IF YOU'RE looking for a reason to feel good about the Red Sox, head to Manchester and buy yourself a ticket to Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. The Portland Sea Dogs are there to face the Fisher Cats for a couple more days, and Boston's Double-A affiliate entered Saturday night having won 10 of 11. They're dominating the Eastern League. They're loaded with talent. They're exciting.
Whatever you do, though, don't turn your eyes to Tampa - at least not with an expectation that you'll like what you see if you're rooting for the guys in the road grays, who in contrast to their farm-league counterparts, have recently been dominated in the American League, have called their collective talent into question, and have been playing a rather drab brand of baseball.
It's a little early yet to label them a bad baseball team. They've still got two-thirds of a season to change course. But that's certainly the way it's trending, as the club found itself seven games under .500 after losing its eighth straight on Friday night.
Since 1901, only 16 Sox teams have been worse through 47 games, and only one (Kevin Kennedy's 1996 squad) has started worse since 1966. No team in franchise history has ever made the playoffs when having lost more than they've won by that juncture, and looking forward, Boston would need to go 71-44 starting with Saturday evening's tilt at Tropicana Field just to match the 91 wins that positioned the Rays to be the AL's second wild card last season.
That'd be demanding a .617 winning percentage from a team that's yet to win as many as three in a row. That's been brutal (10-21) against right-handed starters. That's struggled mightily (10-17) at home. That through Friday owned the third-worst run differential (minus-23) in the league.
When things are going this poorly it's impossible to blame individual players or even particular facets that have failed, so, with recognition of the skid they took into Saturday, let's take a look at eight areas and aspects that have been killing the Sox as of late, and where improvement might spur a reawakening:
* The starting pitching had a bad turn the last time through the rotation, but Boston's bats are equally at fault. After being blanked for a third straight Friday, the Sox had scored 16 runs over an eight-game stretch, and with that had slid to 12th in the AL in runs per game for the season (3.94). Their on-base percentage remains in the middle of the pack, and they still hit a fair amount of doubles, but they're below average in pretty much every other offensive category.
As John Lackey's seven shutout innings showed at the start of this series, even when the pitching has been decent - or even good - the offense still hasn't been able to support it.
*Much has been made of the Sox leaning on a few inexperienced pieces. But the biggest problem with the club's roster construction appears not to be its youth, but it's lack of prime-age players. Opinions vary, but it's generally agreed that a hitter's best years fall somewhere in the range of 27-31 - yet no AL team had fewer plate appearances from players in that age group than the Red Sox' 535 entering Saturday, or a lower OPS than the Sox' .654 from those players.
For the Sox, hitters in that age bracket include Mike Carp (age 27), Jonathan Herrera (29), Dustin Pedroia (30), Daniel Nava (31) and Grady Sizemore (31) - so one starter, two backups, a platoon player, and a demoted outfielder.
*After Shane Victorino reinjured his hamstring Friday, it's worth wondering if that ailment could precipitate a significant move the way Will Middlebrooks' broken finger led to the reacquisition of Stephen Drew. The Sox outfield sure could use a boost, as the club entered Saturday with the lowest OBP (.291), second-lowest batting average (.220) and OPS (.630), as well as the third-fewest homers (nine) among AL units at those positions.
*A quick way for the Sox to improve their options in the outfield, plus their depth and perhaps their lacking athleticism, could be moving on from Jonathan Herrera and adding a player with the ability to play anywhere. Herrera's two starts and eight plate appearances since April 26 say he doesn't have his manager's trust, and his ability to play shortstop is of less value once Drew is ready, so the Sox should find a way to better use his roster spot.
*It's tough to question the toughness of the players - so we'll question the wisdom. Pedroia and Mike Napoli both returned to the lineup quickly after straining a wrist and breaking a finger, respectively, though might the team have been better if they'd been given time to heal? Pedroia entered Saturday with a career-worst .394 slugging percentage and two homers. Napoli hadn't homered since April 22, and admits the finger still hurts. Those guys hit in the heart of the order on a team lacking for power - and it shows.
*They're not hitting for power or average. And the Sox aren't doing the little things, either. Through Friday, the Sox had executed only six of 13 sacrifice bunt attempts (third-worst in the AL), scored only 45 percent of runners on third with less than two outs (second-worst) and advanced only 41 percent of runners from second with nobody out (worst). Only 25 percent of outs made have been productive in nature - also tied for league-worst.
*Between May 15 and Friday, the Red Sox bullpen had recorded 104 outs - only eight of them while pitching with a lead. Over that same span the club led for just half an inning (the bottom of the second last Sunday), and entering Saturday its staff had gone into only 496 of 1,838 (27 percent) pitching with a lead. That's not good for a team that was 5-22 when the opponent scored first, and 2-22 when trailing through six innings.
*Clay Buchholz's 6.34 began Saturday as the second-worst ERA among qualifying big-league pitchers, and though he insists he's healthy, the numbers say something is wrong - and so the Sox should put him on the DL to determine what that is. If they're going to recover from this start they're going to need Buchholz, and need him to be right. So send him to the minors and let him figure it out in a rehab assignment.
Heck, send him to Portland and let him see what a good team looks like.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.