Well, we’ve made it.  We’re finally at the artificial mid-point in the season, and the Red Sox are a cool 58-39.* Despite some twists, turns, and impromptu injuries, life should feel pretty damn amazing if you’re a Red Sox fan.  Seriously, by a show of hands, who really thought we’d be on a 97-win trajectory at this point in the season.  (Put your hands down, everyone. We all know that you’re lying.)  I know I certainly didn’t.  I had hope for this Red Sox team, but my hope was that they might squeek out 85-88 wins to win the second Wild Card.  Even with a solid foundation, my expectation was the Red Sox would pull back into serious contention in 2014, not 2013.

* More importantly, we survived the assinine, banal HR Derby commentary by Chris Berman. Truly, that was a Herculean effort by all of us to survive such trauma. I would like to give a special shout out to Nomar Garciaparra, who clearly did something terribly wrong after the 2003 season. Karma has dealt him one hell of a payback punishment. Moving on…

There’s still plenty of time for all of this to change.  Let’s start out our midseason recap by looking at the AL East standings behind the Red Sox.

  • Tampa Bay Rays (55-41) – The Rays came out of nowhere over the last two weeks to pull within a three-game series sweep of the Red Sox for first place.  As expected, Evan Longoria has been great, but the real key to their offense has been that they’re getting production from everyone.  Their starting pitching was a bit of a problem earlier in the season, but that seems to have turned around with David Price now back from the disabled list.  If there’s one team we should worry about taking over the division lead, it’s the Rays–my pre-season pick for the AL East title.
  • Baltimore Orioles (53-43) – The Orioles, despite their starting pitching woes, have been winning due to their ability to score runs in bunches.  Slugging first baseman, Chris Davis is leading the charge with an unbelievable 64 extra base hits this season.  The Orioles have a great lineup, but they’d be best served moving Davis from fifth in the order to third.  If he continues to hit in front of Matt Wieters, managers will be compelled to intentionally walk Davis to get to the much weaker Wieters.  The starting pitching is the real concern for this club.  They don’t have any true #1 or #2 starters, and are banking on Wei-Yen Chen and Chris Tillman to carry the team down the stretch.
  • New York Yankees (51-44) – How the hell do the Yankees have a winning record?  Seriously.  Alex Rodriguez has missed the entire season.  Derek Jeter has missed all but one game.  Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira have missed all but 23 games combined.  C.C. Sabathia has an ERA north of 4.00.  They have a negative run differential. Hell, they’ve given Vernon freaking Wells 322 plate appearances –including 280 out of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th spots in the lineup!  How does this happen?  They’re basically holding this ship together with voodoo, string, Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, Hiroki Kuroda, and a magical bullpen. 
  • Toronto Blue Jays (45-49) – I don’t want to call this team dead, but they’re dead.  The rotation is brutal.  The lineup has a few bright spots, and an awful lot of dark ones as well.  The bullpen is great, but that’s really about it.  They could squeek out the second Wild Card, but they have a lot of teams to leap over not just within their own division, but the whole league.  Assuming the rest of the division plays at a .500 clip for the rest of the way here’s how the standings will fall out:  Boston (91 wins), Tampa (88), Baltimore (86), New York (85).  Over their final 68 games, Toronto would have to go 42-26 (.617 winning percentage) over their final 68 games just to pass Baltimore.  They’d have to go 47-21 (.691 or a 112 win pace) to pass Boston.

Now, let’s take a look at the big club:

