By Ed Overend
EO: My latest Conversation is with Brett Cowett. Brett is a writer for Baseball Prospectus Boston. First of all, welcome Brett. It’s not been the year expected for the Red Sox and it’s not difficult to see where the major issues have been. Projected as the highest scoring offense preseason, the Sox have scored plenty of runs but the pitching, especially the starters, has been well below par. Let’s start with an easy one!! Why?
BC: Thanks for having me, Ed!
There’s no end to the superlatives that can describe how bad the pitching’s been. Nearly everyone has been underachieving, mostly caused by pure ineffectiveness. They’re third-worst in ERA in the majors, and peripheral stats don’t expect that to improve. Of the current starting staff, no one has an ERA below 4.50! They’re second in the MLB with a 1.17 HR/9, which is only beaten out by the Colorado Rockies and their launchpad of a home park in Coors Field.
Rick Porcello has had the worst season of his career, giving up far more home runs and inducing far fewer grounders than he has in his last several seasons. He’s given up 20 homers in 114.2 innings pitched, mostly due to hurling flat pitches high in the zone. That situation is only exacerbated by the 4-year, $82.5 million deal he signed on April 6th, which doesn’t even kick in until next year. Joe Kelly looks completely lost as a starter. He’s got some good pitches, movement- and speed-wise, but no command to speak of, and that makes him dangerously streaky, even from game to game. A bullpen move in the near future seems likely, but with the injuries to the current staff, he’ll stick in the rotation for now. The Justin Masterson Experiment was mercifully ended after the series in Detroit, and it should’ve been halted much sooner.
The young guys have had their growing pains. Eduardo Rodriguez had a trio of promising starts to kick off his major league career, but since then, he’s given up six or more runs four times. Some thought pitch tipping might be the issue, but he’s been burned by the home run ball as well. Henry Owens has been more than serviceable against left-handed batters, but righties have his number. Steven Wright has been good as a fill-in, but as we saw with Tim Wakefield, a knuckleballer won’t always be consistent from one start to the next. Brian Johnson deserved more run as a starter, but a demotion followed by an injury has put him on the shelf for now.
EO: It’s a strange one with Porcello. Recently, and certainly under Ben Cherington, the club has been reluctant seemingly to spend big on starting pitching, preferring to concentrate on loading up on big bats. From an outsiders point of view, it did seem strange to risk losing Jon Lester by trading him at the deadline last year. He was always seen as bound to return to the Sox, which he, of course, didn’t as it transpired. To then give similar money, albeit for fewer years, to a lesser pitcher did seem one of the odder transactions of the last year but by no means Cherington’s only one. With Jerry Dipoto arriving on an interim basis, where does Cherington now stand in your eyes?
BC: I don’t think he’s close to the hot seat, but he’s certainly inching there. I still give him a ton of credit for the aptly-named Nick Punto Trade in 2012, where he dumped over $250 million in salary on the Dodgers. Where he’s done the best work is in the minor leagues. The low minors in the Red Sox system is flush with high-ceiling talent such as Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi. However, it’s been tough to defend recent transactions. Both the Sandoval and Ramirez contracts look bad, with the former due to too much money and the latter due to the player having no true position to play on the team. You can sort of defend the Porcello contract, seeing as how he was just hitting his late 20s and looking ready for a breakout. Big money deals have seldom worked for Cherington early on, and that might be ominous seeing that the Red Sox might have to dole out another just to get a top-flight starter this winter.
The Jerry Dipoto hiring is a good one, as he excelled in procuring starters such as Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney with relatively little available money, and (as we now know) limited control over the team’s roster. So for now, Cherington is still a good GM in my eyes, but if another sorely disappointing season happens and he might not be in many fans’ good graces, including mine. You cannot have four losing seasons out of your last five years when you consider the financial flexibility and the deep pool of talent this organization has.
EO: While we have been chatting, of course, the news has broken that Dave Dombrowski has been appointed as the new President of Baseball Operations. Ben Cherington has resigned despite being asked, apparently, to stay on. What do you make of the appointment?
