Drellich: Red Sox identity, standing as league's best will be tested

Drellich: Red Sox identity, standing as league's best will be tested

The greatest question the Red Sox face entering the second half of the season — well, final two-fifths, really — whether they’re good enough to avoid a Wild Card game. Whether they hold on to the American League East and keep the Yankees at bay. 

How many wins the Sox (68-30) wind up with does not matter outside of that context. A 105-win season would look plenty disappointing if it gives way to a loss in the only playoff game the Sox play in 2018.

Lurking in the background is more of a question of context and remembrance. Will these Sox eventually be recalled for something other than being outrageously good? 

They do not need to be, mind you. No team needs to do anything besides win (and act responsibly and benevolently as citizens, you could also say). This is the best team in baseball, with 64 games left on its schedule. They arrive, they rake and shove, they do it again the next day. It's 2007 all over again.

“It’s a very weird feeling in the clubhouse,” J.D. Martinez said in Washington D.C., during the All-Star Game festivities. “From the moment I got into spring training, it’s like everyone goes out there and whether we’re losing by a lot or we’re winning by a lot, the mood is always the same. There’s never any panic. 

"There’s no really like highs and lows it seems like in the clubhouse. It’s just everything is kind of like, even-keeled. So to me it’s like, it’s almost like that’s who we are: we’re playing like how we’re supposed to be playing."

The Sox are not underdogs with the highest payroll in baseball. They’re not all bearded. There are no reports of Jack Daniels shots prior to games. There’s certainly no curse to be broken, or any other broad backdrop, aside from the desire to avenge early exits in 2016 and 2017.

None of those threads are necessary for enjoyment, although they can act as an enhancement. Perhaps there’s a blue-collar narrative to be found here, if you can ignore the highest payroll in baseball. 

“Ah man, I don’t know,” Martinez said when asked about identity. “I feel like this is a very close group. It almost feels like a family. Everyone’s rooting for each other. I don’t know if I can put a label on it, it’s just, everyone always wants to grow and get better. Everyone’s always asking questions, and continuing to just not be satisfied I feel like in their own. They always want to get better. It’s been fun.”

The questions for Martinez and Mookie Betts didn’t stop at the All-Star Game, either. Both players will be high vote-getters in the American League MVP race, and Betts may well win. The duo, led by Martinez’s methods as well as hitting coach Tim Hyers, seems to have figured something out, a hitting approach that maximizes their off-the-chart talents.

“There’s a lot of hitting talk, but it’s not necessarily, ‘How do you do it?’” Betts said when asked if All-Stars were trying to understand what he and Martinez have been doing. “It’s the approaches and what not that you use. Just passing along information, that’s how everybody gets better. Everybody wants to get better.”

Hard to imagine the Sox actually getting better, given it would be a shock if they did not win 100 games. The Sox need to play .500 ball the rest of the way to reach that vaunted mark.

Martinez was asked if the Sox have peaked.

“I don’t know, you can always get better, right?” he said. “But we have a good team. I think we’re a very versatile team. I always say this: like, this is a team that can beat you in multiple ways. You can have someone throw a shutout and us put up one run. Or you know, us go out there and put up 10 runs and us win. You know the bullpen comes in, shuts the door. 

“We can steal bases. We can manufacture runs. It’s a team that’s not dependent on winning on one way. I kind of remember when I was in Detroit it was like, we had to slug. That was what we had to do to score. Here, it’s different.”

But, again, being good, or being different, or improving from this point really matters in only one context: the Yankees (62-33). They’re the only other team that can with East. And the prize associated with clinching the division — avoiding a one-game Wild Card berth — is tremendous. 

The Yanks sit 4 1/2 games back, with more games to play than the Sox down the stretch. Whether the Sox win 100 games, 110 games, really doesn’t matter outside of the magic and novelty associated with a big number. 

As of Wednesday, the Red Sox had a 58.1 percent chance to win the division, per Baseball Prospectus’ daily playoff odds. The Yanks were at 41.9 percent. They next meet in the first week of August at Fenway Park.

"We have a long way to go," Betts said. "We have to take these couple days to heal up, rest up and get ready to go."

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Mitch Moreland on first All-Star Game: 'It kind of all blurs together'

Mitch Moreland on first All-Star Game: 'It kind of all blurs together'

WASHINGTON D.C. — Only one member of the Red Sox contingent was still playing at the conclusion of the All-Star Game: not Craig Kimbrel, but Mitch Moreland. 

Moreland’s two hits, a pair of singles, and his extended presence on the field from the bottom of the sixth inning through the end of a 10-inning, 8-6 American League win at Nationals Park, were fitting. Moreland is not only the oldest of five Red Sox representatives, at 32 years old, but was also the team’s only first-time All-Star.

What exactly he’ll remember most, Moreland wasn’t sure in the immediate aftermath.

“I don’t know,” he said. “The Derby was fun with my son, which is kind of the big thing I was looking forward to: getting the kids out here and them getting to experience it. You know, it kind of all blurs together, so ask me in a couple days, I might be able to answer it better.”

If the season ended Tuesday night Moreland’s .853 OPS this season would be the highest mark of his nine-year career. He has become, later in his career, an offensive threat of a different caliber. Moreland has said at multiple points that not much has changed over the years for him as a hitter, besides some mechanical tweaks. (The value of experience is a given.)

