Writer’s Disclaimer: This piece was written following the losses against the Yanks. Though it was not published until today, everything still applies. Don’t let a few wins against the DBacks delude you into believing otherwise.
Here’s the situation: Wally the Green Monster is lying at the base of the Pesky Pole without a pulse. This writer is coming in with a defibrillator of ideas to spark the team back to life, but by the end of this column, the Red Sox will have been declared dead or saved.
Weird metaphor aside, this team is in need of one of two things – either a post-mortem examining what went wrong with this team, or a solution to their woes. I’m here to try and do both.
After last Wednesday’s embarrassing loss to a depleted Yankees team that needed to rely on their bullpen for a whopping 8 innings, and then an almost equally-embarrassing setback the next day, the Red Sox are arguably at their lowest point of the season. But how did they get here? Two nights ago, fans were goading the Yankees to put in Alex Rodriguez so the boo-birds could come home to roost, gloating at the sorry state of the hated Yankees. And the next, they blew a 3-run lead given to them by starter Drew Pomeranz.
Wednesday’s loss (the worse of the two, for me) came down to three factors in my estimation: lack of timely hitting (2-of-11 with runners in scoring position), poor execution by the bullpen (3.2 IP, 9 H, 8 ER), and poor management (Clay Buchholz was shockingly the lone bright spot in the pen yet again and John Farrell removed him after only 3 pitches). But this team’s issues extend well beyond these three areas, as we have seen over the course of this season. This is a fundamentally flawed team plagued by imperfections in its very makeup.
Let’s run through the list of problems from bottom-to-top.
The back end of the 40-man roster is bad… and the team has no depth as a result
An MLB team is allowed to keep a 40-man roster in addition to the 25-man active roster, as protection against injuries. But this team’s 40-man is dragging a number of useless players; William Cuevas has yet to impact the major league team in a positive way and has followed up a modest season in the minors in 2015 with a below-average 2016 season. Noe Ramirez, for two seasons, has dominated the minors and been pulverized in the majors. Williams Jerez has been below-average in the minors, without even having a chance to fail with the big-league club. The Sox have been unable to develop pitching for years now, and the dearth of talent in the upper minors means that when the major league bullpen fails, there are no internal reinforcements.
Heath Hembree, on the other hand, showed flashes, but for a team in the pennant race with a bad bullpen there is no opportunity for him to learn on the fly. Roenis Elias was acquired by the team as a spot starter who could capably step in, and has been anything but. Joe Kelly started in the majors before proving once and for all that he cannot succeed there, and is en route to proving that he is equally useless out of the bullpen (what a horrible trade that John Lackey deal ended up being… serves them right for trying to swindle the Cardinals). The team has an excuse with Brian Johnson, who could have been useful out of the bullpen or in the rotation before struggling to get on track due to anxiety issues – well beyond the team’s control, and impossible to foresee.
Rounding out the group are three former prospects who are almost certainly busts in their intended roles: southpaw starter Henry Owens, and shortstop Deven Marrero – both of these two are former first rounders, underscoring an inability to hit on draft picks in recent seasons – and, finally, (one of my least favorite players) Christian Vasquez. The amount of hype that surrounded Vasquez ONLY for his defensive ability (“he’s the next Molina!”) was preposterous and one of the worst decisions this team made was allowing him to displace Blake Swihart as the team’s starting pitcher in the season’s first month. He didn’t help the pitching as much as he was supposed to, he certainly didn’t hit, and as a result the team struggled.
The one player safe from my scorn is Marco Hernandez, who has actually been OK in very short samples. The problem is that he’s a utility player on a team that already had 2 (Brock Holt, Josh Rutledge), and probably would have been better off being traded while his value was peaking last season and teams thought he could be a regular.
The team was plagued by injuries that emphasized the lack of depth
This is hardly the team’s fault… in most cases. Pablo Sandoval was quickly shut down for the season after an embarrassing spring, and I’m left wondering if he would be of use right now with Hanley Ramirez in desperate need of a DL-stint. Koji Uehara was again overused… as he has been the last 3 seasons, and this time he got hurt as a result. (These two players alone are being paid $26 million). Carson Smith also landed on the DL early in a heavy blow to the bullpen, but should the team have been more concerned about his funky mechanics? Wade Miley’s struggles in Seattle make this one a wash, but I’d still rather have had him than Kelly, Buchholz, or Elias.
The most glaring example of the team being at fault is Swihart, who injured his ankle trying to learn left field on the fly after the team realized they did need his bat but wouldn’t concede that he was better served behind the plate. One could also argue that the team has destroyed Brandon Workman in much the same way that they did Daniel Bard, switching him back and forth between the bullpen and rotation – often with reckless abandon. The rest of the injuries, which include Chris Young, and Rutledge, have been quite costly but were not the team’s fault. But, as a result of poor personnel decisions and injuries, integral players such as David Ortiz, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley have been unable to rest.
