Directionless Red Sox hope for addition by subtraction


Make no mistake about it: this is a pretty nasty storm the Red Sox have had to weather.

The team has already had to use 41 players. The left fielder and the closer have missed the entire season so far. The All-Star center fielder has missed most of it. At one point, the team’s top five outfielders were all on the disabled list. Two members of the rotation are currently on the DL. The No. 4 starter and the expected eighth-inning guy both blew up. The All-Star second baseman was dealt a nasty thumb injury that limited his production. The All-Star first baseman has failed to produce.

That the Red Sox are 38-34 anyway is actually quite impressive and a testament to all of the talent on hand.

Still, if any word sums up the Boston franchise these last two years, it’s directionless. It’s constantly running through new plans, often abandoning old ones at the drop of a hat.

That’s how a team ends up paying someone to take its former All-Star third baseman and getting only a couple of question marks in return.

The Red Sox probably had no choice. Will Middlebrooks obviously needs to play regularly, which left Kevin Youkilis without a role. The offers weren’t exactly poring in, that’s for sure. Zach Stewart and Brent Lillibridge probably was the best they could do.

Still, the point is that the Red Sox left themselves with no choice yet again. It’s a recurring theme. They let the luxury tax rule their offseason, and in their attempts to save money, gave away Marco Scutaro and parted with Josh Reddick and Jed Lowrie in order to rebuild their pen.

When they let Theo Epstein go to Chicago, they did so without working out compensation beforehand. In the end, all they ended up with was a soon-to-be injured reliever in Chris Carpenter.

The Red Sox probably aren’t through backing themselves into corners. They’ll have to figure out an outfield once Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury return. The pitching staff, too, could get overcrowded in a hurry if Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz return in early July and Daniel Bard gets things turned around in Triple-A. If they fail to reach the postseason, they’ll face questions about whether they should blow up the whole team this winter or carry on with the talented but overly expensive group of stars around now.

In the meantime, they’ll just have to hope Middlebrooks keeps producing despite his troubling strikeout-to-walk ratio. They won’t get any immediate help from Stewart, who will be a part of the rotation at Triple-A Pawtucket. Lillibridge, who was hitting just .175 this season, will serve as a fifth outfielder and occasional backup for Middlebrooks.

And they’ll carry on without Youkilis. He surely wasn’t going to be happy in a backup role, and given his history, he shouldn’t have been. Youkilis is definitely past his peak, but from 2008-10, he had a three-year run as one of the AL’s top three hitters. Even last year, he was still well above average at .258/.373/.459. Odds are that he’ll be a quality regular for the White Sox, and my guess is that he’ll outhit Middlebrooks over the rest of the year, though he’ll probably be good for at least one significant injury along the way. Even so, the Red Sox will end up missing him when all is said and done.

2018 Preview: Oakland Athletics

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The A’s have finished last in the AL West for three straight years. If you believe the folks at Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus and anyone else who makes projections, they’ll either finish in last again or come within a game or two of it. There’s not a lot of suspense to my prediction here — I’ll end up picking them to finish fifth — but the prediction is not really what a preview is about. It’s about the shape of the team and what we can expect in broad brushes.

While I can’t foretell greatness for the 2018 Oakland Athletics, I can’t say the broad brushes are bad. At least if you grade on a curve. It won’t be a good team, but they’ll be worth watching because they have a lot of good, fun and interesting players who are likely to be on that next good Oakland A’s team in the way Stephen Vogt and Brett Lawrie were not.

Their lineup is pretty spiffy for a second division team. Khris Davis, Matt Joyce and new acquisition Jonathan Lucroy are known commodities both inside and outside A’s fandom, but people who don’t pay much attention to the goings on in Oakland may not be fully aware of just how good and promising Matt Olson and Matt Chapman are. Olson hit 24 homers in 59 games last year. That’s not a sustainable pace — the league will figure him out to — but even regression from that will be fantastic. Chapman hit 14 in half a season and played superior defense at third base. He also struck out 92 times in half a season but who’s counting? [editor: everyone counts everything in baseball]. Hey, look, dingers! Yonder Alonso and Ryon Healey are gone from last year’s crew and Stephen Piscotty is new in town. Marcus Semien is a decent bat for a shortstop. All-in-all that’s a lineup that will play, and play very, very well if Chapman and Olson are what they’ve shown themselves to be thus far.

At the risk of criminal understatement, allow me to observe that the starting pitching is not as promising. Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman are at the top of the rotation. On good teams they’d be in the middle or the back. The rest of their rotation options — Daniel Mengden, Andrew Triggs, Paul Blackburn, who will miss the start of the regular season with a sore forearm — are less-than-impressive. They just signed Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson from the scrap heap hoping, I guess, to recreate some of that, uh, 2010 magic? 2010 was a long time ago!

Jharel Cotton would’ve been in the mix but he’s now out for the year for Tommy John surgery. A.J. Puk, the A’s top prospect would be a nice midseason upgrade, but he’s hurt. Not seriously, but the A’s will probably be more careful with him now than they would’ve been, which still would’ve been careful. All-in-all, there was a lack of quality arms to begin with, but with the injuries mounting, starting pitching could be a trash fire for the A’s.

The bullpen has a new look with newcomers Ryan Buchter, Yusmeiro Petit and Emilio Pagan joining 2017 in-season additions Blake Treinen and Chris Hatcher. That’s a pretty good and pretty interesting group which was going to see a lot of innings as it was in our new bullpenning era, but now that the rotation looks shaky as hell, they’ll see even more. If you’re curious about the limits of leaning on a bullpen, postseason-style are, Oakland will be running a pretty fun experiment to that end in 2018.

I look at this club’s bats — especially the young guys upon whom its so very easy to project so much promise and optimism, because I’m a sucker for hitting prospects — and think that they can outperform those statsy projections and be better than the Rangers and Mariners. Then I think about how the upside — UPSIDE! — for the rotation is 380 innings from Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson and I sorta wanna cry.

If the A’s get some breaks and some unexpectedly good (or average) pitching performances, they could certainly finish above the cellar. Perhaps well above the cellar. For now, though, I’m guessing that they’ll be in 80-win territory at best and finish last in a division that does not have any teams totally punting, making for a competitive and, subsequently, tough year.

Prediction: Fifth place, AL West