Baseball is a weird sport, and it’s noticeably different from all of the other major sports in this country. I know fans of the other sports likely say the same thing — and they’re probably right — but baseball seems even more different. The season is just so much longer than anything else, which makes the mechanics of being a fan so different. Of course, we know the season is long, but we still inevitably pour our heart and soul into various unreliably small samples despite knowing better. It’s why there has been some lingering negativity around a Red Sox team that is 11 games over .500 and is in possession of the top Wild Card spot at the All-Star Break.
I think it’s fair to say that much of the hand-wringing would qualify as an overreaction. This is particularly true when you consider how bad and uncompetitive this team has been the last two years. On the other hand, it’s also fair to say the hand-wringing is perfectly natural given how the team has played lately. Even beyond how they’ve played, I think it’s fair to say this team doesn’t really look like a playoff contender.
Now, I don’t mean “look” as in aesthetically, in the sense of how they play baseball, though that could also be true. I simply mean the names on the roster don’t look like the names of players that should be playing on a playoff team. Much of this has come on the pitching staff, a unit that has relied on Sean O’Sullivan for multiple starts. Additionally, the bench has been something close to depressing for some time now. This isn’t really due to poor management, but rather a rash of injuries. There’s not much one can do about that. Still, this lack of depthhas led to Josh Rutledge and Marco Hernandez playing significant roles at times. I like both players — Hernandez in particular — but they should not be earning significant at-bats in 2016. On top of that, guys like Ryan LaMarre, Deven Marrero and Mike Miller have simply gotten playing time; it should go without saying that playoff teams tend to avoid relying on players of this caliber.
It’s not the end of the world, though. We may think that playoff teams avoid these players, but they don’t. The key is just not relying on them for too long, and that’s something Dave Dombrowski has already addressed. Boston’s President of Baseball Operations went on a little bit of a trading spree last week, acquiring bullpen and bench depth. It all started with the addition of Aaron Hill, who could prove to be the most valuable add of the new trio. He instantly solidifies the bench. Even on days in which he starts — it appears he may form a platoon at third base with Travis Shaw — the best player on the bench is now light years ahead of guys like Rutledge and Hernandez. Hill gives the bench talent and versatility. He’s a solid hitter, with a TAv of .286 in his time with Milwaukee and plenty of above-average seasons before that. He can also play every infield position, and will probably at least be tested in left field.
In addition to Hill, the Red Sox made a minor trade in which they dealt for Michael Martinez for cash. To put it bluntly, Martinez is not the kind of upgrade that Hill is. Instead, he’s simply another Hernandez, who is a below-average hitter but one who can hold his own while playing all over the diamond. This may seem like a pointless move, but as we’ve seen more depth is better depth, even if the talent doesn’t work out that way.
Consider the scenario in which an infielder gets hurt — whether that be Hernandez or a starter. That means someone like Miller or Marrero is suddenly thrust into the top backup role, getting more time than anyone wants. Martinez simply adds more roadblock to that happening, which is subtly important for the grind of a baseball season.
Finally, the bench has gotten deeper with Bryce Brentz. Of course, the outfielder is not a new addition who came over in the form of a trade but is rather a long-time prospect who had seemingly topped out in the upper-levels of the farm system. This season was likely the 27-year-old’s final chance to make it as a big leaguer, and he’s certainly making the most of it.
Of course, we’re only talking about 40 plate appearances, so things could change soon. In fact, it might even be likely that things change soon. In the meantime, though, Brentz has bought the Red Sox time. He’s on the short end of the platoon, and he doesn’t figure to play that role all year. Chris Young is still expected to return at some point, and Brentz has shown the ability to keep Young’s spot warm in the meantime. This is important not only because Boston doesn’t have to try to squeeze value out of Rusney Castillo again or play LaMarre, but also because he can save them prospects. Instead of having to throw prospects to fill in the outfield hole, Dombrowski can now comfortably save his young players to deal for the hole in the rotation.
Despite all the hand-wringing, the Red Sox find themselves in a solid position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Obviously, there’s still a lot of work to do, as the second half gets underway this weekend. The season’s grind necessitates depth, something the Red Sox have learned the hard way this year.
Luckily, Dombrowski recognized the issue and reinforced the bench with some key moves. He’s also benefiting from a modest emergence from Brentz. The jury is still out on whether this Red Sox team is “for real,” but at least we’ll be seeing more players who feel like they belong on a team in this position. Of course, we’ll just find something else to worry about, now.
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