Ave Atque Vale, Anderson Espinoza

Never again Mr. Onion

Certainly since, but also well before, the Red Sox signed David Price to an immense contract, fans have been reminded that the club has not been able to draft and develop starting pitching. The current rotation features zero products of our system, unless you want to count Eduardo Rodriguez who was drafted by the Orioles and spent a year plus on our farm. Buchholz, the last notable starting pitcher developed by the Red Sox has not been able to find himself and sadly, for me anyway, appears likely to be elswhere after August 1st.

Against this backdrop, then, it was surprising – even given the reputation that preceded “Trader” Dave Dombrowski – that our best pitching prospect was sent to San Diego in a deal for Drew Pomeranz. If you’re desperate to develop pitching, wouldn’t it make more sense to deal from your surplus of positional prospects? Or if those won’t secure the return you’re looking for or are too valuable to deal, to aim lower than Pomeranz and instead target an Ervin Santana?

Clearly the club believes in Pomeranz, that the recent changes in his pitch usage and the addition of a cutter are sustainable changes that bump him to a higher level than he achieved with Oakland. But if the priority is to win now, and the trade of Espinoza makes clear that that is in fact the priority, wouldn’t it make more sense to deal for a better bet to provide innings both down the stretch and into October? Let’s say Pomeranz pitches well for another month, then tires. At that point, wouldn’t it have made more sense to see what you could get for Espinoza in the offseason, when the market liquidity is higher and more pitchers are available? Or if the immediate priority isn’t this season, wouldn’t we prefer someone controllable for more than two more seasons?

About Espinoza, it’s fair to note both that he’s 18 and that pitching prospects are inherently more risky due to the fact that the human body wasn’t designed to throw a ball ninety plus miles an hour. But it’s also worth noting that unlike US players that were overworked in college, the bulk of Espinoza’s baseball career has been spent with the Red Sox, who have carefully and diligently monitored his usage. It’s also silly to compare Espinoza to the likes of Bowden, Kelly or Ranaudo: none were the caliber of pitching prospect that the player we traded was. None were close, even.

To some extent, the trade of Espinoza is a tragic what if scenario. What if, for example, Buchholz had pitched as he can? What if all of Elias, Johnson and Owens hadn’t either been unavailable or pitched poorly? What if, ironically, we hadn’t had to trade for the other principal starting pitching candidate – what if Dave Dombrowski had taken Rich Hill’s performance last year down the stretch seriously and signed him?

We don’t know what would have happened in those timelines, of course. What we do know is in this one, the Red Sox have traded a player Pedro Martinez called the “one guy we cannot trade” – a player who has been, famously, compared to Pedro. We also know the answer to another what if: what if a player like Sale were to become available? Espinoza is no longer available to headline such a deal.

It’s not necessarily that even a player like Espinoza should be off the table: everyone is available for the right return. But my reaction – both immediate and upon consideration – was closer to these opinions solicited by Alex Speier:

Even so, the idea of using Espinoza as the anchor of a package for a starter caught a number of evaluators by surprise. One NL evaluator suggested that he wouldn’t have dealt Espinoza unless it was for “a more impactful arm,” citing Chris Sale and Jose Fernandez as the caliber of pitchers he’d want if parting ways with arguably the top pitching prospect in the low minors. An AL evaluator was stunned by what he viewed as “an incredibly high price” for a pitcher in Pomeranz with so many unknowns.

If the Red Sox used Espinoza in a deal for Sale, which would obviously require an even further depletion of the system, it would be understandable. Dealing Espinoza instead for a pitcher like Pomeranz who comes with questions about his walk rate, the innings he can provide and his susceptibility to injury, suggests that Dombrowski’s impression of Espinoza is lower than just about every evaluator who has seen him.

And maybe that’s right. As Buster Olney quoted an evaluator this morning, “When was the last time Dave Dombrowski traded a really good player?” Which is reasonable, as it’s been a while. But this is also the General Manager who traded away Randy Johnson, Trevor Hoffman, Kevin Brown and Johan Santana.

Maybe Espinoza becomes the pitcher many are convinced he can be. Maybe not. But you can’t really argue that this is anything but a setback for the Red Sox’ systemic inability to develop starting pitching. And for the people arguing that he’s simply replaced by Groome in the system, no. You’re inarguably more likely to develop an ace out of the Espinoza, Groome and Kopech trio than you are out of just Groome and Kopech – particularly since the latter may throw harder than Espinoza but hasn’t shown the same promise with his other offerings.

Baseball is all about maximizing your returns. In this case, it’s not clear that the Red Sox did that. They bought high on Pomeranz while selling low, given his superficially mediocre numbers this season and the in season timing of the trade, on Espinoza. This single transaction was, in fact, what many of us had been afraid of when Dombrowski was hired.

Hopefully Pomeranz is lights out for his two and a half years here. In the meantime, we’ll have to ponder the biggest whaf if of them all: what if Anderson Espinoza turns out to be a legitimate ace?

The Great Red Sox Panic of 2016

On Monday, April 8th, 2002 Dave Dombrowski fired Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner after an 0-6 start. If the hope was to change the clubs fortunes, the move failed: his replacement Luis Pujols went a staggering 55-100. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Dombrowski tied the quickest hook for a manager since 1900 – the other unfortunate being Cal Ripken Sr in 1988.

In case there was any doubt, it has become clear over the past few days that John Farrell is aware of this history.

2015 was a difficult year for the current Red Sox manager. The team entered the season with great expectations following a second last place finish in three years, but after a mediocre start (12-10) in April the wheels came off in May (10-19). By the trading deadline, it was all over but the crying, and what few movable parts there were were shown the door for negligible return.

As bad as the on the field situation was, Farrell’s health off the field was the real concern. Shortly after undergoing hernia surgery on August 11, it was discovered that he had stage 1 lymphoma. He would not return that season.

Having staggered to a .439 winning percentage under Farrell, the team’s luck changed shortly after his exit. Buoyed in part by unexpected performances from young players like Bradley or Shaw, not to mention the merciful decision to stop running Hanley Ramirez out in left field, the Red Sox made a run towards finishing .500 by playing .636 ball under interim manager, and former bench coach, Torey Lovullo.

If this had all happened one year earlier, there is no managerial controversy. In 2014, Farrell was fresh off a World Series title and respected throughout the organization, some of his odd tactical decisions notwithstanding. By the time he took his leave of absence last year, however, he was coming off a last place finish and had overseen the club’s steady march towards their second in a row.

Hence the question: who should manage the Boston Red Sox? John Farrell or Torey Lovullo? And if you stick with Farrell, what becomes of Lovullo? The Red Sox answered these questions in early October, announcing that Farrell would return and that Lovullo had been retained as well.

Personally, this was my preferred outcome, because it seemed inappropriate that Farrell not be given the chance to manage again because of his cancer diagnosis. Looking back, however, it may have been kinder to simply fire him.

Throughout this spring, there’s been an undercurrent of desperation. Writers wrote about how the team needed to get off to a fast start, unnamed front office executives were quoted as saying the same, but nothing has confirmed this more than Farrell’s repeated statements that the players performing the best in Spring Training would be the ones receiving playing time when the season opens on Monday – as if Spring Training performances were reliable predictors.

Which is how we find the players expected to be starting at third base (Sandoval) and left field (Castillo) headed for the bench.

