By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In their 119-year history, the Boston Red Sox have had better days than July 31, 2019.
A team with obvious needs in the bullpen failed to make any additions at all prior to the trade deadline later took the field only to get shellacked by the team ahead of them in the standings and in the race for a wild-card spot. That game, fittingly, ended with Andrew Benintendi standing by idly as strike three whizzed past him for the final out of the ballgame.
Inaction was the word of the day at Fenway Park.
There were more words, though, as Dave Dombrowski dutifully sat behind a microphone and addressed a flurry of questions about why and how the Red Sox did not make a single move prior to the 4 p.m. deadline. That’s with good reason, as the Red Sox — trailing by a mile in the AL East and sitting in fourth in a race for two wild-card spots — as currently constituted do not appear capable to compete with the best that the American League has to offer.
Some of Dombrowski’s comments — namely his suggestion that other teams wanted to pry away his bullpen arms — received more attention than others. Some of Dombrowski’s comments were pretty frank and accurate. Some of Dombrowski’s comments seemed to be complete baloney.
Here is an attempt to sort out the honest comments from the bogus ones.
“You can’t believe how many phone calls I got about our bullpen pieces. So people say you need bullpen; you cannot believe the number of clubs that called me about our bullpen guys.”
Can we not do this?
Look, there were some valid reasons to make a trade, and we’ll get into those. But can we not do this? Can we not condescendingly explain to reporters and fans that, ACTUALLY, the Red Sox bullpen is stupendous? It’s disingenuous at best, and outside of Brandon Workman, there’s no reliever that another team in contention would really want to acquire right now.
Dombrowski was right about one thing. Nobody believes this.
“I think if we were closer to first place, I would have been more open-minded to some of the other things. Yeah, I think so. Not that we’re not trying to get our club better. When I would say that … the club here needs to play better on a consistent basis. That’s the way I look at it.”
Dead. On. Accurate.
For as easy as it is to throw tomatoes at Dombrowski for the inactivity on Wednesday, this type of brutal honesty has to be appreciated. Outside of Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers (and to a certain extent, Christian Vazquez), zero Red Sox players are playing above their normal level. J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts are having very good but not great seasons (by their own ridiculous standards, of course), and the top-paid pitchers — Chris Sale, Rick Porcello and David Price — are not performing nearly to the level that’s expected of them.
As an outsider, it’s easy to look at the 100-plus games played so far by this Red Sox team and not believe in their ability to contend for a championship. Realistically, that has more to do with the players currently on the roster than it does with an eighth-inning arm that could have been acquired on Wednesday.
“We like our club. We’ve liked our club all year long. We’re sitting, what, 10 games above .500? There’s a lot of great things about it. We had a great week last week.”
You’re the defending World Series champions, and you’re going to sit there with a straight face and cheerfully talk about having … one good week of baseball?
That this came just hours before losing a second straight game at home to the Rays really helped make it look worse. In this do-or-die fortnight of games against the Rays and Yankees, the Red Sox are now 5-4. That great week really wasn’t so great.
“We still need to do it on a more consistent basis, and we haven’t reached that point to really give up a premium young player for a guy that was going to fill a certain role for us, where we are right now.”
It’s a good point.
Looking at the Red Sox with a sober mind, this is simply a fair and true statement. Dombrowski was careful to not throw out any names as hypotheticals, but if we use some big league names — say, Andrew Benintendi — we can see that the team could not have magically been made significantly better with the addition of just one player, especially if that addition was only going to pitch three or four innings per week.
The overriding message of Dombrowski was that the Red Sox have too much talent on the roster to be sitting where they currently are in the standings. While that statement conveniently overlooks the fact that the team was not built with a championship-caliber bullpen, it is nevertheless largely true.
“I mean, hopefully we can win the division, but realistically, we’re probably playing first for a wild-card spot. So you’re playing for a one-game wild card. And I look at that a little bit differently as far as what you’re willing to do and the risk you’re willing to take.”
Sad but true.
