So that’s it. In the end, the Red Sox were a good team that lost to a better one.
After embarrassing themselves in games one and two of the American League Division Series, the Sox returned to Fenway Park over the long weekend and at last displayed flashes of the fight and determination that characterized the team for so much of the season. But grit will get you only so far when you’re outclassed. And let there be no mistake — the Red Sox right now are not in the same class as the Houston Astros.
Still, as soundly as the Astros defeated the Sox in this series, it’s unclear just how much distance there is between the two clubs.
In calculating the talent disparity, should we look to the first two games of the series, in which the Astros clubbed the Sox by a combined score of 16 to 4? Or should we instead place more emphasis on the results of the second two games? The Sox won one of those games in a rout, after all, and lost the other in agonizing fashion.
These questions are not hypotheticals. The gap between the Red Sox and the Astros (and probably the Cleveland Indians, too) is the difference between merely winning a division and truly competing for championships. And determining the actual size of that gap — and then taking steps to close it — is, broadly speaking, going to be the real work of the Red Sox organization this offseason.
That work will fall, of course, to Dave Dombrowski, a man who, having just just completed his second full season as Red Sox president of baseball operations, must be given his due. Dombrowski has put together an impressive track record in Boston. His moves have not always been popular when first announced (I have certainly had misgivings with at least one of them), but more often than not, he has been proved right.
Dombrowski’s trades of top prospects for Chris Sale, Craig Kimbrel, and Drew Pomeranz all produced terrific returns this year. (Pomeranz’s transformation this season into one of the better starters in the American League was perhaps the single biggest surprise of the 2017 Red Sox.) His trade for the utility infielder Eduardo Nunez, meanwhile, may have saved the season. And then there was the prospect that he didn’t trade, Rafael Devers, who quickly demonstrated the potential for stardom.
But for all that’s gone right, there have been missteps for Dombrowski, too, and three of them contributed directly to the team’s problems this year.
First, there is David Price. As well as Price pitched in game three of the series, tossing four desperately needed scoreless innings, his was largely a lost season. Price was brought here to be a true ace, a horse capable of carrying the Sox to title contention. It hasn’t happened as yet, and his failure to contribute much at all this year was a significant part of the overall disappointment of this team. Two seasons after signing him to a massive contract, even Dombrowski would be hard pressed to describe Price’s time in Boston so far as anything more than a modest success.
Next, there was starting the season without a viable fallback option at third base in the (entirely foreseeable) event that the injury plagued and out of shape Pablo Sandoval didn’t bounce back with a serviceable performance after making only seven plate appearances the year before. A Sandoval who wound up playing in just 32 games for the Red Sox, posting a dismal line of .212/.269/.354 while providing below-average defense. As they tried to figure out what to do during Sandoval’s bouts of injury and extreme ineffectiveness, the Red Sox — a team that began the season with legitimate expectations of making the World Series—were forced to make due at third base with flawed players such as Deven Marrero, who posted a .593 OPS in 188 plate appearances, and Tzu-Wei Lin. It wasn’t until Devers debuted in late July that the position was no longer a black hole for the Sox.
But by far the biggest mistake made by Dombrowski was his calculation that his team’s young hitters — Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. in particular — would build on their success in the previous season and take another big step forward. Collectively, went the thinking, their improvement would allow the Red Sox to make up for the loss of David Ortiz’ offense without signing an expensive free agent slugger.
Instead, the Killer B’s all regressed at the plate, a drag on the team’s attack that even positive contributions from Devers, Andrew Benintendi, and Christian Vasquez could not overcome. Only three teams in the majors wound up hitting fewer home runs than the Sox, while among the teams that made the playoffs, only the Dodgers scored fewer runs. In short, it as a mistake for the Red Sox not to have looked to replace Ortiz’ bat with Edwin Encarnacion or some other free-agent thumper.
So where does that leave the team for 2018? Let’s acknowledge that there’s a good chance that we’ll see improvement from Betts, Bogaerts, Devers, and Benintendi. Even still, the Sox must not repeat the mistake of last year by counting on such improvements. One way or another, the organization is going to have to find a sure-fire, middle-of-the-order bat. With the minor leagues depleted of trade fodder, and the luxury tax presenting challenges to a blockbuster signing, it’s not entirely clear how Dombrowski adds a masher to this team without trading someone from the major league roster. But that will be his charge.
When it comes to the pitching, there’s really not a lot for the team to do. Top to bottom, the Sox had one of the best pitching staffs in game this year, posting the fourth-best ERA in the majors. Adding a full season of Price to the rotation will only help, as will the possibility of additional development by Eduardo Rodriguez. In the bullpen, meanwhile, Carson Smith looks ready to contribute high-leverage innings, and who knows, perhaps Tyler Thornburg will even find a way to throw a pitch.
Will a few strategic acquisitions and a bounce-back year here or there be enough for the Red Sox to close that talent gap with the Astros and Indians? We’re about to find out.