Red Sox Sweep the Rays thanks to lifts from Moreland, others

You have tremendous foresight if you were expecting to see the Red Sox sweep the Rays after a weekend series in Tampa. With the tabloids barking for the real Red Sox to stand up, the World Champions were facing adversity really for the first time under Alex Cora. That might still be the case, as Boston still sits at just 9-13 AFTER a series sweep. But the Red Sox are finally showing real signs of shaking their funk.

The Red Sox sweep the Rays with a push from Mookie Betts

As has been the case since Betts showed MVP-ability in 2016, the team goes when he Red Sox Sweep the Raysgoes. When he struggles, so does the offense. It’s no secret Betts was scuffling entering play on Friday, going just 2 of 23 in his last seven games. That changed when he smacked a homer and a double to help lift the Sox over the Rays 6-4 to open the series. Case in point, as he went back-to-back with Mitch Moreland on home runs in the series opening victory. He continued that approach into the next two games. He added two more hits apiece in each contest. If the 2018 MVP continues to stay hot, then he very well might carry the Red Sox back to form.

The starting pitching continues to improve, and that starts with David Price

Price has arguably been the rotation’s most reliable thrower to this point in 2019. While the southpaw has tossed just one quality start so far, he has not allowed more than four runs in a start. Price has worked less than six innings only once too. Given the inconsistencies of Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez, Price’s outings have given the team a chance to win each time out. He was at his best versus Baltimore on 4/14 (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 7 K) but worked out of jams and held the Rays to two runs over five innings with 10 strikeouts on Sunday afternoon. With Eovaldi hitting the injured list, and Chris Sale still yet to truly put it together, Price’s importance cannot be overstated to the rotation’s long term success.

Martinez, Moreland, and Benintendi are all off to strong starts

As important as Betts’ oil is to grease the Red Sox’ engine, the team might be off to an even worse start if it weren’t for J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, and, most notably, Moreland. Through Sunday, Moreland lead the team in homers (7) and RBI (14), and mashed most of those homers to either tie or give the Red Sox the lead. The former Texas Ranger homered again Sunday to pull the Sox within one. Martinez has been one of the best hitters in baseball, hitting .350 with a 1.004 OPS, including four homers and 11 RBI. He is also one of three players (Rafael Devers and Betts) to appear in every game so far. Benintendi crushed his first career grand slam on Saturday to give Boston an early lead. Coupled with his strong defense in the field, the Cincinnati native figures to continue to break out in 2019.

If you expected to read the headline “Red Sox Sweep the Rays” on Monday, you also see why the team has gotten back on track. If the Sox want to keep winning, it is going to take more than what they have received so far from the roster. But a three-game sweep of the first-place Rays is a good starting point. They can now look forward to the upcoming home stand with three straight wins under their belt.

Swihart Designated for Assignment: A Confusing Move

When you begin a season 6-12, especially in a large market, fans react impulsively. If certain players get off to bad starts, people call for their heads. It is not necessarily fair, but it is the nature of a place like big-market Boston. With catcher Blake Swihart being let go after just 17 games, it indeed felt impulsive. Considering turmoil across the rotation, lack of bullpen depth, and an anemic offense, it indeed seemed time for a change. With Swihart designated for assignment, the Red Sox tried to solve a litany of issues by moving one role player, and it’ is hard to understand why.

With Swihart designated for assignment, the roster subtracted a versatile, cost-Swihart Designated for Assignmentcontrolled player yet to blossom. As Alex Cora tussled with how to use the former first round pick throughout 2018, the consensus was that he was a valuable trade chip that provided depth off the bench. The Red Sox never moved him, and it seemed to pay off in the second half after Swihart flashed his ability with increased playing time. 2019 was when Swihart was going to get a real shot at becoming the catcher of the future. Christian Vazquez would get his innings, but Swihart was going to get ample time on the diamond. But after just a handful of contests, a sputtering team decided to make a move. It just does not feel like the right one.

