Red Sox Start Gauntlet Feeling Squeaky Clean

After a tremendous run of play against bad teams, the Red Sox entered a gauntlet stretch of their schedule. They have resurrected their season from 9-games under .500 to now 11 games over .500 in a short span of time thanks to a 20-4 record since June 1, but that’s only relevant if they can beat good and great teams in the next month. During this stretch that began on June 24th, the Sox play AL East opponents (except the 5th place Orioles) 20 times in 26 games, including a 17-straight game stretch wrapping around the break, all 3 AL East teams with at least 40 wins and 8+ games over .500 as of today. This is without a doubt a season defining place in their schedule and thus far, they’re putting on a show. They started off against the red hot 36-29 (at the time) Cleveland Guardians on the road and pulled out the brooms, sweeping the 3-game set. There isn’t a better way to start a tough patch in the schedule than to take care of business against a quality opponent on the road, but now comes the even bigger test.

Starting Monday, the Red Sox travel north of the border to take on the 40-32 Toronto Blue Jays. That alone would be a tough task for any team, but when you factor in those players who can’t travel to Canada thanks to their vaccination status, it becomes an even taller task. Tanner Houck has emerged as the Red Sox closer and has proven to be reliable in that role (6 for 6 in save opportunities), but will be unable to travel with the team and leaves a hole in the late-game bullpen for the Sox. Jarren Duran has finally had another chance at the highest level and has made it difficult for the Red Sox to take him out of the lineup as he’s hitting .327 and has accumulated 4 stolen bases in 13 games this year. His speed on the base-paths is a potential game-changer for the Sox, but for arguably one of the most important series of the season thus far, he’ll be watching on TV with Houck. On the minor-league side, Ryan Fitzgerald would seem like a good replacement for the Canada trip, but he is also unvaccinated and can’t travel. In a series that could very well be the difference in playoff seeding come October, the Red Sox are in a tight spot with roster management.

Moving on from Toronto, life only gets harder. The Sox will host the depleted but still tough Tampa Bay Rays for 3, then host the hottest team in baseball, the New York Yankees. The Yankees are having a historic start to the 2022 season despite getting no-hit by the Houston Astros this week. They are 53-20 as of Monday morning, on pace for 117/118 wins and are getting strong performances across their roster. If you’re looking for a silver lining as a Red Sox fan, the Yankees are just 4-4 in their last 8 games with 2 losses against the Astros, 1 against Tampa and 1 against Toronto. They have looked like they may be settling back to just being a great and elite team, rather than a historic one, although I’m not putting my money on a huge regression (maybe just a small one). As if we couldn’t get enough of the rivalry, the Red Sox then head to Yankee Stadium for a 3-game set after a 4-game set in Tampa against the Rays. Where the Red Sox sit at the All-Star break and how legitimate of a playoff contender they are, will in large part be shaped by Tampa and New York over the first 2 weeks of July.

After the All-Star break, things don’t really calm down until August and even then, just barely. The Sox play Toronto for 3 following the break, then the Guardians for 4 at Fenway, followed by a 3-game set with the 1st place Milwaukee Brewers. Following a 3-game road set with the Houston Astros, the Red Sox have a small respite, playing 4 in Kansas City against the lowly Royals before a date with the 42-32 Atlanta Braves and then another 3-game set with the Yankees (with one game against the Orioles sandwiched between series). I don’t need to spell out the entire schedule for you, although I got pretty close, but just know it’s going to be a brutal next 4+ weeks for the Red Sox. If they can perform at a high level and beat elite opponents, the trade deadline becomes even more intriguing. What moves would the Sox be willing to make if they genuinely feel they can contend for a title? On the flip side, struggling against divisional opponents may make the trade deadline a much more low-key affair.

While sweeps are fantastic, to me this next stretch is about series wins and splits. Expecting this team to sweep opponents the caliber of the Yankees is a bit unrealistic, but taking 2 out of 3 or splitting a 4-game set is not unreasonable and would be very telling. The Sox are not likely to catch the Yankees at this point, but the focus should be on the 1st Wild Card spot and the path there is series wins, especially against their closest opponents in the standings (Toronto and Tampa Bay). If the Sox continue to win series and the Yankees were to significantly stumble, anything is possible if you hang tight. With the Red Sox potentially having some pitching reinforcements arriving back from injury in the next few weeks (Chris Sale and Garrett Whitlock), things could continue to roll on into August and beyond. After spilling tons of metaphorical ink about the Red Sox woes the first 2 months of the season, things look quite different now for the home town team. Will we still feel optimistic in a few weeks?

Bobby D is on 🔥

Since shortly after the trade deadline, 1B Bobby Dalbec has been tearing it up at the dish. The Red Sox brought in OF Kyle Schwarber with the intent on moving him to at least platoon at 1B with the struggling Dalbec. To add even more depth at first, the Red Sox then later added the veteran 1B Travis Shaw (and he has already made a big contribution). However, since August 5th there is no one hotter on the roster than Bobby Dalbec. Over that span, he has appeared in 17 games (13 starts) and is hitting .386 with 5 HRs and 19 RBIs. Whether it’s in response to being pushed by Schwarber and Shaw, a tweak in mechanics, or just a much-needed boost in confidence, the Red Sox are benefiting from improved production out of the young first baseman.

