Mazz: Questions for the state of the Red Sox, who currently stink beyond belief
“You can talk about the trade deadline or whatever. We’re playing bad baseball. We’re back to where we were in April. The brand of baseball we have been playing is awful.”
– Red Sox manager Alex Cora after the Red Sox were swept by the Blue Jays
Well, it’s impossible to argue with that point. Awful is as awful does. And the Red Sox right now are indeed awful, though that may be putting it kindly. And with all due to respect to Cora, they’re not just back to where they were in April. They’re way, way beyond that.
The Sox smell – and they smell bad.
The easy thing now is to blame the injuries, which are plentiful, but don’t take the bait. The problems started long before the Red Sox put lineups on the field this weekend that looked like something out of a spring training game. Yesterday, the Red Sox took the field with only three everyday big-league regulars – Xander Bogaerts, Christian Vazquez and Alex Verdugo. The rest were minor leaguers or platoon players, ranging from Jackie Bradley, Bobby Dalbec and Franchy Cordero to Jeter Downs, Yolmer Sanchez and Jarren Duran. The starting pitcher was Brayan Bello, who gave up five runs in the first inning and shouldn’t even be here.
The Red Sox basically have one week and eight games remaining before the Aug. 2 trading deadline. They have a ton of free agents coming off the books at the end of the season. Incredibly, they are still just three games out of the final wildcard spot. If they can outdistance Cleveland (in for four at Fenway beginning tonight), Seattle and the Chicago White Sox, they can still make the playoffs.
But on the field, it already feels like the Sox have cut bait on the season. And off the field, well, it feels like baseball operations wanted to cut bait before the season even began with decisions that emphasized the long term over the short.
So where does the blame fall?
As always, it falls everywhere.
And here are a few questions to ponder:
What, exactly, was the front office trying to accomplish this year?
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JULY 22: Alex Verdugo #99 of the Boston Red Sox looks into the Green Monster scoreboard after a run was scored by the Toronto Blue Jays during the fifth inning at Fenway Park on July 22, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images)
Let’s start here for a few simple reasons. At the end of last year, the Red Sox were six wins from a championship and had a lineup that produced offense from both right field and first base. Kyle Schwarber departed via free agency and Hunter Renfroe was traded for Jackie Bradley and two minor leaguers, neither of whom had played above Single-A. The Sox even took on money in the trade. The solution at first base was Bobby Dalbec, Travis Shaw and, ultimately, Franchy Cordero, meaning the Sox got worse at two positions while essentially increasing the payroll. Now that’s a neat party trick.
The point: the emphasis on the long-term far outweighed the short. Had the Sox kept Schwarber and added Bradley, fine. At least that’s a more measured approach. But had the Sox re-signed Schwarber and traded Renfroe for, say, bullpen help, that would have much more sense.
As for the bullpen, it has been a problem since the start of last season – just like first base. Incredibly, the Sox then took their best reliever – Garrett Whitlock – and put him into the rotation, another long-term play that sent a horrible message to the clubhouse and fanbase. Entering yesterday, no other American League team had blown more leads than the Red Sox, proving one of the oldest adages in life: you generally get what you give. If just a few more of those games had resulted in wins, the Sox would be in far better shape to withstand the avalanche of recent ills that have befallen them.
You want other curious decisions? Jarren Duran can’t play center field yet the Red Sox continue to employ him there, injuries or no injuries. The only position he is suited to play at Fenway Park is left. Maybe the front office is being insistent upon that or maybe Alex Cora is trying to make a point. What the case, it’s dysfunctional. And it speaks to organizational problems that need serious examination.
Are Chaim Bloom and Alex Cora even close to being on the same page?
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 11: Chief Baseball Officer for the Boston Red Sox Chaim Bloom hugs Alex Cora #13 after their 6 to 5 win over the Tampa Bay Rays during Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Fenway Park on October 11, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
In spring training, Cora sounded like a man who wanted Whitlock in the bullpen, which is consistent with how managers think. During Whitlock’s move to the rotation – where he ultimately got injured – Bloom was the one offered more defense of the choice, indicating the importance of outs in all parts of the game. This single decision was perhaps the most damning and revealing of the 2022 season because, like the Bradley deal, it made the Red Sox worse. And it didn’t involve any other team.
Simply put, they employed Whitlock in the wrong role. It was an absolutely colossal mistake.
Does that mean Cora is blame-free? Of course not. (No one is.) The Red Sox began unraveling BEFORE the All-Star break and rash of injuries, and we’ve long celebrated Cora’s ability to keep the Red Sox focused. But in the last few weeks, the team has repeatedly lost balls in the sky, dropped infield popups, thrown to the wrong base and generally played with its head jammed squarely up its pillow. At the moment, there are guys on the roster who don’t belong in the big leagues and frankly aren’t anywhere close. (Jeter Downs seems like an obvious one to point out.) But if the Sox are going to lose, as Terry Francona once said, they need to lose professionally. And right now they’re not even close.
How much are the players to blame?
BOSTON, MA – JULY 24: Xander Bogaerts #2 of the Boston Red Sox heads to the field after flying out to end the third inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park on July 24, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
Ask yourselves this question: which Sox players have done the best job at meeting or exceeding expectations? The list is short. Rafael Devers has been absolutely terrific for the most part and, among catchers with at least 250 plate appearances, Christian Vazquez ranks third in OPS and second in defensive runs saved. There really aren’t many others.
If that sounds critical of Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez, it is – at least a little. Both needed to hit for more power, especially given the departures of Schwarber and Renfroe. Instead, neither has gotten to 10 homers yet. Bogaerts almost always plays hard (and hurt), and he made a handful of nice defensive plays in yesterday’s loss. But over his last 42 games, Martinez is batting a putrid .230 with just four home runs, 15 RBI and a .682 OPS. He missed the weekend with back spasms. Could he have played? Or are the Sox now holding him out with the idea of trading him in the coming days?
Given the current state of the roster, it would hardly be a surprise if the Sox continue to nosedive this week. If that happens, most anyone with an expiring contract is a candidate to be dealt, particularly someone without any long-term ties to the team. Bogaerts and Vazquez seem like unlikely candidates. But people like Nathan Eovaldi, Martinez and others might be in play.
What is the long-term prognosis?
BOSTON, MA – JULY 23: Jeter Downs #20 of the Boston Red Sox fouls off a bunt attempt on a high pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays during the second inning at Fenway Park on July 23, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
Honestly, it’s a little scary at the moment. The Red Sox organizational raking climbed quite a bit last season, but much of that seemed the result of selecting shortstop Marcelo Mayer with the No. 4 overall pick. Right-hander Brayan Bello (a 10.50 ERA in three starts) clearly isn’t ready. First baseman Tristan Casas could be in Boston by the end of this season or the beginning of next, but asking him to bat in the heart of the order as a rookie feels like a huge ask. Meanwhile, the list of prospective free agents includes Bogaerts, Martinez, Eovaldi, Vazquez, Bradley, Enrique Hernandez, Michael Wacha and others. And it’s not like the Sox have Bogaerts and Mookie Betts knocking on the door the way they were almost 10 years ago.
Translation: the Sox will have a lot of money to spend this offseason – but they will also have a potentially mind-numbing collection of holes to fill. Bloom is now well into his career as chief baseball office and it feels like the team is getting worse. The Mookie Betts was two years ago and the Sox did not acquire a single impact player in the deal. Two of the players acquired – Jeter Downs and Connor Wong – are fringe big leaguers at best.
Starting this week, the next several months for the man running the Red Sox baseball operation could determine his fate.