RED SOX: A Team at a Crossroads

Earlier today the Red Sox season came to an end after a fun, tense but ultimately disappointing ALDS Game 4 at a rainy Fenway.

I have a lot of thoughts about how the 2017 season went down and what’s to come next, so here we go:

IT WAS FUN. REALLY.

This particular incarnation of the Red Sox was a study in interesting contrasts. There were a lot of young players making their first impression in MLB playing alongside numerous longtime veterans. They only equaled their win total from 2016 but managed to win (and generally play in) an absurd number of close games, including going an unimaginable 15-3 in extra inning games.

And, for the first time in recent memory, the Red Sox saw consistency in their pitching staff while failing to join the MLB-wide trend of increased power, finishing dead last in the AL in home runs (168).

But I never understood how people could call this first post-David Ortiz Red Sox team boring or “unlikable” as was the narrative after the David Price/Dennis Eckersley kerfuffle.

The young core of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. was joined this year by Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers, plus Christian Vazquez finally came into his own as an everyday MLB catcher. That’s six guys 27 years old or younger who will be starters on this team going forward barring any trades.

Chris Sale was either the best or 2nd-best starter in the AL this year and Drew Pomeranz came out of nowhere to finish 10th in the AL in fWAR (3.1). Craig Kimbrel genuinely had one of the best years for any closer in baseball history, striking out just shy of 50 percent of all batters he faced.

And Price, who dealt with a significant elbow injury and a major PR disaster, was redeemed by returning healthy and pitching extremely well in relief late in the season and into the playoffs. Hopefully he can put what happened this past year behind him as 2018 presents a quasi-walk year for him.

But there was much to celebrate this season when it came to individual moments and performances.

I got to be in the park Aug. 1 for one of the craziest games I’ve ever seen, the one that included Austin Jackson’s unbelievable catch. I saw Vazquez hit a walkoff and I can recall few times ever hearing Fenway that loud.

Devers hitting that home run off Aroldis Chapman in Yankee Stadium to silence that crowd is something I won’t soon forget. Nor will I forget that catch by Bradley in the triangle to rob Aaron Judge.

Dustin Pedroia had a tough year injury-wise but he turned in the signature defensive play of his career with this play in Texas in July.

Benintendi showed us this year I believe a fraction of how good he can truly be. Sale wowed us every start and became the first appointment-viewing starter for the Red Sox since Pedro’s heyday. The bullpen, constantly tested by long and close games, came up big game after game this year.

I know this season didn’t end the way we wanted. But for those of us who watched night in and night out, it was memorable. And I’ll miss not watching this team every night. They were fun, and good. They just were.

WHAT WENT WRONG, AND WHAT’S NEXT

As I touched on above, the team’s biggest weakness was on offense and in particular a lack of power (they still finished 5th in team OBP and 6th in runs in the AL).

It’s easy to say this was because of losing David Ortiz, but it was more than that. Take a look at the OPS+ figures for these Red Sox hitters from 2016 and 2017:

Hanley Ramirez – 2016: 126 2017: 95 (-31)

Jackie Bradley, Jr. – 2016: 118 2017: 89 (-29)

Mookie Betts – 2016: 133 2017: 108 (-25)

Dustin Pedroia – 2016: 117 2017: 101 (-16)

Xander Bogaerts – 2016: 111 2017: 95 (-16)

You can blame some of this on these guys getting pitched tougher now without Ortiz in the lineup, but I don’t have empirical data to back that up. The bottom line is these five guys significantly underperformed in 2017 to their 2016 levels and that had a real impact on wins and losses and their ability to hang with the Astros in this ALDS.

Much has been made about the Red Sox refusal last winter to delve into the free agent hitting market beyond Mitch Moreland. Edwin Encarnacion signed for a pittance (3 years, $60 million) compared to his expected contract. I was OK with not going that route because I expected the remaining hitters could maintain or improve on their 2016 performances to make up for Ortiz’s absence.

The opposite happened and adding Eduardo Nunez at the deadline, while an effective move for about a month until he got injured, and turning over 3B to Devers didn’t do nearly enough to make up the gap.

So, with luxury tax penalties lessened for 2018 since the Red Sox managed to stay under it this year, I fully expect them to add at least one power hitter to this lineup, most likely at 1B. They are most likely stuck with the final guaranteed year on Ramirez’s contract at $22.75M (his 2019 option at $22M would vest based on plate appearances). Depending on who the Red Sox get, it could be a DH/1B timeshare between Ramirez and a new counterpart.

I don’t personally think the winter’s big free agent 1B, Eric Hosmer, really fits the bill of what the club would be looking for (he doesn’t really hit for enough power and would be very expensive). JD Martinez makes a ton of sense from a hitting perspective but it’s hard to see where he’d fit in besides as a full-time DH (with Ramirez then as a full-time 1B, which presents a lot of issues). Logan Morrison, who just hit 38 HRs for Tampa, would be a great fit but he’s only 30 and may be more expensive than the Red Sox would like.

They could explore a trade for someone like Joey Votto, the hitting savant who’d be loved here after years of being unappreciated in Cincinnati. His $25M annual salary isn’t an albatross, but he’s guaranteed for six more years and may not be as great of a player at the end. Plus, who knows if the Reds would even entertain trading him.

You’re likely to hear a lot about a potential Giancarlo Stanton trade this winter with the Red Sox likely prime members of that rumor mill. I don’t see it for a lot of reasons, namely that the Red Sox and every other team could’ve taken his massive contract for nothing in August and no one bit. As good as Stanton is and as amazing as his LF pull power would play at Fenway, he always gets hurt, his contract is way too long and by all accounts he’s kind of a jerk. Pass.

I doubt very much the Red Sox will add much on the pitching staff this offseason, barring trades of the current guys. The health of Price, Steven Wright, Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg will play a role in what happens there. I do wonder if Dombrowski starts to think a little more about the long-term with Pomeranz, Kimbrel and (potentially) Price all in walk years in 2018.

OK, LET’S TALK ABOUT FARRELL

I’ve come to believe there is no more thankless job in the world of sports than being the manager of the Boston Red Sox. Even the most successful Red Sox manager of my lifetime, Terry Francona, was called “Francoma” by parts of the fanbase.

When it comes to John Farrell, I made my feelings known last year that I think the vitriol toward him is almost entirely unfounded. Do I think he’s a great manager? No. I think right now there are only two managers in all of MLB I’d call “great”: Francona and Joe Maddon.

But Farrell is at best good and at worst competent. The idea he should be fired for merely being good is one that only exists in Boston where every nanosecond of action for any of our teams is overanalyzed by radio blowhards and social media crazies among others.

These are the facts about Farrell: he won back-to-back AL East titles, taking 93 wins both years. He manages personalities in the clubhouse well by all accounts. He’s very good at his media responsibilities which is a big part of the job. The players like him, for the most part (there were some rumblings this year about his difficulty connecting with the younger players on the team). He’s accountable when things go wrong. He appears to have a good relationship with his direct boss, Dave Dombrowski, and the rest of the front office and ownership.

But, still, he’s not remotely safe in the eyes of many. It’s fair to wonder if Farrell has taken this group of players as far as he can go and if another manager could do better. It’s hard to say sitting here, not being there everyday, if that’s true.

Part of me wants the team to can Farrell just because I’m getting extremely sick of this storyline. He’d be fine. He’d get paid for the last year on his deal and would almost certainly get another managerial job as soon as he wants it. Red Sox fans are crazy if they think a team like the Mets or Tigers wouldn’t take him in a second.

If Farrell is let go, I don’t know who’s out there that would be better. For in-house candidates I’m sure the players would love to see Brian Butterfield get a shot. As much as he should be a big league manager, he’s also 59 and would likely just be a stopgap. If I’m the Red Sox, and the rift between Farrell and the younger players is actually an issue, I’d rather find a younger, analytically-driven manager who can connect and grow with those guys.

I’m not up on a lot of the possibilities that fit that description, but two former Red Sox World Champions come to mind. One is Alex Cora, current Astros bench coach, who is 41, has extensive experience running teams in Puerto Rico and as a player was someone I was certain would manage in the big leagues some day. The other is Gabe Kapler, 42, who was runner-up for the Dodgers managerial position heading into 2016. He’s managed in the minors and has a strong player development background.

I have no idea if either of those guys would be a better manager than Farrell. No one does. But if the team does decide to move on I hope it’s because they genuinely think they’d be better without him.

I think Red Sox fans should be prepared for news to break this week about a contract extension for Farrell. In the aggregate, it’s hard to say he doesn’t deserve it.

LAST THOUGHTS

As excited as I am for the future of this team, and as much as I’ll miss watching this group, I do have a twinge of uncertainty about them. It’s very clear both Houston and Cleveland are better than the Red Sox right now. Also the Yankees have a team on the rise and will have boatloads of money to play with over the next couple winters.

This Red Sox team is good. But will they be good enough to overtake those clubs the next few years? Dombrowski finds his team in a very similar situation to what Danny Ainge and the Celtics found themselves in this past summer. Sure, they had a good team that had just gone to the Eastern Conference Finals. But, were they great? Could they get over the hump to compete for a title?

Ainge decided to effectively blow up his entire roster in the name of putting together a great team. It remains to be seen if it will work, but he’s decided to take a risk.

The Red Sox have the aforementioned six young position players to build around. They have stars atop their rotation and an all-world closer. They have veterans in Pedroia and Ramirez who may be declining but aren’t necessarily albatrosses. All these things are good.

But what if Dombrowski decides that having a “good” team isn’t good enough? Then, once again, the Red Sox will steal winter headlines away from the teams actually playing.

I can’t wait to see what happens.

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