Bobby added to his extra base total on Thursday with a career night. He hit 2 HRs and drove in 7 runs in 4 plate appearances. You’d be hard-pressed to find a hotter hitter over that stretch and the offensive success is bleeding into his defensive play. He has just 1 error over that span of games and made a beautiful pick on a tricky ball down the line early in Thursday night’s game. In a surprising twist of fate, since August 5th, Bobby has 5 more HRs, 8 more extra base hits, and a nearly .300 point higher batting average than the New York Yankees 1B acquisition Anthony Rizzo. To be fair, Rizzo was out on the COVID IL for a stretch in there, but it’s still a win for the Red Sox (in a period of very few!).

Dalbec’s success has a ripple effect and opens up the option for Kyle Schwarber to stay in his natural position in the outfield or as an alternate DH, rather than primarily at 1B. As we have seen, it’s important to keep Schwarber in the lineup given his plate discipline and knack for getting on base. If Bobby can play most games at first and be given a spell by Travis Shaw or Kyle Schwarber, it makes this Red Sox lineup stronger top to bottom. With Schwarber being freed up to play more outfield, it allows the Red Sox to move OF Jarren Duran back to AAA to give him more regular at-bats and not keep him in situations where he looks overmatched.

The Red Sox are hanging on to the 2nd AL Wild Card spot and will need to consistently score runs to remain in the hunt. A hot #8 or #9 hitter in the lineup in Bobby D helps everyone top to bottom. Keep the Bobby 💣s coming.

Is Triston Casas the Answer at 1B?

A few weeks ago, the notion of 1B/3B Triston Casas as a major leaguer would have been somewhat laughable. He’s a top prospect and is on an upward trajectory to the big leagues, but still hasn’t risen above AA yet and only has 46 games at that level. Then came the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and he was able to perform on a larger platform against solid competition. The 6’4″ 252Lb left-handed bat appeared in three games so far for team USA and has batted .308 with 2 HRs and 6 RBIs out of the cleanup spot.

The 21-year old, #1 prospect in the Red Sox system has now pushed his way into the conversation around the gap in talent at 1B in the big leagues. The Red Sox traded for OF Kyle Schwarber and leadership has made it clear they want to try him at first base once he is healthy, but they could also use depth in the OF if Jarren Duran continues to struggle mightily at the plate. Could the solution actually be to give Casas a look in the majors at 1B and then use Schwarber at DH and in the OF? Is there really any harm in giving him a look over the next 2-3 weeks?

Casas was drafted out of American Heritage High School in Plantation, FL as the 26th pick in the first round in the 2018 MLB Draft. He is attempting to follow in the footsteps of another notable American Heritage alum, 1B Eric Hosmer. Casas has continued to rise up prospect lists and in his first full year in the system in 2019, spent the majority of the year in Greenville and hit .256 with 20 HRs and 81 RBIs in 120 games (500 PAs). After a lost year for the minors in 2020, this year in AA Portland, Casas has just 6 HRs in 46 games (195 PAs), but has worked to improve his average to .271. As we have seen in Tokyo, the power is certainly still there, but it appears he is working to have a higher average to pair with his power stroke.

Potential everyday regular. Ceiling of an all-star capable of hitting for both average and significant power. Looks the part of a prototypical bat-first first baseman capable of anchoring a lineup. Projects to add some value defensively at first base. Hit tool still needs development and will have to ensure the swing-and-miss in his game does not impact his ability to tap into his power. Strong instincts and feel for the game.

Triston Casas, SoxProspects.com

Many prospect analysts, like the above quoted SoxProspects.com, see Casas as an everyday first baseman with a chance to anchor a lineup and maybe even rise to all-star level. That’s not small praise and is a strong indicator of how he is viewed. While he could use more development time, he seems to be ready and potentially able to make a difference at a position of dire need for the Red Sox right now and can continue to develop in the big leagues. Defensively, he will be beyond Schwarber’s ability day one and is frankly probably better than Bobby Dalbec is playing at the moment. SoxProspects.com described Casas defensively as “Confident picking out throws in the dirt. Moves well enough for first base. Potential above-average defender there.” While not glowing, that sounds pretty good to me right now.

Usually I’m a fan of having players develop in the minors for longer until they are ready, like I was with Duran, but it seems like the cards are aligning for Casas. His performance on the Olympic stage really impressed me and showed, at least to a small degree, that he can handle being placed in pressure situations. Peter Abraham (@PeteAbe) on Twitter reported in early July that veteran manager and Team USA skipper Mike Scioscia “was very impressed with how Triston Casas made game-to-game adjustments at the plate… especially for a 21-year-old.”

Now might be the time to take a look at Casas at 1B in the majors. If he really is that mature and able to handle pressure, the worst case scenario is a trip back to AA. The best case scenario: the beginning of a long and productive Red Sox career.