Swihart was never really given a clear path to a major role

With Swihart designated for assignment, it might easy to forget his origins. A first round pick, 26th overall out of New Mexico in 2011, he brought with him a Gatorade National Player of the Year award. The Red Sox drooled over his athleticism, seeing him as a steal at 26 in the first round. He surfaced in the bigs in 2015, which at the time felt a tad premature. He was solid across 84 games as a rookie, particularly showing defensive improvement as the season progressed. It was 2016 where the wheels came off. Trying to incorporate Vazquez back into the mix meant moving Swihart around the field to find playing time. After a nasty ankle injury in left field, it took him nearly two entire seasons to return to full health. From there, Swihart played spottily all over the place, and never settled in. Since the beginning of 2018, there has never been a clear spot for him, and that has now shown through with this DFA.

Removing Swihart hurts the team’s versatility

It is tough to make sense of why removing a cheap, young, versatile player was the best move. On a roster that has underwhelmed, Swihart at least provided intrigue. Despite management shifting his focus to catching in 2019, he still managed to appear at other positions. How could the Red Sox justify keeping him all last season, just to DFA him now? In comparison to other players such as Eduardo Nunez, who is relegated to the infield, why remove the guy that can move around the diamond? Sure, Swihart’s .213/.310/.385 slash line through 12 games played is unimpressive. But looking at what other role players have offered so far, it really is odd to make him the (first?) fall guy.

Perhaps there are issues off the field that the fan base does not know about. Maybe Blake Swihart was not a long term solution. Whatever the case, his days in Boston are numbered, and it remains to be seen what baseball holds for his future.

Red Sox Struggles: What Has Gone Wrong for Boston?

Spring training brought talks of a quest to repeat as World Series champions. Red Sox manager Alex Cora decided that, instead of putting the success of 2018 behind them, he would encourage the team to “keep it going.” What has resulted, at least through week one, has been as poor a start as anyone could imagine. The Red Sox struggles have been all encompassing, as a sleepy offense, lethargic starting rotation, and an inconsistent bullpen have quickly snowballed into a 2-7 start. Some of the numbers suggest a team that is spiraling downward.

The Red Sox struggles start with the rotation

The most prevalent issue so far has been a staff that holds a 7.02 ERA. That is the Red Sox Strugglesworst start to a season by Red Sox pitching since ERA became a stat in 1913, per Alex Speier of the Boston Globe. The most surprising note? 23 home runs allowed through 9 games in 2019, versus 5 allowed in 2018. Home runs are up across baseball to start the year, following the home run boom of the last few seasons. But even so, the Sox have been getting blasted out of the park, and it shows no signs of slowing.

Amidst all these poor starts, the team has put together exactly one quality start. One. That belongs to staff ace Chris Sale, who held the Oakland A’s to just one run over six innings on April 2nd. Sale, however, was tagged for seven runs, including three homers, in an opening day blowout by the Seattle Mariners. David Price, on the bump tonight for Boston, will look to end the Red Sox struggles. He came an out away from recording a quality start against the A’s on April 1 before allowing a two-run bomb to Chad Pinder.

If things are going to change for Boston, it is going to have to start with its hurlers working deeper and more efficiently into games. The home runs have to come down significantly.

The Red Sox struggles are also fueled by the offense

While the club is averaging 4.5 runs per game, batters have succumbed to the pressure in high-leverage situations at the dish. For the season, the Red Sox have held a lead for exactly six out of 89 innings played. They have led for just 6 percent of their innings played. That is accompanied by late inning comebacks in both of their wins, meaning they easily could be 0-9.

The team needs more production out of players like Rafael Devers, who Cora pegged to hit third in the lineup. The young third baseman finished 2018 strong, leaving the organization hopeful for a big jump this year. So far, Devers has yet to drive in a run and possesses just two extra-base hits. Andrew Benintendi has struggled mightily to get on base, which is troublesome for a leadoff hitter. His .289 OBP is well below his career average of .357, thus holding the Sox back from gaining leads early in games.

The Red Sox struggles will not end without improvement on both sides of the ball

Per Speier, “of the more than 200 teams to reach the postseason since the introduction of the wild-card round in 1995, just four have overcome a performance as poor as the Red Sox’ through the first nine games.” Yikes.

The Red Sox find themselves on the wrong side of history to begin 2019. If they have any hopes of making the playoffs once again, things have to turn around soon. Or else.

