The Red Sox Shouldn’t Be Living This Indiana Pacers Life

Chaim Bloom

Masataka Yoshida is an extremely cool ballplayer. The 29-year-old has hit .300/.400/.500 six seasons in a row, and despite 20-homer power and plenty of walks, he never strikes out. I’m serious: in 508 Pacific League plate appearances in 2022, Yoshida walked 80 times and struck out just 41 times. That’s a BB% and K% of 15.7% and 8.1%, respectively. He makes Alejandro Kirk look like Dave Kingman. Now, will a 5-foot-8 left fielder be able to keep hitting 20 homers a year on this side of the Pacific? I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

Yoshida is, so far, the crown jewel of the offseason for the Red Sox. Between his five-year contract and posting fee, he cost Boston $105.4 million, a significant outlay for any team. If you roll in the posting fee, that’s within rounding distance of the AAV Brandon Nimmo and Kyle Schwarber got in free agency; that indicates Boston views Yoshida as an impact player at his position.

On Thursday, the Red Sox officially announced Yoshida’s signing and added him to the 40-man roster. In order to make room, they designated Jeter Downs for assignment. And suddenly what should have been a joyous day was dampened by the weight of reflection.

Not because the Sox will particularly miss Downs specifically; in a 14-game midseason cameo in the majors, he hit .154/.171/.256 with one walk and 21 strikeouts in 41 plate appearances. Better prospects than him have had worse major league debuts over a similar sample, to be sure. But Downs, a former first-round pick who feasted on older pitching in the low minors, hasn’t hit .200 in a minor league season since before the pandemic. In 81 Triple-A games this year, he hit .197/.316/.412 — enough walks and power at least to merit a look in the bigs — but the season before that he hit .190/.272/.333 with a 32.3% strikeout rate.

Whatever magic Downs had as a young prospect seems to be gone, with the Red Sox either convinced he’ll get through waivers or comfortable losing him for nothing if he doesn’t. But he is notable because he was one of the three players acquired from the Dodgers in February 2020 for Mookie Betts and David Price. (“They traded their best player since Yaz for a guy named Jeter!” we all rushed to tweet at the time.)

As disappointing as Downs has been, he was a 20-year-old with 12 games above A-ball on his resumé at the time of the trade; players like that can be unpredictable. But the news from elsewhere in the trade return isn’t much better. Connor Wong also hit under .200 in a brief major league trip this season, and Alex Verdugo has gone the wrong way. The most charitable reading of Verdugo in February 2020 was that he could be a poor man’s version of Betts: a high-contact hitter who could hit for some power and play good defense in right. And that was true for a while; Verdugo was excellent in 2020, but in ’22 he posted career full-season lows in all three triple slash categories, walk rate, and defensive runs above average. And he’ll be a free agent himself the year after next.

Prospects fail all the time, and even smart GMs with big financial backing lose trades just as frequently. But Downs being DFA’d is the latest in a long line of body blows for one of the sport’s marquee franchises. The Betts trade was so jarring because it came just 15 months after the Red Sox capped one of the best seasons of the 21st century: a 108-win soul-harvesting machine whose 11–3 record in the postseason belied how dominant its run to the championship was. Less than a year later, the Sox cashiered the architect of that team, Dave Dombrowski, and hired Chaim Bloom to, it seems with three years of hindsight, dismantle it.

Betts was gone by the start of spring training 2020, shortly after the Red Sox were implicated in the sign-stealing scandal that rocked baseball that spring and resulted in the firing of manager Alex Cora, among other things. Betts won another ring with the Dodgers that season as the Red Sox finished dead last in the AL East. Dombrowski landed with the Phillies shortly thereafter and won the pennant in his second season in charge. A year to the day after trading Betts, Bloom shipped Andrew Benintendi to Kansas City in a three-team deal that landed the Red Sox five players. Josh Winckowski made his MLB debut this season and posted a Yoshida-like 13.9% strikeout rate and 8.5% walk rate. That’s bad, because he’s a pitcher, you see, and his 5.89 ERA in 70 1/3 innings reflected that. Franchy Cordero hit .209/.279/.350 in two seasons of part-time duty and is now an Oriole. None of the other three players the Sox acquired has reached Double-A yet.

Some of key players on the 2018 team have aged out of their prime or retired altogether, but others are still productive and prosperous. Eduardo Rodriguez left for Detroit on a five-year deal last offseason. Christian Vázquez was traded to Houston at this year’s deadline and caught the Astros’ World Series-clinching win. Xander Bogaerts, as you might recall, signed an 11-year, $280 million contract with the Padres in the wake of the Winter Meetings, and Nathan Eovaldi, J.D. Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Rich Hill are also currently at large on the free-agent market.

After a surprise run to the ALCS in 2021, the Red Sox finished in last place again in 2022, and nothing about this postseason makes it look like they’re closing the 21-game deficit to a Yankees team that, it bears repeating, brought back Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo.

