The most telling note about the Red Sox' American League--best record is that so much has gone wrong along the way. Boston had run up a 42--29 mark (through Sunday) and a 1½-game lead over the Orioles in the AL East despite suffering injuries up and down the roster and despite the underperformance of several players. The surprising 2013 Red Sox are playing nearly .600 ball ... and they still have upside.
The biggest difference between 2012 and 2013 may be the manager, but not in the way you think. New skipper John Farrell certainly hasn't been the lightning rod for controversy that Bobby Valentine was. But the absence of headlines is not Farrell's most important contribution; it's his apparent effect on Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester. Farrell was Boston's pitching coach from 2007 to '10, during which time Buchholz had a 3.68 ERA for the Red Sox. Over the following two seasons, after Farrell left to manage the Blue Jays, Buchholz's ERA was 4.24. This year it's a league-leading 1.71. Similarly, Lester had the worst season of his career in 2012, but with Farrell back, he has seen his ERA drop nearly half a run, to 4.37. The biggest difference between '12 and '13 for the Red Sox? Their top two starting pitchers are actually pitching like a top two.
Farrell, meanwhile, hasn't just sat back and watched the rest of the team. He has used 52 batting orders in 70 games, and not one more than five times. By contrast, the Central-leading Tigers have used just 43 batting orders. It has been a constant juggling act in Boston. Four starters—David Ortiz, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks—have spent time on the disabled list. Both closers have gone to the DL, with Joel Hanrahan now out for the year. Buchholz, John Lackey and Felix Doubront have missed starts with nagging injuries, and Buchholz's neck soreness remains a concern. Even when on the field, Drew (.305 OBP) and Middlebrooks (.232) have failed to produce, while free-agent signing Victorino has not arrested his offensive decline (.277/.335/.348, with just six steals). Jacoby Ellsbury's power has disappeared (one homer, .378 SA).
Despite all that, the Sox lead the majors in runs. Dustin Pedroia is having the best year of his career (.319/.401/.436) and combining with Ortiz (.294/.378/.594) to create one of the best 3--4 combinations in baseball. Mike Napoli's hips have held up well enough for him to be an everyday first baseman with an above-average bat. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is having a career year. At 30, Daniel Nava has emerged as an everyday player who hits for average, draws walks and can drive the ball. Spare parts Mike Carp and, recently, Jose Iglesias have crushed the ball in limited roles.
These Red Sox aren't the 2012 Orioles. Their won-lost record is consistent with their runs scored and allowed, and they have normal records in one-run (10--7) and extra-inning (4--2) games. There's no reason to cry "regression." Moreover, the Sox are as well-positioned as any team to make a big move at the trade deadline. The deal with the Dodgers last year gave them payroll room, and the off-season signings of Victorino, Ryan Dempster and others didn't use it up. The Sox have just under $90 million in obligations for '14, so they're positioned to take on a big contract—such as that of Phillies lefthander Cliff Lee—if it's the difference between winning the division and not. The Sox could also go after a third baseman, such as the Brewers' Aramis Ramirez, if Middlebrooks's failure to learn the strike zone continues to hurt his production. An impending free agent such as Matt Garza could be a target in a smaller deal. The Sox don't merely have cash; even setting aside top 10 prospect Xander Bogaerts, they can put together an impressive package with spring-training sensation Jackie Bradley Jr. and an assortment of big arms such as Matt Barnes, Henry Owens and Allen Webster. The Red Sox are in a class with the Rangers, Rays and Cardinals in having a clutch of upper-level prospects that makes them a factor in trade talks for anyone.
The Red Sox have taken hold of an AL East that is much weaker than expected, and they've done it without being particularly lucky. There's reason to believe they can continue to play .600 ball, based on the players they already have in house, and then use their substantial resources to bolster the roster down the stretch. At worst, the Red Sox are now cofavorites in the East with the Rays, and they seem set to return to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Boston leads the majors in runs scored, as Pedroia is having the best year of his career.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED