NEW YORK — What happens if the Red Sox don’t turn around their season quickly? David Price pondered the matter in the wake of his team’s crushing loss on the way out of New York Wednesday night.
Price has seen this before. The pitcher has been on teams with immense talent that started the year in an unexpected freefall — some recovered, some did not. Both types of experiences have relevant lessons for the 2019 Red Sox.
In 2011, Price was the Opening Day starter for the Tampa Bay Rays as they commenced their American League East title defense amid a run as perennial contenders. For that reason, the start — a 1-8 sputter that had the team five games out of first place less than two weeks into the season — proved shocking. The reaction?
“We took a toast before a game, a shot — the whole team,” said Price. “[Manager] Joe Maddon said, ‘This is to the best [1-8] team ever in the big leagues.’ We won that day, we took another shot after that day, and we made the playoffs.”
Indeed. The 2011 Rays represented a study in quick pivots, going 22-7 after their poor start to claim first place by mid-May, falling 11 games behind the scorching Red Sox by mid-August, then finishing on a 32-17 run that allowed them to overtake the Red Sox by a game for the wild card on the final day of the regular season.
With the Red Sox having an offday Thursday before starting a three-game set against the first-place Rays — who are 8½ games ahead of Boston — Price was mindful of the precedent of those 2011 Rays. That team’s surge was led by the rotation, a path the pitcher believes this year’s Red Sox can follow.
“That’s what we need,” said Price. “It boils down to the starters. I don’t care how good our offense is. One through five or six, we’ll be better. There’s no doubt about that. But we need to do it starting in Tampa. If we don’t . . .”
Price’s other experiences come into play when thinking about the potential fallout if the Sox do not achieve a rapid turnaround. In 2014, the Rays — one year after they’d played the Red Sox in the ALDS, their fourth playoff appearance in six years — struggled early and never pulled back, dropping to 24-42 by June.
Those struggles pushed Tampa Bay to a moment of organizational reckoning. At the trade deadline, the Rays dealt Price to the Tigers in a three-way deal, the start of a period of years of roster tweaking and sub-.500 finishes.
The veteran lefthander knows what an unexpectedly poor season meant for him personally and for his team, which needed to restock its farm system. It is with that experience in mind that he can see potentially dire scenarios with these Red Sox.
“If we don’t start playing better, J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, maybe myself, we could get traded,” he said. “We’re, what, 30th in minor league systems?”
Price was referencing Baseball America’s recent organizational evaluations that did indeed rank the Red Sox with the No. 30 farm system.
“We’re dead last,” he said. “We don’t play better, Mookie Betts will be traded, J.D. Martinez will be traded. It will be tough for a while here.”
Martinez, Price noted, has an opt-out after this year, leading Price to consider a scenario in which the Sox trade him before he hits the open market. Betts, who isn’t eligible for free agency until after 2020, is another matter, though Price has seen how the rumor cycle can swirl around even a franchise icon.
“It’s going to be talked about,” he said. “It’s going to be written about. Guys are going to be asked about it. We all understand that.
“Mookie Betts has never been through this. At some point in his life, he struggled, but when he’s asked about getting traded on a daily basis, that wears on you. I’ve been through it. I’ve seen it wear on different people.
“It’s not for him, period. He enjoys it here. He loves it here. This is the only organization he’s ever known. When he gets asked that question day-in, day-out, whenever he goes on the road and opposing beat writers, they’re going to ask about that. That can wear on you.”
While such a scenario may be difficult to fathom, Price cited precedent. He recalled how quickly the Red Sox dismantled their 2013 World Series group — parting with Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Andrew Miller before the next season’s trade deadline.
“We need to play better,” said Price. “It needs to happen now. Boston doesn’t handle losing well. I get that.
“The Celtics are good, the Bruins are good, the Patriots are always winning, and the Red Sox are always good.
“If we don’t play better, there’s going to be a lot of changes around here. I remember when Boston won the World Series in 2013. In 2014, they were trash. Trash.”
Price has no interest in seeing this World Series defense disintegrate in the fashion of the 2014 team, which finished in last place with a 71-91 record following those deadline moves. And he doesn’t believe it will.
Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence that the Red Sox are even considering any blockbuster moves that would prioritize future years over 2019. The focus of the team is squarely on the present — underscored by the decision to designate Blake Swihart for assignment and call up Sandy Leon Tuesday.
If the Red Sox move beyond their 6-13 start and perform at a level that more closely resembles their expectations, then the idea of trading key holdovers from last year’s championship team won’t become a concern. But they have no time to waste in achieving a reversal of fortune.
“We have too much talent in the clubhouse,” said Price. “We’re a lot better than our record is. We’re a lot better than what we played. And I still believe we will play better and our record will flip.
“[But] we’ve got to play better for a long time for that to happen, and we need that to happen now.
“Everybody’s trying. As of right now, it’s just not happening. That’s the toughest part.
“Last year, it didn’t matter what we did, the moves we made, who was in the lineup, who was pitching, who was hitting — we performed.
“As of now, that hasn’t been the case. It’s time for us to play better. It’s time — and we know that.”