Firmly in place, Lucchino is up for the challenge
Larry Lucchino expects to be with the Red Sox for years to come.
While the team’s president/CEO may not have officially signed a new deal, he said, “I’ve reached an understanding on it, for the most part. I’ll just leave it at that.
“I love Boston. I love the Red Sox. I feel like I’ve sunk my roots pretty deeply into the community. I expect to be here for several years to come.’’
It has been well-documented that Lucchino has a greater role in baseball operations than he did in the later years of the Theo Epstein regime - though similar to what he had early in Epstein’s tenure - but he contends that he tailors his involvement to the situation.
The situation with Ben Cherington and Bobby Valentine, said Lucchino, is very close to the one he inherited in San Diego. Bruce Bochy had been manager for one year when Lucchino took control and hired Kevin Towers to replace Randy Smith as GM.
“My role varies from year to year, from circumstance to circumstance, from GM to GM, and even within a certain GM,’’ Lucchino explained. “I may have one role at the start of a term as GM and another later on.
“Since my first days as president and CEO of the Orioles in 1988, I’ve always had a seat at the table in baseball operation matters, and sometimes I’m more active than I am at other times. It’s a question of circumstances - whatever the club may need.’’
With a new regime, Lucchino said, “I think it requires a more active involvement on my part, as well as John Henry and Tom Werner. These are two of the most important hires you can make. You don’t make them that often.
“No one of us is as smart as the three of us together. We collaborated on the choice of manager and GM and other significant personnel decisions. This offseason required more active participation on our part.’’
Lucchino, who was the first to recognize that Valentine was the strong personality the team needed after the duress of the September collapse, doesn’t think the manager’s strong personality will clash with Cherington.
“I think Ben has a strong personality as well,’’ Lucchino said. “I don’t think anybody thinks John, Tom, or I are shrinking violets. I think there has been some active debate, but we like that. We like that dynamic and process with people with opinions, ideas and information coming together, exchanging ideas and debating on certain key things.
“It doesn’t happen on everything. There are things that the GM and the manager do on their own, but there’s plenty of room for collaboration.’’
Valentine appears to have the skill set to be much more than just the field manager. Will he gain a bigger role than any manager in Sox history?
“I think it’s much too soon to make those kind of predictions,’’ Lucchino said. “I like the fact he hit the ground running, works as hard as any manager I’ve seen or known of.
“He’s been a partner and collaborator with Ben. He’s gotten to know our baseball ops guys. We couldn’t be more pleased with the way things have come together. We’re very pleased with the offseason work of Ben Cherington, a thoughtful executive who has done a terrific job.’’
Ownership long believed Cherington would be the heir to Epstein, but Lucchino said there were brief discussions about going outside for a GM.
Overall, said Lucchino, he thinks the Red Sox are “a baseball team with something to prove. The collapse in September last year remains an important motivation for us, and that’s true on the field and off the field.
“There’s a high degree of optimism for the challenge 2012 will be. This is an important year for the Red Sox.’’
It’s important, he said, because “the [two-year] playoff drought is one of the things we have to end, as is restoring the fans’ faith in our players and our commitment to winning. Also, celebrating in a fitting and suitably large way the importance of the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, and ensuring that the new leadership meshes together.
“It’s exciting and fascinating to watch the young players coming up and finding their role, and the shifting of positions from bullpen to rotation. There are so many interesting and fascinating story lines.
“We have the material for a great and interesting baseball season. We just need to win.’’
Lucchino also believes that the league is as competitive as ever.
“I think there’s a new wave of teams that are out there now, teams with sizable new TV packages, teams with new leadership and ownership,’’ he said. “I think the AL East is a very talented and difficult division, and there are other teams which have emerged as powerhouses like Texas, the Angels, Tampa Bay, Detroit.
“There are a lot of teams who would love to knock your block off and there are going to be a lot more. There’s an increase in competitive balance in baseball.’’
Impact of concussions is not lost on Matheny
Mike Matheny’s playing career ended because of postconcussion syndrome, so he feels for the players - particularly Justin Morneau, Jason Bay, and Brian Roberts - who have gone through similar ordeals trying to get back.
The new Cardinals manager, asked if he still feels the effects of the ailment that dominated his life for 18 months, said, “I remember my name just about every day now, so that’s positive stuff. It’s interesting how in real life you don’t get hit in the head much. As long as I’m not getting hit in the head, everything’s good. It was a tough 18 months.’’
Matheny, 41, a four-time Gold Glove winner, reached out to Morneau when the Cardinals played the Twins last week, though Morneau did not take him up.
