An Open Letter to the Boston Red Sox
From a fan who wants to believe
My dearest, beloved Boston Red Sox:
As Fox Mulder would say, I want to believe.
I want to believe that the front office, which currently seems to be doing its best imitation of Elon Musk’s Twitter in managing its payroll, has an actual plan to field a competitive product in 2023.
I want to believe that John Henry, interloper though he is, isn’t getting tired of the Boston Red Sox, even though he seems more willing to spend his money on motor sports and soccer these days than shortstops.
I want to believe that management is truly committed to winning, not just to soaking one of the most loyal fanbases in all of competitive sports without actually trying to fix things.
The 2017 Boston Red Sox beating the Tampa Bay Rays 9-0. Photo by the author.
In years past, it was easier to believe all of these things. Sure, superstars came and went, but they were replaced, either with newly emerging home-grown talent, with trades for big names, or through splashy free-agent signings. Yes, acquiring those big names didn’t always work out (trading away Anthony Rizzo, amongst others, for Adrián González was an enormous mistake; I even thought so at the time), but the team always seemed to bounce back. The same can certainly be said of splashy free-agent signings (insert picture of Carl Crawford here) and prospects (anyone remember Lars Anderson?) but it seemed to work out more often than not.
Sometimes this was due to the brilliance of upper management; that seemed especially true in the early tenure of John Henry’s run as owner, when he wisely hired the tandem of Theo Epstein and Terry Francona to run and coach the club. Back then (and frequently in subsequent years), it was understood that even if the Red Sox didn’t necessarily take the conventional approach to team-building, they probably at least had some idea what they were doing. Fans had confidence that even if the team had a bad year and lost early in the playoffs or missed them entirely, they’d be right back in the thick of it the next year.
These days it doesn’t feel like that around Fenway Park at all.
Let’s return to the not-so-faded glory days of 2018, when the Boston Red Sox were rolling towards the best record in franchise history and a World Series title. While glorious, that victory was marred by allegations of sign-stealing that seemed both more plausible and more important than prior allegations of cheating against the Red Sox and other area teams. Sure enough, with the roster largely intact, the next season the Red Sox fell back down to earth and failed to even make the playoffs.
Rather than seeking to improve, management proceeded to purge the roster, and without much to show for it. Of that 2018 Opening Day roster, only Chris Sale and Rafael Devers remain, and Sale has been pretty much sitting on the Disabled List for the past two years, the equivalent of lighting $40 million on fire.
Now, it isn’t just that the Red Sox have blown up that 2018-2019 team, they seem to have done it with no clear plan to replace any of them and without getting much of anything in return. While any of these decisions may make sense on their own, they each become harder to justify in the broader context.
Let’s take, for instance, the most recent blow, the loss of Xander Bogaerts to the San Diego Padres on an eleven-year, $280 million deal. Nearly everyone in the baseball world seems to agree that the San Diego Padres overpaid to get him, and that there was never any chance the Red Sox would have matched that offer. That sounds perfectly reasonable.
Here’s the thing, though: The Red Sox didn’t have to match that offer. Unlike other free agents in years past, it seemed as if Bogaerts initially hoped to stay, but management bungled the negotiations. First they offered him an initial deal that was far too low in dollar terms, then they offered him a deal that was higher than what the Padres offered in dollars annually, but for far fewer years. It seemed to be a clear textbook case of how not to negotiate, and his departure was the inevitable result.
Oh, and what’s the team’s plan to replace him? They’ll move Trevor Story to short.
No, they don’t have some hot shortstop prospect working their way through the system, nor are they pursuing a blockbuster trade or big-name free agent. Instead, their big plan is to shuffle deck chairs on the Titanic. Even if Trevor Story proves capable at the position, they won’t be replacing Bogaerts’ production in the lineup: he hit .238 last year with an on-base percentage of .303, compared to Bogaerts’ .307 average and .377 on-base percentage.
Taking the offense backwards with no plan to improve it isn’t a formula for turning around the team. It’s not just the offense, either: The Red Sox don’t seem to have a real strategy for improving any aspect of the team. That’s what’s really so distressing about letting that 2018-2019 roster fall apart gradually, mainly through free agency: they get nothing in return and are unable to develop a comprehensive plan for the future. They would have been better off simply blowing up the roster with one blockbuster trade earlier and spend a few years rebuilding, but they didn’t have a clear enough plan to pull that off.
Instead, the current listless Red Sox management seems uncommitted to any clear course of action, either rebuilding for the future or competing right now. If they remain on this path, they risk plunging the franchise into a slow slide towards oblivion, the worst possible option - even as the hated Yankees remain competitive, and the cross-town Bruins and Celtics boast the best record in their sports.
That threatens the Boston Red Sox with what should be impossible in a baseball-crazed town: irrelevance. Hopefully John Henry understands that’s a real risk, and hopefully it’s one he wants to avoid, but these days it’s getting harder and harder to believe that.
Come on though, Red Sox, convince me I’m wrong.
I want to believe.
Jim is also a weekly columnist for the Portland Press Herald, Maine’s largest daily newspaper. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.