Red Sox learning the hard way what happens when you assume
The 2015 Red Sox were built under the assumptions that the team …
From the outset, all of those assumptions were suspect, if not outright flawed. And now, with the Sox in disarray — firing their pitching coach, purging disappointing veterans, generating players-only meetings — the questions are growing more disturbing.
Did the Red Sox grow so intoxicated by their 2013 World Series title that they lost their way? And if the answer is yes — if the Sox actually finish below .500 for the third time in four seasons — whom will ownership hold responsible?
The dismissal of pitching coach Juan Nieves, at least on the surface, appeared to be an over-reaction for a team that had acquired three new starting pitchers (four if you count Joe Kelly, who arrived last July 31), lost its top two catchers and constructed a shaky relief corps.
We might never know the true story on Nieves, if ownership demanded a scapegoat when the Sox stumbled after a 6-2 start and played to an alarming number of empty seats against the Yankees at Fenway Park.
Rival executives hold Nieves in high regard, and say it is not the style of Sox general manager Ben Cherington to assign blame to one individual. Cherington and manager John Farrell, however, took responsibility for the change, with Farrell citing, "the ability to maintain the consistency or affect change when needed … that wasn’t the same as we saw two years ago."
Farrell presumably had a large role in selecting Nieves’ replacement, Carl Willis — the two previously had worked together with the Indians. The entire episode, then, figures to increase the scrutiny on Farrell, who received a contract extension in February through 2017.
If anything, though, the Red Sox’s faulty roster construction is on Cherington — and on an ownership that probably could have signed left-hander Jon Lester to a five-year, $125 million extension a year ago, but low-balled him with a four-year, $70 million offer.
By now, we are all familiar with the Red Sox’s aversion to long-term deals for players in their 30s and preference for shorter, high-dollar contracts. The strategy worked in ’13, when Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew and Jonny Gomes contributed to a Series title. But the success emboldened the Sox, leading to a series of unfortunate decisions.
At the moment, the team’s Triple A roster includes outfielders Rusney Castillo and Allen Craig, who are earning a combined $16 million this season, with $77.5 million more due. The demotion of Craig and struggles of Kelly make the initial return on the John Lackey trade look poor. And it’s fair to question the wisdom of the Sox awarding contract extensions to Rick Porcello and especially Wade Miley before either ever threw a pitch for the team.
No, the AL East is not what it once was, but the division still is home to three of the game’s top seven offenses (Blue Jays, Orioles, Yankees). The idea that the Sox could somehow compete for a Series title without an ace never made sense. Now the team is in a compromised position, reducing its trade leverage. And the bullpen, which is nowhere near as good as, say, the Royals’ or Yankees’, risks being overworked.
The offense is good enough for the Sox to recover, presuming that Ramirez doesn’t get completely freaked out — or injured again — playing left field. But the Sox cannot rely alone on prospects such as Eduardo Rodriguez to fix their rotation. And heaven knows how long their 40-year-old closer, Koji Uehara, will hold up.
Faulty assumptions. Disturbing questions. The 2015 Boston Red Sox.
DEE, AS IN DEE-FENSE
Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon is not only first among all players in Fangraphs WAR due to his shocking .999 OPS. He also is showing significant defensive improvement, according to advanced defensive metrics.
Those metrics are not necessarily reliable with the season less than one-fifth complete, but Gordon leads all second baseman at plus-10 in John Dewan’s plus-minus ratings after finishing at negative-five with the Dodgers last season.
"He has a tremendous work ethic and his attitude is a coach’s dream," said Marlins first base coach Perry Hill, one of the game’s most highly regarded infield instructors. "He has worked extremely hard and polished his fundamentals, especially his pivot and backhand. His range is remarkable."
Hill also remains high on Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, who also rates as an above-average defender by the metrics after finishing below-average last season.
I wrote at length in spring training about my belief that Gordon was under-valued by the leading projection systems — and by the Dodgers. Click here for that column.
KIMBREL? 5.68? WHAT?
The Padres aren’t worried about closer Craig Kimbrel, and shouldn’t be. Still, Kimbrel’s ERA is a rather uncharacteristic 5.68, and his streak of 35 consecutive saves ended rather unceremoniously Saturday night vs. the Diamondbacks.
The report from one uniformed observer: "His command was terrible. He threw three pitches that almost hit guys in the head. He even threw a pickoff to first with no first baseman there. And on the pitch that was hit for a double to tie the game, he missed by three feet."
Still, Kimbrel’s average fastball velocity is a career-high 97.2 mph, according to Fangraphs. His line-drive rate is up slightly, his groundball rate down slightly. But his opponents’ .345 batting average on balls in play indicates poor luck, and so might the fact that he already has allowed two home runs, as many as last season.
Consider Kimbrel’s xFIP — that is, his expected ERA assuming a normal home-run rate. It’s 2.87 — high for him, but far from awful. Consider, as well, that four of the eight runs he has allowed came in non-save situations.
"His stuff is fine," Padres manager Bud Black said in a text message Sunday. "Everybody has an off-day."
The Rangers figured to be an afterthought — they lost right-hander Yu Darvish and lefty Derek Holland to injuries while already missing lefty Martin Perez, who underwent Tommy John surgery last May. Then the team started 8-16, further reducing its chances of being relevant.
Funny thing, though — every AL West team but the Astros is below .500, and the Rangers just completed a 5-2 trip to Houston and Tampa Bay. They’re not going to be world-beaters, mind you. But they might prove more competitive than many of us expected.
Holland and Perez could return at some point, bolstering the rotation. The offense, currently ranked 11th in the AL in runs, also should get better, maybe a lot better. Shin-soo Choo finally is stirring. And a variety of players — from Carlos Peguero to Josh Hamilton to Joey Gallo — could add to the Rangers’ power.
