BOSTON — The evolution of the 2013 Boston Red Sox continues.
It’s hard to imagine a first-place team being this unsettled. Division leaders are supposed to be solid teams by mid-August. Starting lineups are set in stone.
Not John Farrell’s team. The manager has been shifting roster spots all season.
It began months ago with the daily shuffling of the bullpen. At one point six Pawtucket relievers were called to Boston in a seven-day period. Not because of injuries but because of overuse.
The Sox survived that stretch and have a much more defined group of relievers now. Rookies like Brandon Workman and Drake Britton have become bullpen fixtures. Rubby De La Rosa is up from Triple-A, throwing 97 mph fastballs. They’ve gotten the job done.
Now it’s the lineup that’s in flux. Farrell hasn’t put out the same lineup in two straight games on this road trip yet. That’s seven straight games with a different lineup every night.
Sometimes lineup changes are simply part of the game, like giving starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia a night off or bringing Mike Carp in against a righty.
Sometimes lineup changes are made to deal with a problem. Mike Napoli was signed to be the right-handed protection for David Ortiz. He was brought to town to be the fifth hitter in the lineup and provide some pop.
The pop has been there, evidenced by his 14 home runs (second only to Ortiz). The problem is Napoli is on pace to shatter the team’s strikeout record.
He struck out three times in Sunday’s loss and is on pace to post more than 200 on the season. Mark Bellhorn set the Red Sox record with 177 strikeouts in 2004.
It’s hard to have a guy missing that often in the middle of the lineup.
So Napoli hasn’t hit fifth since Aug. 5. Carp, Daniel Nava and Stephen Drew have all taken turns in that spot on this trip.
Over the weekend, Will Middlebrooks returned from Pawtucket and reached base four times (three hits, one walk) in two games with the Sox.
The team will be careful not to add too much pressure to the third baseman’s return, but he could be the right-handed hitter the Sox have been looking for over the past month.
If not, there’s Xander Bogaerts in Triple-A.
Everyone says it’s a matter of when, not if, Bogaerts will contribute to the lineup.
With Middlebrooks playing third and shortstop Drew on a 12-game hitting streak, there’s no reason to rush the 20-year-old Bogaerts.
The starting rotation has been fairly stable but that could change as well.
Jon Lester still isn’t close to what he was in April, Felix Doubront still has trouble going deep into games, and Jon Lackey is 0-4 with a 4.96 ERA in the second half of the season after going 7-6 with a 2.78 in the first half.
Jake Peavy was brought in to stabilize the staff and is 1-1 with the Red Sox.
Clay Buchholz is desperately needed at the top of the rotation but is still weeks away from a return.
The regular season will be over in just seven weeks. We’ll know a lot more about this team by then.
For now, each night brings a new learning experience as Farrell experiments by using different players in different roles.
So far the experiments have paid off with the Sox retaining the lead in the East.
Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.