The Boston Red Sox haven't even gotten to the hard part yet.
What they're going through is merely the ugly part. They began 2019 with hopes of authoring a worthy follow-up to last year's fantastical 108 wins and World Series championship. What they've come up with is increasingly resembling a farce.
The Red Sox are fresh off losing eight games in a row, including four straight to the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. They're now only four games over .500 and 16 games out of first place in the American League East.
Perhaps things wouldn't be looking so grim if the Red Sox had done better on the summer trade market. But they kept their risk low when they picked up Andrew Cashner for their starting rotation on July 13. Their bullpen, meanwhile, didn't get any reinforcements before the July 31 deadline. It's early yet, but neither of these maneuvers is aging well.
The Red Sox still have a discernible path to the playoffs via the AL wild-card race. And if they could just get into the postseason, perhaps they can reignite whatever light led them through last October.
But the odds? They're not so good. According to FanGraphs, the Red Sox have just a 14.9 percent chance of earning a wild-card berth. Their chances of winning the World Series start with a one. Then a decimal. Then a two.
In times such as these, it's best to look forward. But things aren't so rosy for Boston there either.
When the Red Sox make it to the offseason, their questions will start with who's even steering the ship.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has been at the helm since since August 2015. And to his credit, he signed David Price, J.D. Martinez and Mitch Moreland and traded for Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, Craig Kimbrel, Steve Pearce and Eduardo Nunez. Each of them played a role in delivering the franchise's fourth World Series title since 2004 last season.
However, it's been seemingly one bungle after another for Dombrowski ever since Sale made Manny Machado bend the knee to end the 2018 World Series.
Rather than seek out new blood, Dombrowski opted for keeping the band together over the winter. That cost $74.3 million worth of free-agent contracts for Eovaldi and Pearce, plus another $145 million to extend Sale. In 2019, Eovaldi and Pearce have barely played because of injuries and Sale has seen his ERA skyrocket from 2.11 to 4.68.
The one guy Dombrowski didn't keep was Kimbrel. And despite constant nagging from fans and media to fill his shoes with a similarly electric closer, Dombrowski has stuck to a "This is fine" bit:
The truth is that Boston's bullpen isn't fine. It has a 4.46 ERA overall and an AL-low 52 percent success rate in save opportunities.
For what it's worth, Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe reported that Dombrowski has "increasingly isolated himself" within the Red Sox's front office. Those could be the actions of a guy who's merely frustrated. Or, they could be those of a guy who senses his doom.
Regardless of whether the Red Sox keep Dombrowski, up next in their list of questions will be how exactly to fix a pitching staff with issues that extend well beyond the bullpen.
The Red Sox's offseason shopping list will include at least one starter. Porcello, Andrew Cashman (whose 2020 option isn't going to vest) are due for free agency.
Yet arguably even bigger items on the Red Sox's to-do list will involve figuring out just how the hell this happened:
- 2018: 3.75 ERA and 1.1 HR/9
- 2019: 4.81 ERA and 1.4 HR/9
Losing Kimbrel and not having Eovaldi for much of the season is part of the equation here. So is the Red Sox's defense, which ranks dead last in efficiency. And the juiced ball, which has created home run problems for everyone.
But there must be more to the story. Specifically, how could aces like Sale and David Price (whose own ERA has leaped from 3.58 to 4.36) be so bad despite apparently being in good health? And was there a reason that Red Sox pitchers were at their worst when the leverage was at its highest?
These inquiries are bound to be directed at pitching coach Dana LeVangie. If he doesn't have good explanations, the Red Sox may have to show him the door.
The Red Sox will be able to breathe a little easier with their lineup, but not too easy. The poor glovework can't go unaddressed, after all, and the pending free agency of Moreland, Pearce and Brock Holt will open up needs at first base and on their bench.
The Red Sox also may find themselves with a Martinez-sized hole in the middle of their lineup if the 31-year-old slugger opts out of the final three years and $62.5 million remaining on his contract.
Given that he "only" has a .917 OPS and 24 homers after finishing 2018 with a 1.031 OPS and 43 homers, this would seem to be a long shot. However, it'll get shorter by the day if Martinez keeps up a pace that's led to a 1.184 OPS over his last 17 games.
Then there's the Mookie Betts question.
The 26-year-old right fielder romped his way to the AL MVP in 2018 and ranks second to only Mike Trout in wins above replacement since 2015, according to Baseball Reference. Yet he's already making $20 million in his penultimate season of arbitration-eligibility, and efforts to sign him to a contract extension have been met with resistance.
"I don’t expect anything to happen until I’m a free agent," Betts told reporters, including MLB.com's Matt Kelly, in March.
If the Red Sox can't extend Betts this winter, they might keep him for 2020 and take their chances with his free agency. Alternatively, chatter about a trade could turn from a lot of smoke to actual fire.
Take it from MLB Network's Peter Gammons (via Red Sox Stats):
Even if it isn't necessarily their primary concern, one thing that will at least inform the Red Sox's stance on Betts is the state of their farm system. We have it ranked as the worst in MLB. A blockbuster trade in the spirit of the recent Trevor Bauer deal is the only way the Red Sox are going to get a massive infusion of young, cost-controlled talent in the near future.
The Red Sox aren't headed for a boring offseason. And because their general foundation is simply too strong, the ol' "make-or-break" label doesn't apply. Chances are the Red Sox will come out just fine no matter what happens.
But if they want future seasons to play out less like 2019 and more like 2018, they'd better come up with the right answers to their many questions.