What happened? Taking stock of the Red Sox fading 2022 season

Aug. 28—Even after all their struggles dating back months, the Red Sox still had a clear path back to contention heading into this past week. With series against the Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays, all the Red Sox had to do was string together some wins and by week’s end they might have looked up and found themselves right back in the hunt.

Instead they lost two of three to Baltimore, got swept by Toronto and now it almost makes no difference if the Red Sox can complete the sweep against Tampa Bay in Sunday’s series finale. The Red Sox trail in the Wild Card by seven games with four teams to jump, and barring a miracle their postseason hopes look all but extinguished.

How did this happen?

Coming off a thrilling 2021 in which the Red Sox reached the American League Championship Series and fell two wins short of the World Series, this summer’s middling follow-up has been a massive disappointment. Other than a strong stretch against the soft underbelly of their schedule in June, the Red Sox never got going and now risk finishing in last place for the second time in three years and for the fifth time since 2012.

Is it all Chaim Bloom’s fault? The players? Just bad luck?

In truth, it’s all of the above and more.

1. Crushed by injuries

No matter what else happened, it would have been almost impossible for the Red Sox to reach their full potential with the amount of injuries they dealt with throughout the season. The bodies started dropping almost from Day 1 and the drumbeat has continued unrelenting ever since.

The biggest blow was also the first, as the Red Sox learned upon the start of the lockout-shortened spring training that Chris Sale suffered a stress fracture in his ribcage over the offseason. That injury kept Sale out the entire first half, and once he returned he only made two starts and pitched 5.2 innings before he was hit in the hand by a line drive that broke his left pinky.

As if to add further insult to injury, Sale later broke his right wrist in a bike accident, wiping out any possibility of a September return.

Losing Sale was a huge blow, but to then also lose virtually every other starting pitcher besides Nick Pivetta? No club could survive a run of injuries like that.

Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Wacha and Rich Hill all missed time due to injury, in some cases more than once, and Garrett Whitlock also wound up on the shelf after a month-long stint in the rotation. Meanwhile, the Red Sox also lost Tanner Houck to a back injury after he moved from the rotation into the closer role, lefty Matt Strahm to a deep bone bruise after getting hit in the wrist by a comebacker, and several other relievers as well.

The offense wasn’t spared either. Kiké Hernández missed two months with a combination of hip and core injuries. Prime free agent addition Trevor Story has missed a month and a half with a broken wrist suffered after getting hit on the hand by a pitch. Rafael Devers (hamstring), Christian Arroyo (groin) and Eric Hosmer (back) have all been sidelined as well, and the result too often has been the club trying to patch together a roster with Triple-A band-aids and players who simply aren’t up to par.

2. Key needs unaddressed

Even if the injuries have been a real problem, the club can’t attribute all of its struggles to ill health and bad luck. The Red Sox had known flaws heading into the offseason and in several cases either didn’t do enough to address them, or didn’t do anything at all.

For instance, it was widely understood the bullpen needed help, especially if the plan was for Garrett Whitlock to eventually move to the starting rotation. The club did sign lefties Matt Strahm and Jake Diekman, but it also let Adam Ottavino walk and didn’t make a move for any of the top options on the market. Then after the Red Sox moved Diekman at the trade deadline they failed to bring anyone else in, leaving the bullpen perilously short.

John Schreiber wound up giving the club a major boost upon his promotion and Houck briefly emerged as a reliable closer, but on balance the bullpen has pathologically given up leads and ranks among the worst in the league.

The Red Sox also went into the season without adequate alternatives to Bobby Dalbec at first base or Jackie Bradley Jr. in right field, and eventually the club had to add Eric Hosmer and Tommy Pham at the trade deadline to plug holes that were obvious throughout the winter. The Bradley for Hunter Renfroe trade in particular proved costly, especially given that no follow-up move was ever made to shore up the club’s outfield depth.

3. Season-long power outage

There were points last season where it often felt like the only way the Red Sox could score runs was via solo home runs. During the club’s worst slumps the offense couldn’t string together sustained offense, but at least you could count on someone to pop one out almost every night.

But now? The Red Sox haven’t even been able to do that.

Outside of Rafael Devers (25) and occasionally Trevor Story (15), the Red Sox offense has been devoid of any consistent power threat. J.D. Martinez, who is usually good for approximately 30 homers per season, only has nine and has seen his batting average dip from a high of .380 in late May all the way to .275 entering Saturday. Xander Bogaerts is in a similar boat, he has only 11 home runs and at one point went 25 games without a homer, and Bobby Dalbec (11) is the only other player to reach double figures in a Red Sox uniform.

The Red Sox have instead hit a ton of doubles, leading the league with 285, but their 118 home runs ranks well below the league average and has played a big role in the club’s offensive struggles.

4. Orioles ahead of schedule

Everyone knew the AL East was going to be a gauntlet, but going into the season everyone thought the contenders would at least have the bottom-feeding Baltimore Orioles to fatten up on.

As it turned out, the Orioles were closer to contention than anyone realized.

Baltimore’s emergence as a viable playoff threat fundamentally changed the calculus for every other AL East team, whose already loaded schedules were now truly relentless. When all is said and done this year’s AL East may prove the strongest from top to bottom in the current divisional era, and as of this weekend 94 of the Red Sox first 128 games (73%) have come against teams at or above .500. Meanwhile, the Houston Astros have only played 62 of their first 129 games (48%) against winning clubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers only 47 of their first 126 games (37%).

Next year’s shift to a balanced schedule with fewer games against divisional rivals may help eliminate this kind of disparity in the future, but right now it’s a fact of life for the entire AL East and one that’s no doubt had a real impact on the Red Sox.

