This week’s questions as we get used to the Kansas City Royals with a winning record (numbers going into Thursday’s games):
Are the Red Sox finished? Not as long as they have 15 games left with the Yankees, who are the only team they can beat. Literally. The Sox have the worst record in baseball (2-9) and have given up the most runs (72); their team ERA is 6.77 and they’ve hit only seven home runs. Now for the good news: they’ve hit two more home runs than Nelson Cruz, Dennys Reyes is gone, and it’s not even Patriots Day yet. If you’re not from New England, that’s the day of the Boston Marathon, which is an apt metaphor for the Sox’s season. There’s plenty of time to right the course, but is there enough pitching? Kevin Youkilis is hitting .182, Jacoby Ellsbury .189, Carl Crawford .182; Adrian Gonzalez has one homer and J.D. Drew one extra-base hit. None of those will last. Jed Lowrie (7-for-16) will take more and more playing time from Marco Scutaro (.172), Josh Beckett dominated the Yankees as if it were 2003, and Jonathan Papelbon did likewise, even if he was aided by a wide-angle strike zone on Sunday. But the Sox must find some resolution to the back end of their rotation. Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey have combined to pitch 15.2 innings and allow 31 hits, nine walks, six home runs and 25 earned runs — they’re getting a combined $25 million this year. That’s a lot of money to be pitching mop-up, which is where they’re headed.
Are the Rays finished? Not as long as the Red Sox are on their schedule. The Rays are 3-8 — two of their wins and 19 of their 39 runs have come vs. Boston. The middle of the Rays order vanished with Manny Ramirez’s rock star-like retirement and Evan Longoria’s injury, and the rest of it has never appeared. Four starters (John Jaso, Ben Zobrist, Dan Johnson and Matt Joyce) are under .200, and they’ll hit, but the bigger issue might be the back third of their rotation. James Shields, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann are a combined 0-5 with a 5.40 ERA and five strikeouts per nine innings. They’re not historically high strikeout pitchers, and the bullpen supporting them isn’t as good this year. Last year they won 37 games, but only 48 of their 91 starts were quality, and only Shields reached 200 innings (and the Rays were sorry he did — opponents batted .294 against). The Rays won’t be able to cover for those 5.2 inning starts this year.
Is Manny a Hall of Famer? Depends which side of the performance-enhancing drug divide you sit on. Manny is ninth all-time in career OPS at .996, and has a career .312 average and 555 home runs. He was top 10 in MVP voting for eight straight years, and some of his numbers could only have come from this era or the 1930s: 165 RBIs in 1999, .697 slugging in 2000, a .351 average in 2000, 29 postseason home runs, 28 intentional walks in 2003, 21 career grand slams. Yes, Manny could be a buffoon, and graceless, and he retired one step ahead of his reputation. But I put the Hall of Fame line in a subjective place, since no one knows for sure — for the most part — who took and who didn’t and who benefited: Were they Hall of Famers before the PEDs, or because of PEDs? Manny, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens go in, Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire don’t.
Is that all there is of Tim Collins? Don’t adjust your set. That’s all there is of the 5-foot-7 Royals reliever, and no HD TV is going to make him look any bigger. But if Tiny Tim is vertically challenged, he’s not velocity challenged — just 21, he’s fanned 10 in his first seven big-league innings. And with fellow rookies Aaron Crow (former No. 1 pick) and Jeremy Jeffress (former Brewers No. 1 acquired in the Zack Grienke trade), he forms baseball’s best young bullpen group. They’ve combined to strike out 23 in 19.2 innings and have allowed just 13 hits, six walks and a run. If they get some help from Robinson Tejeda and Joakim Soria (combined 17 hits and three strikeouts in 12 innings), and if Luke Hochevar can cut his home run rate (six of the Royals’ 16 allowed), the Royals could imitate the 2008 Rays. They’re a far better bet to contend longer than the Indians.
Who should be worried? The Padres. They’re 5-6 in the standings, 39 runs scored to 40 against on the scoreboard. It’s a bland lineup, without youth or potential, with the exception of Cameron Maybin, whose career has been a shell game. Good luck picking the right shell. The bullpen — Heath Bell, Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson — is the team’s strongest point, besides starter Matt Latos, and Bell will be elsewhere by next year. The rotation includes Dustin Moseley and Aaron Harang, and if the Padres were able to stay in the NL West race to the end last year, they won’t this year. Sometimes medicority is just medicority.