BOSTON (CBS) — “We’ve got a talented group,” manager John Farrell said following Monday’s trade deadline, hours ahead of a 6-2 Red Sox series-opening win over Terry Francona’s Indians at Fenway. “The way we’re built, not by one-swing-of-the-bat type of offense, we’re reliant on guys up and down the lineup and we need for that little bit more consistent contribution. So, when we have three, four, five guys that are scuffling at once, that’s felt, and it’s been felt.”
Boston is fresh off a 13-14 July. The team’s offensive struggles during the month – a .248 average (18th in baseball), .682 OPS (29th), 122 runs (tied, 9th), 25 home runs (tied, 26th) – and bullpen flaws – six blown saves in nine chances – turned a one-game lead in the American League East at the end of June into a half-game deficit entering August.
The yearning-for-yesteryear Yankees reloaded in recent weeks, adding starters Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia, relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, and power bat Todd Frazier.
The Sox addressed their ‘pen problems with Mets sometimes-closer Addison Reed – one of the top relievers in baseball the last three years – and pinned the rest of their hopes on Craig Kimbrel continuing to be elite and Joe Kelly, Brandon Workman, and maybe even Carson Smith returning well from injuries.
They handled their lacking lumber with Giants utility man Eduardo Nunez and rookie sensation Rafael Devers. Both have been revelations, combining for a .439 average (18-for-41), four homers, four doubles, and nine runs batted in. That muscle has energized the lineup, but it’s likely not sustainable. Nunez hit just four long-balls in 76 games with San Francisco before his trade. Devers mashed 20 dingers in 85 minor league contests prior to his promotion and has demonstrated genuine, raw pop, but asking a wide-eyed 20-year-old to continue doing so regularly at the big league level during a pennant race is unrealistic.
Boston doesn’t have an Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, or Justin Smoak, each with 30-plus home runs. The group doesn’t even include a Lucas Duda, Kendrys Morales, or Hunter Renfroe, each with 20. When it comes to power, Hanley Ramirez and Mookie Betts share the Red Sox’ lead with 17 deep-drives. Both reached the 30-homer plateau in 2016 but expect to come up short this year.
In the days leading up to the deadline, though the Aug. 31 waiver-deadline still looms, many cried for the Sox to supplement their offense with a big swinger. But only the likes of Frazier, Duda (Rays), and J.D. Martinez (Diamondbacks) changed homes.
That’s okay. While it’s certainly nice to have a “one-swing-of-the-bat type of offense” like the juggernaut 2009 Yanks, one isn’t required for postseason success.
The 2015 champion Royals only had three players stroke at least 20 home runs, and Morales and Mike Moustakas sat at the top of that list with 22 each.
Buster Posey, with 22 as well, was one of two 20-homer hitters for the 2014 World Series winning Giants. San Francisco also won a title in 2012 with Posey’s 24 dingers by far pacing a team that featured old friend Pablo Sandoval second. With 12.
Kansas City ranked 24th in the majors with 139 regular season homers when it won. San Fran’s 132 in 2014 was actually 17th, and the club’s total of 103 two years prior was dead-last.
With 55 games to play, the 2017 Red Sox have hit 105 home runs to sit 28th. Not good, but not crippling.
What really matters, obviously, is the postseason, since last season’s Sox quickly reminded everyone simply getting there – even as a division-winner – isn’t nearly enough.
The Royals’ bats heated up during the 2015 playoffs, with 17 homers in 16 games. They led the 10 postseason entrants in average, on-base percentage, and tied for first in OPS. Kansas City’s pitching, particularly the bullpen, was the difference. Royals relievers went 8-0 with a 2.51 ERA and 89 strikeouts over 64 2/3 innings. Their collective WHIP was 1.04, they blew one-of-five save opportunities, and fanned six batters for every free pass.
In 2014, the Giants settled for just seven postseason home runs in 17 games, but they had a better average and OBP than any team that played at least five games, which was a change of pace from their 14 homers in 16 playoff contests two years earlier.
Both of those teams relied on their pitching, sporting sub-3 playoff ERA’s. The 2014 squad relied on Madison Bumgarner (1.03 ERA over six starts, plus one relief appearance) and a dynamic bullpen. The 2012 club, as it was offensively, was more balanced.
While it’s perhaps unlikely, there’s no reason to believe this incarnation of the Red Sox can’t be an awful lot like those 2014 Giants, who edged the Pirates to emerge from the Wild Card playoff before upsetting the Nationals in four games, eliminating the Cardinals in five, and outlasting the Royals in seven in the title round.
Following July’s transactions, most pundits who predicted the Red Sox to coast as AL East winners now believe it’s more likely they’re a Wild Card team, if they get in at all. The Yankees, after all of GM Brian Cashman’s wheeling and dealing, are now the presumed favorites.
But, should the Sox reach baseball’s second season, they’re absolutely constructed well enough to be successful. Unfortunately, there are a number of if’s, mostly surrounding health. Such is the case for any club, really.
Forget sample sizes for now and ignore the July swoon. Water tends to find its level. The Red Sox still sit tied for seventh in the majors in average (.261) and OBP (.333). They have a National League-like ability to manufacture runs, which is what’s been required to score without a big bopper.
Mookie Betts (.156 average, .156 slugging, 5 RBI his last seven games), Xander Bogaerts (.158 AVG, .224 SLG, 4 RBI last 20 games), Hanley Ramirez (.203 AVG, .359 SLG, 4 RBI last 16 games), Andrew Benintendi (.162 AVG, .176 SLG, 3 RBI last 19 games), and Mitch Moreland (.128 AVG, .151 SLG, 4 RBI last 26 games) won’t all remain in funks for the next two months, let alone simultaneously.
Dustin Pedroia should return from his knee injury and will ideally pick up where he left off.
Boston paces the AL with a 3.70 team ERA and similarly ranks third in the majors with a 3.02 bullpen mark. Chris Sale’s in the midst of yet another Cy Young caliber campaign, reigning Cy winner Rick Porcello posted a 3.06 ERA in July, and Drew Pomeranz has a 2.33 ERA in his last nine starts. Eduardo Rodriguez has struggled in three outings since returning from a knee injury and David Price’s playing status remains a greater mystery than why he continues to run his mouth in and towards the media.
Though Sale’s never pitched in the postseason, hard as that is to believe, is it so difficult to imagine Boston’s ace couldn’t be nearly as dominant as Bumgarner masterfully performed in 2014? Possibly a lot to ask – again, the stud limited opponents to just six runs over 52 2/3 innings – but surely any combination of Sox starters could be less underwhelming than Tim Hudson (4.29 ERA), Jake Peavy (6.19), and Ryan Vogelsong (6.57) were those playoffs.
Whether the Red Sox’ bullpen could match the Giants’ 2.87 relief ERA is another story, but Dombrowski believes he has the arms to make that dream a reality. Or will, soon, if Kelley returns to form, Workman continues to strut his stuff, and Reed comes as advertised.
Stranger things have happened. After those four days in October 2004, nothing’s impossible anymore.