Early readings of the baseball tea leaves

One month does not a season make but it can provide powerful insights, when the subject is baseball. Assumptions and projections amassed during spring training are invariably faulty. But after a month you can, or at least should, have a better grip on trends and tendencies.

Herewith are some early readings on the long season; or at least a sampling of the better questions that have already reared. With this one crucial caveat; nobody gets written off after only a month, even if two thirds of the teams are probably already toast.

So where else to focus but with the debate that bristles over every water cooler from Eastport to Block Island and redounds from the eastern slopes of the Green Mountains down through the Berkshires and on to the basin of the Connecticut River, even if we haven’t yet reached Mothers’ Day. That question of course being, are the Red Sox really as lousy as they have heretofore looked?

Odds are the answer is probably “no”, you may be relieved to hear, which doesn’t mean GM Theo Epstein’s laborious winter calculations, fashioned with so much pomp and self serving, don’t deserve to be strenuously challenged. They’ll yet get better pitching -- it would be hard for it not to improve -- and the defense will stop throwing games away -- the law of averages will oblige -- but that doesn’t mean the game plan of the resident genius wasn’t deeply flawed.

This will be hard for Theo’s legion of dutiful media apologists to swallow. They spent the winter acclaiming the new governing thesis that espouses the joys of defense as if it were tantamount to the reinvention of the wheel. But then some of them have already been spotted jumping off the bandwagon.

Is the bloom off the rose at Fenway? Not quite, maybe, but that insidious process may be underway. There weren’t ten thousand of the faithful still left after the seventh inning of a recent abomination, although admittedly it was late on a wretched April night hardly fit for a jolly rendering of the summer-game at the lyric little bandbox. The point is that such blighted moments are much on the increase.

No one disputes the fact that defense and pitching win baseball games and are underrated factors in the construct of champions. But rarely has a defense been improved by the acquisition of a 34 year-old banjo hitting shortstop who has only occasionally been a regular in his nine years in the league and an erratic 37 year old center-fielder who has only once hit as high as .270 in 16 major league seasons. Meanwhile, left unchanged and unimproved was the league’s weakest catching, the most important of all the issues on defense. That, in a nutshell, is what was wrought in the off-season under Theo’s elaborate aegis. Talk was lofty but actions were tame.

As for the pitching, before it is over John Lackey will give them 200 decent innings. He’s a pro. But he’s no longer a stopper. And he is far from worth the 85 something million large they showered upon him, probably in sheer terror at the prospect that the Yankees would swoop in and scoop him if they tried to snare him on the cheap. For the $18.7 million they are paying him this season, Lackey will win his share. But that “share” will only be roughly equal to what they are about to lose as Tim Wakefield fades away. And make no mistake, that’s precisely what is happening.

Other starters can be expected to get back to their stride of recent years although the erstwhile ace, Josh Beckett, may prove to be less driven now that he’s been assuaged with a nice new $68 million dollar deal. Why did they feel the need to capitulate to Beckett in violation of long-standing policy to not renegotiate contracts during the season? Might it have been because they were fearful Beckett might defect to the Bronx next fall should he have been allowed to land on the open market, perish the thought? At some point, it becomes silly.

The bottom line, mates, is this. Red Sox pitching is not improved. And if the middle and late-inning relief work has eroded anywhere near as much as the first month suggests, the overall quality of the pitching has decidedly slipped. Meanwhile, the offense, about which rather little was done, has slipped even more. Resonantly symbolic is the painful issue of Big Papi Ortiz, hitting .159 as of the writing. Were it not for his majestic works against the woe-begotten Orioles Ortiz would have ended April with zero homers and two RBI.

It is worth noting that when he vastly over-paid for Lackey, Theo -- like the rest of us -- hadn’t yet recognized that his alter ego, Brian Cashman, was serious about bringing sanity to the Yankees’ legendary payroll capers even if it meant making mistakes near as dumb as those his good buddy Theo was making. If there is to be a true pennant race in the American League this season we can be thankful it’s because both Theo and Brian, two boys who pride themselves on being so very smart, quite cleverly outwitted themselves.

Nonetheless it would seem the Yankees are sitting pretty, even if it is ridiculously early. Through the first weekend in May, they were playing at a .677 pace, which projects to 108 wins for the season. Interestingly, they were doing so with minimal contributions from the alleged muscle of their hefty lineup, Messrs Teixeira and Rodriguez.

Nor was that the only blemish. Their bullpen has been shaky. Prized off-season acquisition Javier Vazquez is a bloody mess. As of May Day, Randy Winn, who is supposed to replace Johnny Damon, is hitting .077, and Nick Johnson, who is supposed to replace Hideki Matsui, is hitting .136. And then Curtis Granderson, the key piece in their needlessly convoluted off-season machinations, goes down with the sort of a nagging injury that could keep him sidelined a month, maybe two. No matter, they bear on, winning two games out of every three. At some point, it gets almost foreordained, does it not?

Conventional wisdom holds the uppity Rays of Tampa will have a lot to say about all this in the long run. Maybe! Tampa’s first month during which they had a stretch of 15 wins in 17 games certainly supports that notion and their deep thinking manager, Joe Maddon, is equal to the task and that is proven. Over the long haul, however, the Tampa lineup may lack sufficient grit even if their impressive core of five starting pitchers, averaging 25 years of age, has plenty.

So let’s assume the pretensions of the Rays are legitimate. But it’s just as likely that the Red Sox will get their act together while the Yankees will pay the price for such bonehead blunders as the effective exchanging of Johnny Damon, who was hitting .344 on May Day, for Randy Winn and his lusty .077. In the end, comrades, the winning of the AL East will be a matter of he who blunders least.

What alone remains certain is that only two of the trinity of wannabe’s will be left standing come October even if all three win at least 100 games. Life in the AL East remains daunting; the more so when you stagger home after being swept by those chronic doormats from Baltimore. The last time that happened Dick Nixon was running the country and Earl Weaver was running the Orioles and it was all long before they became as inept as the team they once were, which is the St. Louis Browns of sainted memory.

Life is unfair. And then you miss the playoffs. It could happen to a ballclub near and dear to you. Consider yourself to have been properly warned.

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