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Baseball Notes

Spotlight may very well fall on Lucchino

By Nick Cafardo
October 9, 2011

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Until Theo Epstein is officially announced as the new president/general manager of the Chicago Cubs , we can’t be sure the Red Sox have to hunt for new management.

But if he is taking the Cubs job, then the spotlight again will be directed at Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino, whose job would be to put the team back among the elite following two third-place finishes, which is unacceptable for a big-market franchise with a $160 million plus payroll.

Lucchino’s baseball-decision powers have been reduced for a few years, but if Epstein departed, one would think they’d be restored.

Even if Lucchino and ownership hired Ben Cherington as general manager, it would take time before Cherington could make the same demands Epstein did and have complete control over the operations.

Lucchino, in this correspondent’s opinion, served a vital role as devil’s advocate. He was the skeptical, pain-in-the-butt character in deciding whether big-ticket items served the best interests of the franchise. That’s what a good CEO does.

But after Epstein returned from his hiatus in 2005, Lucchino was essentially stripped of that role, still signing off on things, but without the fine-tooth comb. He was told to keep his nose out of the baseball operations department, and from what we understand, he did.

If Epstein is gone, the current problems fall back on Lucchino, who would have a chance to bring back those important checks and balances.

For an organization to be right, it has to start at the top. The top is Lucchino. More than ever.

What he needs to do is establish a balance between the new-wave statistical analysis system that this team depends on so much and traditional baseball values. Epstein undoubtedly felt he had that balance, but the reality is maybe he didn’t.

Right now, there seem to be few traditional baseball people around him. The Sox seem slanted toward new-wave, unlike the Phillies, who tilt more on the side of traditional baseball ways.

Lucchino is more of a traditional baseball man himself, and if he assumed control, he would have to shift the organization more that way.

Lucchino would need to revamp the scouting department, which hasn’t done a very good job with pitchers in particular. He’d have to get the Sox back to being the development machine that Epstein so aspired to and had for a while.

The “accountability’’ issue really has to start with ownership and Lucchino, who is a very skilled manager of people.

Cherington would be the right choice for GM because he has been in the Sox system for many years, even before Epstein showed up. He has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly and has matured into an expert in all baseball departments.

You always want to see a person who has paid his dues - and Cherington has - get the job he’s been aspiring to.

Lucchino has worn many hats in his many years in the game and has accomplished so much, including the building of Camden Yards in Baltimore and Petco Park in San Diego.

He helped turn the Sox into a money-making machine and has been a loyal soldier to his owners, John Henry and Tom Werner. He has protected them, as any excellent leader of an organization should do.

Which is why having Lucchino more involved in baseball is a good thing. He understands his limitations in that area, which is why he employs a GM to handle player acquisition.

“He challenges you,’’ said one of his former employees. “He makes you give him a very thorough explanation as to why something is being done. You’d better have a good reason to be doing something, especially something big because he’ll play devil’s advocate on every little thing.’’

Is that what has been missing the past couple of years - that very basic but important element in player acquisition moves?

If it was, it could return if Epstein leaves and the front office is realigned.

Lucchino would be wise in bringing in baseball people in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s. Experience and wisdom are good things. The Ivy League GMs don’t have all of the answers. A good blending of both age groups makes for a more thorough thinking process.

Lucchino, who is a possible candidate to be commissioner when Bud Selig retires, is smart enough to know who those people are. No need for us to mention them.

He has had terrific people around him for many years .

The Red Sox need to evaluate free agents better. Even Epstein acknowledged that.

They need to be able to measure heart and desire, and project how players will fit in Boston, and not just from a statistical point of view. This is not to say the “traditional’’ guys won’t make their share of mistakes. They have and they will, but the human element has to be a greater part of what’s going on.

As one former Red Sox player said recently, “They need to get back to fundamentals in every area of their organization. On the field, you’ve got to take more infield practice. Outfielders have to work on their throwing and situations. Pitchers have to work on their defensive drills.’’

