Are The Red Sox Really A World Series Contender?

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The 2016 Red Sox are a flawed team.

If that fact was not yet abundantly clear based on a half-season plus of poor pitching in both the rotation and bullpen, it is now irrefutable given the way the team’s one reliable pitcher, Steven Wright, has been knocked around for the last month. After restoring faith in their manager with a hot stretch to open July, the Red Sox split a winnable series against the Twins, and – at the time of this writing were swept by the Tigers thanks in part to Wright’s stinker Tuesday night.

David Price is an enigma; fans want to condemn him as a bad signing as media prop him up as pitching better than the numbers show, while the real truth is in the middle. Price has underperformed relative to expectations while simultaneously not being a bad pitcher. Rick Porcello has exceeded expectations, but is still at best a number three starter: just as you can likely preclude him from turning in a terrible outing, you can just as reasonably expect that he is not going to shut down an opposing team’s offense completely (the proverbial low-ceiling, high-floor).

Eduardo Rodriguez is finally pitching to his talent, after he got off to a 6.70 ERA after a knee injury set him back during spring training. And the Red Sox have finally forced Joe Kelly and Clay Buchholz out of the rotation (after each turned in a 2016 season that was reminiscent of a home-run derby pitcher), with the addition of Drew Pomeranz. Pomeranz has had two starts with the team, one very good and one very bad, so it’s anybody’s guess what the rest of the season will hold for him in a Red Sox uniform.

Ah, the Pomeranz trade. Haven’t had a chance to discuss it at length yet, so here’s my two-cents: overpayment. For a team that has been absolutely putrid at identifying and developing young pitching, trading away their best pitching prospect in who-knows-how-long is sure a perplexing decision. Although, I suppose Dave Dombrowski is still new here, and perhaps not yet privy to said woes. But among the experts, who have been doing this much longer than I have, the move was pretty much universally-panned – to a degree.

The prevailing opinion seems to be that conventional wisdom suggests that Pomeranz isn’t worth Anderson Espinoza, but that conventional wisdom needs to be thrown out the window at this juncture in an era where the supply of young major league starters is bordering on drought-status. Even critics of the deal lauded Dombrowski for getting out in front of what is shaping up to be a trade deadline defined by such overcompensation, and noted that Pomeranz has a pedigree to back up his recent success in spite of such a small sample size.

So that’s the rotation, and now – THE LIGHTNING ROUND. The Red Sox bullpen at a glance…

Craig Kimbrel – unusable unless it’s a save situation (also hurt).

Koji Uehara – splitter is not splitting.

Junichi Tazawa – still overworked and underpaid.

Carson Smith – also hurt.

Matt Barnes – surprisingly effective, but overworked.

Heath Hembree – also surprisingly effect- no, wait, he’s terrible again.

Robbie Ross – his performance is in line with his personality: total wild card.

Brad Ziegler – …wait this guy’s actually good AND healthy! [Ziegler did however give up a walkoff home run to Miguel Cabrera and the Sox were, in fact, swept.]

… oh and rounding out that group are the aforementioned Buchholz and Kelly. So there’s that.

But the lineup is arguably the best in the MLB. Since I started writing this, Bogaerts has launched his 12th homer of the season which puts him on pace to hit 20+ and eliminate the only perceivable hole in his game. Mookie is not only the best leadoff-hitter, but is making a case for himself as the best all-around hitter, with power numbers to go with speed and contact. And Jackie Bradley Jr. falls just short of the lofty bar set by his younger contemporaries with a renaissance at the plate that calls to mind Michael Brantley’s breakout.

Surrounding this group are veterans ranging from the fringes of above-average to pretty-darn-good in Hanley Ramirez, Travis Shaw, Slammin’ Sandy Leon (until he regresses), and Brock Holt. Oh, and David freakin’ Ortiz, the ageless-wonder (no throat clearing going on from behind this screen) who has separated himself from the pack as baseball’s most impactful hitter right now in pretty much every well-regarded offensive category. The team, no doubt, wants to capitalize on this unlikely season, especially given that it will be the 40-year-old’s last.

