|Will Middlebrooks should stay at 3B even after Kevin Youkilis returns, Heyman says. (US Presswire)|
The Boston Red Sox have so many issues it's hard to know where to begin. While they are only a couple games worse than last year at this time, the situation seems much more worrisome.
It goes beyond the fact that Boston, 13-19, is buried at the bottom of baseball's best division, the American League East, 4½ games (heading into Saturday) behind the fourth-place Toronto Blue Jays. There are problems that go deeper than their record, and they need to address them soon, considering the competition.
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Fortunately, there are solutions. But the Red Sox have to be willing to make some bold changes -- to inject even more youth, to spend some more money and even to upset one or two of the old guard.
Here are some ideas:
1. Let Will Middlebrooks keep third base, even after Kevin Youkilis returns
Middlebrooks, their best position prospect, has shown huge power in his short stint and he injects life into the lineup. Youkilis did not look good before going down with a back injury, as new manager Bobby Valentine, perhaps a bit indelicately, suggested. So it's time to make Middlebrooks -- who's hitting .314 with three quick homers -- the third baseman.
General manager Ben Cherington has hinted Youkilis won't lose his job to injury. Well, it's more than that. It's repeated injury (he's finished the last two seasons on the DL too), plus also Middlebooks' vast potential.
"Youkilis won't keep his job," one competing GM predicted.
Well, we'll see. Youkilis may be reinvigorated after marrying in his time off. But even he understands there are no guarantees. He told Red Sox writers, "If there's one thing I learned in the game, you can't predict the future." How true that's become with the Red Sox.
2. Bring up Ryan Lavarnway to be the main catcher
Jarrod Saltalamacchia looked like he was finally going to realize his vast potential at times last year, but he is struggling mightily now. He's hitting .221 with just four walks, 22 strikeouts and a .256 on-base percentage. While Lavarnway isn't exactly tearing the cover off the ball at Triple-A Pawtucket (.263), he has better potential.
Valentine is said to love Lavarnway, and the higher-ups do, too. The competing GM said Lavarnway "will be up within a week or two," so it's time to show the love by giving him a chance. Salty hasn't been great defensively, either. Blocking balls remains an issue. He can't be blamed for Aaron Cook's lower-leg gash that landed him on the disabled list, but it did occur after Saltalamacchia let one of Cook's patented sinker's slide past him.
3. Think about promoting Jose Iglesias from Pawtucket
Iglesias is hitting a bit better (.259) and brings a spectacular glove. Mike Aviles has done an adequate job at shortstop, but his range is limited and he still may be better suited for the utility role. Plus, he could help them in the outfield, where a lot of help is needed right now.
4. Use Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, a rookie or anyone in center field besides Marlon Byrd
Let me put this as delicately as I can: Byrd, at 35, looks about done. His OPS of .595 with Boston only looks passable compared to the .219 OPS he had in Chicago. Beyond that, he isn't even a good center fielder anymore. It was worth a shot, but it's time to move on. It's a rough time for the outfield regardless, as star center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is believed to be still a few weeks away and Carl Crawford was just moved to the 60-day disabled list with elbow soreness that doesn't allow him to throw.
5. Let Bobby V. be himself
Valentine seems a bit defanged after Cherington took the side of the players following Valentine's honest opinion that Youkilis didn't seem quite as "into it" mentally or physically as he expected. And while Red Sox people aren't used to such candor from the manager, they had to know what they were getting when they fired Terry "Everything is great" Francona and brought in Valentine.
With team leader Dustin Pedroia verbally slapping Valentine by saying, "That isn't how we do things around here," that was Cherington's chance -- or Valentine's chance -- to say things are being done differently now, in the year after the September chicken-and-beer collapse. Star pitcher Josh Beckett's ill-advised golf outing that followed him being pushed back in the rotation due to a supposed lat muscle injury was Valentine's chance to try again. And, uncharacteristically, he passed.
It's a tough situation all around -- Valentine having been originally suggested to Cherington by his bosses, Valentine being on only a two-year contract and most of the coaches not being Valentine's guys. It's always difficult to follow a manager who was such a player's manager who tolerated almost anything. Key players allegedly understood it was time for a change (though maybe not Pedroia) but they have to accept change. Whatever, Valentine just needs to be himself.
6. Acquire a starting pitcher who's a difference-maker
The Red Sox spent a grand total of $7.4 million on free agents last year, explaining that their money had been spent the winter before. But they have left themselves with a seriously flawed team, especially the rotation. It would be nice if Roy Oswalt had wanted to come to Boston, but they probably need to move on and figure something else out.
One obvious suggestion could be Ryan Dempster of the Cubs. He has an 0.95 ERA, the lowest ever for a pitcher who has yet to win a game through five starts. He is hurt by being on a low-scoring team. But if he came to Boston, he could thrive.
Despite all their positional struggles, the Red Sox are still second in the league in runs scored with 172 going into Saturday's game. If they have to, move Daniel Bard back to the bullpen. It doesn't matter that he wants to be a starter and has done OK at his new job. It's understandable the front office felt this was the best chance to see if Bard can start, but player's feelings need to be put aside for the good of the team.
That's a key to Boston's turnaround in many respects. It's time to stop worrying about the feelings of the players, even if the players helped win championships in the past.