With only 8 days to go before the pitchers and catchers (finally) report to Fort Meyers, and with the truck officially on its way to Florida, you can almost feel spring in the air. Unless of course, you live in the New England area, where you can’t feel anything because you’ve been shoveling nonstop for the past three weeks and your hands are numb from frostbite. That being said, the Boys of Summer are almost back in business, hoping to avenge last season’s less than stellar title defense in their attempt to go from worst to first to worst back to first. While we wait for the snow to melt and for the Red Sox to get back to work, it’s at least worth noting that this has been a run of success by the club not seen since the beginning of last century. Sure, there have been bumps along the road, but it’s safe to say that these last 15 seasons have been, generally, quite successful. Without further ado, let’s rank them in order from best to worst, because what else is there to do in February a week before Spring Training starts?
Tier 1: The Cellar Dwellers
How they finished: 71-91, 5th in the AL East, missed postseason
Team MVP: Brock Holt
Team LVP: A.J. Pierzynski
AKA: “Worst to First”
I’m going to lump these two seasons together because not only are they the two last place bookends on the Red Sox’s 2013 championship run, but also because they are the two worst baseball teams I can remember supporting, though the way in which they were bad were markedly different from each other. 2012 was, for all intents and purposes, the year from hell. Following 2011’s epic collapse and the firing of two of the administrative cornerstones (Theo Epstein and Terry Francona) of the only two championship teams the franchise had seen in over 90 years, the Sox decided the time was right to place their fate in the hands of Bobby Valentine. The result? The Red Sox had their worst season in 52 years, with players constantly at odds with their new manager leading to this leaked video of the team clubhouse in mid-May. Fortunately, new GM Ben Cherington was able to somewhat salvage things by blowing up the roster and freeing up a ton of the budget with the Gonzalez/Crawford/Beckett megadeal that set up the following season’s title chase. 2014 was less hectic but the on field product was equally pathetic. After everything went right the previous year, nothing did in Boston’s title defense. A punchless offense (they posted the franchise’s lowest team wRC+ of the century) and a midseason firesale depleted the Sox of much of their talent, and they sank slowly and surely to the bottom of the standings.
Tier 2: The 80 Win Club
How they finished: 82-79, 2nd in the AL East, missed postseason
Team MVP: Manny Ramirez
Team LVP: The Disabled List
AKA: “Jinxed and Cursed”
Everyone is going to remember this season as the one where Nomar’s career changed for the worse and Pedro’s body finally began to give out, and rightfully so. In what seemed like one fell swoop, the franchise’s two cornerstones over the previous several seasons were wiped out. Garciaparra was injured by a fateful fastball in spring training by then Orioles pitcher Al Reyes, breaking the shortstop’s wrist one week after the infamous “A Cut Above” SI Cover was published. Nomar played only 21 games all season long, and was never the same following the injury. As if it wasn’t bad enough losing Nomar, the Sox lost Pedro to a shoulder injury, and Martinez only started 18 games. Like Nomar, Pedro was never quite the same follwing this season. But those weren’t the only two players to get hit with the injury bug; no Red Sox pitcher topped 200 innings, and only Hideo Nomo, who threw a no hitter against the Blue Jays in his Red Sox debut that I only vaguely remember, made more than 30 starts. Joe Kerrigan took over the team in interim after manager Jimy Williams was fired mid season, and the club promptly went 17-26 the rest of the way. The lesson to be learned here is never to let Joe Kerrigan finish anything, especially not a Major League season. The best part of this season was Dante Bichette’s bat twirl and Carl Everett confessing he doesn’t believe in dinosaurs. Oh, and Manny Ramirez beginning his Red Sox career by hitting home runs like these and tossing up a .305/.406/1.014 line. So maybe it wasn’t all bad.
How they finished: 86-76, 3rd in the AL East, missed postseason
Team MVP: David Ortiz
Team LVP: Carl Crawford (Yes I know that happened in 2005, but it ruined Clement’s career, so I’m carrying it over)
AKA: “Desperate Times Call for a Mirabelli Police Escort”
After a ridiculous offseason where Theo Epstein quit, then maybe didn’t quit, was seen roaming around Boston in a gorilla costume, and was possibly behind the scenes orchestrating the Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell/Hanley Ramirez and Bronson Arroyo/Wily Mo Pena blockbusters, the Red Sox finally got down to buisness. Of course, when you’re dealing with Even Year Beckett (seriously, go look at that guy’s stats and see the disparity between his odd year performances and his even year performances) and the most reliable pitchers on your roster are 39 year old Curt Schilling and Jonathan Papelbon before his arm fell off that September, you’re probably not making it to the postseason no matter how many home runs Big Papi hits (for what it’s worth, he hit 54 dingers, a Red Sox single season record). This season was, to use a term I hate, a bridge year, as Epstein was in the process of re-branding the team in a new, more metric friendly image. Without the arms to supplement an up and down offense (they had the worst team ERA of the last 15 year stretch), the Sox floundered down the stretch and missed the playoffs. When the enduring image of a baseball season is shuttling a backup catcher through the city via police escort so he can get to the game on time because he’s apparently the only person on planet earth who can catch your fifth starter’s knuckleball, things probably didn’t go all that well.
