By Adam Brown
*Editor’s note – this piece was penned prior to the news of Red Sox manager John Farrell’s diagnoses of lymphoma. As a Red Sox fan and on behalf of everyone at Call to the Bullpen we wish John Farrell and his family all the best.*
The 2015 Boston Red Sox have been an unmitigated disaster. The team looks all but certain to slump to it’s third last place finish in the American League East in the past four years as they continue on a quest to assemble the most overpriced 70 win team in the history of Major League Baseball. The Red Sox since they have been under the stewardship of Ben Cherington have produced win totals of 69 and 71 sandwiching the Mighty Ducks type run to the World Series crown in 2013. Under the reign of the Cherington, who succeeded Theo Epstein as the General Manager, the Red Sox have continued the long maligned premise of only acquiring an array of hitters on the free agent market and leaving the pitching to be dealt with via trade or produced internally. This past offseason saw Pablo Sandoval, a three-time world champion of the San Francisco Giants sign to a 5year $95million deal. In the debut season of that contract, Sandoval has amassed a total WAR of -0.7 according to Baseball Reference. In essence this suggests that any replacement level player could exceed the current value the Red Sox get from the hot corner.
Elsewhere, Hanley Ramirez was signed to a 4 year deal which paid him $88million. Whilst Ramirez has had a moderately successful season with the bat, his 103 OPS+ is still 27 points below his career average, add this to his abysmal walk rate of 5%, (career average 9.3%) and a borderline pathetic 9 doubles, and it’s hard to try to justify Ramirez as having a truly successful offensive season.
Defensively, having been thrust into a new position in Left Field, Ramirez has been a walking catastrophe, making routine plays looks difficult and difficult plays look impossible, he has contributed -17 defensive runs saved. This has led to an -0.4 WAR for Ramirez. For Cherington there’s no escaping that $182million has contributed to the team actually getting worse. Whilst the team has signed the two aforementioned, you add Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Rusney Castillo, and the trend of every major free agency move by the Red Sox has been to bolster the offense. This is where the problem arises.
Therein lays the Red Sox fundamental isssue. Above are the ERA’s for Red Sox starters with 9 or more starts not called Clay Buchholz. From Joe Kelly’s embarrassing pre season declaration of winning the CY Young, to Rick Porcello and his odious contract extension, the Red Sox crop of starters have been a collective mess. Yet with a team principle of not investing long term on pitchers over the age of 30, it seems unlikely that the Red Sox are offseason players for the likes of David Price or Johnny Cueto.
With all this going against the 2015 edition of the Boston Red Sox, eyes and plans drift into the future and to what the 2016 roster can potentially do. As we have seen with the trades of Victorino and Napoli, the veterans with no future with the club have been jettisoned, and younger players such as the enigmatic Jackie Bradley Jr and Rusney Castillo are starting to see greater amounts of playing time. This has alos happened with pitching, as Justin Masterson was finally Designated for Assignment and released following tumultuous year where his performances left almost everything to be desired. The promotion of young left handers Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens were essential, and whilst the former has been a mixed bag in his brief stint in Boston, these two remain the catalysts behind the Red Sox recovery on the mound.
In the bullpen, the team is somewhat standing pat with it’s long list of mediocre arms. The likes of Robbie Ross, Alexi Ogando, and Craig Breslow have however been joined by former Giant Jean Machi, and reclamation project Ryan Cook, acquired at the deadline for pittance. The bullpen has been another clear and identifiable weakness for the team, as only Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara possess a FIP under 3.71.
There’s a legion of tasks for the Red Sox to undertake to field a competitive postseason contender for next season, which by all accounts is and should be the plan going forward. Whilst they have taken steps to determine just what talent they have to permanently bolster the roster, and assist the veterans such as David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, and the young stars of Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts in turning around this annual disappointment.
