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After losses to Rays, just how far will Red Sox fade?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  August 30, 2010 10:05 AM

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At any point, to blame it all on the injuries is rather elementary and downright blind. The Red Sox might have fared differently with Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury in their lineup over the weekend, but Red Sox officials are big-picture thinkers and very smart men who know that nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

In fact, the only thing simple now is the math, which is rather clear given the final score last night at Tropicana Field: Tampa Bay 5, Boston 3. The Red Sox now trail the Rays and New York Yankees by identical 6-1/2-game margins with precisely 31 games to play on Boston’s schedule – both clubs lead the Sox by seven games in the loss column – and questions abound about just who the Red Sox are and where they going as they enter the most pivotal offseason of the era fronted by John Henry, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein.

Remember: there is precedent for this sort of thing, thanks largely to the disclosures of "Feeding the Monster," the Seth Mnookin book that gave us a clear look inside the operating system of the Red Sox. In a meeting prior to the 2005 season, Theo Epstein warned team business personnel that 2005 and 2006 were likely to be transitional years for the franchise. That is something we should remember now. At the moment, 2011 projects to be worse than 2010, and something suggests that Red Sox officials know it.

Whether you like Red Sox management or not, this much is indisputable: Red Sox officials are smart and thorough. They plan for everything. The one truly unpredictable part of this season was the rash of injuries that befell a succession of key Red Sox personnel, which means that most everything else was likely scripted. The injuries gave Red Sox officials more reason to make a major move during the season, not less. And yet, they shopped at flea markets and yard sales, trying to fortify their team throughout the year with bargain-basement pickups that actually panned out quite well.

Know what that all means? It means that the Red Sox jacked their offseason payroll to an all-time high because they knew they wouldn’t be spending much during the year. Given the gap in their player development system, they weren’t about to give up prospects for Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, Scott Downs or most anyone else. The Sox drafted power hitters with their first two selections in the June draft, suggesting they aren’t likely to make a blockbuster acquisition over the winter, either.

If any of that sounds like a criticism of how the Red Sox do things, it isn’t. Rather, it is a compliment. One of the great strengths of the current Red Sox administration is that team officials generally do not succumb to emotion or public pressure. For as much as we laud someone like Terry Francona for maintaining his poise during times of crisis – deficits in the 2004 and 2007 playoffs come to mind – the same is true of upper management. The Red Sox devised their plan and they stick to it, and it has served them quite well.

On the even of September 2010, here’s the problem: you now see through it. Whether one measures the Red Sox’ Q rating through television ratings, talk-show volume, web hits or that intangible buzz, the Sox took a major hit this year. Broadcast ratings have plummeted. Secondary ticket sales have slowed to a crawl if not stopped altogether. Fenway Park has gone from among the most fashionable places to be seen to just another ballpark, and the timing could not be worse for a Red Sox administration that might have been planning for another lean year.

Seriously, might not that be, above all else, the reason the Sox put in a claim for Johnny Damon? The Sox lack star power. The Sox lack appeal. The problem now is not solely that there are better teams (plural) in the American League East, but that there are more exciting ones, too. The Red Sox are closer to fourth place than they are to second or first, and there appear to be no quick fixes on a relatively thin free agent market that could include Adrian Beltre, Victor Martinez and David Ortiz.

In the grand scheme of things – Epstein said last winter that 90 percent of Sox energy is focused on long-term planning – that is fine. Anyone who lived during all or part of that time from 1918-2004 won’t have a problem waiting four or five years. But for the first time during the Henry ownership, there has been a significant drop in interest coinciding with a long-term plan that seems to call for patience, which could create for an interesting offseason on Yawkey Way.

In 2005, after all, the Red Sox and their fans were on a euphoric high in the wake of October 2004. In retrospect, the 2005 season was just one big hangover. Any frustrations that subsequently built during 2006 were immediately dissolved in 2007, when the Sox effectively went wire-to-wire and won the World Series. In 2008, the Sox went to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Last year, they were eliminated in the first round.

Now, of course, the Sox seem destined to miss the playoffs entirely, which is certainly allowable.

But if they have an another uninspiring offseason, and they miss the playoffs again, what happens then?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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