When Hanley Ramirez went crashing into the wall in Monday night's loss to the Rays, Red Sox fans saw their season flashing before their eyes. The Red Sox have needed fixing since Day 1. Even before this recent slide that has left them in last place in the East, there were few who expected them to come out the other side of 2015 looking the same as they did on Opening Day.
After all, this was a rotation built of question marks. A lineup and bench with no few gambles. Some would pay off (though that's looking questionable at this point), others would not. The idea was that the Red Sox would play well enough while the franchise figured out the right 25 men for the job, and then push at full strength into the playoff race and beyond. If Justin Masterson worked out, Joe Kelly might not. If Mookie Betts lived up to expectations, Shane Victorino might well need a replacement.
The problem is that just about everyone that could miss seems to be missing right now, to say nothing of a good few whose performances were never in doubt. The Red Sox are 12-14 through 26 games of the season, and frankly, they're lucky to be that. With even the slightest defensive competence from their first few opponents, it's easy to imagine 10-16 or 9-17. That, for context, is Phillies territory.
Who's to blame? Let's go down the list of our discontent. A warning: this could get long.
- Clay Buchholz -- You could argue he was only really at fault for two of the runs he allowed last night. Alright. Credit him with six innings and two earned, and he still has an ERA north of five. If we accept that Buchholz is a guy who will give you a couple good games and then completely explode in his third, that's actually not too bad for a fourth or fifth pitcher when you consider what you expect out of them. But it's hard to give him credit for anything more right now, and even just that much requires a fair bit of justification.
- Justin Masterson -- With a 4.71 ERA, his has been the most tolerable season to date in terms of results. But does anyone really expect that to continue? At least with Buchholz et al., there's some hope for improvement based on how they've actually pitched. High strikeout counts will get some of them somewhere. Rick Porcello's home run rate will normalize, and his ERA with it (spoiler: he's the only starting pitcher not on this list). Masterson, on the other hand, is throwing frisbee sliders and slop. What velocity he had is a thing of the past, and he still can't get the ball inside against lefties after all these years without hitting half of them. He can't keep throwing the ball the way he has while maintaining even this level of success, minute though it is.
- Wade Miley -- The most baffling of Boston's starting pitchers. Wade Miley was occasionally quite good in the past, occasionally mediocre. Never, ever was he close to being awful. But everything has gone in the tank this year, and there's really no better way to describe his performance than he himself could come up with. There are zero redeeming qualities here. Zero.
- Joe Kelly -- A season that started with promise has come unraveled in a hurry. Kelly has a magnificent 31:8 K:BB, but it's also not clear he has any idea where the ball is going on any given pitch right now, and he really, really can't seem to keep his pitch count down, often lacking the ability to put batters away. The idea that Kelly's future might be in the bullpen seems more likely by the game.
- Shane Victorino -- Somewhat diminished since he's hit the bench, but it's hard to put much faith in any plan that involves him going forward. He no longer looks like a viable baseball player at the plate, and in the field he's just a worse defensive backup than Jackie Bradley Jr. It's sad, but there's very little left of Shanf at this point. I choose to see it as him giving everything he had left for 2013, because man, that really does make it feel better.
- Mike Napoli -- Napoli is streaky by nature, but his current streak has now lasted a good 16% of the season. The Red Sox simply cannot stomach this bat at first base much longer without improvement.
- Xander Bogaerts -- Xander doesn't look nearly so helpless these days as he did during his long slump in 2014. But we're still waiting for that power to show up, and until it does, we can't really pretend he's producing up to expectations by any means. The fact that his glove has come around a good bit does help, to the point where it feels like his inclusion here is borderline, but if nothing else he'll serve as a good example for later on, so work with me here.
- David Ortiz -- Let's not pretend otherwise, Ortiz has been a disappointment. At .250/.340/.432, he's not actually bad or even just average the way the game is these days. But a 107 wRC+ is not the least bit Ortizian, and he's trending downward in a big way if you look at the last few years. This would not be the first premature report of Ortiz' demise, but the man is 39. At some point, one of them is going to stick.
- Allen Craig / Daniel Nava -- The two bench bats who should have made Boston the deepest team in the game are currently combining for a 32 wRC+. That's not the average of the two, mind. It's addition. They've been that bad. But for that homer the other night, Craig has looked like some guy they pulled off a rec league team.
There's some bullpen guys who probably need to be dealt with too, but at this point, let's stick to the real problems.
