Note: All stats current through 7/10/15
Two weeks ago, this post would have been all doom and gloom. But the Red Sox have made up a lot of ground in the AL East, putting themselves at least on the fringes of the race. FanGraphs has the Sox with a 26% chance to make the playoffs, ahead of the Rays and Orioles, and a 3.4% chance to win the World Series. It’s not over yet, but there is very little, if any, margin for error.
The long time lynchpin of the lineup, David Ortiz, lost his directions to the fountain of youth this offseason as he has posted a .230/.325/.436 slash with an OPS+ of 109, his lowest since 2009. He does have 9 HR and a .861 OPS since the start of June, which is a good sign for the Sox. His K% and BB% are both on par with his career numbers, so it seems his approach at the plate hasn’t changed. His BABIP is .229, 70 points below his career BABIP, and it continues a downward trend since 2013. However, some of this should be attributed to the growing number of defensive shifts, as all teams are now shifting more than in previous years, and Ortiz is a strong pull hitter and a strong shift candidate. This is the new Ortiz: a hitter who can still crank homers, but with a low batting average.
The problem with Ortiz’s slow start is that when he’s not producing, the negative effect of Hanley Ramirez standing in left field looks even worse. In April, the awful “defense” he played in LF was tolerated as he cranked 10 homers and was a big reason behind the .500 or so start the Sox had in April. However, a horrible May showed two terrible facts: 1) the only position that Hanley Ramirez is suited to play is DH and 2) if he’s not hitting, his contract is one of the worst in baseball. His UZR of -15.1 doesn’t do his defense justice; there are times he looks completely lost — awful enough for John Farrell to play Ortiz at 1st to DH Hanley. While this might be the best way to get both bats in the lineup, playing a 39-year-old Ortiz at first when he hasn’t played the field consistently in years isn’t a solution for the rest of the season.
While the veterans in the lineup have had up and down seasons, the young guys have been great. Xander Bogaerts has turned into arguably the best all-around shortstop in the AL with a .755 OPS and 2.7 UZR leading to a 2.3 WAR. He seems to have shaken off his 2014 season and seems to be playing better now that the Red Sox have committed to him at SS (his play once Stephen Drew was traded last season seems to indicate that this might have been the issue). Mookie Betts, who many thought would be hard pressed to play up to the 52-game debut he had last season, has been electric in CF, making great catches (UZR of 3.3) while producing double digits in homers and steals before the All-Star break. He has also shown an ability to see an opportunity and then capitalize on it.
The third, unlikely member of this club has been Brock Holt. A guy whose value was predicted to come from adequately filling in around the infield so John Farrell could rest guys, he has blossomed into an All-Star (we all should have seen this coming from a guy who has @BrockStar4Lyf has his Twitter handle), slashing .293/.379/.418 while logging games at every position besides catcher and pitcher. He was acquired in the Mark Melancon trade along with Joel Hanrahan, and is becoming a fan favorite along the lines of Dustin Pedroia. These three guys have all played up to All-Star levels (maybe Mookie a little less so), and are ready to lead the Sox teams of the late 2010’s.
The pitching, assumed to be what would hold the Sox back at the beginning of the season, has been decent at some points, and awful at others. Clay Buchholz was pitching to a 3.27 ERA with a 2.54 FIP before he went down with right elbow tightness. This was helped in large part by a 5.3% HR/FB rate, which is in line with his 2010 and 2013 seasons, his two great seasons before 2015. In all other seasons, his HR/FB rate is close to if not over 10%. His change-up has seen increased downward movement which is good for Buchholz, who has been a groundball pitcher throughout his career. Assuming not the worst for his elbow, he seems to have found how he can be a successful No. 2 starter. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, even that ceiling leaves them without an “ace,” the Spring Training lament that has not been answered so far in 2015.
On the youth front pitching-wise, Eduardo Rodriguez has added 1 WAR of value in just 8 starts, showing why the Andrew Miller-Eduardo Rodriguez trade might be this generation’s Varitek and Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb trade. Even with two bad starts (it was thought he was tipping his pitches against Baltimore, an issue that has apparently been fixed), he has been the best non-Buchholz pitcher in the rotation. The usage rate for both his slider and changeup are around 20% with his fastball coming in around 60%. As the league gets used to him, being able to use his secondary pitches more often will help combat any regression from that front.
