CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff
The sounds of a season ending are belongings landing in boxes, the peal of packing tape, and the high-pitched squeal of a permanent marker scrawling identification on cardboard containers. That was the soundtrack of the Red Sox clubhouse Tuesday, the sounds of premature playoff elimination.
It’s patently unfair to declare a 93-win season with a division title a failure. It’s not. It just feels like one for the Red Sox right now because of how high the bar is set here in the Hub of Hardware, where teams are measured by “What championship have you won for me lately?”
The postseason has become the only season that matters in Boston sports for a contending team. It’s a harsh and unforgiving way of evaluating a team, but the Red Sox, back-to-back American League East champions, are held to the same standard as the Patriots. Even after advancing to the Eastern Conference finals last season, the Celtics blew up their team in an attempt to get closer to legitimate title contention and attention.
After losing a best-of-five series with the Houston Astros in four games to get sent home in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season, the Red Sox are at a crossroads with a club constructed to win now that just wasted one year of its three-year championship window. They’ve established that they’re good enough to make the postseason, but not good enough to win in it.
The question that will define the offseason is whether president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski thinks his team needs minor modifications or a major upgrade?
The vote here is major upgrade. Sitting around and waiting for the kids to get better isn’t an appealing strategy. There is not time or the pitching arms of Chris Sale, Craig Kimbrel, and David Price — all eligible to test free agency after 2018 or 2019 — to waste. It’s time for the Sox to put that money they saved resetting the luxury tax this season to use. Boston needs someone to lead the way in the lineup and in their restive, unapologetic clubhouse to keep up with the Indians, Astros, and Yankees.
Royals free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer would bring pop and the clubhouse cachet that comes with owning a World Series ring. Diamondbacks free agent J.D. Martinez would inject the requisite righthanded power for a club that calls Fenway Park home and finished 27th in Major League Baseball in home runs this season.
If Dombrowski is ready to plunder what’s left of the farm system and/or part with part of his young core he could do business with the White Sox for the second straight winter. Dombrowski already acquired Chicago’s best pitcher in Sale. This offseason, he could make them an offer they can’t refuse for their best hitter, first baseman Jose Abreu, who has hit 30 or more home runs in three of his four seasons. Abreu and wunderkind Rafael Devers at the corners would change the complexion of the lineup.
Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton is the object of Red Sox’ fans desire. But Stanton carries a caveat emptor label. His combustible combination of temperamental demeanor, inconsistent availability, and massive salary don’t seem suited to the Boston Baseball Experience. Iceberg ahead, Mr. Dombrowski.
Dealer Dave has to do something because some of the players this team counts upon aren’t doing anything in the playoffs. The Sox have lost six of the seven postseason games they’ve played over the last two seasons, getting swept at the hands of Terry Francona’s Indians in 2016. It’s not a fluke.
Over two postseasons, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. has hit .160 with one extra-base hit and 13 strikeouts in 25 at-bats. Xander Bogaerts hit .059 against the Astros. In the last two postseasons, he has batted a combined .138 with one extra-base hit (a homer in the season-ending 5-4 loss on Monday) and one run batted in. The 25-year-old Bogaerts may yet blossom into the franchise-altering force he was billed as, but his time here is running out; he is eligible for free agency after 2019. If Bogaerts is the price to upgrade via trade, the Red Sox shouldn’t let that stand in the way.
The Sox are stuck with their starters. They’ve spent heavily financially and in terms of prospects in building a rotation with Sale, Price, Drew Pomeranz, and Rick Porcello. This rotation has to stand and deliver in the postseason instead of ducking out of postseason games early. Sale is the only Red Sox starter to complete five innings in the last two postseasons, and his Game 1 start was a seven-earned-run shocker that set the tone for the series.
The easiest move the Red Sox could make to ostensibly augment their team would be to move on from manager John Farrell. There is not a more scrutinized or second-guessed job in New England than Red Sox manager. Farrell didn’t help himself this postseason with some curious decisions, like leaving Sale in to wilt, er, pitch in the eighth inning in Game 4 after four sparkling innings of relief on three days rest. Or using Eduardo Rodriguez out of the bullpen in the sixth inning of Game 2, which opened the floodgates for a loss that put one cleat in the grave for the Sox.
When a team falls short usually the manager is the fall guy. Farrell is far from an infallible La Russian mastermind, but it’s not fair to pin the Sox’ (relative) failure on him. He had a team that never hit its stride this season and a lineup that never hit consistently.
Whether Farrell deserves to be fired after becoming the only Sox manager to win back-to-back division titles and whether he has gotten the most out of this roster are separate questions, though. It’s possible that Farrell doesn’t deserve to be fired, but the Sox’ braintrust believes someone else can wring more out of the roster.
Under Farrell, the Red Sox have only finished first (three times) or last (twice) in the AL East. When he has a good team, he doesn’t ruin it. When he has a bad team, he doesn’t reorient it.
He won a World Series in 2013 with the bearded band of brothers. He has won just one playoff game since.
Right now, the Sox are like a baserunner caught in a rundown between third base and home plate. They’re so close to where they want to be, but without an obvious clear path to their desired destination.
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