The team had terrible production from their catchers before Sandy Leon
While the Red Sox lead the league in runs scored, it has not been enough to overcome the team’s porous pitching. There are four positions in the Red Sox lineup that have been problematic offensively, and the first and most glaring has been at catcher. While catcher is a notorious weak spot on most teams – if you ranked position players by war for every team, I’d guess every team save for 2-3 would find their catcher in the bottom third – three of the six division leaders have received more WAR from their catchers than Boston has, a fourth addressed the position with a trade (Texas), and a fifth likely would have if not for injury (Cleveland). The one team that hasn’t (interestingly) is the AL East leading Blue Jays.
The Jays have suffered through a down year from Russell Martin though, and likely expected better. Additionally, the Dodgers, Marlins, and Cardinals have each received more WAR at catcher, and represent the remaining unnamed teams in the playoff picture. Suffice to say, the best teams have catchers who impact that success. The Red Sox may have been able to join this bunch were it not for the stunningly poor handling of Swihart. Swihart hit .303/.353/.402 after the All-Star Break last season and looked in line to replicate that success with an average nearing .300 and an OBP nearing .400 (!!) before being sent to the minors in favor of a player who has now hit .233 in 350+ MLB plate appearances.
I’ll be honest, I had very few doubts about the Sox making the postseason before the news Swihart would be shut down. He would have been the perfect sparkplug… oh well.
Three key offensive positions have been home to players making below average contributions
While the last section talked about the importance of finding offense from unexpected places as a contender, which the team has – at shortstop, centerfield, and second base, it doesn’t negate the need for sustainable production across the board. In baseball, the corner infield positions, the corner outfield positions, and the designated hitter have long been home to a team’s best hitters, and having below average production from those spots can be a death knell. The Red Sox figured out 40% of that equation at least, with Betts and Ortiz each holding their own as the team’s everyday right-fielder and designated hitter respectively. The rest is a bit of a mess.
The weakest link has been left field, which was never really figured out over the offseason. The team started the year using Holt as it’s everyday player there, keying in on the utility player’s propensity to get hot, with platoon player Chris Young as the de facto fallback option. This was a flawed formula, and even though Young thrived for about a month before being injured, there was no good reason for the team not to find him a platoon partner. Somewhat justifying this decision was the presence of Andrew Benintendi looming as a possible call-up at the start of the season. But that left the team in a tough spot until he was ready, and all indications were that they didn’t expect him to rise as quickly as he did.
So they basically trusted a utility man, a platoon bat, and an untested 22 year-old to supply the power in left field; a poor gamble to say the least. Oh and Rusney Castillo. Can’t forget he was a thing for a little while too. The next position on my hit list is home to my second-least favorite player: Travis Shaw. “The Mayor of Ding Dong City” as some less enlightened Red Sox fans have taken to calling him after Jared Carrabis half-heartedly bestowed the nickname upon him, has been bad in the field and average at the plate except for his power, which in fairness, has been above average. Shaw fans love to tout him as an above average player, which he is not, whose deficiencies can be covered by the Red Sox’s behemoth offense.
But as stated, Shaw is not an above average player, and before season’s end it’s quite possible we will see him sink to below-average, which is an outcome I have been repeating like a broken record all season. His OPS currently ranks 16th among third basemen, and he is a below average defender at the position already. And now that David Ortiz is performing more in line with the way one would expect a 40 year-old to, Shaw’s negative impact on the team is much more noticeable. Finally, we come to our last position, one that many dubbed a success story: first-baseman Hanley Ramirez. Despite his smooth transition to first base, the Red Sox still aren’t getting the bat they paid for in Ramirez (as made clear when the Yankees walked Ortiz thrice to face Ramirez).
Ramirez ranks 13th of 19 qualified first-basemen in OPS… meaning he is further below average than Shaw is. Hanley has shown flashes of better days ahead, but then either slumps or gets hurt. The scary thing is, Ramirez will likely be at an even more offense-dependent position next year when he steps in as the new DH. The team needs him to improve over the final two years of his contract if they are going to survive the loss of Ortiz next year.
Now, onto the bullpen, which has been really (A)bad
The 2015 iteration ranked 26 of 30 teams in bullpen ERA with an ugly 4.24 mark collectively among the team’s relievers. This year’s team has been marginally better: they rank 18th with a 3.86 ERA. And yet, they’ve still underperformed! The team sent 4 really good (okay, 3 really good) prospects to San Diego to solidify the 9th inning with Craig Kimbrel, he who walked 4 batters before Matt Barnes stepped in and recorded the final out to stave off the comeback Tuesday night. Barnes on the other hand has been good!… mostly. His WHIP is 1.28, which is far too high for the high leverage role that the Red Sox have dumped him into following the annual Junichi Tazawa implosions (surprise, surprise, it’s overuse AGAIN).
