It’s a story we’ve all heard before: the Red Sox, coming off of a 90-win season in 2011, bottomed out the following year, failing to win 70 games for the first time since 1965 (not including strike-shortened seasons), and then, you know, promptly went on to win the World Series 12 months later.
Fast forward another season, to 2014, and here we are again: the Sox find themselves in the AL East cellar with a Houston Astros-like record of 56-74.
But this time, the franchise's immediate future doesn’t seem so rosy.
Boston’s offensive punch has been, well, more of a slap this season. The club has totaled the fourth fewest runs (493), the seventh lowest isolated power (.123), and a lowly 89 wRC+ en route to hitting .244/.318/.367. Basically, the collective lineup has pulled off an amazingly convincing Alejandro De Aza impersonation this year.
And while the overall numbers have been driven down by the struggling duo of Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley – more on the them later – and a variety of disappointing everyday guys – Grady Sizemore, Will Middlebrooks, A.J. Pierzynski, and Stephen Drew among others – five of the club’s better bats, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia, Allen Craig, and Shane Victorino, are all on the wrong side of 30 years old. And each has more than a question mark hanging on their caps.
Ortiz’s career is clearly winding down, but he’s remained a dominant middle-of-the-order presence well into his 30s. Still, he enters next season at the ripe ol’ age of 39 for what’s likely to be the second straight season of declining offensive production barring some historic surge down the stretch this year.
Using Baseball Reference’s Similarity Scores, of Ortiz’s top 10 comparisons through the age of 37 – Carlos Delgado, Frank Thomas, Fred McGriff, Jason Giambi, Paul Konerko, Jeff Bagwell, Willie McCovey, Lance Berkman, Willie Stargell, and Todd Helton – only Thomas, McCovey, and Stargell had productive age-39 seasons. So, the question isn’t when Ortiz will finally start showing signs of slowing down, but when.
Napoli, who’s on pace for about 129 games this season, has never topped more than 140 in his career. In fact, here are his yearly totals since 2009: 114, 140, 113, 108, and 139. The catcher-turned-first-baseman will be 33 next year and has seen his power decline for three straight seasons, posting ISOs of .312 in 2011 all the way down to a career worst .178 ISO this year.
Pedroia’s always been a great overall player, but the fact is he’s a good, not impact offensive bat. He’s sprinkled in a trio of years in which he’s topped the league average production between 27% and 33%. Otherwise, he’s hovered around the 13% mark. This season he's had a 100 wRC+, making this season the worst of his big league career, and many of his underlying numbers (walk rate, strikeout rate, and BABIP) are all close to his career norms. The difference: he’s hitting for a lot less pop. And after three straight seasons of declining Isolated Power marks, what’s the likelihood that a 5-foot-8 middle infielder rebounds back towards the league average into his 30s?
The recently acquired Allen Craig, who didn’t top 500 plate appearances in a season until the age of 27, is…wait for it…in the midst of his own decline in power. Since 2011, his Isolated Power totals are: .240, .215, .142, and .110 since 2011. And his best defensive position, first base, is going to be occupied by Napoli barring an unforeseen development, pushing him to the outfield where he has already been a below-average fielder.
Victorino, now on the DL, will be 34 next year and owns a career 106 wRC+. He’s likely to stay in a corner outfield spot, assuming the team doesn’t find a taker on the trade market, so his overall value could remain quite high given his defensive reputation, but how long will a bat that has been historically just slightly better than league average hold out?
That’s an awful lot of questions surrounding the older hitters on the club. What about the young ones?
The centerpiece of the Jon Lester deal with Oakland, Yoenis Cespedes, has barely topped league average production since his rookie year. Consider this: Cespedes posted a 137 wRC+ in 540 PA in 2012 and a 106 wRC+ in 1087 plate appearances since. And he’s merely average on defense. Cespedes is certainly a useful player with above-average power, but next season he’s 29. Have we seen his best days already?
Another item to note: Through the age of 27, Cespedes’ top player comps using James’ Similarity Scores are Chris Duncan, Craig Monroe, Daryle Ward, Leon Wagner, and Gates Brown.
