The Red Sox are in some trouble. Like the race just started and the boat is on fire trouble. The team many if not most picked to win the AL East (guilty) just snapped a 10-game losing streak, which pushed them from second to last place in the division. If it weren't for the Astros, Boston would be last in the American League.
Dear Astros, thanks! Love, Boston.
That might not be news or would certainly be less newsworthy were it another team, but we media types love irony, and the bigger the dose the better. We also love it when the big guys fall, so this works on lots of levels. You see, just a few months ago the Boston Red Sox were baseball's model organization. A dominating and inspiring World Series win coupled with a top five minor league system bursting with talent is a desirable combination and made the Red Sox the team to emulate, likely along side or maybe just behind St. Louis, depending on who you asked. Entire articles were written advancing this idea. And now, 10 straight losses later, the Red Sox are terrible. They can't hit, they can't pitch, they can't play defense and most importantly they can't win a baseball game. The jamming of brakes by baseball's punditry is enough to give readers whiplash.
It's easy to look at a team on a 10-game losing streak and say they're (insert your expletive of choice here). But no major league team is that bad. So you won't find charities to donate to in lieu of flowers here. There are 113 games left in the season and the trade deadline is still months away, meaning there is ample opportunity to turn things around, to the extent that things can be turned around.
Before looking at some fixes, I thought it would be instructive to see where the Red Sox are and how they got here. So how did the Red Sox get here? Before the streak, Boston was chugging along, a game over .500 and, thanks to the generally crappy turn the AL East has taken so far this season, just a half game out of first place. Everything wasn't perfect, but nothing was inexorably broken.
Over the next 10 games Boston was out-scored by 27 runs, while the Red Sox themselves scored 26 runs. There are, of course, other stats, but the team has just come off losing 10 straight games so you'd expect they're not playing well in any phase of the game and you'd be correct in that expectation. The shocking part, as has been mentioned, is that this is the team fresh off a World Series win. Mostly. There are some differences.
The Red Sox made the following changes to their World Series winning lineup:
• Will Middlebrooks to start at third base
• Xander Bogaerts to start at shortstop
• A.J. Pierzynski to start at catcher
• Jackie Bradley to start in center field
That seems like a lot (there are only eight non-pitching starters after all), but when you remember that Will Middlebrooks was the starter at third most of last season, and Xander Bogaerts was the starter at third at the end of the season and into the playoffs, things don't look so different. What's more, Bogaerts has been quite good with the bat, so it can't really be that bad, can it? Well, yes.
First, Middlebrooks. He's been on the DL twice, which has almost been a blessing for the Red Sox considering he's hit .197/.305/.324 when healthy. That's from a guy whose primary skill is hitting for power. So that hasn't worked. Xander Bogaerts moved from third to shortstop, the position the Red Sox were hoping (and probably are still hoping) he could occupy for the next decade. But Bogaerts' defense at shortstop has been bad. There have been errors and there have been mental gaffes, and there have been mistakes that shortstops still learning the position tend to make. It has been a large downgrade from the steady and occasionally spectacular Stephen Drew to Bogaerts at a vital defensive position.
Beyond the left side of the infield, the Red Sox declined to match Jarrod Saltalamacchia's free agent offer from Miami and instead spent $8.25 million to bring in A.J. Pierzynski on a one-year deal. At 37 years old, Pierzynski is a known quantity. He has some power and can hit for some average, and works well with a pitching staff. But he doesn't get on base really at all, isn't much of a pitch framer, and as for throwing out runners, well, not so much. That's pretty much what the Red Sox have received minus the batting average and it's a big downgrade on Saltalamacchia's 2013 performance.
Moving to the outfield, Jacoby Ellsbury's indentured servitude was up and he signed a seven-year contract with the Yankees. The Red Sox had, they thought, two players to replace him. The first is Jackie Bradley, a first round draft pick whose defense has been described as gold-glove ready. What's more, Bradley has hit and gotten on base as well or better than Ellsbury did in the minor leagues. But, while Ellsbury set the world afire when he arrived on the scene in 2007, Bradley has done the opposite. His defense has been as advertised, but to date, he's hit a horrendous .193/.280/.283. That might be more palatable if the second option hadn't failed as well, but Grady Sizemore has managed a similarly awful .221/.291/.353 slash line, but with defense that suggests his time as a center fielder passed several seasons ago.
