The Glass Half Full

flu

Six games into the season, we’re in third place, a game and a half in back of Baltimore and half a game behind Tampa. Two teams that were, notably, picked by most to finish in the bottom half of the division.

The team picked by most to win the American League East, your Boston Red Sox, is hovering at .500, thanks to two comeback wins. In the six games they’ve played, they’ve scored 22 runs. Of the 57 innings they’ve been on the field, they’ve scored runs in nine of them. Only five clubs have scored fewer runs than the Red Sox, and only five have hit for less power.

In case you’re fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing, that’s bad. But it’s too early to despair. Remember that things have not exactly gone according to plan so far this season. Consider the following:

  • Last year’s $217M free agent pitcher (Price) has yet to make a start and just threw off a mound today for the first time due to elbow problems.
  • Last year’s major addition to the bullpen via trade (Smith) threw three games for the Red Sox in 2016, had Tommy John surgery and isn’t projected to be back until June.
  • This year’s major addition to the bullpen via trade (Thornburg) injured his shoulder in spring training and is only just now beginning to throw.
  • The expected platoon partner at third base (Rutledge) injured his hamstring days before breaking camp.
  • Two players (Bogaerts and Barnes) have missed time on bereavement leave. The former missed an additional game because his return flight from leave was cancelled and a charter couldn’t be arranged in time.
  • Five active players (Betts, Kelly, MorelandRamirez, Ross Jr.) have missed games due to the flu, one did not miss a game but threw up in the middle of one (Benintendi), and two currently on the DL (Rutledge and Thornburg) have also taken ill.
  • The flu has gotten so bad that the play-by-play announcer (O’Brien) had to leave in the middle of the game, and the Red Sox decided to fumigate the clubhouse.
  • Our centerfielder (Bradley Jr), off to a Gold Glove caliber start, was just put on the DL with a knee sprain.
  • Tomorrow’s starting pitcher (Pomeranz), who had a stem cell injection in his elbow in the offseason, suffered triceps tendinitis and pitched poorly in spring training, started the season on the DL and is making his first start tomorrow and no one knows what to expect.
  • Our replacement for any injured starter is a 32 year old pitcher (Kendrick) who didn’t play in the majors last season. Also, he gave up 10 runs in 6 IP tonight.

Now while it’s true that issues like the flu can reasonably be expected to pass, there are multiple injury situations that could derail the Red Sox season. Most projection systems have already marked down their odds accordingly, in fact. Also, our depth is terrible.

But if you were told before the season about the above, you’d take 3-3, right? Exactly.

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Why I Hate the Chris Sale Trade

wasteland

Dave Dombrowski was hired by the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday, August 18th of 2015, thirteen days after being fired by the Detroit Tigers. The General Manager in Boston at the time, Ben Cherington, a former Theo Epstein lieutenant and disciple, resigned later that night.

Even while en route to their third last place finish in four years, there was substantial trepidation amongst Red Sox fans about the hire. Not surprisingly for someone who’s been in the game since 1978, Dombrowski’s reputation preceded him. “Dealin’ Dave” was known for having no reservations about moving the kind of minor league talent that the Epstein and Cherington regimes fiercely protected.

The immediate question in the wake of Dombrowski’s appointment was what it meant: would the Red Sox remain committed to player development and home grown talent, or would the system be strip-mined and sold off for veterans? The retention of Mike Hazen as Dombrowski’s GM seemed at the time like an olive branch, a sign that the front office tradition that won Boston three world championships in a decade – one of which came at the expense of Dombrowski’s Tigers – would be respected.

Fifteen months later, Hazen is gone, and with him the last vestiges of the front office Theo Epstein created. As Peter Gammons says, “The organization is far different than the one [Theo] created; more than a dozen, many of them key people, have left the organization since Dave Dombrowski took over.” An organization that once prided itself on its ability to draft and develop talent was no more, as was originally feared.

All of which explains how it’s possible to be crushed that the Boston Red Sox acquired a player the caliber of Chris Sale. The following is a look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good

