Wait 'Til Next Year: Red Sox go first to worst in dismal 2014 showing
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.
Current Record: 63-83 (.432, fifth in the AL East)
Mathematically eliminated: Sept. 10
What went right in 2014: David Ortiz has remained healthy all year while bashing 32 homers, matching his highest total since 2006 (never mind the 89-point drop in OPS). Utilityman Brock Holt carved himself a spot on the major league roster with a sizzling first half (.327/.371/.463 in 279 PA) that included adding the outfield to his repertoire. Dustin Pedroia again managed to grit out a season after suffering a thumb injury in its first week.
Among their rookies, Mookie Betts arrived earlier than expected and has hit .280/.357/.448 while transitioning to the outfield. Jackie Bradley Jr. revealed himself as a defensive whiz in centerfield, and Christian Vazquez has already proven to be among the game's best pitch-framers. The team's return in a flurry of deadline deals for Jonny Gomes, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Andrew Miller and Jake Peavy received generally favorable reviews, as general manager Ben Cherington was able to unload salary and add the cost-controlled Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig and Joe Kelly, as well as some minor league talent, to an already productive system. The Sox won a bidding war for Cuban centerfielder Rusney Castillo. Manager John Farrell proved a far more pleasant and less noxious presence to ride out a dismal season than Bobby Valentine.
What went wrong in 2014: That we're talking about utilitymen, deadline housecleaning and Valentine only hints at the mess here, as the defending World Series winners tumbled into the AL East basement for the second time in three years. While this wasn't the dysfunctional nightmare that 2012 was, so much went wrong that it's tough to catalog concisely.
Start with an offense that sank to a league-low 3.84 runs per game. Pedroia had his worst major league season with the bat before shutting down to undergo thumb surgery. Heralded prospects Xander Bogaerts (.237/.301/.365) and Bradley (.213/.285/.287) proved far less ready to handle major league pitching than expected. Will Middlebrooks continued receding from his solid 2012 rookie season, falling below the Mendoza Line (.182/.249/.260) and back to Triple-A Pawtucket. Ortiz, Gomes, Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino failed to replicate last year's strong showings, with Victorino limited to 30 games due to injuries.
Unlike 2013, the free agent additions brought little to the table. A.J. Pierzynski proved such a poor fit that he was designated for assignment before the All-Star break. Grady Sizemore was unable to live up to his spring training feel-good story and drew his release in June. After spurning a qualifying offer, Stephen Drew ended up returning in June, but failed to hit (.176/.255/.328) and disrupted Bogaerts' development before being traded to the Yankees. Bogaerts was batting .296/.389/.427 and playing decently at shortstop before being displaced by Drew; he has hit .194/.234/.322 since.
On the other side of the ball, the Red Sox have allowed 4.42 runs per game, the league's fifth-highest rate. Lester and Lackey both pitched well, but the team's performance and uncertainty about the two pitchers' futures in Boston — could they find common ground for an extension with the former, and would the latter make good on his $500,000 option instead of retiring? — led to their being dealt on July 31. Peavy was less effective before being dealt to the Giants. Clay Buchholz, the only starter remaining from the 2013 World Series, has pitched to a 5.29 ERA and again spent time on the disabled list.
Among the young starters, Felix Doubront pitched his way out of town with a 6.07 ERA, Brandon Workman's been tarred for a 5.27 mark, and Allen Webster still can't throw strikes with consistency. And while Koji Uehara — who probably should have been dealt at the deadline as well — set a career high with 26 saves and posted another astronomical strikeout-to-walk ratio (9.4), he's run out of gas, allowing 10 runs in his last 4.2 innings over six appearances, blowing three straight saves and more than doubling his ERA.
In addition to the aforementioned injuries, backup catcher David Ross battled plantar fasciitis and has hit .188/.258/.361, and Craig has been limited to 16 games and a 5-for-50 showing since being acquired, having again spent time on the disabled list due to a left foot sprain.
Overall outlook: The Red Sox used their 2012 meltdown as an opportunity to shed a massive amount of payroll while changing their clubhouse culture, and they quickly bounced back by winning their third championship in 10 years, but this time, things are more uncertain. They already have $105.9 million committed to nine players for next season, only one of whom (Buchholz) is a starter. With only him and the not-yet-arbitration-eligible Kelly and Rubby De La Rosa in the rotation, the team is short of frontline pitching, and Boston is hardly assured of being able to woo back Lester via free agency. The Red Sox can certainly open their wallets for Max Scherzer or James Shields, but they'll have plenty of competition on those fronts as well.
Beyond that, the team has to decide how an outfield overcrowded with Betts, Bradley, Castillo, Cespedes, Craig, Nava and Victorino fits together; there's a clear surplus, but it may not be enough to fortify the front end of the rotation. Likewise, they need to decide which direction to go at third base, whether it's with Holt, Middlebrooks, Bogaerts or prospect Garin Cecchini. With Uehara on the verge of 40 and free agency, the bullpen will likely need to be recast, and speaking of aging, the Sox will have to hope that a 39-year-old Ortiz and 33-year-old Napoli can be the lineup's biggest bats.
Given smart management, deep pockets and uncertainty throughout the AL East — particularly with regards to the aging and expensive Yankees and the David Price-less Rays — a turnaround is hardly impossible. But just because the Red Sox were able to do it two years ago doesn't make another worst-to-first jump inevitable.