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Cora calls Red Sox defense what it was: 'Awful'

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Cora calls Red Sox defense what it was: 'Awful'

BOSTON — As long as the Sox don’t make a habit of such sloppy play, what will resonate from Tuesday night’s crime against fielding is less the shortcoming itself and more its handling.

The honeymoon effect is ongoing. Some memorable, bold words from Alex Cora can still outshine the problem the manager is addressing, particularly if it’s an issue the Sox haven’t experienced before under his watch.

The Red Sox made four errors in Tuesday’s 13-inning, 7-6 loss to the Royals. Defense was one of the Sox’ stronger suits through the first month of the season, but they collectively fell apart Tuesday against a bad team in a most winnable game. The four scored errors didn’t tell the whole story, either.

But, Cora was calm, matter of fact, and scathing.

“Awful, awful,” Cora said when asked about the defense, starting his answer before the question was done, an indication he knew what he wanted to say the moment the unavoidable subject was brought up. “That was a horrible game. Yeah. We were lucky we were playing 13 innings, honestly. That was bad. Mental mistakes, physical mistakes. All kinds of mistakes. That was awful.”

This isn’t the first time Cora has shown a penchant for accountability. Christian Vazquez, in the lineup for his defense, had the worst night of all.

Some of the key misplays:

  • Sal Perez hit a grounder to begin the top of the fourth inning that third baseman Rafael Devers misplayed. Devers made some fantastic plays on Tuesday, but as is often the case for younger players, routine plays can be the most trying. “With Salvy, instead of, he sees the hop, just take a step back and make the throw to first, he charges it, gets the in-between hop, he misses it,” Cora said.
     
  • Perez scored later in the fourth on a sacrifice fly for an unearned run off Chris Sale. J.D. Martinez showed a strong throwing arm on his throw home, but Vazquez couldn’t snare the throw as he went for the tag simultaneously. Vazquez typically makes the play, and Perez is would have been out had he squeezed the ball. “It happens,” Sale said of the defense generally. “These guys put a lot of work, a lot of effort . . . You can’t be perfect every time out. You’re going to make some great plays for us and you’re going to make mistakes, just like pitchers are going to go out their and dominate and blow leads and give up runs and stuff like that. I don’t think this game is a pointing-fingers game. You can’t really pinpoint one thing tonight that lost it for us.” Vazquez was given an error on this play because other runners moved up. 
     
  • The Royals’ second run came in the sixth inning on a double steal with runners on the corners. The Red Sox decided to throw through, with Vazquez throwing to shortstop Xander Bogaerts, rather than throwing to third base. Bogaerts didn’t send the ball back home though, despite a bad jump by the runner on third base, Jon Jay. “It was a good throw but lower, so he decided to get [the trail runner],” Cora said of Bogaerts. “Perfect-case scenario, we want him to cut the ball and go to the plate."
     
  • The Royals were in prime position to score in the eighth inning because of another steal attempt with two on. Bogaerts, throwing to third base after receiving Vazquez’s throw, threw the ball away, although not far enough to allow a runner to score. That was error No. 3.
     
  • In the 10th, Vazquez was called for touching the ball with his mask -- an obscure rule, but one that indeed is impermissible. That allowed a pair of base runners to move up, but they were stranded in a game tied at 3.
     
  • When the Royals took a short-lived lead in the 12th on a sacrifice fly for the first out of the inning, Andrew Benintendi threw home when he should have thrown to second base. The Royals didn’t score again in the inning but the mental mistake put another in scoring position with only one out.

In an oddity, the Red Sox made four errors on May 1, 2017, as well. It was the second time in three games they made four errors. Former Sox manager John Farrell didn’t pretend the Sox were playing well, although he didn’t go as far as Cora.

“Defensively, those are plays that are routine plays. We're better than that,” Farrell said a year ago. “We’ve got to clean it up. It's a matter of anticipating the play before it's hit to you, whether it's a ground ball on the front end of a double play, whether it's understanding where base runners are with a ball to the outfield, throwing the ball accurately as best possible. We're in a tough stretch defensively, far beyond what our capabilities are. We need to clean it up.