  • The Deal is Defensible:
    As many writers have noted, the deal is not without its merits. Absent context, even so-called “prospect hoarders” would be forced to admit that it can be defended. Most obviously, the deal was completed without affecting the major league roster. Once, Sale would have been traded for nothing less than a Betts, Bogaerts, or at worst, Bradley. Instead, all three remain with the club. It’s also fair to note that even the best prospects in the deal – Kopech (who’s comped to Syndergaard) and Moncada (who’s comped to Cano) – do not come without question marks. Basabe and Diaz, for their part, are even further away and thus riskier. Evaluating the deal on its own merits, you might not take a single player – even one as good as Sale – for multiple high upside prospects (one of whom is regarded as the best prospect in baseball) because you’re concentrating your risk. But you might, because:
  • Sale is Good:
    Excellent, in fact. By fWAR, he was the seventh best pitcher in the league last year, ahead of names like Kluber, Bumgarner, Tanaka, Price, Hendricks and Lester. If you go back to 2012, in fact, his first season as a starter, there are three pitchers who’ve been more valuable: Kershaw, Scherzer and (by a tick) Price. By virtually any metric, Sale is one of the best pitchers in baseball. And he’s not the only star.
  • The Roster is Good:
    Sale isn’t the only good Red Sox starting pitcher, as you might have heard. The reigning American League Cy Young winner, in fact, could be the number three starter for the club – and the final two spots are likely to be filled by pitchers who either have been an All Star (Buchholz, Pomeranz, Wright) or have that kind of ability (Rodriguez). And while the offense has an enormous hole to fill with the departure of Ortiz and is unlikely to lead the league in runs again – let alone by a hundred – it is capable and with the exception of third base and arguably DH has no obvious holes. Nor is this a typical Dombrowski club with incredible starting pitching but a porous bullpen: if Carson Smith makes it back by midseason, the Red Sox could throw five guys late in the game who hit the high 90’s in Barnes, Kelly, Kimbrel, Smith and Thornburg. Even the depth is reasonable, with three potential catchers, Brock Holt and Marco Hernandez and players like Sam Travis waiting in the wings at Pawtucket. And not only is the lineup good.
  • The Core Players Are Young:
    In Betts, Bogaerts and Bradley, the Red Sox have an enviable trio of talented and young players. Bradley’s the elder statesman at 26, while Betts and Bogaerts are 24. As is Blake Swihart. Andrew Benintendi, meanwhile, who presumably will start in left field, is 22. That is the kind of core that every team in baseball that’s not the Cubs would envy and take in a second. And even after all the trades, the farm system isn’t quite tapped out.
  • Not All the Remaining Prospects Are Bad:
    While the Red Sox minor league system is in the worst shape it’s been in in over a decade, and has effectively no depth, there are two players left over with potentially high ceilings in Jason Groome and Rafael Devers. Neither are exactly knocking on the door to the major league club, but they remain a top two that are at least the equal of most other systems in the game.

The Bad

  • Tick, Tick, Tick:
    One of the things that everyone seems to agree on is that the price for Sale came down. From “a Betts/Bogaerts/Bradley to start the conversation,” the White Sox ended up settling for a package that included no players from the major league roster. The question no one seems to be asking is: why did the price come down? One potential, frightening answer: injury risk.Gammons: “A source close to Jerry Reinsdorf, the most loyal of owners, says he is concerned about Sale’s long-term shoulder wear given his delivery and the extreme effort.”

    Olney: “According to sources, the White Sox are pushed by a concern in some corners of the Chicago organization that it’s inevitable the All-Star left-hander with the contortionist pitching mechanics will eventually break down.”

    Presumably the White Sox know more about him than anyone else, and they lowered the price to acquire him. And then there are the numbers.

  • Warning Signs?:
    Sales’ FIP in 2016 was 3.46, the worst of his career. The last time he had a FIP above 3, in fact, was 2013. He also struck out batters at the lowest rate since his debut in 2012. The rumor early in the season was that he was trying to pitch more to contact, but as Keith Law notes he lost a mile and a half of velocity. There’s nothing in his numbers that screams red flag, but neither is the trajectory and more importantly, the dip in velocity, encouraging.
  • The Odds:
    To read some of the initial reactions to the trade, you’d think that trading for Sale guaranteed a World Series berth, if not title. But the math of the postseason is remorseless. Even a club as talented as last year’s Cubs, who were arguably the best defensive team in history and fronted by a similar trio of Cy Young types had something close to a 25% chance of winning the World Series. They won, of course, much to the delight of Cubs fans everywhere, but they were also down three to one to an Indians team short two of its best starters and if not for the rain delay in Game 7, who knows how that series turns out. None of which is to say that you don’t go for it when you can, but given the long odds of even the best teams reaching the series let alone winning it, it’s important to always keep the long view in mind. As Dombrowski should know well from his time in Detroit: it’s not that often that a team opens a series almost no hitting the opposing club the first three games and loses.
  • The Context:
    Even for the Red Sox fans most devoted to prospects, if the Chris Sale trade was Dombrowski’s first trip to the well, he’d be universally hailed.Unfortunately, in fifteen months Dombrowksi has traded seventeen prospects. The following is Sox Prospect’s Top 20 on July 1, 2015, a month and a half before Dombrowski took the reigns.

    1 Eduardo Rodriguez
    2 Yoan Moncada (TRADED)
    3 Rafael Devers
    4 Manuel Margot (TRADED)
    5 Brian Johnson
    6 Henry Owens
    7 Andrew Benintendi
    8 Michael Kopech (TRADED)
    9 Javier Guerra (TRADED)
    10 Deven Marrero
    11 Anderson Espinoza (TRADED)
    12 Trey Ball
    13 Michael Chavis
    14 Pat Light (TRADED)
    15 Sam Travis
    16 Travis Shaw (TRADED)
    17 Ty Buttrey
    18 Mauricio Dubon (TRADED)
    19 Teddy Stankiewicz
    20 Wendell Rijo (TRADED)

    As you can see, he has traded almost half the high end prospect inventory he inherited, and with obvious exceptions such as Devers, many of those that are left likely haven’t been traded because their value cratered (Johnson, Owens, Marrero, etc) or was always minimal (Ball).

