The saving grace for the struggling Red Sox is the slow start of the American League East teams.
We know that the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, and probably Blue Jays will be better than .500, and we know the Orioles will sink below it. (At least we think we know that).
What’s clear is that the division overall is underperforming.
“Sometimes veteran teams just take longer to get going,’’ said Orioles general manager Dan Duquette. “We were fortunate to get off to a good start, but there are a lot of good teams in this division.
“I wouldn’t ever say that the division is mediocre. It’s one of the best if not the best division in baseball.’’
Another American League GM said, “I will never comment on any team or even my own based on April. You just don’t get a fair assessment. You may get a snapshot of what you may be short on, or what you may have overevaluated. But even then, you have to be careful about making hasty decisions in April because there’s a long way to go.’’
Fair enough. But a good division is playing mediocre baseball.
We can start with the local nine, who have played well below mediocre.
We have made this point over and over: Injuries are killing this team (10 players on the disabled list, including Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, and Andrew Bailey).
Oh, the alarmists point to Bobby Valentine as the culprit. But the lost control in the clubhouse occurred in September 2011, and Valentine wasn’t there.
The bullpen is off-kilter. Daniel Bard will be a very fine starting pitcher, but that’s not where he belongs right now. He belongs at the back end of the bullpen so the proper pitchers can be set up in the proper places.
The Sox, who ranked 30th in starting pitching coming into the weekend series with the Yankees, have decisions upcoming with Aaron Cook (a May 1 opt-out, with a lot of suitors if he should leave) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (returning in late May).
Will Bard survive the rotation cut then?
As for the Yankees, CC Sabathia was struggling until his last time out. History tells us that this will not continue for long, and that Sabathia will be the horse of the rotation.
The Yankees have simply been ho-hum, but they don’t have ho-hum talent.
Derek Jeter is playing as if he’s 10 years younger. The concerns have been guys such as starter Phil Hughes and free agent acquisition Hiroki Kuroda, who has given uneven performances.
Righthander Michael Pineda, acquired from Seattle in the offseason, started the year on the disabled list, but the Yankees’ depth has enabled them to send out five legitimate starters, with Andy Pettitte working his way back in the minors.
It wasn’t until last Wednesday that a player in the No. 3 or 4 spot in the order had an RBI. Then Curtis Granderson, batting in the second spot, awoke and hit three homers Thursday night.
And then there’s Tampa Bay.
The games against the Rays have provided the Sox with their best of times so far.
The Sox took three of four from the Rays, and the only loss was a 1-0 game in which Rays starter James Shields was almost unhittable.
The Tampa Bay pitching staff has shown dribs and drabs of what it will be once it gets cranking, but for now, it is still feeling things out.
While the offense has been respectable, it remains a concern with this team, as does the helter-skelter bullpen. But the bullpen will likely be more effective when the starters begin to dominate.
“They could use another bullpen piece,’’ said a longtime National League scout who watched the Rays six times this season. “[David] Price has had some issues early and [Jeremy] Hellickson has relied on his curveball a lot.
“They’ll be fine. They’re deep. And they’ve hit better than anyone thought they would.’’
The Blue Jays are the team nobody wants to face, because on any given night, they can make you look bad. Do they need protection for Jose Bautista? Of course. They could use one more masher in the batting order.
According to a major league source, there has been some questioning of manager John Farrell’s pitching moves at times, just as some around baseball are questioning whether Joe Maddon is “overshifting’’ on every semi-relevant lefthanded hitter.
The Jays, like the Rays, have become a model organization, with their emphasis on scouting (they have more pro scouts than anyone in baseball) and All-Star-caliber talent coming up.
And now we come to the Orioles.
They were supposed to be the doormats of the division, but thus far they’ve been top dogs. That’s because their starting pitching has been solid (with the exception of lefty Brian Matusz), closer Jim Johnson has been perfect (6 for 6 in saves), and center fielder Adam Jones is off to a hot start.
“We have a credible major league pitching staff,’’ Duquette said. “Our bullpen has done a good job so far.’’
The Orioles went into Rogers Centre, where they had been 4-23 the past three seasons, and won two out of three vs. the Jays, and then took three of four against the White Sox.
Nolan Reimold has been one of the organization’s biggest enigmas, but rather than sign a free agent outfielder, the Orioles stuck with him, and so far it has paid off.
Reimold, 28, entered Saturday hitting .370 with a .383 on-base percentage, 5 homers, and 10 RBIs in 46 at-bats as the leadoff hitter. He homered in four straight games last week.
Reimold’s production has made up for the slow start by Nick Markakis, who had homers in his first two games but is 7 for 46 since.
