By Matt Straub
Brad might have given me the greatest challenge of all the years we’ve known each other this week. As part of a series of posts in the weeks ahead wrapping up the baseball season and ahead to important winters for the local baseball teams, we’re starting by breaking down five players who have helped the Red Sox this year and five who hurt them the most, 5 up and 5 down.
Each side of the coin presents its own challenges. Finding only five people to blame for the 2014 season is difficult, since so many people fell off the map or got hurt this season.
A year ago the hardest part of this column was limiting myself to just a few players to credit for the Red Sox winning a world championship. This year, it will be hard to find five people who helped the Sox in any positive way.
The Red Sox won a measly 71 games this year, the second-worst total ever by a defending champion, trailing only the 1998 Marlins, who weren’t the same team by the time their “defense” was complete, having had the best players traded away. This year’s team went into the year with some changes, as every team does, but the newness of the roster was overblown. Of the 13 Red Sox who stepped on the field during Game 6 of the 2013 World Series, only Jacoby Ellsbury didn’t spend time with the Red Sox in 2014, having gone to the Yankees, and shown what he could do if he was healthy for most of a year.
Of course, all those returnees weren’t necessarily good news. Stephen Drew was eventually resigned in the middle of the year, but only after a prolonged saga which ruined Xander Bogaerts’ confidence. Shane Victorino got hurt early in 2014 and never contributed to the title defense, leaving the Sox with a gaping hole in the outfield, and David Ross emerging as the primary catcher by the end of the playoffs last year forced Boston to go get a handcuff, which brought A.J. Pierzynski into our lives. And while the ensuing sets of controversies weren’t all his fault, let’s just say he didn’t bring peace and harmony to the clubhouse. I still wouldn’t have given Ellsbury what the Yankees did, but he would have been better than Jackie Bradley Jr.
The 2013 playoffs proved Mike Napoli could stay healthy and play big in big games and earned him a new deal. The newly resigned Napoli then proceeded to go downhill in 2014, another side effect for the Nation’s World Series hangover.
So while the 2013 Series in many ways was the most special of the three titles Boston has won in the last decade, it helped set up a nightmare in 2014.
With the backdrop set, let’s now pick those five up and five downs. I like a good challenge.
David Ortiz: We’ll start with an easy, obvious one. Every year brings a new ordeal with Ortiz, who gets mad at someone, causes a fight with a batflip, or gets generally cranky. And yes, the end of the season means his next demand for a new contract is just weeks, if not days, away. But for all his flaws, the 38-year old Ortiz just got done with another 35 homer, 104 RBI season for a team which wasn’t the offensive juggernaut it used to be. Ortiz still does it all, even if some of those things drive you crazy.
Save the date for three years from Sunday, when the Red Sox throw a party for Ortiz which makes what they did for Jeter look small.
Brock Holt: The super-sub became the kind of player who will be a valuable asset for the next time the Red Sox contend. Holt played every defensive position except catcher and hit .281 before getting hurt. He’s the scrappy, selfless kind of player the 2013 Sox were built on before the hangover occurred. And the guy is more than a defensive replacement. He can play and hit while giving the Sox incredible versatility. I made fun of him early in the year, but he was probably the second-best Red Sox this year behind Ortiz.
Mookie Betts: One of the highlights of the year-end rebuilding project was the emergence of Betts. His speed, ability to hit for average and occasional power have made him a potential top of the order threat and run producer. He must learn to handle the outfield since the Red Sox are set at second base, but that will come in time with his athleticism. He has a chance to be a good one, and his development will be a key part of the 2015 campaign assuming he isn’t traded over the winter for a pitcher.
Xander Bogaerts: His numbers weren’t great, and he really struggled during the summer months when the Sox brought back Drew and moved Bogaerts to third. Once he got his job back at shortstop, the young star regained his confidence and hit .317 in 24 games in September. Throw in a solid April and great May, and I thing Bogaerts’ struggles can be attributed to the Red Sox messing with his head.
Rusney Castillo: Sure it was only 25 games, but Castillo hit .333 and might represent the future. The Cuban outfielder is still a mystery, but he seems to have speed and power. Red Sox fans are too excited about him, as I think he’s a complimentary piece on a good team more than a star, but hey, he’s someone to look forward to. And I had to meet Brad’s challenge.
Mike Napoli: His numbers actually weren’t too much worse than a year ago, but it’s a bad look to struggle after signing a new deal. His body didn’t exactly hold up completely, but he played in 119 games. The lower production and games played scare me in my 32-year olds with hip problems, however. Plus, he shaved the greatest beard in history late in the season. I’m not ready to give up on him yet, but his bad year hurt the Red Sox offense significantly. Imagine what Ortiz could have done with help.
Will Middlebrooks: He hit .191, was hurt a lot, whined about a number of things, cost the Red Sox Jenny Dell, then refused Boston’s request to have him play winter ball to improve and regain some momentum from what was a lost season, which is about the fastest way to get yourself traded. It’s a shame to see promise wasted, but he just seems like a player who thinks much more highly of his skill than he should. Remember Shea Hillenbrand? Middlebrooks is the next potential young star who played himself out of Boston.
