The Boston Red Sox won a World Series title a year ago behind the power of blood, sweat and beards — their third championship since the turn of the century. But instead of becoming a threat to shine as repeat champs, the 2014 roster simply hasn’t elicited the same luster.
With one month remaining in the regular season, Boston sports a 58-75 record, placing the Red Sox last in the American League East. They're 18 games back of the division-leading Orioles and 14 1/2 games behind in the wild card.
So how exactly did the reigning champions sink to the bottom of the standings? After all, the 2014 Opening Day roster was not a far cry from last season’s personnel. Yes, the Red Sox lost outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia via free agency to the New York Yankees and Miami Marlins, respectively. But those absences couldn’t have predicted this decline. And besides, the Red Sox were likely happy not to pay a seven-year, $153 million contract to Ellsbury, a player in his thirties with a checkered injury history.
What’s more, Boston had the players to compensate. At the start of the season, young prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. was going to get a chance to shine. Additionally, Boston brought in free-agent catcher A.J. Pierzynski to fill the void behind home plate. Add all this up, and the Red Sox were considered a top-five team at the outset of the season.
Yes, Shane Victorino’s injury woes haven’t helped, of course. The "Flyin' Hawaiian" managed to play just 30 games before undergoing season-ending back surgery. Pierzynski, meanwhile, hit .254 with just four homers before being designated for assignment. Those events certainly played a role in the Sox’s 180-degree turn. But the pitching in Beantown has actually been respectable. Boston’s 3.85 team ERA is quite similar to last season’s final tally of 3.79.
So what’s ultimately to blame? The biggest difference between this year and last has been hitting. The Red Sox have scored a paltry 503 runs through 132 games this season, dead last in the AL.
During Boston's 2013 championship season, the team pushed across 853 runs — tops in MLB by a 57-run margin. To put that discrepancy in perspective, the Red Sox would have to score, on average, more than 11 runs per game during the season’s final 30 affairs just to tie last season’s run-scoring output. (They’ve scored 11 or more runs in a game only three times thus far.)
Consistency up and down the lineup has been a problem for manager John Farrell. Dustin Pedroia is hitting .281 with only seven home runs, his worst season since 2006.
David Ortiz has cranked 26 round-trippers, but his .265 batting average isn’t what fans are used to seeing from Big Papi. He hit over .300 in each of his previous three seasons.
Boston’s youngsters have been even less productive. Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. are hitting .223 and .216, respectively. Each has amassed more strikeouts than hits. Utilityman Brock Holt — who wasn’t expected to play a meaningful role prior to the season — has surprised by becoming the team’s leading hitter with a .295 average. He’s suited up at every position save for catcher and pitcher, but his role as the squad’s spark plug can only contribute a fraction of what is needed.
By opting to clean house by trading pitchers Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Andrew Miller and Felix Doubront, as well as position players Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew, the Red Sox have their sights set on competing next year with fresh faces. And after watching the former champs limp through a season to forget, general manager Ben Cherington needs to inject life back into a lineup that led all of baseball in runs scored just a year ago. Power-hitting outfielder Yoenis Cespedes — who was acquired from the Oakland Athletics in the Lester trade — is capable of becoming a key RBI guy for years to come. Other pieces to the puzzle aren’t so obvious, as Farrell and Co. must figure out the future of Bogaerts and Bradley Jr. in order to have a shot at competing in 2015. Will those two meet expectations and fall into a winning blueprint?
In any case, the Red Sox still have to get healthy. Victorino was supposed to be a major table-setter for Boston’s lineup. His absence, in part, left the team floundering on offense. The Red Sox have gone from worst to first before. With a successful offseason, there’s no reason they can’t do it again.