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The Limits Of Wishful Thinking

Sometimes (most times) you’re better off just going with the sure thing.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Jarren Duran is fast. If, as is looking sadly but increasingly likely, his Red Sox career ends up being short and unproductive, then that’s what you’ll remember about him years from now. He’ll join the club of excitingly fast but ultimately underwhelming prospects that meets semi-regularly in your memory. Donnie Sadler will host his induction ceremony.

What Jarren Duran is not, though, is a centerfielder. If you were still clinging to hope that he was, you probably lost your grip in the seventh inning of yesterday’s embarrassing loss to a bad team that managed to take three out of four from the Sox, all while taunting us with a behind-the-plate sign advertising ticket prices that are actually commensurate with on-field performance. (Seriously, Kansas City, $29.99 for a month’s worth of home games? John Henry just threw up in his Learjet on the way back from London.)

It was a depressingly ugly defensive inning, made all the more depressing by the fact that it came right on the heels of a Tommy Pham no-doubter that put the Sox back in the game after Kutter Crawford – somehow and shockingly the best starter on the Sox right now – buried the team in a five-run hole. And sure, neither of Duran’s two seventh inning misplays was easy. He lost one fly ball in the sun, and then he misjudged his jump on what would have been a nice if not quite spectacular catch at the wall. But shielding your eyes from the sun is a practiced outfield skill. So is having spatial awareness of the wall. Players who are actual centerfielders instead of just fast know how to do these things.

What makes Duran’s performance particularly frustrating from a roster-building perspective, is that there never has been any evidence that he can play centerfield. For the first 21 years of his life, he was an infielder. He didn’t even know what a warning track looked like until he’d turned pro. The thought process was simply: good centerfielders tend to be fast, Jarren Duran is fast, ergo, Jarren Duran can be a good centerfielder. So, the brass shifted him to the outfield when he was still in short-season ball in 2018, and then kept promoting him every year, hoping that, one day, his scouting report would no longer contain the phrase, “needs to improve outfield defense.”

There’s a name for this thought process: wishful thinking. Sometimes it works! After all, the only reason that Duran is even in the lineup right now is because he’s filling in for the injured Kike Hernandez, a career part-time player whom the Sox signed with the hope that he could succeed in a full-time role. From June of last year all the way through a glorious, cult hero-making October, their wishful thinking paid off. The same can largely be said about the hope that Nick Pivetta was actually an effective starter being misused by his old organization, that Michael Wacha had one more decent year in him, that John Schreiber could learn a sinker and become a whole new pitcher.

Cleveland Guardians v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

But there’s a limit – or at least there should be – to how much wishful thinking you can use when putting together a roster, to how many players you can sign who essentially need to have a career year if you’re going to be any good. There was some evidence that Bobby Dalbec could be the everyday first baseman on a postseason team (that August!), but not enough, and he turned into a blackhole in the lineup and a liability in the field. There was some evidence that Jackie Bradley Jr. could bounce back from a season in which he was essentially the single worst hitter in Major League Baseball (that eye surgery!), but not enough, and now he may be out of the big leagues for good. There was some evidence that Trevor Story’s mediocre 2021 was just a blip in an otherwise all-star career, but not enough, and now he appears to be a declining big-money signing, who, even if he produces some value for a year or two, will be used as a dreaded cautionary tale every time someone suggests the Sox attempt to win by giving good players the money they’re actually worth. Even Kike Hernandez, the one-time poster boy for wishful thinking gone well, turned back into a pumpkin before his injury earlier this year.

It’s impossible not to feel for Duran today. Watch his postgame interview. Hear the creaky nerves in his hushed oh-yeah-he’s-still-just-a-kid voice. He looks terrified, frankly, like he knows yesterday’s game will be remembered, that it will come to epitomize a lost, endlessly frustrating season.

There’s no guarantee that will happen, of course. Things could turn around. Eric Hosmer could take to Fenway and become a productive hitter for the first time in years. Michael Wacha could bounce back from injury (again) and pick up right where he left off. JD Martinez could realize that he’s accidentally been wearing Phillips Valdez’s belt all season, and that it’s been restricting the hip action in his swing, and that with a trip to the team’s wardrobe consultant he’ll free up his legs and hit 15 homers down the stretch to power the Sox back into the postseason race. That would be great, for poor Jarren Duran above all.

But we can’t really count on any of that happening. Let’s get real here: it’s probably just wishful thinking.