In the Post-Bambino Era of success in Red Sox Nation, any season without a playoff appearance is denounced as a failure. By this measure the 2014 Sox, wallowing 12 games below .500, are a disappointment. Yesterday’s fire sale at the trade deadline officially ensures that they will be playing golf in October. Jon Lester is headed to Moneyball Land in Oakland, and John Lackey is packing his bags for the team that he sent packing in the World Series last year, the St. Louis Cardinals. The enigmatic, inconsistent Clay Buchholz is now the veteran anchor of the starting rotation, where he will be joined by talented but unproven prospects.
In the face of such upheaval, many fans will turn their attention elsewhere in the last two months of the season. After all, the Patriots first preseason game is next Thursday. But after yesterday’s deadline, I’m more excited about this Red Sox team than I have been in months. While the Sox may not make the playoffs, there are plenty of reasons to keep NESN on through the end of September. Here are the top five reasons to keep watching the Sox this season:
- The Revival of Xander Bogaerts
Ben Cherington’s finest deadline maneuver involved finding a team to take on Stephen Drew. Thank you, Yankees. The return in this trade is irrelevant, although Kelly Johnson is a respectable and versatile utility man. More importantly, with Drew gone, Xander Bogaerts can finally get his mojo back. On June 2, the day that Bogaerts begrudgingly moved from shortstop to third base to accommodate Drew, Bogey was a .300 hitter and Rookie of the Year candidate. He proceeded to hit .135 in June and .228 in July, and I absolutely attribute some of that to the Drew signing and a decline in self-confidence. Xander was like Happy Gilmore until Shooter McGavin came in his leather jacket and messed with his happy place. With all due respect to Stephen Drew, who is a great teammate and cannot be personally blamed, I’m excited for Xander to move back to his favorite position and start mashing like its May.
- The Yoenis Cespedes Show
I probably attracted some stares in downtown DC on my way to work yesterday; I shouted in excitement as my Twitter feed evolved from “Lester has been traded” to “Lester has been traded for Yoenis Cespedes.” While I’m devastated to see Lester gone, this is a better return than anyone could have expected. People will harp on the fact that Cespedes has a low OBP, but I don’t care. We haven’t had this kind of outfield power and flash since Manny. Between his towering homers and his 300-foot laser throws to home plate, the dude is a human highlight reel. Few will be foolish enough to try to take an extra base on a Sox outfield that includes both Cespedes and Jackie Bradley Jr.
- One More Shot for Will Middlebrooks
With Xander moving back to short, Will Middlebrooks will have one last chance to prove that he is the third baseman of the future. He had an absurdly long rehab stint to get healthy and hit some soft pitching in the minors, so he should be ready to go. He has shown flashes of tremendous power in the majors, like in 2012 when he hit 15 homers in half of a season. And with no pressure on the Sox to make the playoffs, Middlebrooks should be able to play with less of a monkey on his back. Just picture the left side of the Sox infield if both Middlebrooks and Bogaerts get rolling: I see 60+ homers between them for the next five years.
- Let’s see what the kids can do
As I mentioned, the 29 year-old Buchholz is now the old man of this rotation. He will be joined by 26-year-old former Cardinal Joe Kelly from the Lackey trade, and a slew of highly touted prospects from Pawtucket. Anthony Ranaudo, who makes his debut tonight, is 12-4 with a 2.41 ERA in Pawtucket this season. Rubby de la Rosa has shown streaks of dominance, especially at Fenway, where he did not surrender a run in his first two starts. The list goes on: Allen Webster, Matt Barnes, new acquisitions Edwin Escobar and Eduardo Rodriguez. But the gem of the farm system is Henry Owens, who just became the first 14-game winner in Portland Sea Dogs history. Don’t be surprised to see this guy at Fenway before September ends.
- Lester might be back next year
Ben Cherington knew what he was doing when he traded Lester to Oakland: Billy Beane and the Moneyball A’s do not have the cash to re-sign him in the offseason. Clearly, Sox management remains committed to pursuing Lester in free agency. Lester told Sean McAdam of CSNNE that he would return even after being traded, and I believe him—he has always been an honest, standup guy, and he wouldn’t say something like that unless he meant it. While I’m excited to see the young guns pitch for the rest of this season, the Sox need a rock like Lester on their pitching staff if they want to become relevant again next year. As Ben Cherington proved once again yesterday by acquiring Cespedes, trading Drew, and getting a solid return on Lackey, he knows what he’s doing. I trust him to get the owners on board, pony up market-value cash, and get Lester back. So keep watching this season, because the Sox won’t stay in the cellar for long. Start becoming acquainted with new guys like Cespedes, Kelly, and Allen Craig, who will help Lester take the Sox back to the playoffs next year. October in Boston is baseball weather, not golf weather.