People hated this one, and I get it. A competitor looks at a one-game playoff and believes the game can be won. It’s that simple. But an executive has to think a little bit more realistically. In the sport of baseball, the very best team in the league can lose to the very worst team in the league on any given Sunday, Monday or Tuesday. Nothing in any sport can be a guaranteed lock; a one-game playoff in baseball can feel like a total crapshoot.
So, given the reality of that situation, it would be imprudent to give up a player forever just for the chance to play in one single game that can make it all meaningless. Like it or not, the one-game playoff game can and should affect judgment of decision-makers at this time of year.
“But, you know, we didn’t make a trade on the trading deadline day last year. We did get [Andrew] Cashner already [this year], so it’s not like we haven’t done something to help our ball club.”
Let’s not get so technical, Dave.
Last year, the Red Sox acquired Ian Kinsler on July 30. They acquired Nathan Eovaldi on July 25. Steve Pearce had been acquired on June 28. Saying now that last year’s trade deadline day had no activity in Boston is not at all forthright when trying to describe what happened last year.
Also, it’s probably not the best idea to boast about acquiring Andrew Cashner, who was acquired for two 17-year-olds. That’s probably not going to be the acquisition that saves the season.
“And we brought Eovaldi back, we think he’s just rounding into shape now to be ready. I mean I couldn’t find anyone else throwing 101, so we think he’s a nice addition. And we think we added Darwinzon Hernandez here recently. So sometimes they come in different ways.”
The absolute most frustrating thing any baseball executive can ever do is to state that the welcoming back of an injured player counts as a midseason pickup. It is the worst. In this instance, it looks like a way of trying to put some shine on what already appears to be a rather poor investment of $68 million by Dombrowski.
And … no, Dave. Darwinzon Hernandez does not count as a midseason addition either. A guy who was sporting a cool 5.13 ERA over 40 innings in Double-A (and a 4.76 ERA in 17 innings at Triple-A) this season is probably not the answer.
“If can get in and play the one-game playoff, like, I know for example Houston made big trades today, and they’re really good. They were good beforehand. If we play Houston, it will be in the playoffs, right? So we’ll see what happens.”
I think the intended point was missed with this one. I believe it was something to the effect of … the Astros got better … and the only way that impacts the Red Sox is if they reach the ALDS (at least) … and so … if the Red Sox were to meet the Astros … that would by necessity mean that the Red Sox won the one-game playoff … which … I guess justifies the silent deadline day? Is that it? Hard to tell.
The Astros acquired Zack Greinke because they’re trying to win a World Series. Dombrowski’s comment made it seem as though simply meeting the Astros in the playoffs will be a sign of success. I honestly don’t know though.
IN CONCLUSION, here’s the visualization of what that comment felt like:
“If we play up to our capabilities with our guys in our starting rotation, we can, I think, beat anybody.”
This one’s correct, but only partially so. Chris Sale has been a major disappointment, and that’s putting it lightly. Rick Porcello’s ever-increasing ERA may hit 6.00 during his next start. David Price was good for a while but has been dreadful ever since igniting a needless fight with a Hall of Famer who analyzes the games on TV. Eduardo Rodriguez has been fine.
If those top three can pitch at the Cy Young level they’ve all proven to be capable of pitching? Sure. Many more wins. Wins by the buckets.
But the bullpen is still bad. You cannot beat “anybody” with the current bullpen.
“We have some guys at Triple-A that are down there pitching right now that we feel comfortable to come and help us.”
We need not go up and down the Pawtucket roster at the moment, but if there are guys ready and capable of helping … might it not be time to call upon them for some help? Didn’t that opportunity present itself in May, and June, and July?
“There’s been a couple of times in my career where I have just felt great about today, making a deal, and the whole industry is patting me on the back. And it didn’t work.”
This one shines a light on a reality that could get overlooked in the rush to scream “You had to at least make SOME deal.” Baseball trades just don’t often work out, even ones that look like obvious wins.
We’ve seen that here in Boston. The addition of Eric Gagne to a championship-caliber team in ’07 looked like a slam dunk. All Gagne did was post an ERA near 7.00 and a WHIP near 2.000 before posting a killer 6.23 ERA in his limited opportunities (4.1 innings in 5 appearances) in the playoffs. He was a hindrance to that team winning a World Series. Nobody in the baseball world expected that to be the case when the Red Sox went out and acquired him.
