The Boston Red Sox wrapped up what’s been an overwhelmingly disappointing season today in Cleveland. The Red Sox opened the year as the betting favorite to win the American League pennant, with the media infatuated by the signings of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. A terrible first half quickly took the Sox off the national radar. But over the final two months of the season, real signs of hope emerged with this team that can be carried into 2016.
On August 18, Boston hired Dave Dombrowski as team president. This was a week after it was learned that manager John Farrell had Stage 1 lymphoma and was beginning chemo. Interim manager Tory Lovullo took over in an atmosphere where players were under evaluation by a fresh front office face and motivated to play for their sick skipper. The combination of inspiration and fear turned into 26-17 record going into the final day of the season.
More than that, it was young talent that was doing the winning. No less than eleven players age 27 or younger made significant contributions down the stretch and in a lot of cases, all year long. Here’s the rundown, going through the lineup position-by-position…
C: Blake Swihart hit .275 and finished with a respectable .320 on-base percentage. Swihart was far from an offensive juggernaut, but how many catchers are? The 23-year-old was supposed to spend the season in Pawtucket before injuries forced an early call-up and he got a lot of on-the-job training.
1B: Travis Shaw was a revelation as a left-handed power bat. He hit 13 home runs in less than 300 at-bats and slugged .495. He’s also just 23-years-old and his talent may have thrown a monkey wrench into the plans to have Hanley play first base next year. But it’s the kind of monkey wrench you want to have.
UT: Brock Holt is 27-years-old and this is second year as a key contributor. He’s a steady, if unspectacular offensive player, with a .349 OBP and little power. But he’s consistent and he can play anywhere. To wit, this season, he played a lot at second base with Dustin Pedroia out. He’s also an option in the outfield. I would like to see him at third base, although that depends on the future of Sandoval.
SS: Xander Bogaerts was a late call-up and big contributor to the 2013 World Series run and then struggled much of last year in full-time duty. He’s been throw so much it seems hard to believe Xander is only 22. He also hit .320 this year, flirted with 200 hits and was the best shortstop in the American League this season.
OF: Mookie Betts is another star in the making at age 22. He can play any of the outfield positions well, he hit 18 home runs and finished with an OBP of .344. He’s the man who will finally make Red Sox fans happy to hear the name “Mookie”, since it was Mookie Wilson who hit a certain infamous ground ball to Bill Buckner in 1986.
OF: Jackie Bradley Jr. was on the clock after he was sent down to the minors early. Bradley is arguably the best defensive outfielder in baseball, but his bat was so awful there was no way to get him in the lineup. When he came back, it was like a whole new player was in front of us. Bradley was not only hitting, he was driving the ball for power. He ended up slugging .493 and hitting 10 home runs. Even if he’s not that good over the long haul, Bradley is at least a viable option as a fourth outfielder.
OF: Rusney Castillo was signed to a seven-year $72 million contract late last year to get him out of Cuba. He got a lot of time, but this is one case where I really wasn’t impressed. He didn’t produce offensively and at age 27 you have to assume his upside is less than Bradley’s. I’m ready to write this signing off as another ill-fated idea of the now-deposed GM Ben Cherington.
SP: Eduardo Rodriguez is a 22-year-old lefty with electric stuff—as in Cy Young-caliber stuff. He made 21 starts this year and finished 10-6 with a 3.85 ERA and just as important, he showed some mental fortitude, bouncing back after bad starts and often pitching his best on big stages—Sunday Night, Yankee Stadium, etc. I love this guy.
SP: Henry Owens is another 22-year-old lefty. Owens’ stuff isn’t electric, but it’s pretty good and he has nice changeup and ability to change speeds. He made 11 starts and finished with a 4.57 ERA and has a lot of more upside.
Established Young Pitchers: I’m not going to bracket Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly into the same category as the above players, but both are 27 or younger. Their seasons were a microcosm of the team, horrid in the first half, much better in the second half and even though the final stats aren’t good, the season ends on a good note. Kelly was dominant in August, getting more confident in his breaking stuff and Porcello became much better at keeping the ball down after he finished a DL stint.
This is the young talent that comes in addition to the old reliables, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia—the latter of which only played 92 games due to a hamstring problem.
There are problems to sort out—the Red Sox need to dump the Sandoval contract (four more years remaining at nearly $20 million a season) and might need to do the same with Hanley (three years left for $22 million annually). That’s the ugly residue left from the terrible offseason decisions of a year ago. But this time around, the new team president can go forward with a fresh foundation to put the Red Sox back into the playoffs next year.