I hope the Red Sox remember to send Ben Cherington a thank-you note when they make the playoffs in 2016
When the Red Sox won the 2013 World Series, they knew they’d caught lightning in a bottle, or whatever you choose to call it. They’d had a magical run after hitting on a string of unheralded free-agent signings and didn’t believe the same group could win again.
Rather than go on a free-agent spending spree, they hoped for an infusion of talent from the farm system. This was going to be the Red Sox new way of doing business.
This was the path they’d committed to in the wake of those 2012 trades in which they shipped Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.
If the Red Sox were going to win in 2014, they were going to get another productive year from Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, etc., but they believe there’d be a natural evolution with Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Will Middlebrooks and other young players working their way into the lineup.
And that experiment flopped. The Red Sox lost 91 games and finished 25 games behind the first-place Orioles in the AL East.
Along the way, they were reminded that young players do not come with guarantees or timetables and that a large number of minor league stars simply don’t make it.
And that’s why the organization went for a quick fix last off-season by signing veterans Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to deals totaling around $190 million.
GM Ben Cherington also reworked his rotation around veterans acquired in the prior nine months: Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly. Cherington was criticized for not adding a true No. 1, but Masterson was once a No. 1 in Cleveland and the other three had sometimes been projected as No. 1’s.
The Red Sox still loved their Minor League depth, but for a franchise constantly in a win-now mode, they hoped those veterans brought more certainty.
Okay, it didn’t work out.
The Red Sox could be headed for a third last-place finish in four years. Ramirez and Sandoval have had tough years, and Cherington departed after Dave Dombrowski was brought in to be president of baseball operations.
Sandoval has a .296 OBP, and Ramirez was so bad in left field that Dombrowski has him penciled in to play first base in 2016.
On the other hand…
The Red Sox could be riding a wave of optimism into the off-season. They’ll enter the weekend having won 22 of 37. Best of all, there have been contributions up and down the lineup.
Since they bottomed out at 14 games under .500 on July 30, the Red Sox are 22-15. In this stretch, they’re leading the majors in runs (6.2 per game) and OPS (.841).
Among the AL’s top 20 hitters since July 30 are five Red Sox: Mookie Betts, sixth at .353; Jackie Bradley Jr., seventh at .351, David Ortiz, eighth at .347, Xander Bogaerts, 10th at .336 and Rusney Castillo, 17th at .319. (Rookie catcher Blake Swihart is hitting .284 in 69 games since being called up.)
Also, the starting pitching has been above average. Red Sox starters are 20-8 with a 3.69 ERA during the 22-15 run. Kelly (1.85 ERA) and Porcello (2.98 ERA) have been very solid in their last seven starts, and Miley has a .388 ERA since the All-Star Break.
Rookie left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez has pitched well enough to be penciled into the 2016 rotation. In 18 starts, he’s 9-5 with a 4.05 ERA.
But he has had four terrible starts—30 earned runs in 15 innings. In his other 14 starts, he has a 1.74 ERA.
If Dombrowski does bring in a No. 1, he could have the makings of a formidable rotation, especially because there’s more pitching depth in the minors.
This free-agent class includes three No. 1’s: David Price, Zack Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann. Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto could also be considered No. 1’s.
Dombrowski’s top priority has to be the bullpen. Even if you can look at the rotation and lineup a certain way and see good things, the bullpen needs work.
Since July 30, Boston’s bullpen ERA is 5.79 ERA, third-worst in the majors, behind only the Braves (6.19) and Tigers (5.93).
Some of you—the cynical types—will point out that Dombrowski was unable to get the bullpen right the last three seasons in Detroit.
To say he ignored it would be untrue. But some of the relievers he counted on—Joe Nathan, Bruce Rondon, Joba Chamberlain–simply didn’t pitch the way he projected.
At a time when baseball’s best teams are built, in part, around really good bullpens–Royals, Cardinals and Pirates are ranked 1-2-3—Dombrowski can’t get the Red Sox back into contention without fixing this part of his team.
However, given where the Red Sox were a few weeks ago, his off-season work is a lot less challenging now than it was then.
Baseball people warn one another not to trust September stats. In this case, it’s probably fair not to trust any of the numbers the Red Sox have accumulated since they’ve dropped out of contention.
On the other hand, we have nothing else to go on. And these young players are playing the way the Red Sox projected them to play. Turns out, their farm system was as good as they thought it’d be.
If nothing else, Betts, Rodriguez, Swihart, etc., ought to help Cherington land a job elsewhere. Along with that 2013 World Series ring, those young players are a testament to Cherington’s expertise at both building a farm system and a roster.
At a time when five clubs besides the Red Sox are looking for new general managers, Cherington seems unlikely to be out of work very long.
And the Red Sox may not be out of contention for very long.