For many in Boston, this has been welcome news. Neither Castillo nor Sandoval performed last year – Sandoval was one of the worst regulars in the league, in fact – and three last place finishes in four years means that business as usual isn’t acceptable.

Except that Farrell and the club’s approach so far makes little sense.

The personnel decisions, for example, are clearly the product of panic, not rational planning. Sandoval’s first year was indefensible. Fine. He’s hardly the first big ticket free agent to succumb to the pressure of the contract, however. While populist sentiment is in favor of assigning playing time independent of contract terms, in practice this makes little sense. By putting Sandoval on the bench, you increase rather than decrease the pressure on a player who already struggled with it last year. Which elevates the risk of losing him entirely, at which point you now have seventy plus million of dead money to try and find a home for.

While starting Sandoval and hoping for a return to something closer to his historical performance baselines is the correct decision, sitting him would be understandable if he was blocking a known quantity at third base. He is not. Statistically, in fact, there is greater reason the believe in Sandoval than Shaw, as Paul Swydan covers well.

Even setting the money aside, from a career accomplishments’ standpoint, it would unquestionably be easier to start Sandoval than Shaw. If Sandoval falters, Shaw has his opportunity. If Sandoval bounces back, Shaw can either refine his craft in the minors – where he has not performed particularly well, notably – or serve as the bench bat he was expected to. By starting Shaw, the Red Sox are placing their faith in one good month in the majors and a handful of spring training at bats. If they’re wrong, and Shaw is not a major league regular, their backup option is a mentally fragile third baseman that they just publicly benched.

How does that make sense, exactly?

The decision to start Holt in left field over Castillo, meanwhile, is more defensible but just as puzzling. First, making Holt a near regular contradicts the club’s previous assertion that he performs better when not asked to play every day. Second, it flies in the face of their plan the entire offseason, which was to finally give Castillo an extended opportunity to see if he can make the most of it. Third, they made this decision, apparently, on a few week’s of Spring Training at bats. And lastly, if you’re that desperate to win games early that you need to start Holt over Castillo, why keep the latter on the major league roster? He’s certainly not going to improve by not playing as a fifth outfielder.

Worse than any particular personnel decision, however, is the tone that has been set around the club. As a cerebral game, baseball is not one that is played best under tension, or fear. It’s not good for the individual player’s performance, and it can lead to a poor decision-making which overvalues the present at the expense of the future.

The Red Sox appear fixated on coming out of the gate at a sprint. In a sport that is more of a marathon, however, this approach seems questionable at best. The club has, as Tim Britton writes, completely overhauled its philosophy this offseason. It’s understandable and to be expected that some change accompanies the last place finishes. But the last time the Red Sox over-rotated this far, we went from Tito Francona to Bobby Valentine.

The only consoling thought amidst the current panic, in fact, is that if things do begin to go south, we’re more likely to end up with Lovullo than another season of Bobby V.

Spring Training Thoughts on Five Players

The Boston Red Sox

Travis Shaw

The way the talk radio folks and writers are clamoring for Travis Shaw to start over one of Hanley Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval – over the winter it was the former, after Sandoval’s showing in camp he’s now the target – you’d think he was the second coming, a can’t miss prospect. The problem is that as a prospect, he’s mostly missed.

Shaw is about to turn 26, and in basically a full season’s worth of at bats at AAA he’s gotten on base at a .319 clip and slugged under .400. Some have openly wondered why it took so long for him to get playing time at Napoli’s expense last year. The answer is that he was putting up a .249/.318/.356 at Pawtucket. Those aren’t great numbers for a centerfielder. They’re abysmal for a first baseman.

Based in part on his surprising performance at the major league level last year over 65 games – 13 home runs and a workable .327 on base percentage – there’s something of a media campaign to start Shaw somewhere, anywhere. And granted, both Ramirez and Sandoval were so dismal last year it would be hard to be worse. But there are two problems with the Shaw campaign.

First, his minor league track record suggests that last year’s major league numbers are unsustainable. It’s possible to be a better player in the majors than you were in the minors – Trot Nixon was, for the most part. But it’s not common.

Second, just as with Jackie Bradley Jr a few years back, writers who should know better are making the case based on not only Shaw’s spring training at bats, but a tiny sample of them. As Peter Abraham – one of the writers who led the charge for JBJ based on his Ruthian spring training – writes, “A 1.430 OPS demands attention, even if it’s for eight games in spring training.”

Well no, it doesn’t actually. Not only is it spring training, it is eight games. Fortunately, Abraham’s colleague Alex Speier dismantled that argument efficiently, saying: “The recent history of extraordinary Red Sox spring performances suggests that what transpires in March does very little to illuminate what a player might do when the curtain lifts on the season.”

We’d all love to see Shaw succeed, both because we want the Red Sox to have more great players not less and because it’s a nice story. But we need to pump the brakes on the “Free Travis Shaw” campaign.

Hanley Ramirez

Heading into spring training, most of the negative attention of last year’s free agent disasters was on Ramirez. Which made sense to anyone who saw him play in the field. Fans and media alike convinced themselves that based on his implosion in the undemanding position of left field, he was certain to be unplayable at first.

This always seemed unlikely. Most obviously, because he at least had experience playing the infield. But the more important reason, in my view, was the offense factor. Simply put, if Ramirez hit the way he did last April, his defense wouldn’t be the same topic. Instead of asking can he play the position, it would be something closer to “he can’t be as bad as he was in left, right?”

But of course he didn’t hit for the season the way he did in April. Far from it, in fact. In March and April, he got on base at a .341 clip and slugged an eye popping .659. In the second half last year, those numbers fell to .211 and .239.

Which is the real Hanley? Likely neither. He’s not going to slug better than .600 for a season, but it seems equally improbable that he’d be below .300 again. The thing that supports the optimistic view of his offense this year is the injury. On May 4th, Ramirez ran into the left field wall hard. Up until that point, he was putting up a .283/.340/.609 line. From May 9th when he came back through the end of his season, he hit .239/.275/.372.

If his shoulder is healed, and by all accounts it is, I’ll take the skeptics’ bets and say that because he’ll hit, Ramirez will be playable at first. Not good, but good enough to stick around until the DH spot opens up.

Pablo Sandoval

Surprisingly, Sandoval seemed to take a lot less heat this offseason than Ramirez. Maybe it’s because he showed flashes at least that he could play a position on the field, unlike his free agent counterpart, but while he took flak, most seemed to believe that he’d rebound to some extent.

Allow me to take the under. Sandoval will start the season as the third baseman, as he should given his track record and Shaw’s lack of one, but my bet is that he doesn’t survive the season. He didn’t look good when he reported to camp, didn’t tell the media what they wanted to hear, and as a result the writers are smelling blood in the water. For a player coming off a career worst year, this season could not have started worse, and it’s difficult to see how he recovers when literally every miscue, every small slump is going to be scrutinized like the Zapruder tape. Every ground ball that gets through is going to be a referendum on his conditioning, every strikeout a reminder that his offensive numbes had been in decline even before he put the ink to his current contract.

In a fair, just world, Sandoval would be given a mulligan on an undefendable first year and a fresh start to try and prove he’s worth some fraction of the money he’s being paid. The Boston writers are not big believers in a fair, just world however. They’re believers in deadlines, and a camp short on real positional battles and thus stories.

