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August 2, 2012
Out of Left Field
By July 31st, teams usually have a good sense of how their season is going. Some are doing well. Some aren’t. In either case that certainty, unwelcome as it may be in the latter case, makes decisions easier. First place teams are “buyers,” last place teams are sellers. As a GM you know that it’s time to bolster the major-league roster, or conversely, that it’s just not happening this year. Time to sell off some pieces and live to fight another year. Things are easy when it’s that simple.
It gets stickier when teams are in between those extremes. This is a land where cogent arguments for both buying and selling exist. You could even argue coherently for doing nothing and not be burned at the stake. Mostly though, it’s a dangerous land, one where the wrong decisions can haunt a franchise for years.
That is exactly where the Boston Red Sox have found themselves for the past two weeks and, as we enter the waiver-trade period, will find themselves for the next few weeks. Floating in that in-between, nebulous, purgatory of deadline existence at a time that typically calls for action of some sort. And yet it was unclear what type of action the Red Sox should taken earlier this week. Can they still compete for the playoffs, or is that wishful thinking at this point?
The Red Sox are 53-52, 8 ½ games behind the Yankees despite winning two of three in the Bronx this past weekend. Our own Playoff Odds Report estimates their chances of winning the American League East to be 1.6 percent. The odds of Boston winning either of the play-in Wild Card spots are higher, but it’s not like 15.7 percent is particularly high. Overall that’s under a one-in-five shot to even make a play-in game to make the playoffs.
So the numbers don’t look promising. But I keep finding myself asking this question: Does their record accurately represent them? In other words, is it reasonable to expect the roster, as currently constructed, to play at roughly a .500 pace the rest of the year, or are they much better than that? Analysts and fans who thought the Red Sox should sell off useful players think the record represents the team. I find myself making a different argument, that the team, as is, can play significantly better over their final 57 games than they did over the first 105.
Why? Three points:
1. Injuries – The Red Sox have lost an unholy number of games to injury this season. Tomes have been written about the Red Sox injuries so I won’t recount them all here, but Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford have recently returned from long injury hiatuses, and Dustin Pedroia seems recovered from a nagging injury that affected his play even when he was in the lineup, which wasn’t always the case. The return of these players should improve both the team’s hitting as well as its defense, obviously.
2. Hitting – The Red Sox have scored a lot of runs this year. As of this writing they are third in runs scored, three behind both the Rangers and Cardinals. They’ve done it without Crawford until about two weeks ago, mostly without Ellsbury, and with both Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez each having the worst season of his career. Throw in Kevin Youkilis’ injuries and under-performance before his trade to Chicago, and one wonders where the production came from.
Actually, that’s a good question. Where did it come from? Here are the top 10 Red Sox in batter WARP:
1. David Ortiz (3.0)
More than half the players on that list were either not on the Red Sox’ opening day roster or were backups. That’s mostly a function of the injuries and under performance mentioned above. The production has come from odd places, but now that the above players have returned, the production should not only continue, but it should accelerate.
3. Pitching – In the American League, only the Blue Jays, Royals, Indians, and Twins have higher ERAs than the Red Sox do. It gets worse if you weed out what has been a pretty effective Boston bullpen. Red Sox starters have a collective 4.85 ERA, better than only the Twins, Indians, Royals, and Rockies in all of baseball. Kyle Drabek’s ERA before he underwent Tommy John surgery was 4.67. So the Red Sox have been sending a slightly worse version of Kyle Drabek to the mound every single night this season. Ask Blue Jays fans if that’s a good idea.
The Red Sox aren’t loaded with aces, but Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Felix Doubront are all capable starters who should be able to approximate the league average ERA of 4.01. Lester and Beckett both have career ERAs in the upper 3.00s. I realize this isn’t the strongest of statistical arguments I’m putting forth, but I think league average pitching from those four the rest of the season is a reasonable expectation.
Those are all reasons the team did not sell, but here is another one: bad timing. It sounds strange to say the trade deadline represents bad timing, but in this case it did. To understand the timing aspect, let’s look at a few of the bigger names the team could have traded.
Josh Beckett – Beckett is seen as the centerpiece of the Chicken and Beer Scandal that supposedly ruined the chemistry of the 2011 club. He therefore isn’t the most popular player in Boston, but that’s different than being a bad pitcher. His FIP is in the mid 3s, close to his career ERA, although his 2012 ERA is a run higher. His perceived surliness (real or imagined) and his high ERA mean that Beckett’s trade value was low. He was perceived as a bad chemistry guy who wasn’t pitching well. In reality, he was a guy who was pitching fine. He might be a bad chemistry guy, but the team did fine with him the five years before last so why deal him now when his reputation has devalued him? Unless he’s crippling the team with his attitude, I’d be willing to take my chances were I Boston. If he pitches better and rehabilitates his image a bit, his trade value should increase, providing the team with more partners willing to pay a higher value during the off-season.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia – Even if you think this year’s club is worthless and ought to be annihilated, trading the starting catcher represents a strike against the competitiveness of next year’s Red Sox team. Further, it’s unclear what kind of affect it would have on the pitching staff to trade the starting catcher mid-season, but there is that to consider as well (though, really, it would be difficult to make them much worse than they’ve been).
Jacoby Ellsbury – See, “Saltalamacchia, Jarrod” only more so.
There was talk of trying to deal Carl Crawford but it’s hard to believe that phone conversation lasted long enough to exchange names. Like, the names of the callers.
As we near the end of this piece, the Red Sox should have their opening day team on the field going forward. Mostly. That should (should!) allow them to play more like the team most analysts pegged for contention. If nobody punches a wall (oops!), making up four games on the AL Wild Card leaders with 57 to go seems quite possible because the team on the field for the last 57 will be better than the team on the field for the first 105.
So, what did all this mean for the Red Sox at the trade deadline? It meant it wasn’t in the team’s best interest to trade away pieces that could still play a productive role this season. It meant that players who could produce for the 2013 Red Sox shouldn’t be dealt either. It meant smaller, marginal deals, such as your middle relievers and fourth outfielders, should be (and were) the rule of the day. Why? Because that’s what you do when you’re not a winner and you’re not a loser.