What’s Worse Than the 2015 Red Sox Season?

keep-calm-the-damned-sky-is-not-falling

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.

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