Note: After more than four years at the Boston Globe and Boston.com, this is Tony Massarotti's final blog entry on Boston.com.The beauty of Boston is that the stories are always evolving, the teams always developing, the objectives always changing. The Bruins appear to be at the beginning of an extended run of success, the Patriots perhaps much closer to the end of one. The Celtics are clinging to hope. The Red Sox trying to rebuild it.
Where these teams end up remains as uncertain as ever, if only because there are no sure things in sports.
But then, ultimately, that is why we all watch.
Here, then, is a long-term prognosis for Boston's four major franchises, each of which has won a championship in the last eight years, each of which stands as a cornerstone in what is, subjectively, the very best professional sports town in America.
Tyler Seguin just turned 21. Dougie Hamilton is 19. Tuukka Rask is 26. Those three players are the axis around which the Bruins could swirl for the next 10-15 years, the kind of franchise nucleus that every team would like to possess.
And we haven't even begun to mention Brad Marchand (24), Patrice Bergeron (27), David Krejci (26) or Milan Lucic (24). The Bruins are young. They're generally signed. And they are seemingly in position to contend for Stanley Cups through the current decade, which is no small feat given where they were as recently as a few years ago.
Quite simply, it will be a disappointment if this team doesn't win another championship sometime in the new few years (or so).
The challenges? To stay healthy and focused. To avoid complacency. This is as true for management as it for the players, particularly as the annual trading deadline nears. The Bruins do not have a Sidney Crosby or a Steven Stamkos, and trades will be necessary to bolster the talent. Good trades result from good drafts, the recent lot of which have helped bring the Bruins to where they are.
On the cusp of another golden era of hockey in Boston.
Let's hope they relish the chance.
For those chanting that all-too-familiar refrain - Blow it up - be careful what you wish for. From the fall of 1993 through the spring of 2007 – the 14-year period between Larry Bird and Kevin Garnett – the Celtics ranked 23d among the 30 NBA teams in winning percentage. They missed the playoffs nine times. The Celtics went an aggregate 472-644, a .423 winning percentage that translated into an average annual record of 35-47.
Why are we reminding of you that? Because it took 14 years to sufficiently arm them with the pieces necessary to acquire Garnett.
Admittedly, this team is probably in better shape, though it would be interesting to see the same group return next year minus Garnett and Paul Pierce. Get the picture? If Danny Ainge were to have traded either Garnett or Pierce at the deadline for a collection of lesser players, the Celtics would be the Milwaukee Bucks. And just who, exactly, would they target as their next Garnett?
Yes, it could be some time before this team wins another championship. In the interim, we'll just have to ask the Celtics to max out. As disappointing as the recent five-game road trip may have been to some, the Celtics are 3-4 on the road since Rajon Rondo was lost to a season-ending injury. Prior to that, they went 7-14 away from the Garden. They're still no worse off than they basically were a month ago because they weren't going to win a championship anyway.
In the interim, enjoy the competitive basketball for as long as it lasts.
In the Eastern Conference, short of Miami, does anyone really want to face them in the playoffs?
As we all know, NFL contracts aren't worth the paper they are printed on. Tom Brady is now signed for the next five years, and there is every chance he will play that long, be it under the terms of this current deal or a renegotiated one. And so long as Brady is upright, the Patriots will continue to chase Super Bowls.
Beyond that, the Patriots now have a number of young pieces in place for the long term. Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Nate Solder, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Ryan Wendell, Chandler Jones, Alfonzo Dennard, Dont'a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes are all basically 26 or younger. There are a host of other players who are between 26 and 30 (including Jerod Mayo). What Bill Belichick has effectively done in recent years is rebuild much of the New England roster save for a few places.
Of course, quarterback is one of them.
As the Baltimore Ravens recently proved, you don't need the best quarterback in the league to win a championship. You just need a good one. In the long term, that might make it a little easier to find Brady's successor, particularly given the age of the Patriots roster and the great flexibility with which New England is entering this offseason.
Obviously, the next 2-3 years are huge. While the roster is growing, Brady is still playing at a high level. Thus, the needs on this team are obvious to everyone. Belichick's ability to address them will determine the success of this club in the short term, and we all know the standard to which the Patriots hold themselves.
Super Bowl or bust.
Over the last 10 years, owner John Henry and his partners have almost entirely rebuilt Fenway Park. Now, oddly enough, the entire Boston baseball operation is undergoing the renovation.
And so, as they transition to the next era in their history, the please-pardon-our-appearance Red Sox enter 2013 with avalanche of questions and issues. For the first time in a long time, we really have no idea how this is all going to look. Ultimately, the idea is transition from a star-studded Hollywood cast to a pack of new up-and-comers, a process that will take months, if not years.
From (Humphrey) Bogart to (Xander) Bogaerts. Given the disdain with which we all held the Sox of September 2011-October 2012, let's remember that this is what we all wanted: to build something again. More than anything, what we need from the Red Sox this year are some real signs of progress in the second half of the season, by which the members of Red Sox Youth should be having a greater impact. Next offseason may prove the most important of the Henry Era - however long it lasts - because, by then, the Sox should have won many of you back.
And once the Red Sox get closer, will they stick to their plan of rebuilding from within? Or will they succumb to their indisputable urges and start focusing on the ratings again?
Growth, as we all know, is not necessarily linear. Over the next months and years, there will be an ebb and flow to this process. We will all need to be patient. But for now, at least, it certainly feels as if the Red Sox are building something again.
And this time, they truly seem to be building it as much for you as they are for themselves.
* * *
A few words on the end of this blog: Eventually, we all say goodbye. This seems a lot less final.
For those of who you care, I am fairly certain I will write again. I'm just not sure when or where. The Globe and Boston.com were gracious enough to keep me on as contributor when I pursued other endeavors late in 2009, and they were willing to keep me now. I cannot possibly thank them enough for that because I've recently wondered (quite frequently) whether I was really pulling my weight.
But as we all know, things change. Parenthood requires more and more energy as children grow older, and every endeavor demands greater focus and commitment over time. There just haven't been enough hours in the day for me of late. So that means cutting back, redistributing, reorganizing.
To all of you who have happily or critically read this blog, thank you for showing up. The Globe has indicated a willingness to keep blog archives accessible, so for nostalgia's sake, I've picked out a few of my personal favorites and identified them in the "Top 5" list on the side of this page.
Writing and talking about sports in Boston remains a passion of mine and always will. Thanks again to all of you for giving me the opportunity to do that, for keeping me in line, for offering validation. There is simply no better place in America to do what we do.
See you later.
For the players, always, there have been ramifications. Some, like Manny Ramirez, have been suspended. Others, like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, have been denied entrance into the Hall of Fame. And others, like Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, have sacrificed the benefit of the doubt because we simply know too much.
But what about the teams?
What real penalties have befallen them?
Curt Schilling is front page news this morning, not for something he did, but rather for something he said. According to Schilling and as noted by Peter Abraham in Friday's edition of the Globe, a former member of the Red Sox "medical staff" approached Schilling in 2008 about the prospect of using human growth hormone to save a dying career. Schilling's motives for disclosing the information certainly are worthy of discussion, but his admission sheds light anew on the conspiracy that was baseball's Wild West - namely, the Steroids Era.
The point: team and league officials and administrators were as much a part of this as Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Rafael Palmeiro or Mark McGwire. They just don't pay nearly the same price. The legacies of many players now will be tarnished forever, their accomplishments effectively regarded as circus acts. Sammy Sosa was a caricature and a strongman, but he wasn't much of a fundamental baseball player.
Or maybe he was just a clown.
But the teams? They skated. And this isn't solely about the Red Sox, our obvious focus here given where we live and what we love. Prior to the Schilling disclosure, former Red Sox infielder Lou Merloni once noted how a doctor addressed the team during spring training on how to properly take performance enhancers. Then-Sox general manager Dan Duquette subsequently denied the claims, the last such instance of doctor-player discussion on the topic until this one.
And then there was the matter of Eric Gagne, described by former Sox general manager Theo Epstein as a probable steroids user in an email cited in the Mitchell Report. So what did Epstein and the Red Sox do? They traded for Gagne anyway.
None of that makes the Red Sox different than any other organization in baseball during the last 20-25 years, which is precisely the problem. Throughout the game, baseball administrators, including commissioner Bud Selig, were as big a part of the issue as anyone else (media included). Years after the steroids scandal was exposed, Selig was still saying he wouldn't have done anything differently, a stance he has since softened thanks to better judgment.
We all would have done things differently, of course. Some of us would have asked more questions, pressed for more answers, been more skeptical. We wouldn't have been so helpless. If anyone connected with baseball's steroids era doesn't harbor at least some measure of regret, he or she is bordering on soullessness.
Schilling, for his part, has insisted that he has never taken performance enhancers during his career, and we would be fools to take his word for it. After all, Lance Armstrong told us the same. So did Palmeiro. Schilling's credibility is not affected by his own transgressions so much as it is by the failure of an entire era, largely because he was a member of a players' union that chose to protect the guilty more than the innocent.
