At the All-Star Break, the Boston Red Sox were widely acknowledged as one of baseball’s biggest disappointments. In the context of their payroll and the preseason expectations, it would be reasonable to call them a disaster.
Even with that, their 42-47 record and status as a last place club on that Sunday, they were only 6 1/2 games out of first place and within reasonable striking distance of a playoff run if everything went right. The idea of a fresh start in the second half had legs not because they had played well enough to deserve it, but because of the talent level on their roster, the money they have to spend, and the prospects to trade to get the likes of Cole Hamels.
Then the second half started.
Now, after playing seven second-half games and losing every single one of them, the Red Sox should no longer be thinking about whether to buy, sell or stand pat. Nor should they be thinking about selling and getting ready for 2016. Given that this is the third year out of the last four that the Red Sox will be cleaning out the house at mid-season, it’s time that the entire structure and decision-making process as to how the big league club is constructed be looked at under a microscope to determine why this is happening and happening on an annual basis.
In retrospect and without the emotionality and cosmic justice of the 2013 World Series title, that entire situation has to be examined with a cold, unfeeling eye amid the realization that championship was the byproduct of an inexplicable amount of luck.
How many teams have every single one of their free agent signings and trade acquisitions work perfectly as the 2013 Red Sox did? How many teams are given the gift that kept on giving as the Los Angeles Dodgers not only absorbed the full atrocity of the black hole contracts, declining and not-fit-for-Boston Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett while simultaneously giving good prospects with value in return?
Such a financial reset has never happened before and will not happen again. That it happened in the midst of Bobby Valentine’s hellish season as Red Sox manager and that they won the World Series the next year made it appear as if there was a return to the club’s core beliefs in finding gutty, gritty players and hiring a manager, John Farrell, who knew how the Red Sox conducted themselves and how Boston worked.
It’s a great story. Unfortunately, like most neat and tidy tales, it’s fractionally true at best. The luck aspect is tacitly glossed over in the interests of the convenient narrative that the dysfunctional final team in 2011 under Terry Francona failed because they had grown disinterested, arrogant and didn’t like each other very much. It failed in 2012 because of Valentine and injuries.
It succeeded in 2013 because of the cohesiveness and intensity of Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara, Stephen Drew and Jonny Gomes, and that they hired Farrell. Objectively, most seasoned baseball watchers felt the 2013 Red Sox would be better than they were in previous years, but needed everything to work perfectly for them to go any further than an 83-88-win team and nominal playoff contention. In one of those rare moments, everything did work perfectly.
In retrospect and taking the drastic step of dropping the highest grade in a season in which the team won the sport’s championship, the Red Sox front office and on-field staff may need to realize that the 2013 season did not make them smarter. Rather it made them the recipients of a lot of old-fashioned sports magic.
Koji Uehara is an interesting case study, as his brilliance over the second half of the 2013 season ignores that he was closer No. 3 after the injured Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey. They still weren’t sold on him being able to handle the necessary workload until they found themselves rolling to the World Series. Then they trusted him not by choice, but by the fact it was working.
When the team is going well and their signings are successful, there are smug nods of approval at the club again listening to the sage wisdom of Bill James — acknowledgement of the importance of chemistry, that Farrell was the ideal anecdote as someone who was one of the proverbial “us” and not an obnoxious and outdated outsider like Valentine, and that Ben Cherington and his staff are able to continue on with the tradition of success that owner John Henry sparked when he purchased the team.
When there’s credit to allocate, everyone comes running. When there’s blame, there’s infighting and finger-pointing. These are the Red Sox and have been so for the bulk of the past half-decade. This is another lost year when the expectations were, at the very least, a playoff appearance.
Their misplaced attempts to play “keeping up with the Steinbrenners” by having an annual duel with the New York Yankees over who would win the winter championship along with the spring-summer-fall championship formulated the mess that the club was in for 2011 and 2012 and now 2014 and 2015. Like the Sesame Street bit of “which one doesn’t belong,” it’s obvious that 2013 is the anomaly, something the Red Sox appear loath to accept.
The Red Sox are given credit for accepting their station and reacting accordingly with sell-offs rather than living a dream thinking there will be a miraculous comeback. But if the sell-offs happen every year, there must be a problem somewhere that is either not acknowledged or not even understood.
If there’s still a line-straddling hesitation on the part of the club as to whether or not they should sell, they need to awaken from their slumber and accept their situation with the understanding of the fluky nature of their one successful season in the past four.
That they happened to win the World Series in that one season might have given them a third championship in 10 years, but it’s possible that it gave them a false sense that they were heading in the right direction when they weren’t. That changes didn’t need to be made when they did; that Farrell is a good manager when he’s not.
Much is said about the Red Sox’s farm system and how strong it is. Graded by most observers as one of the best in baseball if not the best in baseball, it’s more of the same hype that has afflicted the team since 2011.
The “untouchable” Jackie Bradley, Jr. is a bust. Will Middlebrooks was dumped and is now back in the minor leagues for the San Diego Padres. The names have changed to Mookie Betts, Matt Barnes, Blake Swihart, Henry Owens and numerous others. Like most prospects, the assessments are irrelevant until they produce. These youngsters haven’t to the degree to match the promotion. This is reality.
The pitchers they acquired in exchange for Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Yoenis Cespedes – Rick Porcello and Wade Miley – have been awful. Justin Masterson has been injured and ineffective. Could they have been any worse had they saved the money, given De La Rosa and Webster legitimate chances to make the rotation and rolled with them instead of doing what they did?
They lowballed Jon Lester to save a few bucks and watched him reunite with former GM Theo Epstein in Chicago with the Cubs while giving Pablo Sandoval $95 million, extending Porcello for $82.5 million, giving $9.5 million to Masterson, $72.5 million to Rusney Castillo and extending Miley for $19.25 million. Is this wise utilization of significant resources?
Dumping John Lackey last year when his 2015 contract was set to be the league minimum and receiving Allen Craig and Joe Kelly made perfect sense at the time, but like many of the Red Sox moves, it failed.
The evaluations are not just concerning, they’re worthy of panic. Who is making these decisions and why? Even the one acquisition who has been at his maximum in terms of production – Hanley Ramirez – is reportedly disliked in the clubhouse and is not “fitting it.” Fitting in to what? If the Red Sox veterans who are complaining about Ramirez were hitting as he does, then the chemistry issues would not even be a factor because the team would be 15 games better than they are right now.
And that’s the problem. One of them, anyway. The repair appears to be another sell-off and touting of their farm system, which is another strategy that they’ve tried before and haven’t had very much success with. Except in 2013, that is – a year that is looking smaller and more questionable in the rear-view mirror.
It’s very difficult to repeat a lottery win, and that was what 2013 was. The question is whether Henry realizes it and makes the necessary changes to alter the blueprint that has authored the annual collapse that’s become as much of a tradition of the Red Sox as the playoffs were from 2003 to 2008.
The summer cleaning is coming, but maybe it’s time to rethink their blueprint and make it a winter cleaning instead. Not of the players, but of the front office and the manager — because that might be where the fault lies.