The team dealt one of their most promising organizational arms after studs Michael Kopech and Jason Groome in Pat Light, attempting to upgrade over Tommy Layne with Fernando Abad. This may have been Abad idea, as the lefty is currently sporting an ERA over 10 since arriving. Heath Hembree has a better ERA than Barnes, but he too struggles with WHIP, leading to his demotion. We’ve already discussed Uehara and Smith up above, both disasters, while Robbie Ross and gasp Buchholz have been serviceable but not dominant. They’re each better served pitching as a long-man with a cement lead or deficit, not as guys to trot out with the game on the line.
The lone player untarnished by my scathing critique is Brad Ziegler (don’t even get me started on Kelly again…) who has been perfectly fine for the Red Sox even though he blew a key save against the Tigers in his brief stint as closer while Kimbrel was hurt. More importantly, unlike Smith and Abad, it doesn’t appear the team gave up anything of worth for him. So to summarize: The Red Sox have one reliable late-inning reliever (Ziegler), three talented power arms who will occasionally blow up (Kimbrel, Barnes, Hembree), and two steady arms who also occasionally get lit up (somewhat less often), and three injured pitchers expected to be pitching in set-up this year (Smith, Tazawa, Uehara), plus one concerning newcomer (Abad) and one Joe Kelly.
Not exactly the Yankees death troika.
And, of course, the starting rotation, which has been even worse
If you told me the Red Sox would trade for an All-Star, and that Rick Porcello and Steven Wright would dominate, I would tell you the Red Sox would have a World Series rotation. But alas, it was not to be, as the two pitchers viewed as the most sure to contribute from the front end of the rotation have each disappointed. David Price has looked like an ace at times. There have been games where he’s done almost everything possible (8IP, 0ER vs Angels in a loss), he’s tried too hard (7 scoreless innings vs Seattle before giving up 4 ER in a loss), but there have also been games where he has been just plain bad (2.1 IP, 12 H, 6ER vs Rangers in a loss) but the common denominator here is that the Red Sox lose when Price starts, more often than not. Some of this is poor pitching, some poor managing, and some poor offense, but a loss is a loss and the team didn’t sign Price to a record deal to lose.
Eduardo Rodriguez is slightly more complicated. He injured his knee in spring training, which coincidentally opened pandora’s box and subjected us to terrifying sights (Buchholz, Kelly, Elias, and… Sean O’Sullivan). Rodriguez then returned, more because he was needed than because he was ready, and promptly fell flat on his face. More pitch tipping issues were cited and finally a month later, at the end of July, the team got their first good start from him. Then we get to Drew Pomeranz, he of 5 starts, 25 innings, and a 5+ ERA, our All-Star acquisition. Don’t ask me why, but pitchers always need time to adjust here. Porcello did, and I expect Price will be better next season too. Pomeranz is a little more interesting, given that he didn’t have the track record of the other two.
He has now amassed two really bad starts, two O–K starts, and one that looked OK except HOLY CRAP HE WALKED SIX GUYS. So Pomeranz is a wild card on a team vying for a wild card. I expect more of the same this season though, low innings pitched but decent results. The problem with that model is that the Red Sox bullpen is not equipped to handle multiple innings of duty on a nightly basis, which can be the case between Price, Pomeranz, and Rodriguez. Which brings us to our knuckleballer… if you have read this far you probably have been able to gauge how I feel about players like Wright (hint: not a fan). He’s already regressing, whether it’s due to heat or not is irrelevant because August and September will be hot. And… next year? Set the bar low, Sox fans…
Which brings me through the whole roster, BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE!
Didn’t think I forgot about our beloved manager did you? (Oh, no, wait that was Tito); John Farrell has a special place in the impending demise of the Boston Red Sox. He has made questionable decisions all season long, despite the Fenway Faithful applauding his start to the season when he benched Sandoval and Castillo in favor of Shaw and Holt. It took him far too long to stop making excuses for his underperforming veteran pitching staff (Johnny-boy does love his veterans almost as much as he loves blonde broadcasters…), it took him until literally this week to realize that maybe Mookie Betts wasn’t getting enough opportunities to drive in runs at the top of the lineup, ended Jackie Bradley’s hitting streak (admittedly a lesser offense), put Wright in harm’s way by pinch running him against the Dodgers and continually placed Kimbrel into non-save situations after we saw it was quite clear something wasn’t right with him mentally there.
I could probably fire off a decent list of miscues from this week alone, but the fact is that Farrell has mismanaged this team from day one. The Red Sox love Farrell for whatever reason, and tried to do right by him after Torey Lovullo took over for him and did a far better job, and gave him his job back after he left the team to be treated for cancer. Personally, as a cancer survivor, I would be loathe to have anyone give me a job because I had cancer. I can’t speak for Farrell, but it is borderline appalling that the team kept him on after his dalliance with Jessica Moran given that I think most of Red Sox Nation can comfortably say they wouldn’t afford Terry Francona such a miscue.