Players were the last line of defense in the steroids era. Right up until the actual moment of injection, they had veto power. But the moment the needles broke the skin, they similarly punctured player integrity and credibility.
And so, rightly or wrongly, we look at Bagwell with a suspicion. Ditto for Piazza. Players are still collectively paying for their sins, and they will continue to for years and years to come.
But what of the executives and medical personnel throughout baseball? How many of them have suffered anywhere near the same fate for connection to the steroids era? For those of us in Boston, Epstein an Selig are only the easiest and most obvious names on a list that should include every owner, executive, general manager and league official in the game, among others. Brian Cashman, Billy Beane. Duquette. Mike Scioscia. Jim Leyland. Dave Dombrowski. Kenny Williams. Joe Torre. Nolan Ryan. Brian Sabean. They all probably knew something or at least suspected it, and they were all party to a multibillion-dollar fraud that heightened the popularity of the game, suckered consumers and drove revenue.
Ultimately, none of those people is guiltier than any other. But none is any more innocent, either.
And so now, more than five years after Schilling's last pitched in the major leagues, he has disclosed that a member of the Red Sox medical staff approached him about the possibility of using a performance enhancer. Are we really surprised by this?
Or are we surprised that the suggestion was just so overt?
Rodriguez was arguably the greatest free agent in the history of sports when he hit the market during the winter of 2000-01, a man who could have chosen to play anywhere. He chose Texas. He took the $252 million contract with the stadium office and otherworldly perks. He chose a team that got worse during his time there, then came to the astonishing realization that losing was hurting his profile.
And so, when Rodriguez decided that he wanted out of Texas, whom did he find as a potential savior? The Red Sox. A team that wanted someone far more marketable than the ditzy Manny Ramirez or the uncooperative Nomar Garciaparra. A-Rod had polish. A-Rod would sell. A-Rod was an indisputable brand, the kind of star who could serve as the main character on a nightly TV show.
From the start, after all, the New England Sports Network always has been the golden goose of the Red Sox operation, an ATM even now for the Red Sox (whose owner, Fenway Sports Group, owns 80 percent of the network) as Bruins ratings skyrocket. Former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette has admitted that Ramirez was, in part, a signing designed to drive NESN ratings because the network was about to enter countless more households. More viewers meant higher ad rates, more revenue.
And it still does.
Today, once again, Rodriguez is in the midst of a steroids scandal, though that hardly makes him unique. Ramirez has failed a pair of drug tests under the Major League Baseball drug testing program. Ortiz was named on a list of players flagged under provisional testing in 2003. Performance enhancers have extended their tentacles deep into the game for a long time now, and he is really no guiltier than many others.
But as this all pertains to the Red Sox, the latest Rodriguez scandal is yet another reminder that Rodriguez could very easily have been here, in Boston, in place of Ramirez (the eventual 2004 World Series Most Valuable Player) through 2007. Certainly Francona’s book has shed more light on Ramirez’ antics, many of which caused Sox players, in particular, to roll their eyes.
And yet, repeatedly, Sox players said they wanted Ramirez on their side because they wanted his bat. Would the same have been true of A-Rod? Rodriguez’ political nature has made him a divisive force on more than one team now, a poster boy for the modern athlete. Big image. No substance. Now that the Red Sox have become the same thing, one cannot help but wonder.
Did Red Sox owners venture onto this path midway through their time in Boston?
Or were they on it from the very beginning?
Years later, it seems, the Red Sox are still relying on him to do the same.
And so, on the same day Terry Francona breezed into the Westin Copley to be honored by the Boston Baseball Writers on Thursday night, Pedro Martinez unexpectedly turned up, too. Stunner of all stunners, Pedro showed up earlier than the manager. Red Sox owners and executives are taking hits on all sides thanks to the release of Francona's new book about his years with the Red Sox, and yet the focus on Thursday unexpectedly turned to Pedro, who emerged as the sports lead in Friday's editions of both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald.
Well played, Larry.
Very, very well played.
Say this for the people who run the Red Sox: They are not dumb and they never have been. They place some things (business) ahead of others (baseball), but no one ever questioned their intelligence. Bringing in Martinez to overshadow Francona is a stroke of public relations genius, and we all know the Sox place an emphasis on public relations, on all-important Red Sox brand. For a day, at least, Pedro distracted everyone from the story at hand, namely Francona's distaste for the Red Sox hierarchy that smeared his departure from the organization.
"I think your owners suck," Francona joked with new Sox manager John Farrell during Thursday's media availability, a play-to-the-crowd remark that drew loud laughs.
It was funny, of course, because it was true.
By that point, Pedro already had spoken to the media and stolen the back page, so to speak, an even more amusing development considering that Martinez did not even attend Thursday night's dinner. Red Sox officials were relatively vague when asked what Martinez' role with the organization will be, but the truth is that Martinez was there to run interference and take the focus off the owner-bashing.
As it turned out, principal owner John Henry did not attend the dinner, at which Francona was the headliner. Neither did Tom Werner. Lucchinio, to his credit, attended the event and said he has not read Francona's book (co-authored by Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy), taking a relatively high road rarely traveled by the Red Sox in the last 18 months or so.
Again, well played, Larry. Extending this feud only hurts the Red Sox. If the Red Sox wanted to continue slinging mud with Francona, they undoubtedly could. But Francona received a standing ovation from the attendees at Thursday's dinner and he will receive another when he returns as the manager of the Cleveland Indians this year, and Red Sox owners will only dig themselves deeper (if that is even possible) by continuing to joust with the most popular manager in Red Sox history.
You lost, fellas. Don't make it worse.
In that way, the presence of Martinez was a very good sign, an admission by Red Sox owners that they only way to fight Francona's popularity was with perhaps the most popular Red Sox player since ... who? During his time in Boston, Martinez had Hall-of-Fame skill and the personality to match. He was as dynamic off the field as on it. Martinez was, at once, generous, selfish, petulant, brilliant, foolish, loyal, stubborn, simple, complex. We are obsessed with him and always will be, and the people who run the Red Sox know it.
Which is why they brought him back.
And it is why they brought him back now.
By next week sometime, Francona's initial book tour will be complete. Soon thereafter, he and the Red Sox will be off to spring training. With the trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford to the Los Angeles Dodgers last August, the Red Sox pulled the plug on a golden era that turned very bad, very quickly. They subsequently changed managers and started rebuilding their roster, protecting both their best minor league players and their draft picks. The release of Francona's book brought us all back to the tumultuous end of the 2011 season, of an organizational fracture defined by the dismissal of their manager.
So what did the Red Sox do? They brought in Pedro, a man forever connected to the earliest years of this ownership group, when the Red Sox ended an 86-year run without a championship.
In baseball, that is the definition of stopper.
Temper your expectations, Red Sox followers.
The holidays might be a little tough this year.
Baseball's annual winter meetings begin in earnest on Monday in Nashville, and so long as we're all on the same page, there really should be no surprises. Team president Larry Lucchino has made it clear in recent days that the Red Sox essentially have no intention of giving out contracts longer than five years, though the Sox should extend that concept further. Anything over three years should be viewed as a major turnoff, particularly for a team that should be focused on 2014 and beyond.
In Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett, after all, the Sox just got out of some bad marriages. What they need to do now is baseball's equivalent of speed dating, which should mean nothing more than a three-year commitment -- at the very most -- on a free-agent market rife with B- and C-level talent.
Translation: Mike Napoli, Nick Swisher, and Adam LaRoche are not the kind of make-or-break talents than can alter the direction of a franchise. If the Sox lose out on one or all of those players, so be it. As much as the Sox might want to sell tickets in 2013, they should take the short-term hit for the long-term gain, which means operating this winter with a level of self-restraint.
If we're having this same discussion a year from now, however, then something went wrong.
A word about the winter meetings, particularly at a place like Opryland, a sprawling facility so expansive that it feels like its own self-contained world. (Think "Truman Show" and you begin to get the idea. There are nearly 3,000 rooms and more than 600,000 square feet of meeting space, and there are, quite literally, waterways than run through the facility. Guests can be virtually impossible find, which is just the way many major league officials prefer it.
Rest assured that these meetings, like all others, will develop at a certain pace. In the past, rumors of trades and free-agent signings begin to boil on Tuesday and Wednesday, teams feeling one another out with what is essentially a game of liar's poker.
What you hear and what is actually happening are two entirely different things, and there is almost always a lag between the time any news actually takes place and the time it reaches the public.
Confused? You should be. There is a lot of nonsense that goes on at these things. You'll just have to take our word on that.
So be patient.
By now, we all know what the Red Sox' needs are, though it is far easier to identify those positions where the Sox have stability. At the moment, the Sox are set at second base (Dustin Pedroia), third base (Will Middlebrooks), designated hitter (David Ortiz) and catcher (Dvavid Ross and either Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavarnway). They just signed Jonny Gomes. Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and John Lackey are regarded as the first three starters in the rotation, with Felix Doubront presumably in the mix for the fourth spot.
