The Boston Red Sox are in a strange place these days – and I am not referring to last place in the America League East, which is a place they have occupied so consistently of late that it has practically become their postal mailing address.
No, I am referring to the fact that they have the 3rd highest payroll in baseball, and yet, quixotically, are a team animated and energized by very young players. During early July when the Red Sox actually played pretty decently (winning four straight series and compiling a 9–4 record) the first three hitters at the top of the lineup were Mookie Betts (age 22), Brock Holt (age 27), and Xander Bogearts(age 22); throw in catcher Blake Swihart (age 23), who was batting ninth during part of that winning streak, and the Red Sox were showcasing impressive and event breathtaking young talent exactly where you want it – up the middle, at catcher, second base, shortstop and centerfield.
Meanwhile, the highly-paid veteran players have been busy submitting performances that rank anywhere from insufficient to appalling, and so the team has played at a level astonishingly far below fan (and payroll) expectations.
The most productive veteran player has actually been the much maligned Hanley Ramirez, who has hit about as well as expected, and has gone from playing an execrable left field, to playing with increasing competence over the past few weeks. Hanley, don’t forget, never played outfield in his life until the Red Sox decided to give him on-the-job training in left field at Fenway Park, in front of the Green Monster, which is arguably the toughest outfield position in baseball. People mistakenly think Fenway is easy to play because the distance is so short, but in fact it has all kinds of difficult aspects, ranging from strange carrooms off the Green Monster, to a complete absence of foul territory on the left field line. Prediction: Hanley gets the hang of it, and turns into Jim Rice – not a GOOD fielder, but a guy who can play a pretty decent leftfield at Fenway.
Progressing down the lineup, David Ortiz has had a sub-par year and has clearly been bothered by the new, lower strike zone, which really seems to affect both him and fellow frustration poster boy Mike Napoli. Both of them are known for having a good batting eye and both of them have been having a terrible time at the plate, at least in part from adjusting to the new lower strike calls. Ortiz has been hitting better lately, but teams over-shift on him like crazy and it personally drives me nuts when he eschews a bunt down the third base line (an automatic hit) in order to ground out to the second baseman camped in right field. I also like to see the baseball players I root for run hard to first base, and one of these days Ortiz will embarrass himself with his diffidence in running out routine ground balls. You can bank on it.
Pablo Sandoval has been a slight disappointment, but only because he looked so astonishingly impressive in last year’s World Series victory, playing for the San Francisco Giants, and one somehow expected THAT Pablo Sandoval to show up at Fenway Park this spring. What we got was the more typical Pablo Sandoval – his annual hitting statistics in San Francisco were actually about what they have been for the Red Sox, not spectacular, but decent. Sandoval was also supposed to be a solid defensive third baseman, but he has been curiously erratic for the Red Sox this year, albeit better lately.
The catching future is supposed to be Swihart, but right now my favorite Red Sox player is Ryan Hanigan. First of all, Hanigan calls a great game, and his presence behind the plate may yet turn Rick Porcello into a successful starter. (Porcello’s pitching stats are simply horrendous with the other Red Sox catchers this year, but with Hantigan behind the plate the stats are actually decent.) Hanigan also is an amazing batter: He is one of three players in the majors at the moment who has more walks than strike outs lifetime. At a recent game, he was hitting .220, but his OBP (the stat that REALLY matters) was .355. He is the overlooked over-achiever on this over-publicized and under-achieving team.
Dustin Pedroia is still amazingly young (age 31) despite his many years with the Red Sox (this his 10th season), but he has been hurt so regularly in recent years that it’s hard to figure out where he fits in future plans. Pedroia healthy is a border-line All-Star second baseman; Pedroia of late is a much diminished performer. We shall see.
In the outfield, one keeps hoping, fingers and toes crossed, that Jackie Bradley, Jr. will finally start to hit well enough to earn his way back to Fenway Park. Bradley is probably the best defensive centerfielder in baseball right now, but frankly I would love seeing Bradley playing in right field, which is where you really need your best outfielder at Fenway Park. Mookie Betts is very fast and talented, but he does not play outfield as well as Jackie Bradley – almost no one does.
Out of the bullpen, meanwhile, the Red Sox offer such a strange mélange of reclamation projects and broken toys that it is hard to figure out what to do with the toy box, other than turn it upside down and start all over again. Clay Buchholz has had a typical Clay Buchholz season – brilliant stretches, interspersed with abysmal stretches, together with his annual visit to the disabled list. Rick Porcello is ours for the next four years, thanks to an $82 million four-year contract signed in the springtime, and to say that that the signing looks ill-advised at this juncture is somewhere between an understatement and an exercise in dry British humor. The rest of the group is just enigmatic and frustrating – Joe Kelly has a 97 miler per hour fast ball that somehow is eminently hibbable, and Justin Masterson is simply not the pitcher he was during his good years in Cleveland, and at best belongs in the bullpen (or maybe even the bleachers) at this juncture.
At the back end, Koji Uehara is still a premier closer (which may make him trade bait) and Junichi Tazawa is a premier set up man (which may make him next year’s closer, depending on the market for Uehara’s talents). If the Red Sox could get to the eighth inning on a regular basis with a lead, the 2015 team would be fine, but that has been the exact and final problem. The starters are insufficient, and the middle relief staff is even more insufficient than the starters.
The future of the pitching staff at the moment rests with a slew of promising young arms in the minors, as well as Eduardo Rodriguez, who has performed surprisingly well (above expectations) out of the minors this year. The Red Sox acquired Rodriguez from Baltimore last summer during their 2014 clearance sale, and one hopes that the 2015 summer sale (already in progress) will return similar dividends.
So what do we do? The short answer is to identify the holes in the Sox and fix them. The pitching must be the key focus of the rebuilding project, and young good arms are not easy to come by, nor are they cheap. But there is no choice: Baseball in the end is all about the pitching, and the pitching in 2015 has been atrocious.
Now for the good news: The rest of the team is remarkably solid, especially in light of the fact that this is a deep-in-last-place team. If Pedroia is healthy, then second, short, third, catcher, and centerfield are in strong shape. First base is currently occupied by Napoli (guaranteed to be gone after this year) and that may well be the best place to try and hide Hanley Ramirez’s fielding deficiencies.Ortiz is back next year to DH, and Rusney Castillo (with his gaudy $72 million purchase tag) is likely to be in one of the corner outfield spots. If Jackie Bradley can just get it going at the plate and claim right field, that would be a young, talented and defensively strong team in the field.
You want to make the team even better? Do the unthinkable and open the DH spot for Hanley Ramirez, which is where he really belongs.
Yup. I spoke the unspeakable.