The Red Sox are an organization with tons variance heading into the offseason. They have a huge budget, terrific prospect depth, and a new front office that will likely be looking to make changes. President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski and company will have a lot of important decisions to make as they look for ways to improve their roster in both the immediate and distant future. While forward thinking will be mandatory in the front office’s quest to return the team to the postseason in 2016 and beyond, it will be also key to look back on baseball’s most recent postseason to help guide their hands going forward. Here are five lessons the Red Sox can take away from 2015’s playoff participants:
Defense is Important
This first point sounds like a no brainer until you remember that Hanley Ramirez is, as of right now, going to start at first base next season after trying to single-handedly set playing left field back 100 years in 2015. Last year the Red Sox tied for 15th in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved, but Ramirez (-19 DRS) bogged down their pedestrian ranking immensely. Only Giants centerfielder Angel Pagan (-20) was worse by that metric, and he played about 300 more innings at a much more difficult position. Previously sure-handed third baseman Pablo Sandoval (-11) didn’t help matters either, though it’s no secret that he and Ramirez were among the worst full-time players in the league this season.
Seven of the 10 teams featured in this postseason finished higher than the Red Sox in total DRS, and all four teams that participated in the LCS had top 10 marks in Baseball-Prospectus’ defensive efficiency (the Red Sox were 26th in the majors by that stat). The World Series champion Royals have been renowned for their across the board effective defense for the past few years and rode that aspect of their game to a title; meanwhile, Mets fans have to deal with Fall Classic memories of Daniel Murphy’s brutal error in Game 4 and Yoenis Cespedes’ and David Wright’s miscues in Game 1, though they benefitted from Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler flopping around the outfield in the NLCS. A renewed effort to create a strong fielding backbone (possibly at the expense of Ramirez or Sandoval) will be the first step for the Red Sox on the long road towards contention.
Be Patient With Young Players
The Red Sox are already seeing the fruits of this tactic take place, and this season’s contenders have served as a reminder that the foundation of a deep playoff run usually comes from internal player development. The Royals possess a core of 25-31 year old position players in Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and Salvador Perez, all of which are homegrown or were acquired as prospects via trade. The Cubs, too, have an abundance of positional talent (Schwarber, Soler, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Addison Russell are the main cogs) assembled in a similar fashion. The Astros have young, All-Star caliber players in Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, and Lance McCullers. The Mets have their stable of power arms, the Pirates have developed the best outfield in baseball along with ace Gerrit Cole, the Cardinals have a cloning machine stashed away in their minor league system that keeps pumping out competent big-leaguers, even the Rangers have supplemented their big name acquisitions over the past few years with guys like Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor, Delino DeShields, and Mitch Moreland (with top prospects Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara still to come).
Really, outside of the Yankees, Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw notwithstanding), and Blue Jays, every playoff team leaned heavily on their ability to develop and maintain major-league talent. In some cases, like the Royals with Cain, Gordon, and Moustakas, that talent has taken some time to blossom. Thanks to two consecutive losing seasons, the Red Sox have been able to allow high pedigree prospects such as Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Eduardo Rodriguez, and others to work things out on the major league level. While those players have had their ups and downs in the bigs, their progress and development has been undeniable. In other words, if Red Sox continue to be willing to give the young guys a shot, they will reap the benefits from their incredibly deep farm system.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Trade Deadline
Of the 10 teams that made the postseason, eight made July trades to bolster their roster. Only the Cubs and Yankees stood pat, while every other team attempted to improve their chances at a postseason spot through moves that ranged from huge blockbusters to minor roster tinkering. In some cases, these trades had massive regular and postseason implications. The Blue Jays won a billion games (give or take a few) after acquiring David Price, Troy Tulowitzki, and a pair of bullpen pieces. The Royals went all in on Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. The Rangers won the Cole Hamels sweepstakes, the Mets became a contender after picking up Cespedes, and Houston brought in former All-Stars in Carlos Gomez and Scott Kazmir. While the Cardinals (Brandon Moss, Steve Cishek), Dodgers (Mat Latos, Alex Wood), and Pirates (J.A. Happ, Michael Morse) made smaller splashes, they were still willing to re-evaluate their rosters and attempt to address weaknesses.
Some of these moves worked out brilliantly, while others fell flat. Nonetheless, the amount of teams in the postseason that made relatively significant trades is striking. The Red Sox have not been in contention for since 2013, but when they have been in the running for an AL East title or Wild Card, they have generally not been afraid to take risks and pursue trade targets. While doing so doesn’t promise a ring by November, being aggressive at the trade deadline is often worth the price.
