If you flip a quarter and it comes up tails three times in a row, do you spend a few million dollars on a new quarter?
The Red Sox did just that this offseason. And they might not be crazy.
When last we left our intrepid heroes, the Red Sox were sulking off the field at Fenway Park, a scintillating regular season abrogated in three games by Cleveland and chessmaster Terry Francona. Trailing 4-3 with two runners on in the bottom of the ninth, Travis Shaw popped up to rightfield, ending the threat and Boston’s season. That inning, like so many others in this fickle game we love, could just as easily have ended with Shaw and the Red Sox celebrating a walkoff win.
It’s the nature of a sports fan to conduct a thorough autopsy on any season that doesn’t end in a championship and assign blame somewhere. The Red Sox were not built to win a title because David Price doesn’t pitch well in the postseason, they’ll say, or because Shaw was supposed to be a backup plan and not an everyday third baseman. Some curmudgeon will probably tell you that the bullpen wasn’t deep enough to win in October even if they had escaped Cleveland.
This fan’s assessment is more prudent and probably less satisfying: the Red Sox were the best team in the American League last year, but baseball’s postseason- particularly the best-of-five game Division Series- is designed as a vehicle to entertain fans and make owners wealthier, not as an optimal determinant of one team’s superiority. Against a team with similar talent, Boston’s coin came up tails three times in a row.
Why, then, was it not foolish for the front office to make major changes to the team in the offseason? Here’s the thing about the 2016 regular season in Boston- everything went about as well as it possibly could have. Mookie Betts would have cruised to the MVP award if he didn’t share a league with the inimitable Mike Trout. Rick Porcello won an AL Cy Young Award his own mother didn’t see coming. A 40-year-old David Ortiz put up numbers that would make a 30-year-old superstar jealous. Sandy Leon did his best Carlton Fisk impression, while Shaw, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Steven Wright also exceeded expectations by a fair margin. Even 2015 punching bag Hanley Ramirez contributed key hits in ‘16, including a season-defining homer against the Yankees in September.
Could all those players contribute at the same level in 2017? Sure, but it’s not likely. Betts looks like a perennial candidate to finish second to Trout in MVP voting. Bradley, Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi are budding stars, certainly capable of matching, if not exceeding, last season’s production. But Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia are getting older. Shaw is gone, giving way to Pablo Sandoval, who, despite the cartoon nickname, seems to have lost all ability to inspire awe in fans. Porcello and Wright can’t be expected to improve on their 2017 breakouts. David Price could return to form, but injury rumors make that possibility seem farfetched. Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz are dealing with injuries as well.
Chris Sale, of course, is the aforementioned multi-million dollar quarter, traded for a package including two of Boston’s best prospects. Sale has been the best pitcher in the American League for half a decade, and Sox fans should be excited to have him, but if Price, Rodriguez, and Pomeranz spend significant time on the shelf this year, Sale’s quality innings may be more backfill than embellishment. Kyle Kendrick, Henry Owens, and Brian Johnson will likely see more starts this year than a Red Sox fan would prefer.
The offense will still be strong, but newcomer Mitch Moreland is more likely to replace Shaw’s production than Big Papi’s. The bullpen has some depth, but for the second straight year, the quality setup man Boston acquired in a trade (Tyler Thornburg playing the role of Carson Smith) is having arm trouble, leaving the erratic Joe Kelly looking at a lot of high-leverage innings in front of the newly-wild Craig Kimbrel.
This still looks like one of the best teams- along with Cleveland and Houston- in the American League. A rotation of Sale, Price, Porcello, Rodriguez, and Pomeranz or Wright would be the envy of just about every team in baseball, and would win an awful lot of games with Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley, and Benintendi battering baseballs.
Injuries are threatening to make summer in Boston feel more like 2015 than 2016. With a few coins coming up heads, though, a healthy Red Sox team could give Boston fans another magical summer- and maybe a luckier fall.
Bryan O’Connor lives in Cumberland with his wife and two baseball-loving kids. Follow him on Twitter @replevel.