The Rangers need to add perhaps two relievers — only the Athletics’ bullpen is performing worse in the AL — but one other positive development bears mentioning: Club officials are encouraged by the way the players are responding to new manager Jeff Banister.
Before hiring Banister, the Pirates’ former bench coach, the Rangers asked the opinion of a number of current and former Pirates players, including Russell Martin, A.J. Burnett and Andrew McCutchen. The reviews all were positive, and Banister made an impression from the start of spring training, connecting with everyone from Darvish to Prince Fielder.
The Rangers could have fallen apart after their awful start, especially under a new manager. It didn’t happen.
THE SKINNY ON STRASBURG
Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg was wincing and shaking his arm on the mound last Tuesday night, but manager Matt Williams and the Nats’ trainers did not come to the mound or remove him immediately.
It looked odd, especially in an age when teams are over-protective of pitchers (Strasburg being, perhaps, Exhibit A). Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty, however, said that Strasburg displays all sorts of mannerisms on the mound, and the team did not fear that he was hurt.
"I understand him pretty good," McCatty said. "We have a good feel for him. He was not begging to come out. He wanted to continue, saying, ‘I can get through this.’"
As it turned out, Strasburg did come out after three innings, but the Nats said his issue was more one of alignment, and a chiropractor adjusted him the next day. He will make his next start Tuesday night, a day later than his regular turn.
SEITZER MAKING IMPACT
Give new Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer partial credit for the improvement of shortstop Andrelton Simmons and resurgence of left fielder Kelly Johnson.
Seitzer emphasized to both players the importance of staying in the middle of the field. Simmons actually fell into bad habits when he got hot in spring training — "the better he felt, the more he felt he could cut it loose," Seitzer said. But Simmons gradually reincorporated Seitzer’s advice, and got to a better place.
"It’s a curse to say you’ve figured it out," Simmons said. "But I’m glad to have an idea what I’m doing."
Johnson, who frequently is hitting cleanup, has six home runs in 75 at-bats, one fewer than his total in 265 at-bats last season, when he played for the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox.
WALKING THE PLANK
Yes, the Pirates expected a reduction in their walk rate due to the switch at catcher from Russell Martin to Francisco Cervelli. And yes, Cervelli has drawn even fewer walks than expected, making the difference between the two seem even greater.
Another personnel swap, Travis Snider for Gregory Polanco in right field, also resulted in fewer walks. Still, neither change accounts for the fact that the Pirates have gone from second in the NL in walk rate last season to next-to-last this season.
The better answer is that the Pirates have been over-aggressive — and under-performing. Hitters, in the view of club officials, are over-anxious, expanding the zone or swinging at pitchers’ pitches early in the count.
The Pirates also struggled offensively in the early part of last season, though in different ways. Perhaps their back-to-back victories over the Cardinals the past two days will signal a turnaround.
AROUND THE HORN
* Interesting that the Cardinals are considering a six-man rotation, according to Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The team, without injured right-hander Adam Wainwright, needs to fill the innings gap to protect righties Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, and also needs to protect its relievers.
The Cardinals’ bullpen leads the NL in innings pitched, and setup man Jordan Walden is expected to be out at least two months with right biceps inflammation. One possible solution, as noted by Miklasz: Acquire another starter, then move Martinez back to the bullpen.
* While the Dodgers ultimately might regret swapping out Gordon for Howie Kendrick — Gordon is under club control through 2018, Kendrick only through this season — the Matt Kemp trade already is looking good for L.A.
Kemp is slumping after a fast start, and the Padres owe him $18 million per season from 2016 to ’19. Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal, meanwhile, is sporting a .944 OPS and handling the team’s pitching staff well.
Grandal has a 3.16 catcher’s ERA in 188 innings, A.J. Ellis a 3.33 catcher’s ERA in 78 1/3 innings. The Dodgers will start the arbitration process with Grandal after this season, and control him through ’18.
* Speaking of the impact of catchers, it’s difficult to ignore the numbers suggesting that Indians right-hander Corey Kluber misses the injured Yan Gomes.
Since the start of last season, Kluber is 18-9 with a 2.39 ERA with Gomes as his catcher, 0-5 with a 5.13 ERA with all others. This season, Kluber was 0-1 with a 2.63 ERA when Gomes went down with a right knee sprain, and he’s 0-4 with a 6.10 ERA pitching to Roberto Perez.
The Indians view Perez as a quality defensive catcher, but for whatever reason he is not getting the results with Kluber that Gomes did. Gomes likely will be out until June.
* Reputations die hard, and Nationals infielder Yunel Escobar was once known for being selfish, cocky, moody and difficult — one reason, perhaps, that the Nationals are his fifth team in six years.
Still, the Rays players raved about him the past two seasons, and the Nationals are doing the same. Bryce Harper calls Escobar "one of the best teammates I’ve ever had," adding, "I love him, I absolutely love him."
It might have been different if Escobar had remained with the A’s — he wanted no part of being in Oakland, according to major-league sources, and that helped trigger his trade to Washington for reliever Tyler Clippard.
* I’ve written this before, but Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski doesn’t get enough credit for his durability.
Pierzynski has played 1,782 games at catcher, ranking 14th on the all-time list. He needs only 12 more to pass Gabby Hartnett for 13th and by the end of the season easily should be 11th.
Pierzynski is 38, but has been on the disabled list only twice in his career — in 2011 with a fractured left wrist, and in 2013 with a strained right oblique. He missed minimal time in both instances.
Two final thoughts:
* Closer Aroldis Chapman would make all the sense in the world for the Marlins if the Reds decide to deconstruct.
* Imagine if the Astros had drafted third baseman Kris Bryant and not right-hander Mark Appel with the No. 1 pick of the 2013 amateur draft.