Are the Red Sox Giving Up on 2022?

I’ve started to write something about this Red Sox team for nearly a month now and just couldn’t bring myself to finish a full thought. I wanted to find answers or see the silver lining, but frankly it’s becoming an incredibly difficult team to watch, root for, or understand. It began with the embarrassing fails of extension talks with Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts in Spring Training and the mood hasn’t improved from there. On the field, it’s been even worse. From the early season disaster that is 2/3 of the lineup to the surprising overachieving of the pitching staff that is now shooting back to earth, it feels like this team is both in contention for every game they play and at the same time finding new and creative ways to take the L. Every time it seems like maybe they are turning a corner, the door swings back and slams them in the face. Now 31 games into the 2022 season and 11.5 games back in the AL East, 2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles, some of the decision making appears as if Chaim Bloom and the Red Sox have given up on 2022 and are preparing for the future.

The early season offensive struggles overshadowed the strong performances from the pitching staff. At one point the Red Sox had one of the best bullpens in baseball statistically and were getting some solid starting pitching, but were losing low-scoring 1-run games thanks to the anemic lineup. Three of their starters (4 if you count Garrett Whitlock as a starter) have sub-3 ERAs and have started the season really strong. Arguably their #4 or #5 starter on opening day was Michael Wacha, who before his recent injury, was 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA allowing 4 earned runs and just 13 hits in 26 innings. Despite some shaky outings as of late, the Red Sox bullpen has actually been impressive on the season. Hansel Robles (2.70), Austin Davis (2.70), Ryan Brasier (2.45), Matt Strahm (2.70), Tyler Danish (2.35) all have sub-3 ERAs and have frankly overachieved. Thanks to the lack of offense, their outings have mostly been in high-pressure situations (1 or 2 run games), which is just not sustainable.

Lately, the glaring lack of a closer thanks to the Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock pitcher mismanagement has been a big problem. To be fair to Red Sox management, Houck didn’t exactly help the situation by not getting vaccinated and not being available for the Toronto series in Canada. Thanks to some starting depth and injury issues as well as his desire, the Red Sox are working to get Whitlock into a consistent starting role which leaves a massive hole on the back end of the bullpen that he could, and probably should, fill. If you know me at all, you know I love Matt Barnes, but at this point there is no reason he should be in the major league bullpen or throwing in major league games. Something is clearly wrong and continuing to send him out to the mound is certainly not helping. Not having your best arm, Whitlock, for clutch late game situations is proving to be a massive issue if the Red Sox plan to try and compete in 2022. If they are already looking forward to 2023, then the decision makes more sense.

The decision making around Tanner Houck is also incredibly confusing if you are trying to win in 2022. He was really strong to start the season as a rotation arm in 3 starts, then after the Toronto series when he was unavailable due to his vaccination status, it went downhill no thanks to his odd usage. He pitched out of the bullpen the day before the trip to Toronto and threw a solid 1.2 innings with 2 Ks in the loss to Tampa Bay. Then the day following the trip he pitched 3 innings (5th, 6th, and 7th) against the Orioles getting the win with 3 BBs and 4 Ks and then was not reinserted into the depleted rotation and not used until 5 games later. He came in as a reliever after a long layoff and gave up 7 runs in 3 innings against the Angels. After throwing 56 pitches, he started 3 days later and allowed 3 runs in 2.2 innings before being lifted after 39 pitches. The 25-year old came into this year as a starter and now the Red Sox can’t figure out what to do with him and are just throwing him into different situations seemingly at random. If they were looking toward success in 2022, they should be using him as a starter, especially when the rotation has as many injuries as it does. To push Houck aside a bit to get Whitlock starts doesn’t make sense in the short-term. I’m normally not a big “role” guy, but in this case, the Red Sox need to stop toying around with Houck and Whitlock and just make some decisions on roles.

I’ve spilled a lot of metaphorical ink in my rant about this team and I haven’t even touch the lineup yet. The offensive production is by far the most disappointing and embarrassing element of the 2022 Red Sox. After a strong offensive season in 2021, the Red Sox made a few moves that at very least should have kept the status quo of success, if not improve it. Swapping Hunter Renfroe for Jackie Bradley Jr.was a downgrade in the batters box, but the addition of Trevor Story at 2nd base was a big improvement in the everyday production. At least it should have been. As we sit here in mid-May, the Red Sox are averaging 3.45 runs per game, the 3rd worst in all of baseball only ahead of the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers, and frankly that’s a bit inflated because they have scored 4.67 runs per game in their last 3 games thanks to dropping 9 runs on Tuesday. That’s a pretty stark contrast to their 4th best 5.14 runs per game last season and 4.87 runs per game in 2020. Looking even deeper, this is historically bad lineup production and the first time a Red Sox team has averaged under 4 runs per game since 2014 (3.91) and the lowest franchise mark since 1907. Yes, you read that right, the Red Sox team hasn’t scored under 3.5 runs per game since 1907 and that was the only year it happened since records started being kept in 1901.

