The first three months of the 2015 baseball season have been reminiscent of this winter in New England.
For a few weeks, the Red Sox sported a winning record, benefiting from a surprising number of errors- call them Christmas gifts- by opposing defenses to win despite signs of rust.
In late April and early May, the pitching fell apart, as the starters couldn’t seem to avoid the big inning. Every game felt like a few days of mild weather until eighteen inches of snow got dumped on Boston overnight.
When the pitchers came around, the bats went quiet, and the rest of the American League East started pulling away, leaving the Red Sox buried under three feet of fresh powder.
As the calendar turns to July and the bats heat up again, it feels like the damage is done. Not only is the team mired in last place, but the three players to whom the Red Sox committed a total of $273 million this winter and spring have been the primary culprits.
Rick Porcello, who will get $95 million over the next five seasons, has a 5.61 ERA. Hanley Ramirez, who’s due $88 million over four years, has been the worst defensive player in baseball by any measure, including UZR, which tells us he’s cost the team over 11 runs with his glove so far. Pablo Sandoval has been predictably streaky with the bat, but few could have predicted the disaster that is his defense, most notably the front office that awarded him $95 million through 2019.
Let’s not mistake the rough start and the underperforming stars for long-term trouble. This season is probably a lost cause, but the Red Sox still have one of the league’s best lineups and enough competent pitching to win a lot of games. Over the longer term, there is plenty of reason to believe another spring is near in Boston, and the key statistics supporting this optimism are found not in box scores, but on birth certificates. Here’s a look at four groups of Red Sox players by age:
The Old Guys
David Ortiz is 39. It’s been challenging to watch Ortiz argue with umpires about checked swings, a sign of reduced bat speed and hand-eye coordination and he seems to fall victim to defensive shifts more than anyone in baseball. Still, he’s been a league-average hitter and still has some power in his bat, something very few 39-year-olds in baseball history can claim. He should have one final year in him, and if he sees limited action, Ortiz could be an asset to the team.
Koji Uehara (40) has had a magical tenure in Boston, saving many heart attacks throughout the 2013 playoff run and winning over fans with his smiles and high fives. After this year’s trade deadline, he should find himself in another uniform, as a last-place team has no use for a closer and there’s little reason to believe he’ll be much better next year than he’s been this year.
The Late-Prime Guys
This group contains many of the reasons fans and analysts had high hopes for this year’s Red Sox and most of the reasons they’ve been so awful. Setting aside Dustin Pedroia, still the team’s best player at 31, and Clay Buchholz, 30, the one dependable pitcher, this group has been awful.
Ramirez (31) has power, but he doesn’t get on base nearly enough to justify the awful defense. Mike Napoli (33) is batting under .200 and looks utterly lost at the plate. He may be trade bait, but only if he can start hitting enough to warrant any kind of return. Shane Victorino (34) and Daniel Nava (32) can’t stay on the field. Justin Masterson (31) can’t get anybody out. Craig Breslow (34) and Alexi Ogando (31) have not been the answers Ben Cherington seemed to think they might be this offseason, and we haven’t seen enough of Ryan Hanigan (34) to know whether he’s the right answer as the team’s primary catcher.
Many players are done by their early thirties, but most who had success in their late twenties, and that includes most of the names above, have something left. A few of these guys- Breslow and Napoli come to mind- are probably done as productive players, but some of them will bounce back and contribute to the team in 2016.
The Prime Guys
One thing the Red Sox seem to have a shortage of is guys in the heart of their careers, 26 to 29. Sandoval is just 28, but seems to be aging fast, thanks in no small part to his body type. Porcello is 26, looked like an ace last season, and may have a future as an ace if he can navigate the Boston experience and get his game back on track. Wade Miley is 28 and has been solid over several starts since a rough April.
Brock Holt is 27, but seems younger because he was a non-prospect and took a slow route to the majors. Holt has been among Boston’s most valuable players each of the last two seasons and appears to be part of the team’s long-term plan, even if the team doesn’t commit him to a position. Rusney Castillo is also 27, and like Holt, will spend his prime learning the game at the Major League level. He has the raw talent to be a major contributor over the next several seasons.
The Young Guys
Elite, young talent is the hallmark of this Red Sox team. Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts are both just 22 and are establishing themselves as major stars with their bats, their gloves, and, mostly in Mookie’s case, their legs. There’s an excellent chance both of them begin runs as perennial All-Stars next season. Eduardo Rodriguez is an even younger 22 and has been exhilarating in his first few starts at the big-league level.
There’s no guarantee that either Christian Vazquez (24) or Blake Swihart (23) is a future star, but one of them is likely to stick as the team’s primary catcher, and between Vazquez’s defensive game and Swihart’s bat, the team is likely in good hands either way. Jackie Bradley, Jr. (25) hasn’t shown he can hit enough for the Red Sox to put much faith in him, but he’s one of the game’s best defenders, and he should have a future, either as Boston’s centerfielder, or as a valuable trade chip.
In addition to the marquee young guys, the Red Sox have now promoted pitchers Matt Barnes (25) and Edwin Escobar (23), and infielders Devin Marrero (24), Garin Cecchini (24), and Sean Coyle (23) to the 40-man roster. Brian Johnson and Henry Owens are close to the majors in Pawtucket. At the lower levels, Yoan Moncada, Manuel Margot, and Rafael Devers are potential impact players who should see big-league action in the next few seasons.
The Red Sox of the future will be cutting their teeth at Fenway Park this summer. Fans may not welcome a Red Sox team for which David Ortiz is not a major contributor, but Papi’s exit could work wonders for the defense.
If Hanley Ramirez gives up his glove to assume the designated hitter role and Sandoval moves to first base, next year’s Red Sox could feature Sandoval, Pedroia, Bogaerts, and Holt, Coyle, or Marrero in the infield. An outfield of Betts, Bradley, and Castillo would be tremendous defensively and not altogether lacking in offensive pop. Vazquez and Swihart could split time behind the plate. Rodriguez, Buchholz, and Porcello are the beginning of a solid rotation, with help from the trade or free agent market. Everyone will be a year older next season, but for most of the names in this paragraph, that’s a good thing.
When winter pummels New England for weeks at a time, it sometimes feels like it will never end.
But spring always comes.