Dombrowski obviously wasn’t involved in that deal, but every GM and president has had them. This one came off like an actual dose of humility from Dombrowski.
“The reality is where most clubs get exposed with their bullpen is when you get short starts. And our club is built to get longer starts than four or five innings.”
Thank goodness for Office GIFs.
Anyway. The Red Sox have gotten 573 innings out of their starters, which ranks sixth in the AL. That comes out to an average of 5.1 innings per game. Let’s welcome in a “Mad Men” GIF for that one.
The thing is, last year’s team didn’t fare significantly better, with starters averaging just a fraction longer per outing. With Chris Sale essentially missing two months, Alex Cora handed the ball to Brian Johnson (13 times), Drew Pomeranz (11 times), Hector Velazquez (eight times), Steven Wright (four times) and Jalen Beeks and William Cuevas once apiece.
Last year’s starters performed better than this year’s starters, but for a 108-win team, the starting pitching last year wasn’t overly spectacular.
The bullpen, thus, has been able to expose itself this year all on its own. At the same time … the starters aren’t helping.
“Last year at this same time period, everyone wanted to run Joe Kelly out of town. He did not pitch well and it was an extended period. He pitched great the first couple of months, he hit a real struggle period, but he’s very talented. And sometimes you’ve gotta try to work with the guy, help the guy, get him to that point. And when we got to the postseason, he was dominant. Outstanding. And that’s that type of thing where you need to work on those type of things as an organization.”
That’s a good point.
If you want to spin Dombrowski’s deadline day another way, you could say that he simply didn’t want to pay a large price to reward a group of players that, frankly, has not deserved that type of commitment to this point of the year. Dombrowski has shown time and time again that he’s willing if not eager to make a slew of trades to enhance his team. So the fact that he didn’t make that move this year can be interpreted as a message to the current roster to take care of business on their own.
(Joe Kelly’s postseason performance — a 0.79 ERA and a 0.706 WHIP with 13 strikeouts in 11.1 innings — has never made sense and will never make sense. Baseball is a funny sport sometimes.)
“OK, so [the deficit in the AL East] was nine, right? It could have been seven. It could have been six yesterday. Right? It might [have been] five today. Well that’s a lot different than sitting at nine. So, but, I can’t tell you because it’s more a gut reaction based on where you are at a particular time.”
Dombrowski was answering a question about whether he would have been more inclined if the distance between the Red Sox and Yankees was not so great. In that sense, he was only answering the question.
But … no. Don’t do the “What if?” game. In this town, it only brings to mind Dan Duquette boasting about being in first place for more days than the Yankees, or Peter Chiarelli happily telling the media that the Bruins were “one of five teams to have been in the second round” in back-to-back years (after getting eliminated in that second round both times, the latter of which coming after blowing a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 Game 7 lead).
Generally speaking, even when asked a hypothetical question, it’s best to speak only in absolutes.
Though … a win here or there … and … hot dog! The Sox may be leading the division right now!
“The reality is, if we’re going to make it, it’s going to be the guys that are in the clubhouse. I mean, that is the case. So we could add pieces to that, but we have a very talented big league club. And sure, we have holes. I mean, we all have holes. We can see that clubs have holes because everybody’s looking to do something. The reality is we have a talented group of players.”
This is, ultimately, where fans may have gotten frustrated. By saying “sure we have holes but so does every other team,” it looks like Dombrowski is carefully overlooking the fact that the bullpen he built is not good enough to win a championship. That’s as evident now as it was in December. And the suggestion that “other teams wanted to make trades, ergo all teams have holes like we do” does very little to show accountability for that.
At the same time, much of that statement should be the resounding message from this lengthy meeting with the media. The 2019 Red Sox may not be as great as the 2018 Red Sox, but they’re certainly capable of being better than this. If this year’s team is going to make something out of this season, it’s going to have be generated from the pride in the clubhouse rather than the help from an outside addition.