Thursday, July 31, 2014

Boston Blows it Up

Lester and many of his former Boston teammates are gone. Why? (NYPost)
For the second time in three years, the Boston Red Sox are a last place team going nowhere. And so for the second time in three years, the Boston Red Sox will finish a season with a team that's drastically different from the one that started it.

With the dust having settled on another dizzying day of deadline deals, (David Price to the Tigers!) it's time to take stock of the radically-altered Red Sox roster. The Beaneaters are a much different team tonight than they were a week--heck, even 12 hours--ago. A.J. Pierzynski, Grady Sizemore and Chris Capuano were the first to go, all by way of DFA. Then Jake Peavy, poor Jake Peavy, was traded. A fed-up Felix Doubront followed him out the door shortly thereafter.

Then today it was Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes, John Lackey, Stephen Drew and Andrew Miller, all gone in a flurry of deadline swaps. With them went any hope of Boston pulling it together and making a push in the season's final two months. Not like that was going to happen, anyways.

So starting tomorrow (the Sox were off today), Red Sox fans will have to start getting used to a bunch of new faces. Because nearly nine months to the day after celebrating a World Series championship at Fenway Park, 11 of the 25 guys who won it are gone (counting Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Ryan Dempster, all of whom departed over the winter). As quickly as the championship team came together during the winter of 2013, it only took a few weeks for Ben Cherington to dismantle that same team piece by piece, trading away key pieces in the infield, outfield, and bullpen, not to mention 60 percent of the starting rotation.

It's sad, if only because it didn't have to happen this way. The Red Sox were the best team in baseball last year, and they could have been great again this year if only they'd been more aggressive in the offseason. In retrospect, this roster clearly needed more than the few tweaks Cherington made over the winter. It was too dependent on youngsters breaking out and aging veterans replicating their overachievements from the year before. It desperately needed more power, particularly in the outfield (hello, Nelson Cruz), and a catcher who wasn't 37 years old. And pitching--you can never have enough of that.

Red Sox leadership got smug. They didn't see the need to drastically overhaul a roster that had just won baseball's biggest prize, a team that few expected to make the playoffs before the season began, much less win it all. And so they mostly stood pat. While other teams in their division dramatically improved, the Red Sox let themselves get weaker. They got complacent.

And now nearly half the team is gone. Boston's bottomed out and Cherington, as he did last time the Sox were awful, purged many of his best players. But whereas his 2012 firesale was primarily for salary relief--a rare opportunity to unload dead payroll and start fresh--this round actually cost the Red Sox money.

No, this wasn't about giving a rookie GM the chance to build his team the way he wanted; it was about retooling and trying to reload for a more competitive season in 2015. That's why Boston traded for established major league players rather than  prospects. They weren't good enough to win now, but they also can't afford to rebuild and wait three or four years to contend again. The pressure in Boston, perhaps America's most crazed baseball city, is simply too great to allow for that kind of time.

Cherington, as he did two years ago, had to rebuild on the fly. He did a great job then obviously--the World Series ring speaks for itself--and I have to think he did a great job now. . Big Ben got two decent pitching prospects from San Fran for Peavy, which is more than anyone thought he'd get for a 33 year-old with a 1-9 record and 4.72 ERA. Then he somehow managed to convince his old bosses in Chicago that Doubront (2-4, 6.07 ERA) was worth taking off his hands.

But he was just getting warmed up. This morning he dealt Lester, a free agent at season's end, along with Gomes to Oakland for Yoenis Cespedes, a righthanded power hitter who should thrive at Fenway, and a compensation pick. Then he sent his next-best starting pitcher, Lackey, with Corey Littrell and cash to St. Louis for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig, the former a third-year starting pitcher nearly ten years Lackey's junior and the latter a .312/.364/.500 hitter over the previous three seasons. Miller was swapped to Baltimore for Eduardo Rodriguez, just 21 and a top-100 prospect before the season began.

But the coup of all coups was that he was able to find a suitor for Stephen Drew, a 31 year-old shortstop batting below .200 and making more than $10 million this year. Not surprisingly, that team was the Yankees, who have always been fond of overpriced veteran players on their way down. Drew should have been next to untradeable, and yet Cherington was able to move him for Kelly Johnson, who's one year older than Drew but can play multiple positions and has been a better hitter this year. I'm not saying Johnson's better than Drew, but he definitely can't be any worse.

Last year's fluky title aside, the 2014 Red Sox are a terrible team (third-worst in the American League entering play today). Kudos to Cherington for recognizing that and doing some wheeling and dealing at the deadline to start improving their odds for next year. Rather than settle for a bevy of prospects that might never pan out, he was able to get back a good amount of established major league talent in return. Their lineup is instantly better with Cespedes representing a big upgrade over Gomes in left and addition by subtraction in Drew's departure, which opens up a move back to short for Xander Bogaerts and regular playing time at third for Brock Holt and potentially Will Middlebrooks. The decimated rotation will be replenished shortly by Boston's bountiful minor league arms with Anthony Ranuado, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, and others on their way.

But don't give Cherington too much credit for essentially fixing his own mistake of not doing enough to help the team last winter. Had he, they wouldn't be in last place and none of this would have been necessary. He wouldn't have needed to break out the brooms and clean house on a team that could and should have been able to at least be competitive in a weak AL East this year. The lovable band of bearded idiots could have stayed together a little while longer.

Nowadays it's impossible to keep championship teams together for very long. I get that. But you think they could have at least survived the summer.

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