Oh, for it to be March again, back when there was unlimited potential for the baseball season. Instead it’s late April, and for the third straight year, the Boston Red Sox are off to a horrendous start. In case you’re looking for a silver lining, there doesn’t appear to be one. After the last two poor Aprils the Red Sox missed the playoffs. Still, simply noting that bad Aprils lead to missed playoffs is probably too simplistic a reading of the 2012 Red Sox. After all, the 2011 version of the Red Sox would have made the playoffs easily if not for an historically awful September. In fact, while there are plenty of reasons to be discouraged about this year’s team, there’s also plenty of reasons to see potential improvement.
Let’s start with the bad, since it’s much more apparent. First off, the Red Sox pitching has been abysmal. They’ve allowed 100 runs on the season already, nine more than the next worse pitching staff, the Minnesota Twins. It’s hard to pinpoint one problem for the Sox pitching staff that can be easily fixed since everyone has been either terrible, or at best inconsistent. There have been some calls to return set-up-man turned starter Daniel Bard to the ‘pen — and they probably got louder after Bard came in to last night’s game against the Twins and stopped the go-ahead run from scoring from third base — but for reasons I’ll explain later, that would be a mistake.
The second major problem for the Red Sox has been injuries to their outfield. Against the Twins last night, the Sox started (from Left to Right) Cody Ross, Marlon Byrd, and Ryan Sweeney. Prior to the season, Ross and Sweeney were expected to form a platoon in right field with Jacoby Ellsbury in center and Carl Crawford in left. While Sweeney has been hitting very well and Ross was Monday’s hero with two home runs to tie the game and put the Sox ahead, the current outfield is a significant downgrade — defensively if nothing else — from what Boston expected to have in the offseason. You’ll note that I haven’t listed Bobby Valentine among the Red Sox problems. That’s because with how bad the pitching has been, I don’t see how Bobby V really could have made a difference either way. It isn’t as if the Red Sox have been losing a ton of very close games.
These problems aside, there are reasons for Red Sox fans to be hopeful. First, the pitching staff won’t remain this bad. Some of the pitchers — Matt Albers comes to mind — are probably past their usefulness, however, others have been victims of bad luck and small sample sizes. Alfredo Aceves may not morph into Jonathan Papelbon, but he’s not going to carry a 24.00 ERA for the rest of the season either. At the same time, the Sox have gotten much more out of the back end of their rotation than they could have imagined. Felix Doubront is striking out 11.25 batters per nine and Daniel Bard has a 9.49 K/9 mark and a 3.25 FIP. Bard may be struggling a little with walks, but simple arithmetic shows that moving him to the bullpen would be wasteful — turning 150 or more innings at that FIP into 75 or so is dumb.
A second reason for hope is that the Sox outfield should be improved over last year’s model once Crawford and Ellsbury return in the next two months. Sweeney has a 1.051 OPS so far on the season and is mashing righties to a 1.206 OPS. Meanwhile Ross has a .973 OPS himself (1.1015 against lefties). Even with a normalization in stats, the Sox’s right field platoon should be an upgrade over what JD Drew and Josh Reddick provided in 2011.
Finally, the schedule is about to get much easier for the Red Sox. They started the season with series @ Detroit, @ Toronto, vs. Tampa, vs. Texas, and vs. New York. All of those teams should be playoff contenders in 2012 and facing them all in a row would be a tough task for anyone, let alone a team with as many outside distractions as Boston. Contrast that with the next few series that the Sox play: @ Minnesota, @ Chicago, vs. Oakland, vs. Baltimore, @ Kansas City, vs. Cleveland, vs. Seattle. With that run of cupcakes, it’s not out of the question that the Sox could be in first place by the time they face of against the Rays on May 15th. If you think that’s irrational, take a look at that schedule one more time.