If he lasts through the first half, it will be a surprise, and given the stated urgency it would not be a shock if they didn’t even bother to trade him for another bad contract but simply released him.

Steven Wright

As I write this, there is a battle for the fifth spot in the rotation – the opening unfortunately created when Eduardo Rodriguez caught a spike and – temporarily, apparently? – dislocated his kneecap. Wright’s chances of making the club appear to be excellent, both because he’s pitched reasonably well and because none of the other potential candidates in Elias, Johnson or Owens have particularly. The hope here is that he sticks around, both because he would certainly be lost to waivers as he’s out of options and the return in a trade would probably not equal his value to the club. Knuckleballers have their limitations, obviously, but it’s not that much of a stretch to see Wright playing a role similar to an Adam Warren: capable spot starter and can give you multiple innings out of the bullpen. That has value.

Christian Vazquez

What you think of Christian Vazquez is dependent, in most cases, on what you think of Blake Swihart. If you think the latter will be as advertised with the bat – i.e. the player that draws comps to Buster Posey, the answer is, as Chad Finn said here, obvious.

It’s less obvious to me. Count me as one who puts a premium on catcher defense. No one doubts – the Tommy John surgery notwithstanding – that Vazquez is transcendent defensively. Which is that much more important because our pitching staff is anything but reliable, with a few notable exceptions like recent imports Kimbrel and Price.

The question I would be asking myself if I’m Dombrowski is whether Swihart can become Vazquez to a greater degree than Vazquez can become Swihart. Swihart may be, or become, an elite offensive catcher. Vazquez already is an elite defensive catcher. Can Vazquez offer sixty or seventy percent of Swihart’s offense, then? Conversely, can Swihart do the same for Vazquez’ defense?

I have no idea, but as enormous as it would be to have a standout offensive performer at the catching position, I’m biased towards current performance over future potential – particularly when Vazquez’ defense can be a multiplier that makes the entire pitching staff better.

All of that being said, this is the proverbial good problem to have. If they stick with Swihart and he fulfills his potential, that’s an amazing asset. And this isn’t an issue, in my opinion, that needs to be forced. I’d be fine starting Vazquez in the minors to bring him back from his injury slowly. The only reason to do otherwise, in fact, would have been to trade Hanigan early in spring training to give him time to get know his new staff, but that ship has sailed.

If you had to bet, Swihart should be your horse. In other years, the wild card that is Vazquez’ offense would be less of an issue. With third base, left field and center field, to name but three examples, currently occupied by players who may or may not be able to hit at the major league level, Vazquez may be one risk too many.

On Dave Dombrowski: I Have Some Concerns

When you’re on track for a third last place finish in four years, World Series sandwiched in there or no, it’s not surprising that the popular reaction to the front office’s regime change is positive. For the casual fans that read, say, Dan Shaughnessy, patience and a bigger picture perspective are in short supply, so the reality that last place finishes or no, Ben Cherington is leaving behind a solid foundation is not well understood. Or appreciated, at least. But he has.

Last winter’s major signings are disasters today, no argument. The free agent acquisitions of Pocello, Ramirez and Sandoval were so unsuccessful, in fact, that they are unmovable absent either major financial or prospect sweeteners attached. Sweeteners that make dealing them highly impractical. And as Cherington said, while the responsibility for those signings may not rest entirely with him, as it’s impossible to know where the ideas behind those deals originated and the degree to which ownership was or was not involved, the accountability is, or rather was, Cherington’s alone. Just as Cherington is rightly hailed as the architect of the 2013 World Series win, he is equally the person on the hook for those signings and the third last place finish they contributed to.

But this isn’t the place to debate Cherington’s tenure. Amherst alum or no, I’m more positive on Cherington’s work than most, and I think it’s easily possible to build the case that he didn’t deserve his fate, but even his supporters must acknowledge that the arguments for his removal and replacement are not particularly difficult to marshal.

It’s unfortunate that the process played out the way it did, of course. Under normal circumstances, ownership may have had no responsibility to keep Cherington informed of the process of hiring someone up the chain of command such as Dombrowski. But given both the public support offered for Cherington and more importantly the conversations he reported having with Henry and Werner about the process of improving the front office, Cherington was seemingly well within his rights to expect to be looped in to any such plans. When blindsided about the hire, then, ownership had no right to expect Cherington to do anything other than what he did. Why, for exanple, would ownership give Cherington the go ahead to bring on DiPoto in an advisory capacity one week and then hire Dombrowski the next? As Peter Gammons asks, why was Cherington lied to? Ownership has the right to make whatever decisions they like regarding they fate of their front office, but it’s a shame that they keep bungling the people side of things because they’re uncomfortable with confrontation.

None of which has anything to do with Dombrowski, of course. How they handled communications with Cherington up to and subsequent to their recruitment of Dombrowski has little bearing on whether bringing him on board was the correct decision, or whether Cherington could have righted the ship on his own.

If nothing else, Dombrowski offers value to ownership from a PR perspective. To the legions of frustrated, impatient fans, they can point to this change as a sign that they’re not standing pat, that losing is unacceptable, et cetera, et cetera. What could be more impressive than hiring the man who Jonah Keri calls “one of the best front-office guys in the sport?”

It would silly to argue that an executive with Dombroski’s pedigree had nothing to add beyond PR cover, of course. From the Expos to the Marlins to the Tigers, Dombrowski has amassed an impressive track record of success. It’s not without blemishes or missteps, of course, but there have been no perfect baseball executives to date, Branch Rickey included. Dombrowski also brings, as did DiPoto when he was brought on, a fresh set of eyes, one that is less personally attached to the individual prospects and – theoretically, at least – more disposed to view them dispassionately as assets to be used for the betterment of the Red Sox organization, whether that’s as players or trade fodder.

All of which makes it sound like the hiring of Dombrowski is a positive development, and it may well be. Personally, however, I have some concerns. The problem isn’t as much Dombrowski versus Cherington, but rather what specifically, organizationally, that means.

Most objections to Dombrowski are relatively superficial. “He can’t build bullpens!” “He’s going to trade away our entire farm system!” These aren’t entirely without substance, of course, but they’re not the real worry. Detroit’s consistent lack of a bullpen obscures the fact that other clubs he’s managed have produced elite relievers: Robb Nen, for example. And while I very much hope that our farm system – which Cherington has built into what is widely regarded as the best in the game – isn’t gutted, there is little argument that we have areas of redundancy from which to deal. As much as I love Manuel Margot, for example, we have three (in my view) young, talented centerfielders are on the major league roster already. We also have an emerging talent two levels behind Margot in Benintendi. So if Dealin’ Dave turns some of these talented but blocked players into young talented players at other positions, well, that’s what the farm system is for. If we drop from #1 to, say, #10 in an effort to acquire young, elite and major league-ready talent, then so be it.

No, my issue is what Dombrowski’s hiring means for the Red Sox organization. There are two ways this can go, in my view. Behind door number one is Frank Wren. Behind door number two is Mike Hazen. The former would be a disaster, in my view, while the latter offers hope that this could actually make the organization stronger. Here’s why.

Frank Wren

According to Ken Rosenthal, a “rival executive” will be shocked if Dombrowski hires anyone other than Wren. Here’s what ESPN’s Keith Law had to say about that idea:

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but why? What’s the problem with Frank Wren?