5. No match for Blue Jays, Rays

Even with the schedule being as lopsided as it is, if the Red Sox were serious contenders they would have been able to at least hold their own against their chief rivals. They’ve actually done a respectable job against the New York Yankees and won the season series against non-divisional contenders like Houston, Cleveland and Seattle, but for whatever reason they just haven’t been able to solve the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays.

With this week’s sweep, the Blue Jays are now 13-3 against the Red Sox this season with three games to play in Toronto. That’s the most games the Blue Jays have ever won in a single season against Boston, and many of the games themselves were just as lopsided as that margin would indicate. Things haven’t gone much better against the Rays, who are 8-4 against Boston despite the Red Sox taking the first two of this weekend’s three-game series, and those one-sided series almost entirely account for Boston’s current place in the standings.

If the Red Sox had even gone .500 against the Blue Jays and Rays they’d be leading the AL Wild Card and in great position going into September. Instead we’re essentially writing the club’s obituary and wondering how it all went so wrong.

Sox shouldn’t wait to extend Devers

You often hear players talk about how they don’t want to hold contract discussions during the season to avoid creating a distraction, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. For instance, the Atlanta Braves have agreed to long-term extensions with a number of their young stars this summer, including third baseman Austin Riley (10 years, $212 million) and this past week 21-year-old rookie outfielder Michael Harris II (eight years, $72 million).

Then on Friday news broke that the Seattle Mariners had agreed to a massive, potentially career-long extension with 21-year-old superstar Julio Rodriguez, who is guaranteed at least $210 million and could earn as much as $470 million if he blossoms into the future Hall of Fame player the club believes he could be.

These announcements are a joy for fans who can count on seeing their favorite players stick around for the foreseeable future, and if the Red Sox want to flip the narrative that’s overshadowed this season and engender some badly needed good will, they should take a page out of the Braves and Mariners playbook and make Rafael Devers an offer he can’t refuse.

At this point “Extend Raffy” has become something of a rallying cry for parts of the Red Sox fanbase, and given his performance this season it’s clear keeping Devers in Boston for the long haul should be the club’s top priority. So with close to $100 million in payroll coming off the books this offseason, why wait? Use whatever back channels are necessary, connect with Devers’ agent and see if you can make something happen.

And going forward, the Red Sox could also learn a thing or two from the Braves, who have also locked down standouts like Ronald Acuña Jr. on team-friendly deals by moving quickly when the player is young. If they’d taken a similar approach with Mookie Betts in 2015 or Devers in 2018 maybe things would look a lot better today, though in fairness to the current front office, extending Garrett Whitlock this past spring was a great first step in that direction.

Bradley getting settled in Toronto

When Jackie Bradley Jr. came to the plate for his first at bat back at Fenway Park as a visiting player on Tuesday, he was warmly greeted by the home crowd and honored with a tribute video celebrating his time with the Red Sox.

Then, when he hit a double to spark what wound up being an eight-run third inning for the Blue Jays, he was greeted at second base by nearly the entire team while Tommy Pham was being tended to by the trainer after crashing into the Green Monster on the play.

“They’re still my boys regardless,” Bradley said of the moment. “I’ve talked to them throughout everything as well but to actually see me in person and be able to converse was something we hadn’t really done.”

This week brought some measure of closure for Bradley, who was released by the Red Sox earlier this month and subsequently landed with the divisional rival Blue Jays. After eight and a half seasons in Boston with a brief stint in Milwaukee mixed in, Bradley’s time with the Red Sox is over and this week marked the last time he’ll play at Fenway Park this season.

Tough as it was to leave his longtime teammates behind, Bradley said he’s appreciative of the opportunity he has now in Toronto and is excited for the future.

“Love it,” he said of his first few weeks with the Blue Jays. “We’ve got a great team, very talented group of guys, well coached and we have aspirations of going really deep into the playoffs.”

Bradley said the transition to Toronto went seamlessly, and the fact that he’s played so many games in Toronto as a visiting player helped in terms of knowing where everything is and how to navigate his new city. He’s also been warmly welcomed by his new teammates, many of whom he’s competed against for years.

“Awesome,” said Blue Jays outfielder George Springer, against whom Bradley played in the NCAA Super Regionals back when they starred for UConn and South Carolina respectively. “Obviously he’s played in a ton of big games and has a lot of experience, so obviously a very talented player. It’s awesome to have a guy like that on this team.”

Roman Anthony on a tear

Red Sox outfield prospect Roman Anthony, chosen No. 79 overall by the Red Sox in this summer’s MLB Draft, has gotten off to a flying start since signing with the organization this July.

The 18-year-old outfielder made his professional debut with the Red Sox Florida Complex League team on Aug. 9 and through his first 10 games was batting .385 with an .880 OPS, seven RBI, five runs scored and five walks against just four strikeouts.

Anthony signed for the highest bonus of this year’s draft class at $2.5 million, ahead of even first-round pick Mikey Romero, who signed for $2.3 million. Romero debuted for the FCL Red Sox on the same day as Anthony and through 10 games was batting .225 with a .729 OPS, a home run, six RBI and eight walks against just four strikeouts.

Keegan getting started

The Red Sox draftees aren’t the only ones who have started their professional careers. Methuen’s Dom Keegan also debuted for the FCL Rays on Aug. 9 and has gotten off to a terrific start himself.

The former Central Catholic and Vanderbilt University star, who was drafted in the fourth round of the draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, entered the weekend batting .280 with an .819 OPS, four doubles, six RBI and a stolen base through his first eight games. His best game as a pro so far actually came against the FCL Red Sox, when Keegan went 2 for 4 with two doubles and two RBI.

North Andover’s Sebastian Keane, who was selected by the New York Yankees in the 18th round of this year’s draft after three years at Northeastern University, has not yet made his pro debut.

Email: mcerullo@northofboston.com.

Twitter: @MacCerullo.

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