combined four innings and 68 pitches. The velocity appears to be there and his control was much better Sunday afternoon against the Mets.
With 12 games remaining in September, Sale should see one or two more appearances. Will he play the role of traditional starter in October? A newfangled “opener” who hands the ball over to the bullpen after a short stint? Will he pull a Pedro Martinez in 1999 and emerge as a relief ace?
There’s little question the Sox will finish with the best record in baseball. But without Sale at the top of his game, they're not the same team.
2. Who’s “the guy” in the bullpen?
For a relief staff with the fifth-best combined ERA in the majors, it appears Alex Cora will be spinning a wheel - maybe not of gutless bums, Big Jim Murray, but still a wheel - when it comes to assignments in the late innings. Matt Barnes had been the most reliable option, but he's trying to work his way back from a hip ailment.
For the rest of the crew, it’s been a case of speeding up to slow down. Joe Kelly goes on a scoreless streak, then blows multiple leads in brutal fashion. Tyler Thornburg shows promise, then we're reminded he just isn't the same guy. Heath Hembree is what we thought he was: not very good. Drew Pomeranz looks like a lost cause.
Cora insists he has a plan, and it appears to involve Barnes and some relatively unproven talent. Japanese League retread Ryan Brasier, rookie southpaw Bobby Poyner and even Brandon Workman have been effective over the last month. Knuckleballer Steven Wright has seen some late inning work.
But the difference between these guys and the dregs we collectively boo is that they haven't messed up - yet. How confident do we feel in a group of guys who've spent time in Pawtucket this summer?
While Sale’s shoulder requires baby steps, the bullpen is a question the Sox can actively address before the month draws to a close. The team has been criticized for the lack of competition they’ve faced, but nine of the last 12 games are against potential playoff foes, with two series against the Yankees and a three-game set with Cleveland. Let's see who can take the heat.
3a. Can David Price win a start in the postseason?
3b. For that matter, can Rick Porcello?
I think just about all the ink that can be spilled on Price’s postseason exploits has already exited the bottle. Price is having probably his best statistical season as a member of the Red Sox. Sure, he’s missed a couple of starts and been trampled by the Yankees a couple of times. He’s not in the conversation for the Cy Young Award. But he’s put together two impressive stretches, going 7-1 with a 2.72 ERA between May 12 and June 26, and a post-All-Star break run that has seen him go 5-0 with a 1.56 ERA.
It remains to be seen if he can ride this hot streak into October. If he does, it would be a major factor for the Sox getting out of the divisional round and possibly further. With Sale’s status uncertain, the spotlight once again falls on the well-compensated lefty.
Porcello has settled right where I expected him to be when the Sox traded for him nearly four years ago. He’s not as bad as the guy who carried a 6.08 ERA into July of 2015, but not as consistently good as the 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner.
One of the major issues has been the long ball, as he led the league in home runs allowed last year and is near the top of that unpleasant heap (27 gopher balls, tied for fifth in the AL) this season. He’s settled into a Derek Lowe-like groove where he chews a good amount of innings and usually puts the team in position to win. It’d be great if he could go on a Lowe-like run in the postseason.
Thus far in his Red Sox career, Porcello has yielded seven earned runs and three homers in just 8.1 postseason innings pitched.
4. Is the lineup deep enough?
So many questions about a pitching staff with the third-best ERA in all of baseball. Let’s switch gears.
Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts - those four alone might be enough to get to the World Series. But I do have some concerns about the lineup on the whole.
I’m not here to pick on Jackie Bradley Jr. He is what he is, and while he's on a nice little run (.269/.335/.500) since the All-Star break, he's at the bottom of the batting order. So is Sandy Leon, who appears to be using a bat made of swiss cheese. But Mitch Moreland, who rode a hot start to an All-Star Game nod, has been on ice since June 27, a stretch of 54 appearances where he’s hitting below the Mendoza Line with just four home runs and five multi-hit games to his credit.
There was probably too much riding on 21-year old Rafael Devers hitting in the middle of the order in his second big league season. In concert with Sale, he has struggled with injuries since late July and been a non-factor in most of the games he has played.
Moreland can still make an impact, as he did last Sunday night against Houston. He’s what Dan Duquette would call a “professional hitter." And I seem to remember Mike Napoli striking out in seemingly every other at-bat after May 1, 2013, but he still provided some pop when it counted.
Devers is a stud dealing with growing pains. But he had some big hits in the postseason just last year.
Steve Pearce can spell Moreland against lefties, and he's been absolutely bonkers in that role. But for the rest of the time, it'd be nice to see a Red Sox lineup that goes beyond the big names.
5. What does the road ahead look like?
While the National League continues to boast an abundance of contenders, the entries in the American League Royal Rumble have been apparent for months. The Astros, Indians and Red Sox have collectively sat atop their respective divisions since before the Fourth of July, when the Yankees went from AL East leader to Wild Card lock.
The Oakland A’s are the most recent arrival new to the dance, and they’ve ripped off a 56-24 run since June 16. But they’re not particularly scary in a five-game setting. There’s a reason Oakland has won just one playoff series out of nine appearances this century.
Cleveland and Houston sent the Sox packing the last two seasons, respectively. I'd favor the Red Sox against the survivor of the Wild Card game. But getting past the last two American League representatives in the World Series? That hurdle will require clutch hitting, reliable pitching and forgetting about a 1-6 mark the past two postseasons.
Time to hit the books. October will be here before we know it.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.