A strange thing happened last night: Boston's season ended in July.
I say strange, but let's be honest, we're used to it now. It happened last year, after all, with the Red Sox selling both John Lackey and Jon Lester before the month was out. And it may as well have happened in 2012 as well, when the Sox didn't make any (foolish) desperation trades at the deadline to bail out a quickly sinking ship.
All that's left to them now is to decide how they want to play out these last two months. They do have the option of following the same old routine. Putting the same lineup out there, more or less, as they have these past few days. Nobody is going to trade for Mike Napoli or Shane Victorino, most likely, meaning the one way for the Red Sox to see these heroes of 2013 off smoothly and quietly is to just shrug and leave them in the lineup until their contracts run out.
Or they could do something actually useful with their time to help avoid some of 2015's worst disasters in 2016.
First order of business, in that situation, would be to cut ties. Anyone who's not going tot be in Boston in 2016 is on first the trading, and then the chopping block. That means Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Justin Masterson, Alejandro De Aza, and Craig Breslow. Hopefully someone wants them, even just for some small amount of cash in return, but if not, it's time to designate them for assignment.
With the flotsam cleared, it'll be time to identify who actually might help the team, and where. The Red Sox can't go into 2016 unsure about their players the way they were about 2015. With two months to gather information, there's no excuse for having the same number of questions next year as they had in 2015. Some of those questions, for example:
- Can Hanley Ramirez play left field? (No)
- Can Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts hold their own? (Yes)
- Can Xander play his part defensively in Boston's ground ball strategy? (Yes)
- Can Justin Masterson still pitch? (No)
- Can Clay Buchholz still pitch? (Yes)
- Is Joe Kelly a viable starter? (No)
- Was Mike Napoli's declining power in 2014 a sign of the end? (Yes)
- Can Dustin Pedroia get healthy? (Yes)
- Can Shane Victorino get healthy? (Mostly no)
- Does Koji Uehara have another year left in him? (Mostly yes)
- Is Christian Vazquez ready for the show? (Alas, we didn't find out)
There are more, but you get the idea. There were very few sure things on Boston's roster, and to be fair to the Red Sox, even those "sure things" have managed to be part of the problem. Huge parts, in fact, with Rick Porcello and Pablo Sandoval chief among them, both bombing what were supposed to be pretty safe first years in Boston. But if that's compounded the issue, there was no small chance that the Red Sox' season would end in disaster given all the uncertainty.
The Red Sox can't completely avoid questions in 2016, mind. Barring a Punto trade redux, the Sox will have to hope the likes of Porcello and Sandoval can get it together. They'll probably have to hope Koji can last another year (though they can insure against his failure to do so), and that Buchholz will be healthy. But they can do their part to eliminate some of the biggest questions. For instance...
1. Where can Hanley Ramirez play?
Yes, I'm banging this drum again. Left field isn't working out. With Mike Napoli gone, it'll be time to move Hanley Ramirez to first base. Not because it's certain to be pretty, or even to be any better than left field. Yes, a mid-season move might look like a complete disaster. Yes, Hanley might end up putting up the worst two months defensively of all time. The good news: the results of the next two months don't matter, only information does, and it's a lot better to find out that Hanley can't play first now--and that something more drastic needs to be done--than to find out next April, like we did with left field.
2. Can Jackie Bradley Jr. play at all?
Honestly, at this point I'm not sure what Jackie Bradley Jr. can do in these last two months to make it obvious he's a starter. Even if he's amazing, the sample will just be too small. But at the very least they have a chance to give him the consistent playing time to prove if he's not a starter. Fresh off another two-homer game in Pawtucket, Bradley is hitting .315/.389/.490 in Triple-A this season, leading many to clamor for his addition to the major league roster. It's time to let him sink or swim, so that if two months of consistent playing time still yields no results, we can move on from Bradley once and for all.
3. Is Blake Swihart ready?
Swihart looked completely unprepared for his major league debut when he was first called up. Not a surprise given that Ryan Hanigan's injury forced him into action long before he was ever expected to debut. But in the weeks leading up to his own injury, Swihart was raking. The Red Sox do still have Christian Vazquez around, and Ryan Hanigan is on board for one more year, meaning the Sox don't necessarily need to have Swihart in the majors to start 2016 if they expect he actually needs more development time (Vazquez' bat is no sure thing, obviously, but his glove is superlative to the point where that can be overlooked). But they'll never know whether that's necessary if they're only giving Swihart backup playing time behind Hanigan--a plan which would also likely wear Hanigan down significantly headed into 2016. Swihart should be starting seven out of every ten games, not the other way around.
4. Which young pitchers are reliable?
You want your 2015 rotation the rest of the way? Clay Buchholz, Wade Miley, Eduardo Rodriguez, Brian Johnson, Henry Owens.
Rick Porcello is a risk they're going to have to take in 2016 one way or another. The Red Sox are probably best served shutting him down for a while to try and work on his problems behind the scenes. What they really can't afford to do is go into 2016 expecting someone like Brian Johnson to contribute only to discover he's not viable in the majors. Best to find that out now, when they've got a whole offseason to plug that hole.
Granted, two months won't ever provide a certain answer. But it can at least provide an idea. And God knows the Red Sox don't need to see more from the likes of Masterson or Kelly, and Steven Wright is very much what he is. Call on the knuckleball when it's needed, but don't expect to be able to rely on it.
5. Is Brock Holt a super-utility starter, or a utility sub?
Last year, Brock Holt fell off the map in the second half. If he does that again in 2015, the Red Sox should probably look at him as a great bench option who's extremely flexible defensively. If he doesn't, the Red Sox can actually afford to look at him as a quasi-starter. He may play only half of the season at the position he "starts" at while filling in wherever injuries leave him needed the other half, but there's a big difference between having Ben Zobrist and having Bill Hall on the roster.
Let's start with those five. The Sox can't answer them definitively, but they can get information. Real information, too. Information gathered against players who aren't just trying to get in shape for the season to come, but are pushing for a playoff spot, or playing for their contract in free agency or arbitration. The purpose for the Red Sox may be in line with spring training, but these next couple months also offer far more than what spring generally does. Best take advantage of it now, when the uncertainty involved doesn't cost them meaningful games.