And then there’s the completely unknown Rusney Castillo, the newly signed Cuban-born outfielder. Keith Law (ESPN Insider protected) wrote, "As long as he stays in the middle of the field, the bar for him to become an average everyday player isn’t very high, and if he is indeed a low-OBP, high-power, high-strikeout hitter, he can still be a regular or more because of his potential to be a plus defender." It certainly doesn’t sound like he’s going to be an impact bat.
Now the aforementioned duo: Bradley and Bogaerts, the proverbial torches that were supposed to help carry the franchise into their next extended playoff run.
Bradley’s been bad – epically bad, actually. Through his first 494 plate appearances, the former first round pick has hit a Mendoza-esque .210/.286/.300. Bogaerts has been only slightly better: .226/.295/.337. And the only thing that seems certain is that neither is a lock for what was once projected.
Bradley’s replacement, Mookie Betts, offers a similar skillset to that of Dustin Pedroia, but as Bradley and Bogaerts have proven, it can take time to adjust to big league pitching.
Finally, there’s Will Middlebrooks, another once-heralded prospect who has batted .217/.272/.388 over his last 801 plate appearances, Christian Vazquez, a career .265/.344/.392 minor league hitter, and Garin Cecchini, who followed up his breakout 2013 campaign by hitting .257/.336/.367 in Class AAA this season.
Clay Buchholz, the club’s de facto ace, continued his Jekyll and Hyde ways this season, posting a barely sub-6.00 ERA. At this point in his career, having spent parts of eight seasons in Boston, he’s topped 170 innings twice and 100 innings two other times. Oh, yeah, he just turned 30 and his fastball velocity has declined for the fourth straight season, going from a career best 94.1 mph in 2010 down to 91.6 mph this year.
The organization’s second most veteran starting pitcher, Joe Kelly, owner of 42 career starts, came over with Craig from St. Louis. Kelly’s in the similar mold of 2014 breakout pitcher Garrett Richards – a hard-throwing right-hander with solid control and middling strikeout numbers. He’s still just 26 years old and owns a career 51.6% ground ball rate. Simply put, he could be one of the surprise pitchers in 2015. Maybe – if everything breaks the right way.
Then there’s the trio of Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and Brandon Workman: all back-of-the-rotation-type arms, but would a team like Boston really consider going into a year with a rotation that’s largely unproven? Probably not.
The pen has some solid arms in there: Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, and Burke Badenhop. But as everyone knows, bullpens are quite volatile so what looks good on paper often doesn’t play out the way you’d expect the next year.
There’s certainly more than a few questions surrounding the club’s lineup – age, declining production, unproven players, etc…but where does the team upgrade the lineup at this point? If they want to punt on the young guys at third base – Middlebrooks, Betts (maybe?), or Cecchini – the front office could explore options like Chase Headley, Aramis Ramirez (mutual option, though), Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, but the latter two could very well end up resigning. And Headley would be a lateral move at best.
Obviously, the rotation is likely to be the main focus going forward. But Boston has always shied away from spending big, big dollars on a starter – after all, they declined to commit to a resurgent Jon Lester. They could look to Francisco Liriano, who was picked up off the scrap heap by the Pirates after struggling in the AL a couple seasons ago, or James Shields, who’s two years older than Lester, or Ervin Santana, another Jekyll and Hyde type. And Max Scherzer certainly seems out of the question given his demands.
So, can the Red Sox rebound back towards 90 wins next season? Yes, it’s possible. But it’s not likely. At least not the way the club is currently constructed. The lineup’s built around older-ish, declining bats with lessening power; the rotation has five spots open, and some of the club’s most recent top prospects haven’t exactly panned out at this point. GM Ben Cherington certainly has his work cut out for him, and if he wants to push the Sox back into contention he’s going to need to get creative on the trade front. Otherwise, this seems to be a 86-win team at best.
For more analysis check out Joe Werner's site: ProspectDigest.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoltinJoey