Red Sox

First Pitch: Sox need revitalized Lester to help with turnaround

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First Pitch: Sox need revitalized Lester to help with turnaround

Jon Lester will make his 31st start of the season Friday night as the Red Sox begin their final homestand of the season, and barring anything unforeseen, will make two more after that before the season comes a merciful end on Oct. 3.

If Lester wins his final three starts -- something he's done once before this season, from Aug. 12-24 -- he'll avoid finishing with a losing record for the year.

Even that, however, would be cold comfort for Lester, who, like his team, has weathered a massively disappointing season. Lester entered this season with the third-highest winning percentage (.691) of any pitcher with a minimum of 50 decisions and the very fact that he will have to rally here in the final two weeks just to break even speaks
to how sub-par his season has been.

When Lester drew the Opening Day assignment from Bobby Valentine, it helped represent a passing of the torch for the lefty. Though Josh Beckett was then still a teammate, the choice of Lester to pitch April 5 symbolized that he -- and not the more experienced Beckett -- was the top pitcher on the staff.

Except Lester failed to make good on that designation. He won just five games in the first four months and was tagged for five runs or more five times in his first 20 starts.

Given his team's fall from contention -- and, at times, respectability -- the outcome of Lester's last three starts is largely irrelevant. At this late date, Lester's season is beyond redemption.

But, as the saying goes, there's always next year. And it's overstatement whatsoever to suggest that Lester may be the most important player if the Sox are going to successfully execute a turnaround in 2013. With Beckett dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers last month, Lester is, more than ever, the face of the pitching staff. It's impossible to foresee the Sox becoming contenders again without substantial contributions from the lefty.

Just what exactly has ailed Lester this year is difficult to pinpoint. His .314 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is up from his career average and suggests that he's been at least somewhat unlucky, as he has claimed more than once.

Still, there's far more to Lester's off-year than simple misfortune. Too often, he has seen his concentration wander as he disputes umpires' strike zones and there have been a few mechanical glitches to overcome.

One club source believes that, more than any Red Sox pitcher, Lester has suffered from the team's endless parade of pitching coaches since the end of 2010. Lester, the source said, needs a consistent, forceful message and he has not had that this season.

In addition to his occasionally wandering focus on the mound, Lester is prone to bouts of self-doubt in between outings. He benefits from someone who can expertly diagnose flaws in his mechanics. Neither Curt Young last season, nor the tag team of Bob McClure and Randy Niemann have fit that description.

But if the Sox can work out a deal with Toronto to get Farrell to manage next season, Lester could be a huge beneficiary.

"I guarantee that you that Farrell could fix Lester in about half an hour," said one of the pitcher's former teammates recently. The club source voiced a similar sentiment.

Lester had his best seasons with Farrell as his pitching coach. From 2008-2010, Lester averaged 207 innings and almost 17 wins per season, with a composite ERA of 3.25 in that span.

There's no guarantee that Farrell is returning and no assurance that he -- or anyone else -- can return the pitcher to his prior form. But put it this way: the Red Sox' path back to contention is a lot more complicated without a rejuvenated Lester leading the way.

The road back to respectability begins Friday night. The real journey begins next April.

Red Sox can be thankful for a successful past and a bright future

Red Sox can be thankful for a successful past and a bright future

For the glass-is-half-full folks, there are those back-to-back Eastern Division titles. For the glass-is-half-empty folks, well, there are those two first-round playoff ousters (though both their conquerers made it to the World Series, and one of them won it). But, here on Thanksgiving night, there's plenty for Red Sox Nation to be thankful for, starting with . . . 


YOUR GOOD HEALTH

We know you don’t need the Red Sox to know you how important the most basic elements of life are. But sometimes, the typical fantasy land of baseball can grab our attention. The death of 17-year-old Sox prospect Daniel Flores (above) this month from complications because of cancer didn’t take away only a potentially great baseball career. It took away a beloved, hard-working young person from the people who loved him. He had just made millions of dollars in July for his talent on the field, but what does such a windfall matter compared to one’s health? His cancer was both rare and fast-moving, per the Boston Globe.

MOOKIE, JACKIE, XANDER, BENINTENDI, DEVERS

The kids deserve some love. They probably won’t be together on the Red Sox forever. Heck, the group could get broken up this winter. But while any of the Killer B’s (plus a D) remain on the Sox, there should be a sense of optimism. Two straight 93-win seasons may have resulted in a first-round exit, and 2017 didn’t meet expectations for some individual performances. But you know what? The youths are still damn good, and there’s time for them to show us they can be even better.