Needless to say, there is room for improvement on offense. There have been occasional signs of life, but as fans we’re waiting for the big turn of momentum. Trevor Story finally hit his first HR of the season on Wednesday, which is a promising sign, but the Red Sox still couldn’t produce more than 3 runs and lost on a walkoff HR. Kike Hernandez is batting .161 on the season and frankly it looks even worse than the numbers and Bobby Dalbec is even worse sitting at .148 with 1 HR and 3 RBI in 28 games. It’s not just bad, it’s epically bad at this point and even if the offense turns it around and gets going, 9 games under-.500 is a massive hole to dig out from in the AL East. All this offseason there were questions about when Triston Casas gets his shot in the big leagues, but I’m not sure it’s even healthy for him to come up at this point. He’s probably better off in Worchester with a lineup that isn’t digging themselves a massive hole, at least until it’s clear that the season is over and they’re just playing for pride and 2023 (which is just around the corner).

With an eye towards 2023, this team has a lot of question marks, with Xander Bogaerts at the top of that list. We had hoped that this year would be a strong one and regardless of the future, Xander would help lead a deep run. If this season continues to roll downhill and it’s clear to management that Bogaerts is not likely to return next season, do the Red Sox trade him at the deadline to get some value back? After what seems like a completely demoralizing first stretch of the season, does that impact Bogaerts’ interest in signing in Boston long term? If Bogaerts leaves, what happens with Devers and his contract? I can’t believe I’m even suggesting it at this point, but 2022 seems to be a complete wash given the current play and the division. What is the future of this team and particularly the major pieces on this roster?

I would love to be proven wrong and everyday hope for the moment that turns the tides, but there is nothing right now to indicate that 2022 should be a focus and a massive winning streak is on it’s way. Underperformance is manageable in stretches, but 30+ games of it is debilitating. We’re approaching the 1/4 tent-pole on the season and so far, it’s just hard to watch and this team is hard to root for. I’m not sure I’m ready to throw in the 2022 towel just yet, but I’m getting pretty damn close.

Way-Too-Early Overreaction for Red Sox

The first series of the year sets the tone for the season, sort of. It’s everyone’s first chance to see returning veterans, new free agent additions, and young talent getting their first taste of the big leagues. Everyone wants to put a ton of stock into the first series of the year (including me), but the Red Sox are notoriously meh early on. Last season, they got swept by the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park to open the year and they finished two wins from the World Series while the Orioles finished with 110 losses, 48 games back in the AL East. As a matter of fact, the Red Sox haven’t won an opening series since 2018 when they took 3/4 from the Tampa Bay Rays. All that aside, let’s join the masses and overreact to the first three games of the season.

Pitching Staff – B

Overall, while it wasn’t amazing, it wasn’t bad considering the opponent and location. The Red Sox staff allowed 13 runs in 27 innings against the Bronx bombers and mostly kept their offense away from big, runaway innings. In typical Yankees fashion, the majority of their runs came off the long ball and Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton mashed 4 combined in the series. Other than the length of starts, which is expected to be shorter this early in the season with a compressed Spring Training, the rotation gave them a chance to win every game. Nathan Eovaldi allowed 3 runs in 5 innings, Nick Pivetta allowed 4 runs in 5.2 innings, and Tanner Houck allowed 3 runs in 3.1 innings. On most nights when the Red Sox offense is humming, 4 or fewer runs from your starter will be enough to win if the bullpen can hold up.

The bullpen overall was very solid to start the season despite some early question marks heading into the year. In 13 innings pitched as a group, they allowed just 3 runs, only 1 earned while striking out 15. In the first month or two of the season, the bullpen takes on an even more important role and if they can get the type of contributions they’re getting from Matt Strahm, Kutter Crawford, and Hansel Robles, this team will have a real chance to compete for the division. Of that group, Crawford had the most action on the bases behind him, allowing 5 hits in 2 innings and 1 run, but was able to work out of jams. Despite taking the loss in his first appearance (and just 2nd appearance in the big leagues), he rebounded to get the win in Sunday’s finale.