Beyond that, would it surprise you if anyone else from the big league roster was traded? Jacoby Ellsbury is available. So is just about anybody in the bullpen in the right deal. That may sound like a lot to trade, but what the Red Sox have to move is quantity, not necessarily, quality, unless they intend to include some of their highly regarded prospects, from Xander Bogaerts to Bryce Brentz to Matt Barnes to Jackie Bradley.
Based on recent developments -- namely, a 69-93 record -- and all the signs coming from Yawkey Way, there is relatively little chance of that happening. And that's the way it should be.
If that sounds like an attempt to write off the 2013 season, that is only partly true. Any success the Red Sox have next year will be predicated on getting Lester, Buchholz, and maybe even Lackey to pitch like the front-end starters they have been in the past. (If that doesn't happen, the Sox are hopeless, anyway.) As unlikeable as the Red Sox have been for quite some time now, they had more talent than a true 69-win team. With just better leadership, a better attitude, and moderately better starting pitching, the Sox should be somewhere around .500, give or take.
What happened in 2012 was an indictment on Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox culture more than it was the raw talent.
So if the Sox don't get Swisher or Napoli or LaRoche ... so what? By the middle of next season, the idea is that Barnes, Brentz, Bradley, and Bogaerts will be knocking on the door, anyway. So what we're really talking about here is the first half of next season, which is why the Red Sox need to approach these winter meetings with some level of trepidation.
Yes, the Red Sox have some money to spend, but the Red Sox already have told us how they intend to spend it. Gomes, for one, earned $1 million last season and has never played on anything more than a one-year contract. So what did the Red Sox do? They gave him $10 million over two years. Overpaying a guy like Jonny Gomes simply isn't going to sabotage this team the way that overpaying someone like Crawl Crawford did.
And so, as these winter meetings progress, be sure to approach everything with some level of scrutiny. Don't ask yourself what you want. Ask yourself what the Red Sox want. Boston officials will never come out and say so, but what they are likely trying to do this winter is bridge the gap back to respectability, something entirely within reason.
If they do that, come next year's winter meetings, we'll be having entirely different discussions.
Halfway through the football season, I believe the NFL is as unpredictable as it has been in any year of recent memory, that line between winning and losing is microscopically thin, which is to say that the Patriots are every bit as good as a number of teams in both the AFC and the NFC.
Of course, that also suggests the Patriots are no better.
As a result, I believe Aqib Talib was worth the price of a fourth-round draft pick, whether he succeeds here or not, because the Patriots have the youngest team of Bill Belichick's tenure and because they do not need another fourth-round draft pick.
What they need is someone who can cover.
I believe that David Ortiz should thank his lucky stars that the Red Sox agreed to give him a two-year contract for a guaranteed $26 million, no matter how small the relative risk for Boston, because I believe there was no team out there willing to give up a high draft pick to sign a soon-to-be 37-year-old designated hitter who just missed 72 games with an Achilles injury.
But I also believe that the Red Sox needed left-handed power in their lineup and that the free-agent market is thin, and that Ortiz isn't the kind of potentially damaging signee that Carl Crawford was.
I believe Barack Obama will win the Presidential election on Tuesday.
I believe that Scott Brown will win the local Senatorial election.
And I believe that neither one of those predictions should be regarded as any reflection on my beliefs or voting intentions.
I believe the NBA would be a better league if the Los Angeles Lakers fell completely on their faces because there are two players in the league no more unlikeable than Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, no matter how many championships Bryant has won.
Though it is still worth noting that Howard has never won any.
I believe that NHL owners and players are on the brink of permanently damaging their league if they are not careful, that they should get back on the ice as quickly as possible.
Because I believe the Bruins are hurt as much as any team by this lockout, because the Bruins have a nucleus in place that should be able to contend for Stanley Cup Championships for years to come.
Unfortunately, I also believe that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr are obstructionists to a deal more than conduits.
I believe the Red Sox should sign Cody Ross to nothing more than a two-year contract with some sort of option for a third season, vesting or otherwise, and that Ross' salary should fall somewhere in the range of $7-9 million per year.
Because, while I like Ross, I believe he's quite replaceable.
I believe the Red Sox' catching problems are far more significant that we are giving them credit for.
And that the Red Sox should look into trading Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavaranway and picking one or the other.
I believe the Celtics will need time to develop chemistry, but that people are overrating the club and its potential, and that the Celtics are not nearly as good as many think they are.
Because Kevin Garnett is another year older.
And because so is Paul Pierce.
I believe that Devin McCourty is a far better safety than he is a cornerback, that the Patriots would be far more prudent to keep McCourty at safety along with Patrick Chung, and to start Talib at the left cornerback position with Alfonzo Dennard on the right side.
I believe that Chandler Jones is certified, bona fide, and undeniable freak, which is to say that I believe Jones has the chance to go down as one of the most prolific defensive players in Patriots history if he stays healthy, keeps his head screwed on straight and is committed to getting better.
I believe the Atlanta Falcons are still a bit of a mirage.
And that the Houston Texans are the real deal.
And that the Denver Broncos are rapidly become one of the more intriguing teams in the league.
I believe that Tyler Seguin is having one whale of a team in Switzerland, because there is no better place than Europe for a 20-year-old bachelor with world class skills and a pile of money.
And that there is also no more dangerous one.
I believe that "Argo" is worth seeing.
And that most science fiction movies are not.
And that any film featuring Kevin James or Adam Sandler (or both) is generally a waste of time.
I believe that Mike Aviles is in Cleveland now because Terry Francona wanted him there, because Francona always had an affection for players like Aviles and Willie Bloomquist or Eric Hinske and Mark Kotsay, who could play in the infield and outfield and make his life easier.
The way most any manager would.
I believe the Celtics will get significantly better the day Avery Bradley returns to the team because I believe the energy Bradley brings on defense is something the Celtics currently lack terribly.
I believe that Ray Allen acted like a baby.
And that John Farrell will not.
And I believe, with little hesitation or doubt, that the golden age of Boston sports is far from complete, that we have entered a stage in our sports history where our teams will be expected to contend for championships year in and year out, because success fuels success.
And because winning is terribly, terribly hard to give up.
Sprinkling the infield while stashing away the term "simultaneous possession" for future use ...
First, the disclaimer: we all love the 2004 Red Sox. We love what they stood for, represented, accomplished. The 2004 Red Sox will always be locked in the most secure of vaults, right there with the 2001 Patriots.
But celebrating the eight-year anniversary is a little silly and cheapens the value of that season.
Mercifully, the 100-year anniversary season of Fenway Park will come to a close on Wednesday night, the Red Sox playing their final home game in what has been a train wreck of a year. It certainly feels like the Sox have set baseball in Boston back a full century. Recognizing the 2004 Red Sox is a nice idea on the surface, but Tuesday night's ceremonies at Fenway Park further amplify what has a been a core problem for the Red Sox under this ownership and administration.
The Sox don't know when to stop. They don't know when to say when. Pedro Martinez has been back to Fenway Park so many times this season that the visits suddenly don't seem so special, and celebrating anything at Fenway these days seems forced and foolish.
On the baseball side too, remember, the gluttony is what did the Red Sox in.
Slightly more than six months from now, the Red Sox will return to Fenway Park for their first home game of 2013 . Presumably, the Sox will do so with a new manager, a reshaped roster, a new outlook. By then, with the 100-year anniversary of Fenway behind us, maybe the Sox can once focus on winning their next championship instead of celebrating a past one.
As we all have come to see and learn, the NFL officiating is a joke. For anyone to compare practices in the NFL to those in the business world is sheer stupidity for one very simple reason: the NFL is thriving. There is no real need to nickel and dime on-field personnel. Refereeing in the NFL is clearly a special skill, and the league's inability to recognize that is insulting to players, coaches and, most of all, fans.
We've said this before and we'll say it again: many of the owners in professional sports - from football to hockey - routinely exploit their fans. They treat you like addicts. They know you will not walk away because you cannot and do not want to, and that is hardly your fault.
That is the definition of ruthlessness.
Why are some fans so concerned about the role of Rob Grownkowski? When Wes Welker was relatively invisible in the early part of the season, there was reason to wonder. The New England passing game wasn't exactly flourishing. But whether Gronkowski caught passes or not, the Patriots' offense was generally quite effective against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night, quarterback Tom Brady looking sharp and confident.
All of that suggests that complaints about Gronkowski are coming solely from the fantasy geeks who drafted him in the early rounds.
Until Tyler Seguin announced that he was headed tom Switzerland, the idea of NHL players traveling overseas during the current lockout seemed entirely conceptual. But the idea of Seguin suffering some sort of significant injury playing for anyone other than Bruins should put a pit in your stomach for obvious reasons.
Seguin was the No. 2 pick in the draft. He is a dynamic talent. He is the future of a Bruins franchise that needed years to get back to this point, and now he is going to be out there putting his health at risk for someone else.
How can anyone feel good about that?
