Friday, February 27, 2015

Looking Back at 2014's Storylines and What They Mean for 2015

I was looking through some old blog notes this afternoon and found a “Red Sox Storylines for 2014” entry. Here’s what I wrote just about a year ago:

Red Sox Storylines for 2014
  • Is Xander the Rookie of the Year?
  • Is Spring Training Sizemore the Real Deal?
  • Is this the year Willie Middle puts it together?
  • Victorino's health and leadoff hitting, who is our leadoff hitter?
  • Can Gomes, Nava, and Carp duplicate their contributions from 2013?
  • Can Felix Doubront fulfill his potential? 
  • Will Buchholz be back to early 2013 levels?
Yikes. No wonder Boston staggered to a last place finish in 2014. Every single one of those key storylines broke in the negative direction for the Sox. Looking back on it, it’s pretty amazing really that the Sox went 0 for 7 on this list. The karmic swings for this franchise from 2012 to 2013 to 2014 is like a craps table that gamblers flee from in horror. Let’s take a look back through the storylines with the advantage of hindsight and see what went wrong and what the implications are for 2015.

#1. Is Xander the Rookie of the Year?
What Happened: Stephen F*&^*% Drew happened. (Side Note: is there a weirder relationship in sports than the Drew family and Red Sox Nation? One the one hand, the Drew brothers are widely disliked for being baseball automatons and the antithesis of the Cowboy Up! and Bearded Idiots! teams. On the other hand, this happened and so did this) Well, first Will Middlebrooks started off badly and then got hurt (again).  The Sox, already having misgivings about Willie Middle after a demotion to AAA in 2013, panicked. The touted Red Sox farm system seemed to have no internal answers to the hole at 3B (remember the articles on Garin Cecchini at the time: “DO NOT LET THIS GUY PLAY IN THE FIELD! ABORT! ABORT!”), and so they pulled the trigger on free agent Stephen. At the time it seemed reasonable: run back the left side of the infield that won you the World Series just the year before. Instead, the signing bumped Xander Bogaerts to 3B and rattled the youngster, who had just started to blossom into something truly special. Meanwhile, Brock the Slap Weasel Holt came up and outperformed anything Drew did for the rest of 2014, meaning they could have just kept the X Man at short all along. Xander’s season never recovered, and neither did the Red Sox’.

Implications for the Future: The Red Sox realized their mistake and shipped Drew off to the Yankees (with every passing year, Hal Steinbrenner resembles this guy more and more), re-inserting Xander into the shortstop role, hopefully for the next decade. Xander is young. He has said all the right things this spring about starting fresh and finding his confidence/mojo again. There’s no reason to believe he can’t bounce back and fulfill his immense potential. Also, the Slap Weasel should be able to fill in capably at any position on the diamond outside the battery.

#2. Is Spring Training Sizemore the Real Deal?
What Happened: We all wanted Sizemore to succeed in Boston. Everybody loves a comeback story. He was so impressive in the Grapefruit League it was easy to envision him rolling that success over to Fenway Park. Unfortunately, Grady left his bat in Florida when the team traveled north, and the Sizemore experiment fell on its face.

Of course, the related storyline is why the center field job was available for Sizemore to win in the first place: Here's some footage of Bradley's 2013 spring training:

If Bradley could have hit anything, Sizemore never would have been counted on as anything other than a fourth outfielder, and his struggles wouldn’t have contributed to Boston’s early season slide.

Implications for the Future: The Red Sox’ CF job is still in flux, although there are certainly some promising candidates in Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr getting another look. For the second straight year the Sox enter the spring with a center field competition to replace Jacoby Ellsbury (Jacoby’s less-than-stellar season in New York overshadowed how much the Sox missed his presence at the top of their batting order in 2013). Although they will have no choice but to make their decision based on spring training results, hopefully they will remember the lesson of Spring Training Sizemore.

#3. Is this the year Willie Middle puts it all together?
What Happened: .191/.256/.265 slash lines with 70 strikeouts in 215 AB’s for a 32.5% strikeout rate happened. Egads. The slugging percentage was especially perplexing given his .509 and .425 marks in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Some of that was nagging injuries and some was…Jenny Dell? 

Implications for the Future: Welcome to Boston, Panda! Is Sandoval the fattest Red Sox player since Rich Garces? Yes! Is he a guy you want to give a five year contract to? Probably not. Is he a $19 million-a-year player? Probably not. Am I ecstatic to watch the Fat Panda era in Boston with his combination of fat guy ballet at the hot corner, decent pop at the plate, and outsized personality in the dugout? ABSOLUTELY! Sign me up!
Oh, and Willie Middle is now employed in San Diego.