So there has to be that voice, that one person who says it, and everyone else has to follow suit: “This is the way we’re going to do things. We can incorporate all of the great new ideas into it, but at the core, we’re going to be a baseball team.’’

That will be Lucchino’s challenge, and possibly his legacy.

EXPERT OPINION

Minaya has ideas on a new Sox manager

Omar Minaya has been around a long time as a general manager with the Expos and Mets. He is currently working as an analyst on the MLB Network and is still being paid by the Mets.

Minaya said he is mulling over a few offers to return to baseball as an adviser to a GM and thinks he’ll make that decision as the winter unfolds.

Asked about the GM and managerial openings around the league, Minaya said, “I think in Boston it has to be someone who has managed before. It’s a big market. There’s a very sophisticated and intelligent fan base, and you have to have someone who is very good with the media and who can handle being in a pressure cooker.

“I mean, there are certain guys who have been bench coaches in bigger markets who could probably handle it because they’ve seen first-hand how things work and what happens when things go badly.’’

Minaya feels some of his old employees could handle Boston. Willie Randolph, for instance.

“Willie deserves a chance to manage again,’’ Minaya said. “It’s a lot like [Terry] Francona in that the second time around, you avoid all of the problems you had the first time. You’re better-equipped to handle things when they don’t go so well.’’

Minaya feels Chip Hale, who has just become bench coach in Oakland, could handle Boston.

“He’s been in a big market and he understands the scrutiny,’’ Minaya said. “He’d be able to handle the media and the players. He’s a guy I think will make a good major league manager when he gets the opportunity and definitely someone I wouldn’t be afraid to put in a big-market situation.’’

Minaya mentioned Dodgers third base coach Tim Wallach, a longtime minor league manager. Wallach, who combines a traditional approach with an analytical open-mindedness, seems ready for the next step.

Minaya also spoke highly of Ryne Sandberg as someone who “has put in his time and paid his dues. He seems like a very smart, level-headed guy who could turn into a very good asset to any team that hires him.’’

SHIFT IN POWER

Resistance of players a fundamental issue

The “culture’’ that doomed the Red Sox isn’t unique to Boston. In some ways, it pervades baseball. When the Sox were asked to take infield practice one day - one of the rare times they actually did it during the season - one prominent player said, “What’s this, the minor leagues?’’

But this happens everywhere.

In Washington, for instance.

According to a major league source, when general manager Mike Rizzo would ask manager Jim Riggleman to do pregame drills to shore up some fundamentals early in the season, it was met with strong resistance from some veterans.

The most outspoken was Jayson Werth (above), who hit .232 on the year after signing a seven-year, $126 million deal. Werth was one of the more vocal opponents in criticizing Riggleman for making the team do drills.

But Werth wasn’t alone. Other veterans piped up, creating a pretty uncomfortable situation.

More and more, it seems, players are empowered, and the days when they followed orders from the manager have gone the way of the Edsel. The only teams that consistently make their players work hard on fundamentals before games are the Twins, Angels, and now Orioles.

Yes, the Twins and Orioles were last-place teams, and the Angels missed the playoffs. Regardless, they tried to make their players better and held them accountable for their performance on the field.

You’ll note that in all three cases, there is a strong manager: Mike Scioscia in Los Angeles, Ron Gardenhire in Minnesota, and Buck Showalter in Baltimore. When they want to stress something, they know upper management has their backs and won’t kowtow to players.

Terry Francona often said that pitchers couldn’t do fielding drills during the season because “there are only so many throws in their arms.’’ It was an amazing thing to hear, but illustrates how babied players are today.

Etc.

Apropos of nothing 1. Head-scratcher: First base coach Ron Johnson and coaching assistant Rob Leary, two of the more positive people on the Red Sox coaching staff, were let go; 2. Love the suggestion a few fans have e-mailed: John Lackey for Barry Zito; 3. Was Daisuke Matsuzaka the best-conditioned pitcher on the Sox staff?; 4. Sox personnel were baffled as to why J.D. Drew played so little in September with a minor knuckle fracture; 5. Scene at Fenway early last week: Larry Lucchino, Tom Werner, and Theo Epstein walking in the outfield, having an animated discussion.

