Despite winning the World Series last season the Red Sox find themselves in last place. The odd thing is that this isn't new. Two seasons ago the Red Sox were in the basement of the AL East. Then last season they won the division and the World Series. Now they're back in last place. That's a bumpy ride and it sets up an easy narrative. Last year's Red Sox were lucky while the 2012 and current squads represent the true talent level of the organization. It's an easy conclusion to make. Of course, it's also wrong. What's more, in contrast to 2012, this year's Red Sox team is setting themselves up for a long run of success.
It's easy to forget, though it was only two seasons ago, but the 2012 Red Sox roster was comprised of a substantially different group of players than the current one. In 2012 the Red Sox began the season with an infield of Adrian Gonzalez at first base, Dustin Pedroia at second, Mike Aviles at short and Kevin Youkilis at third, while Jacoby Ellsbury, Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross manned the outfield. David Ortiz was the DH and Jarrod Saltalamacchia caught the starting rotation of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard. Heading up the bullpen was one of the best closers in the game (when healthy) in Andrew Bailey, with set-up man Mark Melancon arriving off an excellent season in Houston. And the piece de resistance: manager Bobby Valentine.
Contrasting that starting roster with this year's, and only Ortiz, Pedroia, Lester, Doubront and Buchholz remain (although Doubront's role has been shifted to the bullpen). Will Middlebrooks, who took over at third when Kevin Youkilis was traded to the White Sox in late June, is also still on the Red Sox roster, though he's played in just 21 games this season due to injury and substandard performance. Even (or especially) Valentine and his coaching staff have been replaced. Counting Middlebrooks, just 26 percent of the Red Sox' plate appearances in 2012 were taken by players still on the team today. In essence, looking for parallels between the 2012 Red Sox and the 2014 Red Sox has as about as much relevance as looking for parallels between the 2014 Red Sox and the 2014 Dodgers. There are some similarities, but mostly they're different.
The differences between this year's Red Sox squad and last aren't as numerous or notable, but there are some important distinctions that contain seeds for future optimism. First, for those wondering what has happened to this year's Red Sox and why they're in last place, the answer is simple: hitting, and more specifically, the lack thereof. The 2013 Red Sox were the highest scoring team in baseball. This year's Red Sox rank 28th in total runs scored. Why? The outfield is representative of the problems. Last year's Red Sox outfield of Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino and a left field platoon of Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes was the most productive in baseball by FanGraphs WAR, which measures offense, defense, and baserunning.
This season the Red Sox outfield is 19th in the same stat, and that represents a large up-tick in performance -- recently they were last in baseball. The reasons why are easy enough. Ellsbury signed with the Yankees in the off-season, taking his five-plus wins with him. A combination of rookie Jackie Bradley and former All Star Grady Sizemore replaced him. Sizemore was attempting a comeback following numerous knee surgeries and the Red Sox were optimistic about his being a productive player following a successful spring, but it wasn't to be. His production lacked, both in the field, where the team eventually realized he no longer had the speed or reaction times to play center field, and at the plate, where he struggled to hit, hit for power and get on base. As those are the three skills required of a hitter, he was recently designated for assignment. While Bradley's defense has been at an All Star-level, his offense has been more Triple-A; he's struggled to adjust to major league sliders. The result has been the worst-hitting centerfield combination in baseball.
In left field the Red Sox started the season with Gomes and Nava, but some bad luck resulted in an ugly batting line, and Nava was sent down to alleviate a roster crunch that could have resulted in the team cutting bait on Sizemore sooner than they'd have liked. The end result was negative production in left by Sizemore and Gomes, who is renowned equally for his ability to hit left-handed pitching and his inabilities to hit right-handed pitching or play defense.
In right field, Shane Victorino, who played so well on both sides of the ball last season, has been hurt. Mostly he's not played, but when he has been on the field the injuries have slowed him noticeably. In his place has been a rotating cast of lesser players.
Had things gone as planed, either Sizemore would have recaptured his former glory or at least been capable of playing, or Jackie Bradley would have hit competently, like his minor-league numbers suggested. Victorino would have stayed largely healthy or at last been able to cope with the aches and pains like last season. Nava and Gomes would have reprised their platoon in left with similar results. But none of those things happened and the result was brutal.
The outfield is the most glaring example, but it's not the only example of Boston's plans going awry. The team signed A.J. Pierzynski for a season to play capably at catcher but he didn't and, like Sizemore, was recently DFA'd. Will Middlebrooks was expected to play the season at third base but his bad performance and subsequent injury opened up a spot on the left side of the infield. Stephen Drew was brought back in mid-season to play his particular brand of above-average shortstop, a signing that pushed super prospect Xander Bogaerts to third base. So what happened? Drew hasn't hit (.135/.198/.258 coming into Sunday's game) and, after moving to third, Bogaerts entered a brutal slump from which he's yet to emerge that has dropped his OPS from .859 to .663.
The Eureka moment was the cutting of Pierzynski. It signaled the team realized their season was effectively over and the future lay, as the kids say, with the kids. This is another fundamental difference between the 2012 and 2014 teams. While both are (to date) last-place squads, the 2012 team never had a well of minor-league talent to draw from like the 2014 squad does. If they had, they never would have given hundreds of plate appearances to Pedro Ciriaco, Scott Podsednik, Mauro Gomez, Marlon Byrd (before he became good again) and Darnell McDonald, among others. Players like that are fine in small doses but depending on them to start for months at a time is a recipe for a bad record. Fortunately for Boston, all have moved on.
This brings us to the Seeds of Optimism part. Embracing their youth, Boston recently started five rookies against White Sox ace Chris Sale: Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Christian Vazquez, Bradley and Brock Holt. The funny part: they won.
The 2014 team may not be much when the final standings are printed, but their young talent rivals that any major-league roster. Holt is likely more of a super-utility player than a star, but Bogaerts, an up-the-middle player with power and on-base ability, is one of the most talented and coveted young players in baseball. Betts (whom I've written about before in this space) was called up, despite being 21 years old, because he can impact a game on the bases, defensively and at the plate. Bradley is coming around as a hitter (he's hit .393/.433/.464 over the last two weeks) and though his minor-league record hints at more, if he's merely capable offensively he'll be an above average starter for many years. Vazquez is the catching version of Bradley -- he's fantastic on defense (if arms had sentience his would be insane) and his bat needs to achieve only adequacy for him to be an above-average regular. Each of those players is in his early 20s, with six or more seasons of team control remaining. Plus, the Red Sox system is stacked with starting pitching prospects, including Henry Owens, who was picked to start the Futures Game this past Sunday.
The 2014 Red Sox might still finish in last place. Indeed, they're poised to sell off some parts at the trade deadline, moves that if made could worsen their projected record. By now we know the 2014 Red Sox aren't the 2013 Red Sox but, despite similarities in the standings, the 2014 Red Sox aren't the 2012 Red Sox either. If anything, the 2014 Red Sox are the 2015 and 2016 Red Sox, likely winning teams with lots of home-grown talent, and that's not such a bad thing.