There are many, but for me it’s not the obvious problems like his free agent errors – if you think Ramirez and Sandoval are bad deals, check out BJ Upton or Dan Uggla. Issues like that could and would be mitigated by having Dombrowski as the final decision maker. No, my issue with Wren is his ability – or rather, lackthereof – with people.

Whatever one thinks of Cherington and his front office at present based on their track record the past four years, the fact is that the Red Sox are an extremely bright, progressive organization. In a podcast with the Globe’s Alex Speier, Law calls the front office “if not the best, one of the best” in baseball. It’s easy to forget now in the wake of another lost season, but this a front office that delivered us three titles in less than a decade. It’s a front office that is sufficiently well regarded so as to be periodically raided for talent by other major league clubs. Hell, the Cubs president and general manager are both products of the Red Sox front office. The front office is also responsible for the drafting and international signings that have left the club as the consensus best farm system in the game.

The very intelligent – and thus, valuable – collection of individuals is very loyal to Cherington, a man whose critics even go out of their way to acknowledge as posessed of exceptional integrity, honesty, and accountability. The same man who was just treated in a less than ideal fashion by ownership.

If the perfect world is one in which the Red Sox complement their existing well regarded front office – one, importantly, that is exceptionally capable in an area where Dombrowski’s successor in Detroit acknowledged the club to be behind, analytics – with his traditional scouting acumen, the nightmare is one in which Dombrowski’s hire leads to a massive exodus of the best and brightest of baseball minds. Minds that it’s taken this Red Sox ownership group over a decade to accumulate.

What then would be the simplest method of setting this nightmare in motion? By introducing into this already unsettled situation a general manager who’s bad with people. Which brings us back to Wren. Here’s what Atlanta writer Mark Bradley said about the Braves’ ex-GM Wren in a piece ostensibly recommending the hire entitled “Frank Wren to Fenway? Why this could actually work.”

Wren wasn’t fired because of wins and losses. He was fired in part because he whiffed egregiously on Dan Uggla’s contract extension and especially on the free-agent signing of B.J. (now Melvin Jr.) Upton, but mostly he was fired because he ran the organization but made almost no allies. Nobody disputed that he was smart and hard-working. He just wasn’t very good with people.

If the best arguments in favor of your hiring include phrases like “made almost no allies” and “just wasn’t very good with people,” let’s just say you have issues. If I’m Red Sox ownership, and I want to preserve any semblance of continuity with the organization that I’ve spent a decade building and is both well regarded externally and has delivered more world championships over the span than any other organization in the game, I make clear to Dombrowski that under no circumstances is Wren to be considered, let alone hired.

If not Wren, though, then who?

Mike Hazen

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that some measure of organizational continuity is valued. How does an incoming leader build bridges into this new organization? By elevating one of its own.

In his reaction to the Dombrowski hiring, Peter Gammons floated the idea of Mike Hazen as the new Red Sox GM under Dombrowski. This is a decision that almost certainly won’t happen because it makes too much sense. Among the justifications:

  1. Hazen is ready for a General Manager’s role, having been a candidate for and interviewed for openings such as the Padres
  2. Hazen comes from the heavily analytical Red Sox front office tradition, and thus would mitigate Dombrowski’s weakness in that area
  3. Hazen would be much better for the retention of key Red Sox front office personnel than a candidate like Wren
  4. Hazen’s retention would be a signal, internally and externally, to the front office that Dombrowski’s hiring is not the repudiation of the Red Sox analytical philosophy that it is currently being made out to be
  5. Hazen’s institutional knowledge and experience will be important given Dombrowski’s minimal window to evaluate minor league talent prior to this offseason’s trading opportunities

The only real downside to Hazen’s hiring, unless Hazen has significant professional shortcomings that have not been made public, is that he hasn’t worked with Dombrowski previously. If I’m the Red Sox ownership group, however, I would strongly “encourage” Dombrowski to look beyond that, because the upside to a candidate like Hazen stands in stark contrast to the downside of one like Wren.

The Net

The decision to hire Dombrowski, or at least the way in which the ownership group went about the move, is reminiscent of what I’d argue is the worst decision of their tenure, the dismissal of Tito Francona. In the wake of the disastrous 2011 collapse, ownership essentially assigned Francona the blame for a starting rotation that was so desperate that Kyle Weiland was run out every five days. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, and Francona took the fall. In similar fashion, Cherington was effectively held accountable for a perfect storm of mistakes, whether these could have reasonably been foreseen or not.

Whatever mistakes were made in this process, however, do not need to be compounded further by the addition of a candidate like Wren. It is entirely possible for the Red Sox front office to emerge from this transition better and stronger than it was previously, because the addition of an evaluator like Dombrowski to an organization with already elite analytical capabilities is intriguing.

But for this marriage to work, Dombrowski needs to let the existing front office employees know their talents are valued, and the simplest way to do that is by hiring one of their own as his General Manager. If he’s not interested in preservation, but instead wants to work with only those he’s known like Wren, well, let’s just say I’m not looking forward to the future.

The 2016 Red Sox Roster

IMG_20150624_182117626_HDR-PANO (1)

With 2015 officially a lost cause, it’s time to start thinking about 2016. Not because it beats watching a bullpen with one reliable arm that’s been worked to the point of not being reliable anymore try to get nine or more outs every night. Or not just because of that. No, if 2015 has any utility at this point beyond the comfort of having baseball available as a soundtrack to our respective summers, it’s the ability to evaluate players and test them at positions in ways that are not possible for a team that actually needs to win games.

To leverage this time properly, however, it’s necessary to have hypotheses about the construction of the 2016 roster to test. We don’t need to allocate playing time to De Aza, for example, because it’s extremely unlikely he’ll be around next year. Seeing what we have at this point in time in Bradley Jr and Castillo, on the other hand, is enormously important to the planning for next year.

Here then is the roster I would assemble for next year. Playing time for the rest of this year would be dictated by this projection, with those in the plans receiving the playing time with everyone else getting spot starts here and there where rest is necessary.

To be clear, this is what I would do, not what I expect the front office to do. Or at least not entirely. Given the two consecutive last place finishes, the front office may not be able to take the chances necessary to commit to the roster below, and they’re required to cope with variables such as egos and contracts that those of us who do our planning on paper do not. Because the positional players will impact the pitching staff, we’ll start with them.


In general, the Red Sox have the potential for an above average infield offensively, with defense questionable at the corners but solid at worst up the middle. Much depends on whether the club decides to pull the ripcord on their largest recent free agent deals, but given the cost of moving either Ramirez or Sandoval with the dollars attached to both and the potential for a rebound in both cases, I would not. Onto the specifics.

Designated Hitter

Starter: Ortiz
Backup: Ramirez
Depth: Shaw (AAA)

Not much to debate here. Ortiz’ option for next year has been triggered, he cannot be traded without his consent and has stated he will not accept a trade, and has recovered from a very slow start to post a .263/.351/.506 line, good for a 130 OPS+. He’s still having problems with left-handed pitchers, but the problem is far less acute than it was at the start of the year.

Besides, how he has performed to date is relatively academic. Argument about whether Ortiz should or should not be the DH next year are irrelevant: he will be, by virtue of his contract and his stature with the club.


