A worrying roster trend for the Red Sox
Given the Red Sox are 40-42 and on a five-game losing streak entering Friday night’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays, it’s safe to say there are plenty of ‘worrying trends’ for Boston’s baseball team right now. That headline could really lead us anywhere, but for now, for this post, we’re going to narrow in on one particular trend that’s been at the forefront this season – injuries.
Now, injuries are a part of sports. No team is going to be able to avoid dealing with injuries over the course of a season, especially a season as long as baseball’s.
For the 2023 Boston Red Sox though, injuries have really started to pile up at two key positions – shortstop and pitcher. While again, injuries can never be predicted, the Red Sox have, to an extent, allowed themselves to get into a position where their depth has not been able to pass the stress test.
Let’s start at shortstop. When four-time All-Star and five-time Silver Slugger Xander Bogaerts walked in the offseason, the expectation was Trevor Story would take his place. Story was signed prior to the 2022 season and initially played second base, but was always a logical replacement for Bogaerts.
There was just one problem with that – Story’s elbow. The 30-year-old shortstop had elbow problems dating back to his time with the Rockies, a known issue when the Red Sox signed him last spring. After a year of less-strenuous throwing at second base Story’s elbow gave out and he had to undergo surgery to repair his UCL in January. He’s yet to play in 2023.
Two weeks after the Red Sox announced Story’s surgery they went out and got a replacement for their replacement, sending relief pitcher Josh Taylor to the Kansas City Royals for shortstop Adalberto Mondesi. Once viewed as a top prospect at the shortstop position, Mondesi had a career year at 24 years old in 2020.
However, 2020 was Mondesi’s last full season. Injuries hampered him throughout 2021 and limited him to just 35 games. Last year, he tore his ACL in late April and hasn’t played since.
Despite his injury history, the Red Sox traded for him to bridge the gap to Story. That plan never came to fruition either though as he’s dealt with multiple setbacks since joining the Red Sox and was shut down from baseball activities earlier this month.
With their top two shortstops unable to get on the field, the Red Sox depth at the position evaporated. For the early part of the season they adjusted by moving center fielder Kiké Hernandez to short, where he led the league in errors. Earlier this month, the team announced they were going to explore other opportunities at the position. That’s led to a string of ‘Four-A’ players manning the most important position on the diamond as the team tries to stay in range of contending for a playoff spot, and the impact of that has been evident.
This isn’t just a one-off or bad luck either. But this trend can be found elsewhere on the roster.
Take the Red Sox’s starting rotation. To this point in the season, the average MLB team has used nine different individual starting pitchers (the season total last year was 14 starters per team). The Red Sox are already at 11.
That’s not overly surprising, given the age and injury history of some of the pitchers they were counting on to get them through the season. With depth thin in the rotation last year and a number of healthy pitchers available, the Red Sox elected to sign James Paxton, who was coming off of Tommy John surgery, while signing no other comparable pitcher to compensate for uncertainty about his availability. Paxton missed all of the 2022 season and while he has been effective when on the mound this year, the 34-year-old has already missed five starts and left a sixth early due to injury.
This season they also turned to 37-year-old Cory Kluber, who had made just 24 starts total between 2019 and 2021 before making 31 for the Rays last year. Kluber got lit up to start the season, was moved to the bullpen, and is now on the IL.
Then we get to the player you might be surprised it took almost 800 words to get to in a post about the Red Sox and injuries, Chris Sale. When healthy Sale proved he can still pitch, but also proved why the Red Sox shouldn’t have counted on him for any significant workload. After 11 starts, the 34-year-old was shut down by a shoulder injury that later landed him on the 60-day IL.
As a result, the Red Sox have had to turn to journeymen, openers, or both to start key games. Kutter Crawford and Kaleb Ort have had to come out of the bullpen to start games for the Sox, while they’ve also turned to Justin Garza and Matt Dermody simply to get an arm on the mound. The above group has combined for 11 starts – 13 percent of the Red Sox season – and posted a combined 3-8 record (with Garza and Dermody going winless) with a combined 4.69 ERA.
Again, injuries will happen. It’s not like the Red Sox should be expected to have three or four Cy Young candidates waiting in Worcester to accommodate those situations. But a team with Boston’s payroll and spending power should be able to do better than turning to true journeymen in early-mid June.
Now, you probably have a good idea where this is all head. A ‘Fire Bloom!‘ rant would be a logical conclusion to this point. But that’s actually not the case here, at least not entirely.
Yes, Bloom is a big part of why the Red Sox are in the spot they’re in. There’s no need to defend him on that front. But the trend of the Red Sox willingly targeting injured players actually predates his tenure.
We can go all the way back to 2016 to find examples of this. That season alone Dave Dombrowski traded two (at the time) valuable assets in starting third baseman Travis Shaw and ninth-ranked prospect Mauricio Dubon to Milwaukee to acquire relief pitcher Tyler Thornburg, who had an issue of elbow injuries which led to him missing a significant amount of time (including his whole first season) in Boston.
Later that year the Red Sox then traded another then-top prospect in Anderson Espinoza at the trade deadline for Drew Pomeranz. Despite Major League Baseball giving the Red Sox the option to reverse the trade when it was revealed that the Padres had doctored Pomeranz’s medical records, they declined.
The examples of them counting on injured players go beyond trades as well. In 2018 and 2019 they had to scramble at second base when Dustin Pedroia couldn’t stay on the field in his late 30s. They’ve been overly-reliant on Sale in recent years as well given his injury history.
Granted, those example all occurred leading up to the 2018 season, when the Red Sox won the title. They were able to overcome them then. But with their current spending model that will be much harder to do, as we’re seeing happen at shortstop and on the mound.
Now, it’s only fair to mention the Red Sox did have one high-profile moment where they did take injuries into account. But that one burned them too. In 2020, they altered the Mookie Betts trade after pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol failed his physical. The Red Sox elected to pass on Graterol, instead landing Jeter Downs and Connor Wong. Downs has struggled in his few MLB appearances and was DFAed by the team this winter, while Graterol -after some bumps early in his career – has been a solid reliever for the Dodgers the last two seasons and has a 2.06 ERA in 36 appearances this year.
So what’s the lesson here. Going back to the Dombrowski era, the Red Sox seem to be comfortable with if not eager to add players with moderate to significant injury concerns if they can justify it as a value move. But this isn’t a video game, and they can’t turn injuries ‘off’ after making these deals.
Taking a shot at an oft-injured player every now and then isn’t always a bad idea. But making it a regular part of the business model – a way to fill entire positions – and then not putting together an adequate plan B for if/when that player gets hurt turns it into a half-measure.
This is where Bloom comes back in. He clearly didn’t start this trend, but he hasn’t put an end to it either. If he and the Red Sox want to continue taking big swings at these kinds of players, they at least need to be prepared for when the seemingly inevitable happens.
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Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.