By Steve Perrault – Follow on Twitter: @Steve_Perrault
So, here we are. After going 78-84, the Red Sox have now finished in last place in the A.L. East in three of the last four seasons. But, if I were to ask you if this club was a success or a failure, what would you say? Before jumping to a quick conclusion, know that this may be an impossible question to answer. To try and simplify the process, here are the pieces that attempt to connect the puzzle that was the 2015 Boston Red Sox.
Blame The Front Office
This Red Sox team was supposed to be a playoff-caliber bunch. They were allegedly built on “five aces” in the starting rotation and had made two “big free-agent signings” to bolster a lineup that already contained offensive threats. But once we sifted through all the propaganda that was being fed down from the front office, it was apparent that the team didn’t know what it’s true identity was. And they may have never found it.
Hanley Was Being Hanley
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Hanley Ramirez was the worst thing that could have ever happened to the 2015 Red Sox. Take away his 10 round-trippers in April, and glaring similarities to the Mr. Cool approach of Manny Ramirez, and you’re left with a child that only likes doing things his way. You want me to play the outfield? I’ll do it, but I’ll make zero attempt to learn the position. You want me in the lineup every day? Oops, sorry, my back doesn’t feel good; I can’t go today. All the traits you want in a baseball player are non-existent in Hanley Ramirez. So, yes, he finished in first place in the “Biggest Distraction on the Red Sox” category. And it wasn’t even close.
Once you look past the Hanley issue, you are then faced with the woes of a built-to-fail starting rotation. Were we really supposed to think that this rotation built on middle-of-the-road starters was supposed to lead the Red Sox to the promised land? Are we fools for potentially buying into this rotation? No, because – at least for most of you – we DIDN’T buy into this rotation.
Clay Buchholz was your Opening Day starter. Yes, the same Clay Buchholz that has yet to reach 30 starts or 200 innings pitched in a season…was your No. 1 starter. While Clay had his typical string of lights-out starts, you knew his injury-prone ways were going to come into play sooner or later. And wouldn’t you know it. In a seemingly routine pitch to the plate, Buchholz appeared to have a little discomfort. And before you could say “Not again!” he was in the clubhouse and wouldn’t throw another pitch for the rest of the season.
We can’t talk about the rotation without addressing how Rick Porcello was signing an extension with the Red Sox….before he threw a single meaningful pitch for the team. What had this man done to deserve $83 million over a four-year term? The Tigers starting-pitching core that had raised Porcello in the big leagues – while being an impressive bunch – NEVER featured the righty at the top of their playoff rotation. Then, just twenty starts into Porcello’s Red Sox career, he was already sporting a 5-11 record with a 5.81 ERA. Even though Porcello made some decent starts after his DL stint – one that was much less due to an injury, but rather to get his mind right – he was surely more part of the problem for this team than the solution.
Simply put, the Red Sox were lacking a “shut-down” pitcher this season. While we will get to the importance of the emerging young arms to the pitching staff, this year’s club lacked a consistent arm in the rotation that could end a slump and propel the team to a much-needed winning streak. When the youthful hurlers began to find a groove, the Sox were, for better or worse, already out of playoff contention. It’s safe to say acquiring this shut-down pitcher is at the top of new President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski‘s “Offseason To-Do List.”
Ok, I’ll just say it. Pablo Sandoval wasn’t the issue, people. We can discuss his weight all we want, and how he may have underperformed in the field (a lot) and at the plate (also a lot), but both of these attributes showed glimpses of improvement as the season progressed. Sandoval, after signing a five-year, $95 million contract with Boston in the offseason, had the worst statistical performance of his career this year (.245 AVG, 10 HR, .658 OPS). He still has the potential to fill a prior void that the club had at the third base position, so show some patience with the newcomer (if possible).
To place the majority of the blame for the Red Sox third last place A.L. East finish in four seasons on the bullpen would seem aggressive, but it isn’t too far-fetched. The Sox bullpen finished the 2015 season with the third worst ERA in the A.L. (4.25), only surpassing the Tigers and the Athletics – both being last place teams as well. It got to point this season that whenever you handed the ball to anyone not named Koji Uehara you had zero confidence that that inning would go smoothly. For a manager, there is no worse feeling than having absolutely no faith in your bullpen. So – like the need for an ace in the rotation – this issue should also need to be addressed immediately this offseason.
John Farrell being diagnosed with cancer while the Red Sox were already at rock bottom was the worst news you could ever have expected to hear. While it appears Farrell is on his way to a full recovery – as they luckily caught this early in the process – he will now, reportedly, be returning as the Red Sox manager for the 2016 season. The only catch is Red Sox interim manager, Torey Lovullo, just signed an extension with Boston and, in the process, agreed to not pursue any managerial openings in 2016. Yes, it’s ok to think this situation is awkward. Because, it is.
