It is a devastatingly bleak landscape. The Red Sox currently find themselves in a desert. Little is visible but the vultures picking away at the carcass of what remains of a 2012 season that is decomposing by the day.
The question no longer is whether the Red Sox can turn around their year. The matter at hand is whether there is an oasis beyond the horizon of 2012. Is it realistic for the team to think it can contend in 2013?
Before examining that, a look at the train wreck: With a 4-1 setback in Seattle on Monday, the Sox have lost seven straight, their longest run of defeats since a nine-game skid under Joe Kerrigan in 2001. They have fallen to 12 games under .500 for the first time since July 1997. This is the first time in 20 years, dating to the inglorious Butch Hobson era, that they have been this far below .500 this late. (In 1992, they finished 73-89.)
All of that, of course, is hard for anyone around the team to stomach. It’s hard for the players who must withstand the embarrassment of losing day after day. It wears on a front office and ownership group that has seen its $190 million investment curdle.
It is devastating for manager Bobby Valentine, who must offer a public accounting of the ever-growing frustration and disappointment of each loss at a time when his job security is re-evaluated on a daily basis.
“When the manager is in the middle of it every day and he’s the one who has to answer the questions after the game every day, it’s hard. When things aren’t going well, that’s hard. I feel for him,” Sox general manager Ben Cherington said. “I’m sure, at times, frustration comes out. The truth is that he’s working with a roster, some of which is we’re finding out about guys. It’s not as easy to write out the lineup as he thought it might be in spring training. That would be frustrating for anyone. Part of it is frustration boiling over when you’re sort of the focal point of that and you have to answer the questions after the game. I don’t know how I’d react if I was in that position. I’ve never done it. I can imagine it’s tough.”
Yet as difficult as the current circumstances are, they are, in many ways, irrelevant. The duration of the 2012 season is spring training all over again. This season is long since lost. Even the idea that the Sox can avoid a sub-.500 finish has gone up in smoke, given that the depleted roster shows no realistic hope of going on a 19-7 tear to reach .500 by season’s end.
And so, the rest of the year is an exercise in figuring out what the team can do to achieve a dramatic reversal of fortune in the span of the remaining month of the season and offseason. Cherington has said he’s trying to build the next great Red Sox team. The fortunes of the 2012 club now are collateral damage.
“I think I’ve said, all I’m doing right now, all we’re focused on is what we need to get out of the next few weeks, what we can do in the next few weeks to help us this offseason and down the road to build this team back up again,” Cherington told reporters in Seattle. “That’s all I’m focused on.”
And rightly so. The Red Sox have plenty of problems to fix. This is a period of trial-and-error with no consequence, in which Ryan Lavarnway and Jose Iglesias can take their lumps -- much as was the case with Dustin Pedroia at the end of 2006 -- and learn without jeopardizing a season.
With this season flushed, a case can be made that the long-term interests of the organization are helped by losing (and the subsequent improvement in draft pick position) more than by winning. (Whither, M.L. Carr?) Time to look ahead.
But again, that gets into the question: As this season unravels on the field, is it reasonable to think that the Sox might be able to reverse their (mis)fortunes by next year?
Recent history suggests that a rapid reversal of fortune is indeed possible. From 2006 to 2010, there were 71 teams that finished the year with sub-.500 winning percentages. Of those, 10 (14 percent) made the playoffs the following season. In each of the last five postseasons, at least one October entrant had finished with a losing record in the previous season. And, of course, it is worth stating the obvious fact that the playoffs now include an additional berth given the expansion of the wild card from one to two teams.
The one-year turnarounds have featured four teams that lost 90 or more games in one season and then reached October the next. The 2010-11 Diamondbacks, who went from 65-97 to 98-64 in the span of a single season, were the most extreme example. Of those 10 teams, none won more than 78 games the year before reaching the postseason.
Obviously, the Red Sox are in a tremendous position in terms of their available resources this offseason. The team has the money and trade chips to pursue a number of different avenues for upgrades, albeit in a winter when the free agent market is one of the worst in years.
But looking at the one-year turnarounds of those 10 teams, it is interesting to note that big ticket free agency rarely had a role in the roster transformations to contenders. Aside from the 2006-07 Cubs, who spent wildly (most notably on Alfonso Soriano and Ted Lilly) in free agency, the other teams typically made their most significant leaps through improvements of players who were already in the organization through the fallow season.
For instance, last year’s Diamondbacks benefited from Justin Upton going from a mediocre year to an MVP-caliber one and from young pitchers like Daniel Hudson and Josh Collmenter who flourished. The 2011 Brewers had Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder go from All-Star-caliber players to superstars. The 2010 Reds enjoyed steps forward from players like Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs in a season when Scott Rolen and Ramon Hernandez were improbably healthy.
A few teams enacted either blockbuster trades or made moves that initially appeared subtle but paid big dividends. Last year’s Brewers traded for both Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. After the 2008 season, the Rockies traded away Matt Holliday but received Carlos Gonzalez. After the 2007 season, the Rays stole Matt Garza from the Twins in exchange for Delmon Young.
As for free agents, aside from the 2006-07 Cubs, the biggest moves were either for international amateurs (Alexei Ramirez, Aroldis Chapman) who were nearly big league ready, or for veterans on inexpensive, short-term deals like Cliff Floyd and Joe Borowski.
Outside of the roster, it also seems pertinent to note that four of the 10 teams that enjoyed their dramatic one-year turnarounds changed managers.
At any rate, the recent track record of teams that bounced back from a losing year to reach the postseason suggests that the Sox can focus on a strategy that holds true to the discipline of which Cherington spoke while building something anew from the ashes of this year’s exercise in immolation. It’s not easy -- after all, 61 of the 71 teams that finished one year below .500 were again on the outside looking in at the postseason the following season (with the repeated caveat: at a time when the odds were less favorable given that the past five years didn’t include the second wild card) -- but certainly, even those long odds offer more hope to the Red Sox than anything that they have seen on the field since the beginning of August.