Being the most aggressive, living-in-the-present, future-be-damned franchise in baseball has served the Boston Red Sox well, bringing together the players who last season delivered the franchise its fourth World Series title this century. Doing so required the Red Sox to push their payroll well beyond the luxury tax threshold and to strip their farm system of prospects, but as the saying goes, “Prospects are cool; parades are cooler.”
It was easy to get behind the Red Sox’s philosophy when the team was winning 108 games and going 11-3 against the New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2018 postseason. But when that same team, with largely the same roster, approaches the 20-game mark of the new season as one of the worst teams in the game – with a 6-13 record, a minus-42 run differential and a 6.01 ERA entering Friday – the effects are doubly concerning, and the solutions are few.
The Red Sox’s aggression carried them to a title in 2018, but it has left them exposed in 2019. Anyone in their right mind would take that trade-off, but that doesn’t make their current plight any easier to stomach. And with a three-game series beginning Friday at division-leading Tampa Bay, a team that was leading the Red Sox by 8½ games at the time, it is not too soon to call this a critical weekend for the defending champs.
“We have to go down there and win the series,” Red Sox Manager Alex Cora told reporters. “Win two out of three, or sweep them.”
How bad have the Red Sox been so far? Through 19 games, they were just one game ahead of the pace of the 2018 Baltimore Orioles, who merely went on to become the worst team in baseball in 15 years. Their run-differential ranks 29th in baseball, ahead of only the lowly Miami Marlins. Their current pace (.316) translates to 111 losses over a full season.
To get to 97 wins – the threshold required to earn a wild card in the American League in 2018 – the Red Sox would have to play at a .636 clip the rest of the season, a winning percentage they have maintained for a full season just once in the past 70 years. Of course, that one instance was last season.
But there simply isn’t any evidence to suggest the Red Sox are on the verge of turning things around. Mookie Betts, the 2018 AL MVP, was hitting .200/.305/.371 entering the weekend, and fellow 2018 stalwarts Rafael Devers (.262/.351/.308), Steve Pearce (.125/.160/.125), Eduardo Nunez (.159/.178/.182) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (.148/.190/.185) were even worse. Veteran Dustin Pedroia left Wednesday night’s loss to the Yankees after reinjuring his surgically repaired knee, a potentially season-ending injury.
And then there’s the pitching. Perennial Cy Young contender Chris Sale is 0-4 with an 8.50 ERA and showing signs of a diminished fastball. Rick Porcello, with 50 wins in the previous three seasons combined, is 0-3 with an 11.12. Nathan Eovaldi, a hero of the 2018 postseason, has a 6.00 ERA. All told, the Red Sox’s starters’ ERA of 6.70 was a half-run worse than any other team in the majors entering Friday, a colossal condemnation of the organization’s strategy of ramping up its starters’ innings slowly this spring, to account for the later finish in 2018.
The Red Sox’s management, with ample justification, was impressed enough with their 2018 squad that they made only minor tweaks to the roster this winter, even as arbitration raises, the re-signing of Eovaldi and other moves pushed their payroll to the brink of the most onerous tax-rates possible. That, plus a farm system that was rated 30th in the game by Baseball America, has left the team few options for getting out of its current predicament.
The Red Sox are certainly not about to abandon their live-for-today strategy less than a month into the season, and just this week showed again how committed they are to the present, by designating for assignment 27-year-old catcher Blake Swihart in favor of Sandy Leon, who is three years older and lesser hitter, but a better receiver behind the plate.
But the longer the Red Sox struggle, the more it is going to start to feel like 2014 around New England. That year, the Red Sox, coming off a World Series title in 2013, got off to a slow start and never recovered, going 13-14 in March/April, 13-15 in May and 12-16 in June. By July, their management had seen enough, trading veterans Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Andrew Miller for mostly prospects.
In no way are we suggesting the Red Sox are anywhere near that point yet in 2019, but among those raising the possibility of a 2014-style sell-off this summer was ace lefty David Price, who told The Boston Globe, “If we don’t start playing better, J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, maybe myself, we could get traded . . . We’re dead last. It’s going to be talked about.”
This is the season of overreactions by fans and media, a time when everyone gets fooled by bad teams who look good, and good ones who look bad – long before the rigors of the 162-game season can reveal the truth.
But even with that caveat, the Red Sox’ situation looks different and more ominous. In part, that’s because of the quality of the AL East, where the Yankees, even at 8-9 entering the weekend, are as loaded and dangerous as any team in the game, and where the Rays (14-4), despite their tiny payroll, look like they might have staying power.
But it’s also partly a result of the choices Red Sox management made ahead of 2018, and again this past winter. No one can fault the Red Sox for the aggressive moves they made and the massive checks they wrote to secure a title and keep themselves in position, theoretically, for another one this year. But there is also an unspoken understanding to such a strategy: If it all goes wrong, the repercussions are painful, as are the choices.
The Red Sox are not there yet, by any means, but if they hope to avoid such a fate, now would be a good time to start playing better.