The Red Sox were behind 4-0 in the eighth inning Wednesday, five outs away from yet another woebegotten loss, albeit to a great pitcher named Chris Sale, when that small spark flashed. Mookie Betts hit a roller towards shortstop, beat it out, and seeing that no one could have been covering second base kept running into second.
Exit Sale. Three outs later, Brock Holt singled in Daniel Nava for a walkoff win, Boston’s second on the second to last game of a ten game homestand. On a night when Jackie Bradley, Jr., who happens to have the most defensive runs saved of any center fielder in the major leagues, made an Inside Pitch highlight of the morning with a diving catch in right-center.
Maybe it wasn’t a spark, only a firefly. Releasing A.J. Pierzynski is not going to take the Red Sox from worst to first, again. He clearly sensed his time in Boston was closing in, as Grady Sizemore, the team’s other off-season positional addition to the 2013 world champions, had two weeks earlier. But this team that clawed with such tenacity last season and saw the Red Sox Sea parted by acts sometimes inexplicable had become stagnant. Veteran players cruised out of the box and ended up thrown out at second base on balls off The Monster. When John Farrell decreed that because Betts and Brock Holt have to take balls live off the bat in the outfield during batting practice, players’ kids could no longer roam the outfield during BP, some veterans groused, and one texted a former teammate that “now we have rules.”
They are in last place with the worst offense in the American League, and there was a sense of entitlement for their great year, when, in fact, the Duck Boats are now in the barn. So Pierzynski is gone and replaced by a catcher who in time may be Jonathan Lucroy. The Red Sox have scouts out scouring other teams’ systems in case they come to the point where they consider trading Jon Lester or (even less likely) Koji Uehara or Stephen Drew, Jake Peavy, John Lackey or Felix Doubront.
And, most of all, they have to concentrate on the development of Brock Holt, Betts, Christian Vazquez, Xander Bogaerts and anywhere from three to six young pitchers, eyeing the soft underbelly that is the American League East but realistically treating the remainder of 2014 as the overture to 2015, by which time they hope to have found a way to acquire a power hitter, or two. They can also eye the organization they most respect, the Cardinals, who are similarly last in the National League in runs and home runs. Fans have been impatient with their young players like Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras, and while they have begun to get their rotation in order, GM John Mozeliak has talked to his staff about “the difficult process of trying to learn and win at the same time.”
And last night, when asked about finding power, Mozeliak said, “just how hard it is can be defined by this statistic—in the last 30 years, the Cardinals have signed and developed two players who have hit 30 homers in a season—Albert Pujols and Ray Lankford.” So no one in New England should wonder why Ben Cherington isn’t giving up on a way to get Will Middlebrooks healthy, continue his development and try to make use of his power.
Cherington and the Red Sox deny that they have moved ahead in time. Dustin Pedroia, who has played with a number of hand injuries, has started to hit, his slash line is up to .282/.350/.384, and rising. Most important, he remains the soul of what they want this team to be. Buck Showalter continually says, “I just ask that before I retire, I get to manage Pedroia for three games.” When the Red Sox were in Oakland, Billy Beane called and said, “Pedroia is really a great player. You absolutely have to see him to understand what makes him great.”
Mike Napoli has fought through a broken finger and assorted ailments and has a slight downturn in homers (10), but he has been getting on base, but Boston’s lineup is so thin their production out of the six hole is .196/.275/.350. So Napoli doesn’t get a lot of pitches. Ortiz doesn’t think he gets pitches, either, despite Napoli behind him; Big Papi’s .259/.359/.486 line has been streaky. Stephen Drew was supposed to be a veteran presence, but has hit .131. Pierzynski went six weeks without a home run, and had one RBI in 15 games when released.
All of which has further pressured their young players, most notably Bogaerts. In April and May, he had OBP and OPS numbers of .382 and .750 in April, .407 and .897 in May. Then came the move to third to make room for Drew; at the time of the move, he was batting .296 with an .816 OPS. Since, .136, .400. One thing the Red Sox have learned is that Bogaerts may be overly accountable. On Marathon Day, he made a late baserunning mistake, and when Farrell defended him, Bogaerts told the media, “it was entirely my fault.” When he was complimented the next day for his accountability, he said, “no one asked me about a poor throw that cost us a double play that would have kept us out of the situation.”
When he doesn’t hit in big situations, he clearly beats himself up. When he made a throwing error behind John Lackey Saturday, he looked as if he’d kicked someone’s golden retriever. “No doubt, he takes it very hard,” says one coach. “But we forget how crude the baseball background is. He and Mookie are the two youngest players in the league, but Mookie has a far different baseball background.”
“Most superstars are arrogant,” says one Red Sox official. “Xander has no arrogance. Just the opposite.” Chase Utley would say that level of confidence that he or Evan Longoria carries is better described as “being comfortable.”
“The thing about Xander is that he is so well-liked in the clubhouse,” says the club official. “They know how much he cares, how hard he works, how accountable he is, and they have his back.”
This past week, hitting coaches Greg Colbrunn, Tim Hyers and Victor Rodriguez made significant progress getting Jackie Bradley, Jr. back to the swing that got him to the major leagues, and are trying to get him to laying off balls up and out of the zone. They’re trying to get Bogaerts back to his normal approach, which is taking balls the other way and crushing fastballs; it has been shocking how many fastballs he normally would hit that he’s swung through.
Now Betts is in the equation with Holt, who has been the find of the year. Now there is Vazquez, who will have David Ross as the perfect mentor. Before the end of the season, they want to see where they stand with Middlebrooks and the oft-injured Bryce Brentz, who has immense power, especially against lefthanded pitchers. Maybe infielder Sean Coyle, who some of their hitting coaches believe is the best pure hitter of this group. They may look in September at Deven Marrero, a superb defender and, in the mind of one coach, “the best leader of any of the young players.” And they have to sort through Brandon Workman, Rubby De La Rosa, Matt Barnes, Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson and Steven Wright to see who is a keeper, and who might be tradeable, as they try to re-engage Jon Lester in contract negotiations.
This is what the Red Sox have. They’re not going to be able to trade for a .900 OPS outfielder; none are available. They’re not going to be able to trade veterans and get a Kris Bryant or a Joey Gallo in a deal. They can keep monitoring the Cubans as they try out in Haiti, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. They can scour for an undervalued bat, someone like Justin Maxwell.
Meanwhile, July, August and September become Summer Training, which leads to Spring Training, and by the time they get back to Fort Myers, Betts, Holt, Vazquez, Bogaerts, et al will have the experience they so clearly lacked the first half of this 2014 season.