#4. Victorino’s health and leadoff hitting. Who is our leadoff hitter?
What Happened: Victorino played in only 30 games in 2014, the fewest since 2005 when he was just breaking in with the Phillies. Injuries cost Shane a chance to follow up on a 2013 campaign that was vital to the Sox’ success. In those scant 30 games, Victornio had only a .685 OPS. 
Boston used five different leadoff hitters in their first twenty games of 2014, and never did settle on a regular table setter until Betts in September. Of course, there’s no guarantee Betts is on the Opening Day roster in 2015.

Implications for the Future: As mentioned in the Grady Sizemore question above, Boston is still trying to replace Jacoby Ellsbury atop the batting order. Rob Bradford declared Mookie Betts the leadoff hitter of the future in this piece from September, but there is no guarantee that Betts even makes the Opening Day roster in 2014. Let’s just say there is still a lot up in the air surrounding Victorino, the center field position, and the leadoff spot.

#5. Can Gomes, Nava, and Carp duplicate their contributions from 2013?
What Happened: 
Jonny Gomes, 2013: .247/.344/.426/.771, 13 HR, 52 RBI, 65 clutch hits/sacrifice flies/celebrations (approximate).
Jonny Gomes, 2014: .234/.329/.354/.683, 6 HR, 37 RBI, 0 clutch hits/sacrifice flies/celebrations (approximate.

Daniel Nava, 2013: .303/.385/.445/.831, 12 HR, 66 RBI, Boston Strong hero
Daniel Nava, 2014: .270/.346/.361/.706, 4 HR, 37 RBI, sent to Pawtucket

Mike Carp, 2013: .296/.362/.523/.885, 9 HR, 43 RBI, was on the Beard train early on
Mike Carp, 2014: .198/.320/.279/.599, 0 HR, 9 RBI, was on a train out of town

Observations: Well, those numbers speak for themselves. The answer to 2014 storyline #5 is a resounding no. Some numbers that stand out:
  • 12 dingers for Nava in ’13! The dude was locked in all season long. Heading into 2014, Nava had gone from 6 to 12 HR in his two big league seasons. It was reasonable to think maybe that number could climb to 15 or 16 in 2014. Instead, it plummeted to 4, and it’s hard not to think of 2013 as an aberration. 
  • It is hard to have numbers as bad as Mike Carp did and still earn 149 plate appearances at the big league level. I mean, those numbers are Punto-esque. Carp is in camp with the Nationals this spring, hoping to earn a pinch hitter role on a NL roster without a DH spot. This is the same Carp who always claimed to dislike pinch hitting in Boston.
  • Did all three of these guys make deals with the devil in 2013? Did they get a group rate?
Implications for the Future: Only Nava remains with the Red Sox, and he is going to have to rake in Ft. Myers to stay on the big league roster. He could certainly still earn some at-bats in Boston throughout the year as outfield/first base depth based on his veteran approach and know-how. But the next wave of Boston position players have supplanted the three cogs in the ’13 machine listed here.

#6 Can Felix Doubront fulfill his potential?
What Happened: Amongst the wreckage of 2012, Felix Doubront turned in the following season at the age of 24:
  • 11-10 W-L, 161.0 IP, 167 K, 9.3 K/9, 2.35 K/BB, 1.447 WHIP
  • His 4.86 ERA is underwhelming, but a 4.37 FIP (a difference of -0.49) shows that he didn’t get much help from his defense in 2013. Although the 24 long balls he gave up didn’t help, either.
Fast forward to 2014, his second under the partnership of John Farrell and Juan Nieves who are supposed to be among the best at developing pitchers in the game, and his numbers dropped to this (numbers from 17 games with the Red Sox in 2014):
  • 2-4 W-L, 59.1 IP, 43 K, 6.5 K/9, 1.65 K/BB, 1.601 WHIP
  • His 6.07 ERA is ghastly. A 5.29 FIP shows again that the defense didn’t help, but 5.29 is still terrible.
  • The only American League pitchers who pitched as many as Doubront’s 59.1 innings in 2014 with a WHIP worse than Doubie’s 1.601 were Franklin Morales (1.62 in 142.1 IP), Justin Masterson (1.63 in 128.2 IP), and Robbie Ross (1.70 in 78.1 IP). Sadly enough, all three are either current or former (or both) Red Sox pitchers, with one slated to be our fourth starter and the other a key lefty out of the pen.
Implications for the Future: Doubront was picked up by his old GM Theo in Chicago, and was hoping to boost his performance by going to the NL. Nope. Instead, his K/9 shrunk to 3.5, the lowest mark of his career by far. His K/BB ratio also shrank to 1.14, his lowest number as a starter. Big things are predicted in the near future for the Cubbies, but if Felix wants to be a part of it, he had better rediscover his strikeout stuff. 

