Eight MLB teams are still playing baseball. The octet represents the third- ($218M), fourth- ($200M), sixth- ($173M), seventh- ($168M), eighth- ($167M), 14th- ($137M), 18th- ($124M), and, yes, even the 30th-highest payroll ($63M) in the game.
Meanwhile, the highest-paid team in 2019, your Boston Red Sox, somehow missed out on the postseason despite a team payroll of $229 million.
Look, I’m well aware that spending the most doesn’t necessarily translate into being the best team; if it did, the Yankees would be sitting on 13 championships this century instead of just the sole one they snared in 2009.
But it sure worked for the 2018 Red Sox, even though that magic didn’t carry over to this season despite returning the same core of players from last year’s World Series champions.
The Yankees (third) and Dodgers (fourth), with their high-priced rosters, make sense to be playoff entrants, but how on earth can the favored Astros be playing for their second championship in the last three years when their payroll is a whopping $61 million behind the Red Sox’?
That $61 million difference nearly equals the entire payroll of the 30th-ranked Rays, who somehow finished second in the AL East, a mind-boggling 12 games ahead of the 84-78 Red Sox. Tampa Bay’s payroll is almost four times less than Boston’s, yet it’s playing in Houston in the ALDS this weekend while the Red Sox are sitting at home, trying to figure out what went wrong.
Indeed, how did a team that went practically wire-to-wire last season en route to a 108-win regular season win 24 fewer games, finish with just six more victories than losses, end up a staggering 19 games behind the AL East-winning 103-win Pinstripers, and fail to even get a sniff of the postseason?
I know. No team has successfully defended a World Series title since those same Yankees did in 1999 and 2000, so it’s not a given that a champion one year will necessarily repeat.
But in American pro sports’ only salary cap-less game, you would think that it would happen more often than just twice in the last 40 seasons.
After all, as noted, the Red Sox’ roster didn’t change all that much from last year’s to 2019, other than bullpen arms Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel.
But 24 fewer victories than in 2018? Who’s responsible here?
Before we pin individual blame on certain players, let’s look at the big picture.
Last year’s Red Sox went an MLB-best 57-24 at Fenway Park and a ridiculous 51-30 on the road. This season, Boston was a decent 46-35 away from home, but its home record, a horrendous 38-43 (which included a pair of lopsided “home” losses staged in London), was a 19-game drop from last season and included a 5-4 home record to the 95-loss Blue Jays and a 6-4 home mark to the 108-loss Orioles.
Overall, the Sox went 5-14 against the Yankees, and eight of those losses were by four runs or more, and Boston won just once at Yankee Stadium this season in nine meetings in the Bronx.
The Sox went 7-12 against those same Rays that had the majors’ lowest payroll, including 1-8 at Fenway. Atrocious.
All in all, that means the Red Sox went 12-26 against the two teams ahead of them in the AL East, and just 23-15 against the pair of putrid squads behind them.
Last year’s Sox surged out of the gate to a 17-2 start and never really looked back. This year, notably, the team struggled from the get-go – even in spring training – and opened with an 11-game road trip in which it went a demoralizing 3-8. It wasn’t until May 8, in their 38th game, did the Red Sox finally reach .500.
The team’s high-water mark was on July 27, when Boston won its third straight against New York at Fenway to improve to 59-47, but the team was still eight games back in the East, and then proceeded to drop eight straight to the Yankees and Rays, and that was that.
The Red Sox closed out the final month of the season with a lackluster 11-15 record, including 4-9 at home.
Admittedly, injuries played a part in Boston’s downfall this season. World Series hero Steve Pearce played in just 29 games (none after May 31) because of myriad maladies, and high-priced starters Chris Sale (25 starts, 6-11 record, 4.40 ERA), David Price (22 starts, 7-5, 4.28), and Nathan Eovaldi (12 starts, 2-1, 5.99) all missed significant time, and all are big-time question marks for next season, when they’re 31, 34, and 30 years of age, respectively.
Boston’s starting pitching compiled a 4.95 team ERA, just 20th-best in MLB, after having an eighth-best 3.77 ERA last season. The bullpen, meanwhile, was ninth-best in ERA last season (3.72), but fell to 18th place (4.40) this year, and blew a majors-leading 31 saves after coughing up just 20 save opportunities (five by Kimbrel) last season.
Xander Bogaerts (.309, 33 HRs), Rafael Devers (.311 BA, 32 HRs, 201 hits), and catcher Christian Vazquez (.276, 23 HRs, 72 RBI) had tremendous seasons offensively, and JD Martinez and Mookie Betts both posted strong numbers as well, but Martinez’s average dropped 26 points this season, his HR total fell by seven, and RBI were down from 130 to 105; Betts saw his 2018 MVP batting average (.346) drop significantly, to .295, although his power numbers were similar.
More concerning was the season of outfielder Andrew Benintendi, who at age 25 saw his 2018 numbers (.290, 16 HRs, 87 RBI) take a nosedive (.266, 13 HRs, 68 RBI), while his strikeout rate was an alarming 22.7 percent.
In addition, the offense as a whole took September off, with only Betts and Bogaerts hitting better than .271 in the final weeks.
The situations of starter Rick Porcello (free agent), Martinez (can opt out) and Betts (free agent after 2020) bear watching this offseason as Sox ownership mulls a major slashing of payroll for next season, but either way, the team will likely have a different look to it next season.
Whether that squad bears a resemblance to the 2018 world champions, or the 2019 collection of underachievers, remains to be seen.