The Boston Red Sox began 2012 with realistic hopes of reaching the World Series, but ended the season with a dismal 69-93 record and a last place finish in the American League East. Despite such disappointment, many fans cling to the belief that only minor tweaking is needed for the Sox to be back with a vengeance.
However, there are three glaring reasons the Red Sox are more than a few moves away from returning to their status as annual contenders.
They Need Too Much Pitching
The starting pitching staff of the Red Sox is in a state of chaos and in dire need of an upgrade. Jon Lester was a shell of his former self this past season, and beyond inconsistent Clay Buchholz and Felix Dubront, there are two glaring holes in the 2013 rotation. John Lackey will be back from Tommy John Surgery, but there is no indication of how effective he will be after a year-long layoff and two poisonous years in Boston.
Ideally they need two front line starters, but it is hard enough to find just one, especially when having to compete against other teams for such a rare commodity.
Starting pitcher depth to address inevitable injuries is a necessity for any contender, and this is another area where the Red Sox are sorely lacking. The two current in-house depth candidates are Daniel Bard and Franklin Morales, neither of whom can be counted on in 2013.
Bard imploded into an erratic and ineffective pitcher who never knows where his next pitch is going. Morales looked good during a nine start stretch, but was shut down for the final six weeks with shoulder issues.
There are no youngsters ready to emerge from the minors, forcing the Red Sox to once again search for help in a tough market.
Their Catching is Abysmal
A key to Red Sox success during World Series runs in 2004 and 2007 was the solid play of catcher Jason Varitek. His retirement following the 2011 season created quite a void that has not yet been filled.
Current starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s 25 home runs in 2012 may have been the third highest total in the majors at his position, but it was a smoke screen that masked his major deficiencies. He hit a paltry .222 with a .288 OBP, while striking out in nearly a third of his plate appearances.
His all-or-nothing approach at the plate might be tolerated if he was a good glove man, but he is one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball, throwing out just 18 percent of those attempting to steal on him last season. He also struggles calling a game, as evidenced with how he worked with the team’s best pitchers.
Lester and Buchholz had a combined 5.90 ERA when caught by Salty in 2012, compared to 3.61 when pitching to other battery mates.
Ryan Lavarnway, whose best attribute is supposed to be his bat, is the only other catching option on the roster. But he tanked in 2012, hitting just .157, which was made worse because he is an even more putrid defensive player (10 percent caught stealing) than Saltalamacchia.
Aging veteran free agents like A.J. Pierzynski and Mike Napoli don’t represent a long term solution or much of an upgrade on defense, so it will be a tough proposition for the Red Sox to find the solid catcher they need to help them return to contender status.
They Lack the Prospects to Trade For a Marquee Player
In addition to front line starting pitchers, the Red Sox also need a first baseman, two corner outfielders, and/or an impact bat in the middle of their lineup.
Josh Hamilton and Zach Greinke are the only available super star free agents, but each needs valets to carry all of the baggage they have off the field, which would be tinder for the incendiary Boston press.
Both players represent an extreme financial risk the team is unlikely to assume given their recent trend of big signings that didn't pan out, making trades the most likely way to acquire players.
However, it will be very difficult for the Red Sox to swing trades for impact players because they lack the blue chip prospects coveted in such deals. Other than shortstop phenom Xander Boegaerts—who is considered nearly untouchable—and center fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr.—who is seen as Jacoby Ellsbury's replacement in 2014—the Red Sox don’t have high profile major league ready prospects. That’s not to say they don’t have a decent farm system, but most of their best prospect are two or three years away from being relevant.
Formerly a model franchise, the regression of the Red Sox over the last few seasons from contender to cellar was in large part because of falling into the bad habit of relying on the free agent market instead of developing young talent and making smart trades.
Now the team is left with major holes that can only be filled with patience and making smart player acquisitions. It may not be what fans want to hear, but the Red Sox have a ways to go before they will be legitimate contenders again.
As long as they develop and stick with a solid rebuilding plan they will be fine, and the end result will be worth the wait
All stats via BaseballReference