It could end with one of the worst collapses in baseball history. Or a World Series parade. But however the rest of their season plays out, one thing seems achingly clear: the Red Sox are headed for a hell of an offseason.
I mean, there's no way Theo Epstein and company can eyeball a season in which 33 out of 45 ESPN prognosticators picked the Sox to win it all (yup, I was one of 'em), look at the standings, see their nine-game wild card lead whittled to just two in a span of 16 days, and not want to make dramatic changes, right?
Intelligent teams try not to overreact to random hot streaks or cold spells. But the circumstances that have led to a Green Monster-size lump in Boston fans' throats are hardly random.
The back of the Sox rotation has been exposed as completely untenable, and the biggest reason we now have a race on our hands. The nine-figure deal for Daisuke Matsuzaka (including the $51.1 million bidding rights fee) will go down as one of the worst in MLB history. Tim Wakefield is a terrific story and by all accounts a swell guy, but he has no business starting games in a pennant race. All the other fliers the Red Sox took to patch the number-four and -five spots have failed. You can get away with three good starters and a loaded offense in almost any situation. Just not in the AL East -- and especially not if Clay Buchholz's sudden injury issues carry over to next season.
Though the Red Sox pay lip service to fiscal restraint and try to play up the idea that they're financial underdogs compared to the Yankees, this is a team with monstrous revenue streams and a willingness to shell out for talent. They ran up an Opening Day payroll just below $164 million, the third-highest mark in MLB. Two elite starting pitchers could go on the market this winter: reliever turned legitimate ace C.J. Wilson, and Yankees opt-out candidate CC Sabathia. Signing either pitcher would double as a poke in the eye against a major AL rival. It would also go a long way toward avoiding Kyle Weiland and John Lackey starting the two ends of a doubleheader in the thick of a pennant race, and the inevitable reaction it engenders.
Kevin Youkilis isn't a reliable everyday third baseman. This might seem like a piddly complaint, given Youkilis ranks as the
third fifth-best 3B in baseball this year by Wins Above Replacement. Still, he's a subpar defender made worse by mounting injuries. Those injuries are forcing the Sox to scramble too, with Youkilis on track to miss 102 games over the past two years, assuming he sits out these last 10 games of the season. Youk's under contract for $12 million next year, so he's not going anywhere short of an unlikely trade. But at the very least, Boston will need to hedge against future injuries. Whether that's hoping Mike Aviles can be the terror he's been over the past few days (and not the OBP sieve he is the rest of the time) or finding another solution, they need a viable Plan B.
One possibility: Will Middlebrooks, the best position player prospect in Boston's system (.302/.345/.520 at Class-AA this year, plus a cup of coffee at Class-AAA). Prospect hounds have Middlebrooks' ETA as late 2012, but circumstances could expedite the process. Another possibility …
... would be to move Youkilis to DH, and hope the easier job description helps him rediscover his elite bat. David Ortiz is a free agent at year's end, and you wonder how much money, and more importantly how many years he might ask for after posting a wOBA above .400 in his walk year. Choosing a cheaper option at third, moving Youkilis to DH, letting Ortiz go and funneling that money into, say, a run at Sabathia could end up being a big net gain.
The bullpen needs more depth. You could say that about 29 other teams too, to be fair. But Bobby Jenks' two-year deal has been a bust, you wonder how long the Sox can keep running out Alfredo Aceves before his arm falls off, and Jonathan Papelbon's going to cost a fortune (and multiple years) to re-sign. Franklin Morales has been a nice, cheap addition. And really, scavenging for talent is the way to go to build a pen, since throwing big bucks at any reliever not named Mariano Rivera is asking for trouble. On the other hand, if Daniel Bard's recent case of the yips proves to be short-lived, much of this could be rendered moot.
Several other major question marks loom this off-season, including Jacoby Ellsbury's contract (he's going year-to-year in arbitration right now, but the Sox will obviously explore signing the man who might be this year's MVP); right field (can Josh Reddick hit enough to handle a position that demands a big bat?); shortstop (pick up Scutaro's option, trust Jed Lowrie to stay healthy for longer than 10 minutes, do something crizazlebeans like sign Jose Reyes?!?!); and left field (they'll need to replace that waiver-wire claim they have starting right now … what's that? That's Carl Crawford, and he's got six years and $122 million left on his contract? Oh dear).
Maybe you resist any major moves, with the possibility of a second wild card increasing the margin for error, and plenty of talent still on board. But the Rays aren't going away, the Jays could be dangerous if they make a free-agent splash, and the Yankees are the Yankees. The smart money's on at least one big move coming down the pike for 2012.
Too bad they can't make one right f'ing now.
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