In correspondence with Red Sox fans during this spring of discontent, I’ve heard two questions — or similar variations — more than any other:
Do they really think we’re buying their excuses for trading Mookie Betts?
What are they going to do about that thin and injury-prone starting rotation?
The answers have not wavered in either case. Yes, any time they try to tell us that dealing Betts — and this is where I would normally insert three sentences detailing how he was a generational player who never should have been allowed to leave, but even I know that’s getting repetitive — was a baseball rather than a financial decision, they’re playing us for fools.
As for the rotation? Well, I suppose Eduardo Rodriguez and a reasonably healthy Chris Sale would form a pretty good two-man rotation. Those other three spots, currently occupied by Nate Eovaldi (46-54 career record, 4.30 ERA), Martin Perez (53-56, 4.72) and Most Likely An Opener To Be Named Later, leave a lot to be desired. The Red Sox probably should just leave their bullpen door open at all times, because there is going to be a parade of relievers to the mound on most days.
Lately, though, as we reluctantly settle into the phase of accepting this lousy trade, I’ve been getting a third question more often, and it’s a tougher one to answer:
What needs to happen for the Red Sox to compete in the American League East?
I mean, the sarcastic answer is obvious: They should reach out to the Dodgers and see if Betts and David Price might be available. Those guys, now they could really help the cause.
The serious response? First, we have to define contending. Is it winning the AL East for the fourth time in five years and fifth time in the last eight? I can’t see how that happens. The 84-win Red Sox finished third last year, 19 games back of the Yankees and 12 behind the Rays, with Betts having an excellent season (though not as good as his 2018 MVP performance) and Price making 22 starts.
Even if Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and J.D. Martinez all repeat outstanding seasons at the plate and Andrew Benintendi plays to his ability, this offense minus Mookie probably won’t be as productive as last year’s 901-run juggernaut. And did we mention that the starting pitching is such a mess that Matt Young, Dana Kiecker, and Tom Bolton currently look like appealing candidates for the fifth spot?
This team, right now, isn’t as good as last year’s. And despite its abundance of big-name talent, last year’s wasn’t very good.
If contending means being on the fringe of the wild-card race through the summer, having a chance to capture the second wild card in the final days of the season, and perhaps even stealing the thing, sure, I suppose that’s possible.
The Red Sox finished 12 back of the Rays for the second wild card last year (the 97-win A’s claimed the first one), so there’s a significant gap to bridge. Tampa Bay should still be very good, and don’t snooze on Toronto as a riser in the AL East, either. The Blue Jays won just 67 games last year, but they should be better as that core of second-generation stars — Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio — enter their sophomore seasons.
The Orioles? Are you sure they weren’t relegated to the International League?
Forget catching the Yankees, even with the news that Luis Severino needs Tommy John surgery. He pitched 12 innings last year, they won 103 games despite setting a major league record for most players on the disabled list in a season, and they’ve added Gerrit Cole.
It’s hard to believe just two years after the Red Sox won 108 games and hammered their way to the World Series, but the Yankees are on the next level right now, and it’s unattainable for Boston.
There’s kind of a 1981 vibe to this Red Sox team, in the sense that the departure of popular players — Betts now, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Rick Burleson, and Butch Hobson then — has left a malaise over the fan base before the season even begins. But I actually think this is a better situation.
The moves in ’81 unnecessarily aged the Sox — 39 years later, I still have no idea why they took back 34-year-old Joe Rudi and sore-shouldered Frank Tanana in the Lynn deal, other than that Haywood Sullivan was petty and incompetent — while at least Chaim Bloom got young talent back for Betts.
I believe in Bloom, too. There’s not a lot of evidence that we should yet, I know. And his first duty — get below the $208 million luxury tax threshold, and go ahead and deal Betts too while you’re at it — is about as thankless as it gets. But he’s handled himself well through all of this, and if you look at those Rays teams he left behind, their rosters were filled with unheralded — heck, practically unknown — players who came in and produced.
This happens repeatedly with the Rays, and you wait and see, it’s going to happen here with a couple of these assorted Austin Brices and Kevin Plaweckis that he’s bringing in. There is going to be churn on the roster this year as Bloom tries to unearth some finds. We’re going to get to know a lot of new players, sort of like with Dan Duquette’s first Red Sox team post-strike in 1995. We may even end up liking some of them.
That ’95 team, with all of its Arquimedez Pozos, Rudy Pembertons, and Pat Mahomeses (well, the dad, anyway), did have a few keepers amid all of the roster turnover (Tim Wakefield, Rich Garces, Troy O’Leary) and ended up being the surprise winner of the AL East.
This Red Sox team, as currently constituted, isn’t coming close to a division title. But if Bloom can fill the obvious holes with some Duquette-in-’95-level discoveries, a legitimate quest for a wild-card berth should at least keep us entertained.
It’s not the level of contention we’re used to around here. But it can be a decent summer-long distraction while we wait for Betts and the Dodgers to beat the Yankees in the World Series.