“Everybody here is going to go through periods where they are not as good as they are capable of being,’’ said manager BuckShowalter. “If Nick’s our biggest issue this year, we’re in good shape. We all know the track record, and he’ll figure it out.’’
The Orioles have thus far gotten the better of the Jeremy Guthrie deal with Colorado. Jason Hammel is 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA in three starts, while Guthrie has struggled in three starts (7.79 ERA) with the Rockies.
“He’s rediscovered his sinker here,’’ Duquette said of Hammel. “He was throwing 94 when he got out of a bases-loaded jam the other day.’’
Reliever Matt Lindstrom has allowed no earned runs in 5 2/3 innings over five outings.
But overall, it has been a ho-hum start for a division that should come around.
“I think teams will be where they’re supposed to be when things shake out,’’ said Sox manager Bobby Valentine.
AUCTION FOR THE AGES
Williams gems up for grabs
If you’re a Red Sox fan, this auction is over the top. Next Saturday, more than 700 items of Ted Williams memorabilia will be offered at Fenway Park by Hunt Auctions (huntauctions.com). A portion of the proceeds will go to the Jimmy Fund, which Williams helped put on the map.
The items will be on display Wednesday and Thursday (9 a.m.-7 p.m.) and Friday (9 a.m.-3 p.m.) at the State Street Pavilion. Live bidding begins Saturday, with two sessions. The morning session will run from 10 a.m. to approximately 1:30 p.m. The afternoon session will begin at 2:30 and run until all items are sold.
Included in the collection:
■ A Babe Ruth single-signed baseball inscribed to Williams (estimate upon request).
■ Williams’s 1949 Most Valuable Player plaque (estimated value $150,000-$250,000).
■ The Silver Bat award for his 1957 batting championship ($100,000-$200,000).
■ His 1955 Red Sox road jersey ($75,000-$100,000).
■ His 1954 Red Sox home jersey ($50,000-$75,000).
■ His 1957 Babe Ruth Sultan of Swat Award ($50,000-$75,000).
■ His Hall of Fame induction ring ($30,000-$50,000).
■ His 1960 All-Star Game bat. ($30,000-$40,000).
■ A Williams bat whose ownership traces back to Bobby Doerr ($30,000-$40,000).
■ His MLB “All-Century Team’’ pocket watch by Tiffany & Co. ($10,000-$20,000).
■ A custom-made Winchester Model 21 Side by Side Shotgun ($10,000-$20,000).
■ The 1999 All-Star Game ceremonial first-pitch ball thrown by Williams ($5,000-$10,000).
■ His World War II aviator’s flight log book ($3,000-$5,000).
Apropos of nothing
1. The average cost for a family of four to attend a minor league game this season is $61.23. That includes two adult tickets, two children’s tickets, four hot dogs, two sodas, two beers, a program or scorecard, and parking for the clubs in the domestic-based leagues that charge.
2. Nick Johnson, who didn’t play at all in 2011, started the year 0 for 20 for the Orioles.
3. With his 131st and final pitch against the Royals in his last start, Justin Verlander struck out Alex Gordon on a 100-m.p.h. fastball with the bases loaded for a 3-2 win.
4. It was neat to see Nick Esasky at the 100-year celebration Friday. Esasky had his greatest year in 1989 (30 homers, 108 RBIs), the only season he played for the Red Sox. His career was cut short by vertigo after he left Boston to sign with the Braves.
5. The Mariners gave Mike Cameron a nice ceremony as he retired as a member of the team last week.
6. Funny game. The Braves’ problem is supposed to be scoring runs, but at one point last week, they led the majors in runs. That has since changed, but they’re still in the top three.
7. Give David Wright credit. He realized his swing was so far gone after last season, so he went back to work with Nick Boothe, the longtime baseball coach at Virginia Wesleyan College, who began working with Wright at his baseball camp when Wright was 7 years old. Boothe knew immediately what to fix, and Wright has started off like the Wright of old.
8. I asked Pedro Martinez whether he could pitch right now. He said without hesitation, “Not right now. I would need about 20 days.’’
9. Love the fact that Jose Canseco showed up for the 100-year celebration and was tweeting as he walked out.
10. Yes, since you asked, I am surprised that Pudge Rodriguez is expected to announce his retirement Monday. Rodriguez, said one National League GM, “is probably better defensively right now than 75 percent of the catchers in the league.’’ Rodriguez turned down a chance to play for the Royals because he wanted to be with what he felt would be a contender
11. Texas general manager Jon Daniels has put together one nasty, powerful baseball team.
12. The best way to sign Josh Hamilton to a multiyear deal is to put in lots of “escapes’’ in case of relapses in his recovery program. The Rangers will likely find a way. But if they don’t, how would this guy look in a Red Sox uniform?
