Wait 'Til Next Year: Strong finish to 2015 raises Red Sox' hopes for '16
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. Next up: the Boston Red Sox.
Current Record: 78–81 (.491, tied for third in AL East)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 28
What went right in 2015: The most important and encouraging developments for the Red Sox came from their young hitters. Twenty-two-year-old sophomore Mookie Betts emerged as an elite all-around centerfielder, combining a near-.300 average with 20 steals, 18 homers, a respectable walk rate and outstanding defense. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, also 22, improved dramatically in the field, erasing concerns about his ability to stick at the position, while a spike in batting average made him arguably the best all-around shortstop in the league until Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor arrived.
After another frustrating season of being shuttled between Pawtucket and Boston and failing to translate his minor-league production (.281/.365/.451 in 761 Triple A plate appearances) to the majors, 25-year-old Jackie Bradley Jr. finally broke through in August, hitting .299/.370/.630 with nine home runs in 174 PA since Aug. 9. Fellow 25-year-old Travis Shaw had a similar late-season breakout, seizing the first base job with a .281/.341/.528 line and 13 home runs in 220 PA since Aug. 1. The Red Sox also got another solid season from 27-year-old sophomore utilityman Brock Holt, who can fill in anywhere on the diamond except catcher and pitcher and has four team-controlled years remaining.
Boston also received encouraging early results from 22-year-old lefthanded rotation prospects Eduardo Rodriguez, acquired from the Orioles for Andrew Miller at last year’s non-waiver trading deadline, and Henry Owens. Both have been inconsistent, but they have pitched well enough on the whole to be penciled into next year’s rotation.
On the other end of the age spectrum, 39-year-old David Ortiz emerged from an early-season slump to hit .303/.394/.651 with 30 home runs since June 11, surpassing 500 career home runs in the process, and 40-year-old closer Koji Uehara was typically dominant before suffering a broken wrist in early August.
What went wrong in 2015: Big-money–free-agent additions Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez were awful, costing the team roughly two wins compared to what a replacement-level third baseman and leftfielder could have contributed. After hitting ten home runs in April, Ramirez sprained his left shoulder running into the side wall in Fenway’s leftfield on May 4 and hit just .239/.275/.372 with nine home runs the rest of the way. He did seem to perk up at the plate a bit in June but was hit in the left hand by a Bogaerts line drive while running the bases on June 24, missed six games and never did get his bat going again. His play in the field, meanwhile, was so bad that the team has decided to move him to first base next year despite Shaw’s strong rookie showing. As for Sandoval, he suffered a complete collapse in his age-28 season, both at the plate (76 OPS+) and in the field.
The team’s rebuilt rotation was a comparable bust. Rick Porcello, acquired for Yoenis Cespedes and signed to a four-year, $82.5 million extension, went 5–11 with a 5.81 ERA in 20 starts before hitting the disabled list with a triceps strain and missing most of August. Bespectacled fireballer Joe Kelly, acquired for John Lackey at last year’s deadline, had a similar start to his season, going 2–6 with a 5.94 ERA through the end of July and missing a month due to a biceps strain. Prodigal son Justin Masterson posted a 6.37 ERA through his first seven starts, was placed on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis in mid-May, sat out a month and a half and made just two more starts for Boston before being released in August. Of the four starters the Sox added between the deadline and off-season, the best performance was turned in by lefty Wade Miley, who has gone 11–11 with a 4.46 ERA (96 ERA+). Clay Buchholz, meanwhile, had a nice rebound in the first half, only to have a flexor strain in his right forearm wipe out his entire second half.
Speaking of injuries, a right hamstring strain sent Dustin Pedroia to the disabled list twice, costing him 58 games. Big-money Cuban defector Rusney Castillo, who was impressive in a cup-of-coffee late last year, suffered an oblique injury in camp that cost him the centerfield job, then suffered a shoulder injury in Triple A in April, delaying his return to the majors until late May. Installed in rightfield, Castillo didn’t hit and found himself back in Triple A by the end of June. He hit better after a late-July promotion and looked to be establishing himself as part of the team’s athletic young outfield for 2016 alongside Betts and Bradley, but he has slumped in September and is now nursing a quad injury. Elsewhere in the lineup, Mike Napoli struggled to get his bat going and keep it going, posting a career-worst 85 OPS+ before being sold in early August to the Rangers, for whom he has since hit .306/.412/.542.
On top of all of that and a 44–58 (.431) record through July 29 that found the team in last place in the AL East yet again, the Red Sox received news in mid-August that manager John Farrell had been diagnosed with Stage 1 lymphoma and had to leave the team for the remainder of the season to undergo chemotherapy. Fortunately, Farrell described his cancer as “highly curable” when announcing his departure, and his prognosis is good.
Overall Outlook: As awful as the 2015 season was for the Red Sox, it has ended on an encouraging note. Powered by that collection of young hitters and the ageless Ortiz, Boston has gone 28–17 (.622) since bench coach Torey Lovullo took over for Farrell. Porcello has returned to form since coming off the disabled list (3.22 ERA in seven starts). Kelly went on a nice run in August before being shut down with shoulder inflammation in mid-September (7–0, 1.85 ERA in seven starts from Aug. 7 to Sept. 9), and Rodriguez has been more consistent down the stretch (4–1, 2.08 ERA in his last seven starts).
With Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley, Castillo, 23-year-old catcher Blake Swihart, Shaw, Holt, Rodriguez and Owens, the Red Sox do not lack for young talent. Still, there are concerns about Castillo’s health and performance this year. Swihart had a poor season behind the plate, particularly when it came to pitch-blocking, allowing 16 passed balls and 43 wild pitches. Bogaerts cut his strikeouts and increased his batting average by 82 points from last year, but the spike in batting average on balls in play (.373) that powered that jump in average has hidden a decline in both power and walk rate. Bradley’s hot hitting, meanwhile, appears to have been short lived (he has hit .127/.241/.254 over his last 22 games) and was inflated by a fluky performance on Aug. 15 in which he went 5-for-6 with three doubles and two home runs.
Still, that is an impressive collection of talent at the major league level around which new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski can build. Dombrowski’s track record is excellent, and it will be fascinating to see what he and new general manager Mike Hazen do with this team this winter, particularly regarding Farrell, Ramirez and Sandoval (Shaw, it should be noted, started 43 games at third base in Triple A this year). In a weak AL East, a return to contention for the Red Sox in 2016 isn’t out of the question. In fact, it's expected.