For the Boston Red Sox, Wednesday’s night’s loss to Tampa Bay served as an excruciating microcosm of how the young 2015 campaign has unfolded. Plagued by woeful starting pitching, a leaky bullpen and a lack of hitting with runners in scoring position, they plunged to 13-15 with a 5-3 loss to the Rays at Fenway Park.
Now in the American League East cellar and four games behind the New York Yankees, Boston has reached a point where general manager Ben Cherington and manager John Farrell must make adjustments to the roster to plug the holes in what could become a swiftly sinking ship.
On Wednesday night, the Red Sox rallied from a 1-0 deficit and claimed a 2-1 lead when rookie catcher Blake Swihart rifled an RBI doubled and later scored on Dustin Pedroia‘s sacrifice fly. As it has most of the season, ineffective starting pitching deflated the rally. On this night, Justin Masterson was the culprit. He served up a game-tying solo home run to Evan Longoria in the top of the fourth and then surrendered a two-run bloop single to Joey Butler with one out in the fifth. Butler’s bloop turned into two runs because Masterson loaded the bases by allowing a base hit and two walks.
Masterson’s nightmare appearance reached a conclusion when Farrell removed him after Butler’s base hit. The right hander’s pitching line was four runs (all earned), seven hits, six walks and one strikeout over 4.1 innings.
Mookie Betts, who belted two home runs in Tuesday night’s victory, launched a solo home run off Rays reliever Kevin Jepsen to lead off the eighth. The Red Sox then loaded the bases with one out, but the bats were mostly silent with runners in scoring position in this series, and that trend continued when pinch-hitter Daniel Nava bounced into a force out at home plate and the slumping Brock Holt grounded out.
Overall, Red Sox pitching issued nine walks. And once again, the bullpen could not keep the opposing club from scoring late in a close game. Alexi Ogando permitted a solo home run from Longoria in the top of the ninth. Longoria entered the game with just one home run this season. He left with three.
In the bottom of the ninth, Boston mounted another rally when Xander Bogaerts opened with a base hit and Betts drew a one-out walk. Rays reliever Brad Boxberger struck out Pedroia and then induced a game-ending ground out from Luis Jimenez, who was sent in to pinch-run for Ortiz in the eighth.
The box score reflects a frustratingly familiar Red Sox performance so far this season. Along with Masterson’s forgettable outing, Ogando permitting Longoria’s solo home run in the ninth and the nine walks compared to just three strikeouts, the club was 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
After an off day on Thursday, Boston opens a three-game weekend series in Toronto on Friday. It is part of a 10-game road trip that includes stops in Oakland and Seattle. By May 19, when the Red Sox return to Fenway Park to begin a series against Texas, they could find themselves deeper in the AL East basement if the starting rotation does not produce consistently good outings, the bullpen keeps allowing runs and the lineup fails to produce with runners in scoring position.
Internal changes could upgrade the roster.
Shane Victorino might rejoin the team if his rehab assignment is completed without complications. On the DL with a hamstring injury, he is set to appear at Double-A Portland on Friday and Triple-A Pawtucket on Saturday. Of course, the right fielder has just five hits in 35 at-bats (.143) with two RBI and a .171 OPS, so his return will not serve as an upgrade unless he reverts to 2013 form.
Hanley Ramirez is trying to avoid the disabled list after spraining his shoulder crashing against the left field wall on Monday night. Red Sox manager John Farrell reports that Ramirez’s range of motion has improved, and the club hopes to keep him on the active roster. A decision will likely be made before the upcoming series in Toronto concludes on Sunday.
Should Ramirez require a DL stint, the club will likely summon Rusney Castillo from Pawtucket. Jackie Bradley Jr. is another possibility since he is batting .344 and provides exceptional outfield defense, but Castillo is back after spending time on the DL with an inflamed shoulder sustained while making a diving catch. He was 0-for-10 in his first three games, but was 2-for-4 with an RBI, a walk, a run and a stolen base on Tuesday. He was given the night off on Wednesday.
If Ramirez returns from the shoulder sprain without DL time, and Victorino is activated, the Sox will have a decision to make in the outfield. Nava (.146,/.217).171) and Allen Craig (.163/.250./.233) have done little to warrant retaining their roster spots. Victorino’s defense – and the presence of Castillo and Bradley at Pawtucket, with right-handed hitting outfielder Bryce Brentz also posting productive offensive numbers – could lead the club to part with Nava or Craig.