Phillies Acquisitions Will Make for a Tight NL East Finish

The Phillies had already won the off-season before the fateful day of February 28. That’s when news broke that they acquired the transcendent talent known as Bryce Harper. Signing the right fielder to a mega deal (13 years, $330 million) was a bold move by the Philadelphia brass. However, many other Phillies acquisitions have the club in position to take control of what suddenly has become a very competitive division.

Phillies acquisitions: The outfield

Bryce Harper: Despite a down year in 2018, Harper, along with Manny Machado, were the Phillies Acquisitionsprized possessions on the free market this winter. With talk about nine digit baseball contracts, the Las Vegas native had the chance to break the bank. It didn’t come until Spring training began, but it was worth waiting for. Harper, temporarily, was awarded the largest free agent contract in American sports history. If he can give the Phillies close to his 2015 MVP season production, the deal will pay for itself. If he is pedestrian (if .249/.393/.496 is pedestrian), then it’ll take more than Harper to vaunt the Phillies into first place.

Andrew McCutchen: Once one of the game’s brightest stars, McCutchen’s value has diminshed in recent seasons. However, despite a drop off in runs batted in, the former Pirate posted close to his career averages across many categories in 2018. Standing out among them was a .792 OPS, 30 doubles, and a near-career high 95 walks. However, his strikeout numbers are soaring, he’s on the wrong side of 30, and is relegated to the corner outfield positions. But there’s no doubt his value as a veteran presence around a relatively young Philadelphia team is a welcomed sight.

Phillies Acquisitions: The Infield

J.T. Realmuto: The Phillies acquired arguably the game’s best catcher in 2018, a first-time all-star and silver slugger award winner. Over just 125 games, Realmuto set career highs in runs (74), home runs (21), RBI (74), and OPS (.825). The backstop long ago requested a trade from the Miami Marlins, after team president Derek Jeter decided to fire sale most of the talent off the club. Without Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna, Realmuto was stuck on a hopeless squad. Now, he’s in position to contend.

Jean Segura: Widely considered one of the game’s most underrated talents, Segura, 29, is already on the fifth different team of his career. He previously had time with the Angels, Brewers, Diamondbacks, and most recently, the Mariners. The Dominican-born product has seen success everywhere he has played, and has two all-star appearances under his belt (2013, 2018). While a .766 OPS over the last two seasons is nothing spectacular, he has consistently been above-league average offensively. According to Fangraphs, only four shortstops have posted a higher wRC+ than Segura’s 117 over the past three seasons, and only six have produced more WAR.

Phillies Acquisitions: The Bullpen

David Robertson: A stellar 2017 season put Robertson on the upper echelon of late inning relievers. 2018 slowed down that narrative. A 3.23 ERA is a sizable regression from 1.82. But Robertson has been a rock throughout his 11-year career, logging over 60 innings pitched in each of his last 9 seasons. He brings closing experience to a club with a cavalry of veteran arms. He figures to be a key part of the division’s strongest bullpen.

Given the major talent overhaul in the city of brotherly love, do not be surprised to see the Phillies make a big jump in 2019. But they’ll have to get through talented squads in Washington, Atlanta, and New York to do so.

Blake Swihart Staying in Boston: What Will His Role Be?

In what might be considered by some as a surprising move, the Boston Red Sox placed Sandy Leon on waivers this week, paving the way to a more defined role for Blake Swihart on the roster. With Swihart staying, the Red Sox give the keys to a player still yet to reach his full potential. Subtracting the third catcher means Swihart can focus his attention on being a backstop, and not bouncing around the diamond. What is the reason why the club insists on keeping New Mexico native in tow? Let’s dive in.

Swihart’s impressive athleticism makes him a rare find behind the dish

Christian Vazquez, barring injury, will see the majority of the starts behind the plate in Swihart staying2018. That might be the exact fit Swihart needs to carve out a role on the club. As a backup, Swihart brings a sweet-swinging, switch-hitting bat off the bench. His versatility by being able to move around the infield and outfield presents him opportunities everywhere. Throughout the 2018 season, Alex Cora found Swihart useful as a pinch runner, which only adds to the intrigue. A backup catcher that can pinch run? Certainly a rare commodity. Swihart has always possessed a strong throwing arm, but his improving defense at the plate has encouraged the Boston brass enough to give him the job over Leon, who was adored by the pitching staff for his game calling and pitch framing ability. But Swihart’s value extends beyond his flexibility around the field.

