In a season that’s starting out full of unexpected events, one that stands out the most to me is the moribund start of the Boston Red Sox. As of this writing, Boston stands at 16-22, just ahead of the Baltimore Orioles at fourth place in the American League East. Their -8 run differential is middle of the pack at best in the AL, dead even with the not-expected-to-contend Texas Rangers. The Sox were not predicated by many, if anyone, to be at the top of the East this year, but they were certainly supposed to be on about the same level as the Yankees, at least battling for a Wild Card a season after making the ALCS. Barring a huge turnaround on the level of the 2019 Washington Nationals, that’s not looking likely.
The Sox hired Chaim Bloom from the Tampa Bay Rays to be their chief baseball officer after the 2019 season. His apparent mandate was to get the team under the luxury tax threshold, especially considering he was following up the free spending Dave Dombrowski. Boston is hardly the only franchise to insist that financial flexibility is the best way to run their team.
There are ways that it makes sense on paper — if the money saved is used to reinvest in a winning product. But despite nearly winning the pennant last year, the Sox have very clearly taken a step backwards. Two years after trading Mookie Betts rather than trying to sign him to a mega contract, Boston’s outfield is, frankly, bad. It might have worked out in 2021, but those outcomes have not repeated this time around.
Alex Verdugo, acquired for Betts, has a history of being between a two-to-three win player by rWAR, so he should bounce back from the -0.4 mark he held entering play on Thursday. Center fielder Kiké Hernández had a career season in 2021, but has seemingly returned to his prior mostly middling results. And somehow Bloom got away with entering the season giving a starting spot to Jackie Bradley Jr., who takes “light-hitting” to a new level, with a slugging percentage below .280 this season and last.
There are other spots on the roster with a brighter picture. Rafael Devers continues to torment New York unabated, Xander Bogaerts is as steady as ever, and J.D. Martinez has started strong. Except Bogaerts and Martinez are almost certainly free agents after this season — with the signing of Trevor Story and rebuffed extensions potentially meaning the end is near for Bogaerts in Beantown, given his opt-out — and any extension talks with Devers have been fruitless as well.
If in 2023 Bogaerts, Martinez, and Devers (maybe traded just like Betts in his final year under contract) are all gone, the Red Sox will have what, exactly? Story, who — three-homer game notwithstanding — has yet to prove the bulk of his offense wasn’t provided by Coors Field? A 35-year-old Chris Sale, making almost $30 million? Garrett Whitlock, still torturing us? (That one is scary.) They will effectively be a blank slate, and that is exactly Bloom’s mandate.
Theoretically, it all sounds nice — their top prospects can play, supplanted by free agents that all that flexibility lets them pay. In theory. In practice, prospects can bust, and free agents can fail to pan out, as the team that signed Carl Crawford knows well. The likes of Devers, and Bogaerts (and to be fair, over in New York, Aaron Judge), are, on the other hand, known commodities.
The Red Sox of late have been boom or bust, a World Series contender or under .500, in a total malaise. Like the Yankees, they are supposed to be a team that’s always in the playoffs. Yet their roster, at this point, is clearly inferior to New York’s — their bullpen is nowhere close, and the starting rotation lacks a true ace. And the fans are supposed to take this in stride, knowing that it’s all for the cause of saving money, and no guarantees.
Part of Bloom’s philosophy is that his current shaping of the roster will allow sustained success, avoiding the peaks and valleys that have been Boston’s recent season records. That sounds nice, but really the only teams that consistently avoided the bad season-rebuild cycle over the last decade are the Yankees and Dodgers, and we all know it’s because of the way they marry player development with spending. If the Sox get there, good for them — but really, this mishmash roster they’re deploying so far is wholly unnecessary. There is no reason for a team like Boston to be bad.
As Judge puts up MVP numbers and Brian Cashman tries to remove his foot from his mouth concerning his extension negotiations, the Sox of right now serve as a model of what can happen when you insist on financial flexibility at the cost of common sense. Yes, Judge and Devers will likely not “earn” their pay in the last years of a long contract, but the future is a far away place. If you want someone like Judge, whose success can paper over underperformance from other players who might come cheaper due to a shorter history of success, you simply have to pay him what he’s worth. Cashman, like Bloom, wants fiscal responsibility, as defined by their bosses. Boston right now shows what that can get you — a rebuild for no reason, and success further out of reach in an awfully competitive division.