Moreland was in the hole when George Springer hit the second of two consecutive home runs for the American League to break a tie in the 10th inning. When he took the field in the bottom of the frame as the AL closed out the win, Moreland made sure to pause, briefly, after the infielders threw the ball around while J.A. Happ warmed up to close the game instead of Kimbrel, who was unavailable because he had a heavy workload entering the break.

“It kind of slowed down,” Moreland said. “After I threw the ball to the fans right before the inning started, I just kind of looked around, made sure I tried to take it in a little bit.

“Experiencing all of it, you know the fans out there tonight, it was pretty cool seeing some of the best out there swinging it and throwing it. It was a fun game. 

“The opening ceremony was great. With those Medal of Honor recipients, the way they kind of honored that I thought was pretty special, almost bigger than the game. To be a part of that was special.”

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Red Sox willing to pay highest luxury tax, weighing need for starting pitcher

Red Sox willing to pay highest luxury tax, weighing need for starting pitcher

WASHINGTON — As Chris Sale gets ready for his third consecutive All-Star start, his bosses are contemplating the need to add to the rotation behind him.

With the best record in baseball (68-30) and 64 games remaining, the Red Sox have a willingness to cross baseball’s highest luxury tax threshold and take on a payroll above $237 million this year, team president and CEO Sam Kennedy said. 

President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski prefers not to make the jump if avoidable, as most anyone would, but Dombrowski has never shut the door on climbing payroll further. Now, with two weeks until the non-waiver trade deadline, the Sox have to weigh a new wrinkle: the potential need for a starting pitcher, because of an ankle injury to Eduardo Rodriguez that involves serious ligament damage.

“There’s a willingness from our bosses,” Kennedy told NBC Sports Boston in Washington D.C., where he was on hand for an All-Star Game loaded with Sox. “John [Henry] and Tom [Werner] have made very clear to me and to Dave: Look, let’s see how the market develops, and we want to do what it takes to try and win a fourth World Series championship. I don’t know how the market’s going to play out, but we’re getting close here. 

“But there would be a willingness to do that if it meant, in our estimation, making a decision that could really help put us over the edge, over the top, this year and the postseason. You know, we had the taste of October the last two years. There’s no question, we’re hungry for October success.”

There is no such thing as an over-the-top postseason move, because of the uncertainty of a short-series format. The Sox already had interest in adding a reliever for their bullpen. But adding a rotation piece may be more relevant to the goal that has less randomness at play with about 40 percent of the season remaining: holding on to the division.

How much faith the Sox have in both Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright to return to health and effectiveness may be discernible based on the team’s actions, or non-actions, via trade.

“Right now, we will analyze our situation and see what happens,” Dombrowski wrote in an email when asked about his interest in a starter and the outlook for Pomeranz and Wright.

"Dave and I have had lots of discussions about it, and to me, from looking back to the years where we have gotten over the hump in the postseason, a lot of times it’s the obscure speed-on-the-bases [type] or you know, last guy out of the bullpen,” Kennedy said. “But when it comes to October, pitching, pitching, is probably — we’ll see. 

“It depends what happens with Steven Wright, Drew Pomeranz. We got a little bit of time to figure that out. I think if you held a gun to my head, I would always support more pitching. Pitching pitching pitching. Dave and Alex Cora, they’ll make their assessment. 

“I can tell you one thing, John [Henry] and Tom [Werner] and I will be there at the ready to support what they want to do. This obviously has the makings of a very special, special season.”

E-Rod may be out until September. Even if he returns quickly, how effective he is coming off an injury may be something of a wild card. The Sox have seen firsthand this year how players returning from injuries can experience complications. 

Rodriguez had a history of knee subluxations, and his confidence on the mound coming back from those subluxations was low. Still, that was likely in part because the chance of recurrence was particularly high. Rodriguez's history does not necessarily mean that every injury he faces will provide a confidence issue. 

Nonetheless, his ankle injury is to the same right leg that he had surgery on to prevent knee subluxations.

One gamble the Sox could take: if they believe E-Rod can return this year, he could be a decent bullpen addition because of his strikeout stuff. If the Sox believed E-Rod could mentally and physically handle that transition coming off an injury, they could prioritize adding a starting pitcher over a reliever, on the hopes that the bullpen will gain help from E-Rod, or perhaps from Pomeranz or Wright. But that would be a gamble, and adding both a starter and reliever would be safest.

“In regards to E-Rod pitching in relief, it is much too early to answer that question,” Dombrowski wrote.

Going over the $237 million threshold (as calculated for luxury tax purposes, which is slightly different than the actual dollar figure the Sox are paying players this season) would mean the Sox would pick 10 spots lower in next year’s amateur draft. As Alex Speier of the Boston Globe has noted, the difference between a pick near No. 30 (the best teams receive the lowest picks), as opposed to No. 40, historically has not been large. 

In the case of the Sox this year, they would pay a 62.5 percent tax on every dollar spent above $237 million. They are already paying a 20 percent tax on every dollar from $197 million up to $217 (so, $4 million), and 32 percent on every dollar above $217 million (roughly $6 million, depending on where exactly they stand today).

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