Updates on nine 1. CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees - Will he or won’t he opt out of the remaining four years at $92 million of his contract? There is growing sentiment that he will. Where would he go? The usual suspects would be the Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers, Giants, and Tigers. Would the Sox (a) take on another big pitching contract and take him away from the Yankees (as they did with Carl Crawford, right?) and (b) add another overweight pitcher? The thing about Sabathia is that he can win 20 games even weighing in excess of 300 pounds.

2. John McLaren, manager, China - The former Red Sox coach is managing the Chinese national team, which is training in Vero Beach, Fla., and playing instructional league teams. McLaren, who might be a candidate to become bench coach with the Mets, is trying to get the team ready for the World Baseball Classic next year. “It’s been very enjoyable,’’ he said. “I love managing international baseball. These kids are working hard and they know they’re the underdogs but are giving it their best.’’

3. Dave Martinez, bench coach, Rays - An interesting thing about Martinez is that he manages the game along with Joe Maddon in the dugout, and the two consult when a decision has to be made. Maddon obviously gets the final call, but it’s a great way to train as a manager, under one of the best. Which is probably why the Red Sox will consider Martinez.

4. Gary Allenson, manager, Rochester - He would be a very good bench coach, someone who can add discipline to any clubhouse, much like Larry Bowa used to with the Yankees. The former Sox catcher has had a couple of stints working with the major league team on Buck Showalter’s staff and has done a nice job bringing up some of the Orioles’ top young players in recent years.

5. Bud Black, manager, Padres - Could he really become the Angels GM? The feeling is yes. He and Mike Scioscia are very close friends and would work well together on the player personnel side of things. Black doesn’t have front office experience but is certainly bright enough and has a pitching expertise that would make him valuable in that position.

6. Tim Bogar, third base coach, Red Sox - He could be retained when a new manager is named. Bogar is also highly regarded as a future manager and does a lot of work with statistical data, which seems to fit what the current Boston regime is looking for. There has been speculation that Bogar is a candidate for bench coach with the White Sox under new manager Robin Ventura.

7. Matt Moore, LHP, Rays - How would you like to be the Rays, being able to add Moore, with No. 1 starter stuff, to an already-deep rotation? They also have righty Alex Cobb and lefty Alex Torres ready for the majors. Torres struck out 156 and issued 83 walks in 146 1/3 innings at Triple A with a 3.08 ERA. Cobb, 24, had a 1.87 ERA with 70 strikeouts and 16 walks in 67 1/3 innings. The Rays could trade Cobb, Torres, or starters Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis for offense if need be.

8. David Paige, strength coach, Red Sox - Most of the people I speak with feel it would be a travesty if Paige is let go over the conditioning issue with the pitchers. Paige works hard and has a great program but doesn’t have the power to make pitchers participate as much as they should. That thump has to come from up above or the manager.

9. Robin Ventura, manager, White Sox - Give the White Sox credit. They knew what they wanted and went out and made it happen. They didn’t wait for Tony La Russa and didn’t consider Terry Francona. It shows decisiveness, which the crosstown Cubs have yet to exhibit. The big issue will be, “Is he ready?’’ And the answer right now is a resounding no. It’s interesting that the Cubs bypassed Ryne Sandberg, with his impressive résumé of minor league managing, yet Ventura gets a job with no experience.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “Hunter Pence hit 11 homers in 100 games with the Astros and 11 homers in 54 games with the Phillies.’’ Also, “Jacoby Ellsbury has become an average base stealer: Jacoby was 39 of 54. His 72 percent success rate was the same as the major league average.’’ And, “You have to wonder if it’s a trend that will continue: Albert Pujols’s batting average since 2008 has gone down each year from .357, to .327, to .312, to .299.’’ . . . Happy 44th birthday, Jim Tatum.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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