Another disclaimer: we all like David Ortiz, appreciate what he has given the Red Sox, understand what he means here. But can we stop with this notion that Ortiz is somehow being disrespected? In a recent interview with the Boston Herald, Ortiz said that the prospect of signing a long-term deal with the Red Sox was more about "respect" than it was about money, and we all know that those words are synonyms in the world of professional sports.
Here is what Ortiz continues to miss: the Red Sox have shown him respect. Ortiz is the only member of the 2004 Red Sox who is still here. Based on 2012 salary, he was the highest-paid player at his position in the game. Ortiz was a free agent last offseason and no one offered him a better deal than the Red Sox - at least as far as we know.
With Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez now out of the picture, the Red Sox must give serious consideration to bringing back Ortiz next season for no other reason than the fact that they need power bats (particularly from the left side) in the middle of their lineup. But the Red Sox absolutely, positively do not owe him a multiyear contract, particularly when Ortiz has missed the last two months with an Achilles injury.
If Red Sox truly did not respect Ortiz, he would have been gone a long time ago.
Shocker of shocker, former Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Eric Gagne estimated that "80 percent" of the team in LA was using performance-enhancing drugs at the height of the steroids era. In his book, Gagne says he had "intimate" understanding of what his teammates were doing to gain a competitive advantage.
And if the Dodgers were at 80 percent, well, isn't it reasonable to assume that every other team was somewhere close?
Including the Red Sox?
So the Patriots are 1-2. Big deal. The loss against the Arizona Cardinals was far more shocking than the loss to the Ravens, who were in the AFC title game last year. Baltimore was at home. On national television. The Patriots were an underdog heading into Sunday night, however small the point spread. Against the Cardinals, New England was a two-touchdown favorite at home.
Is there cause for concern with the Patriots? Not yet.
But if they lose at Buffalo on Sunday, let's renew the discussion.
The truth? The public relations were a disaster. The baseball wasn't nearly as bad as everyone made it out to be.
What goes around comes around, as the saying goes, and so here we are now, 10 years after Duquette was fired from a Red Sox organization recently bought by John Henry and Co., and the worm has indeed turned. Duquette and the Orioles are on the come. The Red Sox are the calamity. And Boston's baseball operation is in far worse condition than Duquette ever left it, despite the public relations campaign that had much of New England believing Duquette was a baseball Bozo with glasses.
Was Duquette a great general manager? No. But he wasn't a clown, either, which is how much of the media portrayed him (to the delight of the new Red Sox owners) in the aftermath of the team's worst public relations failure until, well, this one.
Go back and look at the roster the Red Sox had in the spring of 2002, folks. Pedro Martinez. Manny Ramirez. Nomar Garciaparra. Johnny Damon. Trot Nixon. Jason Varitek. Derek Lowe. Tim Wakefield. Duquette brought `em all here. With the exception of Garciaparra, all were critical contributors to at least one Red Sox championship, which is more than we can argue for, say, Adrian Gonzalez. Or Carl Crawford. Or John Lackey. Or Edgar Renteria.
Here's the other great myth from the Duquette Era, one that the new Sox owners (at the time) eagerly perpetuated: The Red Sox' player development operation was barren. Over subsequent years, that same operation yielded Kevin Youkilis, Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, and a host of others, many of whom were used in the trades that allowed the Red Sox to acquire, among others, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and Curt Schilling.
Know how Red Sox owners privately explained that odd paradox? By saying they made the deal despite Duquette having allegedly left them empty-handed. (Translation: The rest of baseball is comprised of suckers. Come to think of it, in the wake of the recent trade that sent Gonzalez, Beckett, and Crawford to the Los Angeles Dodgers, finding suckers may be among the current administration's most indisputable skills.)
Again, do not misunderstand. Nobody is suggesting that the Red Sox of the Duquette Era had a player development machine remotely akin to the that or the New York Yankees, Dodgers, or even the Orioles in the heydays of those respective franchises. We're just saying it wasn't as bad as everyone made it out to be. Short of Garciaparra and Youkilis, the latter of whom was developed under the new ownership, there are not many (if any) All-Star-caliber players drafted and developed during the Duquette Era, but the Sox also didn't trade away any prospects (a la Jeff Bagwell under Lou Gorman) who budded elsewhere.
Teams that Duquette essentially built from 1995-2002 averaged slightly more than 88 wins per season and made three playoff appearances and one American League Championship Series. The Sox did not win a world title or even reach a World Series. But to call that a colossal failure is terribly wrong.
So what was the biggest problem of the Duquette Era? He wasn't media friendly. He was standoffish and stubborn. The large majority of Boston media members resented Duquette for the simple fact that he was uncooperative and unfriendly, which sounds an awful lot like a certain football coach (minus the championships, of course) who happens to now work in a rather notable strip mall on the northbound side of Route 1.
That flaw - and it's a biggie in this multimedia age -- kept Dan Duquette out of baseball for essentially 10 years.
Further, when Duquette was hired by the Baltimore Orioles as their general manager last offseason, many viewed that as in indictment on the Orioles more than anything else. And maybe it was. Baltimore entered this season with 14 straight losing seasons and four consecutive last-place finishes in the American League East, not to mention a megalomaniacal owner (Peter Angelos) regarded as an obstructionist.
At the same time, the Red Sox seemingly couldn't find anyone to manage their team in the wake of Terry Francona's dismissal, ultimately settling on another man (Bobby Valentine) who, like Duquette, had been out of the game for 10 years. The Red Sox undoubtedly would argue that this had far more to do with a much shallower pool of candidates, though the Chicago White Sox certainly didn't have a problem finding a manager when they named the inexperienced Robin Ventura. (Thinking outside of the box was once regarded as this administration's strength.)
Whether Duquette and the Orioles actually win anything this year is certainly open to debate, particularly with a starting rotation that leaves a great deal to be desired. Still, the Orioles are in the thick of the hunt entering the final two weeks of the season, and they are within a whisker of the Yankees for first place in the division.
And the Orioles have done it with a season-opening roster that doesn't even compare with the one Duquette left the Red Sox with in 2002.
That is at least one thing we should all be able to agree on.
During a Red Sox season with so little to root for, Boston baseball followers now have their cause. But this is not about rivalries, nor spoiling, nor the promise of next season. This is about the potential for a season in which baseball's richest teams could fall flatly on their overfed faces.
All that really separates the Red Sox at this point is that they are already cooked.
As for the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies, there is still baseball to be played, though the outcome is clearly in doubt. Given the historic sale of the Dodgers and the binge that has delivered Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford -- among others -- to Los Angeles, the Dodgers in particular stand for all that has been wrong with baseball over the years, the richest of the rich tossing around their money like a reckless band of drunken socialites.
And yet now, with three weeks to go, the Dodgers could miss the playoffs. Ditto for the Yankees, Angels and Phillies, who join the Dodgers and Red Sox among, essentially, the five biggest payrolls in baseball. Toss in the Detroit Tigers and Miami Marlins, and what you have in this 2012 season is a healthy argument against excessive spending and downright gluttony, a hardball version of "Trading Places."
Somewhere, executives for the Fox and TBS television networks (who will air much of baseball's postseason) are sweating like Kevin Garnett.
But isn't that really a wonderful thing?
Admittedly, we here in Boston are tainted by the fat-and-happy Red Sox of 2011-12, who have set a new standard for overpaid underachievement. But at least they have now given us a purpose. In the wake of Boston's historic fire sale, that sent Gonzalez, Beckett and Crawford to Los Angeles, Red Sox followers can root for their team today while simultaneously standing against everything the Sox represented.
If the baseball season ended today, after all, the 10 major league playoff teams would include Baltimore, the Chicago White Sox, Oakland, Texas, Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco, St. Louis and Atlanta. Only the Yankees would qualify from the group of baseball's true aristocrats, and there is still the chance that New York is overtaken by the pesky Tampa Bay Rays.
For certain, teams like Texas, San Francisco, St. Louis and even Chicago hardly qualify as small-market teams. But they are not the richest of the rich, either, which suddenly makes them look like paupers.
Since the last work stoppage in 1994-95, baseball has had 16 postseason with a wild-card playoff format. (This will be the first season with two wild-cards in each league.) In the American League during that span, either the Red Sox or the Yankees (or both) have been in the playoffs every season. The Angels have been to the playoffs six times in the last 10 seasons. The Dodgers have been to the playoffs four times in the last eight years and the Phillies have qualified for the postseason five years in a row.
Add them all up and you get 40 playoff appearances by those five franchises in the last 17 years.
And yet, baseball still has the nerve to suggest that there is parity.
Despite whatever anxiety is currently being experienced at Fox and TBS, commissioner Bud Selig should be joining you in celebrating the current major league standings. Over the winter, the Los Angeles spent richly on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson -- and the Angels might miss the playoffs. (If Los Angeles gets there, it will be largely because of Mike Trout, a product of the Angels farm system.) The Detroit Tigers broke the bank for first baseman Prince Field over the winter -- and the Tigers, too, might miss the playoffs. And the Marlins spent freely on Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell and even manager Ozzie Guillen as they moved into a new stadium, all before the flailing team started selling off parts like some type of corporate raider.
