On April 17, 2019, the Red Sox left Yankee Stadium with a head-spinning 6-13 record, a reigning World Series champion staggering at the start of its title defense. On Friday, the Red Sox arrived at Yankee Stadium with the same 6-13 record after 19 games.
“Really?” Xander Bogaerts noted with amazement. “I didn’t even know.”
The shortstop’s astonishment was forgivable. After all, the path to those points was entirely different.
The 2019 team was loaded with talent but underperforming. It soon found its footing and had a 31-29 mark after 60 games. Its 84-78 record didn’t yield a postseason berth, but the team would have qualified for a 16-team playoff field (or at least tied for the final spot) in each of the 103 60-game intervals of the 162-game season.
“That’s actually one of the best things I’ve heard this year at this point,” suggested Bogaerts.
Or not. After all, the 6-13 start in 2020 — 6-14 after the 10-3 loss to the Yankees on Friday night — seems less like an aberration and more a cold unmasking of a deeply flawed team, a point reinforced when Bogaerts was asked to compare the experience of playing for last-place teams in 2014 and 2015 with what he’s experienced to start this dystopian 2020 campaign.
“This one kind of sucks more,” he acknowledged. “It’s more recent, you know? It’s what you’re living in at this moment.”
The moment is grim. Thursday’s 17-8 loss to the Rays, followed later that night by the record-tying sixth career three-homer game by Dodgers leadoff hitter Mookie Betts, came off like a cartoonish plummet into a ravine in which the crash at rock bottom was followed by an anvil to the head.
“We expect to field a competitive team each year,” Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said on NESN. “We obviously don’t have enough pieces right now to compete.”
In fact, a case can be made that the organization’s talent base in the big leagues and minors is at a low point since the current owners took over in 2002. In past last-place seasons (2012, 2014, 2015), the team featured incredible clusters of talent either in the minors or gaining their footing at the start of their big league careers.
By contrast, Baseball America ranked the Red Sox as the No. 23 farm system this week. Perhaps there are players who eventually exceed industry projections and make that ranking seem too pessimistic. Even so, while the organization has some minor league depth, it lacks consensus impact players who are close to the big leagues — part of the team’s rationale for dealing Betts for young players.
This year should be treated as lost. What about 2021?
Even with Betts, the current pitching staff would all but ensure that this would not be a good team. In fact, it likely would be considerably worse than last year’s 84-78 club — a team that had exactly half of its games started by Eduardo Rodriguez, Chris Sale, and David Price. They’re all gone.
“It’s definitely tough,” said Nate Eovaldi. “Losing Eddie to COVID, that was unexpected. We weren’t ready for that. Now it’s Martin [Perez] and I.”
Two credible starters does not make a rotation. It doesn’t even make a half-turn.
At the same time, the level of major league talent moving forward should be better than it is right now. Rodriguez is expected back in 2021, and Sale should be back in the rotation for much of it.
A rotation with Rodriguez and Sale along with some approximation of what the team has gotten from Nate Eovaldi and Martin Perez certainly should be competitive. But there’s no certainty that those four — especially Sale — will be healthy and performing to their capabilities for all of 2021, reinforcing the significance of depth.
The ongoing open audition for starter spots right now suggests that the Sox lack reliable depth beyond those four. Perhaps Darwinzon Hernandez and/or Bryan Mata will make progress to solidify the back of the rotation. Maybe Kyle Hart, Tanner Houck, or Chris Mazza makes a case to offer spot starter depth.
But even with a return to health for their anticipated mainstays, the Sox need to build a better and deeper rotation. Barring a breakthrough by someone currently on the big league roster, the Sox likely will need to add at least one starter and probably two (perhaps a swingman).
The Red Sox lineup is averaging 4.5 runs per game, slightly below average. It should be much better.
“We expected to have a good offense, a relentless offense,” said Werner. “Even our offense has not clicked the way we would have hoped.”
The struggles of two players are most jarring given their status as long-term cornerstones. There are 193 big leaguers who have had at least 50 plate appearances this year. Rafael Devers (.552 OPS, 176th) and Andrew Benintendi (.442, 191st) rank among the bottom 10 percent in OPS. Those numbers are shocking, but also based on a stretch of the season that ordinarily would be shrugged off as a small sample.
And really, the Sox have little alternative but to look beyond those starts and try to restore both players to past production. If Benintendi is an above-average player and Devers is a middle-of-the-order standout, then in combination with Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez (assuming he doesn’t opt out), Christian Vazquez, and Alex Verdugo, the Sox have a strong talent base, standing to benefit from complementary players but not in need of a drastic overhaul. If Devers and Benintendi don’t rebound, the team’s hopes of returning to contention in 2021 would seem remote.
The Sox have some promising reinforcements at the infield corners (Bobby Dalbec), middle infield (Jeter Downs), and outfield (Jarren Duran) at the Alternate Training Site in Pawtucket. Those players are at least depth options, and perhaps more, though they’re widely viewed more as solid everyday players than future stars.
There are extenuating circumstances that can potentially contribute to widespread performance downturns: Unexpected managerial change, the dizzying trade of Betts and Price on the doorstep to the season, massive roster turnover that loosened clubhouse bonds, the stress of playing in a pandemic, the changes to routines introduced by COVID-19 protocols.
“There’s no doubt this season is way harder than any that anybody’s ever been through,” said manager Ron Roenicke. “And also when you’re not playing well, it makes it harder.”
Those atypical elements can make it difficult to evaluate players properly. Nonetheless, the 2020 Red Sox have obvious deficiencies that make it just as obvious that change is coming.
Werner said that the team is willing to deal away players over whom they have limited control — with soon-to-be-free-agents Jackie Bradley Jr., Kevin Pillar, Mitch Moreland, and Brandon Workman representing obvious candidates — in exchange for players who can help longer term. Whether Martinez — who can opt out after this year — likewise falls into that category remains to be seen.
However they approach it, the benefit of the rough start is that it has laid bare the team’s flaws. The Red Sox are ill-equipped to compete in 2020, and seem destined to endure pain while focusing their attention on developing and trading for players who will be poised to help in 2021 or beyond.