Let’s say, for example, the 2016 Red Sox season gets off to a bumpy start. How are we not to believe that Farrell will start feeling the heat from Dombrowski and company that they will give him the boot and slide Lovullo into his job as manager? Everyone now knows that Torey is capable of succeeding with this young Red Sox team, as he led them to a rather impressive 28-20 record since taking over for Farrell on August 14. So, yes, expect things to potentially get awkward if the Sox get off to a slow start in 2016.
The Kids Are Alright
Amidst all the ups and (more common) downs of this season, lies the biggest surprise of the year: Xander Bogaerts. After Game 162 last year if you would have told me that Bogaerts would lead all A.L. shortstops in batting average (.320), on-base percentage (.355), runs (84), and RBI (81) I would have told you to get lost. Seriously, I wouldn’t have wanted to converse with you because I would have been worried for your mental health. But, here we are. Bogaerts is arguably the best shortstop in baseball right now and he just turned 23 last Thursday. In fact, with 195 hits, Bogaerts passed Ted Williams (193 in 1940) for most hits by a Red Sox player in his age-22 season or younger. Also, the confidence Xander showed in the field this year was a complete 180 from what he had displayed last season. Call him your 2015 Red Sox MVP, because no matter what chaos may have been happening around him, Bogaerts was Mr. Consistency for this ball club all season long.
Dave Dombrowski knew EXACTLY what he was doing in taking Hanley Ramirez out of left field as his first move with the club. As I wrote earlier this week, the Red Sox were going to have to pay Hanley his vastly overvalued contract either way, so why not get the highly-touted youth of the club a chance to showcase their talents during the last portion of the season? Dombrowski, and the Red Sox, were instantly rewarded when they primarily went with the outfield trio of Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo. With their impressive speed, they have the ability to cancel out a vast majority of open space in the outfield, and this had an instant impact on the Red Sox defensive strength. And while JBJ was a streaky player in the later half of the season, Betts has proven to be not only one of the Red Sox best young players, but one of the best up-and-coming players in baseball as well.
The Red Sox talented youth continued to get opportunities under Lovullo, as the team was finally forming an identity as an athletic, grind-it-out type of club. Eduardo Rodriguez finished the season allowing 2 earned runs or less in 15 of his 21 starts. Think about that. At the age of 22, Rodriguez was shutting down teams all over the big leagues since the month of May. And he was doing it with relative ease. Henry Owens also shined in the majority of his starts as he allowed 1 earned run or fewer in 6 of his 11 outings. Travis Shaw may have locked down the first base position for 2016, as he clubbed an impressive 13 home runs in just 65 games, while looking rather comfortable defensively. Blake Swihart – filling in for Christian Vazquez after season ending elbow injury – was better than anyone could have hoped for. Swihart finished the season with a respectable .274 average, while showcasing a solid throwing arm behind the plate. The fact that there is now a legitimate debate as to who the Red Sox starting catcher will be for next season tells you everything you need to know about how impressive Swihart was in his (forced) rookie season.
Papi Still Has “It”
The impact that David Ortiz had on this year’s Red Sox club can not be overlooked. Right when you want to count out the 39 year-old DH, right when you think – “Ok, HERE is when he finally fades” – BOOM. He has one of the best stretches of his career and is right at the top of the list of reasons to think positively about this Sox campaign.
In the first 81 games of the season, Ortiz had a .228 average, with 14 homers and 39 RBI. In Papi’s last 81 games he hit .320 with 23 home runs and 69 RBI. This tale-of-two-seasons may have been heavily impacted by his pursuit of 500 home runs..
But whatever motivated Ortiz in the last half of the season propelled him to legendary heights. David now has the most 30+ HR seasons in Red Sox history (9), and is tied with Ted Williams for the most 100+ RBI seasons with the Red Sox as well (9). While doubters are always ready to count him out, we may eventually look back at what Ortiz accomplished at this point in his career and simply be astounded.
The Future Determines This Year’s Success
Clearly what we have in front of us is a classic good news-bad news situation. To just call this year a failure due to yet another last place finish wouldn’t be doing it justice. Yet, to call this team a success also doesn’t paint the right picture. It seems as though this team should be judged on what they are able to do in the immediate future. If Boston is able to get off to a hot start in 2016 and ride that rollercoaster to an A.L. East crown, than it’s a lot easier to label this year as extremely valuable and necessary to the eventual gain of the organization.
Based on the hope that the youth of the Red Sox have provided, there’s great reason to believe that this Red Sox team will be right in the thick of things in the A.L. East for years to come. But if we’re really trying to make sense of this Red Sox season, only time will tell how much significance this campaign will have on the big picture.
Don Orsillo’s Farewell
Last but certainly not least, the toughest part of making sense of this Red Sox season was saying goodbye to Don Orsillo. As you surely know by now, Don called his last Red Sox game on Sunday and signed off as only he knows how – with class and in elegant form.
I was 10 years old when Orsillo started calling Red Sox games on NESN. I grew up listening to Don and Jerry narrate each and every game with passion and joy. They would make a blowout loss entertaining, and a walk-off win as exciting as it could possibly be. Don will never be replaced, but will always be remembered as one of the best Red Sox broadcasters of all time.