Blasberg ’18: Red Sox in turmoil: What to do with an underachieving team?

Sports Columnist
Friday, September 18, 2015

It is no secret that the Red Sox’s free-agent signings last winter were an enormous bust. The team’s poor record this season is a function of the underwhelming performance of its entire pitching staff and star players. Lately, though, it has turned its season around. As the team’s playoff hopes were dashed shortly after the All-Star break, General Manager Ben Cherington and Team President Larry Lucchino were both dethroned, while interim manager Torey Lovullo has committed to a pragmatic approach to building a winning lineup.

So far, young talent has replaced many of the big names that hindered the lineup at the beginning of the year. Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. have replaced Shane Victorino and Hanley Ramirez, and along with Mookie Betts, the trio makes up the best defensive outfield in baseball. With Bradley’s recently hot bat, all three are threats at the plate and on the basepath. Both Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly have found their grooves in the last third of the season, while rookie arms Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens have impressed. Catcher Blake Swihart has emerged as a switch-hitting threat with speed on the basepath and acumen behind the plate. Lovullo has done a nice job piecing together the outfield and a six-man pitching rotation.

What do we do with the Red Sox’s infield? One thing is for sure: Xander Bogaerts is staying at shortstop. His defense has vastly improved this year, as he is much more comfortable moving left or charging in to field the ball. Not to mention his team-leading batting average and propensity for driving in runners in scoring position.

At third base, Pablo Sandoval has been mediocre. Though his performance has improved in the later part of the season, his sluggishness at the hot corner and his lack of discipline at the plate have plagued the Sox. Unfortunately, his contract is so burdensome and his production so poor that no other team would pick him up. Trading Mike Napoli opened up a slot at first base for rookie Travis Shaw, who has been more than competent offensively and defensively. Shaw’s bat has cooled substantially since his initial weeks in the majors, but hitting coach Chili Davis sees a lot of potential in the young lefty’s swing.

Perhaps Lovullo will try failed-outfielder Hanley Ramirez at first base, but Ramirez is nowhere near ready. He should stay on the DL for the rest of the season. At second base, Dustin Pedroia has finally returned from the DL. He has lived up to expectations when on the field, but his strained hamstring certainly adds to a list of injuries that is more than unsettling for a starting second baseman.

Provided the lineup stays how it is for the rest of this season and into next season, the Red Sox will be leaving out a huge piece of their team: Brock Holt. The Red Sox’s lone All-Star this season — Holt — has been used to replace the injured Pedroia, the underperforming Sandoval and Napoli and the odd outfielder on occasion. Holt is too good to play every other day as a utility infielder or pinch hitter. He deserves a starting spot in the lineup, but there are too many pieces and not enough positions in the infield right now.

Putting Holt at third and benching Sandoval would waste the Sox’s investment in the third baseman. Plus, it may be worth giving Sandoval another season to prove himself. Inserting Holt at first base may be a viable option, but I like what I’ve seen in Shaw so far, and I’m certain he can continue performing given enough time and opportunity. Moreover, Shaw, at 6-foot-4, is a better size for a first baseman than the 5-foot-10 Holt, whose build lends itself more to playing middle infield.

What I propose may not be popular among those who are wedded to seeing Pedroia finish his career in Boston, but the team is thriving on youth right now. If the Red Sox can keep this core group of young, talented players together, they may be a consistent playoff team for years to come.

Brock Holt should start at second base next year. With the return of Christian Vasquez in the spring, the Red Sox will have three catchers in him, Swihart and Ryan Hanigan. Swihart’s speed, his improvement over this season and the potential he has exhibited make him a desirable prospect for other teams. The Red Sox should start Vasquez at catcher and trade Swihart along with Pedroia for an ace. While Holt offers the Sox dependability, Pedroia remains very susceptible to injury. Swihart is a young talent who has played well this season and is useful for trade leverage, as the Red Sox are over-crowded at his position.

The two keys for the Red Sox this offseason are to keep the core of young players together and to splurge for a legitimate ace. If the Sox can lock down a pitcher who can consistently pitch into the late innings and win 15 to 17 games, next season will be a completely different story than the mess that this one proved to be.