What’s Worse Than the 2015 Red Sox Season?


If anything is certain in this bizarre Red Sox season, it’s that everyone has lost their fucking minds. Yes, this season has been one shot to the groin after another. First the pitching was terrible. Then that got better, as the numbers suggested it might. Which is when the offense, initially buoyed by an unsustainable spike in unearned runs, disappeared. Every night, the Red Sox seem to find new ways to lose. Starter goes 8 and gives up 2 runs? Our offense comes up empty against a rookie starter with unimpressive stuff. Offense puts an eight spot on the board? Pitching staff implodes and gives that away in an inning. When we get decent pitching and score a few runs? Well, the defense is happy to do its part to throw away games. And on and on and on and on and on.

I still watch and listen to the games more or less daily, so I get that things are miserable – I’m living it. But here’s the thing: this is baseball. There is a reason that cantpredictball is a Twitter account with over 28,000 followers, and that reason is that you can’t predict baseball. Or maybe you expected that the Rays, Royals and Astros would be atop their respective divisions?

For all that analysts like Curt Schilling are currently quick to remind everyone of their skepticism of this winter’s signings of Ramirez and Sandoval, I’m not aware of anyone who predicted that by June the Red Sox would be nine games under .500 and have the third worst record in the American League. And when I say anyone, I mean anyone. Not everyone picked the Red Sox to win the American League East like Fangraphs’ projections, but no one expected them to be this bad.

But they are. Which is bad because the math now says that our chances of making the playoffs are less than one in five. Back on April 5th they were better than sixty percent. So the Red Sox are losing – frequently – in brutal fashion, and every day we wake up less likely to make the playoffs than yesterday. Can’t get any worse, right?

Wrong. As if it’s not bad enough to watch the on the field product at the moment, off the field the average fan is now besieged by angry fans and media who have completely gone off the rails. It’s one thing for the jaded Peter Abrahams of the world to claim that the team is “immensely screwed” for the long term, but as noted by the essential Red Sox Stats, when the normally fair Ken Rosenthal starts arguing that it’s time to jettison your largest offseason signings less than three hundred at bats into their first season with the club you know people aren’t thinking clearly anymore.

So let’s try and do that for a second. Let’s look at the big picture questions and take them apart rationally.

Q: Should the Red Sox really try to trade Ramirez and Sandoval so soon?
A: First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: they’ve both been terribly disappointing. Below replacement level for forty or so million collectively, in fact. The question, however, isn’t whether they’ve been bad, but whether they can be expected to perform closer to expectations.

Let’s take Sandoval first because his case is easier. His stupidly overblown Instagram infraction notwithstanding – the third baseman has been acceptable offensively. When a right-hander is throwing, at least. The average major league third baseman this season has put up a .260/.317/.412 line. Sandoval’s a tick above average, then, with his .274/.326/.416 numbers. And that looks even better when you realize that last season’s third baseman, Will Middlebrooks, is at .230/.260/.397. His issues against left handers are concerning, but lifetime he’s hit left handed pitching adequately, so that seems like something that should regress to the mean.

The bigger problem is his defense. Since 2008, Sandoval has four seasons in positive UZR/150 territory and three in red, with his worst clocking in at -6.3 by that metric. This season he’s at -26.6. There are two ways to look at the data. One, he has, as of this season, not only lost the ability to play the position,he’s now among the worst in the league there. Two, he’s having early season jitters because of the contract, the city or both. I know which seems more likely to me.

Q: And what about Ramirez?
A: As for Ramirez, well, as I said, I’ve been watching the games. He is one of the worst defensive outfielders I have ever seen. I expected him to be better than this, and in fact I expect him to be better than this moving forward. But let’s assume he doesn’t get better, or not much better: can the Red Sox live with that? At least until Ortiz retires and you make him the DH?