So the Red Sox exchanged a borderline MVP candidate in center field for replacement-level production, a good hitting catcher for a bad hitting one, a good fielding shortstop for a bad fielding one, and a good hitting third baseman for a bad hitting one. That's four downgrades, and two at key up-the-middle defensive positions. This helps explain why the Red Sox turn balls in play into outs worse than any team in baseball except Texas. Last season Boston was 17 (out of 30) so it wasn't like they were wonderful then either, but a good hitting and pitching team can thrive with an average defense at its back. It's much harder to win with a bad defense, offense and pitching be damned.
Beyond those four, the Red Sox have had other steps back. Daniel Nava, one of the Red Sox best hitters last season, couldn't buy a hit (at least part of this was just bad luck) at the start of the season and was demoted to Triple-A, partly so the team could keep Sizemore on the roster. Nava was just recalled when Shane Victorino was put on the DL for the second time with a hamstring strain. And that's the other thing. The team that stayed relatively healthy last season has had to deal with some injuries. As mentioned above, Middlebrooks and Victorino have seen the DL twice apiece, and first baseman Mike Napoli and starter Felix Doubront were introduced to it this past week as well. It's hardly a cavalcade of stars like the Texas Rangers or Atlanta Braves (at least at the beginning of the season) have lost, and it's not the sole reason for the 10 straight losses, but it's not nothing.
All of the above would put a hurt on the bottom line, but the team would still be fine if the rest of the club were producing. After Lester and John Lackey, the starting rotation has varied from mediocre results with the potential to be worse (Jake Peavy) to hot garbage (Clay Buchholz). Buchholz in particular is interesting as he went from Cy Young contender last season to injured, to, now, a barely major league-quality pitcher. Buchholz's changeup, the pitch that set up his fast but straight fastball, and kept lefties from teeing off on him, has disappeared. [insert milk carton joke] The end result has been a five run jump in ERA and the results to match. As for the bottom line, the Red Sox are 4-6 in games started by Buchholz. Compare that to last season when they went 14-2 in Buchholz's starts and you can start to see how a huge strength became a huge weakness.
It's not all flaming bags of poo and sadness. Jon Lester has had a terrific start to the season, though he got shelled in his last start and will be a free agent at the end of the season, so … yeah.
So that's how the Red Sox got where they are. Now, how do they get out of it? That's a tougher article to write. Like most teams at this point in the season, there are only so many moves available. I can suggest trading for Giancarlo Stanton and Jeff Samardzija (if for no other reason then I'd learn how to spell it), but that's not realistic. Most teams aren't looking to make moves this time of the season. There are some things the team can do though.
My first suggestion has already been taken, and that's recall Daniel Nava as the team did that last Friday. Nava isn't a panacea but he can hit right-handed pitching. The Red Sox have a .683 OPS from their left fielders so far this season (it should be pointed out that some small part of that is Daniel Nava), and Nava figures to be an improvement on that against righties (he had an .894 OPS against right-handed pitchers last season). Against lefties, well, that's why they have Jonny Gomes. Between those two players, left field should be a productive spot in the lineup. Second take!
As for the left side of the infield, they've already (seemingly) solved that as well with the signing of Stephen Drew last week. Drew will start at shortstop and Bogaerts will slide back to third base. Assuming Drew is some variation on his 2013 performance, this improves two positions simultaneously. Bogaerts and his 15 percent above average bat (to date) remain in the lineup but he moves from short to third base. This should improve the defense at both positions (or at least isn't a downgrade at third). The addition of Drew's bat is also an upgrade over what Middlebrooks was providing, so even better.
In center, well, Jacoby Ellsbury isn't walking through that door. Jackie Bradley is though. As noted, Bradley has been awful so far at the plate, but the fact that he's hit at every level of the minor leagues should give his critics pause. He just turned 24, so there is reason to believe the young guy can make some improvements. Not everyone is Mike Trout, and if you go back and look at Trout's 2011 season, even Mike Trout wasn't Mike Trout. Prospects, even the best of prospects, need time to adjust and teams that don't provide them with that time don't reap the benefits just the drawbacks of playing young players. Bradley does bring good defense at a premium defensive position, so the Red Sox need to ride that, install him at the back of the lineup, and make the young guy comfortable*
* Unless…well, keep reading.