How they finished: 85-77, 2nd in the AL East, missed postseason
Team MVP: Pedro Martinez
Team LVP: Ramon Martinez
AKA: “At Least We Have Pedro and Nomar”
To be fair to the 2001 team, they still managed to win 82 games despite missing two of their three best players for much of the season. While the 2000 didn’t have Manny being Manny, they were still only able to muster three more wins despite Pedro and Nomar having transcendent seasons. Pedro was electric once again, posting a 1.74 ERA (!) and Nomar hit .372, the highest number by a right-handed hitter in the postwar era. Unfortunately for the Sox, their second best offensive player was Carl Everett, and this was the season where everyone collectively realized that Wilton Veras wasn’t going to be any good. The lack of pop in the lineup showed, as the team managed a measly isolated power of .156 (better only than the 2014 and 2012 teams). The rotation relied on stalwarts such as Jeff Fassero, Rolando Arrojo, and Ramon Martinez, who served as the Fredo to Pedro’s Michael. Fun fact: this was also John “Way Back” Wasdin’s last go around in a Red Sox uniform, as he was traded to Colorado midseason.
How they finished: 89-73, 3rd in the AL East, missed postseason
Team MVP: Adrian Beltre
Team LVP: The Disabled List, again
AKA: “The Team Where Everyone Got Hurt at the End”
Adrian Beltre is probably the lasting image from this season, as the third baseman spent most of his only season in Boston putting dent after dent in the Green Monster. Beltre instantly became a fan favorite, even if he attempted to murder Victor Martinez a half dozen times. The problem with this team stemmed from a serious wave of injuries that derailed an otherwise talented club. Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia missed a combined 147 games, and though Ortiz ended up with 32 home runs he struggled mightily out of the gate. The team was middle of the pack offensively, and while Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz shined in the rotation and John Lackey ate up 215 innings, the rest of the rotation was mediocre and Papelbon posted his worst season in a Red Sox uniform. Ultimately, injuries to two franchise cornerstones submarined the team’s late season push, though they stick in my mind for lasting longer in the playoff race than anyone expected given the rash of injuries.
Tier 3: 90 in the Regular Season, 0 in the Postseason
How they finished: 95-67, 2nd in the AL East, swept in ALDS by CHW
Team MVP: David Ortiz
Team LVP: Wade Miller
AKA: “The Season After”
Here’s the part of the rankings where things start to get interesting, mostly because the teams go from “wildly mediocre” to “pretty good”. The 2005 team was Boston’s first title defense in 86 years, and while on the whole they performed pretty effectively by tying the Yankees for first in the division but having to be shuffled to the Wild Card spot due to head to head record, it was clear that they were a step below the quality of their predecessors. Ortiz and Ramirez were monsters yet again in the middle of the lineup, each posting an OPS+ of over 150. Offensively, this was the final season of a three year run from 2003-2005 that saw the Red Sox lead the majors in OPS and wRC+. This season the Red Sox managed to place second in the MLB by the latter metric, trailing only the Yankees. It was fortunate that the offense was so effective, because the pitching staff was a total mess. The only player to make multiple starts and have an ERA under 4.15 was Jonathan Papelbon, who made 3 starts and 14 bullpen appearances with an ERA of 2.65. With Schilling attempting to return from ankle surgery (and doing so with limited effectiveness), the Red Sox were forced to turn to David Wells’ neck fat and Tim Wakefield to carry the rotation. Newly signed Matt Clement got off to a hot start but then was hit in the face by a line drive right before the All-Star break and his season and career dropped off of a cliff. Keith Foulke, an October hero in his own right from the previous year’s championship run, was abysmal and lost his closer role to reliable Mike Timlin within a couple of months. Mark Bellhorn, keeping in line with players suffering from some sort of World Series hangover, was useless. He struck out 109 times in 335 PA before being relieved in favor of a Tony Graffinino/Alex Cora platoon. When the team finally did make it to the playoffs, they were handled easily by the White Sox, with the lasting memory being a Buckner-like moment in Game 2 involving a slow roller and Graffanino’s legs. At the end of the day, this was more or less a less impressive version of the 2003 team.
