OK, let’s begin with the bad news: The Red Sox finished in last place for three of the past four years. The good news? The one year that they didn’t finish in the basement, they won the World Series. The modern Red Sox live by the credo of Ricky Bobby: If you ain’t first, you’re last.
And lo, that 2013 championship sure seems like a long time ago. Maybe that sounds absurd to anyone who remembers the Red Sox’s pre-2004 annual parade of frustrations, but 2013 was really a different team, with a core assembled during the Theo Epstein regime. Now we have a team constructed by Ben Cherington, who resigned last August when the Red Sox hired Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations. Cherington has left the building, but the Cherington Era persists.
Optimists would say that Cherington’s marquee signings (Hanley Ramirez, Rick Porcello, Rusney Castillo and Pablo Sandoval) underperformed and are thus ripe for a correction, a return to the form that brought them their deals in the first place. Pessimists would say that Cherington whiffed and this time there’s no clueless dope waiting in the wings to help the Sox dodge their awful contracts. Boy, we felt pretty good when they moved Carl Crawford. Let’s just take a moment and revisit that feeling. Ha! Stupid Dodgers.
Now we know how it feels on the other side. Trading Yoenis Cespedes for Rick Porcello brings us back to the Jeff Bagwell-for-Larry Andersen deal. Cuban defector Rusney Castillo is stuck on the bench, a situation as awkward as the Obama-Castro press conference. And Sandoval made us wonder why his nickname is Kung Fu Panda. Do pandas hit .245?
And yet, there are reasons for hope, reasons that this year could be more like 2013 and less like the seasons since. Ramirez could—and should—benefit from a move to first base. Travis Shaw came up last year and hit 13 homers in 65 games—shades of Phil Plantier—and is now starting at third. They’ve still got Papi, and Papi’s still got his bat (he drove in seven runs in one game last year, one of 2015’s few highlights). And the Sox signed David Price. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. The team that desperately needed pitching went out and hired a No. 1 starter.
Yes, spring training was strange. Mookie Betts somehow let a golf cart roll into a pond. A pitching prospect broke his hand while punching a teammate. There were two guys named Travis—Travis Shaw and Sam Travis—but one got sent to the minors, so it won’t be confusing. The Sox are in good shape. But this year there are more questions than usual, more fluid situations that will only be resolved by the grind of daily baseball. This team could be another disaster, or it could be great. Come along, and let’s try to figure it out.
Reason to Be Optimistic: The Outfield Is Stacked
Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts and Brock Holt: That’s a pretty solid outfield. And the Sox also have Chris Young and, hey, Rusney Castillo to deploy out there. Betts and Bradley Jr. have speed and elite gloves, and in the doldrums of last season, we saw signs that both of them can hit. Bradley went on a tear last August, and Betts batted above .300 for the second half of the year. Holt made the All-Star team (as an infielder, not that it particularly matters with him). And of the three of them, Holt is the oldest, at the ripe old age of 27. If these guys gel, you could be looking at the Red Sox outfield for many years to come.
Reason to Be Cautiously Optimistic: Hanley Ramirez at First base
At this stage in his career, Hanley Ramirez doesn’t need to be running around all willy-nilly. He needs to be scooping one-hoppers out of the dirt over at first base. Less fielding, more hitting. Because hitting is the reason Ramirez returned to Boston, and last April it looked like the Sox were finally reaping the rewards from their former prospect. In April alone, Ramirez hit 10 home runs. But in May, he ran into the wall while chasing down a fly ball, and after that he was never quite the same. But this year he looks lean, quick and ready to pick up where he left off last spring. And if a ball’s going toward the stands or the dugout… maybe he can just let it go.
Please Welcome: David Price
Last winter, the Sox signed David Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract. We feel good about that because Price is the kind of acquisition you need to make when, say, you’ve finished in last place two years in a row.
Price is the rare big-money pickup where the timing seems just right. He’s 30 years old, old enough to have established that his success is not illusory, but with plenty of good years left. Hell, last year he led the American League in ERA. As he also did in 2012. He’s a Cy Young winner, five-time All-Star, former 20-game winner. If you’re rebuilding—and, make no mistake, the Sox were—then you start with a guy you can trust to go out and give you the best possible shot at a win. That’s David Price.
On the Other Hand… You Have Different Fingers
The thing we like most about Steven Wright is his deadpan delivery. You ever catch him back in the day at the Ding Ho? Check this out: “Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.” Oh, sorry, wrong Steven Wright. We’re supposed to be talking about the knuckleballer, not the comic. But now that you mention it, they both have a slow delivery.
