Ah, the Luxury of Mediocrity…
Last year’s Red Sox squad was so miserable, so tediously incompetent, it was clear by July that playoff beards wouldn’t be necessary and that Papi could spend October planning his Halloween costume. The last two months of the season were a joke, as Ben Cherington furiously began building the 2015 Red Sox while they were still, technically, the 2014 Red Sox. While you were stuck in traffic on the Cape, Cherington was scheming to pull off the rare double boomerang: worst to first to worst to first.
By the tail end of the season, the team looked nothing like the juggernaut that won the 2013 World Series. Lester and Lackey, the heart of the pitching rotation: gone. Mookie Betts, center field phenom: playing. Next thing you knew, you were stuffing your face with a Fenway Frank and saying, “Who’s Rusney Castillo?” Whiplash—it’s not just a movie about drumming!
So here we are, retooled. That’s the nice thing about a patently awful team: 2014 wasn’t a Dan Duquette-style lineup that caused fans to torment themselves wondering if there was one trade that would’ve pushed the Sox over the top. (Or, worse yet, one managerial decision… see: 2003.) They were so bad that they couldn’t get any worse. And as the old saying goes, when you’re in the basement, the ground floor looks like the penthouse. That’s what Mike Greenwell always used to say whenever his airboat broke down in the Everglades, and it still holds true now. So, can the Red Sox go from last place to a championship? Hey, that’s how it happened last time. Now let’s take a look at our prospects for October baseball.
Welcome the HanRam
OK, now let’s never call him that again. Once again, the Red Sox have a slugger named Ramirez in left field, but this time he hails from planet Earth and doesn’t periodically sneak into the Green Monster to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (This is purely speculation as to what Manny was up to in there.) Welcome, Hanley Ramirez! Or should we say, welcome back—because Ramirez was a Red Sox once before, when he was a top prospect in the organization. In 2005 he came up for the briefest sip of coffee, getting two at-bats and going 0-for-2 with two strikeouts. That November he was traded to the Marlins.
After that? The next season Ramirez was National League Rookie of the Year and went on to three All-Star games, hitting .332 with 29 homers in 2007. On the other side of the ledger, the trade that sent him to Florida also netted us Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, so we can’t complain about how that turned out. But it’s nice to have the big guy back where he started. He probably won’t put up 2007-style numbers, but he’s still a major upgrade for an outfield that at one point last year earned a WAR (wins above replacement) stat that was last in the league.
Mookie “Safe” Betts
There are many names that live in Red Sox infamy, but “Mookie” is right up near the top, for it was Mookie Wilson who hit the grounder between Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Now here we are, nearly 30 years later, and we’re going to be rooting for Mookie. The world is a funny place, and full of more Mookies than you’d expect.
This one, Mr. Betts, has decisively won the starting center field job, making the Jackie Bradley Jr. experiment feel like it happened a very long time ago. The final two months of the season—garbage time, really—he hit almost .300 and drove in 16 runs, four of which came on a grand slam. We’ll see what he does when there’s actual pressure to make the postseason, but as we write this, Betts is batting an insane .458 for spring training. He’s blazing fast, he’s got a great glove and his power belies his slight size (5 feet 9 inches tall, 155 pounds). Sure, a great spring does not guarantee 162 games of excellence, but Betts looks like the best thing to happen to Fenway’s center field since Ellsbury left town.
Meanwhile, Elsewhere in the Outfield…
Shane Victorino’s getting $13 million for 2015, the last year of his three-year contract. After his injury-riddled 2014 season, in which he only played 30 games, Victorino has a lot to prove—likely for his next team, since he’s a free agent next year and the Sox signed Rusney Castillo to a seven-year $72.5 million contract. With Betts locking down center field, that should have set up a Castillo-Victorino timeshare in right field. And that would’ve been a gol’ diggity expensive right field. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the Victorino-Castillo platoon would cost just about twice the budget for the movie Platoon. So, can you say trade bait? Staying healthy will be key for Victorino, and to that end he’s announced that he’s giving up on switch-hitting for 2015, since batting lefty takes a physical toll that he can’t tolerate (also: maybe it’s just not worth it, production-wise).