So what can the Red Sox do to ensure that they’re sitting pretty in May? I have a couple suggestions:
1. Stand Pat
Bobby Valentine was probably right when he called Saturday’s loss to the Yankees “rock bottom.” It’s hard to imagine things getting much worse. I’ve already outlined the reasons why I think moving Daniel Bard to the bullpen would be a mistake, but the Red Sox do have a pitching dilemma of sorts. Veteran starter Aaron Cook has a 1.33 ERA in AAA and can opt out of his contract in May. Cook is a former all-star and losing him for nothing would hurt, but simply giving him a rotation spot isn’t without significant risk. He’s been pretty bad the last two years, and he’s currently walking more hitters than he’s striking out in the minors, which is a major red flag. Still, the Red Sox run the risk of Bard and Doubront wearing down as the season progresses, so here’s what I propose: a six-man rotation. It’s not something often seen, but given that Bard and Doubront haven’t had a full season starting in the majors yet, and that Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz haven’t exactly been durable over the courses of their careers, it makes some sense. If Cook proves ineffective, Boston could move back to the five-man rotation, or try the six-man configuration again once Daisuke Matsuzaka is healthy.
2. Trade Kevin Youkilis
Bobby Valentine made an unforced error by talking about Youkilis on the radio, but there’s a kernel of truth to his statements. I don’t know about Youk’s desire to play, but his effectiveness as both a hitter and a fielder has diminished significantly. Meanwhile, heir apparent Will Middlebrooks is slugging .757, with eight homers in AAA including a recent stretch where he went deep in four straight games. Middlebrooks would offer an immediate defensive upgrade over Youkilis and he has little left to prove in the minors. Youkilis’ value is likely at an all-time low, and there aren’t a ton of obvious trade partners, but the Sox do have the flexibility of pitching him as both a first baseman and a third baseman. Perhaps the Dodgers, with their surprising early season run and gaping holes at both third and first would be willing to take a look? The best case scenario would involve Youkilis’ bat waking up a little to make him more attractive, but it’s pretty clear that his days as the Red Sox third baseman are numbered.
This April has been a tough pill to swallow for Red Sox fans, but it’s still too early to panic, especially when there are plenty of reasons for optimism.
On Thursday, Jason Varitek will announce his retirement. Varitek will likely be most remembered for shoving his glove into Alex Rodriguez’ face on July 24, 2004. That moment will forever be enshrined in myth as the moment when the Red Sox began their run to their first World Championship in 86 years. The problem is that like so much else with Varitek’s career, it’s just that, a myth, and that’s a disservice to the man who has been the Red Sox captain for the past six years.
That fight in Yankee Stadium will be remembered as a turning point for the Red Sox. The truth is they continued to scuffle after that game and didn’t really get hot until almost a month later. Varitek will be remembered as a great defensive catcher, the best “game caller” of his generation. The truth is that Varitek’s real calling card was his offense, he was a top-tier offensive catcher in his prime and never better than above average behind the plate. For those of us who loved watching Vartiek play, the mythologizing of him as a defensive whiz should be disturbing, as it will allow critics to chip away at his legacy in the coming years. Game calling is impossible to quantify and there’s some evidence that Varitek wasn’t better than anyone else at it –Clay Buchholz preferred to be caught by Victor Martinez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia; and Jonathan Papelbon seemed to throw an endless stream of fastballs with Varitek behind the plate — and his caught stealing numbers were never great. Far better to shed our misconceptions early and focus on the fact that while he may not have been the God of the Pitch Mix, Varitek was a valuable contributors to two championship teams, including the best Red Sox team of all time (2007).
Another, sadder truth about Varitek’s retirement is that he didn’t want this. Unlike Tim Wakefield who could have provided some value to the Sox (can’t have enough pitching) Varitek had no place on this roster and no other team was willing to offer him a major league deal. The Red Sox already have Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach on their major league roster — superior players on both sides of the ball — and prospect Ryan Lavarnway, who isn’t much of a catcher, but makes up for his shortcomings by carrying a huge stick, waiting in the wings. As for the prospect of another team signing on, Varitek has been on a very obvious decline since the 2007 season. The captain was never a fast-twitch athlete with tremendous bat speed, like Nomar Garciaparra for example, but for the last few years he’s looked as if he were swinging a telephone pole, especially from the left side. It was this declining bat speed that forced him to become a backup, first to Victor Martinez and then to Saltalamacchia. And although Varitek accepted the role with his usual professionalism, the writing has been on the wall for quite some time.
