Red Sox report: Too early to press panic button

Shane Victorino
Boston has high expectations when the injured Shane Victorino is in the lineup. (Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports)

The Boston Red Sox — the reigning World Series champions — are in fifth place in the American League East. Their 8-10 record is fourth worst in the American League, and their run differential stands at minus six. These numbers are far from positive, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to panic. The sub-par performance has a very clear rationale behind it: This is not the real Boston Red Sox.

Every team has to deal with injuries, some more than others, and for varying lengths of time; that is part of baseball. However, one shouldn’t come to any conclusions about a team based on a the performance of an unhealthy roster. For the Red Sox, their injuries aren’t severe; no one in their rotation underwent Tommy John surgery, an issue that is plaguing many teams in 2014, and no one on the disabled list is expected to be out for an extended period of time. However, the two biggest injuries have had a major impact on the team.

The loss of Shane Victorino is major. In 2013, Victorino played in just 122 games, due to various injuries. As an aging speedster with an injury history, that was almost expected. A year older, it shouldn’t surprise anyone  to see him injured, although the implications are more dire this year: Shane Victorino was the leadoff hitter, replacing the departed Jacoby Ellsbury. As much as the leadoff hitter is just one hitter of nine, the role is not one so easily replaced. John Farrell has used a variety of players to lead off in Victorino’s absence, including Grady Sizemore, Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes. While the replacements have been solid, none are your prototypical leadoff hitter. The table setting done by a player like Victorino is not replaced so easily. The offense starts with the leadoff hitter, and if the leadoff hitter isn’t getting on base, the offense isn’t complete. The Red Sox cannot set the table as well for the likes of David Ortiz, Mike Napoli and Xander Bogaerts without Shane Victorino.

The incomplete offense also is hurt by the injury to Will Middlebrooks, who was expected to be a major run-producer. While he did struggle early in 2013 — warranting a demotion — Middlebrooks came on strong in the second half and would have been Boston’s everyday third baseman in the playoffs had Bogaerts not emerged. His bat will add some pop to the offense once he returns.

Last season was magical for the Red Sox, winning the World Series in a year that was technically supposed to be a bridge year. Boston exceeded expectations in 2013, and some players over-performed. The Red Sox are a strong team, but they should not be considered favorites to repeat as champions. Players like Nava and Gomes performed very well in a platoon last year, putting up great numbers that are unlikely to replicated. The return of Shane Victorino should push them both back into reserve roles, especially with the emergence of Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Sizemore as players who need to be in the lineup daily.

On the mound, John Lackey had a 2013 to remember, but with his advanced age (he turned 35 in October), it would be foolish to expect a repeat in 2014. That’s not to say it is impossible, but expectations need to be lowered. The same can be said of Clay Buchholz, who was one of the best pitchers in the league before injury took away most of his season. Down the stretch and in the playoffs, Buchholz was less effective, and his decreased velocity so far this season does not bode well. In Buchholz, Lackey and Jon Lester the Red Sox have three solid pitchers, but to expect them to dominate batters every time out is, again, foolish.

Don’t panic, Red Sox Nation, but also temper your expectations. This is a good baseball team, but there’s going to be some uneasy water to tread throughout the season. Wait until the team is playing healthy before making any conclusions about the 2014 club. There is still plenty of time in the young season to worry about where the Red Sox will finish.

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