Things and More Things
by Jim Silva
Right this very moment, the Red Sox are in the midst of a three way battle for the AL East crown with the Orioles and Blue Jays. With three teams so tightly packed, it is the most closely contested race in all of baseball. So should Red Sox fans be thrilled that they are in the thick of it or should they be disappointed that they haven’t opened up a big lead on the rest of the teams in the East? How did the Sox get here and what will the rest of the season bring? It’s an exciting time to live East of the Rockies (mountains AND team)!
During the off-season, fans and commentators speak about the “what-ifs” that need to happen for a team to win as if they were almost a given. That is the beauty of the off-season – all things are possible. So here are some of the “what-ifs” that the Red Sox needed to see happen for them to be in the race. Thing 1: Jackie Bradley Jr. will turn into a full-time center-fielder who’s bat finally catches up to his amazing glove skills. Thing 2: Xander Bogaerts will hold onto his offensive gains from last season and continue his consistent defensive play. Thing 3: Hanley Ramirez will display solid glove work at first base. Thing 4: Pablo Sandoval will handle third base without stinking up the joint. Thing 5: The starting rotation will stop runs from scoring as opposed to you, you know, causing runs to score.
Yeah, that’s a lot of what-ifs. Normally when a team starts the off-season with that many questions, there isn’t much expected of them, but these are the Red Sox so you have to know most of the questions have been addressed by spending money to answer them. That is certainly true of the starting rotation question. Last season everyone and their mother, with the possible exception of Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox GM, knew that the team needed to find some quality pitchers to start games for them in 2015 or they would lose more games than they would win. Instead of adding pitching, former GM Dombrowski signed Hanley Ramirez, a shortstop, to play left field, and Pablo Sandoval to play third. I guess one way to address a need for run prevention is to add more run scoring tools. So Dombrowski spent roughly $110 million on Hanley through 2019 and roughly $100 million on Panda. The short of it is, the signings didn’t work out last year, and they didn’t work out in fairly spectacular fashion. This year is going better on one front and horribly on the other, but the Red Sox have mostly plastered over that one for now.
Dombrowski was shown the door and his replacement signed David Price to help solve Thing 5 – the starting pitching. Price is an ace, so that’s an excellent way to solve the problem or at least a very good start. Signing Price cost them north of $210 million – no big deal for the Red Sox. After a slightly rougher start than the red Sox would like, Price has posted an ERA in the mid-two’s over a six start run although his ERA over the last month is 4.01. He is giving up home runs at an impressive rate, including eight in that same six start run I referenced. After Price, Porcello and Steven Wright have saved the first part of the season as Clay Bucholz has struggled to be worthy of ANY spot in the rotation and Joe Kelly has been alternately bad and injured. Still, three of five works or at least can be worked with.
Thing 4 got off to an ugly start and then got worse! Sandoval came into camp looking a bit out of shape, to put it gently. He looked horrible with the glove then turned himself into a meme when his belt exploded as he swung the bat. He lost his job and then suffered an arm injury, seemingly caused by an interaction with aliens or some such nonsense. He is currently on the DL after surgery and will likely draw his $17.6 million for playing Xbox, or learning to make Paella, or whatever else someone does when they are paid to heal. His replacement, Travis Shaw, is hitting reasonably well and playing excellent defense at third, so in the face of potential disaster, Thing 4 has turned into a win, albeit an expensive one paying two guys to do one job.
Hanley Ramirez was an unmitigated disaster in his first season back with the Red Sox. Stationing him in left field turned out worse than pretty much anyone could have expected. When the Sox brass said that they were going to move Hanley to first base, it seemed like a heck of a lot better idea than wish-casting him into left. Everyone assumed that if he could play non-horrible defense at first base then his bat would make that a pretty good move. What has actually happened to this point in the season has been a mild surprise as Ramirez has managed to almost reach the non-horrible defense mark at first, but got off to a slow start with the bat. If he had a modest contract, he would probably be viewed as a fine place-holder at first while they waited for a stud prospect or a big free agent signing/deadline trade. But since he is making superstar money for years to come, his numbers are a disappointment. Since he hasn’t been horrible (WAR of 1.3 so far), there is still a chance he can salvage the season by going on another hitting spree. Five home runs in the last month is pretty good – but, combined with a .230 average and .278 on-base percentage, will not move the Red Sox toward a championship, so Thing 3 isn’t working out the way you would hope as a Sox fan.
Sometimes Things work out so well that they make up for other Things that didn’t go how you had hoped, and Thing 2, otherwise known as Xander Bogaerts, has worked up even better than one could have expected. His glove has been steady, showing that his growth of 2015 was real. And his bat – wow, his bat – he is being called the best right-handed hitter in the AL by some sports writers. He might even be hitting enough to make up for Hanley’s meh-tastic start. He is currently hitting .312 with a .368 on-base percentage and has knocked 14 homers. If he wins the Silver Slugger at shortstop, the award for the best hitter at each position, then he is a superstar and could carry the Red Sox past their weakness at first base. Thing 2 – check.
These days it is almost enough to be a Gold Glove winner in centerfield to hold on to your job, even if you don’t hit like a starting outfielder – ask Kevin Kiermaier about that. Last season, Jackie Bradley Jr. showed his chops with the glove and wasn’t horrible with the bat. He was a guy the Red Sox could reasonably keep in the lineup while looking around for someone to start over him. This season though, Bradley Jr. has looked like a budding superstar – a 4.6 WAR season so far. He is doing everything the Red Sox had hoped he would with the glove and the bat and if he keeps up a pace close to this, you won’t be able to pry him out of the starting center field spot with a crowbar. Thing 1 is here to stay!
Currently driving the Red Sox to a post-season near you is a high-powered offense that is outscoring every team in baseball including everyone’s darling, the Cubs, a team playing in the equivalent of a phone booth – the Rockies, and the club that most resembles a beer league softball team, the Orioles. The Rockies are closest at 21 runs back as of today. The Red Sox as a team are currently the slash line champions with league-leading batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage – .285/.351/.468. Obviously almost everyone on the team is having a good-to-great year and they already have four non-pitchers with more than 4.0 points of WAR accumulated. Swimming a half a pool length past the rest of the field is Mookie Betts. With 6.9 WAR, the 23 year old right-fielder is making an excellent case for the MVP award. He isn’t just doing it with the bat either as 1.4 of that 6.9 WAR is based on his defense. Betts leads the league in runs scored and total bases and he has also swiped 20 bases in 23 attempts. With 67 extra base hits, including 28 home runs, there is almost nothing Mookie can’t do. The only knock on his game is that he doesn’t draw many walks, but that is picking nits as his on-base percentage is .354, four points above his career average. If the Red Sox make it to the post-season put your money on Betts to take home the AL MVP.
At this point in the season, the Red Sox look like a team with enough. Enough to win the division at least, although the Blue Jays and the Orioles will battle to the end, and possibly enough to win the AL crown. They have the bats, the gloves, and the depth if injury strikes. Do they have enough to win a World Series? Their rotation might have been a bit thin to take on teams like the Nationals, the Giants, or the Cubs, but a deadline deal added a young starter in Drew Pomeranz, who went into the eighth for a win in his last start. At this point, I wouldn’t bet against another World Series ring ceremony in Boston.