Meanwhile, with a lineup that included Victorino, Ramirez and Gonzalez, the Dodgers last night dropped a 1-0 decision to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Money can buy you love in a place like LA, but it can't buy you runs.
While the Orioles were upending the Rays in Baltimore, here in Boston the bare-bones Red Sox defeated the Yankees by a 4-3 score to push New York down into a first-place tie in the American League East. The victory qualifies as one of the more meaningful wins of the year. Nobody in Boston should want the Red Sox to turn into the Kansas City Royals over the longer term, though that would be far, far better than what the Red Sox became over the 2011-12 seasons.
Rich, spoiled, entitled and privileged, with the same money-cures-all approach that recently (or historically) has existed in places like New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit and Miami.
Wouldn't there be a nice message there if they all just lost?
What difference does it make? Well now there is the kind of attitude we want our leaders to have. Once regarded as one of best teams in baseball, the Red Sox this Tuesday are tied with the San Diego Padres for the ninth selection in next June's amateur draft. At this rate, the Sox will end up in the top five. Boston's current seven-game losing streak is the 46th of at least seven games by any team in baseball this year, and no club has been outscored by more runs (42) during that span than the Red Sox.
Short of moving up in the draft order, there is no benefit to the Red Sox playing the way they are now, with no purpose, leadership, or pride. For a man who is supposed to be so good with young players, Valentine is now teaching them how to quit. He is acting like the lamest of lame ducks. Valentine is certainly acting like a man who knows he will be fired at the end of the year, seemingly intent on bringing down the ship he was asked to command.
“I think we knew when we made the trade, we weren’t helping our team win games the rest of this year,’’ general manager Ben Cherington told reporters over the long weekend. “But that said, it’s still been hard to watch. There’s things that we need to accomplish the rest of the year. There’s things we need to do to learn more about players and get players healthy and get guys in the best position so that we can be well-informed going into the offseason. It is harder to do that when you’re staring at a loss at the end of every day.
“It’s hard for everyone to get the work done that needs to get done. But the only choice we have is to do it — to show up the next day and make sure the work gets done. I believe that will happen.’’
There's an old saying in sports, as in life: You find out more about people during the tough times than you do the good ones. You find out who cares, who acts professionally, who has the right value system. At the moment, Cherington certainly seems like he has the right stuff. For a 30-something general manager in a rookie season that has included marriage and the birth of his first child, Cherington doesn't sound or look the least bit overwhelmed. He isn't minimizing baseball the way Josh Beckett did last season. He isn't tossing up his arms the way his manager is now.
But Bobby V? If he truly did want to come back to the Red Sox, he has recently had a very funny way of showing it. The manager is supposed to protect the interest of the team, but Valentine's ongoing spat with Alfredo Aceves certainly seems personal. Valentine simply cannot get past his personal feelings and do what he was hired to do, to lead the Red Sox through good times and bad.
Maybe Valentine's fate was sealed a long time ago. Maybe it was not. But after seeing what we all have seen in recent weeks, do any of us even need to ask whether this is the man we want leading the Red Sox into the 2013 season and, perhaps, beyond?
We've said this before and we'll say it again: The train wreck that has been the 2012 Red Sox season is not Bobby Valentine's fault and it never was. He inherited a clubhouse of overpaid, underachieving malcontents. Valentine can sit here today and claim he never had a chance, but the simple fact of the matter is that Valentine does done little or nothing to help himself along the way.
Even if we give Valentine latitude for the perceived tweak of Kevin Youkilis — the player clearly overreacted — Valentine dredged up the matter again when Youkilis returned to Boston as a member of the Chicago White Sox. He mocked the organization for its handling of Carl Crawford's injury. He tweaked pitching coach Bob McClure for going on "vacation." All in all, Valentine acted like a spoiled little boy who was told he could not have another lollipop, a petulant brat who has now decided to take his ball and go home.
In any manager's job, on the baseball field or in the business office, the ability to work with people is essential. In a Red Sox organization with more meddling than the local PTA, that is no easy task. But Valentine has seemingly sparred with everyone in the Boston organization at some point this year, from the highest levels to the lowest, and sparing no one in between.
Did the red Sox need some shaking up? Sure. Could they use some more? Absolutely. But Valentine has too often acted like he is the only man with a clue, which, of course, is how he has acted for much of his professional career.
In recent Red Sox history, finding stretches where the club has played this poorly at this time of year is challenging. September 2011 certainly sticks out. So does September 2001. In both cases, the Red Sox concluded their season by firing a manager who had lost control of his team, last fall producing the dismissal of Terry Francona, the fall of 2001 ultimately leading to the departure of Joe Kerrigan.
If Bobby Valentine has resigned himself to this fate, too, maybe it is time for the Red Sox to just grant him his wish.
And so what Dustin Pedroia has learned this year is what many of us learned a long, long time ago, specifically that Boston can be an excruciatingly difficult place to play professional baseball when things do not go right. Almost no one escapes unscathed. Some of Pedroia's behavior and commentary this season brings into question his leadership skills and suggests he still has some growing up to do -- don't we all? -- but only the most rash and foolish Red Sox follower would deem him to be part of the real problem.
You have watched Pedroia for six years now, after all, so trust your eyes and your instincts. You have seen him bunt runners from second to third without being asked to bunt. You have seen him bat leadoff and cleanup, second, and third. You have seen him run, dive, pick himself up and do it again, and you have seen a player committed to baseball, to the Red Sox, to his job and, most of all, to winning.
"I want to be a Red Sox my whole career," Pedroia recently told Rob Bradford of WEEI.com in a lengthy interview. "I want to be here during the World Series times, during the September collapse, the biggest trade, and I want to be here when we're world champs again. I want that. I've been through times when not a writer said a bad thing about me, or the talk show hadn't said a bad thing about me, and I want to be here when they say a bad thing about me. I look in the mirror every day and at the end of the season I'm going to look back and say I did everything I could to help us win. Were there parts I regret? Yeah, without question. There were a lot more than in the past, but I learned from those things. It's going to make me better, I believe that. Yeah, I have to believe that. It's going to."
Let's remember something about the relatively new generation of Red Sox player, from Pedroia to Jacoby Ellsbury to Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Until this year, they had never really faced any professional adversity. Not as a team. During Pedroia's rookie season in 2007, the Red Sox trailed the Cleveland Indians in games, 3-1, during the American League Championship Series. And yet there was a feeling in the Boston clubhouse that the Red Sox season was far from over, that they could come back and defeat the Indians because they had overcome a 3-0 series deficit against the New York Yankees only three years earlier.
And so you know what happened? The Red Sox won seven in a row and claimed their second World Series titles in four seasons, Pedroia and Ellsbury and Buchholz inheriting the traits of the revolutionaries before them. The Red Sox strived glory where they once feared shame, their entire organization having undergone a massive change in culture and mentality.
"That's a great thing to have associated with your organization," then-general manager Theo Epstein said at the time. "It establishes a real culture of winning and overcoming obstacles throughout the organization. You can't teach that."
Even a year later, don't you remember what happened? The Red Sox were on the verge of being bounced from the ALCS by the Tampa Bay Rays in five games. They faced a whopping 7-0 deficit entering the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 5. The Sox then rallied for an astounding 8-7 victory and won Game 6, too, their comeback ultimately falling short in Game 7 at Tropicana Field.
Even in defeat, in many ways, we celebrated the Red Sox character, resiliency, fight.
Pedroia was a member of those teams as surely as he has been a member of the last two, so here's the point: Pedroia always has been someone who plays to the crowd more than leads them. On the field, he has always set tone and provided spark. In the clubhouse, he has always been more of a chop-buster and a prankster, which is hardly a criticism. The best teams have a little bit of everything, on the field and off, and Pedroia always has given the Red Sox so much is so many ways.
What we learned this year is that Pedroia cannot give the Red Sox everything, at least not yet. Maybe not ever. When Bobby Valentine tweaked Kevin Youkilis early in the season -- and that is all it was -- a true clubhouse leader might have pulled Youkilis aside and said something to the effect of, "Hey, I don't like it, either, but he's the manager now. If we're going to be a team, we need to step in line behind him." Instead, Pedroia helped fortify a wall that already existed between Valentine and his players, something for which he has admitted fault.
Whether you buy Pedroia's explanations on some of the other happenings at Fenway this season -- from his absence at Johnny Pesky's funeral to his infamous photograph with a sleeping Valentine -- that is up to you. But anyone who knows Pedroia even a little knows that though he carries a sizable chip on his shoulder -- that is what makes him the player he is -- he intentions are good. He is hardly malicious. One of Pedroia's greatest talents is that he knows how to fit in, which proved to be a curse in a Red Sox clubhouse filled with overpaid, underachieving malcontents.
And so, when this Red Sox club started heading in the wrong direction -- at least in the clubhouse -- Pedroia followed. He did what he has always done and played to the crowd. Pedroia may be a lot of things to some, but overpaid and underachieving is a hard tag to put on a player who has spent his major league life as the opposite.
