Our scribes answer 10 burning questions that will help determine the fate of the middling Red Sox in the second half of the season.
1. What do you expect the Red Sox to do at the July 31 trading deadline?
Edes: Pitching remains the No. 1 target, but while the Sox are liable to aim high for a starting pitcher -- the way Theo Epstein did a couple of years ago when he tried to pry away Felix Hernandez from the Mariners -- they may end up just adding a lesser arm for depth and trust that Jon Lester and Josh Beckett will pick up the pace in the second half. They could move an outfielder, but uncertainty over Carl Crawford may preclude doing so.
McDonald: Pitching. Pitching. Pitching. If the Red Sox are to contend in the American League East, they'll need some help on the mound. It wouldn't surprise me if GM Ben Cherington pulled off a deal to acquire another starting pitcher due to the subpar performances of Lester and Beckett and the uncertainty of the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
2. Who will be Boston's best starting pitcher in the second half?
Edes: Lester had a deeply frustrating first half and has lost the confidence of the fan base, but he is still capable of having a big second half. The stuff and the will are there, and the advanced metrics (WAR, xFIP) argue that more wins are in the offing. A real sleeper candidate is Franklin Morales, who can be overpowering.
McDonald: It won't be Beckett. It won't be Lester. Enter Clay Buchholz. The right-hander is healthy and poised for a strong second half. He is 8-2, but due to a slow start, his ERA is still high at 5.53. Over his last five starts before going on the disabled list with a bout of gastrointestinal bleeding, Buchholz was 4-0 with a 2.43 ERA. He is returning to the rotation Saturday in Tampa Bay.
3. Who will make a bigger impact in the second half, Will Middlebrooks or Kevin Youkilis?
Edes: By virtue of his track record and the way he has come to life since going to Chicago, I'll give the nod to Youkilis. There may be some growing pains ahead for Middlebrooks, but he is a keeper.
McDonald: There's no denying the fact that Youkilis is a lot happier this season now that he is in Chicago. There are a few factors why the Red Sox traded him, including the messy relationship the veteran infielder had with manager Bobby Valentine. Plus, with the emergence of Middlebrooks, it was time for a change. Middlebrooks missed the last seven games before the break due to a hamstring strain, but he is healthy and expected to start Friday in Tampa. From a pure impact standpoint, once the season ends it will be Middlebrooks who contributes more to his club.
4. Will Daniel Bard be back with the Red Sox this season and in what capacity?
Edes: I still think Bard is going to figure it out and will be back as a setup man within a month's time. Valentine may ease him into the late-inning setup cycle, but eventually he'll be splitting time with Vicente Padilla.
McDonald: No doubt the right-hander will be back and productive for the Red Sox in the second half of the season. He is on the verge of returning to form and will be a major contributor out of the bullpen. I've said from the start of spring training that he would be the team's closer by the end of the season, and I still think that will happen.
5. Will Carl Crawford make it to the end of the season in left field, and how much will he help?
Edes: Crawford has expended considerable effort in getting back and will give it a shot, but I don't see this ending well. There are a lot of factors working against him: the pressure of trying to prove last season was a fluke, the extended layoff and the injuries. It would not shock me to see him elect to have Tommy John surgery before the end of the season.
McDonald: It appears that he will need Tommy John surgery at some point, but he wants to return and help his teammates this season. When he does return, I think he'll be a contributor despite the discomfort in his elbow. He says the elbow doesn't hurt when he swings, so his offensive production and speed will make a difference.
6. How valuable will Jacoby Ellsbury be when he returns?
Edes: Again, some allowances have to be made for the long layoff. Ellsbury is at a competitive disadvantage, but he was the most dynamic player in the league last season and should give the entire lineup a huge lift. It just might take some time.
McDonald: As long as he can stay healthy and on the field, he should be a major contributor in the second half. It's this simple: When Ellsbury is in the lineup, the Red Sox win. What will be interesting is if he continues to play defense with that all-out intensity that makes him so good. The reason I bring up that point is because all of the injuries he's suffered the past few seasons were the result of that style of play.
7. Who will be the team's closer in September?
Edes: It's hard to imagine the Sox believing that Andrew Bailey could close down the stretch when he is not returning until August at the earliest, and Bard is not an option at this stage. Bailey may get a few save opportunities, but the Sox will opt for the status quo and stick with Alfredo Aceves. He has been a bumpy ride at times, but he is still the best option.
McDonald: It will be Bard. Yes, he is in a funk as he tries to work out the kinks at Triple-A Pawtucket, but I believe he is on the verge of turning things around. He will soon be back to being that dominant right-hander he had been for 2½ seasons in Boston.
8. Who will have more home runs by the end of the season, Adrian Gonzalez or Anthony Rizzo, the man he was traded for?
Edes: Who would have imagined such a question when the season started? Gonzalez is taking better swings, as his 18-game hitting streak would attest, but there is no evidence that he is about to go on a home run tear. Rizzo, a recent call-up by the Cubs, is only two home runs behind Gonzalez at the break and won't be under the pressure of a pennant race, but A-Gon will still nose him out. Neither breaks 20, though.
McDonald: During his recent 18-game hitting streak, it was evident Gonzalez was swinging at better pitches than he was earlier in the season. The power numbers haven't been there this season. Anytime he is asked about the power outage, he gets upset, saying the homers will come. I agree with him ... to a degree. I think he'll get to at least 15 on the season and, if he can get on a tear, maybe even reach 20. That number would be a career low as a full-time player in the majors, but Red Sox fans would take it considering where he is at. In any case, I think he'll hit more than Rizzo.
9. Who will have more home runs by the end of the season, Josh Reddick or the combined Red Sox outfield?
Edes: Reddick had 20 home runs at the break, the same number as the 14 players who performed in the Sox outfield hit, 13 by Cody Ross. The return of Ellsbury should enable the Sox to win this one, but it might be close.
McDonald: Reddick would definitely look good in a Red Sox uniform again, wouldn't he? He is having a solid season as an everyday outfielder for the A's, but once the Red Sox have Crawford and Ellsbury back, those power numbers will increase. I'll take the Sox outfield on this one.
10. Will the Red Sox qualify for the playoffs?
Edes: Even with the extra wild card, it's not going to be easy, especially with eight teams within 2½ games of winning a spot. Ellsbury will help, and the talent is there, but there has been an uneasy vibe all season that suggest more problems ahead. A very qualified yes.
McDonald: Yes, the Red Sox will qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2009. The new wild-card system will help, but even more critical will be the healthy returns of Ellsbury, Crawford and Dustin Pedroia. That trio will help Boston put on a major surge in the second half.