The Red Sox have the second-worst September record in the American League. Their wild-card lead is down to an uncomfortable two games. They are playing an ugly brand of baseball, and even Theo Epstein and Terry Francona (best organization evah!) are taking criticism.
The current frustration is such that designated hitter/acting pitching coach David Ortiz suggested to reporters after Monday afternoon’s loss to Baltimore that Alfredo Aceves ought to be in the rotation — an implied criticism of struggling rookie starter Kyle Weiland and Francona himself.
The good news: Ol’ reliable Erik Bedard takes the ball Tuesday.
In all seriousness, what has happened to this team?
At the risk oversimplifying the club’s travails, I would point to two factors above all others.
1. Clay Buchholz injured his back and hasn’t pitched since June 16.
2. Epstein, for all his skills as a general manager, failed to accumulate the pitching depth required to win the American League East.
Of course, the latter problem is not unique to the Red Sox. As you might have seen — as recently as A.J. Burnett’s start Monday — it’s not as if the arch-rival Yankees have a cast of Whitey Fords from which to choose their playoff rotation. Even at this late hour, the possibility remains that Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon will make postseason starts for New York.
And yet, the Yankees are still five games better than the Red Sox.
Epstein, in his ninth season as the Boston GM, has prided himself on investing time and money in player development. For the most part, he has a strong track record in that area. The list of homegrown Red Sox contributors is indeed long: Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jed Lowrie, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard. That’s one reason Epstein is of such interest to the Chicago Cubs, currently engaged in their high-profile GM search.
But look at that list again. Notice anything missing?
Epstein has been on the job for nearly a decade, and yet Lester is the only homegrown pitcher to have a 200-inning season for the Red Sox in that span. For an organization of these resources and smahhhts, there’s no way that should be the case.
Are the Red Sox making mistakes in scouting and player development? Are they overrating their own players and/or overhyping them to the media? Or is the mere act of developing a starting pitcher in today’s American League East a fool’s errand?
The first two are plausible explanations. The third is not, because the Tampa Bay Rays are doing it.
The Rays, currently stalking the Red Sox in the wild-card standings, have a pair of 200-inning pitchers (James Shields and David Price) and two more (Jeremy Hellickson and Wade Davis) who aren’t far from the benchmark. And all four were drafted by the organization.
In some ways, that’s even more impressive than if the Red Sox or Yankees had a similar number of stalwarts. Rays pitchers actually face the toughest assignment — the Red Sox and Yankees. The Boston and New York staffs only deal with one or the other.
And let’s not minimize Tampa Bay’s achievements by adding the qualifier that they stunk for a decade in order to accumulate this bounty of young talent. Yes, Price was a No. 1 overall pick. But Shields (16th round, 2000), Davis (third round, 2004), and Hellickson (fourth round, 2005) were not.
Again, this would be a very different discussion if Buchholz had a 17-7 record and 2.33 ERA, as he did last year. But he doesn’t, and Red Sox fans shouldn’t be allowed to sigh, shrug their shoulders and muse about how unlucky their team has been with injuries over the past two seasons.
Buchholz is 27 years old, and he has pitched more than 100 innings in the major leagues exactly once — last season, at 173-2/3. He doesn’t have the powerhouse build of the classic right-handed starter. (On the Scale of Roy, he is more Oswalt than Halladay.) In fact, Buchholz has thrown about 165 fewer major league innings than Rich Harden had at the same age. And Harden has proved himself to be injury prone.
Of course, the Red Sox nearly acquired Harden from Oakland at this year’s trade deadline. But he flunked their physical exam, and Epstein acquired Bedard instead. Bedard has since pitched better for the Red Sox than Harden has for the A’s — but Harden has worked more innings.
And since we can’t possibly discuss the Red Sox rotation without mentioning John Lackey, let’s get it over with now: Obviously, the five-year, $82.5 million investment isn’t working out. In retrospect, it is as if Epstein looked at Burnett’s contract with the Yankees and developed albatross envy.
But the most troubling aspect of Lackey’s contract isn’t the paycheck-to-performance ratio, but rather the circumstances of the deal when it was conceived. The Red Sox signed him at a time when they had money to spend — and a shortage of in-house candidates to fill the rotation vacancy. In this sense, the value of player development reveals itself in the cost of hiring a free agent when the prospect doesn’t pan out.
The Red Sox are very familiar with this principle. But they don’t always practice it.
Meanwhile, the Cubs’ search for a new GM is playing the role of Oz in this late-season Rays-Red Sox drama — unseen but always there. Epstein is viewed as a possibility, along with Tampa Bay’s Andrew Friedman, and there would probably be a 50/50 split within the industry as to which of them is better.
Epstein has been associated with more bad contracts, but that’s not really a fair comparison. We’ll never know if Friedman would have made some of the same signings, because his payroll didn’t allow him to consider those possibilities. (Big-market GMs have an inherently harder job than small-market GMs, who are able to say, “Sorry. Can’t do it. Too expensive.”)
At the same time, there’s no denying that Friedman has developed more top-end pitching than Epstein. That is why the Rays still have a chance. So maybe Epstein and Friedman should put a gentlemen’s bet on the wild-card race.
Winner goes to the playoffs. Loser takes over the Cubs.