The team has been in the gutter since June, despite a hot-streak to start July, and now that we know what they are capable of that is unacceptable. Farrell is deservedly (and finally) on the hot seat, and I think at this point even the most tried and true apologists would agree that he deserves the axe sooner rather than later.
…but there’s still one more person, at the very top, to get to.
Dave Dombrowski. Dealin’ Dave has had a roller coaster tenure in Boston. After the team’s direct approach to fixing issues this winter (despite some blowback over the package he sent for Kimbrel) and the hot start through the end of May, Dombrowski had achieved cult-hero status in Boston, even earning his own Twitter parody accounts. A lot of shortsighted fans were thrilled to see him send away prospects and spend absurd amounts of money, particularly those who felt Cherington was too passive in his approach. And yet, here we are, with many of those same fans bemoaning the underperformance of Price, Kimbrel, Abad, Aaron Hill and just about every player Dombrowski has added to the team, save perhaps Young and Ziegler.
It is now apparent that Dombrowski has more misses than hits, and while I’m certainly not calling for his job (Price and Kimbrel will be fine… probably), it has become increasingly clear that he’s not the savvy wheeler and dealer that even the media was happy to paint him as when he got out in front of the Trade Deadline to address the team’s needs. Time will tell whether his moves will pan out or not, but for now – at the very least – he deserves scrutiny. If not for sending away potential All-Stars Manny Margot and Anderson Espinoza, then for his willingness to give Farrell enough leash to tie himself a noose, and his willingness to set back Swihart’s long term development in order to secure a more pleasing short term picture.
His Swihart handling irks me the most, not only because I am a strong believer in Swihart, but as we now see because it has almost destroyed his current trade value. Swihart will be just 24 next year and more than capable of rebuilding that value, but it’s hard to imagine we will get fair value if we do move him this offseason. And we will almost certainly need to make deals again. A quick look at the Sox payroll shows that they’re sitting at about $150 million next year, but after arbitration they’ll probably only have enough to sign one impact player or a few less impactful ones. But what will they even spend that money on?
Their outfield looks set, with Benintendi, Bradley, and Betts (barring a trade, but with Benintendi’s early success, those chances are diminishing), eliminating the chance of signing two of the market’s better options in Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick. They could chase a 35 year-old Jose Bautista or a 34 year-old Edwin Encarnacion to replace Ortiz at DH, but do they really want to risk another $20+ million player who may only provide production on par with Ramirez (or worse, Sandoval…)? Do they want to spend big on Kenley Jansen to try and fix their bullpen once and for all? Jansen has been dominant, but relievers are fickle and he may struggle as much as Pomeranz and Kimbrel have in his transition from the NL West to the AL East. Ditto for Aroldis Chapman.
So maybe they have to dip into a prospect pool again that looks a lot thinner with the loss of Espinoza… personally I’ll be manic if they deal Yoan Moncada, and I’m developing similar feelings for Rafael Devers. They already gave up their best pitching prospect once, they better not repeat the maneuver by sending away Michael Kopech (he of the 105 MPH fastball) or Jason Groome. How about the infield? The middle infield is set, but as I’ve been painfully clear about, Shaw and Ramirez have been lackluster. The Sox have three warm bodies in the stated two and Sandoval to fill their DH, 1B, and 3B lineup spots, but those names don’t sound nearly as good as they used to.
And then there’s Yoan Moncada to think about, who will be hopefully pressing for playing time even before Benintendi did this year. Which means that there will eventually be 3 bodies for just 2 spots, and nobody is going to trade for Sandoval. If he’s smart, Dombrowski will turn Shaw into a good reliever, and I think that’s a possibility in terms of his value to other teams. Sadly that leaves Sandoval, Ramirez and flotsam manning the corner infield and DH spots at the start of next season, unless Sam Travis is ready out of spring training. But perhaps that’s the smart decision, rather than more short-sighted possibilities… Travis, Moncada, and Ramirez ought to be at least adequate by season’s end, even if it means sacrifices in April that may cost the playoffs.
And all that leads us back to the rotation. Price will be back, as will Porcello, and Pomeranz. The Sox will need the two lefties of that group to do far better, and a full year of a healthy Eduardo Rodriguez is something to look forward to. But I’m not sold on Steven Wright as a starter… most knuckleballers only ever string together a season’s worth of really good pitching, and the Sox need Wright to be at least a mid-rotation arm, a height I’m not sure he can achieve. With Brian Johnson a mystery and Kopech and Groome years away, the Sox might again have to turn to the trade market to fill this need. The Sox are in a tough spot. They might miss the postseason this year, and I’m not sure next year is as bright as we thought it was.