The Red Sox have lost four straight games for the first time since 2012. Any time you start invoking memories of that season, you know it’s trouble.
The defending World Series champions are 20-23 after being swept by the Detroit Tigers over the weekend, and the Boston Baseball Blame Machine has kicked into gear after sitting in the garage and gathering dust for a long time.
The easy targets are the three young players: Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Will Middlebrooks. Quick-to-judge fans and those in the media who feed them are pinning this on the center fielder, shortstop, and third baseman.
They bear responsibility, no doubt. Bradley is hitting .205 and has hit .198 in 77 major league games. Until he proves otherwise, Bradley looks like a player who needs a full season at Triple A.
Bogaerts is hitting .269 with a .369 on-base percentage, and that’s pretty solid for a 21-year-old rookie. His defense also is trending up. But it’s troubling that a player who is supposed to be one of the best prospects in the game has a .379 slugging percentage and is 5 for 35 with runners in scoring position.
Bogaerts has all the physical talent in the world and a levelheaded disposition. But, as is typical for young players, he presses in certain spots.
The Red Sox had sports psychologist Bob Tewksbury travel with the team last season, and many players spoke positively about his presence. Tewksbury took a position with the MLB Players Association over the winter and he hasn’t yet been replaced. Bogaerts (and Bradley, for that matter) appear to be players who would benefit from guidance coming from somebody other than a teammate or a coach.
Middlebrooks can’t stay healthy. His numbers aren’t any good this season, but he also has 82 plate appearances. That’s not enough to judge. Middlebrooks has 34 home runs and 112 RBIs over 686 at-bats in his career and that suggests it would be irresponsible to give up on him at the age of 25.
But, like Bradley, he may need more Triple A time. He has played only 88 career games for Pawtucket after getting 96 in Double A.
You can make a good case that the Red Sox were smart after the World Series to make this season an opportunity to break in Bradley, Bogaerts, and Middlebrooks. The problem is all three have underachieved at the same time and that has affected the team.
But to blame them for the team being 20-23 is to not see the bigger picture.
A high-payroll team like the Red Sox should be better equipped to absorb the struggles of a few rookies. Plenty of teams are just fine with average players hitting seventh, eighth, and ninth.
The most significant problems with the Red Sox are underperformance by veteran, well-paid players, and personnel decisions by general manager Ben Cherington that have so far backfired.
The Sox need more from Shane Victorino, A.J. Pierzynski, and even Dustin Pedroia.
Victorino is hitting .222 (12 of 54) with a .605 OPS against righthanders. The decision to let him give up switch-hitting seems like a bad one. Victorino hit .274 with a .706 OPS batting lefthanded against righthanded pitchers last season. For his career he is a .268 hitter with a .730 OPS batting lefthanded.
Pierzynski has seven extra-base hits and a .353 slugging percentage. That’s well below last season and his career standard. But maybe that’s just what happens when you sign a 37-year-old catcher.
Pedroia has a 105 OPS+ and that’s fine. That’s actually pretty good for a second baseman. But it’s below his career average and perhaps that’s because he’s miscast as a leadoff hitter. The Red Sox need him hitting second or third.
It remains puzzling that the Red Sox were so willing to go into the season without a leadoff hitter.
The plan seemed to be hoping somebody would figure it out. There was preseason talk of Victorino and Daniel Nava, with even Jonny Gomes mentioned. Then it became a mishmash of players before John Farrell decided on Pedroia, who has done fairly well there at the expense of the lineup losing length.
The Red Sox were smart not to overpay Jacoby Ellsbury. But where was Plan B? Essentially, there wasn’t one.
Their fascination with Grady Sizemore seems ill-founded, too. He’s hitting .226 with two steals and two home runs, one in his last 32 games. It’s admirable that he wanted to come back after missing two seasons but Sizemore is a shadow of the athletic player he once was and is essentially replacement level at this point.
That Nava fell through the floor early in the season and was sent to Triple A changed the lineup. That effective left-field platoon of a season ago vanished. But the Sox weren’t prepared with better depth.
Cherington had a terrific offseason a year ago, hitting on virtually every addition outside of Joel Hanrahan. But the main players he added from outside the organization for this season — Jonathan Herrera, Edward Mujica, Pierzynski, and Sizemore — have been busts so far.
The Red Sox have two choices here. One is stay the course and continue breaking in the young players while hoping for better from Pierzynski, Sizemore, and the other veterans. In the mishmash that is the American League East, that would actually work. Their starting pitching is healthy and their bullpen is solid.
The second choice is to patch up the holes. The Sox could trade from their prospect depth to find a temporary third baseman or left fielder. Maybe a player like Garin Cecchini or Mookie Betts could add a spark from within, if even for a short time. Maybe Nava works his way back.
It’s hard to imagine Cherington (or ownership) panicking less than a year after the World Series and trading high-end prospects for an All-Star-caliber player or caving in to Stephen Drew’s demands and moving Bogaerts to third base. It would be foolish to move Bogaerts just as he’s settling in defensively.
It’s easy to call for the Red Sox to trade for Matt Kemp or Adrian Beltre. But the Sox worked too hard to build roster and payroll flexibility to give it away, especially a year after winning.
The Red Sox are three games out of first place with 119 games to play. But the weekend did make clear the fact that the Red Sox, as currently constituted, are not good enough to contend.
If losing four straight doesn’t get their attention, maybe a few roster moves will.