How they finished: 95-67, 2nd in the AL East, swept in ALDS by LAA
Team MVP: Kevin Youkilis
Team LVPs: Brad Penny and Daisuke Matsuzaka
AKA: “That Time We Bet the Season on John Smoltz’s Corpse and Rocco Baldelli and Thought it Would Work Out”
The alternate title for this team says it all. The 2009 Sox, while talented, had a few gaping holes at key spots and while they did make the playoffs, they ultimately sunk to a team they had owned in the postseason up to that point. Epstein made a big splash in the middle of the season by trading since returned pitcher Justin Masterson and a couple other prospects for then Indians C/1B Victor Martinez. The move was much needed with Jason Varitek in his age 37 season and David Ortiz struggling through his worst season as a member of the team. Martinez raked once joining the Sox, putting up a .336/.405/507 line in 56 games. Jacoby Ellsbury also burst onto the scene as a full time player, hitting .301 and swiping 70 bags. Again, this was a solid team up and down the roster, however a revolving door at shortstop was part of the reason why the Sox finished the season 26th in the MLB with -42 Defensive Runs Saved. And other than solid seasons from Beckett and Lester, the rotation was a mess thanks to a washed up John Smoltz and a 25 lbs. overweight Brad Penny. The final result? A sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of California of the United States.
How they finished: 93-69, 2nd in the AL East, missed postseason
Team MVP: Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez
Team LVP: Tony Clark
AKA: “The Team That Was Better Than You Remember”
This is the part where I’ll be expecting to catch some flack in the rankings. Right now you’re probably saying “Greg you colossal idiot, how can you rank a team that didn’t make the playoffs ahead of a couple of teams that did?” You might have a point, but go do the research. The 2002 Red Sox were probably better than you remember. According to Baseball Reference, the 2002 team had a Pythagorean W-L of 100-62. The only team on this list with a better Pythagorean W-L? The 2007 Red Sox. On one hand, that means the Sox were more than a little bit unlucky in ’02, underperforming by 7 wins. On the other hand, the Sox had expected Tony Clark to play well that season, so maybe they dug their own grave in a few ways. What this team did better than any other Red Sox team in the 21st century is pitch. Their 3.75 team ERA was third in the AL that year (they were also third in the MLB in FIP) and is the best mark of any team on this list. While wins may be an irrelevant stat nowadays, that doesn’t change the fact that the Red Sox had two 20 game winners on the roster, as newly converted starter Derek Lowe won 21 games and Pedro won 20. Even Tim Wakefield had a career year, posting a 2.81 ERA while shuttling back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation. This was the final year of the Dan Duquette era and the first year of the Henry/Werner/Lucchino ownership group, and spurred on a stretch where the Red Sox won 90-plus games 7 out of 8 years. They may not have made the playoffs, but they were certainly good enough to be in the conversation, and good enough to be put ahead of the 2005 and 2009 teams.
How they finished: 90-72, 3rd in the AL East, missed postseason
Team MVP: Jacoby Ellsbury
Team LVP: Popeyes
AKA: “Chicken and Beer”
This is probably the most divisive team of this century. You could argue they should be anywhere between 6th and 10th on this list, and make a pretty good case. I wrote about that season on my old blog back in September of 2011 (Warning: only click on that link if you want to see angsty teen ramblings about a bunch of millionaires not winning a game…actually you probably shouldn’t click on it at all if you know what’s good for you) and it currently stands, given the expectations surrounding the team, the second most disappointing season of any team I have ever supported. At the same time, this is possibly the second or third most talented team the Red Sox have had in the 21st century. This team had not one but THREE legitimate MVP candidates. Jacoby Ellsbury inexplicably hit 32 HR, swiped 39 bags, and put up an insane .321/.376/.552 line. Had the Red Sox made the playoffs, he likely would have been named the AL MVP. Dustin Pedroia hit 21 homers and had a career year, outperforming his 2008 campaign where he won MVP. Adrian Gonzalez slowed as the season wore on, but still managed to post a .338/.410/.548 line. Even David Ortiz was impressive, finishing second on the team to Gonzo with a 154 OPS+. Beckett had a sub-3 ERA, and between April 16 and August 1st the team went 81-42, a 107 win pace. The only problem is that the Red Sox didn’t show up for the first two weeks of the season, getting off to a 2-10 start, and went 7-20 over the final month of the season. On August 31st, the Sox stood at 83-52, still on pace for 100 wins. Their collapse was blamed on a variety of off field issues, but really the issue was that the Red Sox were relying on guys like Kyle Weiland, Andrew Miller, John Lackey who was working with an elbow in need of Tommy John surgery, and a 44 year old Tim Wakefield to carry them to the playoffs. When the rotation collapsed, the bullpen followed suit, and the result was one of the worst stretch runs in major league history. But when this team was on its game from mid-April to August? They killed everybody. The only 21st century Red Sox team with a higher wRC+? 2003’s Murderers Row. The only 21st century Red Sox team with a higher offensive WAR? 2013’s Swiss Army knife. This was a team that dominated for the majority of the season. If it wasn’t for a couple of key injuries to important arms, this team could have found itself at the top of the list. The result may not have gone perfectly, but when I think about pure talent, 2011 is right at the top of the list.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2