Starter: Vazquez
Backup: Hanigan
Depth: Swihart (AAA)

It’s somewhat surprising in this trainwreck of a season given the periodically horrific struggles of the pitching staff – it cost Nieves his job, remember? – that more isn’t made of the loss of Christian Vazquez to injury. As well regarded as he is defensively, and he is very well regarded indeed with one AL West club apparently considering him the best defensive catcher in the league, it would be absurd to try and make the argument that the problem with our pitching has been the catching staff. The pitching staff, bullpen and rotation both, is short of talent.

But it’s just as nonsensical to lament the state of the pitching and not acknowledge the impact of the loss of Vazquez. Everyone remembers the obvious incidents such as Leon having Tazawa throw a 3-0 fastball right down the pipe to Alex Rodriguez, who promptly deposited the pitch over the fence. It’s harder to consider the impact of the loss of Vazquez’ pitch-framing skills.

Metrics vary, and debates over the precision of pitch-framing persist, but it’s safe to say that any borderline strikes a catcher can steal for his pitcher are a good thing. And Vazquez steals them about as well as anyone in the game.

Neither Hanigan nor Swihart is exceptionally bad at framing, exactly. Two seasons ago Hanigan was in the Top 10 in the league at the art, though he’s down to 51 by BP’s numbers this season. Swihart has fared a bit better this season, placing 19th in the number of total strikes stolen and well ahead of that on a rate basis.

Neither is in Vazquez’ league, however. According to BP, for example, in 3499 framing opportunities this season, Swihart has stolen just under 20 strikes. Last season, in 429 fewer chances Vazquez stole just under 95 strikes. It’s impossible to make the argument that this year’s pitching staff would not have benefitted from the 85 or so balls that Vazquez would have turned into strikes. It’s just difficult to know how much.

Given that even in a best case scenario, we’re not turning over the entire pitching staff then, I would want to maximize the performance of the pitching that I do have. Which means making Vazquez the primary catcher, assuming he’s recovered sufficiently from Tommy John surgery.

Because he’s far from established offensively, however – he put up an OPS+ of 75 in 2014 – you want his backup to be somewhat capable offensively. Hanigan’s no star with an OPS+ this season of 81, but he at least gets on base at a reasonable clip (.348 OBP this season). Swihart would doubtless be less than thrilled at being returned to AAA next season, but he’d get some seasoning and doubtless be up soon given the fact that Vazquez is coming off major surgery and Hanigan has played more than 100 games once in nine years.

In a perfect world, Swihart becomes at least a poor man’s Vazquez when it comes to framing. If this were to happen, you’d take the slight hit in defensive ability in return for Swihart’s far greater offensive upside, and use Vazquez as a potentially significant trade chip.

Until then, however, the pitching staff needs all the help it can get, which means Vazquez stays.

First Base

Starter: Ramirez
Backup: Holt
Depth: Shaw (AAA)

Chad Finn, as he so often does, already summed this up better than I can so just go read his piece. For those that want a summary, it’s pretty simple. Ramirez is a trainwreck in left. He might be a trainwreck at first, and you have to consider Butterfield’s comments about the underappreciated difficulty and impact of the position, but at least he has history playing the infield. Removing Ramirez from the outfield also allows you to roll out an entire outfield of above average defenders, but we’ll get to that. Worst case, you survive him at first for a season, hope Ortiz retires after next season 500 home runs in hand and you put him where he can’t do any harm on the field: DH.

There are other options, but none are particularly attractive. Free agency, from Chris Davis to a return of Mike Napoli, would require the club both pay a free agent premium and be willing to accept some boom or bust risk. As for in house candidates, Travis Shaw is a great story at the moment, and it’s to his credit that he’s making the most of his opportunity, but we’re still talking about a player with a .256/.319/.395 line in 158 games at AAA. If the Red Sox have some reason to suspect his current performance is sustainable, be it a swing change or similar, so be it. Otherwise, virtually nothing in his minor league track record suggests that he should be handed the starting job. Keeping him at AAA for depth reasons, and to prove that this second half performance is not a fluke, is the smart play.

In short, moving Ramirez to first base both addresses a potentially gaping roster hole for next year and allows the club to rectify its mistake in attempting to live with a compromised outfield defense. The Red Sox decision on this is particularly important, because while the club has stated it will not play Ramirez at the position in 2015, he should be playing it at least part time.

The Red Sox saw what happened when he attempted to learn a new position on the fly this season, and it helped cost them games. If it’s going to do the same at first base, it would be nice if the games lost to his training didn’t matter.

Second Base

Starter: Pedroia
Backup: Holt
Depth: Marrero (AAA)

As with DH, not much debate here. Barring some inconceivable trade, Pedroia will be the Red Sox second baseman in 2016. It will be an unusual offseason, however. For the past several seasons, there was a great deal of debate as to whether Pedroia’s depressed offensive numbers were a sign of inevitable decline or more attributable to two years of hand and wrist injuries. His 2015 campaign to date suggests it was more of the latter. His numbers certainly are not what they were during his MVP peak, but they’re solidly above average for the position.

But the aspects to his play we’re used to taking for granted in spite of the ups and downs of his offense, his defense and baserunning, have taken hits this season. Given his age, and the hamstring issue that has put him on the DL twice this year, then, the Red Sox will for the first time in years have cause to question what they’re going to get defensively out of second base.

Third Base

Starter: Sandoval
Backup: Holt
Depth: Shaw (AAA)

There is no getting around the fact that Sandoval’s first year with the Red Sox has been a disaster. By Fangraphs WAR metric, Sandoval has been worth -1.3 wins. For $17M this year, then, the Red Sox have gotten a player who’s below replacement level. Offensively, his strikeout rate is up, and his walk rate, average, on-base and slugging percentages are all down. Which is bad. His defense has been amongst the worst in the league at the position, which is worse. Virtually the only consolation is that the player he replaced – Will Middlebrooks – was even worse, with a .212/.241/.361 line that got him sent back to the minors again while just shy of being 27.

The Panda’s been bad, in other words. Really, really bad. The question is what to do? Some have suggested throwing in a sweetener and trading him for another bad contract such as James Shields. But the question here is whether you believe this is really his new level of ability. Whether Sandoval has, in a single season at the age of 29, eroded from a slightly above average offensive and defensive performer – albeit with a problematic trajectory – to a below replacement level player.

Personally, that seems less than likely, and coupled with the lack of a real alternative – unless you think Shaw is a starting third baseman for a first division team – I’d sent him to what used to be known as the Athlete’s Performance Institute this offseason and hope for a bounceback. Best case, you get the player you thought you were getting and don’t have to both plug the third base hole and eat another bad contract. Worst case, his performance level is similar and your bargaining position is slightly improved by the fact that there’s less money for a trading partner to take on.


Starter: Bogaerts
Backup: Holt
Depth: Marrero (AAA)

Perhaps the easiest decision on the field, Bogaerts is your shortstop for 2016 – much to the chagrin of sportswriters who enjoyed milking the “revolving door at shortstop” metaphor. Though his value at present is heavily batting average driven, count me among those who believe that his power will come. After a hot start last year, he fell into such a hole that some questioned whether he’d ever make enough contact to be a starting shortstop, let alone live up to the hype that accompanied him as a prospect. This season’s adjustments have seemingly answered those questions; my suspicion is that after another offseason, he’ll be in a better position to know when to look for pitches he can drive.

