It’s not just that it’s easy to pinpoint where it has gone wrong for the 2019 Red Sox, who now have 55 losses — one more than they had in their star-dusted 2018 season — with 48 games left to play.
It’s that there are multiple options for the answer, and all of them are correct.
Was it when they treated their starting pitchers too delicately in spring training, to the point that they weren’t prepared for the regular season?
Was it the 6-13 start to the regular season, which put them 8½ games behind the then- first-place Rays just 19 games in?
Was it the half-dozen fits and starts through the first two-thirds of the schedule, when every time it looked like they might be finding themselves, something would go wrong? Right up through losing the fourth game of a potential sweep of the Yankees a week ago, one more almost-but-not-quite moment?
Or was it the harsh realization over the weekend — as the Yankees pulled off a four-game sweep of the Sox and left them reeling on an eight-game losing streak — that the Red Sox apparently spent two years’ worth of good fortune last year?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
All of the above, and then some.
In a broader sense, it’s also easy to pinpoint what went wrong. The offense (an MLB-leading 652 runs) is excellent, though mixing in a couple more walkoffs here and there would pick up the pitching staff, which apparently is incapable of picking up itself. Brandon Workman deserves a Fireman of the Year award just for putting out his bullpen cohorts’ attempts at arson.
And as for the starting rotation, let’s put it this way: I recently compared Rick Porcello (5.74 ERA) to 2003 John Burkett. Right now, John Burkett might be the Red Sox’ best hope in a wild-card game, on the slim chance they can make up their 6½-game deficit the next seven weeks. And he’s now 54 years old.
But as disappointing as the actual season has been, I don’t think we can overlook how many missteps the president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski made in the offseason. It shouldn’t have been a difficult offseason — the core of the 119-win champs was intact and in its prime for the most part — and yet the Red Sox front office got almost nothing right.
Let’s take a quick stroll through the transactions log:
Nov. 16: Re-signed 1B/DH Steve Pearce to a one-year, $6.25 million deal. Pearce’s love for the Patriots is well-known, so he’d probably understand when we say this was the kind of move Bill Belichick never would make. It wasn’t for a lot of money in general, but it was probably a $4 million overpay for a player of Pearce’s profile — a mid-30s journeyman 1B/DH type.
It was a sentimental signing after his World Series MVP performance, and given the Red Sox budget constraints, it got in the way of signing an actual proven relief pitcher or two to make up for the departures of Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly.
And to reiterate, I’m fine with letting them go. Paying for Kimbrel’s decline would have been a bad idea. But trying to replace their combined 136 appearances by purchasing Quad A lottery tickets with decent spin rates on their breaking balls was foolish. I said it then, and I’ll say it when he’s getting big outs for the Yankees in October: They should have signed Adam Ottavino.
Nov. 20: Traded second baseman Esteban Quiroz to Padres for Colten Brewer. Obviously a minor deal, but one that in retrospect signaled their offseason approach to bullpen construction: Let’s try to find another Ryan Brasier or two rather than paying for established relievers. Brewer has a 4.31 ERA and 1.75 WHIP in 48 appearances.
Dec. 6: Re-signed P Nathan Eovaldi to a four-year, $68 million deal. Well, at least they didn’t give this deal to Porcello instead. I suppose there was some sentimentality to this contract as well, given his legendary performance in Game 3 of the World Series, and it certainly came with a lot of risk given his injury history, but I also understand it. It’s not an insane commitment in money or length, and he’s a talented pitcher and great teammate who is still just 29 years old.
Dec. 18-20: Signed free agent pitchers Erasmo Ramirez, Carson Smith, and Ryan Weber. Did I mention that they also signed Jennry Mejia, Daniel Schlereth, Brian Ellington, and Dan Runzler over the winter, with Mejia coming off a “lifetime’’ ban for three failed performance-enhancing drug tests, and the latter all journeymen who have since been released? The let’s-sign-a-bunch-of-guys-and-see-what-sticks approach left nothing that stuck, unless you want to count Weber and his 4.50 ERA in nine appearances. I’m not counting it.
March 22: Re-signed P Chris Sale to a five-year, $145 million contract extension beginning in 2020. I have no idea what to make of Sale’s enigmatic trainwreck of a season (5-11, 4.68 ERA, a different command issue every time he pitches, and yet a league-leading 13.1 K/9 rate). But I know this: The urgency to extend him at the end of spring training when he was coming off a season abbreviated to some degree by injury seemed to be an indication that the Red Sox were sure he would be his usual self. He has not been, all year, and were he hitting the open market after the season, I can’t imagine he’d get anything resembling $145 million over the next five years. (By the way, his most similar pitcher through age 29 is David Price. This seems fitting somehow.)
If you want to count the A++ decision to re-sign Xander Bogaerts — who seems to be the team conscience as well as their best player this season — for six years and $120 million in the first week of the regular season as an offseason move, go ahead. But I’m giving all the credit to him for wanting to stay, and doing so at a rate that probably was less than he’d get as a free agent.
If he hasn’t been the best thing about this season, it’s only because Rafael Devers emerged rapidly as a line-drive hitting force. But that’s about it.
The 2019 Red Sox are a mess. We never could have expected the decisions of the offseason to foreshadow this, but they sure have played a part in making this season an increasingly unwatchable sequel to a championship.