Does that mean Pedroia's behavior should be forgotten? Hardly. The negatives, like the positives, stay there forever with all of us. For now, many of us are willing to chalk it all up to a very bad year. Pedroia may someday prove to be the leader of the Red Sox, but he is not there now. Whether he ends up there is entirely up to him, but it is not essential for him to be the team leader in order for him to be a key member of the Red Sox for years to come.
Dustin Pedroia, after all, has won here.
And at the moment, he is one of the relatively few players in the Boston clubhouse who still knows how to.
To keep Bobby V or to fire him?
Should there really even be a question?
But before this becomes an assault on Valentine or his style, his personality, or his nature, let us be fair to the man. Bobby V never had a chance here. He really did not. The Red Sox were a train wreck waiting to happen in this ill-fated summer of 2012, and a hybrid of Casey Stengel and Connie Mack might have been unable to save them. Valentine began this job with a clubhouse full of malcontents, with a general manager that did not want him, with an ownership that demanded he do it their way. He was to Terry Francona what Pete Carroll was to Bill Parcells, a transitional person for a franchise rebounding from an ugly breakup.
That is why the Red Sox gave Valentine a two-year contract last offseason; it wasn't exactly a two-karat diamond. In the world of major league managing, a two-year contract is a one-year lease, something Valentine and the Red Sox knew when they signed the deal in the first place.
The sad part for Valentine is that he now goes down in history here the way Joe Kerrigan did, as manager of an underachieving, dysfunctional lot that wanted nothing to do with him. In 2001, when Kerrigan rose from his seat on the team bus in Baltimore and instructed Ramirez to turn down his boom box, the petulant player looked at his boss and said, in no uncertain terms, "Go [expletive] yourself." In 2012, Kelly Shoppach and Adrian Gonzalez reportedly resorted to a text message and all but scampered up the back stairs, continuing subversive behavior that has defined the Red Sox for the better part of the last year.
No matter how you slice it, insubordination is insubordination. And while comparing Valentine to Kerrigan is also unfair -- at one stage, the wretched 2001 Sox went 6-23 and lost 13 of 14 with a playoff spot on the line -- there is simply no escaping the fact that the Red Sox need a transfusion from the manager's office on down.
You got used here, Bobby. The Red Sox owe you an apology for that. But they can't bring you back, either, at least not if they want to distance themselves from one of the most distasteful seasons in club history.
That's almost entirely their fault, not yours.
The identity of Valentine's successor is now of the utmost importance to the Red Sox, a chance for John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino to find their Bill Belichick the way Robert Kraft did. The best owners admit and learn from their mistakes. The trading of Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett was a wonderful sign in this way, JohnTomAndLarry stepping up and taking blame at a time when Theo Epstein and Terry Francona (who took bullets frequently during their time together in Boston) were not obliged to do so.
Admitting mistakes is the first step on the road to recovery, of course, and the Gonzalez-Crawford-Beckett deal was a whopper of an admission.
(As a complete aside and purely for further validation, according to Someone Who Knows: Last season, Beckett "literally wanted [the team] to fail so he didn't have to pitch in October. By far the biggest culprit in the [expletive] show last September with his attitude and recruitment of others.")
Since last fall, the Sox' lust for John Farrell has been the worst-kept secret in baseball, and there are few who would frown on Farrell as the next man in charge. (If, as ESPN,'s Buster Olney suggested, a Daniel Bard-for-Farrell trade is a possibility, that price is too high.) But what the Red Sox need more than Farrell specifically is someone like him, which is to say a strong personality with good communication skills and an indisputable presence.
Here's what the Red Sox do not need: someone whose strength is dealing with young players. This is not Kansas City. The Red Sox need someone who can both tolerate young players and command the respect of veteran ones, the latter of which has been a problem for Valentine. (Maybe Valentine could help the Sox as an evaluator in some other role?) If and when the Red Sox delve into free agency or the trade market -- and they will, presumably -- they must have a manager with the skills and willingness to handle the entire spectrum of their roster, something Francona possessed in bulk.
Beyond that, the Red Sox need someone who can deal with non-uniformed personnel as well as the uniformed, and we're not talking about Cherington, who is a reasonable, even-tempered cooperative sort. We're talking about JohnTomAndLarry. Part of the reason Farrell's name keeps coming up is because he is a known commodity and because he knows what he's getting into, and there seems little trepidation on the part of either side to make it happen.
Farrell, after all, hasn't exactly shot down speculation that he wants the Boston job. Epstein had the opportunity to do the same last summer when talk of the Chicago Cubs opening arose. Farrell thus far has handled it the same way Epstein did, which is to politely say that he is committed to his current job while leaving open the option to leave.
But again, whether Farrell is the actual choice is irrelevant. Someone like Joe Maddon also would be an appealing choice, though Maddon is certainly more quirky than Farrell. Regardless, what the Red Sox need is a manager who will provide them stability, whom the fans and players accept as a longer-term solution, who marks the beginning of a new era more than a connection to the calamitous stretch that began late last summer.
Who is that man? That can be debated.
But it's not Bobby V.
Amid all of the protestations, the Red Sox clearly saw the same things you did. They saw a collection of overpaid, underachieving and entirely unlikeable malcontents, and they should thank their lucky stars this morning that they found a place more obsessed with star power than they are.
P.T. Barnum was right, it turns out: there's a sucker born every minute, and a number of them now own and operate the Los Angeles Dodgers. Los Angeles is seemingly in a state of drug-induced euphoria with a mountain of money at its disposal, and the Dodgers are now running around baseball like a binging bipolar Charlie Sheen who just survived a near-death experience. The party always ends, of course. And when it ends in La-La, as it did here, the superficial, silicone-injected state of southern California is going to wake up with one massive headache and a body riddled with needle marks.
Give thanks today for the Dodgers, Red Sox followers. Only an act of divinity or stupidity could have saved the Red Sox. You might even call it magic.
Here in Boston, this is how you should look at the weekend trade that redefined the term "blockbuster" and brought the Red Sox four minor leaguers and relative financial freedom for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto, the last of whom now becomes the answer to a trivia question: Gonzo for four minor leaguers and $130 million in cash. Crawford has given the Red Sox nothing in two years. Beckett gave them nothing this year. Analysts usually describe that sort of thing as "addition by subtraction."
As for Gonzalez, whom one Sox official described as a "know-it-all" last season, let alone this one, replacing his bat will one of the real challenges for general manager Ben Cherington. Hitters like Gonzalez simply do not grow on trees. The Fenway PR Machine has been going out of its way in recent days to make sure we know how much of a pain in the pin cushion Gonzalez was in Boston, but we all know how it works in baseball clubhouses. The Red Sox won two World Series with Manny Ramirez. The New York Yankees won titles with Wade Boggs and even Alex Rodriguez. You can win with vain, selfish players in baseball; you just can't win if they are your leaders.And so, could the Red Sox ultimately have won here with Gonzalez batting third? Some of us would like to think so. But the price of freedom is always high, and the Red Sox were in no position to be particular about escape routes.
So Gonzalez goes and the Red Sox still have not won a playoff game since they let Mark Teixeira walk out of that room in Texas. Prospects for Gonzo. Gonzo for prospects. Around and around it goes. Where it stops, nobody knows.
Where the Red Sox go from here is now of the utmost importance because we all know the job has only begun. Cherington still has some dusting to do in the clubhouse - John Lackey, anyone? - and the Red Sox still must resolve the uncertainty regarding Jacoby Ellsbury's future. And then there is the matter of manager Bobby Valentine, suddenly empowered with his own pitching coach and, seemingly, some managerial authority, evidenced by the weekend handling of Alfredo Aceves, who apparently was infected by the clubhouse disease before the weekend scrubdown.
In the span of roughly 24 hours at Fenway Park this weekend, it was as if Red Sox officials decided to reclaim control of their franchise in every way imaginable. They jettisoned three richly-paid players. They suspended an insubordinate reliever. And they sent a message to anyone listening that they are going back to basics.
You want to play baseball in Boston? Fine. No attitudes. No griping. No big-timing. Most of all, no excuses, because we've all grown very tired of them.
One of the more interesting questions in this now concerns the role of Cherington, whose first year on the job has been nothing short of, well, tumultuous. Cherington repeatedly spoke over the weekend of the Sox' need for "discipline," which was a certifiable indictment on the way the Red Sox have done business in recent years. Publicly, that is certainly the first time Cherington has questioned either his predecessor, Theo Epstein, or his bosses - or both - and we can definitively state now that the Cherington Era has begun.
All things considered, after all, Cherington had relatively little, if anything, to do with making this mess. But he could have an enormous hand in cleaning it up, and the next two or three years will likely define his career in Boston.