To answer that question, let’s look at some numbers. From the start of the season through May 4th, Hanley Ramirez was rocking a .283/.340/.609 line with 10 home runs. To put that into context, if he’d kept up that pace, a .949 OPS would place him 8th in the league, just behind Mike Trout (.962) and Giancarlo Stanton (.951). On May 4th, however, he hit a wall. Again, literally. Since he took on Fenway Park and lost, he’s hit .260/.301/.377. Correlation doesn’t prove causation of course, and you can’t assume he’d keep up his original pace. But let’s assume he was somewhere in the .900 OPS range and the club was in contention for first place. Would the fever pitch for paying a lot of money for him to play somewhere, anywhere else be so high? Seems doubtful.

Shorter version of the above: trading either player right now would be idiotic. First, you’d be trading them at an absolute nadir in their value, which is bad, and you’d be dealing from a position of desperation, which is worse. Second, there are reasonable chances for improvement in both cases, in which case they’re both assets. And in Sandoval’s case in particular, you don’t have a viable alternative (no, Brock Holt is not a full time third baseman). The smart play here is to be patient, hope for rebounds for both players, either because it helps your team, because it boosts their trade value, or both. It’s also worth noting that Rosenthal has essentially no suggestions for who, if anybody, would take either player.

Q: Are the Red Sox really “immensely screwed” for the long term?
A: I’m not even sure where to start with this one. Let’s assume, conservatively, that you think the Red Sox winter trades/signings of Miley, Porcello, Ramirez and Sandoval are total losses at this point – that none of the above will be better than what they are right now. Collectively they’ll make $67 million dollars next year. If we were the Rays, then, we would indeed be existentially doomed. Per Cot’s Contracts, however, we entered this year with a payroll of $184 million. Next year’s obligations? $112 million. Even after accounting for the potential Ortiz option and raises via arbitration, the Red Sox are not the Bruins, with many needs but no room under the projected budget ceiling. Does anyone want to be spending money on replacement level players? Obviously not. But the Red Sox do have the ability to recover from financial mistakes.

Second, those crying that sky is falling usually fail to acknowledge that the Red Sox minor league system is relatively deep, even after the recent promotions – both planned and otherwise. Obviously the introduction of new players is not without risks as the club learned first with Jackie Bradley Jr followed by Xander Bogaerts and most recently with Mookie Betts. But most clubs would kill to have a collection of young, borderline-major league ready talent like Betts, Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Christian Vazquez and Eduardo Rodriguez, with Brian Johnson, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes and Pat Light waiting in the wings. Several of those players will fail, of course. But the Red Sox will very likely have several major league roster spots filled by young players, some of whom have All-Star potential, that will be making pennies on the dollar for the next three to six years.

Even if, however, you’re the type of fan or writer that is convinced that the Red Sox are uniquely unable to integrate young players, there are assets up and down the roster that can be converted into proven major leaguers. Further down the system, for example, any of Rafael Devers, Manuel Margot, Yoan Moncada or even potentially Michael Kopech could be the centerpiece in a major acquisition at some point.

At worst, then, the Red Sox may have some dead money on the roster for a few years. Existentially doomed, they are not.

Q: Should the Red Sox fire Ben Cherington, John Farrell or both?
A: For me, it’s no. And if you’re going to do it, there’s essentially no upside to doing it in season.

Of the two, the manager is easier because his role is theoretically more limited. Unlike football, the manager’s on the field tactical impact is relatively minimal over the course of a season. There are big picture concerns – is a given manager likely to Joe Torre-his favorite reliever into the ground, for example – but generally speaking baseball games are won by baseball players, not baseball managers. Which means that a manager’s primary contribution is outside the lines. How they manage to keep 25 very different competitive personalities from killing each other over the course of a season, for example. And in Boston, working with the media is a significant part of the job.

Asinine brushfires like the Sandoval-Instagram incident or Miley’s comically inappropriate blowup or no, Farrell seems to be managing both the clubhouse and the media about as well as can be expected given the circumstances. He’s no Tito – dismissing him was the worst move of this ownership’s tenure, in my opinion, other than replacing him with Valentine – but he seems to understand both stick and carrot.

