The Royals begin a three-game series with the Boston Red Sox tonight at Kauffman Stadium. The Red Sox are coming off a disappointing season, but made a splash in the off-season by signing Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Coupled with some young talent, they were widely expected to be contenders. Instead, they have stumbled to a record of 29-39 and sit in last place. We talked to Ben Buchanan, editor of Over the Monster, about the Red Sox troubles this season.
Royals Review: The Red Sox were expected to be pennant contenders this year but have gotten off to a very disappointing start. What has been their problem thus far?
Ben Buchanan: The Red Sox entered the season probably expecting to play something around .500 ball for a couple months, then to make the adjustments needed to really push the team over the top once they had enough evidence to figure out what was working and what wasn't. The problem is that not only have the gambles the Red Sox made during the offseason not paid off, but the things they felt safe in have let them down as well.
The infield defense was supposed to be a strong point. Mike Napoli was a revelation at first in 2013 and 2014, Pablo Sandoval has a solid reputation at third, and Dustin Pedroia is Dustin Pedroia. If you had told me that Xander Bogaerts was going to play leaps and bounds better than expected with the glove, I'd assume that Ben Cherington's gamble on a ground ball rotation had paid off.
Instead, Napoli has been a complete mess. Sandoval has made more gaffes than Edgar "Rent-a-Wreck" Renteria. And even Dustin Pedroia is just not his usual self. If they had that competent infield behind them, the pitching staff would probably have gone according to plan, identifying Justin Masterson as an obvious miss and probably sending Joe Kelly to the pen, calling up a couple fresh arms from the minors or getting one from there and getting a strong #3 or better from the trade market. Likewise, the lineup was supposed to do big things. And if an outfielder got hurt, or maybe Mike Napoli or David Ortiz stopped swinging the bat so well, it wouldn't be too hard to shift some names around, call up Rusney Castillo, or let Allen Craig have his shot and go from there.
But instead it's been a total collapse. David Ortiz is a mess. Mike Napoli looks like he's never seen a baseball before. Hanley Ramirez was killing it, then ran into the wall and hasn't been the same since. Pablo Sandoval is just barely getting his numbers up again after being drilled in the knee (and finally giving up switch hitting). Mookie Betts is experiencing a sophomore slump. We lost our starting catcher, and then our backup. Victorino was terrible, got hurt, then was the best player on our team, then got hurt again. Rusney Castillo has been a disappointment.
Everything that could go wrong has, except for Dustin Pedroia finding his power again and Xander Bogaerts looking competent. And now even Pedroia is missing games with a balky knee. The Red Sox were prepared to make somewhat significant adjustments to cover the holes they could reasonably expect to pop up given their offseason gambles. But they've managed to not only lose just about every gamble they knew they were taking, but also those they didn't. It would take a lot of miraculous fixes and a lot of changes to right this ship, but that doesn't even matter, since they've dug the hole too deep to even consider that.
Royals Review: Clubhouse issues ultimately ended the tenure of former manager Terry Francona. How is the clubhouse under John Farrell and might he be on the hot seat?
Ben Buchanan: Man, if you had asked me this a few days ago, I'd have a completely different answer. There have certainly been a few murmurs about new arrivals in Sandoval or Ramirez being negative clubhouse presences, but generally this has felt like the medias grasping for straws as they try to find an element of the 2012 three-ring circus team to dig their teeth into.
Generally speaking, it's been smooth sailing under John Farrell. However bad things were in terms of performance and results, the most we got out of the clubhouse was that everyone was frustrated with how things were going, and that was that. Then Pablo Sandoval got suspended one game for using Instagram in the bathroom and I just can't even begin. To his credit, Sandoval has taken a pretty ridiculous event on the chin. If Bobby Valentine were still in charge, I have to imagine a small riot would have broken out in the clubhouse over this. But I can't help but think this is also the sort of thing John Farrell waves off as stupid if he didn't hear all that media speculation about him "losing the clubhouse." If things do go rotten, you can probably mark this whole stupid affair as the start.
Royals Review: Royals fans are weary of seeing Pablo Sandoval again after his performance in last year's World Series. How has Kung Fu Panda been in Boston?
Ben Buchanan: Well...we've kinda already hit on this I guess. Back in April he was an undeniable bright spot aside from looking completely helpless against lefties. Then he started slumping around the same time he got drilled in the knee, and his defense went completely to pieces, with seemingly every game bringing a new mistake. Since giving up hitting right-handed, he's looked better at the plate, and we can only hope his defense follows. But with the team going to hell in a handbasket, Sandoval has kind of become the face of things. If he helped cultivate the image with all his defensive gaffes, he's kind of a scapegoat here, with Boston turning ugly the way only Boston can. Not exactly the way you'd want to start a contract like Sandoval's.