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    Red Sox can look in one of these two directions to find their next GM

    Red Sox can look in one of these two directions to find their next GM

    The Red Sox fired Dave Dombrowski more than a month ago, and we still can't name a single candidate to replace him.

    The mere existence of the opening has contributed to a run on contract extensions in front offices across baseball, however. The latest domino to fall was Dodgers boss Andrew Friedman, who announced on Monday that he's staying in Hollywood. He joins Arizona GM Mike Hazen and Minnesota VP Derek Falvey — two Massachusetts natives — on the list of those either extended or nearing an extension.

    Any one of them could've been a compelling candidate in Boston, particularly Friedman, given his track record building winners in both large and small markets. And that's before we even consider hometown hero Theo Epstein, who recently restated his commitment to the Cubs, albeit without receiving a contractual sweetener like any of the above.

    When Red Sox owner John Henry noted the difficulty of poaching opposing executives, he wasn't kidding. The team's last two GMs were either hired from within (Ben Cherington) or plucked off the street (Dombrowski).

    What should be one of the most coveted jobs in the game is instead serving as little more than leverage for some big names to stay put. So where do the Red Sox go from here?

    Their pool may have narrowed, but their general options remain the same: familiarity or change.

    The former is represented by the Epstein school of executives with Red Sox ties, as we discussed after Dombrowski's ouster. This starts with Epstein himself, and even if his commitment to Chicago sounds definitive, he can't be entirely discounted until the Red Sox hire someone else. The same goes for Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, who was linked to the job in one report, but hasn't been since.

    With Henry claiming he wants to hire an experienced candidate, especially given the challenges facing whoever takes the job, that would seemingly eliminate Arizona assistants Amiel Sawdaye and Jared Porter, as well as Mets exec Jared Banner, who all spent time here.

    What that leaves is Option B — an executive without Boston ties who has demonstrated success elsewhere and can give the Red Sox operation a fresh perspective.

    One such man is Tampa's Chaim Bloom, a Yale grad like Epstein who has helped oversee Tampa's resurgence despite one of baseball's smallest payrolls. He's the team's VP of baseball operations alongside GM Erik Neander. The Rays followed up a 90-win 2018 with 96 wins and a wild card berth. They then rode one of baseball's most unconventional pitching staffs to Game 5 of the ALDS against the Astros.

    With defending Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell limited to barely 100 innings by injuries and breakout candidate Tyler Glasnow making only 12 starts for the same reason, the Rays still found a way. Of their 14 pitchers who made starts, 11 also pitched in relief. Former Red Sox farmhand Jalen Beeks, acquired in the Nathan Eovaldi trade, threw over 100 innings despite making only three starts.

    The Rays found a creative way to build their staff with castoffs and prospects and one targeted free agent strike in All-Star right-hander Charlie Morton, and the result was the best ERA in the American League. The Red Sox, meanwhile, devoted megabucks to Chris Sale, David Price, and Eovaldi, and then watched all three break down en route to a staff ERA of 4.70 — more than a run higher than Tampa's 3.65.

    Tampa's ability to find and develop cheap pitching stands in direct contrast to Boston's struggles in that regard dating back to Epstein. The Red Sox have drafted and developed just two starters of note since 2000 — Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz — and had they a deeper well of talent in the minors, they wouldn't have needed to devote more than $400 million to the Big Three.

    The Astros, Rays, Dodgers, and Yankees have surpassed the Red Sox from a player development standpoint, which isn't just limited to the minor leagues. Improving the performance of big leaguers matters, too, whether it's New York turning castoffs like Luke Voit and Mike Tauchman into useful sluggers, the Rays finding diamonds under virtually every rock, or the Dodgers hitting on All-Stars Max Muncy and Justin Turner for nothing.

    The question will be if the Red Sox can peel anyone away from the aforementioned organizations, especially since Boston's top job hasn't exactly exuded stability recently. And that's before we even consider the challenges awaiting the next GM as they relate to payroll and the future of Mookie Betts.

    The Red Sox insist they will cast a wide net, and eventually they'll find their man. But for now it's a tad disconcerting that the best candidates aren't even interested in hearing what Boston has to say.