Even more impressive than his offensive improvement last season to this has been his play in the field. He’ll never be Iglesias or even, probably, Marrero, but the questions about whether Bogaerts can play the shortstop position at the major league level have essentially ended. He’s smoother, more confident and more intelligent on defense, and the total package he’s bringing to the table at present has him as the fourth most valuable shortstop by WAR in baseball.

Power and walk rate questions notwithstanding, that’s a starter.


According to Peter Gammons, Cherington “has singled out defense as his primary focus on improving his team,” which means extended looks for Castillo and Bradley. As discussed above, the simplest mechanism for improving the outfield defense is removing Ramirez from it. Even if the Red Sox were to substitute a replacement-level talent, it would be a significant net win. The Red Sox, however, do not have to replace Ramirez with a replacement-level talent: they can legitimately field an outfield of three center-fielders. Here’s how I would deploy them.

Left Field

Starter: Castillo
Backup: TBD/Holt
Depth: Margot (AA)

Castillo is funny in a way. First the writers buried the front office for being patient and stashing him in AAA. Then the writers buried the front office for signing him to a $70+ million contract, having concluded after a hundred and fifty at bats or so that he was not a major league player. Then, having finally been granted regular at bats in the majors, he’s put up a .339/.369/.548 line in a very small sample of second half at bats and writers swung back the other way.

What Castillo is offensively remains to be seen, and will likely be scrutinized heavily over the last month and a half. Defensively, however, he’s an immediate and major upgrade over Ramirez in left, with the capability to shift to center or right as needs warrant. If you assume that some of his initial struggle is attributable to the adjustment from moving from Cuba to the US, and to his substantial layoff from live baseball, it’s certainly reasonable to assume Castillo is better offensively than the .282/.337/.385 he put up in AAA. So even if his second half surge is unsustainable, a midpoint between the two – say a .350ish OBP with .450 power – would make him enormously valuable.

Center Field

Starter: Bradley Jr
Backup: TBD/Holt
Depth: Margot (AA)

The case for Jackie Bradley Jr in center is that he is the best defensive centerfielder in the majors. The case against Jackie Bradley Jr in center is that even with his second half explosion he is the owner of a .204/.282/.312 line over 600+ plate appearances in the major leagues. Even with his transcendent defense, that won’t play. The question then is what’s more representative of his true offensive level: the 65 lifetime major league OPS+ or this year’s 126? The .593 OPS lifetime major league OPS or the .851 OPS over 1300 minor league plate appearances?

I’ve always been inclined towards the latter, in both cases. I was not in favor of his promotion out of spring training in 2013, his Ruth-like numbers notwithstanding. The premature promotion obviously isn’t solely to blame for his struggles since, but it certainly didn’t help. But with the rare exception, Bradley Jr always performed in the minors, so I’ve had faith.

It’s probably not reasonable to expect him to be throwing up multiple double and home run games regularly, but as Matthew Kory documents, there are mechanical reasons to expect that some aspect of his performance is not a simple small size artifact. If this is true, and the next month and a half should give us more evidence one way or another (although September’s data is less valuable due to callups), he’s my center fielder next season. Yes, over Mookie.

There is certainly precedent for young centerfielders prematurely exposed to the major leagues to struggle for several years before finding their footing – see Gomez, Carlos. Bradley Jr may not be likely to follow that path offensively, but he doesn’t have to. He just needs to hit enough to carry that glove.

Right Field

Starter: Betts
Backup: TBD/Holt
Depth: Margot (AA)

Larry Lucchino has traditionally been fond of saying that the Red Sox need two centerfielders given the dimensions of Fenway: one for center, and another for right. I’d keep Mookie playing centerfield, therefore, I’d simply have him do that from rightfield. And ideally, from now through the rest of the season.

Shifting him to right has nothing to do with Mookie’s play. While he took some lumps early as expected, he’s putting up a .270/.320/.438 (104+ OPS) line as a 22 year old while playing well above average defensively. As measured by WAR, in fact, Betts has been a tick more valuable than Bogaerts, in spite of the latter’s much higher profile season. Playing Betts in right instead is about the value of Jackie Bradley Jr’s defense in center. If you have the best centerfielder in the majors, it doesn’t make much sense to keep playing him in right.

Not that it matters much in the bigger picture, as well, but Betts bat profiles better in right than does Bradley’s. The only argument for playing Bradley in right over Betts, in fact, is JBJ’s prodigious arm strength. That’s not enough for me, however, to forestall the change.

Think about the ground a Castillo/Bradley Jr/Betts outfield could cover. Too bad it won’t happen.


As measured by xFIP, the Red Sox starters are 16th out of 30 clubs. WAR, 18th. K/9, 19th. BB/9, 24th. ERA, 28th. If you’ve watched the games this year, none of these numbers are likely to come as a surprise. The starters pitched so badly they got a coach fired, and fared poorly enough under the second that one got released and another came down with a very conveniently timed “injury.”

To be fair to the pitching, some of this isn’t their fault – note the big delta between their xFIP and ERA. With third base and left field defensive black holes, some regression from second base, the occasional learning mistake in centerfield, the season-long absence of a truly excellent defensive catcher and inconsistent play all over the diamond, it’s not surprising that the Red Sox starters struggled.

The defense notwithstanding, of course, the rotation entering the season was short on talent. Buchholz has the ability to pitch like one of the best pitchers in the league, and indeed was better than departed ace Lester on a rate basis, but his track record suggested he wouldn’t pitch like that for a season, which he did not. Porcello has massively struggled in his first year in Boston, to the point that he’s been hidden in the minors. Masterson is gone, and his career may be in jeopardy as his effectiveness without plus velocity is minimal. Miley’s first month or so was horrific, and while he’s righted the ship since he’s essentially a league average innings eater. As for Joe Kelly, well, there may be no bigger enigma in the game. It’s difficult to recall someone who throws that hard, that effortlessly, and yet gets hit that hard.

But that’s the 2015 rotation: what does 2016’s look like?

A lot like 2015’s, in all probability. You might plan for a Buchholz absence, but the combination of his risk-limiting options and his ability to give you elite innings make him a keeper. Porcello is likely immovable, and just as likely to bounce back to previous levels of ability, so he’s in the rotation. As is Rodriguez, after an offseason of stripping his delivery of tells. If you can get something useful for Miley, who has pitched better of late and is signed to a very reasonable deal, I’d consider it, but otherwise, he’s back as well. Which leaves us with a rotation, in no particular order, of:

  • Buchholz
  • Rodriguez
  • Porcello
  • Miley

What you do with the fifth spot and whether you’re more motivated to move Miley depends in part on what you see down the stretch from Owens. Given that the club will be coming off of two last place finishes in a row, predictability will be at a premium, so Miley sticks around for me.

Which leaves one opening in the rotation, with Owens/Johnson/Wright as depth starters. Unless, of course, one of them is traded to plug that hole in the rotation. While I’m less sold on the need for an ace than most writers, adding a high upside arm is something the Red Sox should pursue in the offseason. Importantly, this doesn’t mean handing Cueto or Price better than $200M on the open market: I’d go harder after the Carrascos of the world with a package built around pieces like Owens, Margot, Devers and so on. Rodriguez would be off limits, but every other starter in the system with the exception of Anderson Espinoza would not be.