Knuckleballers are alternately wonderful and disastrous. On a good night, they seem to channel a wormhole into an alternate dimension, a place where pitches dance and wobble but ultimately find the periphery of the strike zone. On a bad night? It’s like a flustered Little Leaguer somehow got onto the mound in front of 30,000 people—a complete lack of control interspersed with gently arcing meatballs that wouldn’t break the speed limit on the Mass. Pike. Luckily, Wright has more of the good nights, the ones that prompt people to create GIFs of his pitches darting manically while batters miss by a foot.
You think, “Hey, he throws 65 mph! I could do that!” Well, you can’t. Actually, hold on—are you Tim Wakefield? No? OK then, like we said. Wakefield, incidentally, showed up at spring training to impart no-spin wisdom to Wright. Nice.
While we’re on the topic of our last great knuckleballer, Wakefield only retired a few years ago, and he once played with Kirk Gibson (rookie year: 1979!). Phil Niekro pitched till he was 48. Knuckleballers can have long careers, and Wright is only 31, a knucklebaby. If he keeps slathering the ball with that Wakefield-brand zany dark energy, he could be an important part of the roster for many years to come.
The Dilemma of the Billion-Dollar Benchwarmers
OK, Pablo Sandoval and Rusney Castillo aren’t under contract for a billion dollars. The two of them together are signed for a mere $167.5 million. But “The .1675 Billion-Dollar Benchwarmers” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it—not unless you embrace a Bill James-level appreciation for specificity. Speaking of James, we wonder what the Red Sox’s dispassionate Sabermetrics/Moneyball guru thinks of this particular situation: Two guys on the bench are getting paid more annually than Félix Hernández. For that kind of money, it would be nice to have, you know, Félix Hernández.
Of course, the flip side of the flops is that young upstarts Travis Shaw and Brock Holt are worthy of the starting nine. Holt is so versatile that he could play left field, run the scoreboard or suit up as Wally the Green Monster, as the situation requires. Shaw got hot as soon as he reached the majors in the second half of last year, and in spring training he kept on hitting. This is the promise of the Bill James approach—cultivate young guys who don’t make a lot of money but bring gaudy stats. It’s the farm system as startup, cranking out brand-new Kevin Youkili in the quest for another World Series.
Unfortunately, the dilemma with highly compensated incumbents is that it’s never as simple as eating the cash and letting the big contracts ride the pine. First of all, the organization wants to get something for its money, which means that the underperformers need playing time to redeem themselves. (If nothing else, you’re hoping for signs of life that might encourage a lopsided trade later in the season.) The uncertainty means that nobody plays enough to get into a good rhythm. And if, say, Shaw lasts the whole season at third base, then you could end up with an irate former star souring the dugout vibe on a daily basis. Baseball players, unlike the rest of us, are somehow never content with getting paid to do nothing.
Give it up for… Xander Bogaerts
Bogaerts began last season with a little bit of hype—hey, who didn’t?—but nobody was really expecting the second coming of Nomar. And yet, that’s how things turned out, with Bogaerts finishing second in the American League in both batting average (.320) and hits (196), earning him the AL Silver Slugger award for shortstop. To put Bogaerts’ season in perspective, Wade Boggs had seven All-Star years when he didn’t get that many hits, so just imagine what Bogaerts could do if he grew an intimidating mustache. Bogaerts is also a slick fielder, committing an error only about once every 15 games. The Red Sox have the X-Man under their control for the next four years, but this might be a case where an extension is in order.
And Remember These Guys
Clay Buchholz. David Ortiz. Dustin Pedroia. These are the guys who remember the 2007 title—and, in Papi’s case, all three. Yeah, they’re not playing 162 games, but we can envision a season in which the starting pitching yields to the solid middle relief and then closer Craig Kimbrel comes in to notch the save. The defense is worth a few wins on its own. And the Red Sox bats, particularly the top of the order, mean that the team doesn’t need a shutout to win.
Yeah, there are still a lot of questions about the starting rotation. And a few injuries could send the Sox back to the basement. But it’s not unreasonable to see the 2016 team sneaking into the postseason as a wild card. At which point, anything can happen. And even if that anything turns out to be a first-round sweep by the Rays, we newly humbled Red Sox fans should replace our entitlement with a healthy dose of old-school fatalism.
In recent years, we’ve seen Fenway serve as a venue for hockey games, concerts and freestyle snowboarding. We’re about ready to see it host some October baseball.