An “Ace” Would Be Nice…
Dombrowski and G.M. Mike Hazen are going to have a long to-do list this offseason, the top of which is likely to read something to the effect of “GO GET A NUMBER 1 PITCHER BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY”. Rightfully so: Red Sox starters had a 4.39 ERA in 2015, 13th in the American League (and 24th in the majors). The difficulty in run prevention stems from a brutally low strand rate, some of the least effective breaking pitches in baseball last season, and Boston’s poor defense for the first two-thirds of the year. The lack of a distinct top of the rotation arm is arguably the most glaring difference between the Sox and the teams that made the postseason, with ace-caliber guys like Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jake Arrieta, Cueto, Kuechel, and Kershaw all making their mark in October one way or another. Hell, the Mets won the National League pennant almost entirely on the basis of #FourAces and Daniel “Babe Ruth 2.0” Murphy. It’s tough to make the playoffs (and even tougher to win during them) without reliable, quality arms taking the mound at least four times in a Series. And that’s not to mention the cruelest of all fates: the Wild Card game. In that one game playoff, a fire-breathing Arrieta or Madison Bumgarner can fell even the best teams.
The quickest way to shore up their rotation would be to pursue a big name in free agency, and there will be options there, including Cy Young candidates (Price, Zach Greinke), former All-Stars (Cueto, Yovani Gallardo, Jordan Zimmerman), and mid-range vets (Mike Leake, Jeff Samardzija). Of course, this is Dombrowski we’re talking about, so there’s always a good chance he backs up a truckload of prospects in a trade to pry away a younger, if not necessarily better, option.
…But Having an Ace isn’t as Big of a Deal as Everyone Says
Having said all of that, a number one starter isn’t nearly as crucial as people make it out to be.
Unpopular opinion alert: the Red Sox rotation wasn’t nearly as apocalyptic as most fans will have you think. Dig past the daunting ERA numbers and rankings, and the peripherals don’t look nearly as bad. The Sox starters finished 11th in FIP and 14th in xFIP (which strips out bad HR luck) and K%-BB%. Looking at FIP- and xFIP-, both of which use 100 as league average, Boston’s much-maligned rotation was just that—average. Mix in the aforementioned terrible strand rate, and you could make a case that Red Sox’s struggles had to do with bad luck just as much as bad performance from the starters. Throw in the fact that the Royals’ starters posted an ERA only slightly better than Boston’s (4.34, without the same bump from peripherals), and suddenly the need to throw tons of resources at that position might not seem so pressing.
Doing so ignores that the Royals were better in just about every other aspect of the game (especially the bullpen, where KC had one of the league’s best and the Sox had one of the league’s worst), but the point remains: games and playoff series can be won without Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz starting games 1-3. In addition, simply adding a frontline starter doesn’t guarantee a World Series title. If having the best pitcher on earth mattered so much, the Dodgers would have just won a fifth straight championship. That’s not to say that having better pitching doesn’t help: there’s a reason the Mets are the NL champs and every team in baseball’s Elite Eight had at least one clear-cut ace. LCS number-ones Price, Kershaw, Cueto and Arrieta are terrific. But while they are less-likely to perform poorly than, say, Wade Miley or Rick Porcello, the teams in October are usually pretty damn good and can cause problems for even the best of pitchers, a trend we saw pop up on plenty of occasions in the 2015 postseason. Just look at the World Series: the Royals beat the Mets in five games even though New York appeared to have a starting pitcher advantage in every single one of those matchups. Obviously having good pitching is important, but let’s not forget that there is much more that goes into being a good baseball team.
Really though, the lesson from this fall that might be most important for the Red Sox in the future is that there is no definitive way to build a team. The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier summed it up best with this tweet:
’13, ’14, ’15. There’s no cookiecutter for champion-building, no haves/have-nots. A diversity of players/ideas can thrive. Fantastic.
— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) November 2, 2015
He’s right. The ’13 Red Sox, ’14 Giants, and ’15 Royals are vastly different in they way they were constructed. When it comes to winning in October, timely hitting, solid pitching, steady defense, and contributions from players 1 through 25 will make the difference every time, no matter how the team was put together. Seeing what worked for playoff teams can be part of what guides you towards that goal, but it won’t ensure you reach it. When the Red Sox front office gets down to business this winter, these lessons will be a step towards assembling a good team come April, one that at least has a shot in 2016. With a little bit of luck, maybe that will be enough for a deep postseason run.