Planning for the future
Blake Swihart has undergone some predictable rookie struggles, an issue not helped by his premature call-up, an unfortunate consequence of Christian Vazquez spring training injury. Whilst Swihart can’t be faulted for aptitude or effort, it’s a clear result in his season numbers that consistent Major League action isn’t quite where he is at right now. This is made clear by his numbers over the last 28 days where he has a pitiful OPS of .591. Swihart is clearly a major part of the Red Sox future, but 2016 perhaps should begin with some more seasoning in Pawtucket whilst Vazquez does the lion-share of the catching in the big leagues.
Mike Napoli has been traded. He’s now in Texas, and whilst each and every Red Sox fan should and does wish him nothing but the best for the future, it’s safe to say that no sleep will be lost by anyone over his bat not being in the Red Sox line-up going forward. First base is an open battle for 2016 right now, Travis Shaw is seeing some time, and has performed above expectations thus far, however it should be duly noted that this comes with a giant “small sample size” disclaimer. One idea floated is moving Sandoval across the diamond in the hope that moving him from a less demanding defensive position could spark some sort of life into his comatose bat.
With a free agent crop of Chris Davis, Justin Moreneau and… Mike Napoli, it’s safe to assume this will be a position filled internally or via trade.
Dustin Pedroia is part of the furniture, when on the field he’s still a very good player, this is not only not a position of need, Pedroia, or Brock Holt when filling in during his merry-go-round of defensive locations makes it a position of strength. His leadership, his two-way ability and his captivating personality encapsulates the city and the fanbase. There’s zero chance he isn’t the Red Sox seconds baseman in April.
Xander Bogaerts has had his breakout year, he’s hitting 74 points higher than last season and has had an astronomical turnaround defensively to the point where what seemed like an imminent move to 3rd base now seems next to impossible. He’s one of the few positives of the 2015 Red Sox season. The Red Sox have the best shortstop in the American League (bar Carlos Correa). This is not a worry for them.
It’s been well documented that Pablo Sandoval has been awful. There’s not an adjective too strong to describe just how poor he’s been in comparison to his career numbers. The worst news is, he’s still on the books for four years and unless A.J Preller and the Padres have one more shocking trade to perform, the likelihood is he’ll be there for the long haul. It’s a deal the team would undoubtedly like to have back, but as aforementioned there’s an opportunity to shift him over to first. Not only would this potentially give Sandoval less strenuous defensive work to do, it also could give Hanley Ramirez a role in the infield, putting an end to Ben Cherington’s failed experiment of having him field in front of the Green Monster.
External candidates for this position are extremely limited with the best options being David Freese, Aramis Ramirez and Juan Uribe in the free agent market.
Mookie Betts is a future superstar. Along with Bogaerts he is the biggest positive of the season. Transitioning to centre field has been seamless for him, and he has become of the better defenders in the game out there. Add in his bat, which although it has been up and down, he still holds an OPS+ of 105, good for fourth on the team behind Ortiz, Pedroia and Bogaerts.
The difficulty for the Red Sox becomes Jackie Bradley Jr. No matter how good Betts is or becomes defensively, he will always be the second best defensive outfielder on the roster. Bradley Jr has now solidified himself as a defensive juggernaut, and if not for his offensive failings would have long been a fixture in the Red Sox team. The long-term projection is beginning to scream fourth outfielder for the former South Carolina Gamecock, but many still hold faith that his bat will eventually become serviceable at the Major League Level.
Rusney Castillo signed for 7 years and over $70million last year which raised eyebrows everywhere. The scepticism over that signing is looking fair in the early stages of the contracts shelf life. Castillo however has still only played in 51 major league games, which is cause for great optimism that he is still adapting to the pitching and intricacies of the Majors. Castillo will be a fixture in 2016, which realistically could spell the end for Alejandro De Aza. De Aza was acquired for cash earlier this season and has done an admirable job in providing quality at-bats and surprising everyone in posting a 132 OPS+ in his 50 games as a s member of the Red Sox.