The Red Sox needed fixing before last night. The early signs on Hanley Ramirez seem positive, at least, so maybe, just maybe the situation has not become that much worse. But even before Ramirez went down in left, the simple fact was that this Red Sox team had not yet proven itself worth fixing.
Photo Credit: Greg M. Cooper
There is, after all, only so much that can be done. If the Red Sox were heading into May with a couple bad arms in the rotation and a struggling position player, their record might not be the beautiful 18-8 mark the 2013 Sox had to this point in the season, but there would be every expectation that a couple very workable moves at the trade deadline and some help from the minors could make the difference.
Right now that's not so clear. That pair of starting pitchers represents the lower bounds of Boston's needs in the rotation. Rusney Castillo can no longer be depended on to fill all of Boston's position player needs, particularly if Hanley Ramirez is out for an extended period of time. Blake Swihart isn't the guy who's going to come up midseason to spare us from Sandy Leon, but the starter in place of an injured Ryan Hanigan.
Mixed in all of this is a great deal of uncertainty. Nobody seems to know where the Red Sox are going to go next, perhaps including themselves. There was no problem with tying themselves to some gambles in March so long as they were willing to cut bait when it was clearly necessary. But as it stands, nobody seems to know if the Red Sox are waiting on Rusney Castillo to get back to 100% before calling him up, or if they're just waiting to give Shane Victorino his job back at the first opportunity. Brock Holt can't buy a start after games where he was the only productive player at the plate because it's time to find a spot for Allen Craig or Daniel Nava or who knows who else.
How much is too much? How much rope does a Mike Napoli get? How much for Wade Miley?
The answer varies for every player on that list. But there is a number for each one. For Xander, it lasts the whole season. He hasn't been bad enough that the Red Sox can't live with him at short, and there's enough upside given his age and talent that he'd have to be performing far worse before it made sense for the Red Sox to cut bait. The same largely applies to Mookie Betts, who still seems to need luck to go his way more than anything else.
For Mike Napoli? It can't last much longer. A week? Two? We all know how hot he can get, but right now he's hitting like Mendoza. And it's not like there weren't some signs of this in 2014. Napoli's game is predicated on walks and balls that either leave the park or bang up against the wall. There was a precipitous drop in power from the first baseman last year, and without the ability to punish opposing pitchers for throwing strikes, there's that much less reason to put that walk on the table.
So what if the Red Sox do blow things up? What does that entail, and what do they even get out of it?
It doesn't entail a fire sale, because there's not all that much to sell. The Red Sox' best players are here for the long haul. Thankfully, we're not looking at a 2012 situation here where the biggest problems also have the biggest contracts. Pablo Sandoval has made a positive first impression, and the reaction to Hanley Ramirez' injury tells you all you need to know there. Dustin Pedroia has made some very uncharacteristic defensive gaffes and hasn't had his hits come at the most opportune moments, but he's certainly hitting like the Pedroia of old. And Rick Porcello has been addressed.
Instead, it would be about clearing house. Give the stragglers who aren't contracted past 2014 a week or two to catch up, and then make what changes can be made. If Justin Masterson is still relying on junk, maybe it's time for Eduardo Rodriguez to get a chance. If Mike Napoli still isn't hitting, it could even be right to get Allen Craig consistent at bats just to see if that actually makes a difference. He, at least, hasn't had much of an opportunity to prove that he can't get the job done in 2014. and he's on the payroll for years to come one way or another.
The thing is, blowing up the 2015 Red Sox doesn't mean giving up on the 2015 Red Sox. The team is going nowhere the way they're playing right now, and while it's possible that the way back from that is through waiting for Napoli et al. to collectively get it together, there's an appeal to be made to the old apocryphal definition of insanity here.
The Red Sox can't afford to put off the wholesale changes much longer. It's time to start pulling the triggers where they're available. That means Rusney Castillo in right field, and getting Jackie Bradley Jr. back in the mix if Hanley Ramirez is down. It means Eduardo Rodriguez in the rotation. It might well mean Allen Craig or Daniel Nava at first base just to see if one of them can get it going when given the opportunities that Mike Napoli has had. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But in a week, or two at most. The Red Sox can't afford to wait until the trade deadline, because they need to know if their parts are worth building around in the first place.
And if they prove not to be, it's better that the Red Sox know now than in a year's time when they're a month into a 2016 season with a roster full of, once again, question marks. Sometimes those question marks will work out (see: 2013), sometimes they won't. But it's always better to know ahead of time.
Be it for the future or the present, these Red Sox need some wholesale changes, and there's little to be gained from putting them off much longer.