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Have the Red Sox flunked chemistry class?

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  June 20, 2012 10:15 AM

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The big question this week is whether the Red Sox have an issue in their clubhouse. ESPN's Buster Olney has raised the issue before this season and was particularly forceful about it on Monday.

For starters, clubhouse chemistry is vastly overrated in baseball. People assume good teams have it and bad teams don't. It's rarely that simple.

The Red Sox have been in last place for most of this season because of poor starting pitching, injuries and underachieving stars.

Their starters have an earned run average of 4.79 and that stinks.

Carl Crawford and Andrew Bailey have been out all season and Jacoby Ellsbury for most of the season. A wide assortment of other players have been on the DL.

Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis have not been remotely as good as expected.

Good clubhouse chemistry wasn't going to solve any of those problems. But it makes for an convenient excuse and a good topic.

It's easy to look at the Red Sox and declare them toxic. Bobby Valentine is a polarizing figure within baseball and it was obvious last fall that there was division within the organization about hiring him.

His coaching staff is a bit of a mess. Valentine was allowed to hire only two of the coaches and that was a huge mistake. There is a palpable sense that the staff is divided with some loyal to Valentine and others to the front office.

Josh Beckett is a guy, in words and deeds, who seems almost determined to have outsiders dislike him. Vicente Padilla once got released by the Rangers because 24 other players demanded it. Youkilis doesn't get hit by so many pitches by accident. Jon Lester has terrible body language on the mound.

In general, the Red Sox starting pitchers come across as independent contractors, concerned only about themselves. But that is the case with a lot of teams. Only a few starters CC Sabathia and David Price come to mind help set the mood of their team.

Gonzalez, Crawford and John Lackey are players who came to Boston almost purely for financial reasons. Given a choice, they almost certainly would have preferred to stay with their former teams.

Obviously, the Sox are a mess, right?

Not so fast.

The Red Sox quit on each other last September and it was disgraceful. By the final week of the season, it was almost like everybody just wanted to go home. But the personality of the team has changed significantly and that is based on having been around the team almost every day since Feb. 9.

Gonzalez has become more of a leader. He is somebody the young position players look up and he's clearly the central figure for the team's Latin American players. Gonzalez is the first guy to welcome new players to team and is a major influence on players like Will Middlebrooks and Ryan Kalish.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has the ability to reach everybody in the room, is more of a presence this season. So is Mike Aviles, who stayed in the background last year. Cody Ross is a positive influence.

David Ortiz, when he's not simmering about his one-year contract, has made an honest effort to accept Valentine and encourages others to do the same. Gonzalez is on Valentine's side. So is Saltalamacchia.

Dustin Pedroia was so tight with Terry Francona that he spent hours in the manager's office before games. But, at worse, he is content with Valentine. The manager, for his part, has been sure to praise Pedroia as often as he can and leave him hitting second.

Valentine is not universally popular. But Francona wasn't, either. A big part of this is that too many of the players are oblivious to the fact that this team hasn't won a playoff game since 2008. Change was needed and they resisted that change. Some still do.

The Sox have done well to be a game over .500 despite their injuries and starting pitching issues. This doesn't look like a playoff team, but it's not because of any chemistry problems.

Can it get better? Sure it can. The coaching staff needs get settled, one way or another. If the owners wanted Valentine to manage, they should make it clear that he be allowed to manage. At this stage, why not?

Trades should be made to make the lineup more functional. A few of the starters should be sat down and told to think more about the success of the group and less about their personal agendas.

Plenty of teams have similar issues. The Red Sox aren't a model of harmony, but it's not something untenable.

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