If the 2016 rotation was:

  1. Carrasco (or similar)
  2. Buchholz
  3. Rodriguez
  4. Porcello
  5. Miley
  6. Johnson/Wright/etc

That plays for me. Particularly because you can always trade for more pitching in season if need be, in rental form or otherwise.

And before you ask, yes, Kelly’s omission is intentional.


People look at the bullpen today and think: what the hell happened? How did we get to the point that we have basically one reliable arm in Tazawa? Or had, before we leaned on him too heavily. The answer, to a degree not often acknowledged by the writers, is injury. If Workman, for example, isn’t lost to Tommy John, the bullpen looks very different. Same with Varvaro, whose ineffectiveness, it would appear, was related to the fact that he also required Tommy John. If those two aren’t lost more or less out of the gate, we might not see Ogando pitch so many meaningful innings and give up so many meaningless home runs.

Mujica, admittedly, was a total loss: after some initial, exasperating success, he’s been worse with Oakland than he was with Boston (71 ERA+ vs 93). Breslow has also been dead money, though it was interesting to see him come close to blaming his performance on Farrell’s usage to the Globe. It’s also true, as has been pointed out repeatedly, that the Red Sox have failed to draft and develop bullpen arms. Maybe Barnes and Light get there by next year, but there are significant questions at this point attached to both.

But the core of next year’s bullpen is likely already here.

  1. Uehara
  2. Tazawa
  3. Kelly
  4. Workman
  5. Varvaro
  6. Barnes
  7. Layne
  8. Machi
  9. Ross
  10. Cook

Some, or maybe most of those arms, will be hurt, ineffective or both. Which means that the Red Sox will need to spend the offseason acquiring other potential bullpen pieces, preferably ones that throw hard given the game’s direction. Whether that’s via trade, waiver pickups, the Rule 5 draft as with Baltimore or even potentially free agency is less important than the club getting to spring training next year with twice as many arms as they’ll need.

Unless you’re some sort of wizard, the most effective approach to building bullpens is via a shotgun.

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.

Predictions for the 2015 Red Sox

Alejandro De Aza, Christian Vazquez

By now every baseball writer has written up their predictions for the 2015 season, from divisions to the world series to cy young and mvp awards. Which means that every baseball writer has also told us, in so many words, to ignore their predictions because they’ll be wrong.

Which is inevitable, because if accurately forecasting the outcomes of a major league season were simple what would be the point of playing the games? As simple as things can look on paper, there are always surprises. A pitcher tries a new grip on a cutter and takes a step forward. A catcher blows out his arm. Two front offices make bold trades: one succeeds and the club goes to the playoffs. The other has everything blow up in its face.

You just never know. But while that’s true, some predictions are easier to make, either because we have more data, because they’re narrower in scope, or both. Instead of making predictions about who’s going to the playoffs, then, I have tried to set down here general trends that I feel will impact the 2015 Boston Red Sox. They may or may not be more accurate than your average sportswriters predictions on the final standings, but they at least seem more reliable to me than trying to project a 2015 win total.

These, then, are my predictions for the 2015 Red Sox season.

The Red Sox Do Not Need an Ace

Everyone talks about how much the Red Sox need a high caliber pitcher to front their rotation. Typically, they’ll point to Madison Bumgarner as evidence of same. What most of those who make this argument will fail to acknowledge is that the Dodgers had one of these pitchers – one that every general manager in the league would pick over Bumgarner, in fact – and it didn’t work out that well for them. The Nationals, for their part, went out and paid Max Scherzer something between $185 and $210 million dollars in present day value, depending on how you account for things like inflation, to acquire a pitcher of this type. Unfortunately for the Nats, Scherzer actually went to the playoffs as part of a rotation that featured three former Cy Young award winners – and got knocked out in the first round. Oakland, meanwhile, acquired such an ace from our Boston Red Sox for the express purpose of winning games that matter. How did our former number one, Jon Lester, fare? Six runs allowed over seven plus innings to the Kansas City Royals. Those same Kansas City Royals, meanwhile, rode their number one pitcher, “Big Game” James Shields all the way to the World Series. Except that’s not exactly right, because over 25 innings pitched Shields gave up 17 runs, good for a 6.12 ERA – with one of the best defenses in Major League Baseball behind him. Which is one reason the market gave him around a third of what Scherzer got from the Nationals, in spite of the fact that his team went further in the playoffs. As did Baltimore, who beat Sherzer’s Tigers. Baltimore’s ace? Well, Tillman, probably? By default?

And this is just last season’s examples.

The lesson here is simple. Everyone wants an ace, and everyone expects them to roll through the playoffs á la Bumgarner. The reality is that an ace is not necessary to get to the playoffs, and doesn’t guarantee much if you get there.

So if someone tells you the Red Sox need an ace, don’t believe the hype.

The Red Sox Will Acquire Pitching

All of that said, the truth is that Red Sox need and will acquire pitching during the season. The best bets from the rotation are Porcello and Miley, and between them it’s reasonable to expect close to four hundred average innings. Porcello is likely to be a bit above average, Miley a bit below. But at least one of Buchholz, Masterson and Kelly is going to be ineffective if not unavailable this season. Which means, like every other team in the major leagues, they’ll need more than five starting pitchers. Steven Wright is next in line, but while the idea of him as a Joe Kelly alternative is interesting, he’d be a much less impressive selection for the kind of innings Buchholz is theoretically capable of producing.

Which is why that the Red Sox are likely to acquire pitching. It’s possible – even likely – that if one of Johnson, Owens or Rodriguez gets off to a hot start at Pawtucket they’d be given the first shot at replacing whichever member of the rotation fails. But it’s equally likely that the Red Sox package some of their offensive surplus along with one of the aforementioned minor league starters to acquire a free agent arm. Cueto, one imagines, will become available. If predictions of the Tigers demise come true, possibly Price. And given the modest return for free agent aces these days – a year and a half of Price only fetched Tampa Drew Smyly, Willy Adames and Nick Franklin – it’s logical that the Red Sox would pursue this avenue in 2015.

Victorino Will be Moved Before Craig

A lot of people in Boston want to run Allen Craig out of town, and no wonder: his 2014 season was absolutely horrific. Granted, it was only a 29 game sample, but miserable doesn’t even begin to describe his .128/.234/.191 line. With him hitting even a little bit then in Spring Training – .250/.333/.404 – the conventional wisdom was that he’d be shipped out.

Here’s the thing though: as Jonah Keri says when evaluating trade value, contracts matter. Craig is owed $5.5M this year, then $9M next, $11M the year after that and $13M in 2018. The question then if you’re a team other than the Red Sox is whether you’re willing to bet close to $40M he comes back from last year. The answer to that is maybe, if the acquisition cost is effectively zero. Which is why, along with Craig’s ability to play both the infield and outfield, I’m betting the Red Sox end up trading Victorino before Craig.

True, the Hawaiian outfielder is coming off a lost season, having played in only 30 games thanks to a scary back injury. And it’s not as if he’s ever been the picture of health. But Victorino is also only a season removed from a 6 fWAR season and being a World Series hero. Just as importantly, he’s owed only $13M. So if he shows he can play to start the season, he may fetch something useful in return due to his history and lack of contract obligations. If, on the other hand, it looks like he can’t play, the Red Sox are likely to trade him for minimal return.

