The Silver Linings

Well, that’s it.

The 2017 season for the Boston Red Sox is over, ended by the Houston Astros yesterday afternoon. For this team, there is no tomorrow. Truck Day is just over four months away. Winter is here.

So, naturally, our first post-elimination thoughts turn to what happened in that last game. Gary DiSarcina could’ve pulled Sale earlier, sure. Craig Kimbrel needed the hook faster and Addison Reed should’ve been out there sooner. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and all those other guys shouldn’t have taken so many middle-middle first-strike pitches. It’s all hindsight in the end. We’re all just Monday (well, Tuesday) morning quarterbacks, using the benefit of having seen events already play out to make better decisions.It’s a coping mechanism we’ve all used before. Can’t blame anyone for that.

But you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who thought that game was awful. We all watched four hours of a thrilling, back-and-forth game, and while that didn’t end in the way the Red Sox wanted, it’s hard to come away from that game with a bitter taste in your mouth. The Red Sox didn’t lose on a bad call, or a managing mistake – and trust me, leaving Chris Sale in for the eighth inning is defensible. The Red Sox put their best foot forward and couldn’t get it done. They challenged the Astros with Sale and Craig Kimbrel, and the Astros answered back. Their two best pitchers were put in the situations with the highest leverage, and simply couldn’t get it done. Farrell and DiSarcina did everything right and still lost. That’s baseball. Better to go out having done the best you could possibly do.

If you want to look for a scapegoat to place all the blame on, I guess you can pin it on the offense, if anything. The loss of David Ortiz was sizable, yes, but several regulars took steps back offensively. Whether it was injury related or simple underperformance, the result was the same: the bats were not as lively as they were a year ago.

Player 2016 TAv 2017 TAv Difference
Mookie Betts .296 .276 -.020
Xander Bogaerts .267 .259 -.008
Jackie Bradley Jr. .273 .257 -.016
Dustin Pedroia .274 .266 -.008
Hanley Ramirez .280 .253 -.027

That’s five regulars with not-insignificant drops in offensive output. Combine that with the streakiness of a few of the others – Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez, Mitch Moreland – and you’re going to have some pretty frustrating lulls. Lament all you want about Ortiz retiring, but this was the real problem. It was just easier to point to a legend walking away as the cause than to state that the majority of the team’s core was sorely lacking.

Luckily for the Red Sox, their farm system’s last gasps gave them Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers, two more-than-capable hitters who seem to do things like this on the regular:

If you’re not excited for these two guys, I don’t know what to tell you. These are the homegrown players every team craves and every fanbase wants to see. Plus, you don’t usually see 20-year-olds do what Devers does, and if you do, it’s almost certainly not in the majors. The Red Sox have put together an incredible core of young players that could (and should!) be bludgeoning baseballs in 2018. Maybe they’ll get caught up in the home run craze that’s sweeping the majors and hit one of those grand slams we’ve heard so much about. You never know.

Sometimes, the changing of the guard is gradual. It creeps up and slowly progresses until the point where the old guard is a fond memory and the new guys are the norm. Other times, an event or two happens that signals the arrival of the future, like trumpets sounding the beginning of the end. This ALDS might’ve been the latter. You just felt bad for Dustin Pedroia at the end of this season. The knee was clearly affecting him, and at 34 years old with a recent history of hand, wrist, and knee injuries, it sure felt like his aggressive-yet-effective style of play was starting to wear him down. Hanley Ramirez found some life in the ALDS, but again, a string of maladies affected him throughout the regular season, and he’ll come into 2018 having to prove himself in a contract year. It sure seemed like these guys were playing on borrowed time, and those loans aren’t easily paid off. They’ll both be 34 come Opening Day 2018, and the two of the oldest Red Sox on the roster next year, if not the oldest.

The Red Sox scored 93 fewer runs than the 2016 squad did, and yet they still won 93 games and a second straight American League East pennant. There aren’t enough superlatives for the work this pitching staff did in keeping this team in so many games. Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel had historic streaks and great seasons. Drew Pomeranz emerged as a legitimate #2/#3 starter. David Price yelled at a few people, pitched decently, got hurt (again), and came back to rewrite his entire postseason narrative.

Make no mistake, the Red Sox pitching this year was phenomenal. The bullpen was nails. The starters were great. While they might be overshadowed by teams like the Indians, Yankees, and Dodgers, it’s not an exaggeration to think that this was the best group of pitchers the Red Sox have had since 2007, and maybe even further back, if you’re feeling ambitious. Sure, the second half wasn’t as kind and we saw fatigue set in, but having a pitching-led team isn’t something the Red Sox have been known for. This was a different way to win. No more homers and overwhelming lineups, but instead a ton of strikeouts and a lockdown bullpen. Both this squad and the 2016 team won 93 games, so it’s only different means to the same end. Next year’s squad will hopefully not have to rely on them as much as this one did.

So what’s next for the Red Sox? Well, first they have to navigate the wintry waters of free agency.

There’s not much there the Red Sox would bring back. Nunez is a near-lock, and maybe Abad or Fister, but none of the rest seem likely to stay in Boston. The real big decision is when – not if – the Red Sox decide to splurge on a hitter, be it J.D. Martinez in free agency or Giancarlo Stanton in a trade. Adding someone who can launch baseballs to Mars while betting on young hitters rebounding is a pretty good way to have a solid offense again. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Maybe we’re all just happy the Red Sox showed some life and didn’t get swept. Who knows. But I wasn’t the only one came away from this series with a strange sense of optimism. As frustrating as this team was at times, they were still better than 80 percent of the American League, and it’s not a stretch to see them be better next year with the right pieces. But that campaign will begin several months from now, when they all go back to Ft. Myers, the cycle begins anew, and the hype train leaves the station. So for now, try and remember all you can about the 2017 Red Sox, because we’ll never see a team so uniquely fascinating again.

Photo by Bob DeChiara – USA TODAY Sports

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