The obvious caveat to the above is that we don’t really know what’s going on in the clubhouse. During the Valentine era we all try and pretend didn’t happen, for example, the local beat writers were eventually revealed as hopelessly compromised when the national writers came in and to a person diagnosed ours as “toxic.” So maybe it’s that bad right now and we just don’t know, in which case Farrell has to go. But I’d bet not.

As for Cherington, addressing his situation in full would require a post of its own, and maybe we’ll get there. But in general, two last place finishes going on three notwithstanding, it’s not clear that he’s the problem. He has made mistakes, certainly, and should probably not be allowed to trade for relievers anymore, but overall he’s navigated the complicated environment that is Boston as well as can be expected. Consider the problems facing him.

  • First, he has a rabid fanbase with very high expectations; the Astros’ strategy is simply not an option for the Red Sox general manager.
  • Second, ownership has seemingly prohibited him from doing some of the things the media wants him to do: sign an ace, for example – we’ll come back to that.
  • Third, he has to somehow ascertain remotely whether incoming players will be able to handle Boston, like Napoli or Victorino in 2013, or whether they’ll implode á la Crawford or Renteria. I believe the operative phrase there is good luck with that.
  • Lastly, he’s not great with the media and not much of a self promoter, so he’s not likely to find allies from the fourth estate. They run around asking Cherington to pay a 35 and 36 year old outfielder with a history of drug problems $30 million a year; instead he goes out and signs Koji, Napoli and Victorino with that money. When you win a World Series with that approach, reporters can’t say much. When you don’t, as with the non-signing of Lester, you leave yourself open to criticism. The more rational members of the media get this, and on detailed reviews of the track record build the case that Cherington’s not the problem. But there just aren’t that many rational members of the media. Alex Speier and Chad Finn from the Globe. Brian MacPherson and Tim Britton from the ProJo. Peter Gammons, always. There are a few others, but it’s a short list.

Q: Do the Red Sox need an ace?
A: I went on record prior to the season as saying no, and this trainwreck of a season has not altered that position. Would it be nice to have an ace-caliber starter? Of course. Would the season look much different if we had one? It’s hard to make that case. Unless we’re talking about someone like Ruth, who can hit a bit as well.

Q: So you don’t think they should have signed Lester, then?
A: If they had him here for the insulting $70 million they offered him last season, of course. Or if they could have gotten him on something closer to Porcello money, even, yes you want him on your staff. But consider that twice in his last four starts he’s given up at least five runs, and that his strikeout rate is down this year while his walk and home run rates are up. And that he’ll play next season as a 32 year old. Do I want that pitcher? Yes. Do I want to be on the hook to pay him over $150 million? No I do not.

One other interesting tidbit. Everyone talks about how the Red Sox need an ace, and how the club should have matched or outbid the cubs for Lester. Understandable, because he is sporting a 3.80 ERA and 3.57 FIP, good for almost a win and a half (1.4) by Fangraphs’ WAR. But how does that compare to Buchholz, who the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo is still trying to run out of town, all these years later? The pitcher every media member wants gone has a nearly equivalent ERA at 3.87 and is substantially besting his former rotation mate with a 2.81 FIP. This makes him worth better than two wins (2.1) by Fangraphs’ metric. In a league where there are no pitchers hitting.

Q: So the Red Sox shouldn’t trade Buchholz, then, as Cafardo recommends?
A: With the necessary caveat that everyone is available if the price is right, the idea is dumb enough it’s not even worth discussing.

Q: What about Rusney Castillo? Is he a $70-plus million dollar bust?
A: The media’s treatment of Castillo has been hilarious, when you think about it. First, they killed Cherington daily for having a “millionaire” playing the outfield in Pawtucket to see what they had, if anything, in Victorino. Now, Cherington’s taking fire for giving all that money to a player that everyone is convinced can’t play because he’s 28 and has a .551 OPS. You want to point out to writers like Silverman that the player has had less than 80 at bats this season, but, really, what’s the point? The it’s-way-too-early-to-make-judgements narrative isn’t going to generate the controversy the media lives off of. Anger sells. Patience, not so much.