At the moment, pending a decision on whether to bring back David Ortiz, the Red Sox have a roster that is the proverbial lump of clay. The only current players on the roster earning an average of $10 million or more are Lackey ($16.5 million) and Ortiz ($14.5 million), and both could be gone by Opening Day of next year. If the Red Sox keep their payroll at its current level - and they could conceivably cut it some - they will have somewhere near $100 million to spend this winter alone, which gives Cherington countless possibilities.
Cherington could be active on the free agent market. Armed with the additional minor leagues from the Dodgers - in addition to his own - he could be aggressive in trades. There is simply nothing that restricts Cherington from doing anything entering the offseason, which is the single, greatest benefit of the weekend.
For this current Red Sox ownership and administration, too, the next two or three years are potentially defining. John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino inherited a team far better than this one when they took over the team in 2002, and they won a World Series in 2004. They then won another far more of their own doing in 2007. Since then, the Red Sox have been in a steady, relatively rapid rate of decay, and they are now faced with a challenge they have not encountered during their 10 years in Boston.
They have to rebuild the Red Sox at the major league level from the ground up, and they must repair their own very sizable mistakes.
Let's use Johnny Pesky's funeral as an example.
On Friday of last week, the Red Sox sent out the specifics for Pesky's funeral arrangements, emailing multiple members of the media (including yours truly) with scheduled events over the weekend and on Monday. Since that time, Clay Buchholz has told us that the Red Sox did not learn about the details until returning home from New York early Monday morning, all as David Ortiz claimed (according to a WEEI.com report) that he encouraged teammates to attend on the flight home from New York.
So which was it? Did the Sox find out late last week, like the rest of us? On the flight home? Or when they got back to Fenway Park?
As has been the case for much of the past year, confusion continues to reign at 4 Yawkey Way, where the Red Sox have become a clown car.
If John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino are truly upset about this, as the Boston Herald has reported, they certainly have every right to be. Red Sox officials love to talk out of both sides of their mouths -- off the record, someone complained to the Inside Track, but on the record, Lucchino defended his players -- but this was an insult to them as much as anyone else. JohnTomAndLarry clearly would have liked a stronger showing from their clubhouse for the Pesky funeral services, and they got four of 25 active players to show up. (Ortiz, Buchholz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Vicente Padilla, of all people, were the ones who made it.) We're willing to bet than more than four showed up last season when Henry invited Sox players onto his yacht (and gave them headphones) after Sox players griped about the schedule, and we know with certainty that more than four were present for Josh Beckett's charity event on Monday night.
But then, doesn't that all provide a perfect portrayal for this individualistic, selfish group? Sox players will make the effort when they get something out of it, be it a good time (and free drinks?) or noise reduction. But as soon as any one of them has to make a small sacrifice for someone else, forget it.
JohnTomAndLarry should be offended by this. They should be downright apoplectic. We can only hope the Sox are now truly committed to cleaning things up this offseason, as Lucchino suggested late Thursday, though they should have done it last fall.
Your players are now spitting in your face, JohnTomAndLarry. And they're continuing to cash your checks.
At the moment, the player with the highest salary on the Boston roster is first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who counts for $22 million against the Red Sox' luxury tax payroll despite fewer home runs (15) than Trevor Plouffe. Gonzalez reportedly was placed on trade waivers earlier this week and the Red Sox would be foolish to let him go on a straight salary dump -- that is, if someone claims him -- but one can only wonder if that is what Gonzalez would prefer.
"In Boston, there is always a novel. In here they never talk about baseball -- it's always the same," Gonzalez told ESPNdeportesLosAngeles.com. "That's one of the reasons why I almost never talk to the press here. Very few times they ask me about baseball. But most of the time it's about gossip, rumors, plots, well ... a soap opera."
This is the same Gonzalez, of course, who complained about Sunday night games last year, apparently unaware that Sunday night games come with the territory when you play on a big market team with World Series aspirations. But then, Gonzalez has never been on a team that has won anything during his major league career, so maybe he is content with just being the next Rafael Palmeiro.
Palmeiro, after all, was also regarded as something of an AG. Attorney General. Clubhouse lawyer.
Does anybody on this team do the right thing anymore? Even Dustin Pedroia seems to have been dragged down by this lot. When Pedroia took sides with Kevin Youkilis earlier in the season and undermined Bobby Valentine, some people tried (and still are) to paint that as leadership. In fact, what Pedroia was doing was following the pack instead of challenging his teammates to accept their new manager, and his decision further undercut any chance the Red Sox had of being a team.
The team, after all, is not just about the 25 men on the active roster. It's about the manager and coaches, the executives, the owners, and grounds crew. The Red Sox have been so fragmented on so many levels that they effectively have been in a state of civil war for a year. First it was the pitchers vs. the hitters. Then it was the players vs. the owners. Then it was the players vs. the manager. Then it was the manager vs. the coaches.
And, yes, there are apparently digital images as proof, something which the Red Sox still have yet to deny.
Here's a scary thought: In the coming weeks and months, there is every chance that this will actually get worse. Valentine bristled on Thursday when asked a routine question about his pitching rotation, reacting like a man who knows he has no control. If and when the Red Sox truly make major changes, there is likely to be all kinds of fallout, as there was when the Sox cut ties with Terry Francona last fall.
This time, maybe the Sox can get their stories straight.
But at this stage, that seems very doubtful.
Five years ago this fall, the Red Sox won their second World Series in four seasons. Four years ago, they reached Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Now the Red Sox are a laughingstock, a virtual clown car of calamity, which speaks to just how far the mighty have fallen.
Red Sox owners, executives and players can blame whoever they want for all of this - from the fan base to the media -- but here's the truth, folks: the Sox did this to themselves. They got so big so fast that they started to believe the praise people were heaping upon them. Once that happens, in any walk of life, failure almost inevitably follows because that is just how any game works.
Let's further illustrate this point.
In 2002, when John Henry and his partners took ownership of the Red Sox, they spoke of Boston's dilapidated farm system, of a player development operation that was in need of major repair. Beginning that season and over the next few years, the Sox completed a succession of trades that brought them Cliff Floyd, Alan Embree, Scott Williamson, Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, to name just a few, and all of those deals were effectively made with minor leaguers acquired under the previous regime.
When asked how the Sox were able to make so many trades with a farm system that was allegedly barren, one (very) high-ranking member of the organization offered the following response.
We made those trades in spite of the farm system.
Shouldn't we all be so blessed as to go through life with that kind of no-lose proposition? First the Sox told us they were hamstrung. Then they told us that worked magic just the same. So why should we believe them now when they tell us they are hamstrung?
Ten years later, quite simply, the people who run the Red Sox simply cannot hide anymore, and this is not any attempt to expose them as frauds or phonies or nitwits. Nobody ever has said that current Sox officials are; at times, we just suggested they weren't as smart as they think they are. Red Sox officials now have a major league roster assembled with their players, a farm system comprised of their draft picks and prospects. And the Sox are now going on four years without a playoff victory, a rather extraordinary achievement considering the $650-$700 million the Sox have spent on player payroll during that period of time.
So whose fault is it now? They built this organization and they (mis)managed it. None of us on the outside care whether the revenue streams have remained consistent. For fans and media, baseball teams are judged on wins and losses, and the Red Sox are now stumbling toward the neighborhood of the 1992 New York Mets, a similarly expensive, talent-laden and dysfunctional crew that become forever known as The Worst Team Money Could Buy.
Do then owners and administrators of the Red Sox even see? They helped bring this franchise to its first world title in 86 years in 2004, then repeated the trick in 2007. And they have since brought the Red Sox right back into the late `80s and early `90s, dysfunctional years when the Sox spent lavishly on free agents like Matt Young and Jack Clark before dissolving into a sea of dysfunction.
Subsequent Sox clubs had Butch Hobson. This one has Bobby Valentine. Both will go down in Red Sox history as managerial disasters.
Here's what Sox officials need to do: stop telling us that things on the inside are not nearly as chaotic as they appear to be from the outside. We know far, far too much now. Kelly Shoppach left here and spoke of a "disconnect" that existed throughout the (dis)organization. Coaches and the manager have openly acknowledged that they were, at times, not speaking with one another. Players were openly eating and drinking in the clubhouse during a historic September collapse, and Red Sox officials continued to sweep matters under the rug by blaming on the manager (Terry Francona) and the former strength and conditioning coach (Dave Page).
Of course, when you identify scapegoats and the problems do not go away, the changes are proven to have been cosmetic. Attention then turns to the issues of neglect and detachment, both of which Red Sox officials are guilty.
Uh, guys? PLEASE STOP TELLING US THAT WE'RE EXAGGERATING. It only further destroys your credibility. Your team has real problems and real issues, and it needs real solutions.
If you are looking for some good news in all of this, maybe this is where it rests: the Red Sox might actually be starting to see the light. Sox officials always have been keen on marketing, and one recent study conducted revealed that an astonishingly low 4 percent of people polled feel the Red Sox are better off now than they were four years ago. (Who exactly are those four percent - embedded Yankees fans?) Approval ratings for Sox officials have plummeted well beneath the floor, and we all know that Sox officials are very concerned about their image.
