By: Bob George/BosSports.net
July 06, 2012

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If you weren't in favor of that second Wild Card, here's hoping you are now.

Entering Wednesday afternoon's Independence Day matchup with the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum (it's easier to call it that rather than all the other names it has had over the years), the Red Sox have reached the halfway mark of this most intriguing 2012 season at 42-39, putting them on pace for 84 wins at season's end. This is a team that most people expect 95-100 wins from, so naturally this doesn't sit well with the Nation, nor should it.

The first game of the second half of the season won't make the Nation feel any better, as Oakland won 3-2 to complete a three-game sweep over the Sox. The Sox head into a weekend series with the Yankees in a hitting funk, with the All-Star Break to follow.

What has been especially, and arguably, fun to listen to all during the season is the number of spins people have been putting on the Red Sox this year. You have experts and fans all over the place with their take on what is wrong with the Red Sox, what they would do to fix it, and why the Red Sox don't look like the 2004 or 2007 champs. The most telling element about how the Red Sox are doing is that if you put 100 people in a room with well informed opinions about the Red Sox, you'd probably get 100 solutions as to how to fix the Red Sox and put them into contention for at least a playoff berth.

So fine. Here is opinion number 101.

It is clear that most of the opinions are knee-jerk and/or emotionally charged in nature, and can fluctuate with the daily progress of whichever player is involved. If a player is going well, tear up his contract and sign him up for the next seven years. If a player has one bad day, he has to go. None of this shines any light on the real problems for the Red Sox, if they have any real problems at all.

That said, here is what has been the real root causes of why the Red Sox aren't doing better.

The biggest thorn in the side of the 2012 Red Sox has been injuries. Once again, the Red Sox have been forced to deal with the long term loss of Jacoby Ellsbury. Given a full year to operate normally (2011), he nearly won the MVP award. But in 2010 and 2012, he has suffered major injuries which have required long term stints on the disabled list. Given that his agent is Scott Boras, he will be out for exactly as long as it takes for him to be 100% ready to return, and not one game sooner.

Ellsbury's injury has been the most costly. Closer Andrew Bailey was hurt in preseason, and Alfredo Aceves has done admirably in his absence despite his fourth blown save on Tuesday night against the A's. But Aceves is not a closer. And then there's Carl Crawford, who has missed all of 2012 so far after an abysmal 2011. He was brought in to bring speed and OBP to the top of the order, and so far he has done neither. But he needs to be healthy to show that he can do the job in 2012.

Ellsbury, Crawford and Bailey have been the most costly absences due to injury. Others have had short stints of inactivity, such as Clay Buchholz, Dustin Pedroia, Josh Beckett, Cody Ross, Scott Podsednik and now Will Middlebrooks. Put all these together, and you have lots of downtime which has turned into more losses for the Red Sox than they might have expected.

Another problem the Red Sox face, seemingly more than other teams, is that they go through long stretches every year with bad offense from otherwise potent players. One major indicator as to how the Red Sox are doing offensively is when they go through periods where all the runs they get are on solo homers (like Friday night in Seattle), and go through stretches of something like 4 for 40 with runners in scoring position. This problem is exacerbated in parks like Safeco Field in Seattle and Oakland Coliseum, two very pitcher-oriented parks where the Red Sox have done poorly at in recent years. As bad as a team like Seattle can be, they do very well against the Red Sox at home because their ball park puts them at a huge advantage. Conversely, the Red Sox do much better against Seattle at Fenway Park. But during team slumps, west coast road trips are the last thing the Red Sox need to try and get better.

Finally, the Red Sox cannot help the fact that Tampa Bay and the Yankees are better teams right now. Baltimore should eventually regress to the norm, but both the Rays and Yankees should finish ahead of the Sox in the standings. The Sox will get a heavy dose of the Yankees this weekend, which will bring back memories of the blown nine-run lead earlier this season. And the Sox still have yet to play at Yankee Stadium this year. The Rays have arguably the best pitching staff in the AL, and that will keep them in contention all year long.

Now, here is what is not wrong with the Red Sox.

Clubhouse chemistry. Despite that disparaging article by ESPN's Buster Olney, which may or may not be accurate, all this stuff is is stuff that excites the media. The Oakland A's of the early 1970s and the Yankees of the late 1970s showed everyone that clubhouse chemistry is overrated as those teams won a combined five World Series back then. If the team is winning, no one will care about how good or bad the clubhouse is other than the media, especially the players themselves.

Pitching. Even with the injuries, you have to be impressed with how well the Sox have performed on the mound. The bullpen is perhaps the best in the majors. Daniel Bard was correctly sent down to Pawtucket until he gets his head back in gear. Some terrific efforts, recently by Franklin Morales and Aaron Cook, have been wonderful to watch. But these pitchers don't swing bats. They don't produce runs.

Assembling a good team. Theo Epstein did a pretty good job, with some hiccups along the way. Kevin Youkilis had to go, but it would have been nice to get more than Brent Lillibridge and a minor league pitcher. But if the injured players heal up and perform like they're supposed to, this is one terrific team. Adrian Gonzalez needs to hit better (during his 15-game hitting streak, all but three of his hits are singles), but other than that, the offense should be one of the best in all of baseball. The Red Sox have terrific pitching depth, even with the cutting of Bobby Jenks on Wednesday.

Bobby Valentine. While many members of the Nation still found it hard to kick the best manager in Red Sox history out the door, you have to give Valentine a lot of credit for what he has done with what he has had to work with. Valentine has shuffled lineups pretty well, managed the pitchers nicely, and kept things together despite pockets of withering criticism. Batting Lillibridge or Nick Punto leadoff, two guys who look a lot like Mario Mendoza, is not real smart, but other than that you really have to give Valentine a lot of props.

The biggest thing Ben Cherington can do right now is perhaps to try and deal Ellsbury when his value rises again, and establish someone else as the full time leadoff hitter. He spends way too much time on the disabled list, he won't resign once he becomes a free agent, and he and Boras are a bad combination. It can't be sometimes Daniel Nava, sometimes Punto, sometimes someone else. When Podsednik comes back, perhaps he could be the one since he did the same for the World Champion White Sox from 2005.

Even if the Red Sox get completely healthy and start playing to their talents, sooner or later it's going to come down to them versus the Yankees, and them versus the Rays. When that happens, just sit back, enjoy some good baseball, and see who will win more games, the Red Sox in September or the Patriots for the entire season.


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