Q: The farm system was talked about above very positively, but some believe our minor league talent is questionable, with Nick Cafardo quoting a scout as saying “Not as much there as you would think.” Should we be worried about the vaunted Red Sox farm system?
A: For a few Red Sox prospects, it hasn’t been a great year. Garin Cecchini, once viewed as a third base prospect with questionable defense who would at least hit for average and control the strike zone has done neither of those things with a .204 batting average and .278 OBP. He’s not hitting for any power, either, with a slugging percentage of .316. Henry Owens, meanwhile, who ranked ahead of current Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez on many prospect lists coming into the season has simply not performed. He hasn’t imploded to the degree that Cecchini has, as he’s still basically impossible to hit with a batting average against of .191, but his walk rate has soared and strikeout rate is down 10%. When a pitcher who’s never had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of less than 16% suddenly is in the low single digits, well, let’s just say he’s not on a fast track to the majors.

But looking beyond subpar performances like those, the future of the Red Sox system seems bright. Besides the graduated prospects currently maturing at the major league level and potentially helpful if not star caliber pieces at Pawtucket, the lower levels of the Red Sox system have a number of very interesting names – many referred to above.

Asked about the NL scout’s opinion about the Red Sox system, in fact, ESPN Prospect Analyst Keith Law said “he’d be wrong about that.”

Q: So if things aren’t all bad, why does it seem like they are?
A: Because when you’re not winning, at least in a town that cares about its team, this is what happens. Negative results breed negative sentiment which breeds negative stories which breed negative sentiment in a vicious cycle.

Q: But overall you’re positive on the Red Sox prospects?
A: Not for this season. I’m with the math; I think they miss the playoffs. They’re much better than they’ve played, but they’ve dug themselves too big a hole, in all probability. It’s very unlikely that a Wild Card will come out of the AL East, so they have to win the division. And while you never know how things will play out – injuries could hit any of the clubs, and none of them are exactly world beaters – even optimistic fans would have to acknowledge that the team is a long shot at this point.

But if we zoom out a bit and take a deep breath, I’m fine with where the Red Sox are at the moment. They have very talented positional prospects in Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley Jr and Swihart, they have young starters either with the club already (Rodriguez) or on the cusp (Johnson, Owens) and they even have a few of the highly coveted, hard throwing bullpen arms that the team has lacked in recent years on the way (Barnes/Light). After a precipitous dip last year, Pedroia’s power appears to be back. Buchholz has had his ups and downs, but is outproducing many so-called aces this season. Hell, even Allan Craig is hitting at Pawtucket – and his money is officially off the competitive balance books because he cleared outright waivers.

If you think then that each of Miley, Porcello, Ramirez and Sandoval are better than they’ve shown, and that some benefit of the doubt must be extended because of the new city/big contract factor, the roster looks that much better.

And even if they’re not, the club should have money available next year to improve. How much? Probably something close to what Houston’s paying their entire roster in 2015. Which is why we appear to be pretty far from “immensely screwed” looking beyond this year.

Lottery or Hedge Fund?

The moves by Boston prompted a rival executive to say, “It’s like the Red Sox are collecting lottery tickets — figuring that one of them is bound to pay off.’ ” – Buster Olney

The Red Sox have to spend some money this winter … but on what, exactly? If you think Jed Lowrie is good enough to play every day, the Sox entered the offseason set at every position. Sure, they could have wedged Tex in somehow. But they didn’t need him. They just needed to spend some money. With Teixeira gone, Theo Epstein was left to spend John Henry’s money on something else the Red Sox don’t need, and a future Hall of Famer and the next Joe DiMaggio fit the bill nicely.” – Rob Neyer

I’m not quite sure I agree with either assessment. While it’s true that we had roster holes to fill and thus were inevitably going to spend money, I’m not sure that the Teixeira signing is related. Theo and the gang have done an excellent job of not trying to answer that move by spending big dollars on a player that doesn’t deserve the contract.

Instead, we’ve purchased a number complementary parts whose risk and upside both range from minimal to substantial.