INSANELY GOOD PITCHERS IN CHRIS SALE AND CRAIG KIMBREL

Neither hogs the spotlight once the game ends or says too much. Sale doesn’t even have Twitter. But the righty closer and lefty starter both do two things exceedingly well: make batters swing and miss, and prevent runs. When both pitch, your seat at the park may well be worth the price of admission. (But we won’t ask what you paid for those seats.) Sale didn’t take down Pedro Martinez’s Sox single-season strikeout record this year, finishing with five fewer than Martinez’s 313 in 1999. But he could have done it. And with a little more rest next year, one can envision him plowing his way through playoff opponents too.

ALEX CORA'S NEW DIRECTION

A first-time manager’s not a sure thing, but as Sox owner John Henry noted, there was a feeling it was time for a change. It’s a little early to be thinking ahead to a New Year’s resolution, but a manager who better connects with his players and brings a different vibe to the day-to-day scene is reason to feel the Sox are following the right road map. Plus, if nothing else, Cora took that awesome picture walking toward Fenway.

A CHRISTMAS SHOPPING SPREE MAY BE AROUND THE CORNER

We don’t want to be too materialistic. But Uncle Dave Dombrowski couldn’t let you buy everything you wanted last year. The credit card companies needed him to step back for a year. Now he’s ready to spend. He might not close down Bloomingdale’s for the day for you to do your private shopping, but if you need a couple great jackets to complete your look, it sounds like he’s ready to get you some designer threads. He probably feels there won’t be too many chances to have a moment like this with you, at this stage of your life, and he wants to make the most of it.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

 

Why the Red Sox should sign not one but two relievers

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Why the Red Sox should sign not one but two relievers

BOSTON — There is a world outside of Giancarlo Stanton. 

Stanton, at this point, simply doesn’t appear likely to end up in Boston. That should feel obvious to those following along, and so should this: it can change. 

But there are other pursuits. Besides their search for a bat or two, the Red Sox have been actively pursuing left-handed relief options. Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is a fast mover, but this year’s market has not been.

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Robbie Ross Jr. and Fernando Abad are both free agents, leaving Robby Scott as the lone incumbent southpaw from last season's primary group. Brian Johnson is bound for the pen, with Roenis Elias as a depth option too.  Still, even if Johnson’s transition pans out, the Sox still have an opening for a late-inning reliever with the departure of free agent Addison Reed. 

Reed is a righty, but between Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, Carson Smith, and Craig Kimbrel, the Sox have more right-handed choices than left. Coming back from surgery, Tyler Thornburg, should be in the mix eventually too, but it's difficult to expect too much from him.

What the Red Sox should do: sign one of each for the bullpen, one righty, and one lefty. And then trade a righty or two. Turn some of that mishmash into an addition elsewhere. Be creative. 

Because inevitably, come midseason, the Sox will want to add another bullpen arm if they sign just one now. Why wait until you have to give up prospect capital when you can just add the piece you want now?

Go get a near-sure thing such as Pat Neshek, a veteran who walks no one and still strikeouts a bunch. At 37 with an outgoing personality, Neshek also brings leadership to a team that is looking for some. He walked just six guys in 62 innings last season. Entering his 12th season in the majors, he’s looking for his first ring.

All these top of the market relievers may be handsomely paid. But relievers are still something of a bargain compared to position players and starting pitchers. One of the key words for this winter should be creativity. If there’s value to be had in the reliever market, capitalize on it. 

Comeback kid Mike Minor, Jake McGee and Tony Watson headline the crop of free agent lefties available. Brad Hand of the Padres could also be had by trade but his market isn’t moving too quickly (and he won’t come cheaply).

Minor, 29, who posted a 2.55 ERA in 2017 after health issues kept him out of the majors in 2015-16, is expected to be paid handsomely. He is also open to the idea of potentially starting if a team is interested in him doing so. The Royals reportedly could give him that shot.

McGee’s American League East experience could be appealing.

He's 31 and had a 3.61 ERA with the Rockies in 2017 and has a 3.15 ERA lifetime. He’s not quite the strikeout pitcher he was earlier in his career — he had an 11.6 K/9 in 2015 — but a 9.1 K/9 is still very strong, particularly when coupled with just 0.6 homers allowed per nine.

For what it’s worth: McGee has also dominated the Red Sox, who have a .125 average, .190 on-base percentage and .192 slugging against him in 117 regular-season plate appearances. 

McGee throws a mid-90s fastball with a low-80s slider. He can operate up in the zone, and he actually has been even more effective against righties than lefties in his career, including in 2017. McGee’s been a closer, too, with 44 career saves.

The Sox had the second-best bullpen in the majors by ERA in 2017, at 3.07. Yet, come the postseason, there wasn’t a sense of great confidence or even a clear shape to the pecking order behind one of the absolute best relievers in the game, Kimbrel.