“I told them if Justin wanted to talk to somebody that I’d be happy to do it,’’ said Matheny, “because the toughest thing about that injury is everything appears fine and you don’t have anything physically that anyone can calibrate or put a timetable on.
“It’s mentally tough because your mind is already not working well and you’re trying to figure out what’s next, what can I anticipate?
“You’re trying to grunt your way through it, because that’s how we’re conditioned as athletes. And the more you do that, the worse it is for you. There’s no CAT scan, MRI that shows you that the healing process is working.
“I was hard-headed about it because I was able to fight through some injuries and I figured this was just another one. The more I pushed, the more I went backwards, and finally I just had to shut it down. It took a long time. I had great medical people around me but I just wasn’t listening.’’
Matheny understands why Morneau never reached out to him.
“I know where he is right now,’’ Matheny said. “He’s just tired of talking about it, and that’s where I was. Every day I’d show up and someone would ask, ‘Matheny, how do you feel today?’ And I’d say, ‘Let me go find out.’ I’d go jump on a bike and I’d get done and I’d feel like crap.
“I didn’t even know what was going on. I just knew I couldn’t see right. I was forgetting pitches I was calling.
“It gave me a great appreciation for the power of the mind, and having any kind of struggle mentally is a sad, scary thing.’’
He gave up the fight at age 36 while with the Giants after a series of foul balls to the mask, and eventually became a minor league manager.
“I’m sure I could have [come back],’’ he said. “I don’t have any question about that. But just knowing I was a couple of good dings away from suffering something serious . . .
“It wasn’t so much the foul balls but getting run over and collisions that added up.’’
But Matheny does not preach to his catchers to tag the runner and get out of the way. He teaches good positioning and to be ready for the impact of the collision. He said Buster Posey got himself into trouble because he did not position himself well.
“It’s a play that doesn’t happen that often, but it’s a defining play and it carries a lot of weight with our pitching staff,’’ he said. “They can’t hit you in Little League, college, and until you get to professional baseball. But here you have to be ready for it.’’
Apropos of nothing
1. Andy Pettitte was simply too good and had too much left in the tank to retire. Will he be the same pitcher who went 11-3 with a 3.28 ERA and made the All-Star team in 2010, which is when he last pitched? He’ll take all the time he needs in the minors to prove he can be. “Don’t forget,’’ said a National League scout. “He’s had a year to rest that elbow and shoulder. He could come back even better.’’ If that’s the case, the Yankees absolutely blow the Red Sox away in pitching depth. The Yankees already are in a conundrum about which one of Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes goes to the bullpen. By May or June, if there’s an injury or someone is ineffective, they can pull out a borderline Hall of Famer in Pettitte.
2. Tom Brunansky is starting his second season as a Twins minor league hitting coach. He’ll be at Triple A Rochester. “It’s been fun to get back into it,’’ said Brunansky, who is known around here for “The Catch’’ in Fenway’s right-field corner that robbed Ozzie Guillen of extra bases and sent the Red Sox into the playoffs in 1990. “It’s rewarding to be back in the organization I started in and to watch the progression of the kids I’m working with. I loved my time in Boston.’’
3. Indians pitcher Justin Masterson has a sense of humor, recently referring to Fausto Carmona - a.k.a. Roberto Hernandez - as “Rob.’’ It was discovered that the Dominican pitcher had been using a false identity (Carmona), and he now will go by Hernandez. He is also 31, not 28. He recently had his $7 million contract retracted and renegotiated for $3 million, with incentives. Charges of identity theft against Hernandez were dropped, but he will serve 150 hours of community service in the Dominican Republic.
4. Sound familiar? Texas righty Yu Darvish can throw seven types of pitches, but the Rangers are going to cut him down to three or four. From our Daisuke Matsuzaka experience, our advice to the Rangers: Leave him alone.
5. Could the presence of Albert Pujols actually turn the Angels into a selective, on-base type of offense? For years they took on the personality of Vladimir Guerrero, a see-it-hit-it type batter. The Angels were among the lowest-ranked teams in the league in pitches seen per at-bat for about a six-year stretch. But Pujols is one of the most selective hitters in baseball. Said manager Mike Scioscia, “I think a young player - like the guys in that clubhouse - watching him are certainly going to understand better the importance of getting back into counts, understanding what a pitcher is doing, when to go up there and hunt and peck for a pitch, whether it’s a first-pitch fastball or whatever.’’