The biggest story in the bullpen coming out of the series is Jake Diekman. When the signing happened in mid-March I thought it was a great move and he could be an important piece. The veteran had a rocky Spring Training and his appearance on opening day was not ideal (0.1 innings, 1 run, 1 BB), but was as clutch as can be on Sunday to secure the save and first win for the Red Sox. As a lefty, he faced righties Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton followed by Joey Gallo and struck out the side in a 1-run game in the Bronx. All three guys can absolutely crush the baseball and Judge and Stanton feast off of lefties to the tune of .274 with a HR every 12.5 at-bats and .291 with a HR every 12.1 at-bats respectively. Oh yeah, and not to be forgotten, even as a lefty, Gallo hits a HR every 13.2 at-bats against lefty pitchers. That’s an enormously impressive outing for Diekman and puts him in line to perhaps take on more closing duties if Matt Barnes can’t figure it out.

The last thing I’ll say about the pitching staff is that I was impressed with the staff’s ability to work out of jams. They gave up quite a few walks and hits to a potent lineup, but were able to strand 26 Yankees runners over 3 games. While I’d prefer fewer baserunners to begin with, that says a lot about the ability for these pitchers to step-up in clutch situations and make the big pitch. There will be a LOT of scenarios throughout the year where there are runners on and they need to limit the damage. So far, so good.

Offense – C-

It’s early and generally offenses take a bit to get going in cold weather climates, but the offensive performance this weekend left something to be desired. In each game, the Red Sox offense jumped on the starting pitcher for the Yankees in the first or second inning and hung a 2 or 3 on them. It was nice to see a strong start for the offense, but then it seemed like they would settle into a dormant stretch for innings at a time. I’ll give some credit where it’s due, the Yankees pitching staff made adjustments and was able to settle in as the game wore on, but the Red Sox offense didn’t exactly help themselves. There were quite a few short, low-quality at-bats in situations where working a pitchers pitch count would be hugely beneficial. They missed a lot of opportunities throughout the series, leaving 21 runners on base in 3 games and grounding into 4 double-plays. They relied a bit on the long-ball, scoring 5 of their 11 runs on HRs.

As I said in my season preview, if the offense can do what they did in 2021 and score 5+ runs per game, they will win most nights. In this series, they would have taken 2 out of 3 if they scored 5 runs in each game, the only loss would have been the 11-inning 6-5 loss in the opener. Instead, the team put up just 3.67 runs per game and fell short in 2 of 3. Like I said, it’s early and in the cold air in the northeast it can take a bit for bats to heat up, but I was hoping for just a little more from the offense in this opening series. If as a team they want to have success, they need to jump on pitchers like they have been early, but then keep applying the pressure. Getting a starter to throw 20+ pitches and give up a few runs in the first inning is great, but what crushes other teams is then forcing him to throw another 20+ in the second inning. Sustained pressure will make it extremely difficult for opposing pitchers to have success and will in turn force them into situations where mistakes happen and the opposing manager needs to dig into the bullpen earlier than expected.

The surprise bright spot early on is Alex Verdugo. It feels like he’s on a mission in 2022 to be the best player possible and has put in the work to get there. On top of a few really impressive defensive plays in left field, he’s hitting 5 for 11 (.455) to begin the season with a HR, 3 RBIs and 2 BBs. He’s locked in early and if he can sustain success throughout the season (obviously not at a .455 clip) then this lineup gets even more impressive and powerful than anticipated.

Defense – C+

A large investment this offseason was defense and so far its been just OK. The team came out of the gate with 2 errors on opening day, one for Nathan Eovaldi and one for Xander Bogaerts which was disappointing although neither from the new defensive additions. The other thing that frustrated me a bit, although completely explainable, was watching Christian Arroyo in right field on Sunday night. There were at least 2 plays that he couldn’t make that I think Jackie Bradley Jr. would have likely made that led to Yankees hits. While Jackie’s offense prohibits him from being in the lineup against the lefty starter, the defensive gap was glaring. The need for a 4th outfielder to round out the group that was talked about ad nauseum this offseason reared it’s head this weekend. While Arroyo is serviceable, a right-handed 4th outfielder to platoon with JBJ would have been useful.

On the positive end, Verdugo looked really solid in left with a few really nice diving plays and if his defense improves a bit over last year, that’s a bonus. I’m also excited about the addition of Trevor Story at second base, but we only saw him in 2 games due to a flu-like illness, so it’s a REALLY small sample size. Time will tell if the defense is really improved over 2021.

