2014 has been an ugly year for the Red Sox. At 70-89, fans have certainly suffered through the agony of defeat more often than they've felt the thrill of victory. What's worse, almost all of that has come in the context of a team out of contention. At least in 2012 they managed to hang around until the All-Star break. This team was out of it so early that it feels like the season hasn't even begun. It feels like we're stuck in the longest spring training of all time, but with no payoff coming at the end of it all.
Really, though, has 2014 been so bad?
Don't get me wrong. I'm not going to pretend what is very likely to be a 90-loss season can be considered a success. Any year the Red Sox are out of the playoffs has to be considered a failure. But for Boston's second losing season in three after going 15 years without, 2014 has a lot going for it.
Let's consider it in the context of 2012. The best thing to come out of that terrible year was how completely its stain was wiped away by the end of the year. Bobby Valentine was gone. Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and most importantly Carl Crawford were gone, essentially giving the team a clean slate to work with in the offseason. Still, consider the lineup the Red Sox threw out there against the Rays two years ago today:
- Pedro Ciriaco, 3B
- Scott Podsednik, CF
- Dustin Pedroia, 2B
- Cody Ross, RF
- James Loney, 1B
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
- Ryan Lavarnway, DH
- Daniel Nava, LF
- Jose Iglesias, SS
Then compare that to last night's:
- Mookie Betts, 2B
- Xander Bogaerts, SS
- Daniel Nava, RF
- Yoenis Cespedes, DH
- Allen Craig, 1B
- Garin Cecchini, 3B
- Rusney Castillo, CF
- Bryce Brentz, LF
- Christian Vazquez, C
Certainly there's no contest now, but let's just make sure we're not falling victim to the historian's fallacy here, only able to apply hindsight to the first bunch and not the second.
Both Dustin Pedroia and Daniel Nava will be available to the Red Sox come 2015, so we can cross them off the list(s). Up top we have essentially a collection of warm bodies--a bunch of players the Red Sox are putting on the field because if they didn't start nine men the league and union would probably be less-than-pleased. Pedro Ciriaco's hot start had already fallen away, leaving only his "Yankee killer" reputation in his favor. Ross, while fun, was a free agent come the offseason. Loney and Podsednik were filler, and Lavarnway already more of a depressing headache than a source of hope.
That leaves essentially Saltalamacchia and Iglesias. Salty had just had another strong start to a season wiped out by a weak finish, and Iglesias, while a defensive whiz, did not even manage the infield singles that made him productive in 2013. What we're looking at here is a team with a foundation of Ortiz, Pedroia, and the promise of money to spend.
Now let's look at the 2014 team.
Up top we have Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, and I could probably just end this here. Betts is one of the most exciting young prospects in the game, if you can still call him a prospect. The idea that his 2013 performance might be a fluke seems so far in the past now that it's hard to believe that in 2012 he was largely unknown. And if Xander Bogaerts' season hasn't been as triumphant as we all might have hoped, the 21-year-old showed us just how good he could be early on, and has started to look his old self again this past month.
Batting fourth we have Yoenis Cespedes. Maybe he's not even here next year--God knows every day there seems to be another bizarre trade idea involving sending the FA-to-be off to a team that's not planning to contend next year. If he is still in Boston, however, he's a solid starter who leaves the Red Sox with one less question to answer.
I wish the same could be said for Allen Craig, but at least in a Mike Carp sort of role, he provides a lot of upside given his past success.
Having Garin Cecchini in the lineup can't quite be seen as the positive we may have once hoped it would be. After a disappointing season with Pawtucket, the third baseman is going to need to earn that confidence back. Still, with a strong finish to his year, he's certainly far from the seemingly lost cause that was Ryan Lavarnway by this point in 2012. That's more the role of Bryce Brentz, whose 15 strong at bats in the majors are the first small uptick in his career since he shot himself in the foot by shooting himself in the leg early last year.
Christian Vazquez' bat only really showed up for the first time in a four-hit performance Thursday night against the Rays, but it's not hard to draw a direct line between him and Jose Iglesias. Both defensive monsters with questionable skills at the plate, capable of contributing value in ways that usually don't show up all that well in a box score except by their absence.
And then there's Rusney Castillo, the $72 million man who, while off to a slowish start, can still be expected to do big things come 2015 once he's got a full spring training between him and a 2-year layoff.
The best thing that can be said for the 2012 Red Sox is that the left behind a more-or-less blank canvas for the masterpiece that was 2013. We knew there were a few good prospects on the way, yes, but by-and-large the expectation was that the next great Red Sox team was a few years down the line. A lot of gambles--low-risk, well-considered gambles, but gambles all the same--had to go very right for the 2013 team to do what they did.
Just because the Red Sox did manage to win the 2013 World Series, though, doesn't mean that time table isn't still in place. For all that the 2014 will likely see the team lose 90 games once more, for all the pain of seeing some of the best parts of the 2013 team fade or be sent elsewhere, 2014 has had its fair share of positives as well. They're what leave this team feeling less like a blank canvas in need of a ground-up rebuild, and more like a team that's on the verge of returning to greatness.
There's certainly work to be done in the offseason. Third base and the starting rotation in particular need to be figured out. But if this season has been a lost cause for months now, that doesn't mean it can't bear fruits. We just won't see them until 2015 and beyond.