NEW YORK -- For Boston Red Sox fans, there is never a good time to lose a game to the Yankees.
This might be the exception. If the 2015 season has devolved into the Sox's kids learning to find their way going forward, then losing to the Yankees once in the next three nights will afford them another useful lesson. They will get to see what it looks like for a major league team to clinch a playoff spot (the Yankees are on the cusp of claiming a wild card), something that precious few of them have experienced.
Hard as it might be to believe, only eight players remain from the 2013 team that won the World Series: three regulars, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts and Clay Buchholz; three relievers, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow; and a kid pitcher, Brandon Workman, who has spent the entire season on the DL after Tommy John elbow surgery.
Some notables from 2013’s bearded "band of brothers" will be spending October in other uniforms: Jon Lester and David Ross with the Cubs, Jonny Gomes with the Royals, John Lackey with the Cardinals, possibly Mike Napoli with the Rangers.
Because of their late-season surge, the Sox look like they will avoid their third last-place finish in the past four years. But for a team that likes to cast itself as perennial contenders, the Sox have now gone to the postseason just once in six seasons.
Contrast that to the first half of the John W. Henry era, when the club was a playoff team six times in eight years, won the World Series twice and averaged 94 wins a season in that span.
So the change has come, no longer in increments, but in waves. Ben Cherington is gone. So is Larry Lucchino, except for an ornamental title. David Dombrowski is the new sheriff in town on the baseball side, and though he retained a Cherington/Theo Epstein holdover in general manager Mike Hazen to be his second-in-command, he is putting into place a front office made to his specifications, complete with a new pitching analytics guru, Brian Bannister, a trusted talent evaluator in Frank Wren, and more additions to come.
The real work lies ahead. Dombrowski is tasked with resetting the team’s course, most of the heavy lifting required coming on the pitching side, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. Though Rick Porcello and Wade Miley have both shown that a rush to judgment might have been a mistake, there is little doubt Dombrowski will move to acquire an ace this winter, whether by free-agent signing or via trade. His track record should offer encouragement. Just two examples: As GM of the Marlins, he signed Kevin Brown as a free agent when Brown had yet to become an elite pitcher, and with the Tigers, he identified Doug Fister from the Mariners as a pitcher on the verge of breaking out.
He has a better closer in the 40-year-old Uehara than he ever had in Detroit -- even at his advanced age, Uehara showed little dropoff in performance, and his injury was a freak one.
Assembling the complementary pieces with which to surround Uehara is a job fraught with uncertainty, given the volatility of relievers’ performances from year to year. But with opposing hitters posting a .781 OPS against the Sox pen, the highest in the majors, upgrades are obviously needed.
Undoing last winter’s biggest mistakes, the signings of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval for a combined $183 million, is not a job for the faint-hearted. Sandoval might yet be salvageable, but the Sox should be open to any and all offers. Other teams, however, see in Ramirez the same thing the Sox see. A player without a position, and one who can’t stay healthy. Impossible to move? Dombrowski has been willing to eat big salaries in the past (Gary Sheffield, Prince Fielder), and the bet here is he’ll find a way to move Ramirez, too.
But if there has been an overarching theme to the last weeks of this season, it is that the Sox have a core of young talent that anybody would be thrilled to build around. Scouts rave about shortstop Bogaerts, outfielder Mookie Betts and rookie catcher Blake Swihart as dynamic talents with the ability to be impact players for years to come, and if catcher Christian Vazquez makes a full recovery from Tommy John surgery, you can add him to that list. Dombrowski himself has said rookie lefty Eduardo Rodriguez has No. 1 potential, and fellow rookie lefty Henry Owens might have a higher ceiling than just his stuff suggests. Mark Buehrle is a great example of a lefty who didn’t need a big fastball to prosper. Rookie outfielder Rusney Castillo, the Cuban import, made great strides, and Jackie Bradley Jr., the defensive savant, has hit enough the past two months to warrant a place in the team’s future.
"I’ve said it before," Dombrowski said the other day, "this club has a great foundation of young players. You can make an argument that you like this guy more than that guy, but this is a great corps of young players. And I think if we make some wise moves, supplement the talent that we have here, including some of the veteran players, we have a chance to be a very good club real quickly."