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    Four potentially undervalued pitchers Red Sox could target this offseason

    Four potentially undervalued pitchers Red Sox could target this offseason

    It's time for the Red Sox to start thinking like a small-market team, because burning money in the name of their rotation could have dire consequences that stretch well into the 2020s.

    With Chris Sale, David Price, and Nathan Eovaldi set to earn $80 million annually through 2022 despite being major injury risks, the Red Sox will need to bargain hunt to fill the rest of their rotation. So where might they turn?

    The key will be finding undervalued assets. One way to identify them is to look for pitchers with the biggest disparity between their ERA and FIP.

    The latter — fielding independent pitching — is an ERA-like number derived from the events a pitcher can directly control: walks, strikeouts, home runs, and hit by pitches, the idea being that everything else is in the hands of the defense. FIP has its flaws, because it operates on the assumption that a pitcher can't impact balls in play, which means hurlers aren't credited for the majority of their outs, but it can still be a useful tool.

    A wide spread between a pitcher's ERA and FIP can suggest bad luck or bad defense that mask some underlying strengths. The Red Sox, interestingly enough, looked a lot better as a staff via FIP than ERA, led by Chris Sale (4.40 ERA vs. 3.39 FIP), David Price (4.28 vs. 3.62), and even Rick Porcello (5.52 vs. 4.76).

    Their staff ERA of 4.70 surpassed their 4.28 FIP by the widest margin of any team in baseball. Defensive metrics are notoriously spotty, but Fangraphs ranked Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts dead last at his position in defensive runs saved, saying he cost the Red Sox 19 runs. Similarly, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (minus-2) and third baseman Rafael Devers (minus-13) were considered negatives, too. Bogaerts and Devers aren't going anywhere, but Bradley, a defending Gold Glover, is likely to be traded this winter. The Red Sox could also upgrade their defense at second base.

    In any event, we're drifting a little far afield. The point is finding opposing pitchers who significantly underperformed their FIP, which could make them targets this winter. Here are four names to remember.

    1. Joe Musgrove, RHP, Pirates

    A first-round pick of the Blue Jays in 2011, Musgrove was traded to the Astros a year later before joining Pittsburgh as the centerpiece in the 2018 Gerrit Cole blockbuster. He made a career-high 31 starts this year, going 11-12 with a 4.44 ERA that masked a 3.82 FIP.

    Those relatively middling numbers still established the 26-year-old as Pittsburgh's most effective starter, and he remains under team control through 2022.

    With the Pirates in what feels like an eternal rebuild, it's hard to imagine they'd consider any player untouchable. Musgrove could make for an intriguing target.

    2. Kevin Gausman, RHP, Reds

    Gausman is a non-tender candidate, since he's set to make at least $10 million in his final year of arbitration. Chosen fourth overall in the 2012 draft by the Orioles, Gausman was once considered a top-10 prospect.

    He has yet to live up to that hype, but he's better than the numbers suggested last year between Atlanta, where he posted a 6.19 ERA (and 4.20 FIP) in 16 starts, and Cincinnati, where he found use as a reliever (4.03 ERA, 3.17 FIP). Gausman struck out a career-high 10 batters per nine innings and is still only 28, so perhaps a flyer is in order, particularly if other teams are viewing him as a reliever and the Red Sox give him an opportunity to start.

    3. Spencer Turnbull, RHP, Tigers

    How does the AL's loss leader sound? Pitching for a woeful team, Turnbull went just 3-17 with a 4.61 ERA in 30 starts. His 3.99 FIP suggests better stuff than results, however, and he doesn't become a free agent until 2025.

    Turnbull throws 95-97 and is considered a piece of Detroit's future, but it never hurts to ask. The 27-year-old went winless in his final 18 starts and is a late bloomer who was still pitching in Double A at age 25.

    4. Pablo Lopez, RHP, Marlins

    The rookie went 5-8 with a 5.09 ERA in 21 starts, but his 4.28 FIP and low walk rates (2.2 per nine innings) suggest some promise. The 23-year-old hails from Venezuela and can't become a free agent until 2025. He features a low-90s fastball and changeup, and the Marlins like his competitiveness. Being the Marlins means they're in perpetual fire-sale mode, however, and Lopez is worth a look.

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