Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester could be on the trading block if the team continues to struggle. (REDSOX.COM PHOTO)
A ninth-inning comeback win is followed by a 4-0 loss the next night. It’s a microcosm of a season in which the Red Sox lost 10 in a row, won seven consecutive games and then lost five more. The script has certainly turned for the Sox, who last year enjoyed the best-case scenario outcome on their season with a World Series title. This year, they seem mired close to a worst-case scenario.
Looking back on the organization during the past three-plus seasons, it’s been all-or-nothing. In 2011, they started out 17-20 (Best Team Ever?), and then went 65-31 (free ice cream for everyone!) before finishing the year with a disastrous 8-21 record (pink slips for everyone!). What followed was 2012’s disaster, and last year’s euphoria. It’s been more than three years of extremes, so it’s worth examining what the extremes might look like for the Sox the rest of this year.
They could go 0-99 to end the year, right? Let’s be generous and say they go in the tank (40-59 down the stretch), which allows them to become sellers at the deadline, as well as give prospects some time in the major leagues. If the Sox become sellers, then who is available? A.J. Pierzynski, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, Jake Peavy and David Ross all are free-agents-to-be with limited futures in Boston. They would certainly be available, but you wouldn’t be getting much in return. The windfall might be someone like George Kottaras, who the Sox got in return for David Wells in 2006.
Would underperforming younger guys such as Felix Doubront, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Nava and Will Middlebrooks be jettisoned? They’re all under team control for a few more years, so there’s value there, if not immediately.
The more appealing trade targets, however, are players who the team would have a harder time giving up on. How much would Koji Uehara, a historically good closer but a 39-year-old free-agent-to-be, fetch? How about John Lackey, who would only cost teams $500,000 next season? And there’s also Jon Lester, who has pitched like an ace for most of this season and will be a free agent after this year. The three players could garner enough assets in return to make a top farm system even deeper and go after a big name via trade (Giancarlo Stanton) at a later date.
Then there’s the process of fielding a team. If the Sox are giving up on the season, Xander Bogaerts should be moved back to shortstop. The live-and-die reaction to every at-bat for Jackie Bradley Jr. should end, and he should be given the time to make adjustments at the major-league level. Players such as Mookie Betts, Garin Cecchini and Christian Vazquez should be called up in August, while rotation possibilities such as Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Matt Barnes should be given spot starts in the majors. It will be ugly, but there will be an active building of a foundation for the future, which will hopefully pay off in the later part of this decade.
While a run at the division title (10.5 games back) is not out of the question, a wild card is the far more attainable goal. Once you get in the postseason, anything can happen. But getting there will be the hard part for this team. If Clay Buchholz returns to the rotation and starts pitching like it’s early 2013; if Mike Napoli goes on one of his patented hot streaks; if Shane Victorino returns to the lineup healthy and hitting; if Jackie Bradley Jr. readjusts to major-league pitching; if Dustin Pedroia recoups some of the 100 slugging points he’s lost from his slugging percentage in the past three years; if Stephen Drew starts hitting like mid-2013 and not like October 2013. If all that happens, the Sox might be a factor in the division. If some of it happens, they’ll contend for the wild card. Notice how most of those problems had to do with hitting? Despite the hue and cry, the team is actually only slightly below the league average for runs per game (4.02 vs. the average of 4.17), and farther from league average in runs allowed per game (4.33 vs. that same 4.17). That means, the pitching needs to improve as well. While the bullpen has sprung leaks at inopportune times, it’s still been solid. The real problem lies with the rotation after Lester and Lackey. Buchholz, Doubront and Peavy have combined to give up 117 runs in 177 innings. Replacements Brandon Workman and De La Rosa have fared better, but once Buchholz and Doubront return, they will likely be sent back to Pawtucket. The Sox really need stable performances from Buchholz and Doubront.
If all of this happens, playoffs would likely be in the picture. But those are big “ifs.”
Either way the Sox go, what will be truly unfortunate is if the Sox coast along right below .500 during the next six weeks with no motivation to add another player at the deadline, and fearful of angering fans by trading away players in late July. The result would be veterans clogging up roster spots and then leaving the Sox with nothing in return this offseason. The Sox have been an organization of extremes for nearly four seasons, and they’d be better off not changing now.