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Are the Boston Red Sox in Danger of Plateauing?

After an early playoff exit in the division series, Jake Devin breaks down whether the Boston Red Sox have any more room for improvement.

Last season, the Red Sox were swept out of the playoffs by the eventual AL Champion Indians. This year, they were the last team to clinch their division, and again were the first team eliminated from the divisional round. It was their second consecutive season in first place in the AL East, coming off two straight seasons in the division’s cellar, but that is no consolation to a team and fanbase that expects more.

The Red Sox weren’t bad this year, per se. No team that wins a division as tough as the AL East could really be described as bad. But fans and neutral observers alike generally sensed something off about this edition of the club,.Players clashed with members of the media, young stars went through prolonged slumps, and a few key injuries piled up. The team never entirely clicked. Things have gotten so bad in the aftermath of their season that manager John Farrell was quickly dismissed, and even more reports of a divided clubhouse have emerged. There’s been finger-pointing, a managerial firing, and various complaints regarding a lack of leadership in the organization.

After another early exit preceded by a lackluster season, the Red Sox are back to asking themselves what went wrong. Last year, the response to what went wrong was strong: Dave Dombrowski flipped an impressive prospect package for Chris Sale, one of the three or four best pitchers in the game,

This year? There are no answers as simple as “acquire an amazing player”. There aren’t even any answers as easy as promoting a top prospect, which the team did midsummer to cover a gaping whole at third base with Rafael Devers. With their 2017 season in the books, the Red Sox have to be worried that the team is danger of plateauing.

The options for Boston to markedly improve are limited, and that is due in large part to Dombrowski’s general tactics as president. Dombrowski’s M.O. has always been to eschew prospects in favor of veterans. He built a great team in Detroit on the back of numerous trades which generally brought in excellent veteran talent. In Boston, he’s fired bullet after bullet from the farm system to strengthen the Major League squad.

Dombrowski flipped Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech for Sale last winter. He traded Anderson Espinoza for Drew Pomeranz. He sent Travis Shaw and Mauricio Dubon to Milwaukee for Tyler Thornburg. Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra were the price for Craig Kimbrel. Sale, Kimbrel, and Pomeranz were all, of course, crucial parts of the 2017 Red Sox.

But what was once a brilliant farm system has turned into a liability. After cashing in tons of trade chips and promoting top prospects like Devers this year, Andrew Benintendi last year, and Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts in years before, Boston is now all but out of ways to improve internally. There are no star prospects waiting to make up for Hanley Ramirez’s waning bat, Dustin Pedroia’s fading health, or to step and start at catcher. There is no surplus of chips to cash in on the trade market to get another elite pitcher.

Plus, the team has already tied itself to a number of huge contracts, limiting its spending ability on the free agent market. Price is due over $30 million a year for five years. Ramirez is due $22 million. Rick Porcello, the former AL Cy Young turned fourth starter, is making $21 million a year. Even Rusney Castillo still has nearly $40 million coming his way from the Red Sox through 2019.

After Kimbrel’s and Sale’s options for 2018 are picked up, Boston will have over $160 million already committed to 2018 payroll, due to just seven players. The 2019 payroll projects to have almost $150 million committed to just six players. Plenty of Boston’s younger players are starting to age through arbitration now as well, meaning they will soon become more expensive.

After accounting for said arbitration costs, Baseball Reference’s early forecast for Boston’s 2018 payroll already exceeds $220 million. That is assuming no free agent outlays, or trades that bring in high-priced players. This means that the Red Sox will have to pay deep into the luxury tax to make any sort of meaningful upgrade.

In other words, the only way to avoid a plateau is to hope the players in-house improve. Players like Bradley and Bogaerts and Benintendi are young enough that it’s possible. Yet those players, along with Betts, who is a star, were already quite productive, and expecting them to all morph into stars is probably too much.

In truth, plateuing as a fairly consistent 90-win team isn’t the worst thing. 90-win teams have every chance to win the World Series once they make the playoffs, and if the Red Sox keep taking bites at the apple, they may eventually break through. But there’s a danger here in remaining stagnant. That danger is represented by the brutal AL East, most notably in the form of the newly-arrived Yankees.

The Yankees won 91 games this year, with the run differential of a 100-win team, and they still have perhaps the best farm system in baseball. They have massive contracts like those handed to Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia coming off the books this year. The Yankees were already as good, if not better, than Boston this year, and have several reasonable avenues to get better.

Throw in competently run organizations like the Rays, and the Red Sox may be in a dogfight in the AL East for the next few years. This wouldn’t be a huge issue if the team exhibited a higher ceiling than it has, or had the flexibility to improve. Instead, the team is in danger of leveling off. Without any clear routes to significant upgrades, Boston has to wonder if this year’s ALDS exit is a sign of things to come.

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Jake Devin fell in love with the game of baseball as a child, watching the Yankees of the late nineties and early aughts dominate the league. The Yankees don't dominate anymore, but Jake's passion for the game is as strong as ever, with exciting new ways to view and analyze the game popping up seemingly all the time. Jake recently graduated from Binghamton University where he completed a degree in mathematics and economics, as well as a four-year track and field career.

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