Noticeable offensive improvements offer a glimmer of hope for Swihart

In the first half of the 2018 season, predating Vazquez’ broken finger, Swihart staying seemed like an afterthought. Trade rumors swirled, but as teams came calling, the Red Sox stuck with him, and it paid dividends. After posting a meager .167 average through mid-summer, the former top catching prospect started to discover himself at the dish. Once he earned more regular playing time, Swihart hit .277 with a .734 OPS in the second half. These numbers would have placed him among the top offensive catchers in the league should he have qualified.

After a season where Sox catchers profiled among the league’s worst offensively across the board, Swihart brought some welcome optimism for production out of the bottom third of the lineup. He also just put together a torrid spring in Grapefruit League action, slashing .414/.433/.517 with three doubles, five RBI, and a pair of stolen bases.That is a .951 OPS through 29 at bats! Spring training or not, that is impressive, a certainly a part of the reason why Swihart staying makes sense.

More regular playing time for Swihart was a gamble the team was willing to make. They know what he has in the tank, and it was enough to waive a popular clubhouse guy and a quality backstop in Leon. Swihart staying means Vazquez will have to be at his best, because one of the game’s (former) top catching prospects is ready to reemerge.

The Case for Matt Barnes, 2019 Closer

If we’ve learned anything about how Red Sox President of Baseball Ops Dave Dombrowski, it is that when he says he is going or not going to make a particular move, that tends to be true. On numerous occasions this off-season, Dombrowski has been quoted as saying that “major moves will be unlikely” when addressing the bullpen. With Craig Kimbrel riding the free agency pine, the franchise turns to the arms that it already has. This is the case for Matt Barnes, 2019 closer.

Barnes has shown steady improvement each season

When Barnes was taken in the first round of the MLB June Draft in 2011, the Matt Barnes, 2019 closerConnecticut was taken out of UConn as a starting pitcher. Given his pitch arsenal and powerful four seam fastball, it made more sense to the organization that Barnes move to the bullpen to help the major league squad.

Initially, upon entering the big leagues, Barnes became slightly walk prone, and has posted particularly troublesome home/road splits thus far in his career. But the numbers do not lie. Barnes has shown consistent improvement across the board in each of his three full major league seasons.

If Matt Barnes, 2019 closer is going to be a legitimate thing, then he will need to continue that upward trend he has been on. Let’s take a look at Barnes’ 2016-2018 seasons to get a feel for how he has improved:

2016: 62 G, 66.2 IP, 4.05 ERA, 62 H, 71 K, 3.72 FIP

2017: 72 G, 69.2 IP, 3.88 ERA, 57 H, 83 K, 3.33 FIP

2018: 62 G, 61.2 IP, 3.65 ERA, 47 H, 96 K, 2.71 FIP

While these numbers might not show exponential increases, the statistics prove that Barnes has risen to the occasion. Barnes even finished among the top five in SO/9.0IP among American League relievers. And remember, Barnes’ role in 2018 increased to higher leverage situations, such as the 8th inning, in most games. More often than not, he delivered.

Barnes fared well against both righties and lefties in 2018

An advantage to Barnes’ case is how well he did against hitters from both sides of the plate. He held hitters, collectively, to an OPS under .650, and most outstandingly, held right-handed hitters to a lowly .191 average. The sample size is larger against righties, and the numbers are better still. A hurler that can reverse splits and still maintain dominance is on the path to success.

Barnes performed even better in the 2018 postseason

While the big righty featured stuff above league average last season, it was the playoffs where he really shined. Through 10.1 innings, Barnes allowed just one run and struck out ten batters, all in high leverage situations against three of the best lineups baseball has to offer. Barnes bounced around anywhere from the fifth through the ninth inning, and found success at each stop. A pitcher with the moxie to fit into different roles makes the Matt Barnes, 2019 closer decision an easy one.

There are no guarantees that Cora sticks with a traditional ninth inning closer this season. There is a good chance Barnes and fellow postseason standout Ryan Brasier switch roles on a match up basis. One night Barnes might get the call, and Brasier the other. After three years of gradual improvement, one thing is clear- if Barnes gets that call, he is going to answer.