Crisis in Boston: Will Red Sox be in the Hunt in October?
Despite hovering around the .500 mark for most of the 2012 season, the Boston Red Sox are a team in crisis. The club is currently dead last in the American League East Division and is foundering as a result of injuries, bad contracts and poor management. The Red Sox are in danger of missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
The crisis actually began in September 2011 when the Red Sox posted a 7-19 record in the final 26 games on their way to blowing a nine game lead in the AL Wild Card race. General Manager Theo Epstein and Manager Terry Francona, the men who guided the Sox to World Championships in 2004 and 2007, both departed in the offseason. The 2012 campaign has been a train wreck, with Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Andrew Bailey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jacoby Ellsbury all missing significant time to injury. Stars Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez both have an OPS in the low .700s, well below their career norms. Three of the pitchers in the starting rotation have ERAs above 4.38, and Josh Beckett`s WHIP of 1.28 is the best in the rotation. Acting closer Alfredo Aceves has a 4.15 ERA and a WHIP of 1.30, and of the five relievers with 17 appearances or more, only two have posted ERAs below 4.00. Boston’s $173 million-plus payroll in 2012 now ranks them third in the Majors.
Not all of the Red Sox’ misfortune is due to bad luck or injuries. Boston has accumulated several veterans with contacts so unreasonable and performances so poor that these players simply cannot be moved to another team. Outfielder Carl Crawford was signed to a massive 7 year contract in 2010 to provide a speed and power package for Boston, and he is due to receive at least $20 million each season between 2012 and 2017. In his first season with the Sox last year, Crawford posted a putrid .694 OPS and just 18 steals in 130 games, and he has yet to play this season because of injury.
Boston’s pitching staff is the anchor of the team, in a literal sense, when one considers the awful contracts handed out by the Red Sox to some of their hurlers. Lackey was signed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract in 2009 and is due over $15 million per season until 2014. In 2010, he posted an ERA of 4.40 and a WHIP of 1.42, his worst totals since 2004. Last season, Lackey had a 6.41 ERA, a WHIP of 1.62, and his strikeouts per nine dipped to its lowest level since his rookie season. He is likely to miss all of this season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Beckett will collect $15.75 million for the next three seasons and has been wildly inconsistent, posting ERAs above 4.00 in four of his seven seasons in Boston. Reliever Bobby Jenks was signed to a 2 year, $12 million contract in 2010, and last year posted a 6.32 ERA and is out with a serious back injury this year. Matsuzaka is collecting $10 million while contributing ERAs above 4.69 in each of his past three seasons, and is currently rehabilitating an injury in the minors. The contracts given to these pitchers rival the worst in all of baseball.
The Red Sox have also made a number of questionable on-field decisions in 2012. This past week, the Sox used Adrian Gonzalez in the outfield in order to keep hot-hitting call up Will Middlebrooks in the lineup at third, with regular third baseman Kevin Youkilis shifting to first. The decision to start Gonzalez in any spot in the Boston outfield is pure folly. Even as a first baseman, Gonzalez has never demonstrated the type of range needed to play the outfield. Since becoming a regular first baseman in 2006, Gonzalez’s Range Factor per Inning (“RF9”) has ranked in the top 10 only once. In 2011, Gonzalez’s RF9 of 8.96 ranked him 19th among MLB first basemen, and Gonzalez also ranked 19th in 2006, and was 15th in 2008 and 2009. Prior to this season, Gonzalez logged a total of just 21 innings as a Major League outfielder. All of these shortcomings are compounded by the fact that Boston’s home field, Fenway Park, features perhaps the most difficult outfield dimensions in baseball. Hours upon hours of practice and game experience are required in order to master defending left field in front of the Green Monster or patrolling the cavernous and winding dimensions in right field. If Gonzalez continues to play in the Boston outfield, he will be a huge defensive liability and he is going to cost his team runs and wins.
Boston also decided to convert power reliever Daniel Bard into a starting pitcher for this season. The decision was curious, given that Bard had been a starter in only one of his previous five professional seasons, and in that season posted a 7.08 ERA and a 2.05 WHIP across two levels of Single-A. The results in 2012 have been nothing short of disastrous. Bard has posted a 4.69 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP in eight starts, and his strikeouts per nine innings have plummeted to 5.3. Bard averaged better than 9 strikeouts per nine innings from 2009 to 2011, and posted ERAs below 3.33 and WHIPS below 1.00, in two of the past three seasons. Prior to 2012, he was the primary setup man in the Boston bullpen and was the key bridge between the starting pitchers and closer Jonathan Papelbon. Bard’s removal from the back-end of the Boston bullpen, combined with Papelbon’s departure via free agency and the injury to newly acquired closer Andrew Bailey has left the Red Sox with few reliable arms in their relief corps. Bard could surely have filled in nicely in Bailey’s absence or even replaced Papelbon on his own, negating the requirement to trade for Bailey. The conversion from relief to starting pitcher is notoriously difficult, and one can only hope that the Red Sox haven’t derailed Bard’s career with their short-sighted decision to put him in the starting rotation.
The Sox made a huge mistake in trading promising young outfielder Josh Reddick to Oakland to acquire Bailey. Reddick has hit 11 home runs and posted an .864 OPS in 2012 while playing in the pitcher-friendly confines of the Oakland Coliseum, and is sorely missed in Boston because of the departure of J.D. Drew and the injury to Crawford. Instead, the Red Sox are being forced to rely on retreads such as Marlon Byrd and Ryan Sweeney in the outfield, the latter having never slugged above .407 in his career, and the former having slugged .395 in 2011. New outfield addition Scott Podsednik boasts a .382 career slugging percentage and a birth certificate which says he is 36 years old.
Perhaps the biggest abomination committed by the Sox is continuing to allow Clay Bucholtz and his 7.84 ERA to take the mound every fifth day. In baseball`s toughest division, the Sox cannot afford to throw away any starts simply because they continue to believe in a struggling starting pitcher.
One of the obvious answers to this crisis is that the Red Sox need to get healthy again. But the problem is much more deep-rooted than that. Boston management quickly needs to rediscover its ability to draft and develop premier talent, such as Youkilis, Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia, all of whom were brought up in the Red Sox organization and all whom remain under team control at very reasonable prices. In the past few years of the Epstein regime, the Red Sox unsuccessfully relied on big spending in the free agent market to try to patch holes in their roster, rather than drafting and developing talent.
Boston also needs to rediscover the art of run prevention, as they are currently allowing an average of 5 runs against per game, third worst in the majors. The Sox are also third worst in team ERA. By comparison, the Sox were second in MLB in team ERA and runs allowed in 2007, and were 16th and 11th in MLB in these respective categories in 2004. Boston desperately needs Bucholtz and Beckett to get on track, they need a healthy, productive return from Matsuzaka, and they need to develop some starting pitching talent for the future. Felix Doubront, though still a relatively raw prospect, may be one of the answers.
It’s only the end of May, but without timely answers to some of these problems, the Red Sox’ season will be over well before October.
…and that’s the last word.