It’s a scoreless tie in the eighth inning of an August game in Orange County.
Rubby de la Rosa has pitched well enough to win, but this one feels like another heartbreaker. Two men reach base with one out, filling the stadium like a balloon full of promise, over which the 2014 Red Sox offensive woes hang like a needle. Big Papi’s not in the lineup tonight, so we turn to the new guy with one eye peeking through our hands.
Yoenis Cespedes swings his bat like a lumberjack attacking a sequoia, clearing the leftfield fence and the bases. The Red Sox win, 3-1.
As the July trade deadline approached and it became clearer that the Red Sox would trade Jon Lester, Red Sox Nation began to clamor for answers. One year removed from a championship, we’re tearing it down and starting again? With all the money this ownership group has, do we have to clip coupons like the A’s and the Rays?
Not necessarily. As difficult as it was to part with Lester- a two-time World Series hero, cancer survivor, and genuine ace- it started to make sense when the news came that Cespedes was coming to Boston.
This was no package of prospects, hopeful that someone might break camp in 2016. This was the two-time defending Home Run Derby champion. This was a 28-year-old who slugged .505 as a rookie and nearly broke the Internet with GIFs of his 350-foot throws home to catch stunned baserunners. This was a serious play for 2015.
Cespedes was born in Cuba and was signed by Oakland as a 26-year-old in 2012. He skipped right to the majors and made an immediate impact, batting .292/.356/.505 and leading the A’s to a surprising division crown. On the last day of that season, Oakland needed to complete a sweep of first-place Texas to steal the division. Cespedes reached base four times in that game, including a two-base error that drove in the go-ahead runs and birthed a mini-dynasty in Oakland, where they’ve basically been in first place ever since.
It hasn’t all been easy for Yoenis. His numbers regressed some in 2013, as his strikeout rate bumped from under 19 percent of all plate appearances to almost 24 percent. He started walking less, and his on-base percentage dipped under .300, hardly acceptable for a middle-of-the-order hitter on a contending team. The power was always there, though, as he hit 26 homers in 135 games and introduced himself to audiences outside the Bay Area by winning his first Home Run Derby in July. Still, there were some concerns that he may not be the player he appeared to be in his rookie season.
In 2014, his numbers are up slightly across the board. He’s only striking out 18 percent of the time and his OBP, while not great, is on the right side of .300. The homer referenced above was his 17th, putting him on pace to match his first two seasons’ power output.
And then there’s that right arm…
On June 11, the Angels’ Howie Kendrick tried to score from first on a ball Cespedes had misplayed into a double. Cespedes picked up the ball in foul territory just short of the leftfield wall and casually fired the length of the field, into the waiting glove of catcher Derek Norris, who applied the tag on an incredulous Kendrick. This was his league-leading eighth outfield assist of the season and not the first time he used the whole field to do so. To recreate that throw at Fenway, he might have to play in the parking lot behind the Green Monster.
No one can guarantee that Cespedes will thrive with the Red Sox. He doesn’t get on base as much as Boston’s best hitters and while he’s a decent baserunner, he won’t steal enough bases to remind fans of the 2013 team (he has 26 in his career). But he brings sorely needed power to the Red Sox lineup at a reasonable price ($10.5 million each in 2013 and 2014) and fills a gaping hole on the team with the least offensive production from its outfield in 2014.
Perhaps most importantly, his acquisition signals to Red Sox fans that this year’s pitching sell-off was not a long-term rebuild, but a retooling for 2015 and beyond, stockpiling useful assets to build on the core that hoisted the trophy in 2013. They’ll need to trade for or sign some new pitchers to augment the rookie core cutting its teeth at Fenway this summer, but the lineup looks ready to hit.
Thanks to Cespedes’s homer, Rubby de la Rosa got the win he deserved. It won’t be the last one those two enjoy as teammates.
Bryan O’Connor lives with his wife and two baseball-loving kids in Cumberland. He writes for Replacement Level Baseball Blog and High Heat Stats. You can follow him on Twitter @replevel.