6. What is this season’s “sleeper’’ team? I submit the Mariners. Good days seem to be ahead for the Mariners, who reportedly lost $7.34 million last season because they drew only 1.89 million fans, down from a peak of 3.54 million in 2002. But they have good young talent that may begin to emerge, in concert with a comebacking Ichiro Suzuki and perhaps better production from Chone Figgins. The Mariners have decent pitching, led by Felix Hernandez, and emerging younger players in Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, and Mike Carp. They’re obviously in a tough division with Texas and Los Angeles, but file them under “team you don’t want to play against.’’
7. Theo Epstein is going to have to be tough-minded and thick-skinned as he tries to convince Cubs fans that they need to exhibit patience as he rebuilds. Reds manager Dusty Baker, who spent four seasons at the Cubs helm (which included an NLCS appearance), said of Chicago fans, “From my experience, patience wasn’t a real virtue. They’ve been patient for 100 years. That’s a hard sell in Chicago, more patience. They might be patient for a little while, but unlike any other place I’ve been, they count. People count. And they can add real good in Chicago. Everybody - men, women, and children.’’
8. Prediction: The Tigers are going to strike again with another significant starting pitcher. Their scouts are on the prowl to augment what could be an extremely powerful lineup.
9. An encouraging sign for the Orioles: Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Tommy Hunter have really pitched well in this camp.
Updates on nine
1. Erick Aybar, SS, Angels - The Angels are working on a multiyear extension with their flashy shortstop, who can become a free agent next winter. The sides settled on a one-year contract this winter, but agent Fernando Cuza is looking for a five-year deal. Aybar could score a big payday if he’s free. The Red Sox have the remainder of this year to find out whether Jose Iglesias is their long-term guy. If not, Aybar may become an option.
2. Mike Trout, OF, Angels - Slow going for the best young talent in baseball (OK, right there with Bryce Harper), who caught a virus that left him 10 pounds lighter and unable to get into a game as of this weekend. All of baseball was waiting to watch Trout this spring, but this setback may send him back to the minors for a while.
3. Chris Volstad, RHP, Cubs - The player acquired in the Carlos Zambrano deal with the Marlins has been very impressive in camp. The 6-foot-8-inch righty has exhibited a lot of control and a low-90s fastball that he has been able to get over for strikes. The Cubs feel he may be ready to emerge after a poor season in Florida last year.
4. Mike Aviles, SS, Red Sox - Yes, he is currently Boston’s starting shortstop, but the Phillies are one team that would be interested, as they continue to search for an experienced backup infielder who could protect them in case Chase Utley gets off to a slow start with his right knee tendinitis. If the Red Sox committed to Iglesias, Aviles may be available.
5. Pudge Rodriguez, C, free agent - Could he land somewhere soon? The Orioles feel protected with Ronny Paulino if Taylor Teagarden’s back issues persist, but Paulino never seems to endear himself wherever he goes. The Royals, with Salvador Perez’s injury, are on the lookout for catching help, though they’d rather solve from within.
6. Johnny Damon, LF/DH, free agent - Cleveland is wading through left fielders to find a fit, and they could wind up with Damon. While the Orioles keep indicating they won’t sign Damon, their lineup keeps screaming his name.
7. John Lannan, LHP, Nationals - Interest in Lannan has diminished with some teams that feel what they have is just as good (Boston being one, with Felix Doubront and Andrew Miller), and in fact, teams are more interested in lefty Ross Detwiler’s upside. But the Nationals may be leery of dealing either pitcher because of a hamstring injury to Chien-Ming Wang.
8. Felix Doubront, LHP, Red Sox - Scouts really like Doubront’s stuff, but one complaint is that he works very slowly. While Doubront does use a slide-step to hold runners, the feeling is that he is also very slow to the plate.
9. Brett Cecil, LHP, Blue Jays - As the Jays try to create more room for their top young pitchers, there’s no question Cecil could be available in a deal. He is one of those former top prospects who hasn’t lived up to expectations, and he hasn’t had an especially good spring.
From the Bill Chuck files: “If you count Vladimir Guerrero, there are eight active players with 400 homers. They could be joined this season by Paul Konerko (396), David Ortiz (378), and Adam Dunn (365).’’ Also, “Alex Rodriguez is 11th on the all-time list with 1,893 RBIs. He needs 11 to overtake Willie Mays, 25 to pass Eddie Murray, 20 to pass Jimmie Foxx, 46 to pass Ty Cobb, 59 to pass Stan Musial, 103 to pass Lou Gehrig, and 104 to pass Barry Bonds and end the season in fourth place.’’ . . . Happy 36th birthday to Tomo Ohka and Corky Miller.