It’s Thursday night and the world, it appears, is on fire. That’s fine for us now though, because this is about baseball. The Boston Red Sox, specifically, which you already knew because you’re smart like that. Look over the flames and you’ll see the trade deadline staring us dead in the eyes. In this next month the biggest, most important of the 2016 baseball trades will be consecrated. This month represents the last chance to make substantial changes to the 2016 Red Sox, a team that has, in the words of many more than just myself, gone all in.
There is a problem, though, and that problem is there might be too many problems. It’s often been said by me to random people happening by on the street that the best kind of baseball team to have, if you can’t have a perfect one, is a team with obvious holes. Plug the holes and you’re far closer to that perfect version than you would be if you had a similarly talented team overall but composed of a few stars and a bunch of average schmoes. That second style of team is much harder to upgrade because anywhere you add, you’re also forced to subtract and the resulting difference is much smaller. The good news is this year’s Red Sox are in the first camp. The bad news is they might be too far in that camp.
As things stand now the team is coasting on a strong start, one that saw the offense hit at a level that hasn’t been sustained by a team in decades. Break it down by month and you can see the way things have leveled off offensively.
April: 5.25 runs per game
As the offense has declined the pitching and to a lesser extent the defense has as well.
April: 4.4 runs per game
The question facing GM Dave Dombrowski is which Red Sox team is the real one? While we ponder that, let’s look at last night’s Red Sox lineup. Of course it started with Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, and David Ortiz, but the last five hitters … well. We have Chris Young batting against a right-handed pitcher. That has worked recently, but it’s not what you’d call ideal, and considering Young’s injury, his participation in any game anytime soon is highly questionable. Then Jackie Bradley who, admittedly, is awesome. Then Hanley Ramirez, who hasn’t really hit since last April. Then Christian Vazquez, who hasn’t ever really hit, last April included, and was pinch-hit for by Sandy Leon. Sandy Leon! Then, at third base, Marco Hernandez. That’s not a 800-run lineup. That might not be a 700-run lineup either.
There isn’t much that can be done about Hanley given his contract and the available back-up options. Hope he hits, hope hope hope. That’s about it. But the team has a huge hole in left field with the injuries to Brock Holt, Blake Swihart and now Chris Young. This is why Ryan LaMarre got two plate appearances in important situations last night and one in an important situation on Wednesday. There’s nothing wrong with Ryan LaMarre, I’m sure he’s a wonderful person, bakes a beautiful soufflé, but he’s not the answer in left field let alone the answer at fourth outfielder. The thing is, even with the Holt, Swihart, and Young healthy, none of them might be the answer either.
The Red Sox are almost stuck in a situation where they have to overpay or underpay.
But okay, fine. Just pour resources into bringing in a good left fielder. How about Carlos Gonzalez? Done. That brings about two problems though. First, any real solution is going to cost the Red Sox maybe more than any other team. That’s because of the young talent they have at the major league level, such as Betts, Bogaerts, and Bradley, and because of the stratification in their minor leagues. Right now the Red Sox have four incredibly good prospects in Rafael Devers, Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, and Anderson Espinoza, and after that, things get dicey. Maybe you can throw Michael Kopech in there too. Either way, making any significant deal is going to cost one of the good players. I understand prospect hugging. Not all young players work out and sometimes their highest and best value to the franchise comes through trade. Maybe none of these guys will be stars. But the question isn’t what will they become, it’s what is their value now, and of the players on the market, it’s difficult to find one that will improve the Red Sox markedly and be worth the cost. The Red Sox are almost stuck in a situation where they have to overpay or underpay. If they can underpay, great, but that’s not the likely scenario.
Alright, they traded Benintendi for Gonzalez. Now comes the other problem, which is all the other positions that need strengthening. The back of the bullpen is showing strain with Koji Uehara’s struggles (his walks are up and his homers are way up and his age is up) and Carson Smith’s season-ending injury. But okay, make a deal for Andrew Miller or Arodys Vizcaino. Problem solved! Great, but what about third base? And catcher? And I haven’t even mentioned the four and five spots in the starting rotation, and that’s if you expect Steven Wright to continue pitching like one of the best pitchers in baseball for the rest of the year.
The Red Sox are in a situation where they may have too many problems to fix, too many holes to fill. Dombrowski can start shooting prospects across the country, acquiring a left fielder, a set-up man, a fourth starter, and on and on, but the result will be exceptionally costly in the long run. Next year David Ortiz will retire, and they will need someone to replace his production. That player is likely not yet on this team. Next year Hanley Ramirez, lovable as he may be, will still be bringing his .700 OPS to first base and next year Travis Shaw will still be here and next year and next year and next year. The point is, they’re gonna need these guys, either as long-term answers at important positions, or as trade chips to acquire those answers. More, filling one of 20 holes in a ship won’t stop the ship from sinking, it just forces you to stand there with your finger in the hole while it does.
The Red Sox aren’t in a huge awful hole right now is because Ben Cherington didn’t trade Jackie Bradley, or Mookie Betts, or Xander Bogaerts when he very well could’ve done so.
I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture. It’s not bleak. The Red Sox are a fine team, a decent maybe even good team. They’re in the playoff race. They’re not awful, even if they’ve seemed like it at times recently. They’re not perfect though, or even reasonably close to it, and getting them there in season is going to be shockingly expensive both in terms of the here and now and in terms of the future.
It bears repeating that part of the reason the Red Sox aren’t in a huge awful hole right now is because Ben Cherington didn’t trade Jackie Bradley, or Mookie Betts, or Xander Bogaerts when he very well could’ve done so and with at least as strong a rationalization as Dombrowski has now. Cherington’s reticence to avoid the long term disaster deal for the short term fix may have helped cost him his job, but Dave Dombrowski, for the better of the franchise, needs to follow suit.
The best hope is that a bunch of these things happen: Clay Buchholz remembers how to pitch, Eduardo Rodriguez impersonates a fifth starter, Koji picks it up in the second half and Hanley goes on a run. Then the Red Sox can pick a spot to focus on improving the team and do so with gusto and the knowledge that the difference in quality might be worth the cost. If not enough of those things happen, then Dombrowski and the Red Sox need to pull back on the All In Now reins and spend more time hoping 2016 works out and less time actively assisting it. That might not be what we want to hear, but in a few years we’ll look back at this time. It would be nice not to rue it.
Photo by Mark L. Baer/USA Today Sports Images