Varitek was acquired, along with Derek Lowe, on July 31, 1997 in a trade with the Seattle Mariners, for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. It will always be remembered as one of the best trades in Red Sox history. Over the next 15 years, Varitek provided us with a number of positive memories, the best of which are the two World Series that the team won with him behind the plate. Thanks captain.
Bobby V Gets Acquainted
Well, Bobby Valentine’s tenure as Red Sox manager is definitely beginning in true Bobby V fashion, with plenty of bombast and controversy. Valentine has some huge shoes to fill as he’s replacing the best manager in Red Sox history (a guy who happens to be a short drive away in Bristol, CT these days) and he’s not being shy about how he plans to go about his business. No one will confuse the animated Valentine with the stoic Terry Francona and perhaps that’s exactly what this team needs, but Valentine needs to be more careful in how he handles the Boston media.
Bobby may be honest when he talks about things like addressing residual clubhouse anger, and it certainly seems genuine when he says things like:
“Exactly what I told you. Saying ‘Forget it is like saying, ‘Relax,’ you know?’ Those words mean nothing,” Valentine said. “It takes breathing, confidence, all those wonderful things to relax. It takes time and apologies, but apologies come with actions. I don’t think you can say, ‘OK, we’re going to have a meeting. We’re turning the page, it’s over.’ No, thank you. I don’t particularly like it.”
There’s plenty of truth to that statement. Still, Valentine should be lying or not saying anything at all. Right now, Valentine has much more slack with the media than the Red Sox players do. However, let’s consider what may happen if the Red Sox being the season 0-6 like they did last year. It’s only a matter of time before someone at the Globe or Herald (even money on Shaughnessy) blames Valentine for airing the team’s dirty laundry in the media. Valentine is known for a couple things: wearing his emotions on his sleeves and getting the most out of his teams (take a look at the 2000 Mets’ roster). One thing that Bobby V isn’t known for is media savvy and he better start learning some quickly.
Banning Beer is Stupid
I know that I’m probably in the minority among Red Sox fans, but I wholeheartedly agree with Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky that the Sox new beer ban is a victory for stupidity. The 2011 Red Sox didn’t collapse because some pitchers were having a beer on days when they didn’t pitch. They collapsed because of a roster with obvious holes and underperformance down the stretch from players such as JD Drew, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, and the entire bullpen, none of whom, as far as we know, were partaking in beer or Popeyes. Was the beer and chicken a bad idea? Sure. Did it do against good taste? Definitely. Is it a Red Herring? Absolutely.
A far more interesting storyline to this Red Sox offseason is Theo Epstein’s departure, a move that’s been brewing since 2005 as the relationship between Epstein and team CEO Larry Lucchino has grown more acrimonious (I highly recommend Seth Mnookin’s Feeding the Monster for an inside look at how Sox management works). Another more interesting story would have been new GM Ben Cherington’s uneven first offseason which included smart moves like dealing for Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey to shore up the bullpen and head-scratchers like trading Marco Scutaro for spare parts with no starting shortstop on the roster. Instead we’ve been talking about beer for four months.
And no matter what Bobby Valentine says, Terry Francona is absolutely right, the ban is a PR move and one so transparent that the Red Sox should just admit it.
Tim Wakefield retired on Friday, as the third winningest pitcher in Red Sox history after 17 years with the team. Wakefield won’t be remembered as the greatest pitcher in team history (that honor belongs to Pedro Martinez), but for nearly two decades he’s been the greatest point of continuity for the team as it emerged from the dark days of the late 90’s and early aughts to become a perennial championship contender. For the average fan he will perhaps be best remembered for giving up a series-ending home run to Aaron Boone in the 2003 ALCS. Red Sox die-hards, however, will recall Wakefield forgoing a Game 4 start by volunteering for mop-up duty in a Game 3 blowout loss to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. That effort, along with Wake’s 3 inning appearance in Game 5, were critical to the Red Sox preserving their pitching staff to complete the greatest comeback in sports history. For that we’ll always be thankful.