Nava now bats exclusively from the left side, and the Sox are lean on left-handed hitters, but the right-handed hitting Craig is signed through 2018 (including $9 million in 2016, $11 million in 2017 and $13 million in 2018). Because of that contract, he will not be designated for assignment, and right now he has limited trade value, so Nava is the most likely candidate to see “DFA” next to his name if Victorino is ready and Ramirez is not placed on the DL.
A roster with Ramirez, Betts, Holt, Castillo and Victorino (if his hamstring is healthy) is ideal with Craig serving as a backup first baseman.
Cherington also has a quandary with the catching spot. With Christian Vazquez out for the season following Tommy John surgery and Ryan Hanigan sidelined until at least the All-Star break after hand surgery, the light-hitting but defensively strong Sandy Leon and Blake Swihart represent the backstop tandem.
Leon is a proficient backup catcher because of his defense. Swihart is one of the top prospects in baseball and has been compared to Buster Posey, but he also has just 145 Triple-A plate appearances. He collected his first Major League double on Wednesday, but expecting him to shoulder the responsibility behind the plate with a pitching staff that has the worst ERA in the AL at 4.86 and the second worst in the majors (better than only Colorado’s 5.38 mark) is risky.
Understandably, the Red Sox passed on the chance to sign Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who was released by the Miami Marlins. Saltalamacchia is struggling at the plate, and his lackluster defense and play calling skills would not be a match even if the pitching staff was among the best. Likely, Cherington will make a trade to acquire a catcher and Swihart will return to Pawtucket for more at-bats and games behind the plate.
As for the rotation, dealing for Cole Hamels (1-3, 4.14 ERA, six starts) or Matt Garza (2-4, 4.58 ERA, six starts) does not make sense. Neither starter is pitching effectively, and both would cost top prospects (Hamels obviously more than Garza). The Cincinnati Reds are without Homer Bailey for the remainder of the season, and they are hovering near .500 with the other National League wild card contenders, so they are not likely to have interest in dealing Johnny Cueto until later in the season.
Cherington’s adjustments will probably happen from within. At Pawtucket, 22-year-old left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez has a 1.82 ERA, a 0.85 WHIP and 22 strikeouts with just two walks in four starts and 24.2 innings. He has limited opposing hitters to a .211 average. Though top prospect Henry Owens is pitching well, he will benefit from more Triple-A innings. Rodriguez – who features a fast ball that typically ranges from 91 to 94 but occasionally touches the high 90s, a plus change-up and a slider – is the injection the rotation needs.
Knuckleballer Steven Wright delivered another exceptional start on Wednesday night at Pawtucket allowing one run and three hits over seven innings against Toledo (Detroit’s Triple-A affiliate). He has impressed Farrell during his stints with the Red Sox. Wright could join the Sox as a spot starter and long reliever
Another option is another left-handed prospect, 24-year-old Brian Johnson. Until a sluggish outing that saw him allow seven runs and five walks in 2.2 innings against Durham (Tampa Bay) in his last appearance, Johnson allowed a total of two runs in his first four starts. He has issued 10 walks in his last two starts, though, so chances are his Major League debut will not happen until he regains command of his pitches.
Though a majority of Red Sox fans would like to see the club part ways with Clay Buchholz, that is not probable right now. Rick Porcello tossed a shutout on Tuesday. Wade Miley allowed three runs over seven innings against the Yankees last weekend. Those three arms will remain in the rotation.
Since Joe Kelly boasts a high 90s fast ball and has future closer potential, and the pen would benefit from a power arm, he could be moved into a relief role to make room for Rodriguez. Or Masterson can be transitioned into a long relief role, or designated for assignment. Edward Mujica is a DFA candidate when Matt Barnes is eligible to be recalled from Pawtucket.
Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa and Alexi Ogando are the only relievers whose spots are safe. All three left-handers – Tommy Layne, Craig Breslow and Robbie Ross Jr. – have been inconsistent. Mujica is not reliable. Cherington and Farrell are hopeful that Barnes, whose fast ball reaches the high 90s, can bolster the pen.
Fortunately for the Red Sox, the AL East does not have a team poised to run away with the division race. Considering they are 13-15 and have a pitching staff that is at the bottom of the AL, they are lucky that only four games separates them from the Yankees.
With a few tweaks here and there, and a healthy Ramirez, this club can start gaining momentum by winning a string of series. If the beginning of those tweaks are not administered by this weekend, though, the 10-game road trip could result in a deep hole just to return to .500.