13. Book plug: Bill Nowlin’s “Fenway Park Trivia (Fact and Fancy From the First 100 Years).’’ Quick, entertaining read. Available only on Amazon.
Updates on nine
1. Dylan Bundy, RHP, Orioles - The fourth overall pick in last year’s draft, the Oklahoma high school pitcher has been clocked at 99 m.p.h. and his career has started with much electricity at Single A Delmarva. He has pitched three three-inning stints. The first two were identical: nine up, nine down, six strikeouts. In his third outing, he allowed a walk while retiring nine of 10, with three strikeouts. In nine innings, he has 15 strikeouts and has allowed no hits. His older brother, Bobby Bundy, is the ace of the staff at Double A Bowie.
2. Jake Peavy, RHP, White Sox - Starting 2-0 with a 2.75 ERA in his first three starts vs. Texas, Detroit, and Baltimore has put him back on some teams’ radars as a midseason acquisition. Scouts have been impressed with Peavy’s overall stuff and the fact that he is finishing off hitters (21 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings) and throwing 92-93 m.p.h. Peavy is in the final year of his deal because the White Sox will not exercise a $22 million option for 2013. He earns $17 million this season, and the White Sox would likely have to take on a portion of what’s remaining if he’s dealt. The tricky part is that he has a partial no-trade to eight teams and he becomes a 10-5 player in July. The other fly in the ointment: What if the White Sox are still relevant in July?
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs - The team’s future first baseman is again dominating Triple A, as he started .377 with five homers and 13 RBIs in 13 games at Iowa. But Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein don’t seem to be in a hurry to rush Rizzo to the majors. The Cubs feel Bryan LaHair will man the position most of the year.
4. Jonathan Papelbon, RHP, Phillies - As compensation for losing Papelbon to the Phillies, the Red Sox will receive the 31st and 37th picks in the June draft, to go with their own pick at 24. Papelbon has had an impressive start - 5 for 5 in saves - and so far is worth the investment by the Phillies.
5. Francisco Liriano, LHP, Twins - Minnesota had some inquiries on him this winter but didn’t pull the trigger. In his walk year, the embattled Liriano is stumbling early (0-2 with an 11.91 ERA in three starts). Given that the Twins probably won’t re-sign him, they were hoping to land a prospect or two for him at the trade deadline, but if he keeps pitching this badly, fat chance of that happening.
6. Bryan Shaw, RHP, Diamondbacks - Arizona GM Kevin Towers sniffs out relievers like a hound dog after a rabbit. Shaw is getting some closing situations so that J.J. Putz isn’t overworked. According to catcher Miguel Montero, Shaw’s cutter is better than Mariano Rivera’s. Manager Kirk Gibson said, “He has a fearless attitude. He gets two strikes, he’s coming at you. He’s not going to nibble. We don’t want to see that.’’
7. Wade Davis, RHP, Rays - At some point this season, if Tampa Bay’s pitching is clicking as we expect it will, Davis will be trade bait. But in his current role as long man, scouts love what they see. “If he could just buy into it, he would be terrific at it,’’ said an NL scout. “Obviously everyone wants to start, but right now he’s providing some important innings for them.’’
8. Miguel Olivo, C, Mariners - He started out hitting .143, and his catching hasn’t been so good. There has been some sentiment about using Jesus Montero (acquired in the Michael Pineda deal to be the DH) behind the plate more. Montero hasn’t looked so bad. For the moment, manager Eric Wedge is sticking with Olivo.
9. Peter O’Malley, former owner, Dodgers - We mentioned a couple of weeks back that there were no signs that the runners-up in the Dodgers sweepstakes would get involved in the sale of the Padres. But O’Malley, who sold the Dodgers in 1998, told the Los Angeles Times that he is interested. It’s not as if the Dodgers and Padres are Yankee-Red Sox rivals, but the cities aren’t that far from one another, and this might ruffle the feathers of old-time Dodger fans.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Last season, with a runner on third and two outs, Cody Ross came to the plate 23 times and had two hits (one homer) and five RBIs. He hit .095, striking out seven times. This season, through Thursday, Ross was 0 for 3 in those situations, with two whiffs.’’ Also, “Through the first 360 games played this season, 50 homers were hit in the first inning - more than any other. The fifth inning was next with 44. Arizona and St. Louis each had five apiece in the first, but Atlanta, Miami, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Texas had none in their first 12 games.’’ . . . Happy 53d birthday, Terry Francona.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.