The truth is that I’ve always had mixed feelings about Wakefield. He certainly brought a lot to the table, he was an effective innings eater, a respected teammate, and no one ever questioned his guts. However, he also took a lot off; Wakefield retires with a career ERA of 4.41 and a career FIP of 4.71, and Jason Varitek’s inability to catch his knuckleball required the Red Sox to carry deadweight Doug Mirabelli for years as Wake’s personal catcher.
Perhaps what was most unique about Wakefield was that his both his best and worst qualities as a pitcher seemed to be on display in every start. Wakefield could go from striking out two batters in a row to giving up back to back home runs in a span of 10 minutes. Although Red Sox fans have long adored him, we’d be lying if we didn’t admit that his starts have always been heartburn inducing.
This is perhaps the point in this retrospective where I should make a hackneyed metaphor comparing Wakefield to the pitch that made him famous, the knuckleball. The truth is that Wake often belied the long-held baseball stereotype of knuckleballers as odd-ball, flighty, personalities. In fact, what made Wakefield so easy to root for was how normal he seemed. Not only did he rely on a throwback pitch, he was a throwback to a time when baseball players weren’t freaks of nature. There’s no doubt that Wakefield was an exceptional athlete, but when compared to preternaturally gifted individuals like Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, Wakefield’s whole existence seemed proof that perhaps Major League Baseball wasn’t so hard to play. In a clubhouse often populated by crazy people (Ramirez, Carl Everett), outsized personalities (Martinez, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia) and a town populated by the most neurotic fan base in the nation and a media best described as something just short of despicable — Boston’s two most likable print columnists are Bob Ryan and Tony Massarotti, one of whom (Ryan) once argued that Jason Kidd’s wife deserved to be verbally assaulted for sitting in the Garden stands with her kid and the other (Massarotti) of whom is just slightly less of a bridge troll than Dan Shaughnessy — Wakefield always felt like a breath of fresh air.
Like so much else in his career, Wakefield’s retirement seems somewhat understated for someone who was so much a part of the Red Sox culture for the past 17 years. In many ways, it comes as a surprise, I always thought that Wake could pitch well into his 50s if he wanted. At the same time, like so much else he did, it just seems like the right time, the normal time for him to hang it up.
I promise that this is the last time that I’ll be writing about the Red Sox for a while. That said, I felt it was worth acknowledging that Theo Epstein is moving to the north side of Chicago to be the Cubs’ new GM.
In my mind, Epstein’s tenure in Boston will always be defined by the championships of 2004 and 2007. There’s a certain contingent of Red Sox fans who assert that former GM Dan Duquette had more to do with the construction of the 2004 World Series team than Epstein, as he was the one who traded for Pedro Martinez and signed Manny Ramirez, but that’s highly misleading. Let’s take a look around the 2004 diamond and see how the team was actually constructed, shall we?
C: Jason Varitek: Duquette via trade
1b: Kevin Millar: Epstein via free agency
2b: Mark Bellhorn: Epstein via free agency
SS: Orlando Cabrera: Epstein via trade
3b: Bill Mueller: Epstein via free agency
LF: Manny Ramirez: Duquette via free agency
CF: Johnny Damon: Epstein via free agency
RF: Trot Nixon: Lou Gorman via draft
DH: David Ortiz: Epstein via free agency
P: Pedro Martinez: Duquette via trade
P: Curt Schilling: Epstein via trade
Closer: Keith Foulke: Epstein via free agency
So yeah, safe to say that Epstein was the architect of the 2004 Red Sox. The 2007 team was even more his creation.
