In so many ways, the Red Sox’ start to the 2016 season seemingly represents the leap of the team’s long-discussed prospects into stardom. But it represents more than that.
On Monday, righthander Steven Wright continued his extraordinary start, delivering a complete-game victory (his third of the year) in a 7-2 win over the second-place Orioles to improve his ERA to 2.45. For one-third of the season, he has performed at a level that has surpassed all but a few pitchers in the American League.
In support of Wright’s efforts, Marco Hernandez launched a three-run homer — the first of his career — in the eighth inning to turn a two-run game into a blowout. Hernandez has become a solid lefthanded-hitting complement to Josh Rutledge in the absence of the injured Brock Holt, the trio highlighting the roster versatility that the Red Sox have attempted to cultivate.
On Tuesday, Wright was backed by Eduardo Rodriguez, the 23-year-old lefthander with the talent to become a front-of-the-rotation starter if he is healthy enough to build on what he did in 2015.
Wright, Rodriguez, Hernandez, Holt, Rutledge: all acquired by trade, most in overlooked deals, as long-term bets to positively affect the Red Sox roster.
The Red Sox pro scouting department spent a couple of years under a microscope of scrutiny, not unreasonably. The succession of deals that failed to pay immediate dividends at the big league level was striking, particularly in the organization’s highest-risk deals, and helps to explain the front office sea change that occurred last August.
Still, the relative merits of deals often become evident not in the immediate-term prism through which they’re judged but over a longer haul. And while the work of the Sox pro scouts under former department director Jared Porter (now with the Cubs) assumed plenty of blame, there is developing evidence of a potentially significant payoff on a number of the future-looking deals.
At the trade deadline in 2012, the Red Sox were largely consumed by talks with the Dodgers involving a Josh Beckett and/or Carl Crawford deal. When the dust settled at 4 p.m., however, the Sox had made a minor move that prompted little more than a shrug at the anticlimactic end of a former top prospect’s tenure.
Scout John Lombardo’s positive reports on knuckleballer Steven Wright weren’t lost on the front office, so the team dealt first baseman Lars Anderson — considered someone who was running out of time (and options) in the organization — to Cleveland for a pitcher with several years of team control remaining, and who was just beginning to explore his potential with a new pitch.
At the trade deadline in 2014, the Red Sox were on the cusp of dealing Andrew Miller to the Tigers for multiple prospects. But Porter, according to major league sources, was adamant that Rodriguez was the guy the Red Sox wanted. The Sox held out to see if the Orioles would offer Rodriguez, and when Baltimore did, the Sox pivoted and left Detroit emptyhanded.
In the winter of 2012, the Sox made what could have been a disastrous deal, sending future All-Star Mark Melancon and prospects to the Pirates for former All-Star Joel Hanrahan. Yet the deal was salvaged because Nate Field’s view of Brock Holt as an upgraded version of former teammate Joe McEwing caught the attention of the decision-makers.
When the Sox were looking for a taker on Felix Doubront after designating him for assignment in 2014, it seemed hard to imagine that much value could be extracted for the lefthander.
However, the Sox bought time to keep scouting a short list of Cubs prospects, and on the recommendation of Joe McDonald, they took Hernandez — a player they thought had a chance to develop as a hitter after he’d committed to batting lefthanded full time after years as a switch-hitter.
A year later, the Sox needed to part with Shane Victorino to open outfield time for Rusney Castillo (and later Jackie Bradley Jr.). In Rutledge, they acquired from the Angels someone who has paid larger-than-expected dividends in creating a well-rounded roster.
Prior to last year, the team sent righthander Anthony Ranaudo to the Rangers for Robbie Ross Jr., who was coming off an unsuccessful experiment as a starter. He is now a bullpen weapon who has a 2.45 ERA and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
There was also a notable near-jackpot. After the 2013 season, the Sox thought they had the non-tendered Justin Turner signed until his hometown Dodgers swooped in and landed one of the best buy-low gets of recent years.
In sum: While a number of the Sox’ most prominent deals yielded poor results in 2014 and 2015, several moves beneath the major league surface during (and even before) that time are now significant factors in the team’s impressive start.
Some of those promising returns may sputter. But for now, it’s worth seeing the Sox as something more than just the beneficiaries of patience with a homegrown core.