This is the first, second, third and fourth port of call for whoever leads the Red Sox into the offseason. If it’s Ben Cherington, if it’s Jerry Di Poto, hell, even if it’s me. It’s time to bite the bullet and get some pitching in. The reservations over long-term deals to pitchers is fair, but having seen Carl Crawford, Pablo Sandoval and to a lesser extent Adrian Gonzalez sign long-term deals that didn’t match expectations, it’s time to understand that 4 good years and 3 bad ones is far better value than the production of for example Sandoval.
Eduardo Rodriguez, Wade Miley and Rick Porcello are almost certainly 60% of next years starting rotation. Rodriguez has dazzled at times in his rookie season, and is the sort of prodigious talent that could anchor this staff for years to come. The other both signed extensions with the team this season, and in Porcello’s case, a mammoth one which will all but guarantees that they will be afforded every opportunity to succeed. Barring any major injury setbacks, Clay Buchholz should be back to lead the rotation. Buchholz will head into his last year before free agency on the back of an underrated season where he held a 2.64 FIP and 4.65 K/BB ratio before making his annual trip to the Disabled List.
The last spot if it were to be filled internally will be between Henry Owens, the lanky lefty who is two starts into his major league career, who has the last 6 weeks of this season to audition for a place next year and, Steven Wright and Joe Kelly. Wright, a knuckleballer was nothing short of awful in long spells, but has undergone a slight renaissance lately after a dominant start in New York against the Yankees and another one prior to that against the White Sox, Wright has shredded nearly a run off his ERA. Kelly on the other hand would be a leading candidate for the CY Yuj crown jokingly handed out by major news outlets at season’s end. An ERA just below 6 and a H/9 of 10.6 is indicative enough of how hittable he has been throughout the season. The last hope for Kelly before what seems like an inevitable DFA is a move to the bullpen in the hope his velocity in small doses will evoke more strikeouts and his control issues won’t be as damaging in an inning of work.
Realistically, five internal options, including farmhand Brian Johnson isn’t going to help the necessary turnaround to help this team become more competitive. It needs a marquee free agent to come in and lead this rotation, and with Price, Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Kazmir and a myriad of other names available, it could be in the Red Sox best interest to invest in two frontline starters and try to overhaul what has been their obvious downfall.
As aforementioned, one way to try to create good relievers is by making them out of failed starters. Whilst not every project like this will become Wade Davis, the likelihood of finding reliable league average or better relief pitchers must be easier than finding starters of that ilk. Whilst the likes of Craig Breslow have had success in their careers, the new way of manufacturing bullpens is by using failed starters and flamethrowers. Joe Kelly is both. Matt Barnes is both. Alexi Ogando is both. The idea behind spending big on the bullpen is obscene. Handing over the types of contracts Jonathan Papelbon and Andrew Miller have received in recent years is staggering. Given the volatile nature of relief pitching, the best course of action is to add at the deadline, like the Blue Jays have with Mark Lowe.
Three last place finishes in four years isn’t good enough for a team with a top 5 payroll. Ben Cherington knows this, and it’s why he expected he would be “working under someone” next season. That someone looks like it will be Jerry DiPoto the former Angels GM who left in acrimonious circumstances after a very public fallout with Mike Scioscia, the club’s manager. Elsewhere the team needs to consider it’s ethos and values behind how and where it spends it’s money. A lot of what the Red Sox do is driven by ratings and how NESN, the TV station of the Fenway Sports Group is doing. Those ratings will soar when the team is winning consistently. Even though they have a belief of winning in an “entertaining way”, they won’t win without some significant pitching help, and that’s where any budget for the offseason needs to go.
One positive that the front office has going for them, and potentially why Ben Cherington has avoided a firing is that the farm system is one of, if not the best in baseball. With young sluggers like Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers and Manuel Margot now joined by newly drafted Andrew Benintendi, the farm system is loaded with potential impact hitters…hitters. Like the major league roster, there’s still a noticeable lack of pitching, which at this moment in time, as has been the case for the last 18 months, is the real problem with this organisation.