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This team’s flaws, real and imaginary

How much are the catcher and bullpen situations holding the team back, if at all?

Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

I haven’t watched much Red Sox baseball in the last few weeks. There are many causes, which are primarily my fantasy team being eliminated from contention; a vacation, albeit to Mass., where the TV didn’t work, and, above all general fatigue. I have two young children. They make staying up for even portions of any game difficult. You don’t care.

By taking the last few weeks off, aside from the daily lineup posts, I’ve tried to stay positive about the best Sox team I’ve ever seen… and it’s been pretty easy! It has been noticeably harder for many of the smart and opinionated people who cover the team on a daily basis -- I still use Twitter -- because when you’re in the business of providing intelligent opinions, you have to produce, 103 wins be damned.

I’m neither trying to give backhanded criticism of beat writers with this observation, nor am I trying to justify their occasion online spiraling as perfectly normal and good. As in most things, the people most like us tend to irk us the most, and I feel like you and I would have a lot in common with the people who have chosen, and been chosen, to follow this team for a living. It’s not the big differences that matter, in this case. It’s the small ones.

And so, instead of getting into a Twitter fight with the affable and perfectly inoffensive Ian Browne of, I, on my vacation, instead got into one with’s Christopher Smith, to whom a disproportionate number of situations provide Blake Swihart as the nail for which he provides the hammer. He thinks Swihart should be the starting catcher, or at least did two weeks ago, when he believed so strongly enough to use a poorly-phrased Mike Piazza analogy:

Smith would say he wasn’t comparing Swihart to Piazza, which would have made a lot more sense if he hadn’t, yanno, brought up Piazza in a Swihart discussion, but no matter. Swihart is a live-wire topic for many Sox fans, myself included, and he plays one of the few positions on the Sox that is not set in absolute stone. As someone who doesn’t have to fashion a daily ball of clay in service to the team, Smith’s persistent shoehorning of Swihart into “the conversation” around the team is both silly and perfectly understandable. To care that much about one of the last guys on the roster, day in and day out, is a tell. It’s also a tell that I took the bait, but I’m happy to announce I’ve learned from my mistake:

Look, I want Swihart to be good. I think he’s the catcher of the future, and I was so far off on this earlier in the year that it represents a revolution in my thinking. I just don’t care about the future right now, because I think a timeshare at the most demanding position in the sport is probably the de facto option for any team. As Smith wrote, correctly, Swihart *isn’t* Piazza, and one should expect that to be the end of it.

Smith’s Swihart passion is matched in kind, if not in tone, by Evan Drellich’s concern about the bullpen. Drellich’s complaint rests on a firmer foundation simply because it presents a real-world problem. While Swihart has proven himself to be a capable big-league player, the idea that keeping him out of the daily starting lineup has hurt the team is largely refuted by its gaudy record.

The bullpen presents a different problem, not entirely insofar as it’s an *actual* point of concern -- and to Drellich’s credit, it is -- but also looking forward, as it’s more a potential playoff hiccup. If I have a problem with Drellich’s analysis, it’s that he’s not allowing the proof to be in the pudding. He has more or less declared, at times, that Dombrowski’s deadline inaction is a failure, which is dubious enough for the team with the best record in baseball, and doubly so before the playoffs have even begun.

It is, however, a smart piece of analysis. More than that, it’s canny. If the Sox win it all, it can be written off as a byproduct of the fundamental, uneven state of bullpens. If they don’t, and the bullpen is at fault, Drellich will look prescient. Like Smith, Drellich has little to lose in lodging the complaint -- that’s why he’s doing it. They’re both smart pros, and these are studied takes. Unlike Smith, what he’s talking about has clear real-world value. I have written time and time again that the easiest way for Swihart to get into the lineup is to force himself in there, and I stand by it. He has done a better job recently, but he’s still rocking a sub-.600 OPS and 53 wRC+. I know, I know: It’s still better than his competition. It’s still not good.

The bullpen is a different animal, and that there are more options with expanded rosters sort of takes the edge off. For Drellich’s occasional potshots at Dombo, the roster expansion was always going to happen, and with a longer list of starters than they can use in the postseason, some of those guys are bound for the bullpen, Nathan Eovaldi, notably. Add him to the likes of Bobby Poyner and Brandon Workman, and the Sox are probably fine even if Tyler Thornburg, Dombrowski’s trade substitute, hasn’t turned out as planned. There’s a fair argument Dombo would have been better off pulling the trigger on a big-time postseason arm, but there’s an equally if not more persuasive argument against it, once again hinging on the 103 wins and counting the team has put up. Again, one has to ask: How good is good enough?

No one knows this better than Drellich, who has both admirably hedged his bullpen criticism and likes to write some version of the following after the latest victory:

To this point, it’s worth getting to something our own Jake Kostik wrote last week. 100 wins matters. The regular season matters. It’s not all about winning championships. It’s understandable to think that way for a while, but it’s also understandable to think you have to devote yourself to the team every day of the season to be a “true” fan, and, as an Old, I’m here to tell you that’s nonsense, just as it’s nonsense to say anything less than a World Series title makes the whole year a failure. There’s dignity in the year and value in maintaining perspective about it unless you’re getting paid not to. Sometimes you just need a little rest to see it, because after a rest... you wake up.