The Boston Red Sox find themselves in a state of uncertainty as the 2015 regular season nears its conclusion. Facing their second losing season in the last two years, the team has gone through a a significant change in the composition of its front office.
Long time team president Larry Lucchino, who helped bring the franchise three World Series titles, has stepped down. Dave Dombrowski, who held the equivalent position with the Detroit Tigers earlier this season, now fills that position. General Manager Ben Cherington relinquished his title around that time. On Thursday, the team stayed in-house by promoting assistant GM Mike Hazen, who has been with the team since 2006, to take over the vacant office. Hazen was also made a senior vice president. The next day, it was announced that Frank Wren, formerly the GM of the Atlanta Braves, would be made senior vice president of baseball operations.
That should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Almost from the moment Dombrowski took over, it has been rumored that Wren would likely join him, possibly as the general manager. Wren and Dombrowski worked together with the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins from 1987-1998. Dombrowski was the GM, and Wren the assistant GM, of the 1997 Marlins team that beat the New York Yankees in the World Series.
The more surprising of the two moves is, certainly, the promotion of Hazen. After watching the past two seasons devolve into last place finishes, many fans thought, and likely hoped, that the team would bring in an outsider, someone with a different way of thinking, to fill the GM position. After all, Cherington rose to that role from within the organization and his questionable decisions, especially in regard to the starting rotation, brought the team to its current state.
To be fair, the Sox did win a title in 2013 under Cherington. However, if we are being entirely honest, that team probably overachieved. It was certainly a good, talented team. But it also played above the level many expected and, perhaps more importantly, was healthier than expected. In particular, first baseman Mike Napoli and outfielder Shane Victorino, both of whom have struggled with injuries throughout their careers, were healthy in 2013 and were huge in the playoffs. Since then, both once again failed to avoid injuries and the team has failed to play anywhere near the level it did during that magical season.
However, it might be that the Red Sox really do not need to change that much more to return to playoff contention. While many of Cherington’s free agent acquisitions have fallen flat, the minor league pieces that the team acquired are developing nicely. Thanks to them, and to the continued presence of veteran leadership in designated hitter David Ortiz and second baseman Dustin Pedroia, there is reason to believe that the Red Sox have the makings of a solid team in place.
Yes, the Sox have undeniably played bad baseball for the vast majority of the season. Their 73-80 record entering Saturday accurately reflects the poor starting and relief pitching, the bad fielding, and the poor decisions on the basepaths that have plagued them this season. However, the fact remains that over the last two months, the Sox have looked, well, good. They are 12-10 so far in September following a 15-12 August. Not world-beating by any means, but certainly a much stronger showing than they gave from April through July. The return of Pedroia form the disabled list and the hot bat of Ortiz, along with the unexpected dominance of Rich Hill, have certainly contributed to that, but much of the improvement can, and should, be attributed to the strong play of the youngest members of the squad.
The Red Sox will have have a pair of solid young catchers behind the plate for the next several years, unless they trade one. Christian Vazquez, out for the season following Tommy John surgery, will be back next season and is as good defensively as any catcher in baseball. Rookie Blake Swihart does not quite have the arm that Vazquez does behind the plate, but is better with a bat in his hands and has displayed improving defense over the course of the season.
Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, in his second full season with the team, has developed into maybe the finest offensive force at that position in the major leagues. Following a disappointing rookie campaign, Bogaerts has put up a .325/.358/.429 triple-slash line, and has seven home runs, 33 doubles, and 80 runs batted in. He also has the league’s highest batting average with runners in scoring position. As he continues to develop, some of those doubles will turn into home runs, and he will truly be a fearsome hitter. His defense, once a liability, has been solid this season. In Bogaerts, the Red Sox seem to have finally found the long term answer at short that they have been searching for since the departure of Nomar Garciaparra.
The outfield also seems to be in good hands. Jackie Bradley Jr., already perhaps the best defensive outfielder in the game, has displayed an improved bat in extended playing time this season. While his batting average has fallen back to Earth from its lofty late-August/early-September heights, he is still hitting a respectable .254 (far better than his .213 career average), with nine home runs and 40 RBI. Mookie Betts has been the superstar that many believed he would be after a meteoric rise through the minor leagues. He owns a .292/.340/.467 slash line along with 15 dingers and 71 RBI, and has played outstanding defense (just look at the play he made to end the game in Rich Hill’s last start). The only question mark is Rusney Castillo. The pricey Cuban import certainly has a big league bat. It still remains to be seen, however, if his glove and defensive instincts can develop to the necessary level. Even if they can’t, Yoan Moncada and Andrew Benintendi, this year’s first round pick, are impressing in the minors right now and may contribute in the majors sooner rather than later. Neither will be with the big league club to open the 2016 season, but one or both could easily earn a look next September.
Finally, the starting rotation also appears to be in good hands going forward. Rookie Henry Owens has been impressive. His 4.41 earned run average does not tell the whole story and is inflated by two starts in which he gave up seven runs each. However, he has given up three or fewer runs in six of his nine starts this season, and has struck out 41 batters while walking just 19. Fellow rookie Eduardo Rodriguez has been even more impressive. Acquired from the Baltimore Orioles last season for reliever Andrew Miller, Rodriguez owns a 9-6 record, a 3.97 ERA, and 93 strikeouts in 115.2 innings pitched. Like Owens, his ERA in inflated by just a few bad starts; he has given up three or fewer runs in 15 of 20 starts this season.
The Red Sox are far from set for next season. The bullpen has been an unmitigated disaster and should be Hazen’s top priority in his first offseason as GM, and the rotation still needs to be evaluated. But there may not be as much work to be done as many thought around the All Star break. As things change for the Red Sox, perhaps even more should remain the same. Only time will tell.