It would be nice if the Red Sox could bring up a young prospect to fill in at a position of need, but despite the pedigrees, the Triple-A roster is devoid of anyone pushing for promotion. There might come a time when Christian Vasquez (at least for now, the Triple-A catcher version of Jackie Bradley [all defense, little offense]) makes a case for playing time over either David Ross or A.J. Pierzynski, but that time isn't now unless the Red Sox are willing to play two players solely based on defense.
The Red Sox will need a starter to step in and possibly stay for a while depending on the nature of Doubront's injury and they might need a second starter if Clay Buchholz doesn't figure out which way is up. There is now room for people who can pitch effectively in the rotation. Boston is rich in Triple-A pitching prospects, but none are distinguishing themselves at the moment. They could bring up Allen Webster or Anthony Ranuado and hope, but neither of those guys appear ready to successfully do battle with major league hitters. Looking one rung down the ladder though presents some interesting options. Henry Owens is both highly regarded and is shutting down Double-A hitters for the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs. Owens has had some issues with walks, but he does just about everything else wonderfully. In 57.1 innings Owens has 63 strikeouts to 28 walks. What's more, he's given up just 38 hits in those innings. Over his last four starts, Owens has given up seven hits and three runs in 22.2 innings while striking out 28 and walking 15. The Red Sox are typically conservative when it comes to promoting from Double-A and Owens isn't on the 40 man roster yet (though he'll have to be added after the season) but adding Owens could be an electrifying jolt to the team's rotation.
The other player in Double-A to consider is Mookie Betts. Betts is hitting .366/.452/.575 on the season with 22 stolen bases (three caught-stealings) and six homers. Betts is a second baseman by trade, but recently the Red Sox have been experimenting with him in center field. This could be a precursor to moving him up to Triple-A, but if he's comfortable enough, why not skip Pawtucket altogether and move him up to the majors? Well, again, this would require a 40 man roster spot, so that's certainly a strong argument against because it would necessitate cutting someone. But in this particular case, there is someone who can be cut: Grady Sizemore. Sizemore has been a wonderful story in that he's stayed healthy after returning to the majors leagues from more knee surgeries than one should be able to count, but the wonderfulness starts to fall away when you look at how Sizemore has hit and the fact that he can no longer play an effective center field. With Gomes and Nava in left and Victorino in right, there isn't a spot for Sizemore unless his production warrants it, and as of now his production warrants being sent to Triple-A. Meanwhile Betts continues to tear up Double-A. In such a move, Betts would displace Jackie Bradley who would move to right field, or if Shane Victorino is healthy, back to Triple-A.
This all leaves us with the following lineup:
1. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
2. Xander Bogaerts, 3B
3. David Ortiz, DH
4. Mike Napoli, 1B
5. Daniel Nava, LF
6. Stephen Drew, SS
7. A.J. Pierzynski, C
8. Jackie Bradley/Shane Victorino, RF
9. Mookie Betts, CF
…and starting rotation
1. Jon Lester
2. John Lackey
3. Jake Peavy
4. Brandon Workman/Clay Buchholz
5. Henry Owens
I don't like using the word 'spark.' The Red Sox have more problems than a spark can solve, but eliminating Sizemore and potentially Bradley for one of the hottest hitters in the minor leagues should help improve the offense. The Drew signing will improve the production from the left side of the infield both offensively and defensively, and adding Owens gives the rotation some actual upside beyond waiting for Clay Buchholz to stop being awful.
Does raiding the Double-A roster after a bad two-week stretch qualify as panicking? Maybe. But the season is slipping away. Ten losses is one thing, but some serious cracks showing in the armor is another. It's time to bring the full force of the organization to bear. Even so, it's likely none of this will save the Red Sox. Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino, and David Ortiz are all going to have to remember how to hit, and Buchholz will have to fix his changeup or go somewhere else. But, like their team, their track records say the chances they improve are pretty good. Remember, this team won the World Series last year. It's getting harder and harder to remember.