Friday, July 3, 2015

Red Sox Midseason Report

2015 hasn't gone as hoped for Sandoval and the Sox (Boston Herald)
With last night's 12-6 romp of the Toronto Blue Jays, the first half of the 2015 Red Sox season is officially in the books. The results--last place, seven games below .500 and six out of first--have been underwhelming, to say the least.

It's been a difficult year for the Red Sox, who were favored to win the American League at the season's outset. Now, they find themselves with more losses than every AL team except the snakebitten Oakland A's. A season that began with so much optimism has quickly degraded into a summer of gloom and doom, causing frustrated fans and media to turn on the team well before the season's halfway point.

Whereas last year's long march to last place was relatively scandal-free, this year's slog has gotten ugly. Pitching coach Juan Nieves was fired in early May, barely a month into the season and much to the rotation's disappointment (Boston was allowing 5.14 runs per game prior to his dismissal and has let up 4.45 R/G since). Wade Miley had a meltdown in the dugout, Pablo Sandoval was caught using Instagram during a mid-game bathroom break, and several veterans have been ejected recently for arguing balls and strikes.

Moreover, this is a team that has grown sick of losing, to the point where it's becoming visibly frustrated. Most everyone has experienced an extended slump by now, and many veterans are mired in down seasons. Struggling players can put on a happy face when the team does well, but when it doesn't they blame themselves and take it personally. Oftentimes this leads to pressing, which only makes things worse.

Accordingly the clubhouse, while not toxic as it was in 2012, does not seem like a fun place to be. Gone are many of the bearded characters (Jonny Gomes, David Ross) that made 2013 such an enjoyable ride. In their place is a random collection of the lazy, disinterested, and egotistical, not to mention expensive. Should the Red Sox fail to pick it up in the second half, John Farrell will likely be shown the door.

It's hard to believe how quickly this season has gone south for the Sox, who were in first place for much of April. Eight days after losing control of first (probably for good), they'd fallen all the way to last place, where they've toiled for the last month or so. Since going 9-5 to open the season, Boston's gone 28-39. Bad luck and injuries aren't to blame, as they have a winning record in one-run games and have remained fairly intact except for behind the plate. They just flat-out stink, having been blown out (losing by five or more runs) nearly twice as often as they've routed opponents and getting outscored by 45 runs on the season..
As expected, pitching has been a problem for Boston (Boston Globe)
Where did the Red Sox go wrong? Last summer seems like a good place to start, when they traded away four-fifths of their starting rotation--a rotation that won the World Series the previous fall and was actually pitching pretty well at the time (but nobody was hitting). None of those trades have panned out, least of all the one that sent John Lackey to St. Louis for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig--both of whom are now in Pawtucket. No, Boston wouldn't be better off if Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront were still around, but they'd probably be at least .500 if they still had Lackey and Jon Lester.

Boston's busy trade deadline was followed by a winter of big spending, highlighted by massive contracts for Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Yoan Moncada, among others. The struggles of Ramirez and Sandoval have drawn heavy criticism, but they're not the only well-paid personnel failing to play up to their contracts. Eight of Boston's ten highest-paid players, who are earning nearly $116 million between them (as much as an average team's payroll), have altogether provided roughly replacement level production: hardly money well spent.

Even worse is that the Red Sox prematurely extended several players before they had to and are already paying the price for it. Ben Cherington inexplicably gave Rick Porcello and Wade Miley multi-year contract extensions before either one ever threw a pitch for the Sox, which has proven disastrous. Before last year, David Ortiz secured a team option for next year (and potentially the year after) that will vest by summer's end (health permitting), which burdens Boston with a declining 40 year-old DH who can't hit lefties. And Dustin Pedroia, who turns 32 later this summer, still has six years remaining on his contract after this one--a scary proposition in light of his recent injury history and the rapid declines of Chase Utley and Robinson Cano.

The Red Sox have not invested wisely, which is why they're one of the worst teams in baseball despite having the sport's fifth-highest payroll. With many of the aforementioned players still in the first year of their deals, it would be premature to label them sunk costs, but the early returns have not been good.

As such, Boston's newcomers have not improved the team as much as pundits predicted. What do you get after adding a bunch of expensive, replacement-level players to a last place team? A (more expensive) last place team. Cherington bought new parts, but they didn't fix what was broken.

And when you lose 91 games, as Boston did last year, it's because there's a lot broken. That much is evident again this year. Head over to FanGraphs, and you'll see the Sox rank in or just outside the bottom 10 in offense, baserunning, defense, and pitching. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a bad baseball team. You can be bad at one or two of those things and still win/fix them by October, but not all of them midway through the year. There's no quick fix for a bad lineup, pitching staff, and defense. Barring a remarkable July, Boston should be sellers at the trade deadline.
That look from Junichi Tazawa pretty much sums it up (Mass Live)
The Red Sox have begun to play better lately, however, perhaps showing signs of better things to come in the second half. Since bottoming out with a seven-game losing streak in mid-June, Boston has gone 10-6, its best stretch of baseball since April. The pitching has calmed down, several hitters appear to be turning it around, and the team as a whole appears to have jelled.

The offense, which pounded out a season-high 19 hits last night, has slowly but surely come to life. Ortiz has returned from the dead, putting one of his patented painfully slow starts behind him with eight home runs over the past three weeks. Mookie Betts and Sandoval have caught fire after a disappointing first two months, and Xander Bogaerts is getting better every day. Brock Holt has proved that last year's success was no fluke, and Pedroia was having his best season in years before falling victim to the injury bug.

The pitching, mercifully, has also started to come around. Clay Buchholz has stayed healthy, providing the bounceback season Boston desperately needed from him. He's on quite the roll, with a 2.13 ERA over his past nine starts. Eduardo Rodriguez has been electric since debuting at the end of May, emerging as the team's best starter after Buchholz. Miley's quietly turned his season around, too, going 7-3 with a 3.41 ERA since May 9th.

In addition to keeping the team in games, better starting pitching also helps prevent Boston's shaky middle relief from being exposed. The back of the bullpen has been stellar, with Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa providing their usual dominance at the end of games. Alexi Ogando's been a revelation as well, but they're the only Sox relievers with an ERA under 3.70. The less Farrell has to use Craig Breslow, Matt Barnes, and Robbie Ross, the better.

So on the eve of the Fourth of July, Boston's season is far from dead. Returning from a 5-2 road trip to an eight-game homestand that will take them into the All-Star Break, the Sox are poised to continue their recent success and build some momentum going into the second half.

The Red Sox have reached a critical juncture in their season. They're at a crossroads, and their performance over the next four weeks will determine how they'll fare for the rest of 2015. If Boston plays well in July, one would expect the Sox to be aggressive at the deadline in the hopes of gearing up for a potential playoff push. The AL East is so tightly packed that a few good weeks would vault the Sox right back into contention.

Should Boston continue to sputter, however, then all bets are off. Cherington has made major roster shakeups in both of the team's failed seasons during his tenure, and if he feels that 2015 is a lost cause then he's going to start building for 2016. So if the Sox don't pull it together by the end of July, there's a good chance many of them will be gone come August 1st.

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