So here’s the issue: the team wants to go for it, and I mean really go for it, as is evident by the Pomeranz trade. This has led to a number of all-in conceptions for the team to actualize, but two standing above the rest as the most-discussed. The first, is to trade more of the team’s top prospects for another starting pitcher or elite reliever. I liked neither such option, particularly those permutations of this framework that involve Julio Teheran, or at least I didn’t… until Chris Sale became “available.”

Available deserves the air-quotes because pundits have still reported that the chances of the White Sox trading the ace are less than one-percent. But that evokes an entirely new discussion: what would the team send over in a hypothetical deal for Sale (or even option 1B, Jose Quintana). Now that the Red Sox have already played one of their best cards by dealing Espinoza, Dombrowski is left to choose from the remainder of the upper-echelon: Michael Kopech, Eduardo Rodriguez, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, Blake Swihart and… *gasps* Yoan Moncada.

For what it’s worth, the above names are ordered from most-preferable to trade away, to least preferable, with Moncada obviously earning the most valuable nod. My fervor for Moncada since he has reached Double-A particularly as some scouts have dubbed him a switch-hitting Mike Trout. This is, of course, much more likely to not happen than it is to happen, but the idea of trading away Trout as a prospect – even for a Sale type – is unfathomable to me. That said, not sure I do it straight up, which sounds bananas, but it’s where I currently stand.

On the other hand, I’m not quite as bullish on Benintendi as some others are. Despite his proximity to the major leagues and the fact that he fills a position of need doesn’t distract me from the fact that Rafael Devers may be a better hitter, and Blake Swihart playing a more valuable position. His low-floor has more value to those mired in the short-term though, which begs the question of whether the Red Sox value him more than I do (answer: almost definitely).

But not only does the package for Sale start with Devers/Benintendi AND Swihart, but it also likely includes Kopech, Rodriguez, and maybe even Moncada too. If you think I’m misguided here, you need only look to the (admittedly unsubstantiated) report that the ChiSox expect the conversation to start with either Betts or Bogaerts. So while you maybe – MAYBE – could talk me into sending Bradley in a deal for Sale, you will never get me to look at Betts (at least not anymore) or Bogaerts that way.

So that’s the first all-in option. The second? Entirely contingent on whether or not a Sale deal happens. The second all-in option is to risk stunting the development of the team’s young players (as they already did when they moved Swihart to left field) in order to improve the chances of winning right now. Don’t count on seeing Devers or Kopech, but Benintendi and Moncada as platoon players or spot-starters in left field or at third base is entirely feasible.

BUT, as we saw with Bradley, Bogaerts, and pretty much every pitching prospect over the last 5 seasons, rushing minor leaguers to the show for immediate help is a dangerous proposition. The Red Sox, or perhaps just John Farrell, have been embarrassingly inept when it comes to making the smart decisions for their young, unproven players on the major league roster (have to make sure those underperforming veterans get their reps, right Farrell?) so it’s at least marginally concerning that a Benintendi – or worse Moncada – promotion would backfire.

Still, the Red Sox need a jolt, and with none of their small army of guys on the disabled list due back just yet, it’s this second option I would lean toward. Aggressively promoting prospects is something every other team in the league does, and while they don’t all fail as spectacularly as the Red Sox have at it, this would seem to indicate that it is not only possible but can be very effective. Particularly down the stretch in a pennant race, where the major leaguers are feeling the fatigue in the heat of the summer.

Promoting just Benintendi (for now), and building a temporary bullpen that can function by trading for a reliever – of which there are soooo many right now – are the only moves Dave Dombrowski should be considering in terms of additions. Now, as for subtractions, Buchholz’s time in Boston has certainly run it’s course and with the recent slide to third place in the AL East standings, it may be time to revisit that old favorite discussion point among Red Sox fans about whether it’s time to give Farrell the Grady Little treatment he probably deserves.

 

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