Meanwhile, the Red Sox have swapped out the 26-year-old lefty Doubront in their rotation for the 28-year-old lefty Wade Miley. Let’s hope Miley turns out better than Doubie.

#7 Will Buchholz be back to early 2013 levels?
What Happened: In a word, implosion. By the end of the season, his K/9 (7.0) and his K/BB (2.44) were somewhat back to normal, but his 1.39 WHIP was the highest since he was a 23 year old back in 2008. He got hammered to the tune of a 5.34 ERA (4.01 FIP = Boston’s defense sucked all around last year, but Buchholz was still bad). The 9.6 hits/9 and the 17 home runs allowed were indicators of how soundly he was thrashed. Bullfrog sunscreen, greasy hair, and Clay Buttholes jokes ensued.

Implications for the Future: Well, Buchholz is currently slated to be this team’s ace in 2015. If we get early-2013 Clay, then that’s great. If we get early-2014, we’re screwed.

It’s hard to imagine the Red Sox having all of their major storylines break against them two years in a row. We’re bound for some regression to the mean and a little luck. The breaks couldn’t go much worse than they did a year ago.


  1. This many things can't go wrong again in '15 can they? The Sox are due for some guys to have bounce back years. But, they also have a whole new bunch of question marks as well as a couple of questions from last year that may not be as simple as people having bounce back seasons. Buchholz, Masterson, Nava, Bogaerts, JBJr and Allen Craig could all have bounce back seasons and I could still see the Sox finishing in the bottom or near the bottom of the AL east.

    Let me look into the crystal ball. Here are some storylines that could derail 2015:

    Is Dustin Pedroia's decline real? He no longer needs to be the #3 hitter like he was on the World Champion 2013 squad, heck he may not even be able to be the #2 hitter anymore. But, even if he hits seventh and provides defense, timely hitting and leadership he can help this team win. However, he may be one more injury away from a disappearing act.

    Will Big Papi's age catch up with him this year? A fall off the cliff type season, doesn't seem likely, but at his age you never know. All the role players on this team could have big years and if Papi and Pedroia don't it might all be for not.

    We get the real Hanley Ramirez, not the re-incarnation of Manny that some people are predicting. Hanley is definitely an upgrade offensively over some of the people they used in left field last year, but he's more likely to miss 45 games with nagging injuries than he is to hit 45 home runs. If he makes more headlines for his mental lapses and his reputation as a clubhouse cancer than we're in trouble in 2015.

    Pablo Sandoval has the same thin skin as Carl Crawford. I don't think that is the case, but if it is...He may very well be a bust in Boston.

    Shane Victorino channels his inner Mike Lansing and becomes a major clubhouse distraction. The Red Sox almost seem to be banking on the fact that his health is going to prevent him from playing every day, but what if Shane stays healthy but his production sucks? He's going to be benched in favor or Castillo/Betts and he's going to turn into a major distraction.

    What if Christian Vazquez makes Jackie Bradley Jr. seem like a silver slugger? Like JBJr, Vazquez is lauded for his major league, gold glove caliber defense, but what if he can't hit major league pitching either? Ryan Hanigan isn't the answer every day. Cathcer is a position where you don't need much offense to match the major league average, but we've already seen what carrying a .175 hitter in your lineup everyday can do to an offense.

    I tend to think that the Red Sox can't have as much bad luck as they had last year, but I also think that there are a lot of questions heading into the season. I'm sure you're about to say "every team has question marks, especially in the AL east" and you'd be right. That's what going to make this season so interesting. I could see all five teams in the AL east finishing in any of the five positions first through last. Now the Yankees and Rays appear to be taking a step back, but if they have everything go right like the '13 Red Sox even they could contend for the AL east division title.

    Spring Training games start on Tuesday, and I for one can't wait to start getting some answers to these questions.

  2. Yes the Red Sox have questions ( as does the rest of the entire AL, just not the possibly weak AL East) but let me try to calm your fears on the ones you mentioned.

