Looking for a Way Forward for the Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox 2015 season is starting to look like an abject failure. A week ago, they were not too far from pulling back up to .500 and were only five and a half games back of first place in a weak division, and they had an upcoming six game stretch against the Orioles and Blue Jays that presented a real opportunity to gain some ground on two of their competitors. Instead, the Red Sox lost all six games, are now 10 games under .500, and are eight games behind both the Yankees and Rays, and seven games behind the Blue Jays. In one week’s time, they’ve moved from being within spitting distance of first place to being equally far back of fourth place.

Nearly every move the organization made last winter is currently looking like a disaster. The big acquisitions of Hanley Ramirez (-0.4 WAR), Pablo Sandoval (+0.1 WAR), and Rick Porcello (+0.5 WAR) have resulted in a trio of highly paid replacement level performers, and the more minor acquisitions like Wade Miley (+0.5 WAR) and Justin Masterson (-0.2 WAR) have been just as ineffective. While the history of these deals won’t be written based on their first few months in Boston, it’s fair to say that things aren’t exactly working out according to the team’s plans.

And now the Red Sox are heading towards a crossroads. This experiment hasn’t worked, and with just six weeks to go before the trade deadline, the Red Sox have to start considering the fact that they may be sellers at the deadline. The upside of being terrible is that it’s a good year to be selling talent, but the Red Sox are struggling in large part because their big expensive acquisitions have been lousy, and it’s not so easy to dump $100 million contracts a few months after they were signed. The path forward for the Red Sox isn’t so obvious, but let’s try to figure out some priorities for this team’s short-term and longer-term future.

Find A Position For Hanley Ramirez

No part of this experiment has gone wrong in more ways than putting Hanley Ramirez in the outfield. Manny Ramirez might have shown Red Sox fans that a great hitter can still be highly valuable while playing poor defense in left field, but Hanley Ramirez is not Manny Ramirez at the plate, and the fielding, well…

By UZR, Hanley has already rated as 10 runs below an average defensive left fielder this year, despite playing just over 400 innings out there in the first two months of the season; that’s a -37 UZR/150; Manny didn’t have a season that poor in his entire career. DRS rates Hanley even worst, at -13, and while I only quoted two tweets from FG authors who watch a lot of Red Sox games, I think it’s fair to say that the general reaction to watching Ramirez play the outfield aligns with the numbers. Hanley Ramirez is just not a Major League quality outfielder, and he doesn’t appear to be trying to become one.

By signing Sandoval to play third base, the Red Sox left themselves no real options if this experiment didn’t work, however. David Ortiz is locked in at designated hitter, and while the team could trade Mike Napoli and stick Hanley at first base, I don’t know that I’d have much confidence in Hanley learning another new position on the fly. Indifference is a problem at every position on the diamond, and more and more, Hanley Ramirez is looking like a guy who just may not be interested in playing defense.

So for 2016 and beyond, the Red Sox probably need to view Ramirez as a DH. And that brings us to their next decision.

Figure Out What To Do With David Ortiz

Ortiz is 39, and currently hitting .229/.313/.414; it looks like his power is starting to erode, and while he might be able to rebound into being a decent hitter based on walks and contact, an aging DH with declining power isn’t exactly a franchise cornerstone. But Ortiz has a complicated contract structure for the next two years, with team options that automatically vest if he passes a year-end physical. It would probably be best for the Red Sox if Ortiz would simply retire after this season, opening up the DH spot for Hanley and eliminating their logjam of guys who can’t play the field, but he doesn’t sound like a guy contemplating walking away, and if he passes his physical and has ~$15 million in guaranteed salary coming his way in 2016, he may very well decide to try and go out on a better note.

Ortiz has full no-trade rights through the 10-and-5 rule in the CBA, so the Red Sox can’t trade him without his consent, and he’s previously stated that he doesn’t want to play anywhere besides Boston. So if Ortiz decides he wants to keep playing, and he wants to keep playing in Boston, the only thing the Red Sox can do is hope he fails his physical. But given that they probably shouldn’t carry both Ramirez and Ortiz on next year’s roster, then Ramirez’s future in Boston might be determined by whether Ortiz is willing to go away after this season.

If Ortiz wants to come back for 2016, Boston might not have much choice but to sell low on Hanley, shipping him to a team that doesn’t already have a DH under contract, and likely eating some of his contract in the process. The Dodgers bailed out the franchise the last time they were in this situation, but it’s probably not wise to count on anyone do them that kind of favor a second time.

Don’t Overreact To The Pitching Problems

The primary narrative regarding this Red Sox team surrounded their lack of an ace, with their five-decent-starters idea drawing a lot of suspicion from those outside the organization. And the team’s rotation hasn’t done anything to prove the critics wrong, putting up a 4.94 ERA that ranks as the worst in baseball. But of all the Red Sox issues, this is probably the one that can mostly be fixed by just remaining patient, because the primary driver of their poor performance is mostly just about failing in important situations.

Overall, the Red Sox starting pitchers — with the assistance of some poor defense — have allowed a .322 wOBA, 11 points higher than the AL’s average wOBA of .311. But a .322 wOBA generally doesn’t translate to 4.8 runs allowed per game; the Twins, for instance, have allowed a .323 wOBA but are giving up just 4.2 runs per game. The Red Sox do need better pitching to contend than they have now, but their staff’s results in the first half of 2015 don’t reflect the normal value of what you’d expect from the number of hits and walks they’ve allowed.

While Joe Kelly, Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, Clay Buchholz, and Eduardo Rodriguez aren’t likely good enough to win a championship without great teammates around them, neither is this group likely to continue to be a total disaster going forward. The team could definitely use another high-quality starting pitcher, but remaining patient with this group is likely a better choice than dumping a bunch of guys who are likely to start getting better results sooner than later.

The Red Sox have a number of real problems that are going to require active steps in order to fix them. They need to dump one DH, find a new left fielder, upgrade at first base, find a platoon partner for Pablo Sandoval, and add another talented arm or two to the pitching staff. That’s not all easily accomplished, and while the team has a good farm system, the best talents remain in the lower rungs of the minor leagues, so the team can’t really count on significant infusions of talent from within the organization.

The Red Sox are in a tough position. They’re better than they’ve played, and should be expected to perform decently in the second half if the team is kept together, but they’ve dug themselves a large enough hole that even a solid finish probably doesn’t salvage the 2015 season. The assembled pieces don’t make a cohesive roster, and the team needs to make some significant decisions about how to proceed the rest of this year and heading into next year. There are still some good pieces in place, but it isn’t entirely clear how the Red Sox are going to sort out the Hanley Ramirez situation, and unless Pablo Sandoval starts hitting, this doesn’t look like an offense that can carry a mediocre pitching staff.

The 2016 Red Sox are going to have to look a lot different than the 2015 Red Sox. How they get there isn’t so obvious, though, and the organization is probably going to have to make some tough decisions over the rest of the year. If David Ortiz doesn’t give them a get-out-of-jail-free card by retiring, unwinding this mess could be quite the challenge indeed.

We hoped you liked reading Looking for a Way Forward for the Red Sox by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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yes, a lot of teams have beaten them over the last two seasons.