It’s not Ben Cherington’s fault that Shane Victorino’s back gave up on 2014, just as the Red Sox general manager couldn’t foresee Mike Napoli’s finger injury, setbacks in the offensive expectations of Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley, Jr., and the stark realization that Daniel Nava’s career year in 2013 may have been just that. In all fairness, the team he helped construct was little different than the one that was coming off a World Series championship tossing caution to the winds that suggested the pleasant anomaly of it all.
Still, when you notice what Yoenis Cespedes brought to the team on Sunday, his first home run in a Boston uniform, leading the Red Sox to a 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels, it’s difficult not to ask what sort of otherworldly position Cherington’s team might find itself in today had someone like Cespedes been here for more than 11 days.
For a team batting a measly .236 with runners in scoring position this season, Cespedes’ three-run blast in the eighth inning Sunday was a moment his teammates had delivered in rarity. Going into Sunday, Boston bats had delivered only 19 home runs and 316 runs batted in with runners in scoring position, both seventh-worst in the major leagues. Consider that the Oakland A’s lead the way with 35 home runs and 403 runs batted in with RISP, and the revelation is two-fold:
1. Cespedes, who came to Boston in the deadline trade that sent Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes to the AL West-leading A’s, was a big reason for Oakland’s success, as he’s hitting .296 with an .888 OPS, 55 of his 72 RBI, and five of his home runs with runners in scoring position overall this season.
2. The Red Sox are almost 100 runs worse than the A’s production in similar situations?
With the Sox, Cespedes already has a homer and five runs batted in with runners in scoring position, remarkably matching the home run totals of Bradley, Stephen Drew, Napoli, Grady Sizemore, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ross in that situation. Drew had six RBI with RISP during his stint with the Sox. Will Middlebrooks and Ross have seven.
Clearly, Cespedes’ impact already can spark plenty of hindsight. It’s far too easy to blame Cherington for not making an offseason move on Nelson Cruz, whose 30 home runs and 80 runs batted in are helping the first-place Orioles soar. To sign Cruz, who was suspended last season for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, would be to welcome a can of worms, if not the threat of watching him find his way to either obscurity without the aid of PEDs, or another vacation should he again fail a test. Boston reportedly made a play on Cuban defector and probable Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu, leading the AL with 31 home runs, but it’s unclear if the club was as serious in its pursuit as the Chicago White Sox ended up being, signing the slugger to a six-year, $68 million contract.
In Abreu’s absence, the Red Sox lost Jacoby Ellsbury, and then hoped they’d get some semblance of the player that Sizemore used to be, and that A.J. Pierzynski would…well, we have no idea. Aside from David Ortiz and Napoli, there was no real power threat in the lineup, but a big, fat pennant was going to be raised in April, so, whatever.
By the time Victorino went down, Bogaerts struggled, Middlebrooks was injured and sent to Pawtucket, and the Sizemore dream sputtered, the Red Sox’ issue scoring runs became a tremendous Achilles heel. Yet despite the fact that they were piling up more and more stranded runners on a nightly basis, Cherington and the baseball operations saw the glaring weakness of the team as Bogaerts’ average-to-below-average defense at shortstop, and made the move to dedicate $10 million to Drew.
Nobody could have predicted the disaster that Drew’s second stint with the Red Sox would become, but if he was aimed to be a solution to a weakness, the Red Sox were clearly either ignoring their lack of power, or knew there was little they could do about it. After all, if the Red Sox were desperate for run production in the first week of June, when Drew came on board, what team in its right mind would surrender power in a trade that early in the season, especially with the second wild card still in play for everybody but teams with a Texas zip code?
Perhaps it was clear, even at that point, that 2014 was a lost cause.
The offseason is going to be fascinating though, no? The Red Sox seem intent on depending on their group of young arms – and Clay Buchholz – in the starting rotation, and will probably add another veteran like James Shield to the mix. The real intrigue will lie in whether Cespedes is seen as an integral part of the team in 2015, or if he’s included in trade discussions with the Marlins for 24-year-old Giancarlo Stanton, the MVP candidate whom the Marlins are already hinting will be on the trade market come November. Cespedes, even signed for only one more season, could attract the Marlins if he comes along with a package that includes the likes of Mookie Betts, Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens, etc.
Barring that, a full season of Cespedes in Fenway Park is a welcome second avenue, particularly if his presence attracts an interest in fellow Cuban Rusney Castillo, the 27-year-old outfielder who has worked out for a number of teams, including Boston and Philadelphia. But the Yankees, who see him more as a second baseman, a position where Drew has had to supplant veteran Brian Roberts, are also interested and will need help up the middle at both infield positions next season with Derek Jeter’s retirement.
If he’s not in Miami, it would behoove the Sox to sign Cespedes to a new deal in the spring, particularly with a dearth of power in the farm system, and Ortiz turning one year older. Cruz will be back on the free agent market, and without John Lackey growling at him from each corner of the clubhouse, he might be a better fit one season later.
This season may be a wash, but it brought with it some lessons. The Red Sox have thwarted risk ever since being burned by it with ludicrous, long-term deals that are now the Dodgers’ problems. Being safe brought them a World Series title. It also put them where they are today.
There’s going to have to be a balance in the offseason between playing it safe and taking a risk if the Sox want to get back to where they were only 10 months ago. That starts with Cespedes, whether he is here or not.