    Pedroia has a POWER decline not a overall decline. His home runs in 2011 were a career high 21, since then 15, 9, 7. His RBI in '11 were 91 followed by 65,84,53. A decline. But his BA and OBP in '11 were .307/.387 followed by .290/.347, .301/.372, ..278/ real decline there and perfectly acceptable numbers for a number two hitter.

    Big Papi's age, you are right you never know, but his OPS was among MLB leaders in'14 while hitting in the middle of a lineup filled with suckitude. This '15 lineup will rake and that should help Ortiz.

    Please God give us the real Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox Nation should pray for this. While playing his entire career in home parks that are pitchers, not hitters parks, Hanley in nine seasons ( plus two games for Boston in 2005) has these career numbers:

    .300 BA
    .373 OBP
    .500 SA
    .873 OPS
    191 Home Runs
    654 RBI
    303 Doubles

    Ramirez is just outside the Top 100 in baseball history in OPS (108). As far as injuries go Hanley has averaged 135.66 games per year. That average includes two seasons when he was hurt. I repeat, please give us the real Hanley Ramirez.

    Just compare Pablo Sandoval's personality to Carl Crawford. Case closed. Also, Pablo is another NL expatriate who played his home games in a pitchers park, Fenway will be like a fine bamboo meal to the Panda.

    Shane Victorino could be a distraction, but he will not because they will trade or cut his ass at the first hint of trouble. Hanley, Rusney, and Mookie will be this team's regular outfield.

    Christian Vazquez= JBJ?? Two things will take care of this, first you have to get offense from center field. Baseball history, including recent history is littered with teams that win with a defense only catcher. CV can win games for the Sox just with his work behind the dish. Secondly, if JBJ had played last year with this '15 lineup around him, he may well have overcome his struggles because of less pressure to perform. Vazquez is not gonna hit .175, but if he hit .210 ( I think he will be closer to .250+), that will be fine.

    I, too, cannot wait for the Grapefruit League to begin.

  3. So there may be reason to hope (isn't that what spring training is ultimately all about!) that we'll get the answers we want to those questions. Art makes the case for positive answers to each of the questions that were brought up. But, I'm not as optimistic as Art is.

    The numbers don't do much to convince that he's not in decline, power or otherwise. But, I will agree with one thing .278/.337 would do just fine for a number two hitter in today's game. But, for a guy who's going to turn 32 by the end of this year, and with the style of play that he has, I think a continued decline is a strong possibility. I read somewhere this winter that his most comparable player over the last 3 years was Jody Reed? R.O.Y, MVP, Jody Reed? That's a decline, but again, I will agree that he can be a part of a good team as a #2 hitter, who plays good defense and gets timely hits.

    Big Papi. I think we're on the same page here. Past performance indicates that he won't fall off the cliff, but at his age, Red Sox fans must be prepared for it to happen. Lou Merloni is on record as saying that he thinks it will be a two year decline for Ortiz. Something like 20 HR's 80 RBI's one then 12 HR's and 60 RBI's. While those numbers don't sound bad for an almost 40 year old DH if Ortiz hit 12/60 people would be crying that he's done. I think Lou is on to something and I think in this lineup 20 HR's and 80 RBI's from Ortiz would be just fine. Papi shouldn't be too high on the list of concerns...but due to age he is on the list.

    Hanley Ramirez, the real one or otherwise is going to be an offensive upgrade over last year, no doubt. I just hope that expectations aren't too high. I hear a lot of Papi/Manny comparisons for 3/4 hitters. I think that's unrealistic. But, they will definitely be the best 3/4 combo we've had since then and that should be good enough. Hanley's defense and attitude? Those are real question marks, but they shouldn't be able to derail the season.

    You're right about the Panda. I was reaching for that one. Anytime you sign a free agent to a big contract there will be concerns and rightfully so, but if Pablo fails it will be because of different reasons than Carl.

    Victorino concerns me. Although all he's ever said is "if I'm healthy I should be the RF" and he's right about that. If he's healthy and plays at a similar level to '13 we'll want him to be our every day RF. If his health prevents him from playing every day then maybe he'll be more willing to be a fourth OFer. Only time will tell on this one.

    I also, think you're right about Christian Vasquez. The biggest thing is that they ought to be able to carry a .210 hitter in this offense, if everyone else performs up to expectations. Just like they could of carried JBJ last year if others had played up to expectations. But, if CV hits under the Mendoza line the pressure of playing in Boston could get to him just like it did JBJ. A good start with the bat would go along way for CV.