Are they all “lottery tickets?” Perhaps. But I think it might be more accurate to view them as small investments that are intended to serve as a hedge against injuries and fatigue. Penny and Smoltz in particular, I believe, are intended in part to keep Lester’s innings manageable considering that he jumped from 72.1 major league innings (postseason included) in ’07 to 236.2 in ’08.

And back to the subject of the money: how small are these investments, collectively? The base contractual commitments ($15.7M) – and I’m including Bard’s value though it’s reportedly non-guaranteed – amount to less than the Yankees will pay A.J. Burnett next year ($16.5).

Which is not to argue that Burnett is not a good signing; for a club with their resources, he’s a very high upside play. But for a club with greater financial limitations, such as ours, our spending indicates a diversification of risk on multiple assets with reasonable upside.

In other words, I like what our guys are doing.

In Case You Haven't Been Keeping Up With Current Events

Or, the inaugural edition of a recurring series.

The Beckett Update

Meant to mention this last week but, well, you know how it goes. If you haven’t seen it yet, Peter Gammons spoke with one member of the Red Sox front office who’s of the opinion that after Beckett’s current deal expires in 2010, we’ll be unable to sign the righthander.

“We’d better enjoy [Josh] Beckett the next three years,” one Boston Red Sox official said, “Because we won’t be able to sign him after his deal is up after 2010.”

Which is a grim prospect, not only because the Yankees will presumably have interest, but also because that’s just about the time that Tampa will be getting good (but more on that later).

Now even I can acknowledge that a problem three years away is a problem for another day, and I won’t get in a twist about it. At least, no more than usual.

But I think it’s worth noting that the $30M deal Beckett signed – much lamented by the Sports Guy during Beckett’s rough introduction to the AL – was in retrospect a masterstroke. Even if Beckett is hurt for a significant portion of it.

The Catching Update

In celebration of Truck Day, I treated myself to a copy of the Baseball America Prospect Handbook for 2008. It’s mildly alarming just how excited I was to get home and crack it, but that’s a subject for another day. Of greater interest was the catching depth chart, which BA lists as follows:

  1. Mark Wagner
  2. George Kottaras
  3. Dusty Brown
  4. Tyler Weeden
  5. Jon Egan

The good news is that – as previously discussed – Wagner owns the #20 spot on Boston’s Top 30 prospects list. The bad news is that Kottaras was last year’s #12, and Egan was last year’s #24, and both failed to make this year’s list. It would be inaccurate to say that it’s entirely a reflection on their respective seasons, as the overall depth of our system took a step forward last year, but neither did they progress as anticipated.

BA shares my concern about our catching depth, saying:

“the only unsettled long-term position on the Red Sox is catcher, where there’s no clear heir apparent to Jason Varitek. Wagner is the leading candidate to fill that role, as he has the most well-rounded game among a group of catching prospects that also includes Dusty Brown, Jon Egan, George Kottaras, Jon Still, and Tyler Weeden.”

Their prediction is that Wagner will be up in Portland this year, so I’ll try and get down to see him.

While it’s nice that BA shares my concern, the Red Sox front office is a bit more important in the overall equation. Since they’re in a position to do something about it, and so on. Anyhow it appears that they are applying the same shotgun approach to catching that it does to the bullpen: the more candidates you have, the better the chance that one proves viable. Back in October, we signed 24 year old Dennis Blackmon out of the independent leagues, and three days ago there was word we were close to bringing in Hayato Doue (see above video), a 25 year old Japanese catcher from the independent leagues over there.

Personally, I like these deals. True, the odds of Blackmon or Doue contributing in the long term are thin. But catching is in short supply, and I’d prefer to at least make the effort at finding a diamond in the rough. If we end up discovering nothing, and are forced to trade a Gold Glove caliber CF for a mediocre backstop like Gerald Laird (lifetime OBP of .297) so be it. But let’s at least look around first.