The trolls on WEEI will be out in force today, harping on Epstein’s recent failures in free agency. They’ll point to JD Drew (who actually provided decent value until 2011), Julio Lugo (*puke*), Carl Crawford (still too early to pass judgment), and John Lackey (*stabs self in eye with dull pencil*). They’ll point to this season’s epic September collapse and the way it seems as if Epstein is jumping like a rat from a sinking ship. And they’ll have some valid points. But they’ll also take for granted the fact that before Theo Epstein became the Red Sox GM, the thought of a Red Sox Championship was an alien one.
So although the last couple years of Theo Epstein, Red Sox GM, have been disappointing, I’ll choose to remember him for the World Series. Thanks Theo, and good luck in Chicago, you’ll need it.
It had to be this way. There was no other way it could end.
Since 2004 Red Sox fans have been spoiled. We’ve forgotten what losing felt like. Not just regular losing, but Red Sox losing. The kind that comes with the perfect timing, just when you believe that things will go your way. The kind of losing that physically hurts, that cruses your soul and leaves you shaken for days, wandering around in a daze, wondering exactly where it all went wrong. The kind of losing that makes you want to stay in bed, to avoid any and all contact with the outside world, because it only serves as a reminder of your pain.
If you think this is all hyperbole, ask any Cubs fan how losing feels. Better yet, find a Braves fan right now and ask them.
As Red Sox fans we never thought that we’d have to feel this way again. 2004 exorcised nearly a century’s worth of demons from Boston and made us believe that we could be winners. 2007 cemented our new found confidence and self-esteem, made us believe that we actually were the big boys now and that the 21st century belonged to us.
But a funny thing happened along the way to our much dreamed about century of dominance. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays, who had been a punching bag for the Red Sox throughout their brief existence, emerged as a contender, led by an electric left fielder named Carl Crawford and rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, who would quickly establish himself as one of the best players in baseball. We dismissed the upstart team from Tampa at first, but they forced us to take notice by taking the division title and then beating Boston in seven games in the ALCS.
2009 was even worse, as the Red Sox saw a division lead evaporate in the second half of the season as a juggernaut Yankees team steamrolled the American League, like a world champion locomotive. Still, we shrugged it off. The 2009 Sox had been hurt by injuries and we reasoned that with some health and reinforcements from free agency the Sox would be back on track soon enough.
2010 was rock bottom, or so we thought. Sox GM Theo Epstein made a rare strategic blunder over the winter, referring to the season as a “bridge year” before it even started, a gaffe that the Boston media pounced on. The Sox got off to a horrible start in April, yet had somehow managed to claw their way back in to contention by the mid-June before it all unraveled. On Friday June 25th, star second baseman Dustin Pedroia fouled a ball off of his foot, breaking his navicular bone. It was a day after his best game of the season, in which he hit three home runs in a win against the Colorado Rockies. In the next few days, the Red Sox lost pitcher Clay Buchholz and catcher Victor Martinez to injuries as well, and by the time they returned, the Rays and Yankees had created enough space in the standings that Boston could forget about any October celebrations.
Coming in to the 2011 season it was apparent that the team needed a face lift. The days of Big Papi and Manny Ramirez making pitchers piss their pants from the 3 and 4 holes were over. The Sox needed to find players to anchor their lineup for the next decade. And Theo Epstein did just that, emptying the farm system in a trade to get first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres and dishing out big bucks to steal Crawford away from the Rays. The Red Sox were now an offensive juggernaut, built to grind opposing pitching staffs into tiny piles of dust. And for the most part, they did just that. After a slow April, the Sox went on an all-out blitzing of the American League. Gonzalez led the way, with his graceful opposite field swing and easy power. David Ortiz seemed rejuvenated, although a far cry from the 50-plus homer Papi of 2006, he hit over .300 and smiled that magnanimous Papi smile that we had all grown to love. Leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury developed a legitimate power stroke, turning himself into a modern-day Fred Lynn, except with Tim Raines speed. The only everyday player who didn’t meet expectations was Crawford, who got off to a terrible start, started to heat up, pulled a hamstring and came back as a model of mediocrity. Still, between May and September the Red Sox were the best team in the American League and looked like a comfortable lock for the playoffs.
