5 storylines for the Red Sox down the stretch

September 4th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Ian Browne’s Red Sox Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Starting with Monday’s Labor Day contest at Tropicana Field against the Rays, the Red Sox have four weeks of baseball left to play.

Manager Alex Cora’s team's chances of making the postseason have moved to the long-shot category, but there are several compelling storylines to follow over this final month.

Here are five.

Can Triston Casas win Rookie of the Year?
At this point, Baltimore’s Gunnar Henderson is considered the favorite to win the American League’s Rookie of the Year Award. But there are very few hitters -- rookies or otherwise -- who have been as good since the All-Star break as the heavy-hitting Casas.

In his 143 at-bats since the break, Casas has a line of .336/.431/.664 with 13 homers.

For the season, here is where Casas stands among qualified AL rookies: Homers (22, tied for first); OBP (.367, third), Slugging (.495, second), OPS (.862, first).

However, Henderson’s WAR on Baseball Reference (4.5) is significantly higher than the 2.0 posted by Casas, in large part due to the O’s SS-3B being a much better defender in a more valuable defensive position than Boston’s first baseman.

Intriguingly, Casas and Henderson have seven more head-to-head games, including the final four of the season.

Will James Paxton finish strong?
At the All-Star break, Red Sox lefty Paxton seemed in line to get a nice contract offer in free agency this winter. His rejuvenation after three years of mostly being down with injuries was a big story from mid-May to mid-July.

In his first 10 starts prior to the break, Paxton was 5-1 with a 2.73 ERA and held opponents to a .201 average and .612 OPS.

In his last nine starts, it has been a completely different story. Paxton is 2-4 with a 6.98 ERA, and opponents have belted him around at a clip of .310 and an OPS of .946. The dip in Paxton’s velocity and decrease in his command have been glaring.

The 96 innings logged by Paxton this season are 74 1/3 more than he pitched in the last three seasons combined. In other words, it shouldn’t be that surprising that he hit a wall. The question is whether he can break through and show potential suitors, including the Red Sox, that he is a potential value add for 2024 and beyond.

Can Masataka Yoshida be more consistent?
It was a good sign for the Red Sox when Yoshida hammered a three-run homer in Sunday’s win in Kansas City. The left fielder from Japan hit only one homer in 96 plate appearances in August. Known for his elite walk rate during his career in NPB, Yoshida has walked only six times since July 1.

In May, when Yoshida delivered with a .962 OPS, it was evident why the Red Sox made such a big investment in him last winter.

If anything, Yoshida seemed fatigued down the stretch. Cora has frequently given him days off so he can rejuvenate. Perhaps by next season, Yoshida will be able to be more consistent because he will be accustomed to the more rigorous travel in the Major Leagues compared to what he was used to in NPB.

Yoshida’s overall numbers (.296/.350/.462 line, 14 homers, 66 RBIs, 29 doubles) are solid. The Red Sox would like to see him reduce the length of his slumps going forward.

Will Ceddanne Rafaela get a more extended look?
No. 3 Red Sox prospect Rafaela got his first callup last week but made just one start in his first six games on the roster. Given that Boston isn’t totally out of the postseason race, you can understand why Cora is still giving his mainstays everyday at-bats.

But if Boston’s deficit swells, perhaps Rafaela will get more chances to put his exciting skills on display. Rafaela is already an elite defender in center and a solid defender at shortstop. He has raw power, but the jury is out on what kind of hitter he will be at the highest level.

As Rafaela is the first to admit, that all depends how much he can lay off pitches out of the strike zone.

Is Tanner Houck a starter going forward?
For the past three years, the Red Sox have debated if Houck is best off as a starter or a reliever.

The Red Sox fully committed to Houck as a starter this season, but he didn’t get a full season’s worth of innings through no fault of his own. On June 16, Houck suffered a facial fracture when he was struck by a batted ball against the Yankees.

He returned on Aug. 22 but his first three starts back have been uneven. Houck has made 16 starts this season, going 4-8 with a 5.07 ERA. It will be interesting to see if Houck can end the starter/reliever debate over these final few weeks. Backed by a mid 90s fastball and a nasty slider, Houck has the raw stuff to start. For Houck, the key will be to fine-tune his command and get better against left-handed hitters.