Good news for Boston: The Red Sox won their division in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1915-1916.
Bad news for Boston: Over the past two Octobers, the franchise has won as many postseason series as it did between 1918 and 1974, when its playoff drought–slash-curse first manifested.
With a 5-4 loss on Monday afternoon, the Red Sox became the first 2017 division series team to bow out of the playoffs, falling in four games to Houston’s powerful offense a year after Cleveland swept them out of the ALDS. The deciding contest was a bizarre affair, with both Chris Sale and Justin Verlander entering—and allowing game-changing home runs—in relief, and it ended a bizarre season for the Red Sox, who pushed most of their chips in for 2017 but came up well short of a title.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has never been known for his patience in letting young talent percolate, and his Red Sox tenure has been characterized by win-now moves. Two winters ago, he traded an oversized package for closer Craig Kimbrel; in July 2016, he exchanged a top minor league pitcher for mid-tier starter Drew Pomeranz; and last offseason, he shipped a group of youngsters, headlined by MLB no. 1 prospect Yoan Moncada, for ace Chris Sale.
However, a team with so much top-tier talent didn’t receive many top-tier performances in 2017. Sale and Kimbrel blew Monday’s Game 4, allowing a combined three runs in the eighth and ninth innings, but both enjoyed stellar 2017 campaigns: Sale will either win or place second in the AL Cy Young race, while Kimbrel was the best reliever in the sport.
Beyond those two, no notable Boston player outperformed his projections this season. On the pitching side, a team that entered the season with two recent Cy Young winners plus Sale ended it with just a single reliable starter, as Boston’s rotation posted a 12.71 ERA in the series and allowed Houston to score in the first inning in every game. Before finding life as a playoff fireman, David Price was alternately hurt and feuding with local media, while Game 4 starter Rick Porcello took several giant steps back from his aberrant 2016 Cy Young season.
In the lineup, no Sox regular posted an OPS+ north of 112; of the 10 playoff teams this season, nine doubled as the majors’ top nine teams in OPS, while Boston placed a distant 22nd. The most promising prospects were perhaps predictably inconsistent in their rookie seasons, and the core position players all hit worse than they did in 2016.
Still, Boston’s win-now approach shouldn’t be conflated with a win-only-now outlook. Xander Bogaerts is signed through 2019, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. through 2020, and Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers are both years away from arbitration. Next season, every member of the starting rotation returns, as does every prominent member of the bullpen other than setup man Addison Reed. The only impending free-agent contributors who started the season with Boston are Mitch Moreland and Chris Young, who were both below-average hitters at corner positions this year. (Midseason additions Eduardo Núñez, Rajai Davis, Doug Fister, and Reed are all free agents as well.)
Boston’s run of regular-season success hasn’t yet met its end, and a core of Sale, Betts, and Kimbrel can end up only so far down the standings. But after two consecutive Octobers in which his club looked like the inferior team against a young opponent with a deep roster, Dombrowski has to wonder how he can better position his team for next year, when the roster is unlikely to look much different than it did this season. The prospect pipeline is almost barren—only two Boston minor leaguers are on the list of MLB.com’s top 100 prospects—and the current core spent an entire season underwhelming.
For most teams, underwhelming performances still yielding a division title would be reason for celebration. But for Boston in 2017, just making the playoffs isn’t enough.