“Wait ’till next year. That quartet of words is either the most or least comforting in a baseball fan’s language.
For generations in Brooklyn it was a watchword of faith almost equal to a Jew’s Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. But after 1956 didn’t mean a second straight World Series title for the Boys of Summer, wags suggested, “Ahhhh, wait ’till last year!”
For many teams’ fans, alas, they’re the saddest of possible words. And, for generations of pre-2004 Red Sox, pre-2016 Cub, and pre-2017 Astro fans, not to mention almost every Washington Senators fan and every St. Louis Browns fan on the planet past, and every Indians fan since 1954, the saddest of possible words may have been, “This year is next year.”
At this writing, of course, the Red Sox are four-time World Series champions in this century (take that, Empire Emeritus!) including the current defending Series champs. And that, alas, is as far as it’s going to go. The end of Chris Sale’s season, which wasn’t going all that well in the first place, might as well be the end of the Red Sox’s title defense.
Unless there’s a miracle on the horizon equal if not superior to such as the 1914 Braves, the 1961 Reds, the 1967 Red Sox, the 1969 Mets, or the 1990 Reds, you can stick a fork in the 2019 Red Sox. They may be done.
They’ve learned or re-learned the hard way that all the hitting on earth, and the Red Sox bats make life miserable enough for opposing pitchers, isn’t going to out-hit, out-slug, or out-run a pitching staff whose starting rotation fell apart so profoundly this year that their number five starter (Eduardo Rodriguez) leads the rotation with . . . a 4.10 ERA.
There’s no point to having Rafael Devers emerge as one of the league’s premier third basemen, Xander Bogaerts jumping into the conversation about the league’s best shortstops and team leaders, Mookie Betts recovering from an up-and-down first half to look like his defending MVP self the second half so far, or the entire Red Sox offense making for the American League’s second-most runs behind the Yankees, if they can’t find even a used pitching machine that can get you through games without disaster every couple of innings.
Bad enough that Sale looked as often as not as though he were pressing to live up to that yummy contract extension he signed during last offseason. Worse is that his shoulder was already a concern when he signed it, and that now his pitching elbow is inflamed enough to shut him down for the season with a question of Tommy John surgery lurking.
If Sale needed the procedure, he’d have missed 2020 recovering. And the Red Sox would have to be the most creative they’ve had to be in several years to work around it. Because right now they don’t have the pitching depth to cover losing Sale, any more than they proved to have it when they didn’t have Nathan Eovaldi for the first three months of the season after arthroscopic elbow surgery.
They’re not likely to re-sign Rick Porcello, and they probably shouldn’t considering Porcello’s Cy Young Award-winning 2016 is small enough in the rear view mirror and was thought to be a fluke even when he won the award. (Porcello won it because he was credited with 22 wins to lead the league, but Justin Verlander actually pitched better that season.) A 5.49 ERA and 4.87 fielding-independent pitching rate just don’t equal even a number three rotation man, never mind an ace.
And David Price, who rediscovered his changeup to deadly effect last postseason, seems to have lost it again this year. He’ll have to rediscover it one more time if at all if he’s going to contribute positively again.
They could sign either Gerrit Cole or Madison Bumgarner this winter, considering the money coming off their books, including the last of the ill-fated Pablo Sandoval contract, gives them some significant flexibility. But the Red Sox have little if any pitching to look toward on the farm, even less considering general manager Dave Dombrowski mortgaged a significant chunk of it to get Sale, Price, and long-departed bullpen bulls Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly in the first place.
The rotation issues turned the Red Sox bullpen into an overworked mess even before Eovaldi returned and the Red Sox couldn’t decide whether he should start or relieve. Their only significant trade deadline period acquisition, Andrew Cashner, went bust as a starter and his move to the bullpen was clearly a demotion.
But Cashner could prove a relief godsend and he’d still be only one man. Unlike the Nationals and the Mets, whose effective starting pitchers were undermined by mal-constructed bullpens much of the season, the Red Sox bullpen looked decent going into the season. The original closer-by-committee plan didn’t work. The rotation—hurt in part by being underworked in spring training—ended up vaporising the pen too profoundly for a single saviour.
What hath Dombrowski wrought? In Detroit he was on a mission to get the Tigers back to the World Series and got close enough often enough—but he crashed and burned the Tigers’ farm to do it. Now the Tigers are forced into a frame-up reconstruction while being saddled with four more years and $124 million still due injury prone, 36-year-old Miguel Cabrera. Thanks for the memories, Dave.
In Boston, Dombrowski was given the mission he’d had in Detroit: spend, deal, and build us another World Series winner. Unlike in Detroit, where his Tigers got close, closer, closest, but never quite back to the Promised Land, with the Red Sox he did it. Last year’s Red Sox just might have been the single best Red Sox team in the franchise’s history.
The question is how badly Dombrowski crashed and burned the Red Sox farm to do it, too. He builds winners but the prices longer-term prove more insurmountable in the end. Red Sox Nation now has the potential to become very empathetic with Tiger fans who can’t really be sure how long or how painful the Tigers’ restoration will be.
And, considering the $237 million committed to just three pitchers (Sale, Price, Eovaldi) over the next three years, all eyes will be cast upon the Olde Towne Team when Betts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. (who still isn’t a consistent hitter but who’s still valuable with his glove in the outfield) hit free agency after next year.
The good news is that reports broke early Tuesday saying Sale wouldn’t need Tommy John surgery after all. The elbow inflammation hasn’t telegraphed the tear that would make the operation mandatory. He’ll have time aplenty to rehorse himself for next year. Which would solve only one Red Sox pitching problem. The parched pitching picture on the farm is deadly serious.
Now it seems like generations ago when the Red Sox destroyed the Yankees in three out of four in a late July home set that only began with a 19-3 massacre. After that series, during which the Red Sox out-bludgeoned the Yankees 44-22, the Red Sox:
* Lost three straight to the Rays followed immediately by the Yankees doing to them in New York what they’d just done to the Yankees in Fenway.
* Split with the Royals and the Angels, both of whom have their own issues to solve and answers to find.
Which put them sixteen games out of first in the AL East. They’ve gone from there to take two of three from the AL Central-resurgent Indians followed by a sweep of the Orioles which can be argued was doing it the easy way. But they’re still a .500 club since the All-Star break, they’re still sixteen out of first in the East, and they’re six behind in the wild card hunt.
Dombrowski has one year left on his own current contract. The Red Sox may consider it a prudent investment to just eat the money and let him go. Which might solve one headache now, but whether it solves a longer-term pain depends upon whom they bring in to succeed him and how well they can reconstitute their pitching corps.
Dombrowski’s off-season just may dictate whether the Red Sox put the rest of his contract on their dinner menu. A little creativity and a bold signing or two just might yank the Red Sox back for a run in 2020. Hello, Gerrit Cole? Welcome to Boston, MadBum?
Re-deepening the parched farm requires a lot more creativity. That’s where the Red Sox face a longer-term burden. Wait till next year and last year at once?