Six months ago, before a different opener in Cleveland, I previewed the 2016 season-to-come. As with most such previews, a look back can be a bit jolting. For instance, here's the rotation, in order:
- David Price
- Clay Buchholz
- Rick Porcello
- Joe Kelly
- Steven Wright
Yes, Clay Buchholz the #2 starter, Joe Kelly in the mix, first-half ace Steven Wright down at #5 in a spot that "belongs to Eduardo Rodriguez" and Cy Young candidate Rick Porcello in the middle.
And the projected lineup:
- Mookie Betts
- Dustin Pedroia
- Xander Bogaerts
- David Ortiz
- Hanley Ramirez
- Pablo Sandoval
- Rusney Castillo
- Blake Swihart
- Jackie Bradley Jr.
Of course, as it would happen, Pablo Sandoval and Rusney Castillo weren't even in the starting nine to begin the season. Blake Swihart wouldn't even last a week before getting shunted off for Christian Vazquez and then crashing into a wall when the Sox tried to push him into left field.
The bullpen fares little better. Craig Kimbrel is still the closer, but that's a less comforting reality than it might once have been. After him...Carson Smith is gone, Tazawa isn't even a lock to make the ALDS roster, and the setup role might well be filled by Joe Kelly and Brad Ziegler--two guys not even in the picture to start the season.
This is, of course, the basic nature of baseball and sports in general. Nothing ever goes completely according to plan--at least not when it comes to the details. When looking at the bigger picture, though, 2016 has mostly followed the script for what a successful season would need to look like. To wit:
They've tied their hopes to bounce-back seasons from key players because, frankly, there isn't much chance of success if all of them continue their sudden synchronized decline no matter what happened in the offseason. The best Dombrowski and co. could hope to do was bring in enough help that the Red Sox don't so much need a miracle as to simply avoid running quite so badly as they have since 2013.
A clear checkmark there. Pablo Sandoval is down and out, and oh well. But Rick Porcello is perhaps the favorite for the Cy Young award, and if Hanley Ramirez grades out around three wins over a replacement player, that also happens to be about four-and-a-half wins over his 2015 self.
Weirdly enough, though, these Sox have kind of run bad in many of the departments that sank the 2015 team. Clay Buchholz being a mess to start the season and Joe Kelly never actually contributing in the rotation can't really be chalked up to bad fortune given how eminently predictable they were. But once again the Sox' biggest acquisitions haven't really lived up to their billing. David Price was a lot of things this year, but he was no ace. Craig Kimbrel has mostly done quite well when it's come to the games where he's actually out there looking to close out a game, but he's certainly not been the top closer he was billed as. Mid-season acquisition Drew Pomeranz has run out of gas ahead of October, even if he's still looking like a big part of the puzzle in 2017 and beyond (to say nothing of his current value as a reliever).
Once again, Boston's acquisitions haven't really pulled their weight. But this just goes to show how far beyond the pale the failures of 2015 were. It wasn't that Hanley Ramirez and Rick Porcello and Pablo Sandoval were busts. It's that they exploded with such majesty that the rest of the squad couldn't hope to contain that level of disaster. Hanley and Porcello stand out so much by virtue of not simply righting the ship, but flipping the script, going from major disasters to major contributors. But the reality is that Pablo Sandoval has been a big help to these 2016 Red Sox compared to his 2015 self simply by virtue of staying off the roster!
In so many ways, the reason that the preseason picture of this 2016 team looks off is because this team's identity is almost borrowed. In March, nobody wanted to think about these guys as 2015 part two, but that's what they are: a direct continuation of the team that showed they had the ability to compete in the second half. Reinforced, yes, but not remade. Hanley Ramirez is, effectively, back from injury. They've found some hidden gold at times in the likes of Sandy Leon. Their young players have continued to progress (notably, this statement can apply nicely to 27-year-old Rick Porcello taking a step forward from his second-half self). And their veterans have taken things to another gear. This team is still Bradley, Bogaerts, Betts, and Rodriguez. It's Ortiz and Pedroia. It's Hanley and Porcello.
When looking at the jump from 2011 to 2013, there's no question that the Red Sox were transformed utterly in 2012. It leaves the lasting memory of 2011 and 2012 as utterly without merit outside of the house-cleaning Ben Cherington accomplished in the latter. They are ugly years that did not see the team rebuild, but self-destruct ahead of a 2013 miracle season. I don't expect 2015 will ever be seen in a positive light, and that's fair. But 2016 is not the miracle. 2015 was. It was a miraculously bad outcome for a rebuild effort that has only now provided the expected dividends. But it is still where this division-winning team was born. That alone should earn it some amount of rehabilitation in the eyes of the fans. And if the Red Sox push through and manage to hang another banner, 2015 is where that story will start.