To start the season, Castillo will chill in Pawtucket while Victorino either plays himself into a tradeable commodity or doesn’t. The good news is—as opposed to last season—we have more options than we can use.
Beware the Panda
You know how pandas look cute but are actually ferocious? Wait, maybe that’s koalas. Anyway, Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval is a pretty ferocious hitter, with a lifetime average near .300. He’s also a surprisingly deft infielder, in a Chris Farley-doing-a-cartwheel sort of way. (Sandoval is listed at 255 pounds, and one of his other nicknames is “Round Mound of Pound.”)
At age 28, Sandoval is old enough to be wily but young enough to have plenty of good years ahead of him. He won three championships with the Giants, so the World Series stage is not unfamiliar to him. And fun fact: He’s super ambidextrous. We’re used to guys who can bat righty or lefty, but Sandoval can throw with either hand. Why is that relevant? Well, if he loses a step as he enters his 30s, maybe our righty third baseman becomes our lefty first baseman.
A Few Words on the Starting Rotation
He’s an enigma wrapped within a quandary, floating in a sea of unpredictability. There are two versions of Clay Buchholz. Famously, we have the 2010 and 2013 models, which are double-platinum stone-cold All-Star caliber. Then there are the other years. Please, please let this not be one of the others.
OK, Masterson’s lost some heat, topping out in the high 80s. But he’s a sinkerball pitcher, a guy whose aim is to induce grounders rather than power his way to strikeouts. Let’s think of him as the Derek Lowe of this rotation.
Here’s what you need to know about starting pitcher Joe Kelly: In 2013 he was 10-5 with a 2.69 ERA. He has Brock Holt is in his phone contact list as “Brocky Balboa.” And in his Twitter bio, he describes himself as “the Incredible Hunk.” OK, we’ll give him that, but only because Gabe Kapler’s not in town anymore.
Miley was one of the fastest pitchers in the league last year. Not in terms of his arm speed, but the lack of screwing around between pitches. In one game during spring training, he spent 19 minutes on the mound—in five innings. David Ortiz is surely glad that he and Miley are on the same team so that he doesn’t have to face him.
Last year, Porcello had 15 wins, a 3.43 ERA and 129 strikeouts with the Tigers. He’s also logged more than a thousand innings during the past six years, which either tells you that he’s legitimately durable or due for those thousand innings to catch up with him. Uh, the first one, let’s hope?
The Wild Cards
If Masterson is the new Lowe, then knuckleballer Steven Wright could be the new Tim Wakefield, a guy to fill in where he’s needed and generally step up with some nasty fluttering junk.
Another intriguing hurler: Mitchell Boggs, who seemed to have a little late-career Kenny Powers thing going on, mullet and all. Released last month, we hope he returns—at least to Pawtucket—if only so we have a slight chance to give second life to all our Wade Boggs apparel. We’ll just tape on new numbers. Viva la Chicken Man!
The Delegation from Japan
Here’s what we know for sure about the 2015 Red Sox relief corps: Uehara and Tazawa are awesome. Both of them averaged more than one strikeout per inning last year, along with posting nice sub-3.00 ERAs. And that was on a team that was stink central.
The Final Verdict
OK, so we’ve got an overhauled pitching staff, a couple of high-priced free-agent sluggers, a homegrown superstar-in-the-making and a handful of veterans with something to prove—Pedroia, Napoli, Victorino. Assuming that the new “no stepping out of the batter’s box” rule doesn’t mess with Papi’s head, the lineup looks really strong. No, the 2015 Red Sox roster isn’t packed with superstars, but then neither was the 2013 team. At this point, we don’t know whether we’ll be in first place by September, but it looks highly unlikely that we’ll find ourselves in last. And if we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that sometimes the abject do-over, the admission of failure, is the quickest path back to success. Don’t be surprised if 2015 turns out to be the year of the double boomerang.