COMMENTARY | With a commanding 8.5-game lead in the tough American League East (and a 10-game lead in the wild-card standings) with 16 games remaining, the Boston Red Sox are on the verge of heading to the playoffs.
Although they still need to play out the remainder of their games to seal the deal, it's not too early to start thinking ahead to the construction of their playoff roster. A lot of tough decisions will need to be made in order to put the best team possible on the field.
Things could change between now and the end of the regular season, but here is an early look at what Boston's first-round playoff roster might look like:
There are no big surprises here. Boston needs only four starters in the first round because of two off-days during the series.
Lester has been the team's workhorse this season, having already logged 193.1 innings on his way to a 13-8 record and 3.86 ERA.
Buchholz and Lackey are the wild cards in the final two rotation spots.
Lackey has been the Red Sox's most consistent starter, posting a 3.48 ERA in 26 starts. However, he missed all of 2012 because of Tommy John surgery. With 168 innings already under his belt this season, there has to be some worry about how much more gas he has left in the tank.
Earlier in the season, Buchholz was on fire, going 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA in 12 starts. Unfortunately, he suffered a shoulder injury, and just pitched in his first game following a three-month absence. The Red Sox would undoubtedly love him to pick up where he left off, but there no guarantees that will happen.
Both Doubront (5.35 ERA) and Dempster (6.63 ERA) have slumped badly since the start of August. Their inconsistency down the stretch will keep them out of the postseason rotation.
Led by closer Uehara, the Boston bullpen is an effective and deep group. Since taking over ninth-inning duties on June 26, the 38-year-old has been the best closer and possibly the best pitcher in baseball. In that 33-game stretch, spanning 35.2 innings, he has a microscopic 0.25 ERA, 18 saves and an amazing strikeout/walk ratio of 49/2 while allowing just 10 hits.
Doubront doesn't fit in the postseason rotation, but he could have value as a swingman. The southpaw not only can get lefties out but also gives the team an option of someone capable of throwing multiple innings.
Left Out: Drake Britton, Franklin Morales
Saltalamacchia is the clear-cut starter and will see the bulk of playing time. The switch-hitter sports a career-best .764 OPS this season and seems to have earned the confidence of the pitching staff.
Ross is the primary backup, and his defensive prowess makes him an excellent late-inning replacement.
Many playoff teams carry an extra catcher, and Boston will likely follow suit by keeping Lavarnway. While he may not get much action behind the plate, his .793 OPS in 22 games with Boston this year make him a right-handed threat off the bench.
Napoli, Pedroia and Drew are postseason veterans. They have played in a combined 72 playoff games between them. If the team makes a run into October, expect this trio to be in the thick of things.
The Red Sox will likely keep just one extra infielder in Bogaerts. The 20-year-old rookie phenom won't start every game, but has as much dynamic upside as anyone on the roster. Despite his age, he showed what he is capable of by recently hitting his first major league home run -- a mammoth shot on the road against the New York Yankees.
Left Out: John McDonald
While Nava/Gomes, Ellsbury and Victorino are expected to be the starters, a major wrench could be thrown into the works if Ellsbury is unable to return to action as currently anticipated from a broken foot. The center fielder has played stellar defense while hitting .299 with 52 stolen bases from the leadoff spot. His presence in the postseason is a must.
Carp will likely only see action in pinch-hitting situations.
Berry may seem like an odd choice, but has a good chance of making the roster purely because of his speed. He has stolen 22 bases in 99 major league games without being caught. It's unlikely he'll see any time in the field, but could play in nearly every game by doing his best Dave Roberts impersonation as a pinch runner.
Left Out: Jackie Bradley Jr.
The left-handed hitting rookie has struggled in his time with Boston this season, hitting just .172 in 25 games. His only chance of making the roster would be because of an injury, especially if Ellsbury is unable to return.
Designated Hitter: David Ortiz
The 37-year-old slugger is still the heart of Boston's offense. At .310 with 26 home runs and 90 RBIs this season, he continues plugging away.
He has hit .284 with 12 homers and 43 RBIs in 57 career playoff games with the Red Sox, making him one of their all-time postseason heroes. Continuing his run of excellence would not only grow his legacy, but could also be the key to the team's chances to win the eighth World Series in franchise history.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can also follow Andrew on Twitter: @HistorianAndrew.
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