As we get ready to begin the second half we know this about the 2011 Red Sox: They are exactly where you and I thought they would be when we made our predictions in the spring. Are they going to win 100 games? Probably not, but they are going to finish somewhere in the 95-victory range. Some folks thought this lineup might score 1,000 runs this year. That won't happen -- there's a reason a total of six teams in history have crossed the plate 1,000 times in a season, and just one in the last 61 years -- but this is the best offense in baseball, leading the league in runs, OBP, slugging, hits, batting average and RBI.
So if we take a Big Picture view, not much has changed. Sure, Carl Crawford is having his worst season (by a lot), and John Lackey has been the worst pitcher in baseball, but all the other main characters have been at least what you expected (Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Clay Buchholz) or have exceeded expectations (Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury). And through the 0-6 and 2-10 start and injuries and the Lackey drama the Red Sox begin the second half as the favorite to win the American League and are probably just behind the Phillies among all major-league teams when you rank World Series favorites (I'm operating under the assumption that Buchholz's back isn't a serious injury. If he's still out five, six weeks from now you have to re-evaluate. All of the sudden Andrew Miller or Lackey or Tim Wakefield is your No. 3 starter.)
Knowing this, let's take a look at five storylines to watch in the second half for the Red Sox ...
Will Josh Beckett remain the ace of the staff?
A year ago at the All-Star break Josh Beckett had exactly one win, an ERA of 7.29 and was on the DL with back spasms. Jon Lester had an 11-3 record, an ERA of 2.78 and pitched a scoreless inning at the All-Star Game. There was no one on July 11, 2010 -- nope, not even Rob Bradford -- who thought that one year later Josh Beckett would not only be the lone Sox pitcher at the 2011 All-Star Game, but going to Arizona after posting the best half-season by a Sox starting pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2003. This isn't a knock on Lester, who has done nothing in the first half of the season to discourage the idea that he's one of the top 10 pitchers in baseball (though we are all still waiting for Lester to make the leap to Cy Youngdom), but Beckett is the ace of this staff heading into the second half.
(A year ago I wrote a column based on this question: Taking everything into account -- age, durability, established performance level, postseason history, AL vs. NL, current contract status -- is there a pitcher in baseball you would absolutely trade Jon Lester for? My answer was no. Today that's not the case. I would have to swap Lester for Verlander, I think, as well as Jered Weaver. Anyone else I'm missing?)
Will Dustin Pedroia walk 100 times this season?
I get that walks aren't sexy. Probably there were no posters of Ed Yost next to Elvis on the walls on teenage girls in the 1950's, just as there are none of Jack Cust next to Bieber today. Movies aren't made about guys with terrific plate discipline (though I suppose we are about to see one about a guy who valued plate discipline, and after watching the trailer I'm about 62 percent convinced that "Moneyball" is going to be a stinker).
But by now we all get how important walks (and OBP) are so we can all agree that you and I are watching something pretty remarkable from Dustin Pedroia so far this season. His career high in walks in a season is 74 (2009, which finished tied for 16th in the American League). His 162-game average is 70 walks. But this season Pedroia has already walked 63 times, which ranks third in the AL. He's on pace for 117 walks, which would be the most by a Sox player since David Ortiz in 2006 (and most by a Sox infielder since Wade Boggs in 1988). Jumps such as this happen, of course, but not often in mid-career, sometimes you'll see it from a player at the end of his career when he realizes his bat is slowing down (see Willie Mays in 1971).
And this is all happening in a spot in the lineup -- between a premier leadoff hitter batting over .300 and an established All-Star having an MVP season -- where you would think Pedroia would be seeing a ton of strikes and enjoying a leap in doubles and homers, which in fact isn't happening. Strange, right? Anyway, it'll be interesting to see if this first half turns out to be an outlier in his career or the beginning of a consistent 90-100 walk output, which I can only assume would thrill the Sox organization.
Will Alfredo Aceves continue to be more valuable than Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler?
Dan Wheeler/Bobby Jenks: 47 appearances, 44 IP, 28 ER (5.72 ERA), $9 million in 2011.
Matt Albers/Alfredo Aceves: 53 appearances, 93.1 IP, 32 ER (3.09 ERA), $1.4 million in 2011.
If we are going to bash Theo for overpaying Wheeler (which isn't really fair, Wheeler has actually been very good the last month -- 1.74 ERA and 0.67 WHIP in the last month) and Jenks (which is fair to this point -- when he's been able to stay off the DL he's been terrible) don't we have to give him credit for Albers and Aceves? And isn't this just another couple of examples why it's impossible to figure out what is and what isn't going to work when you try and put a bullpen together?
Even if Albers turns back into the Matt Albers we saw before this season he's done enough in four months to be called been great value for this team in 2011. If Wheeler is indeed right and Bard and Papelbon are healthy there shouldn't be a reason for rely on Albers to be a main character over the second half of the season. But with plenty of unknown around the starting rotation, (John Lackey, Clay Buchholz's back, Andrew Miller is a nice story but still a huge question mark, Bad Tim Wakefield always looms) Aceves -- who has slipped nicely into old role Ramiro Mendoza played for the Yankees -- is looking an awful lot like a vital cog in the second-half mix while we wait for Jenks to do something to justify a $12 million contract.
Are we going to see a trade?
Maybe something minor (think a lefty specialist out of the pen -- Rich Hill was a very real loss for this team), but don't expect anything even close to a game-changer. The Red Sox are not going to spend $8 million for two months of Carlos Beltran. Forget it. Would Beltran be a upgrade over what already exists in right field? Sure. But -- and I know this is hard to hear -- there is a limit on what the Sox will spend. And if you want to blame the Lackey contact and wasting $15 million on Mike Cameron or $12 million on Bobby Jenks that's perfectly reasonable, but it doesn't change the reality. Carlos Beltran isn't coming to Boston. Maybe you'll see Jeff Francoeur -- who is owed about $2 million the rest of the season -- but I tend to doubt it. Put it this way: I wouldn't bet two million bucks on the idea that Francoeur is going to be significantly better than Josh Reddick over the next 70 games. I just don't see the evidence. Which leads us to this …
Is this the real Josh Reddick?
Well, of course not. He's been Ted Williams for the last 23 games (and here's the part where I tell you that Ted Williams was really, really good: Reddick is batting .393 with a slugging percentage of .672 -- and his OPS for these 23 games is still below Williams' career OPS). That's not going to continue, even the Pinkest Hat understands that there is a 2-for-22 coming up in the next couple of weeks. A better question would be this: Is Josh Reddick for real? There is this idea floating Out There in some circles that Reddick was "just" a .230 hitter in the minor leagues and what we are watching right now is Kevin Maas Redux. And it's true -- he's hitting exactly .230 in 191 at-bats for Pawtucket this season. But he's also slugging .508 (14 homers) and has 33 walks in 52 games. It's not a stretch to imagine a .240/.340/.450 line from Reddick the rest of the season, and I think that's more than you are going to get from J.D. Drew.