First To Worst: How the Red Sox Went From 2018 Champions to 2020 Disasteron August 21, 2020 at 6:05 pm

First To Worst: How the Red Sox Went From 2018 Champions to 2020 Disaster

Take a look at the bottom of the standings around the league, and you’ll find some expected names. The rebuilding Pirates, Royals, Mariners and Giants all occupy a last-place spot in their respective divisions, while similar teams like the Tigers and Blue Jays are hovering near the basement and below .500. Yet tucked into that group of teams that came into the season with no hope is a franchise just two years removed from 108 wins and its fourth World Series title in the last 16 seasons: the Red Sox. And while 2020 has been a predictably dismal showing for those aforementioned clubs, Boston’s season has been one surprisingly long tumble down an endless flight of stairs. Entering Friday’s play, the Sox are a miserable 8-18 and losers of nine out of their last 11 games. They’re also firmly in last place in the American League East, staring up at the Orioles, whom they trail by 4 1/2 games.

On the one hand, that’s not where anyone predicted the Red Sox to be. They were no juggernaut in 2019 at 84-78, and losing Mookie Betts was only going to hurt. Consequently, our preseason prediction was a modest 31-29 record with a third-place finish in the division and playoff odds of 64.7% with the new expanded format. But while these weren’t the ’27 Yankees reborn, this also wasn’t a shipwreck visible from miles away. Instead, it’s been a sudden and violent collapse that’s taken them fully out of the playoff picture. The Red Sox’s projected record for the season is now a dismal 25-35, and their resulting postseason odds are just 10.4% — lower chances than every AL team but Seattle and Detroit.

On the other hand, the Red Sox have come by their awful start honestly, thanks in large part to one of the worst pitching staffs the game has ever seen. Boston hurlers have given up the most runs in the majors (160), resulting in a run differential of -43 that’s third worst in baseball, and have a ghastly ERA of 6.01, putting them in a virtual tie with Detroit (6.03) for last place, and in the running for the worst team ERA of the modern era. Only the 1996 Tigers, who put up a 6.38 mark en route to 109 losses, and ’99 Rockies, who posted a 6.03 figure, have done worse in the last 85 years. The Red Sox are tied for San Francisco for lowest WAR among pitching staffs (-0.6), have given up the second-most homers in the league (43, alongside the Giants), are third in walks allowed (107, tied with — you guessed it — the Giants), and rank 24th in Win Probability Added (-2.69).

It gets uglier. Owing to injuries, trades and an offseason they more or less skipped, the Red Sox have already used 11 different starters in just 26 games, and those guys have been lit up for a 6.50 ERA in 101 innings (their staff FIP is an only modestly better 6.16). Most of those pressed into service are overmatched rookies and fringe major leaguers, with the Sox cycling through cast-offs like Ryan Weber, Zack Godley, and Chris Mazza. When that hasn’t worked (which is often), Boston has been forced to go with an opener-style strategy of using its worst relievers from the get-go; consequently, the team not only is averaging a mere 3.88 innings out of its starters, but has also allowed a ridiculous 59 runs across the first, second and third innings of its games. The only constants rotation-wise are Nathan Eovaldi and Martin Perez, and both have been mediocre at best: The former has a 4.98 ERA and seven homers allowed in 34 1/3 innings; the latter is at 4.07, which leads the team, but coupled with a strikeout rate of just 16.5% and a bloated walk rate of 13.6%.

In short: The situation is all kinds of FUBAR at Fenway, and there’s no sign that things will be improving any time soon. Barring a deadline deal, the Red Sox rotation you see is the one the rest of the league will be seeing (and salivating at having the chance to face) until season’s end. Boston’s front office will probably be scouring the waiver wire for the next few weeks in search of any and all help — on Wednesday, they picked up ex-A’s starter Andrew Triggs, who was dumped by the pitching-needy Giants earlier in the week — but given how in demand even mediocre arms are right now, it’s unlikely they’ll find anything much better than what’s already in house. And what’s in house is grim: Though the team is welcoming back live-armed lefty Darwinzon Hernandez off the COVID-19 Injured List, his role remains unclear, and there are next to no reinforcements at the team’s alternate site, unless Dylan Covey and Jeffrey Springs are your idea of support.

How did things get to this point? Injuries played a big part: Tommy John surgery wiped out Chris Sale‘s season before it got started, as did heart complications from the coronavirus for Eduardo Rodriguez, costing Boston both of its best starters. Also missing from last year’s rotation: David Price, who was traded to the Dodgers as part of the Betts deal and who subsequently opted out of the season, and Rick Porcello, who left via free agency and has been terrible for the Mets. (The Red Sox also shed spot starters Hector Velazquez, Andrew Cashner and Brian Johnson, but given their awful 2019 numbers, that qualifies as addition by subtraction.) All told, that quartet accounted for 113 of the team’s 162 starts and 632 1/3 of the rotation’s 806 innings, or 78% of its total output, all at a 4.44 ERA (3.96 FIP). That figure may not look like much, but it’s a far sight better than the current edition.

