Thursday, June 9, 2011

What's the matter little feller?

Update: Dustin Pedroia was diagnosed with a bruise and should return to the team this weekend, rendering the rest of my post moot. If you want to stop reading, I understand. This is the last time I listen to the Boston Globe.

Last night the Red Sox destroyed the Yankees and A.J. Burnett. Tim Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves performed their buddy cop routine to perfection (even though Terry Francona tried to turn Lethal Weapon into Double Team by allowing Wake to come out for the 6th). David Ortiz hit a mammoth blast for the second straight night and (rightfully) took a shot at the New York media. Season long underachievers Carl Crawford and J.D. Drew also went deep. The Sox have now won 7 of the 8 games they've played against their rivals this season. Best of all, the team that started the season as the biggest disappointment in baseball, is once again in first place in the AL East.

With all these positive developments, you’d think everything would be coming up Millhouse in Boston. Then this. According to Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe, Dustin Pedroia is headed back to Boston today to have his knee looked at and surgery to repair cartilage damage is a distinct possibility. His report states that the surgery is just a possibility and not a guarantee, but if it comes to fruition, Pedroia could miss about a month of the season. I’ve made mention about his health contributing to his struggles over the last few months, but I assumed it stemmed from the foot he injured last season. Evidently it’s the knee that has been bothering him all along.

So what impact will this have on the Sox? Well, it’s no secret that Pedroia has really struggled ever since he almost single handedly dismantled the Yankees in the teams’ first matchup of the season. After going 9-13 in that series, he has posted a line of just .219/.347/.296. He is still getting on base at a strong clip, but his power has disappeared and hits are not dropping. What’s weird is that Pedroia, formerly one of the toughest batters in the league to strike out, has whiffed 39 times this season. Prorated over a full season this would be 107 strikeouts, or more than twice his previous career high. Still weirder is that even with a knee injury, his defense has been as excellent as ever.

Coinciding with Pedey’s hitting slump has been the Red Sox resurgence. Since that Yankees series, the Red Sox have gone 33-19 as their star second baseman has struggled. Anchored by the hot hitting of Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, Ortiz and the phoenix Crawford, the team has been fine without the typical offensive contributions from their former MVP. If he does have surgery and really does only miss a month, I would expect the team to weather the storm with the following replacements:

Jed Lowrie: I know that Jed is expected to be the starting short stop once he gets past this little shoulder injury, but I think he profiles better at second or third after watching his defense and confirming with some advanced numbers. His range is a little Jeterian but he has good instincts that would allow him slide across the keystone for a month while Pedey recovers. Though he has cooled off considerably since his firey April (just a .648 OPS) I still think he has at least an average bat and can get on base with some power. Even if he doesn’t move over to second while Pedroia is out, he is a great candidate to fill in behind Ellsbury at the top of the order. Because even though his average and power were down, Pedey was still getting on base a ton giving the middle of the order a tiny little duck on the pond. This is where the team will need someone to step up the most.

Marco Scutaro: Scu Scu Scutaro has just recently returned from the DL and is already getting some playing time at short with Lowrie ailing. I would expect him to fill in Pedroia’s position while Lowrie takes his lineup spot. He can certainly handle the move across the bag, but I think he profiles as a better defensive short stop than Lowrie still so I would like to see him stay put. His bat isn’t much to write home about, but he has some of the on base skill that Pedroia was exhibiting through his slump. Plus, he’ll be anchoring the ninth slot in the lineup so not as much will be expected out of his bat as it will out of Lowrie’s.

Drew Sutton: Sutton has seen a few innings at every infield position this year while starting a grand total of 6 games. Unfortunately we do not have a lot of information about him. At 28 years old, he has less than 150 major league plate appearances. Usually this is for a reason (read: he sucks). His minor league numbers do indicate that he can be a useful player by getting on base (.378 OBP in the minors), which, again, is what the team will most need to replace while Pedroia is out. We don’t know much about his defense, but he has played all over the field his entire career so he should be able to handle some time at second. If Pedey is really out a month, I would guess seven starts at second for Sutton (alliteration!) with a .240/.333/.340 batting line. 

The team clearly has options to replace Pedroia if he has to miss some time. They offer an array of solid but unspectacular defense and some on base skills with some power potential from Lowrie. Especially with the way he has been hitting this year, I wouldn’t expect the team to skip a beat if the second baseman misses a month. The thing is though, the Sox will be fine without Pedroia more because of the nature of baseball than because of the strength of his replacements.

Take a look around at the tops of the divisional standings and you will find teams who have missed key players for at least a month. Grady’s Ladies have been without their man for over a month this season and Cleveland is still clinging to their lead. Texas has had to deal without Josh Hamilton for a majority of the season. Chase Utley only just returned after starting the year on the DL and is hitting like a shell of his former self. St. Louis will be without their ace Adam Wainwright for the full season. And the Giants are still waiting for Barry Bonds to come back from the neck injury he suffered while trying to support his giant head (I kid, I love Barry, that was a joke for the haters).

One of the cool things about baseball is that you cannot just build a team around one guy. The teams who succeed through a full season have considerable depth that allows them to survive the loss of one of their better players. An unexpected loss of a top player can easily cost a team 4-6 wins over the course of the season, but teams can prepare for this with depth at the major and minor league levels. The depth at the major league level allows them to mitigate this subtraction for a couple months, while the depth at the minor league level arms the general manager with the pieces to go acquire a better replacement at the trade deadline. And if the DL stint is only a month, like is expected with Pedroia, the difference in team performance should be negligible. Red Sox Nation will definitely miss their scrappy little feller if he indeed goes under the knife, but I assure you all that even if the absence extends past a month, the team will be easy breezy beautiful Cover Girl.

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