Royals Review: Is Big Papi just off to a slow start or is this it for the big guy?
Ben Buchanan: I hate to say it, it's looking more like the latter this year. We've seen Ortiz slump before, but the only time it's been this bad is when his 2008 wrist injury kept right on trucking into 2009. And while back then he still had time to get back on track and enjoy another renaissance, you just don't see guys playing too far past 40 to begin with. His time was running short as it was. There is some small hope, though. As of the time of this writing, he's hitting .308/.419/.654 in his last eight games. It's the tiniest of samples, and we've seen him get hot for times earlier this year before falling right back down. But it's hard not to cling to hope. He's been here 13 years now. I barely remember baseball without David Ortiz, and I don't want to face the reality that someday it will inevitably come again. But it will, and there's more reason to think that time is upon us than ever before.
Royals Review: The Red Sox boast some of the best young talent in the game with Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Rusney Castillo. Tell us a little about these players and who do you like to have the biggest impact in their career?
Ben Buchanan: Well, Rusney Castillo isn't all that young. He's actually more than a year older than Rick Porcello, believe it or not, which makes the rough start to his 2015 season all that much harder to accept. But frankly, he was kind of thrown into things without a spring training. He was injured in spring, injured again to start the minor league season, and called up not long after getting back onto the field. Given that he was also a long way removed from his last games in Cuba when he signed, and it's actually pretty easy to explain away the difficulties.
Mookie Betts is kind of a strange case. Watching him every day it feels like he's had a tough sophomore season. But he sits at 2.2 rWAR (1.5 fWAR) despite a BABIP way down at .269. I'll be the first to admit that Red Sox fans have gotten a little too quick to cry "luck" these days, but for Betts it really has been kind of unreal. He was hitting into tons of hard outs early on, and the way the game is these days, even at .254/.309/.403 he's just barely off a league average bat. That's plenty good enough for someone who looks like a strong defensive center fielder despite having just started playing the outfield last year. Take away all that luck and you've got a guy who's regularly making hard contact, showing that his growing power is more reality than fluke, and playing good baseball at a very young age.
Then there's Xander, who is my pick for the best career out of the three. In part that's because he was always supposed to be the best of the three offensively, and if it's taking some time for him to find his way back to where he was to begin 2014, he seems to be taking those steps forward. A bigger part of that is just how much work he's put into his defense at shortstop, and how much it's shining through. Last year I would've told you he was going to end up at third base long term. But nobody's going to be trying to take his spot there after the way he's played in 2015. He's only six days older than Mookie despite having been in the league since 2013, too, so you can't say he's behind schedule development-wise. Really when it comes down to it you can't go wrong choosing between Betts and Bogaerts. So I'll just be glad I don't have to. One of the few positives to this season.
Royals Review: Do you expect the Red Sox to make an aggressive move at the deadline to get back in this thing or will they become sellers?
Ben Buchanan: Back when the Red Sox were treading water in 2012, I was terrified the Red Sox were going to go all-in trying to save a sinking ship and really put the nail in the franchise's coffin in the process. Instead, they tightened up, then had their dramatic fire sale to the Dodgers to completely free the organization up heading into 2013. After that, I have no doubts that they know a lost cause when they see it.
2015 isn't happening, and they won't go crazy on rentals to try and force it. There's some small possibility that they still go out and get in a trade market if it happens to offer them value in 2016 and beyond, but given how the deadline works, with teams paying a premium for in-season desperation, I doubt that. The other possibility is a fire sale, but I kind of don't see that happening either. I think the Red Sox see the same things we all see with David Ortiz and expect Hanley Ramirez will be great to have around so long as he's not in left. I expect they think Sandoval will get better in the field, and that by that point his bat won't look quite as bad as it has. I also expect the market for either would be somewhat diminished given their contracts and performance to date.
The one piece that might actually be interesting to keep an eye on is Clay Buchholz, who has actually been pretty excellent aside from his one train wreck against New York despite playing in front of a defense that seems to be fielding three or four players as often as not (here's where he makes me look a fool by being terrible tonight against the Braves, probably). He's been something of a headache given his inconsistency, which might make the Red Sox willing to listen on him, while his team options make him an interesting target for frugal clubs that want to bet on an arm that, back in 2013, looked to be headed for a Cy Young award before injury struck. Other than that, though, the Sox just don't have many really valuable pieces that they'd have any interest in trading. Their best players are either franchise names or the young guys they expect to be the core for years to come. It's more likely to just be a quiet deadline this year.
Many thanks to Ben Buchanan and you can check out the latest Red Sox news at Over the Monster.