Dustin Pedroia: This one hurts. I remember a time about three years ago when I used to argue Pedroia vs. Robinson Cano and could make a really good case for the Red Sox star as the better overall second baseman. Then the nagging injuries started. Now, however, the injuries are becoming constant, making the should-be captain’s performance anything but.
Pedroia got hurt during the home opener making a tag at second and was never the same. He bounced back from missing half of 2010 with the best year of his career in 2011. He missed 21 games in what would have been an outstanding 2012 had he been healthy all year, and lost all his power in 2013. While his stayed a strong offensive threat, he was more of a singles and doubles hitter. But at least he was healthy (he led the league in plate appearances and the Sox to a title).
In 2014 he missed September to get more surgery after plodding his way through a decent, but not great, season. Sure he was playing through pain, but grit and heart mean only so much. If you can’t play to your potential because of the injury, you have to get it fixed. If 2011 Pedroia showed up this year, maybe Boston wouldn’t have been as bad.
The Cano-Pedroia argument died when Pedroia stopped being able to play every day, while Cano plays 160 games a year. Even worse, however, is Pedroia’s spotty leadership skills. At his best, he is an energetic, funny force who should definitely be the captain. But where was he during the end of the 2011 season? Forget chicken and beer, the Sox collapsed because they didn’t play well for a solid month. Where was Pedroia to bring the team’s focus back? Sometimes a manager gets tuned out, but one of the veteran players never should. And this year, when it was clear the Sox were in a malaise from the start? Pedroia used to be the spark people followed. These days, he’s a guy who just talks a lot. When he’s around to talk.
Jackie Bradley Jr.: Only five Red Sox had more at-bats than Bradley Jr. this year. Only two regulars on the team (Middlebrooks, Drew) had worse years than JBJ. For a couple of years, he was thought of as the future. When he showed some flashes during a cup of coffee in the bigs in 2013, fans got even more excited. His expected emergence was one of the many reasons the Red Sox got rid of Jacoby Ellsbury. He was going to be given the center field job and left to grow into the role. Like many decisions the front office made, I liked it at the start of the year. But like so many other decisions this team made in 2014, it blew up in their face.
Bradley Jr. went from hot prospect to awful major league player. He’s only 24, so it’s far from time to forget about him, but hitting under .200 for more than 120 games is not encouraging, and it is also not a small sample size. Bradley Jr. is a wonderful defensive player, routinely making spectacular catches in the outfield which will likely keep him in the majors for years to come as a defensive replacement at the very least. But for someone so highly-regarded coming up who got fans so excited, he was a disaster at the plate, even getting sent back down to Triple-A at one point. A .290 hitter in the minor leagues, there’s still a chance he’ll get comfortable down the road. Maybe this year can be chalked up to the pressure of moving into the big time getting to him. For this reason, I’d like to see him get another shot early in 2015. I’m not giving up on him yet. But for all the Red Sox ills in 2014, no other single position had as big a downgrade as center field. Jacoby Ellsbury had a number of flaws, but Red Sox fans didn’t fully appreciate what they had until it was gone. A competent hitter to replace Ellsbury would have been fine. Jackie Bradley Jr. helped kill the Red Sox.
The Front Office: I don’t have many problems with the moves they made before the year. I wouldn’t have brought Ellsbury back for what the Yankees gave him, and Bradley Jr. had to get a chance. I hated the A.J. move, but the staff seemed strong, the lineup solid, and there were young kids coming up the pipeline. What the Sox did during the year, however, didn’t work.
As I wrote at the break, I loved the way Boston revolutionized the trade deadline by trading for current major leaguers instead of simply getting prospects who may not do anything (see Middlebrooks), but the Red Sox ended up not getting much back for Jon Lester and John Lackey.
Allen Craig hasn’t worked out at all, and Joe Kelly’s biggest contribution was taking a selfie with Derek Jeter during his Fenway ceremony. Yeonis Cespedes wasn’t terrible, and proved to have the clutch gene in him, but he’s not exactly a centerpiece of your franchise.
When you consider the Red Sox gave up Lester, whose only reason for considering leaving as a free agent after the year was because the Sox didn’t want to pay him, and John Lackey, a pitcher who will make $500,000 next year (though the Cardinals will probably change that), however, it ends up being a terrible haul.
More important, the Lester mess shows the Sox don’t know what they want. They didn’t want to pay Lester, who said he’d take a discount to stay, but they’ve made it clear they plan on spending big money on starting pitching this winter. So you’ll splurge on James Shields, but not your homegrown ace? I’ve never been as high on Lester as most fans, but that’s just bad business. Trading Lackey at all made less sense. OK, you want to rebuild, but isn’t a good pitcher on a cheap deal (even if the Sox redid it) one of the best things you can have if you want to turn things around?
After a terrible first half, the Red Sox made deals just to change the culture. The approach was called for in 2012, but this is the team (minus Ellsbury) which won the World Series 11 months ago. Yes, changes had to be made, but not at the expense of the players who can actually help them.