I’m writing this just hours after one of the more frustrating losses in my Red Sox fandom, which capped off one of the more frustrating series, in which they were swept at Fenway, giving them their worst home start since 1984.
So pardon me if I’m not my usually chipper, optimistic self.
That being said, the Red Sox are still, without question, the favorites to win the AL East, and serious pennant contenders. They have one of the best managers in the game, a dynamite front office, and a healthy mix of superstar veterans (David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia) and fresh young talent (Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr.). The team isn’t that much different than last year’s World Series winners, and offensive dynamos. It isn’t just possible that Boston will return to the playoffs, but downright probable.
Here are the three keys to the Red Sox repeating last season’s success:
- The Red Sox need to stay healthy.
This is pretty obvious, and also entirely out of everyone’s control. Luckily, for the most part, there is crucial depth to protect the roster from complete collapse due to injury.
Shane Victorino gets plunked too many times and hits the DL? Grady Sizemore’s glorious return is cut short? (Please Baseball Yeezus, don’t take Grady away from us) There are still Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp, Daniel Nava, Jackie Bradley Jr. at the major level, and Bryce Brentz showing that he could help out in a pinch. AJ Pierzynski and David Ross fall prey to their advancing age? Christian Vazquez looks like he has a major-league-proficient bat and a major-league-dominating arm, so he could be an easy fill-in. Clay Buchholz’ shoulder troubles return? Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, and Rubby De La Rosa are chomping at the bit to prove themselves, with the THPM (Three-Headed-Prospect-Monster: Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo) not far behind.
So let me make that key more specific.
The Red Sox infield needs to stay healthy.
Yeah, scary, right? We saw today that without Will Middlebrooks (who looked impressive his last two games) the bottom half of the order is a lot less scary for opposing pitchers. Say what you will about Middlebrooks’ issues with breaking balls away (Again, looked much better in spring training and these past few games), but if a pitcher made a mistake, he had the potential to put that mistake over the wall. And should Xander Bogaerts or (shudder to think) Dustin Pedroia go down, the offense is crippled.
And the problem is there aren’t ready replacements at those three positions. Garin Cecchini and Mookie Betts may be tearing up the minors, but they need at least another year’s seasoning before they can be seriously considered a full-timer. Devin Marrero’s glove reminded scouts of Jose Iglesias’, but so did, unfortunately, his bat. And Brock Holt and Jonathan Herrera, while superb defensive subs who can put in a base hit every now and again, aren’t scaring any pitchers.
(Quick aside: In no way am I saying that the Red Sox not re-signing Stephen Drew was a mistake. I’m pretty sure Stephen Drew wouldn’t be happy playing as a utility player/injury replacement, and I’m absolutely certain he wouldn’t want to be paid like one. Good player, bad fit.)
Luckily Middlebrooks’ injury doesn’t seem like a serious one, the Red Sox are just being their normal cautious selves. But for the Red Sox to make a deep run in October, those three players need to stay upright.
2. No more bullpen rollercoaster rides.
People will tell you that the Red Sox won the World Series because they were lucky, because everything that could go right for them, did.
Those people are idiots. Sure the Red Sox were just as lucky as any other team, but by no means did things go perfectly. Those people are ignoring losing a Cy Young candidate (Clay Buchholz) for a huge chunk of the season due to a fluke injury. Those people don’t remember the left side of the infield fluctuating wildly until Xander Bogaerts stepped up.
And those people don’t remember that the Red Sox went through two (count’em, TWO!) closer eruptions on their way to championship glory. Remember Joel Hanrahan, with his 9.82 ERA and ailing arm that necessitated Tommy John surgery? Remember when Andrew Bailey was putting together a great 2013 season until he injured his shoulder, and was lost for the year (and let’s not forget his epic celebrating from the dugout throughout the rest of the season). Yeah, Koji wasn’t given the opportunity to be Koji until the end of June!
And not just the closer. We all were forced to sit and watch Alfredo Aceves fall apart on the mound for six brutal games. Andrew Miller, he of the 6-6 height and magnificent beard, was flourishing (2.64 ERA, 14.1 K/9) before being lost for the season with a foot injury. And before Brandon Workman stepped into the long-relief role late in the year, Alex Wilson and Steven Wright both struggled mightily in that spot for stretches of the season.
Luckily, this year’s bullpen is looking a bit more steady. Workman has more experience under his belt. Miller is back and healthy. Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow forms one of the more dynamic setup duos in the majors. Chris Capuano has looked awesome thus far. Koji has shown no signs of not being Koji, and will probably never show signs of not being Koji, until he decides to retire and instill his son, Kaz, as his immediate replacement. There’s always the potential for some hiccups (Edward Mujica is already worrying fans after two rough outings), but, on paper, this is a bullpen that should succeed.
Of course, that’s on paper. Who knows what will happen.
3. The front office can’t panic. Same goes for us fans.
Let’s all take a moment to breathe.
We all have a tendency to overreact. I mean, I’m still furious because the Red Sox lost to the Milwaukee Brewers on the 6th game of the season.
But the team needs to just stay the course. So much groundwork has been laid both financially and in terms of personnel. The farm is stuffed to the brim with terrific prospects and the future looks exceedingly bright. Obviously, not every prospect is going to a major-league starter, and if the Sox can find value for them on the trade market, then by all means. But they can’t go overboard. Teams like the Angels, the Giants, and, especially, the Yankees are all struggling to win their divisions with a depleted minor league system below them, desperately casting about the free-agent market for answers. The Red Sox can’t get carried away by their taste of success. They need to keep doing what they’e been doing: layering the minor-league levels with talent, trade from positions of depth, and keep drafting well.
Technically, I suppose this might be a key for winning a future World Series and not necessarily just this World Series. But the principle is the same. No kneejerk trades, no fervent deadline deals just because every other team is wheeling and dealing, and for God’s sake, no trading any of the THPM for anyone who can’t pummel balls into the Green Monster or isn’t an under-30 stud.
So there you have it. The Red Sox don’t need to overhaul their roster or mine their minor leagues to succeed. Their roster is that of a bonafide contender. Basically, they just have to keep doing what they’re doing, and respond calmly to the bumps along the way.
It’s not exciting, but it’s the truth. Buckle in, Sox fans, this could be a good one.