    Many will protest, saying that fans become too attached to prospects that haven’t proven anything yet, and that Sale is an elite pitcher. My response to that is that so was Cole Hamels when the Phillies asked for a minor leaguer called Mookie Betts in return for the lefthander’s services. Personally, I’m glad we kept Mookie.

    The net is that Dombrowski has taken a scythe to one of the most fertile farm systems in the game, and in less than two years has left behind a wasteland. Which is a problem because:

  • Contracts Are Coming Up Sooner Than You Think:
    Most of the trade reactions you’ll read are focused on the 2017 season, which is understandable because the prospects seem bright, even if the winner of the offseason has historically faired poorly. Thanks to Dombrowski, the outlook in the short term is excellent. But what if we look further out? What does the Red Sox roster look like? The answer, if you’re a Red Sox fan at least, is troubling.Two seasons from now, Price can opt out, Hanley’s status depends on games played and Kimbrel and Pomeranz are free agents.

    The year after that, Bogaerts, Bradley, Porcello, Sale and Thornburg are on the market.

    The year following? Betts, Rodriguez and Smith.

    In four years, then, we could lose four top starters, our closer and setup men, two of three outfielders, and our starting shortstop. This is less alarming if either a) the competitive balance threshold went way up so you could spend with impunity, or b) you have a wave of young players coming up behind them, because you can either swap the departing players for younger replacements, or retain the ones you want and fill in the gaps with young, low cost alternatives. Well, the CBT isn’t going way up, and Boston doesn’t have that wave of young players anymore. Our two best starting pitching prospects in years – Kopech and Espinoza -are gone. One potential superstar position player in Moncada has departed, as have a host of potential starters or utility men in Asuaje, Basabe, Dubon, Guerra and Margot. Even if next year’s draft is incredible – and with all of the front office departures it’s worth asking whether it will be – the impact won’t be felt for years. The well is dry, and the club will have to pay that price eventually.

The Ugly

  • Restocking the System:
    As the hemorrhaging from the minor league system continued, the front office has responded by expressing confidence in its ability to restock the farm. This is a confidence which, at best, seems misplaced – and not just because Dombrowski clubs have rarely drafted with any notable success.For many years, there were opportunities for wealthy clubs like the Red Sox to leverage their financial resources to maximum effect in the draft or international markets. These opportunities have since been eliminated.

    First, MLB closed the loophole with the draft, by imposing restrictions on spending so that clubs like the Red Sox couldn’t scoop up elite talent in later rounds simply by being willing to field angry calls from the commissioner’s office. And as of the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, the last remaining asymmetric opportunity for amateur spending was removed when MLB established a hard cap on international signings.

    In other words, where the Red Sox could once simply outspend other major league clubs on the amateur markets, the reality is today that if anything, high payroll teams are disadvantaged relative to their small market competitors.

    Gone are the days when the Red Sox could acquire a talent like Moncada simply by being willing to spend what the market bore: $60M+, in his case. In short, it’s hard to think of a worse time for the Red Sox to have completely depleted their minor league system.

  • The Brain Drain:
    Longer term, the most damage from the Dombrowski era may come from the loss of executive talent. As mentioned above, the Red Sox have already lost a number of key executives – executives who in many cases played critical roles in one or more world championships – in the Dombrowski era. And given the reports that Dombrowski’s inner circle is considerably smaller than his predecessors’, it stands to reason that the Red Sox – in spite of being the Red Sox – may not be able to attract or retain the front office talent that they once did. Which is a significant problem, one that compounds the devastation of our minor league system. As we’ve seen in recent years, so much of the game is now being driven by creativity, from talent identification and acquisition to defensive positioning, but the Red Sox do not appear to be the premier destination they once were.

The Net

During his tenure in Detroit, Dombrowski worked for an owner in his seventies who was desperate to win a world series, desperate enough to mortgage the future in an effort to win in the present. Despite assembling powerful lineups and rotations full of hard throwing Cy Young candidates, the current Red Sox president was never able to give his owner that title. His successor Al Avila, meanwhile, will be the one that pays for Dombrowski’s decisions, and is currently attempting to sell anything that’s not nailed down.

As the ownership group that empowered Theo Epstein all those years ago to build the player development machine Dombrowski has now, finally, dismantled, it’s ironic that John Henry and Co’s willingness to pound the nail in that coffin might have come from watching two men they ran out of town face off in the world series, cementing their Hall of Fame credentials in the process. It took a while, but the best Manager and General Manager the Red Sox ever had may yet have the last laugh.

In the meantime, enjoy 2017.

 

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

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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.

Infield

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.

Catcher

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.

Shortstop

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.

Outfield

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.

Rotation

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.

Bullpen

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.