The $80-million man, Rick Porcello, has had a horrible season. Baseball-reference has him only increasing the Red Sox win probability in 6 of the 17 games he’s started, not ideal for a pitcher who just signed a huge extension. After consistently throwing his sinker more than his four-seamer last year, he has thrown each around the same amount this year, and has seen his changeup get hammered. Ryan Hanigan has received a lot of credit for helping to settle him down after coming off the DL, so there’s hope Porcello will have a good second half, which the Red Sox need desperately if Buchholz is out for any length of time.
The bullpen has been solid, with the late inning part (Ogando–Tazawa–Uehara) doing a great job of holding leads when they get one, as evidenced by Red Sox record of 29-5 when leading after 5 innings. With the starters only averaging 5.71 innings, it has fallen on the other guys in the bullpen to get a lead to the late innings, which has not been an easy task. It is very easy to see a scenario where the bullpen falls apart in late August or so after being called upon too much. Ogando, Tazawa and Uehara are all on pace to pitch 60 innings apiece; while that’s not a concern, it shows that Farrell really can’t increase their workloads too much to cover any shortcomings. That’s why it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Red Sox go after Joba Chamberlain and any other veterans that hit the open market. The Red Sox need innings in the bullpen, and any outright releases will provide those innings on the cheap, and can’t be worse than the non-Ogando-Tazawa-Uehara part of the bullpen now.
The Red Sox have complex trade deadline decisions facing them. They have the 4th worst record in the AL, but are only 6.5 games out of first place in the AL East with no team looking like they will run away with it. They have clear areas of need, but an OF logjam that they can deal from instead of a stocked minor league system, one that had 5 of Baseball America’s top 50 midseason prospects. And don’t forget the Cole Hamels questions looming over every decision the Red Sox make.
To start answering the deadline questions, the Red Sox have to imagine their outfield in 2016. I would think that De Aza, Betts and Castillo would be the starting outfield in 2016, with Jackie Bradley Jr. as the 4th defensive outfielder. In this case I’m not counting Hanley as an outfielder because hopefully he won’t be touching the outfield grass once the game starts, but he will be on the roster as well. This means that Victorino (deal expires at end of season), Nava and Craig are ideal candidates to deal, but won’t likely fetch much unless they are packaged with a prospect and the Red Sox eat some money. Napoli is in the same boat as the three aforementioned outfielders as he has an expiring contract but has failed to produce this year. Uehara would be wanted as a nice bullpen piece, but if he gets traded then it’s a sign that the Red Sox are looking towards 2016. The Red Sox should focus on picking up players who will be on the roster in 2016 and avoid costly Johnny Cueto-type rentals. A lower-tier rental SP wouldn’t be a bad idea to eat innings, but most of the pitchers on the market would cost too much. Scott Kazmir comes to mind as a good rental (as long as his triceps issue isn’t serious), but it wouldn’t be surprising to see a bidding war for Kazmir emerge. Dan Haren would be a good solution, and Dee Gordon’s thumb injury should put the Marlins in sell mode. With Haren though, it would be a question of if he wants to pitch in Boston after he supposedly considered retirement instead of pitching for Miami.
As far as Cole Hamels goes, it seems to make sense to wait as long as possible at this point. Hamels hasn’t been pitching lately, and when combined with his hamstring issue that forced him to miss a start, there should be no rush until closer to the deadline. I’ve written about the possibility of Cole Hamels to the Red Sox before, and the point remains the same: the Red Sox should use their ability to take on big contracts to avoid giving up too much minor league talent in a trade, if they make the move.
The Red Sox have had about 2 wins of luck according to their Pythagorean Win-Loss record, not a lot but notable. It has been a weird season that is fitting for a team constructed in a weird way. They are still contenders, but it looks like their true talent level is closer to .500 than the division winners most picked them to be. With one eye on the AL East standings, and one eye on 2016, Ben Cherington has a high wire act to navigate this trading deadline. At least Sox fans can take solace in the fact that the future is close and looking bright.
Thanks to Nathan White for his help putting together this postThe 2015 Mariners: Season Half-Full or Half-Empty?
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