“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!’”
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
The quote above comes from the turning point in the life of the initial focal character in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He has finally hit rock bottom after a string of outrageous days and nights of extravagant spending have played out a third of his father’s estate and he’s found destitute and alone (unless you count living with pigs company). If you’re familiar with the story you may not realize that the word prodigal does not refer directly to the party lifestyle he entertained but the reckless spending he undertook to grab the golden ring.
With that in mind, it’s no too much of a stretch to say that the Red Sox have reached that same moment in their own prodigal story. The Red Sox have spent lavishly on free agents in an attempt to patch holes in their roster that the farm system was unable to shore up from within. They shifted tactics (Run production? Run prevention?), bought big names, and tried to find bargains. With all that they’ve produced a .500 team currently occupying last place in the AL East.
That’s why they should make no additional purchases between now and August 1st.
I know, I know, the club is still within 3.5 games of the second Wild Card spot. Great. Unless you’re living in or around Seattle, Oakland, Minnesota, or Cleveland you can say the exact same thing. That’s right, the .500 Red Sox are not only in last place in the AL East but in tenth place among all AL contenders. They only recently secured a spot ahead of the Indians principally because the Tribe has a losing streak one game longer than the Red Sox. Being less than four games out of the WC is what AL play is all about this year.
While the unusual parity in the AL might give cause for joining the chorus singing for change, hold on for just a minute. Let’s take a survey of the landscape. The Sox will have to pass at least six other teams who have a winning record in order to secure a playoff spot. Unfortunately the Sox are currently sporting a 26-39 record (.400) against such foes. The Sox are 21-11 against left handed starters. While that might be encouraging, it means that they’re ten games under .500 against the right-handed starters that make up roughly 75% of the starting pitchers in the American League. That’s not a great position from which to launch a playoff assault. Neither is it a position of strength to play three games under .500 at home (25-28). Maybe they’re lucky that they have just over half of their games on the road.
Or maybe not. Of their 66 games, twelve are against the Yankees and nine of the twelve take place in the Bronx where the Bombers are playing .638 ball. At one time having nine games left against the Orioles would have been good news for the Sox but this edition of Boston’s “varsity” team is currently 3-6 against the WC-leading Os and six of the nine games take place in the city with the longer playoff drought. No doubt Buck Showalter is smiling. Six games against the AL-leading Rangers? Six more against the WC-leading Angels? Another half dozen against the pitching-rich Rays, with four of the contests in Tampa? No, there are no soft spots in the schedule over which the Sox can pad their record. In fact, there’s not a single week in which they don’t face at least one team that currently clings to a playoff spot.
The anticipated returns of Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Dustin Pedroia have not changed the results. Even getting Ortiz back in the lineup when his Achilles heals will not help. The team does not lack for runs; it lacks for run prevention.
If anything could help the Red Sox get into the playoffs it would be starting pitching. Whatever the cause, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are shells of the players who once toyed with the American League. Unfortunately, when ten teams in the AL alone are in the market to improve and all interested in improving their starting pitching, the costs will climb dramatically. We’ll hear names like Dempster, Garza, and Hamels bandied about but none of them will displace Lester and Beckett from the rotation. Aaron Cook or Felix Doubront might move but the team wins when they pitch so what’s the point? Is making a deal to improve from 6-4 to 8-2 in those starts worth it when the acquired pitcher likely heads to free agency a few weeks later?
Assume, for a moment, that a deal is consummated. The Sox land Big Name Pitcher to bolster the rotation. The team gets on a roll and grabs a wild card spot. Even better, Big Name Pitcher gets to start the one-game wild card match against the Angels, Orioles, Rays, or Tigers. Big Name Pitcher has a great start… but so does his opponent. The Sox have shown time and again this season that big name pitchers shut down this lineup pretty well. If they’re fortunate enough to eke out a win they get to face the team with the best record in baseball: the Yankees or the Rangers. Swell. They face that task without Big Name Pitcher starting any of the first three games. Ahem. The Yankees currently hold a 5-1 record against the Sox, including the humiliating and demoralizing 15-9 win early in the season. Meanwhile the Rangers are ahead 2-0 on the season and have outscored the Sox 24-6. Good luck.
Is the point just to make the playoffs? No, the point is to win the World Series.
No matter the addition to the roster, even a big name addition to the rotation, this team is not going to win the World Series. You could see it in Lester’s face on Sunday: they fundamentally lack something and don’t quite know what it is. They’ve hit rock bottom and currently occupy a pig stye by their own accord. The spendthrift Sox bought their way into poverty. Now the prodigal Sox must sit still for a moment and figure out what went wrong.
Just like the parabled prodigal, the only way to fix things is to return to the farm from whence it all began. If they entertain a trade it should only be a way for bargaining towards the trip home. Shed some symbols of the excess living and downwardly spiraling play (e.g., Beckett or Crawford) and seek to reset the roster. Focus on rebuilding with a youthful base and allow the payroll advantages play into strategic player acquisitions for 2013 and 2014.