The Schilling Update

Generally, when someone medically trained characterizes a tendon in your shoulder as “irreversibly diseased” and “separate[d] into these bands of spaghetti” it’s not good news, but bad news. Which is what the news on Schilling is, quite obviously. It’s worth noting, as Buster Olney writes, that given the fact that Morgan is legally prevented from speaking without Schilling’s go ahead the aforementioned interview is essentially PR by proxy. Schilling apparently wants Red Sox fans to know that he does not agree with the diagnosis, but is unwilling to do more than hint at said disagreement on his blog, preferring to leave the direct messaging to an authorized mouthpiece. Ok.

Given everything Schilling has pitched through in his career, no one can ever question his ability to pitch with pain: the procedure that resulted in the bloody sock, after all, was first practiced on a cadaver. Seriously. So I have to believe that the big righthander honestly trusts Morgan that surgery offers him a legitimate chance at pitching this year.

Irrespective of what Morgan – and presumably Schilling – would prefer to do to address the current condition, however, the club and the player are apparently going ahead with a cortisone powered rehab.

When asked when Schilling would be able to pitch again using this approach, Morgan’s optimistic answer was: “never.” A real sunbeam, that guy. The guess here is that the two surgeons recommending this course of action are only slightly more hopeful than Morgan when it comes to rehab, but it’s obvious that they are spectacularly less positive about the prospects of a return this season if surgey is pursued. Ergo, the last ditch attempt at rehab.

Don’t know about you guys, but it sounds like it’s time for Plan B here.

The Yankee Update

Leave it to Peter Gammons to explain why it is my fondest wish that Brian Cashman and the Yankees part company, the sooner the better:

As he has done his entire tenure as general manager of the Yankees, Brian Cashman has spent the offseason doing what he believed was in the best long-term interests of the Yankees. Because he eschewed the Santana trade, Cashman’s job now is likely tied to Phil Hughes, Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, et al. But Cashman wants to build a long-term pitching staff, then take money and fill where he needs to build as the Yankees see a number of big contracts go away in the next two offseasons. With close to a half-dozen pitchers making less than $500,000 in 2009, Cashman next winter will be able to go get Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia and even Joe Nathan, if he so chooses.

I much preferred a Yankee club that spent and spent in a vain effort to solve more fundamental underlying problems. You know, just like our country does.

Can We Drop the Whole "The Red Sox Are the New Yankees" Thing Now?

Following the $100M+ the Red Sox shelled out for Daisuke Matsuzaka last offseason, I – like many Red Sox fans – was besieged with claims from (jilted) Yankees fans that “we were just like them.” That by virtue of that single capital expenditure, we were at once on equal financial footing with the Evil Empire. The media, true to form, picked up on this theme, debating such brain teasers as “would it be as fun to win now,” or “have we sold our souls?” Which obviously, I’ll ignore.

Herculean as my efforts were, however, I was entirely unsuccessful in persuading Yankees fans and good people alike that the two clubs remained quite distinct, in fact, in financial terms.

For while it’s convenient for fans of small market clubs like the A’s and Twins to lump all of the big market teams into a single bucket, the fact remains that we weren’t within hailing distance of the Yankees in terms of payroll numbers (the Matsuzaka posting fee aside, which I’ll get to in a moment). This inclination is understandable, given the respective payroll deltas. According to an AP report today, the gap between our roster and Tampa’s last year, for example, was $123.6, against the $62.9 million the Yankees spent above and beyond our costs.

So how are we different, in light of those numbers? Well, fortunately Allan Wood over at the Joy of Sox answered that question for you this past August:

Meaning you could take the Red Sox’s current payroll, add the salaries of

Ichiro Suzuki
Miguel Tejada
Kevin Millwood
Barry Zito
Albert Pujols
Dontrelle Willis

and still be about $1 million shy of the Yankees’ current payroll.

And that was with a payroll differential of $66M, not $62M.

We spend more than most every other club, it’s true. But please, can we drop the fiction that we’re the same as the Yankees?

Oh, and that monster posting fee which doesn’t get counted against officially reported payroll? Well, amortizing the fee over the 6 year life of the deal, I come out with a figure of $8.5 million per season. A hefty chunk of change for you and me, but not one that alters the above argument meaningfully.