The big problem for the Red Sox, though, isn’t so much who they lost but that they did nothing to replace those starts and innings. Aside from signing Perez to a one-year deal in mid-December, their only other pitching move of note was adding Collin McHugh late in spring training; he never made an appearance and ultimately opted out of the season in mid-July as he continues to rehab an arm injury. That inaction has been compounded by a lack of depth owing to a total failure of pitching development over the last decade-plus. As the Boston Globe‘s Alex Speier noted when Boston released Johnson earlier this summer, the soft-tossing lefty with a career ERA of 4.74 is the only player the team has drafted since 2007 to make at least 20 starts for the big club.

Then again, pitching was never going to be Boston’s strength in 2020; any hopes of contention rested on a lineup that, even without Betts, looked to be one of the better ones in the AL. But that hasn’t panned out either. Xander Bogaerts is hitting .282/.347/.506 with five homers and a 126 wRC+, and Alex Verdugo — the primary return for Betts — has added a .282/.358/.518 line with a 131 wRC+. That’s been undercut, though, by slumps from Rafael Devers (.240/.284/.406), Andrew Benintendi (.103/.314/.128 and zero homers — he’s also currently on the IL with a sprained rib cage) and J.D. Martinez (.231/.314/.396). A hot start for Christian Vazquez faded long ago. Jackie Bradley Jr. is slashing an anemic .246/.321/.304. Hard-hitting youngster Michael Chavis has just two homers and a strikeout rate of 42.9%. Overall, eight of Boston’s hitters have a wRC+ below 100.

Add it all up, and that’s how you go from a World Series run as one of the more dominant teams of the last two decades to AL East bottom feeder in less than two years. It doesn’t help that the Red Sox have had to face the far better Yankees and Rays 13 times in their first 26 games and have gone a laughable 1-12 in those contests; in fact, they’ve beaten New York just once in their last 15 tries and are winless against them in 2020.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that there’s no real reason to expect much better in the foreseeable future.

The problem starts with Boston’s farm system, which placed 28th out of 30 in our rankings coming into the season; the team has since slipped a spot further. There are some bright spots for the Red Sox, such as 21-year-old infielder Jeter Downs (the other big piece of the return for Betts), 20-year-old 2018 first-round pick Triston Casas, and 21-year-old righty Bryan Mata, who posted a 3.43 ERA across 105 innings and two levels of the minors last season. But Downs and Casas are the only prospects who made our overall top 100 list, clocking in at Nos. 46 and 58, respectively, and the latter has yet to get above advanced A ball (not to mention that neither has played an inning of competitive baseball this season thanks to the cancellation of the minor league season). Most of the exciting talent is still very young and years away. And while the team has done well in its recent international signings, the draft has been more miss than hit. Since taking Benintendi with the seventh pick of the 2015 draft, Boston has gotten next to zero out of its ’16 class (headlined by Jay Groome, who was arguably the top high school pitcher in the country that year but who has spent most of his career injured), while the team’s top picks in ’17 (righty Tanner Houck) and ’19 (shortstop Cameron Cannon) look more like depth pieces than future stars.

That’s no fault of the current regime, now led by former Rays boss Chaim Bloom, though his new front office pulled off a draft head-scratcher of its own this summer by taking high school second baseman Nick Yorke with the No. 17 pick despite him getting a fourth- or fifth-round grade from most talent evaluators. That move was more about saving money than taking the best possible player — something that’s come to mark Bloom’s tenure so far. A payroll that reached $225 million last season and a desire to get under the luxury tax threshold were the primary motivators for trading Betts, a free agent-to-be who promptly signed a 12-year deal with his new squad and is hitting a typical-for-him .294/.363/.627 so far in Dodgers blue and white. Similarly, budget constraints (or at least a newfound sense of fiscal concern from billionaire owner John Henry) likely kept Boston out of free agency last winter: Perez, Kevin Pillar and Jose Peraza represent the majority of the team’s major league signings.

Given that renewed focus on counting coppers, what optimism should Red Sox fans have that Henry will re-open the checkbook this winter, especially coming off a shortened season in which no fans went through Fenway Park’s turnstiles? (Not that those attendance numbers would have necessarily been robust given this roster, but still.) On top of that, this coming offseason is short on young, impact free agents who could help turn the Red Sox around. J.T. Realmuto will likely be too rich for Henry’s liking, and the best pitching options on the market are a flawed bunch, headlined by Trevor Bauer, Robbie Ray, an injured James Paxton, and Marcus Stroman. Granted, virtually any pitcher with a pulse and a decent fastball would be an upgrade in Boston, but there’s no ace for sale who would make the 2021 team into an instant contender, and trading for a top-flight starter is a pipe dream given the weak farm system. You can argue that re-adding Sale and Rodriguez will do more than any signing could (and don’t be surprised if that’s Bloom’s future stated reason for steering clear of the market’s pricier players), but both players are coming off serious injuries with no guarantee that they’ll go right back to their previously above-average selves.

With that in mind, the road back to relevance and contention for the Red Sox looks long, bumpy and windy. The core of young talent — Devers, Bogaerts, Verdugo, Benintendi — is still impressive. But the Betts trade, Sale’s injury (and the $115 million still owed to him over the next four years), and the front office’s decision to punt the 2020 season will likely turn the Red Sox into a multi-year rebuilding project, and the safe bet is that Bloom and company will spend the rest of August seeing what Martinez, Eovaldi, Brandon Workman and other veterans might bring back in trades. In other words: As ugly as this season has been, don’t be surprised if the next couple of campaigns are just as brutal in Boston.

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