BC: It’s a shocker, no doubt. I don’t think anyone saw this coming after John Henry’s repeated assurances that Ben Cherington would be around for a long while. However, I do like this move. Dave Dombrowski has had a history of success wherever he goes, and he doesn’t shy away from trading or signing top-tier players. With another big payroll and arguably the best farm system in baseball at his disposal, you can be sure that we’ll see a big move sooner rather than later.
The only thing I’m worried about is the search for a new general manager. Frank Wren was rumored to be the frontrunner for the job, which might not be the best choice. Wren was immensely disappointing during his time in Atlanta, and was the architect of contracts such as the 5-year, $75 million deal he struck with Melvin Upton, Jr. I hope Dombrowski looks into keeping Jerry Dipoto with the Sox, at the very least. A Dombrowski-Dipoto front office would be a powerhouse.
EO: Let’s move onto the positives of the season. Mookie Betts has been one, certainly. Having had a bit of a go last year, he’s handled both centerfield and the lead off role excellently. He’s also a lot of fun to watch. Xander Bogaerts also has been useful, although his power has yet to develop. They’ve had a lot of press but who are the other guys who’ve had good years, perhaps with less fanfare?
BC: A lot of praise goes to the young guys stepping up. Travis Shaw has seen a major power surge over the last week, boosting his batting average in the second half of the season up over .400. He’s been a pleasant surprise, and seems to have overcome his weakness against left-handed pitching. Shaw looks to be a solid bridge until Sam Travis is major-league ready, or at the very least, a capable platoon bat.
Shaw’s not the only young guy going berserk in the second half, as Jackie Bradley Jr. has been on fire as of late. All JBJ need to do to stay in the majors was hit a little bit, but over the last two weeks, he’s hit a lot. Much has been made of his mechanical improvements, but it seems like the Red Sox stepping back and letting him play has worked more than anything. In 2014, they would change something about his stance constantly. This year? No notable changes week-to-week. All he needed was playing time.
Blake Swihart deserves a shout out here, as he’s hit roughly .300 in the second half, albeit with little power. It’s a stark improvement from a .241 average in the first half, where he looked overmatched against major-league pitching. Like Bogaerts, the power will come, but for now, the Red Sox will take any step forward they can.
EO: There is an awful lot of talent as you alluded to in the system. One huge difference for Dombrowski is that he’s come from the worst farm system in baseball (according to Baseball America) to one of the best (ranked no 2 by BA). He has a lot of flexibility in where he can go with the club, either waiting for the prospects or trading them for MLB ready talent.
Do you think Red Sox Nation would prefer to build slowly or be back contending sooner rather than later?
BC: With the extremes the Red Sox have achieved in their results over the last four seasons, I have to say RSN is hungry to be contending sooner rather than later. This team is set for a quick return to relevance, and all the major prospects in Triple-A look to be contributors within the next calendar year. If the OF logjam on the roster is solved early in the winter, we could see a blitz of moves to make the Red Sox playoff-bound again.
I think one challenge for Dombrowski is making this team contenders for a few more years, when the surplus of talent the Red Sox have in the low minors can develop and become major-league ready. Sure, guys like Yoan Moncada and Andrew Benintendi might have accelerated paths to The Show, but for the majority of those younger guys, they’ll need a couple of years at the very least.
EO: It’s going to be very interesting for all baseball fans, not just Red Sox ones that’s for sure.
One final question. As it’s not going to be your team winning it all this year, do you have a preference as to who you would like to win the World Series and, if so, who?
BC: They’ve been a really fun and interesting team to follow over the last few years, so I’d really like the Houston Astros to win it all this year. This year, they’ve really flexed their muscles regarding the sheer amount of prospects they have, and acquired both Scott Kazmir and Carlos Gomez. I’ve been a huge fan of George Springer and Dallas Keuchel, and watching Carlos Correa explode in his rookie season has been amazing to watch.
They have their work cut out for them though – many evaluators still see the Dodgers, Cardinals, Royals and Blue Jays as better. Not only that, but the Texas Rangers are coming on strong in the AL West, so there’s gonna be some drama to come in the next few months for the ‘Stros.
Ed Overend is the lead baseball writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on twitter @EdwardOverend, leave a comment in the section below or join in the conversation @CTBPod or on our Facebook Page.