  • For all of the talk of the Red Sox being light on power, their .443 team slugging percentage is good for second in the American League.  Could offense use more home runs?  Absolutely, but this is true of any team.   Plus, Fenway Park has never been a home run hitting park. It’s a double’s paradise. So far, they’re doing pretty well on that front with 215, which is best in baseball.
  • According to certain media members, Dustin Pedroia is not a #3 hitter.  Really?  You could have fooled me.  While his .316/.398/.436 line might not be ideal for that spot in the lineup, he’s certainly more than holding his own.  I think we’d all rather have him hit second, but for as long as we have Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino in the lineup, Pedroia seems to fit better lower in the order.  Plus, the Red Sox have scored 498 runs on the season.  It’s not like Pedroia batting out of the three spot is hurting the offense in any way.
  • Will Middlebrooks is in triple-A, and it doesn’t look like he’s coming back any time soon.  Jose Iglesias and BROCK HOLT! are holding down the fort on the left side of the infield, and when Stephen Drew returns, Iglesias will shift back to third and Holt to a reserve role.  WMB might get a shot to reclaim his job this season, but it’ll probably take a trade or a major slump to make that happen.  Next year isn’t looking so certain either with Xander Bogaerts entering the picture, and Garin Cecchini lurking.  I’m not ready to close the book on Middlebrooks, but I’d certainly entertain offers for his services in trade talks. 
  • Speaking of slumps and Iglesias, guess who is hitting .267/.317/.293 over his last 20 games?  Just saying…
  • David Ortiz is amazing.  Four seasons ago, he turned his career around when everyone thought it was about to end.  I don’t know how he’s fending off Father Time, but I’m glad he’s doing it.  When viewing his value solely through the lens of this season, he’s the most indispensible player on the Red Sox roster.
  • Is it just me or is there some kind of Freaky Friday situation going on among the Red Sox starting pitching staff?  Felix Doubront has clearly switched bodies with Jon Lester, and John Lackey has obviously switched bodies with the April version of Ryan Dempster.  It’s the only explanation for what’s going on.
  • Speaking of John Lackey…His status as sexiest man alive has been restored.  Just look at him.  He’s so amazing.  It’s a wonder Nicholas Cage hasn’t found him, he’s such a National Treasure.  Over his last 11 starts, Lackey has filled the crucial stopper role producing a 2.32 ERA with a 66/15 K/BB in 73-2/3 innings.  He’s not without his warts, of course.  He’s allowed 11 home runs over that stretch, but occasional command issues come with the territory of all recent Tommy John surgery patients.  With Buchholz returning shortly, and Lester looking as if he might be turning a corner, Lackey won’t need to be the staff ace in the second half.  Still, if he can manage to solidify the third spot in the rotation, the Red Sox should be in very good position.
  • Lester’s 2013 season has been absolutely baffling.  While I didn’t believe he was quite as good as his stats indicated during his first nine starts, he definitely hasn’t been as bad as his last 11 starts have looked.  Still, Lester has a lot to work on.  He needs to improve his fastball command and work on pitch efficiency.  He seems to know that his stuff isn’t as good as it was (despite his pleas otherwise), and is nibbling on the corner of the plate.  Perhaps, the most perplexing thing about his performance this year is his inability to not only put away hitters with two strikes, but also close out innings when he has two outs. Lester isn’t broken, but he needs some tweaking.  Unfortunately, he needs tweaking for the second year in a row.
  • If you pencil Clay Buchholz in for more than 25 starts per season from here on out, you’re a moron.  Can he do it from time to time?  Sure.  He’s just not likely.  The only time in his pro-career where he’s passed the 30 start threshold was in 2009 when he made 32 starts, splitting time between Pawtucket and Boston.  He made 29 starts in 2010 and 28 in 2012.  This season, he’s made 12 starts, and considering the amount of time remaining in the season, he’ll make another 10-12 at best.  As spectacular as he’s been, he’s never going to be the workhorse ace we all hoped he would become.
  • If this season has proven anything, it’s that closers are made, not born.  The Red Sox are on their fourth closer, and a number of other teams have either changed out closers or gone through extended slumps by their closers.  Great closers are incredibly rare, and trading for one makes little sense due to the cost in both salary and prospects. 

Down on the farm:

  • Does anyone else think Xander Bogaerts is ready for the majors right now?  I do.  He’s hitting .260/.353/.462 in the International League, which for a 20-year old is outstanding.  He’s shown power, patience, and fairly consistent performance with the glove, despite being thrown into a more advanced environment.  I don’t think he’ll get anything more than a September call-up this year, but he’s certainly in the mix for a starting job either at short or third in 2014.
  • How good has Garin Cecchini been in double-A?  Despite going for one-for-his-last-thirteen, he’s still hitting .347/.456/.480 in 90 plate appearances.  This guy knows how to hit, and if he can add some more power to his game, watch out. 
  • For as many promising pitching prospects in the Red Sox farm system as their are, they’ve really been unimpressive as of late.  Matt Barnes is struggling with command and pitch efficiency.  Anthony Ranaudo seems to be tiring out.  Allen Webster‘s command has caused him to slump majorly after a great start.  Henry Owens‘s control has been a little spotty.  I agree wholeheartedly with Ben’s article from the other day.  We have some promising pitchers in our system, but none of our top guys will develop into an ace.  They’re all middle of the rotation guys.
  • Now that Mookie Betts has been promoted to high-A ball, there’s really no reason to pay attention to the Greenville Drive.  That team looks awful.
  • A few prospects to watch in the second half:  Lowell starting pitcher Ty Buttrey, Lowell center fielder Manuel Margot, and Greenville starting pitcher Cody Kukuk

Overall, the Red Sox are in great position in the standings.  Having said that they still have a ton of tests coming their way.  It starts out right after the All Star break when they face the Yankees, Rays, and Orioles over the first 10 games.  August looks considerably easier with the only big tests coming in the form of two three-game home series against the Yankees and Orioles.  Hopefully, they can gain some ground then because they’ll be running the gauntlet in September.