The Red Sox, it seems pretty clear, were fine with not winning a championship in 2019.
I understand this is a morning to bury the probably not defending champions, after they feel lucky to have snagged one win from a potentially 100-loss Blue Jays team. A Blue Jays team about which Alex Cora declared on Sunday afternoon, “it seems like they were just better than us.”
You may want to point out we’re all flying off the handle, on account of the Red Sox still being winners of 8 of 11, only trailing the Dodgers for the best run during that period. Or that these aren’t the sorts of things we’d be saying if Friday’s victory wasn’t followed by a blown six-run lead in a bullpen cratering and a sleepwalk loss against sassmouth Marcus Stroman.
This is bigger than this weekend. Consider your history.
In 2003, Boston lost a gut-shredder of a seven-game ALCS to the Yankees. They’d won 90-plus games in back-to-back years, they’d made the playoffs three times in six seasons, but they’d not come particularly close to breaking that multi-generational World Series drought. And so, the Red Sox dismissed a manager with 188 wins in two regular seasons. They flew to Arizona to sell themselves to Curt Schilling, then responded to the “closer by committee” fiasco by getting Keith Foulke, too.
“We’ve added two of the best pitchers in baseball,” said then-GM Theo Epstein, during a winter 2003’s No. 5-ranked payroll was hiked 20 percent. “That was one of the weaknesses of our club last year.”
And that was before trading a franchise icon at the deadline. The 2004 Red Sox were not fine with not winning a championship.
The 2017 Red Sox dismissed John Farrell, a manager who’d won back-to-back AL East titles, a first in franchise history. They added J.D. Martinez, the premier slugger on the market and a player they felt would make the entire lineup better. The payroll leapt skyward another 20 percent, past the highest luxury tax threshold at significant penalty.
“It is the big leagues and anybody can beat you. We have to go out on the field and step on everybody’s neck,” Hanley Ramirez said three months before his was the one crushed in pursuit of ultimate victory.
The 2018 Red Sox were not fine with not winning a championship.
Compare that to last winter, and to this team. Feels a bit different, doesn’t it?
That the squad lacks that reliability in the big moment, that the same players aren’t putting games away or stealing them away the way they did a year ago, can be about any number of things — post-title complacency, bad luck, et cetera — and is probably about all of them. This is more specific: Every observer knew the potential pitfall, akin to those ones above, was going to be having enough arms in the bullpen.
Given the choice between crossing that upper luxury tax number again or riding with internal options, the proverbial step on necks or stand back, the Red Sox made their choice. Lo and behold, it’s June 24 and they’re one of just four teams with three relievers — in their case, Brandon Workman, Ryan Brasier, and Matt Barnes — among the 37 most used in the majors. (Heath Hembree, with 31, would likely be there as well if not for an elbow strain.)
Barnes’s 12 appearances in June are tied for the MLB lead, and no one in baseball’s thrown in more high leverage situations (22) this season than he has. Workman’s 11 appearances are among those tied for fourth, and his 19 high-leverage spots is tied for ninth. In these most recent eight victories, one of Barnes or Workman threw in six of the games. They both threw in four.
Matt Barnes through the first 22 days of June:
* 12 appearances
* 11 1/3 IP
* 7.15 ERA
— Brian MacPherson (@brianmacp) June 23, 2019
Brasier had a 1.32 ERA in April, when Cora leaned on him 13 times, then gave up five earned runs in four innings to start May. Guys get worn out. We’re seeing it. Both in the “15 blown saves” number we’re all quoting and in the desperation to find another guy to lean on that leads to it.
Joe Kelly made 73 appearances in the 2018 regular season, pitching to league-average quality, then nine excellent ones in the playoffs. (Including in every World Series game.) Craig Kimbrel made 63, finishing 57 games and saving 42 in 47 tries, before an off October obscured how good he really was.
I had no issue with Dave Dombrowski letting either walk — Kelly essentially got a three-year contract worth potentially $11 million per year on 11 postseason innings, and Kimbrel wanted $100 million. At some point, though, it becomes clear that replacing them with “let’s hope another Brasier emerges from the shadows” isn’t a sustainable solution.
A year ago, Workman wasn’t even a go-to in the big spot. Kimbrel, Kelly, Hembree, Barnes, and (once he emerged) Brasier all got more nods. Now, he and Barnes are cruising toward burnout by July 31.
The Red Sox are eight games back of the Yankees, same as they were on the morning of June 12, before winning 8 of 11. They were seventh in the American League at 34-34, same as they are at 42-37, though they’ve cut the deficit to the second wildcard from three games to one. They’ll hit the halfway point during the next three days against Chicago, which leads off with 10-game winner Lucas Giolito. (The starter the night of the Nicky Delmonico walk-off.)
Forget the struggles at home, which seem reasonably anomalous. The Red Sox have 83 games left, 36 coming against teams (Yankees, Rays, Dodgers, Indians, Rangers, and Twins) with a better record than them right now. Let’s say the Sox split those 36 games, then win two-thirds of the 47 against those behind them.
Date of 19th home loss:
2018 Red Sox- September 7th
2019 Red Sox- June 23rd
— Tucker Boynton (@Tucker_TnL) June 23, 2019
That’s 91 or 92 wins. Is that a team worth spending past the number? Is that worth waiting long enough to make an addition that fits in the sliver of money before another draft-pick penalty is assessed? And if it’s not, is architect Dave Dombrowski willing to really be bold, as the Globe’s Pete Abraham laid out on Monday morning?
The deadline is still five weeks away. The schedule still includes plenty of bloat against bad teams, and has that stretch I noted the other day of 14 straight games against Tampa and New York (July 22-Aug. 4) that’s a clear defining moment.
“[My approach] really hasn’t changed because it really hasn’t been defined,” Dombrowski told MassLive earlier this month. “If we are in a position to win — and I still believe we will have a chance to do that — we’ll be aggressive in that regard.”
He also knows he doesn’t have to be. After all, nobody repeats in baseball. The Red Sox would really have to slop it up not to at least make the playoffs a fourth straight season, at which point … can a playoff season really be a failure? There is value in not crossing that luxury tax number a second straight year, especially when the payroll will naturally draw down from the $240 million range this winter, and no one can rightfully question John Henry’s financial commitment to this club.
Besides, you’re not going to be as angry with no title in 2019 as you would’ve been in 2018, right? Or, to be certain, 2004? Complacency doesn’t just happen with the players.
Maybe they’re counting on it this year.