It’s always a drag when baseball season finally ends, even in the years like this one in which the Red Sox season figuratively finished in August (ok, July … ok, May … more or less) and physically concluded a month before the final shred of confetti was swept up in Kansas City.
No, I’m not annoyed that the Royals won the World Series, though I was pulling for the Mets (or, at least, for my Mets fan friends). That’s a hell of a team in Kansas City, worthy champions with a wonderful, loyal fan base. Still, I may be a bit annoyed that the Royals refused to allow the series to extend to seven games –- and, hey, maybe a few extra innings in that seventh game would have been swell, too.
For once, I’ll spare you the references to firing up our wood stoves and installing the storm windows and my usual sappy, sentimental sonnets on the dying of the leaves and various other tempting writerly metaphors. Nope, I’m not going all Giamatti on you this year. I’ll just start it and leave it at this:
The most painful change of seasons in New England isn’t fall to winter, or winter to turbo-extreme winter (you know, February, that why-the-hell-do-I-choose-to-live-here month). It’s the change from baseball season to everything else that fills our shortened days before baseball begins again.
OK, so I kind of Giamatti’d you there. But I didn’t go for the full Green Fields of the Mind effect (which you know I do love, facetiousness aside) for this reason: When not singing its companion ode, Dirt-White Snowpiles of the Driveway, we still have baseball to talk about through the winter. Sure, there are no actual games for too many months to come, and that’s a bummer. But the rumors and considerations and daydreamed possibilities of who will be playing with and for whom when the lineup cards are posted again offer a decent place-holder until the games are played again.
This is especially true when it comes to the Red Sox. As you may have heard, they are coming off their second straight last-place finish and their third in four years, though the 2015 Red Sox Year In Review (yes, it was much bigger than a pamphlet) provided by the team’s public relations staff Wednesday helpfully notes that they won seven more games last year (78!) than the year before (71). Small victories must be acknowledged, I suppose, when actual victories are harder to come by.
The Red Sox’ final place in the standings was a massive disappointment given the now-laughable preseason perception that the expensive additions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval would actually aid the cause. The Sox were a special kind of mess in the season’s first half, and that essentially cost Ben Cherington his job as general manager in August, less than two seasons after he delivered a World Series championship.
The point that must be acknowledged and reiterated as we await the new season is an important one, because it is one of the reasons for both optimism and intrigue this offseason: Cherington certainly did not leave behind a mess for Dave Dombrowski, the president of baseball operations who took over in August.
Sure, there are some lousy contracts, and the worst of them came on board just an offseason ago — Sandoval, Ramirez, and Rick Porcello are owed, at a minimum, $224.15 million by the Red Sox on their current contracts. That’s beyond regrettable. But for a team that hasn’t had a whole lot of on-field success since October 2013, there is plenty to be encouraged about.
The Red Sox did get their act together to some degree late in the ’15 season, going 34-26 from July 30 on. That was good for the fourth-best record in the American League during that span. They led the majors in batting average (.282) and ranked second in runs (5.5) from that point forward. Driving that relative success was a pair of 22-year-old dynamos, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and center fielder Mookie Betts.
Their success actually began well before the Red Sox started playing well. From May 19 forward, Bogaerts (.335) and Betts (.315) ranked 1-2 in the American League in batting. Betts became the first AL player to record at least 42 doubles, 18 homers, and 21 steals in a season at age-22 or younger. Bogaerts ranked third in the AL in hits (196), the most ever by a Red Sox player in his age-22 season or younger.
They are cornerstones to be coveted … and yet they are far from all the Red Sox have going for them. Catcher Blake Swihart and left-handed pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez found decent success at the major league level. The Boston farm system is widely considered to be one of baseball’s best. Perhaps most impressively, or encouragingly, ESPN’s Future Power ratings, which attempts to measure how well an organization is positioned for sustained success over the next five years, slotted the Red Sox third, behind only the Cubs and Dodgers.
I have to admit, though, I’m a little antsy about how Dombrowski will approach repairing what needs to be fixed. Picking up Clay Buchholz’s option for $13 million was a good start, but also a no-brainer. As frustrating as Buchholz can be, he’s an above-average pitcher (110 adjusted ERA, career) who at the least provides depth or a potentially tradable asset. Of course, if he’s your No. 1 starter — as he ostensibly was last year, pre-injury, since he got the ball on Opening Day — something has gone wrong, either with the health or construction of your rotation.
The Red Sox need a No. 1 starter, desperately, and David Price, who has the smarts and guile to succeed even when the gap closes between his age and the average velocity of his fastball, should be Dombrowski’s top target. But the bad contracts Cherington left in his wake could affect the Red Sox’ willingness to spend the nine-figure going-rate for an ace.
And if they don’t sign for one, they’ll trade for one.
Cue that antsiness.
I know, some of the Red Sox’ top prospects will go, and have to go, if only to avoid redundancy and stagnation as they rise to the higher levels. It’s possible that players with major-league experience, such as Swihart or 23-year-old pitcher Henry Owens, could go elsewhere.
That’s OK. Exciting, even. Dombrowski does have a high winning percentage when it comes to trades, especially big ones. He arrived here already deserving of some benefit of the doubt.
But the best thing about the Red Sox right now — the reason why ESPN holds their future in such high regard — is its horde of young talent, in the minors and majors. The new boss is going to make trades. He has to make trades. I just hope his limited affiliation with the Red Sox’ best and brightest youngsters doesn’t enhance the possibility of trading them.
Cherington was often accused, I believe unfairly, of holding on to prospects too long. The opposite would be just as damning: I hope Dombrowski doesn’t trade the most promising of them — Anderson Espinoza, Rafael Devers, Manuel Margot, Yoan Moncada — too quickly, or all at once.
This should be an easy turnaround for the Red Sox. The core of Betts and Bogaerts is in place (If Dombrowski even considers trading either of them for a pitcher — any pitcher, including the Mets’ top three starters — we will have no choice but to believe he is a dastardly double agent assigned here by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to antagonize yet another New England team, and we will react accordingly). There is already established, capable veteran talent on the roster. The Red Sox should be a contender again, and soon, after Dombrowski repairs their obvious flaws.
Those moves will begin soon, and history suggests Dombrowski will bring in the right players. I just hope he doesn’t send the wrong ones away. The hot stove is supposed to keep baseball fans warm in the winter. At the least, we’re due for a season that doesn’t leave us cold.
The most lucrative contracts in Red Sox history