Wait ’til next year: Boston Red Sox
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait Till Next year series.
Current record: 69-85 (.448, 4th in the AL East)
Mathematically eliminated: September 16
What went right in 2012: Precious little, and not for long. David Ortiz was putting up his best rate stats since 2007 (.318/.415/.611) until an Achilles injury sidelined him just after the All-Star break; he has played just one game since July 16. Rookie Will Middlebrooks seized the third base job from Kevin Youkilis ealier this summer and hit .288/.325/.509 with 15 homers before suffering a season-ending wrist fracture on August 10; as good as his season was, his 70/13 strikeout-to-walk ratio casts him as the anti-Youk and sounds a warning about his future potential. Cody Ross has been a great bargain at $3 million, hitting .268/.331/.489 with 21 homers, all for the low price of $3 million. Pedro Ciriaco has come out of nowhere to hit a slappy but entertaining .294/.315/.394 while stealing 15 bases in 68 games. Clay Buchholz has put up a 4.16 ERA in 27 starts, just the second time in five seasons he’s topped 17 turns. Former blue chip prospect Franklin Morales finally showed some promise as a starter, delivering a 4.14 ERA while striking out 9.3 per nine in nine turns.
In spite of an avalanche of injuries, the Red Sox ranked second in the league in scoring through the first half at 5.02 runs per game, and despite a 43-43 record, they outscored opponents by 43 runs during that span, suggesting it was only a matter of time before they played up to their full potential. When they didn’t, general manager Ben Cherington managed to foist some $270 million in future commitments — the remaining contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett — onto the Dodgers in a shocking blockbuster on August 25, alleviating a whole lot of future roster inflexibility and bringing back a couple of promising young arms in Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster.
What went wrong in 2012: Where to begin? As was the case during the shocking 2011 collapse that chased Terry Francona and Theo Epstein out of town, the starting pitching has been horrendous, delivering a 5.03 ERA (12th in the league) and a 45 percent quality start rate (11th). Beckett (5.23 ERA) and Jon Lester (4.96) failed to live up to their front-of-the-rotation billing, Daniel Bard (6.33, with 42 walks and 38 strikeouts in 58 1/3 innings) was a disaster in his conversion from setup man, Felix Doubront (5.08 ERA) was the team’s best starter at times but wore down as the year went on, and Aaron Cook (5.13 ERA) and Dasuke Matsuzaka (7.68) were unable to provide effective patches when the injury bug bit. Closer Alfredo Aceves notched 25 saves after Andrew Bailey went down with a finger injury and Mark Melancon turned into a smoldering tire fire, but Aceves has fallen so far out of favor via eight blown saves, a 5.31 ERA, and conflicts with teammates and manager Bobby Valentine that he has pitched just three times since September 8.
Valentine has turned out to be a surprisingly poor fit for the job, his first with a major league team since his Mets stint ended in 2002. He has shown surprisingly poor judgement and little of the savvy he cultivated during his years in New York and Japan. His troubles began early as he picked a battle with Youkilis that is said to have alienated many veterans, and he has dealt with numerous reports of clubhouse disharmony and players going over his head to management, to the point that it’s clear he has long since lost the team. He’s lost his way with the microphone as well; at one point earlier this month, he threatened to punch a WEEI radio host in the mouth. Shorn of its underachieving stars, the Sox have lost 18 of their last 25, and they’re not only headed for their first losing season since 1997, they’re on pace to finish with their worst record since 1966, when they went 72-90 (.444).
As noted before, injuries played a bigger part of the team’s struggles than did Valentine’s mismanagement or media antics. Twelve of the team’s 13 highest paid players served time on the disabled list prior to the All-Star break; Gonzalez was the lone exception. Most problematic was the fact that the Sox never got Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Crawford into the same lineup. Pedroia has battled a right thumb injury that cost him at least 18 games (including a DL stint in July), Ellsbury missed 79 games due to a right shoulder subluxation, Crawford missed 89 games due to a wrist injury, and somewhere along the way tore his ulnar collateral ligament, requiring Tommy John surgery after he played in just 31 big league games.
Overall outlook: The Red Sox have now missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, and while the blockbuster represents the turning of the page from the Epstein era, it remains to be seen whether they fall back into the trap of spending big on free agents, or who they can hire to assert some authority in the clubhouse; Valentine has another year on his deal but is obviously in over his head. The team does have a strong revenue stream and a deep farm system, but the latter won’t provide an instant turnaround; Cherington may need to wheel and deal in order to fill the necessary holes that will restore the team to contending status.