Friday, July 4, 2014

Sox Sunk

Bogaerts is one of many Red Sox struggling at the plate (NESN)
Thank God the Red Sox game got postponed today. Even with their off-day yesterday, I'm not sure they were fully recovered from Wednesday night's 16-9 shellacking at the hands of the last-place Chicago Cubs. If they couldn't win so much as a game against baseball's longest-running punchline, how do they expect to beat a real baseball team in the AL East-leading Baltimore Orioles?

That the Red Sox are at home against the O's offers none of its traditional advantages. Boston's two games below .500 at America's oldest ballpark this year after winning 66.3 percent of their games there last year (including playoffs). Opponents are not afraid to come play the Olde Towne Team on their home turf, nor should they be.

Because let's face it; the Red Sox are defending champs in name only, and haven't played anywhere close to the level they maintained from Opening Day last year to the final out of their World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. Little more than halfway through the season, it's become increasingly obvious that these Red Sox aren't going anywhere. They haven't had a winning record since the middle of May, have never been more than one game over .500, and have enjoyed three days--count 'em, three--where they could claim to have won more games than they'd lost. The sample size is big enough that it can be said with a great deal of certainty that the Red Sox are not going to be playoff contenders, much less repeat World Series champions. Even if they played .600 ball the rest of the season--a tall task for a team that couldn't muster a winning record in April, May, or June--they'd still wind up with just 84 wins. They could win two-thirds of their remaining games and still wouldn't finish with 90 W's. The hole they've dug themselves is simply too deep.

So I'm not even going to what until the July 31st trading deadline, or even the All-Star break, to pronounce them dead in the water. I've seen enough. It's time to stop deluding ourselves that this team is capable of anything more than playing .500 baseball, because even that appears to be stretch. With only two winning streaks longer than three games this year, the Sox have given no indication they're poised for the kind of run they'll need to make the playoffs.

Every time this team appears to take one step forward, they immediately take two steps back. When they finally got over .500 back in mid-May, they promptly lost 10 in a row. Then they picked themselves up and won seven straight, only to undo most of that good by dropping their next five. David Ortiz's clutch ninth inning home run off Joba Chamberlain gave Boston a big come-from-behind win in Detroit on June 8th, a precursor to a series in Baltimore where the Sox managed only one run in the three games. Then they came home and took two from Cleveland, only to split the series after losing the remaining two games by identical 3-2 scores, thus missing out an a rare opportunity for a four-game sweep. After that they somehow swept Minnesota despite scoring just five runs in the three games at Fenway, capping the sweep in dramatic fashion on Mike Napoli's thrilling walk-off homer.

Then it was off to Oakland for the start of a 10-game road trip, and whatever momentum Boston seemed to have melted away as the A's took three straight from the Sox, who barely held on to salvage the series finale despite taking an early five run lead. Then they dropped two out of three in Seattle, allowing 24 runs to a mediocre Mariners offense. They finished out the trip in New York, where they took two of three from their rivals despite being outscored in the series.

Back home against a rebuilding Cubs squad should have provided the perfect opportunity to keep that roll going. Instead, the Sox got swept by a team that had only managed one sweep through their first 80 games. Boston scored just one run in the first two games, nearly getting no-hit by Jake Arrieta, Jake Freaking Arrieta, in the opener. The bats broke out in the finale, plating nine runs in what amounted to their second-highest scoring output of the season. And yet it wasn't nearly enough because the pitching staff was battered for 16 runs--the most Boston has allowed all season.
Chicago's sweep of Boston at Fenway was the last straw (Boston Herald)
And that, essentially, is how this underachieving squad got to where it is: nine games below .500 on the Fourth of July with a 94 percent chance of missing the playoffs, according to FanGraphs Playoff Odds calculator. Not even in 2012, when the Bobby Valentine-led Sox lost 93 games and finished in last place, did things get so dire so soon. Even that team, fatally snakebitten as it was, manged to stay above .500 through the end of July.

At least that "team" had excuses--Valentine, injuries, a late summer firesale, and the bitter lingering aftertaste from the previous season's historic collapse. This year's team is almost the same as last year's (sans Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Ryan Dempster), and the results couldn't be more different. After scoring the most runs in baseball last year, Boston's bringing up the rear this year in the American League. Everyone's taken a step back and nobody, save Brock Holt, has stepped up. Power, outside of David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, has been scarce, and so has speed. It's possible nobody on this year's team ends up with double-digit steals, which is simply not acceptable for a lineup with the worst slugging percentage in the Junior Circuit. The team-wide failure with runners in scoring position has been particularly frustrating given that the Sox actually do a decent job of reaching base (third in walks, sixth in OBP).

And so the pitching staff, which has produced the fifth-lowest ERA in the American League up to his point, has been been wasted. No matter how well Jon Lester, John Lackey and company pitch, the bats never seem to back them up. Take the most recent series versus the Cubs, when Boston allowed two runs in each of the first two games but lost them both. The Sox could and should have won all those games, had the bats been awake in the first two games and the bullpen not pooped the bed in the finale.

But that's just how this Red Sox season has gone. After having everything go their way last year, with all the walk-off wins, unexpected turnarounds and exceptional health, nothing's gone their way this year. They have losing records at home and on the road, in extra inning games and regular season games. Wins have been hard to come by in one-run games and blowouts, against American League teams and National League teams. Of the 14 teams they've played at least three games against this year, they have a winning record against four; the Twins, White Sox, Rangers, and Braves, all of whom are terrible except for Atlanta. Injuries have been a factor as well, limiting the playing time of Napoli, Clay Buchholz, Shane Victorino, Felix Doubront, Will Middlebrooks, and Mike Carp. The extended absence of Victorino has been especially painful given the outfield's offensive woes.

Going forward, it's clear that the Red Sox need to do two things, one of which they've already started doing. That would be promoting young talent from the farm system and giving them major league experience. Mookie Betts, Garin Cecchini, and Rubby De La Rosa have already arrived but could certainly could use more playing time. They're not going to develop while sitting on the bench, after all. While he's at it, John Farrell needs to move Xander Bogaerts back to short, assuming he's indeed the shortstop of the future, which means admitting Stephen Drew was a sunk cost and trading or releasing him. Ben Cherington should start raiding the bullpen for potential trade chips, the most appealing of which has to be Koji Uehara, as closers are hot commodities at the trading deadline and can bring back much more than they're worth. Cherington should also look to deal Lester if the plan isn't to re-sign him next winter, and maybe try to sell high on Brock Holt to a contending team in need of a super-utility guy (who wouldn't want someone who's played nearly every position this year and more than held his own at the plate?).

Red Sox management needs to recognize that this year's been a bust. There's no point trying to ride it out and wait for an unlikely second half surge that, even if it comes, still won't be enough to secure a postseason berth. As much as I hate to give up on a season that's barely half over, it's time to throw in the towel and start thinking about next year. And if that means purging the roster of some of what little talent that's left, then so be it.

Cherington did it before. Now he must do it again.

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