48+ Hours of Crazy in the AL East – Grading the Moves

With the exception of the Baltimore Orioles, AL East teams were all active participants in one of the craziest trade deadlines in history. The race for the division is now tighter than even the standings show, with 4 teams vying for the division title with around 57 or 58 games to play. Let’s review the moves and rate the success as the sprint to the playoffs begins…

Red Sox – C

In: OF Kyle Schwarber, P Hansel Robles, P Austin Davis

Out: INF/OF Michael Chavis, P Alex Scherff, P Aldo Ramirez

Currently hanging on by a thread as the 1st place team in the division, the Red Sox had a disappointing deadline. In need of a 1B and a SP or RP to bolster their chances, they filled 1/2 of one of their needs and got a few mediocre arms that may or may not fit into the picture. The addition of Kyle Schwarber is strong and the only reason they got a C-. If he can recover quickly from his hamstring issue then he can be an asset, but when put in the context of needs and what the rest of the division did, it’s not good enough.

That being said, the prospect price for bigger names was sky-high this year and Chaim Bloom stuck to his guns of not giving up the farm to contend this year. He didn’t want to hurt the system he is building for the future, a stark contrast to Dave Dombrowski’s approach. By continuing to build and grow the system, the Red Sox will be able to compete each and every year, although I don’t think they have the pitching to contend in 2021.

Rays – C+

In: OF/DH Nelson Cruz, P JT Chargois, 3B Austin Shenton, OF Jordan Luplow, P DJ Johnson

Out: P Rich Hill, P Diego Castillo, P Peyton Battenfield

The Rays had a bit of a puzzling week before the trade deadline. They brought in notorious Red Sox killer Nelson Cruz, who will help when the two teams face off 13 times the remainder of the season. Then they traded away veteran starter Rich Hill which seemed like the beginning of a flurry of moves, and then they didn’t do a whole lot. They traded away P Diego Castillo and brought in a handful of prospects, but other than Cruz, they didn’t get much better.

The Rays are in a strong position to fight for the division title and didn’t need to do a lot at the deadline. I’m surprised they didn’t add another piece or two, but I’m also not sure they needed to add.

Yankees – B

In: OF Joey Gallo, 1B Anthony Rizzo, P Andrew Heaney, P Joely Rodriguez

Out: P Glenn Otto, 2B Josh Smith, SS Ezequiel Duran, 2B Trevor Hauver, P Alexander Vizcaino, OF Kevin Alcantara, P Janson Junk, P Elvis Peguero

Like the Red Sox, the Yankees failed to seriously address one need: starting pitching. However, they did address a major need for left-handed power in the lineup by bringing in two big-power guys in OF Joey Gallo and 1B Anthony Rizzo. It’s unclear whether they really needed Rizzo or were just adamant about keeping him away from the Red Sox, but he will certainly improve the Yankees lineup. Rodriguez and Heaney don’t move the needle much, if at all.

The amount and level of prospects traded is significant for the Yankees, including their #7 (Alcantara), #8 (Duran), #11 (Vizcaino), #19 (Smith), #29 (Hauver), and #37 (Otto) according to the FanGraphs in February. The Red Sox don’t have the luxury of trading that level of prospects for some rental players.

Blue Jays – A-

In: P Jose Berrios, P Brad Hand, P Joakim Soria, P Shawn Armstrong

Out: SS Austin Martin, P Simeon Woods Richardson, C Riley Adams, P T.J. Zeuch

The addition of Jose Berrios and Brad Hand were big get for the Jays. Their pitching staff was very strong and now is undoubtedly the best in the division. Between starters Hyun Jun Ryu, Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling, and reliever Jordan Romano added to the new additions, they are potent. The biggest issue for the Jays is the traffic in front of them as they sit in 4th in the division and back a bit in the wild card race.

With the bolstering of the pitching staff and an already strong lineup, the Yankees better watch their back over the final stretch. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Jays grab a wild card spot or pressure the Red Sox and Rays for the division lead.

Orioles – N/A

In: P Tyler Burch

Out: SS Freddy Galvis, P Shawn Armstrong

What can I say? The Orioles are terrible and didn’t do anything to improve and why would they? They sent Freddy Galvis to the Phillies and Shawn Armstrong to the Rays and they will still finish last in the division by 30+ games. I can’t in good conscience give the Orioles a grade, because it’s just not fair, or worth it.