Castillo Starting in the Minors Will be the Right Call

Speaking of Victorino, there are a great many people in Boston unhappy with the rightfielder, because they think he wants Mookie Betts out of town, because they correctly believe he’s blocking Cuban import Rusney Castillo, or both. Which, naturally, means that there are those on the Boston beat upset with fans not showing the appropriate deference and respect to their one-time fan favorite.

The reality is that Castillo starting in the minors is the logical decision for everyone. In a perfect world, Victorino would have been healthy in Spring Training from start to finish, attracting the attention of a club who needs his blend of offense and defense. Instead, he hurt himself his first game back.

From the Red Sox perspective, this is pretty simple. There are two possible outcomes. Option A, they move Victorino while the player is devalued, having not proved he is healthy or can still play, to make room for Castillo. Option B, they stash Castillo in the minor leagues until both they and the rest of the market figures out what Victorino has left.

Option A gives the Red Sox no options other than minimal return. In Option B, if Victorino plays well, he can be traded for a return. If another outfielder gets hurt in the interim – Ramirez or God forbid, Mookie – Castillo has their back. And if Victorino can’t in fact play anymore, he’s released or traded for minimal return and Castillo takes his place – at the cost of a couple of weeks of Castillo at bats.

This is not a terribly complicated equation, and the club is doing the obviously correct thing.

Mookie Will Not Play Like a Hall of Famer

Speaking of Mookie, he is not going to play like a Hall of Famer. He might not even play like an All Star this season.

People are assuming because of his preternatural poise and seemingly inhuman ability to make contact that there will be no bumps in the road. As evidence, they point to his .291/.368/.444 mark in the majors last year. Here’s the problem with that: most of the damage was done in September, which is a notoriously difficult time to evaluate players because of expanded roster call ups, thinned rosters and more. In the October 2013 playoff run, against some of the best pitchers in the major leagues, Bogaerts put up a .296/.412/.481 line. He was almost a full year younger at the time than Mookie was when he debuted last summer.

We all know how that turned out for the can’t miss Bogaerts last season, don’t we?

Now it’s possible, of course, that Mookie’s skills, development path or neurological makeup will make his transition to the majors seamless where Bogaerts’ was rocky. But from this vantage point, it seems as if expectations for Betts have gotten a bit out of hand – I expect him to take some serious lumps this year.

And if Mookie proves me wrong this year, as he has his doubters ever since his recovery from a shaky professional debut? I will be absolutely delighted.

We’re Not Going to Miss the Pieces We Traded

It’s certainly true that we dealt Will Middlebrooks at something close to the nadir of his value. And it’s possible that pitchers like De La Rosa, Ranaudo or Webster could emerge at least as bullpen weapons. But the guess here is that Cherington bet correctly on all four. Middlebrooks has always had problems with contact, and his power will be suppressed at Petco. De La Rosa and Webster for their part showed zero improvement in their control this spring, and Ranaudo couldn’t even crack a decimated Rangers rotation.

None of these deals were the definition of selling high, but it seems likely that Cherington got the best of each one of these transactions.

Barnes’ Role in 2015 Will be in the Pen

One of the major criticisms of the Red Sox bullpen headed into 2015 is their lack of velocity. Which is understandable, because out of the 30 major league clubs, the Red Sox last year ranked 30th in terms of their velocity. Velocity isn’t everything, of course, as Boston’s own Koji Uehara proved over and over until the wheels came off late last August.

With the two year contract, Boston is obviously betting that August was an anomaly, and that Koji’s command and movement will continue to offset his pedestrian velocity in 2015. But the reality is that while velocity isn’t everything, it’s certainly something. Something important.

Looking around the Red Sox bullpen, however, velocity is tough to come by. Tazawa’s the hard thrower, averaging just under 94. Varvaro’s a tick above 92. Mujica and Ross are right around 90 MPH, Layne just under. Breslow was below 89 last year. As for newcomer Alexi Ogando, at his peak he’d run it up there over 96. By last year, however, he was more around Tazawa’s velocity. Also, there’s a non-zero chance his arm simply flies off his body at some point this season.

The Kansas City Royals we are not, in other words. But given how frequently Cherington and Farrell both talk about the emergence and importance of elite, hard throwing bullpens, it’s almost a given that Barnes will be up sometime as a harder-throwing option out of the bullpen. He averaged just under 94 last season, but this was Farrell on Barnes this spring:

“I don’t have a whole lot of history with Matt Barnes but that was a different guy than even what we saw in September…I’ve never seen that kind of velocity from him. He was a different guy last night.”

This is presumably why Farrell had a long look at him as a bullpen option in Spring Training, and why you should expect to see Barnes sooner rather than later out of the bullpen.

Swihart Will be the Red Sox Starting Catcher by September

This is how good Christian Vazquez is defensively: more than one credible analyst – Keith Law, for one – has asserted that the loss of Christian Vazquez to surgery could be the difference between the Red Sox making the playoffs and not. And they may well be correct.

At least on paper, the Red Sox have put together one of the better offenses in the league. With the exception of catcher – Vazquez or no Vazquez, it’s reasonable to project average to above average offensive performances at every position on the field. But just as the 2014 Red Sox went into the year with question marks in its lineup, the 2015 Red Sox will head into the year with a lot of uncertainty in its pitching staff.

Part of the reason to expect individual pitchers to outperform their expectations was Vazquez, who is an elite framer – critical for a staff that will be working the lower half of the strikezone – with a huge arm. He’s not Yadier Molina, but he was on his way to being in the same conversation. Hanigan is a solid framer and catch and throw catcher, but he’s not on Vazquez’s level. Worse, he’s only played a 100 games in a season once.

That being said, the bet here is that Swihart will be catching for the Red Sox by September. Calls for him to start the season with the major league club were misguided. The player’s had less than 80 at bats at Pawtucket, and didn’t fare particularly well at the level. More importantly for the club, while Swihart’s athleticism has led to conclusions that he can be above average to well above average defensively, by all accounts he remains a work in progress – particularly in terms of pitch framing and game calling.

As with the Victorino/Castillo situation, the Red Sox have followed the path here which maximizes their options. By bringing in Sandy Leon, they at once increased their catching depth, bought Swihart time to develop and gave their pitchers an option with an excellent defensive reputation. Leon probably won’t hit, but he can throw and is reported to be an adept framer as well. Humberto Quintero, meanwhile, can be stashed at Pawtucket as insurance in case of injury, underperformance or both.

Swihart, meanwhile, gets time to adjust to pitchers with better command and control, the time to refine his swing from both sides of the plate, and most importantly additional months of instruction and experience at the most difficult position on the field. If he performs at an even reasonable level offensively, and continues to make strides defensively, he’ll be the Red Sox starting catcher by September.

Which, incidentally, sets up an interesting dynamic for 2016. In a perfect world, Vazquez would have established himself as a starter this year with Swihart getting the benefit of an entire year at the minor league level, leaving the Red Sox entering next year with two potential starting catchers. Now, one of them loses a year of on the field experience while the other may have his apprenticeship cut short. Not an ideal outcome for anyone involved.