It has been a frustrating first half of the season for Red Sox fans. With the team still below .500 and trailing in the AL East and Wild Card races, the next couple of weeks will have a major impact on the state of the franchise through the end of the 2014 season and beyond. The BoSox Injection staff looks back at the first half of the season: from the young guys taking their first hacks, to the veterans who may have overextended their welcome.
Front office: In the winter prior to the 2013 season, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington looked to acquire a very particular type of player. The resulting free agent flurry introduced a number of veterans on short-term contracts that allowed for flexibility as the team sought to integrate young talent over the next few seasons. As a part of this process, Cherington also invested in clubhouse chemistry, something sorely lacking under the previous regime. Whether intended or not, the GM immediately struck gold with a team that refused to lose: Boston failed to drop more than three consecutive games in 2013 and ultimately experienced the ultimate triumph in a World Series victory.
In 2014, Cherington maintained a similar philosophy but was even more conservative. He fortified the bullpen in anticipation of a title defense, importing Edward Mujica and Burke Badenhop, two strike-throwing relievers with good track records. He nabbed utility infielder Jonathan Herrera in a trade and copped lefty Chris Capuano as a potential swingman. Incumbent first baseman Mike Napoli re-upped for a couple of years; David Ortiz got what he wanted because he’s David Ortiz.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia walked, and Stephen Drew stayed home on his couch. While it was wise to let the Yankees write $153 million worth of checks for Ellsbury (having an impressive campaign at .289 with seven home runs, 45 RBI and 27 steals for New York) and move on from the flawed Saltalamacchia as the team grooms Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart, the backup plan failed. A.J. Pierzynski and Grady Sizemore are gone. It took Jackie Bradley (not unexpectedly) half a season to warm up at the plate. Capuano was DFA’d and Herrera is playing under the lights in Rhode Island.
Add to that mix injuries to Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks and the Red Sox lineup has been nothing short of disaster. With below-average production throughout the outfield and Victorino on the shelf, Ellsbury has been particularly conspicuous in his absence. Middlebrooks’ maladies and swiss-cheese-bat affected Xander Bogaerts’ maiden voyage as Cherington was forced to make a reactionary re-signing of Drew, and shuttle the rookie to third base. Bogaerts has 13 errors in sum and his bat is just now showing signs of stirring after a seemingly interminable drought.
I’ll credit Cherington for cutting bait on Sizemore and Pierzynski, two 30-something players who wouldn’t have contributed beyond this year, anyway. The Drew signing was a head-scratcher, at best. We’ve gotten to see the kids, and that’s always interesting. But the first half was a certified disaster for a team coming off the World Series. That’s squarely on Cherington, who failed to make even one impact move in the offseason. With little margin for error in the lineup, injuries have taken their toll. The team’s recent positive performance makes it unclear whether Cherington will continue unloading veterans or stay the course, in the hope that the recent hot streak extends to a competitive August and September.
Coaching staff: Boston’s place in the standings isn’t completely on manager John Farrell and his staff. Cherington emphasized depth with his offseason signings, and the lack of cut-and-dried starters at multiple positions has resulted in some juggling. Unfortunately, the pieces Farrell has juggled have not produced when given the opportunity. There’s that old mantra that “games in April count just as much as those in September,” and as Farrell continued to trot multiple players out there who were hovering around the Mendoza Line, it was hard not to shake your head. On the other hand, what other options did he have?
Farrell hasn’t been shy about playing rookies, and given the performance of some of his vets, that’s been refreshing. He’s found creative ways to inject Brock Holt into the lineup, but that’s more of a credit to Holt’s ability to do whatever is asked of him than Farrell’s managerial wit.
Farrell’s managerial style can be summed up in two words: calm and loyal. With respect to the latter, we saw it last year in the playoffs with Jonny Gomes and we’re seeing it again in 2014. With the outfield torn up, Farrell has used Gomes against right-handers way more than he should have. No matter how good David Ross is defensively, it’s been hard to see a .175 hitter penciled into the lineup for 126 plate appearances (on pace for his most since 2007). And he stuck with Felix Doubront and Clay Buchholz as long as he possibly could have. Perhaps Buchholz has been fixed, maybe not. But trotting them out to the mound, past accomplishments aside, was akin to waving the white flag many nights.
With respect to Farrell’s calm approach: that’s where we’re seeing this team come to life. Not panicking has allowed players to work with the coaching staff through their troubles. Daniel Nava is hitting; Bradley doesn’t look lost anymore. Christian Vazquez is showing promise at the Major League level. Bogaerts – well, he could turn it around.
Farrell has demonstrated a feel for this roster as it has shaken itself out and appears to have found a combination that can win some ball games. Can the Red Sox get back in the race? If they keep hitting and get a little bit of luck; sure they can. And for all the frustrations, Farrell is the manager to lead them there.