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Turning Around the Boston Red Sox

With a shade under two months left in the 2015 baseball season, the Red Sox are officially out of the race. While they are not technically eliminated in the most literal sense of the word (0.9% playoff odds!), it is now clear that yet another season that began full of hope will end in utter despair and a ton of unknowns. Yes, it was supposed to be an overly competitive year in the AL East, and the Red Sox were only slight favorites above the rest, but few could have predicted the disaster that the 2015 team would end up becoming.

Unless there is a sudden and remarkable turnaround, the Red Sox are doomed to finish in last place in the East, while battling with the A’s for the dubious honor of having the worst record in the American League. This ignominy will mark the third time over the past four seasons in which Boston finishes dead last in the AL East, all the time carrying one of the top-3 payrolls in the majors. Of course, these 4 seasons were wrapped around a World Series title in 2013, which makes it all the weirder.

While there is always a fine explanation in chalking it all to baseball’s preternatural randomness, every passing season makes it more apparent that 2013 was just a big outlier for a franchise that resembles little of what it used to be less than a decade ago. When the Red Sox finally broke the curse and became the class of the American League, they surrounded their 2004 and 2007 titles with 7 winning seasons and 6 playoff appearances. Then came a mildly disappointing 2010, followed by the shock that was the 2011 collapse and the departure of Terry Francona. In many ways, it hasn’t been nearly the same since.

Leaving aside the “chicken and beer” fiasco and all the blame-shifting that went around following the 2011 disaster, it was probably clear that the franchise was in the cusp of ending a talent cycle and ready to reload. Instead, they went and played the worst season for a Boston team since 1965. The 2013 playoff run was magical and all, but probably built on a bunch of career years and the frailty of the Detroit Tigers bullpen, and so it left behind an unsustainable model that has carried through what we have today.

With 2014 ending 25 games out of first place, the Red Sox were again ready to make a splash, bringing in two huge free agents in Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, also trading for Rick Porcello, and counting on full seasons from wunderkinds like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. Even as the rotation was certainly a weakness, the team’s offense was supposed to be good enough to offset any pitching limitations and carry Boston to somewhere around 90 wins. Instead, now they will be lucky if the can avoid losing 90 games.

From almost all relevant statistical standpoints, it is easy to see why the Red Sox have failed so blatantly in their attempt to recoup AL supremacy. The Red Sox’s staff ERA of 4.53 sits tied for 28th in the majors, with the rotation being the main culprit and sporting a ghastly 4.82 mark that is only “bested” by the Rockies and Phillies. The bullpen hasn’t performed much better, with a 4.02 ERA that makes it the 23rd-best in the league.

When it comes to defense, the Red Sox rank a middle-of-the-pack 16th as a team in defensive rating, but even that undersells the sad state of a few positions. Sandoval, who had proven to be at least adequate at third despite his burly physique, has been a disaster defending his corner. So has been Mike Napoli at first, but that was probably to be expected. The big blow has come from left field, where Hanley Ramirez has practically given back all his offensive contributions with his lousy glove work. When Hanley makes Boston fans yearn for the days of Manny in front of the Green Monster, you know that something is terribly wrong.

And the vaunted offense? Well, it sits at the 20th spot in terms of wRC+, 17th in slugging, and only 14th in homeruns, all of this despite playing in one of the friendliest home ballparks in the game. In all, the Red Sox have featured 7 batters with a WAR below zero, while also having 9 pitchers falling under the same criteria. This has led Boston to be the only team in baseball without a 5-game winning streak, and being a pushover to their rivals in New York, who are 8-4 against the Red Sox.

With the trade deadline dead and gone, the possibility of Boston unloading some of its albatross contracts now has been put on hold (unless they have another massive August salary dump like in 2012). On guaranteed money alone, the Red Sox have an average of $89.4 million committed yearly from 2016 to 2019, with Hanley, Sandoval, Porcello, Dustin Pedroia, and Rusney Castillo clogging up most of the payroll. Even for a team with seemingly unlimited resources, this can be too much for a collection of players who don’t hold much promise of living up to their salaries. Also, the franchise will have to deal with the inevitable retirement of David Ortiz, which will end an era in Beantown.

The good news for Boston is that the gap between their disappointing veterans and the future can certainly be bridged by their lofty collection of cheap, controllable talent in the foreseeable future. Aside from the aforementioned Betts and Bogaerts, 2015 has also seen quick cameos from lefty pitchers Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens, and catcher Blake Swihart. Also, the sad ending to the season will at least be ameliorated by the upcoming debuts of Garin Cecchini, Brian Johnson, and Matt Barnes, all of whom are in the farm system’s top 10 and should see September call-ups.

While it would be foolish to think that all prospects will pan out as they are projected, it is also quite possible that the Red Sox will have a core of young players making small salaries over at least a 3-year period. Even then, it is clear that the Red Sox need front-line pitching if they are to compete in the tough American League. This offseason’s class of free agents includes marquee names such as Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto, and Scott Kazmir, all of which will be certainly linked to Boston and its deep pockets.

The Red Sox are clearly aware that the balance of power in the AL East is in flux right now, and probably will remain the same in the next 2-3 years. The Blue Jays are in full win-now mode, but their future is uncertain beyond 2016. The Orioles and Rays don’t have the same talent pool, but they aren’t going away. The Yankees are the biggest enigma, as they will also have a high attrition rate with their high-priced veterans, but are also starting a nice youth movement that threatens to bring upon a new era of Yankees-Red Sox rivalry at the top.

2015’s debacle has already left some casualties, with team president Larry Lucchino set to step down at the end of the season. While GM Ben Cherington has been confirmed to stay on board, it is also quite likely that manager John Farrell will be replaced to begin the new youth movement in Boston.

In the end, the Red Sox may have bottomed out yet again in 2015, but at least they are being left with a base of projectable talent that could make the team overly competitive for many years. The 2015 Astros are showing what can be done when all prospects begin to click, especially when surrounded by quality veterans (which certainly can be afforded by Boston). September will be an important month to get a first look at the farm, but what happens from November to March will be equal or more important, as the Red Sox know for sure they need starting pitching.

For a team that can afford anything, another bad season can’t simply by accepted again. Even as the tides are changing, the future is not as bleak for the Red Sox, who don’t seem in any real danger to begin another infamous streak of futility.

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