The last weekend of August, the Yankees came to Fenway for a three game series. Up until that point, the Sox had handled New York, even knocking around Yankees ace and Cy Young candidate CC Sabathia, who looked invincible against every other team in the league. That weekend, the Bombers took two out of three at the Fens, and although we didn’t realize it at the time, the character of Boston’s season changed irreparably. The Sox followed that series by losing two out of three to the Texas Rangers and then two out of three to the Toronto Blue Jays. When the Rays swept Boston in a weekend series starting September 9th, cutting a wild card lead that was once nine games to a mere three and a half, it was officially panic time. The Red Sox fell into a September tailspin the likes of which the franchise has never seen, even in the 86 years of futility between 1918 and 2004, winning only seven games during the month and failing to do so much as win two games in a row. Suddenly, every flaw seemed exaggerated and every turn of luck seemed to go against the team. A thin starting pitching staff, made weaker by a mid-season back injury to number three starter Clay Buchholz, cratered completely with aces Jon Lester and Josh Beckett unable to stem the bleeding. Relief ace Daniel Bard went from lights out to imminently hittable. Third baseman Kevin Youkilis went down with a sports hernia. Every line drive seemed to be right at a defender.
And so there we found ourselves on September 28, with the Sox tied for the Wild Card, desperately needing a win over the lowly Orioles to preserve a season that began with the highest of expectations. And for eight and a half innings, it really looked like things were going to go our way. The Sox scored a run on a balk. Dustin Pedroia homered on a pitch up near his head. Jon Lester, working on three days rest, was nails, going six strong innings. Daniel Bard looked like Daniel Bard in the eighth. And there in the ninth was Jonathan Papelbon, breathing fire and getting two quick, easy outs. There was no way that Boston was going home tonight. And then Chris Davis doubled down the first base line and like so much this September everything unraveled. Papelbon quickly got ahead of the next batter, Nolan Reimold, only to leave a pitch over the middle of the plate which turned into a ground rule double. The next batter, Sox killer Robert Andino, lined a pitch to left, which popped out of the glove a of a sliding Crawford, allowing the winning run to score and putting the final nail into Boston’s coffin. It was an appropriate ending for Carl, who after signing one of the richest contracts in club history, turned in a season so putrid that he actually wrote a public apology to Boston fans.
Meanwhile, in Tampa, the Rays clawed their way back from a 7-0 deficit, exploding for six runs in the eighth inning and getting a last-strike homer from little-used Dan Johnson to tie the game. Minutes after the Sox had blown up, Evan Longoria laced a pitch over the left field wall in Tampa and the Rays had captured the wild card. It all felt so right. So familiar.
Sox fans won’t get any pity, and we don’t deserve any. The truth is, we’re the worst kind of sports fan. We’re petulant, entitled children, convinced of our own superiority and general awesomeness. Years of losing caused us to become bitter, spiteful little people, with shriveled up souls. Winning allowed us to unleash our most disgusting, boastful character traits, which we had kept bottled up for so many years out of extreme shame. Scratch even the most seemingly level-headed Red Sox fan deep enough and you’ll find Tommy from Quinzee, tucked away in the deepest crevice of his reptile brain, in the past we just rarely let him out. Yet suddenly, after 2004 and 2007, being a Red Sox fan was no longer something you hid from new acquaintances, girls you were trying to sleep with, and prospective employers. We reveled in our team’s success and made sure that we shoved it in everyone else’s faces.
Well now that’s over, at least until next October. For a lifelong Red Sox fan, those words have a bitter, but familiar taste. On September 29th, Boston will wake up, and life will continue, but in a way we’ll have turned back the clock. The talk-radio mouthbreathers will be on in full force, calling for anyone and everyone’s heads, and they may have a smidgen of a point for once. Local media trolls, like the ever-repulsive Dan Shaughnessy will be piling on, and trying to score new book deals about some invented “curse.” It will all be unbearably typical and sad for a city that cares way too much about sports.
That is, after all, all this is. It’s just sports, and it doesn’t really matter. It still sucks.