Boston, for all its losses and potential losses, has brought in Yoshida and three relievers: Kenley Jansen, Joely Rodríguez, and Chris Martin. Which is fair enough; last season, the Red Sox bullpen finished 26th in ERA, 19th in K-BB%, and 15th in WPA. It could use an upgrade. But free agent-to-be Rafael Devers is probably looking at the contract Bogaerts got and fantasizing about what he could buy with $400 million of some other team’s money.

“What a miserable month for the Red Sox,” Boston Globe beat writer Julian McWilliams tweeted in the wake of the Downs DFA. Four hours later the Yankees signed Carlos Rodón, culminating a deal Scott Boras finalized while in Fenway Park for the Yoshida press conference.

Not long ago, the Red Sox were going toe to toe with the Yankees and beating them easily. Now, Boston has slipped further down the pecking order of heavyweight franchises than it’s been at any point in the 21st century.

We’ve seen this before; in fact, across sports we see it every year. A dynastically successful team loses its franchise player, or the owner goes broke or gets bored and stops writing checks. A successful coach or executive runs out of ideas and the state of the art passes them by. But it’s not like the Red Sox have been gutted like the 1998 Marlins, the late-2010s Pirates, or the A’s every three or four years. They’re still trying.

Red Sox Spending and Success, Post-World Series title
Season Record Total Payroll
2019 84-78 $242 million
2020 24-36 $177 million
2021 92-70 $193 million
2022 78-84 $221 million
2023 TBD $172 million*
*Through Dec. 15, 2022

They re-signed Chris Sale (which hasn’t done them much good so far, but it’s still a $145 million investment) and Enrique Hernández. They shopped in the deep end of the free-agent market last offseason by signing Trevor Story. And while Yoshida and three relievers isn’t as splashy as Rodón, or perhaps even Chris Bassitt and Kevin Kiermaier going to Toronto, it still represents $41.5 million in 2023 salary spent on the free-agent and international posting market. This team went to the ALCS two years ago, for God’s sake!

But big-market teams have upped the ante this offseason. They’re no longer running $200 million payrolls; the most ambitious of them are running payrolls in excess of $340 million. They’re not signing intriguing 29-year-olds from overseas; they’re going out and getting superstars and developing the next generation of All-Stars and locking them up to long-term extensions. Bloom was such an attractive candidate to lead Boston’s baseball ops department because of the success he’d had in Tampa Bay under Erik Neander, where they’d won 96 games in 2019 for a fraction of the cost of Boston’s roster. The plan — cashiering baseball’s freest-spending executive and replacing him with someone from the Rays system — was clearly to do more with less. But the Sox haven’t scouted and developed well enough to make that work, and now they’re not spending enough, as the Mets and others are, to paper over the cracks.

The Red Sox probably aren’t done with this free-agency period, but they’re still alone at the bar and last call is coming. There might not be much money can fix at this point. With Rodón off the market, the best free agent left is Dansby Swanson; even if Boston signed the former no. 1 overall pick, he would represent a significant downgrade from Bogaerts, likely at nearly the annual cost of keeping Bogaerts in the first place.

The Red Sox aren’t bad. They’re not tanking. They haven’t been completely defunded or given up on competing. If they finish in last place again, it will be because the AL East is a brutal place to play; if the Red Sox moved to Indianapolis, they’d have a realistic shot of winning the AL Central.

But they’re no longer the Yankees with facial hair.

In 2011, the big brains of the basketball world were embracing a worldview that favored either all-in short-term contention built around superstars (such as the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Miami Heat teams of the time) or ruthless tanking in service of acquiring such superstars through the draft. Teams in the middle were said to be on what then-Portland Trail Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard called “the mediocrity treadmill.” A mediocrity treadmill team would sign and develop enough good players to be competitive on a night-to-night basis, maybe even to make the playoffs and win a round every couple years. But the sport’s incentive structure made it difficult to acquire the superstars necessary to get over the top and make a serious run at a championship. And because a treadmill team would be drafting in the teens, most of the star prospects in the draft would be gone by the time said team got to pick.

It’s not an ironclad concept, certainly not now. The state of scholarship in basketball has changed profoundly in the past 11 years, to say nothing of the humongous differences between that sport and baseball. And if we’ve learned anything from the scorched-earth multi-year tanking projects in both sports in the past decade, it’s that a mediocre team is usually more fun to watch than a terrible one. (Though to that point, if you’re a Red Sox fan, please chime with any thoughts you have on how much fun it’s been to watch Bogaerts walk while the Yankees scooped up Rodón and re-signed Judge.)

If the Red Sox are pursuing the absolute top-tier free agents, they haven’t been doing so successfully. And they haven’t exhibited the cleverness or guile necessary to build a consistent Yankee-beater on a budget. They’ll go .500 or better pretty routinely, and every couple years make the playoffs, which, unlike in the NBA, is in and of itself a real shot at winning a title. But expectations are, and should be, higher than that. Thursday’s dueling headlines are yet another reminder that they’re not being met.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

Bloom sux