Two days ago, albeit far too late into the season, the Sox fired pitching coach Bob McClure. What this means for the future of the team or Valentine is unclear, but it is at least a start. The dismissal of McClure means the Sox have at least acknowledged that a problem existed, something they have been unwilling to do for the better part of the last year despite protestations from fans a media.
Ten years ago, when Henry and Company came to town, the Sox conducted a series of informational, meet-and-greet interviews with members of the media. Shortly thereafter, Henry expressed concern about the perception that Sox owners were carpetbaggers, that they were merely corporate sharks here to turn a profit. Henry asked some members of the media how the Sox might be able to overcome that perception, and he was given a relatively simple answer.
You stay, John.
And you invest emotionally as much as financially, bridging the chasms that now exist between your team and its following instead of widening them.
To add or to subtract? At the trading deadline, especially, things are not always what they seem.
And so as the Red Sox rapidly approach today's 4 p.m. deadline for non-waiver deals, let's all remember that perhaps the Red Sox' most impactful trade of the last 15 years came in 1997, when the Sox were, of all things, sellers. The Red Sox sent reliever Heathcliff Slocumb to the Seattle Mariners for catcher Jason Varitek and right-handed pitcher Derek Lowe, the latter of whom then general-manager Dan Duquette later admitted to having known very little about.
"Derek Lowe was from Michigan," Duquette acknowledged years later. "Randy Smith was the [Detroit] Tigers GM then and he was trying to acquire a local player. We knew that if Lowe didn't work out, we could always trade him to [Detroit]."
Lowe worked out. For that matter, so did Varitek. When the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years by defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004, Lowe and Varitek were Boston's starting battery in the decisive Game 4.
In between, Lowe won 75 games and saved 85 others in 384 games covering 1,037 innings for the Red Sox. Varitek merely went on to catch more games than anyone else in team history. The "sellers" indisputably won that deal, which is something the Red Sox should consider today -- and beyond -- as they consider what to do with a Red Sox team that has spent the entire season in no-man's land.
Of course, as the Red Sox are likely to remind us, the 2004 championship also might not have happened without the deal that sent Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs which resulted in acquiring shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, a far bolder maneuver designed to affect the here and now. And so that is where rookie general manager Ben Cheringtion sits today -- somewhere between 1997 and 2004 -- in a conundrum the Red Sox really have not faced under this ownership.
Or pay later?
Last week, during a radio interview with WEEI, Cherington made an interesting observation: The Red Sox really have not been in this position in quite some time. Under the ownership of the John Henry group, the Red Sox have never really experienced a trading deadline where the right choice was so unclear. On the one hand, the Sox are just four games out in the race for the final wildcard spot. On the other, they are barely .500. Ultimately, Boston's current series with Detroit may mean far more than the recently completed weekend series in New York, if only because the next two nights may serve as the tiebreaker should Boston and Detroit end up even in the race for the final American League playoff spot.
The Red Sox are truly living one day at a time -- and have been for some time -- which makes Cherington's task especially difficult, at least under an ownership group that may be too proud to bite the bullet.
Here's the good news: Cherington might actually be able to do both, and not just because the Sox have some players (like Josh Beckett) whose departure might qualify as addition-by-subtraction. Today marks only the "non-waiver" trading deadline, which shouldn't affect someone like Beckett, anyway. Signed through 2014, Beckett still has slightly more than $37 million due on his contract. As a result, Beckett almost certainly would clear waivers next month, meaning anyone could still trade for him prior to the Aug. 31 deadline for postseason eligibility.
And if someone does claim Beckett off waivers, the Red Sox could simply let him go and unload the entirety of his remaining contract of the team claiming him.
For the Red Sox, that latter scenario is quite desirable, and not solely because Beckett has deteriorated into a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Thanks largely to the unmovable contracts of John Lackey ($16.5 million annually) and Carl Crawford ($20.3 million), the Sox seemingly have little money to spend over the winter. Boston's biggest potential free agents are Daisuke Matsuzaka (a luxury tax hit of about $8.7 million) and David Ortiz ($14.5 million), the latter of whom the Sox have bent over backwards to retain in recent years.
If the Red Sox kept Ortiz then, after all, they are likely to keep him now -- so long as he remains productive.
For Cherington, that all means that any major changes he makes over the winter are likely to come via trade, which brings us back to the here and now. Cherington's most valuable chip over the winter might be Jacoby Ellsbury, who is eligible for free agency at the end of next season. Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, Ellsbury's value will drop the moment next season begins because any team acquiring him after Opening Day will not receive draft compensation if and when he leaves.
As such, Cherington might be smart to trade Ellsbury now, though the Sox have given no indication they will do so. Cherington and those above him seem committed to the idea that the Sox could make the playoffs this season, the team's success in the earlier part of this ownership prompts a far more relevant question.
Can the Red Sox win a championship with this team? While the instinct is to say no -- and that is the feeling here -- recent history suggests that lesser teams (or at least comparable ones) have made such impressive runs. The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 and 2011 despite relatively lackluster regular seasons, and the 2007 Colorado Rockies reached the World Series despite a 76-72 record on Sept. 15.
Can these Red Sox be like those Rockies, who went 14-1 to finish the regular season and 7-0 in the playoffs (making is 21-1) before running into the Red Sox? Or can they be like the 2011 Cardinals, who went 16-5 in their final 21 games last year to qualify for the postseason while the Atlanta Braves collapsed?
As for the 2006 Cardinals, everyone loves to point out how they qualified for the playoffs with 83 wins. But the 2006 Cardinals were 58-42 on July 26 and were on pace for 87 wins as late as Sept. 17, at which point they went into a relatively meaningless spin. Did they almost blow it? Sure. But one could also argue that they were better than their record indicated.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, have had ample time to prove themselves, particularly at the front end of the rotation.
And by 4 o'clock today, Cherington must decide -- at least in part -- whether the first 103 games of this season were the exception or the rule.
Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are killing the Red Sox. Case closed. Just like last September.
General manager Ben Cherington believes "the makings" of a good pitching staff are still right here in Boston as the Red Sox rapidly approach next Tuesday's trading deadline, but the results at Fenway Park over the weekend continue to suggest otherwise. Winners of two straight series against potential playoff teams to start the second half, the Red Sox were set up perfectly for a weekend set against a Toronto Blue Jays club playing without slugger Jose Bautista. Beckett on Friday. Lester on Sunday.
The result? Loss, loss, loss, the last an unsightly 15-7 defeat on Sunday in which Lester allowed five runs in the first inning on a day when the Red Sox were trying to avoid a sweep. Just like the four-game series (three losses) against the New York Yankees to end the first half, Beckett and Lester turned in bookend stink bombs that dealt yet another blow to any Boston momentum.
"It's embarrassing," Lester told reporters following Sunday's 15-7 loss to the Blue Jays in which he allowed nine hits, 11 runs (all earned) four home runs and five walks while his ERA ballooned to 5.46.With all due respect to Lester, embarrassing does not even begin to describe it. Pathetic is more like it. Between them, Lester and Beckett count for $23 million against the Red Sox luxury-tax payroll. Add in the $16.5 million price tag for John Lackey - who lockers next to Beckett and whose lot line features an insulting bottle opener that still hangs after the debacle of last September - and the number jumps to $39.5 million for the alleged three-headed monster the Red Sox built atop their rotation prior to the 2010 season.
Total combined wins this year for - dare we say it? - the Pig Three: 10 (in 36 starts). Overall, the Red Sox are 13-23 in the 36 games started by Lester (7-13) and Beckett (6-10) this year. Their combined ERA is 5.03. (Lackey remains injured.) Minus games started by Lester and Beckett, the Red Sox this season are 35-25, a .583 winning percentage that would translate into a 94-win pace.
And of late, the timing of the losses, too, has been costly.
One quick aside here: has Bobby Valentine been watching the same games everyone else has lately? Lester hasn't made it out of the fifth inning in any of his last three starts, lasting 4.1, 4 and 4 innings. On Sunday against the Jays, after Lester allowed five runs in the top of the first, the Sox struck back with a three-run homer in the bottom of the inning to mitigate the damage.
So what did Lester do? He took the mound for the second inning and promptly walked the leadoff man, missing badly on ball four. The Red Sox bullpen briefly started to stir, but then Lester recorded one out on a bunt by Yunel Escobar and another on a flyout by Colby Rasmus. With Valentine apparently satisfied that Lester had stabilized, the bullpen quieted before Lester walked Edwin Encarnacion and then served up a backbreaking three-run homer to J.P. Arencibia.
Even then, Lester stayed in the game for two more innings. Lester had nothing and everyone knew it. Bobby V. might have intervened in the second to keep the Red Sox within arm's length, but he did nothing.
But we digress.
The obvious question now is how the Red Sox fix this and whether Cherington would be so bold as to shake up the front end of a rotation that is almost exclusively to blame for the team's failings. During a radio interview on Friday on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Cherington said he did not anticipate making any notable subtractions from the Boston roster. The first-year general manager went so far as to say that he believed his team could "beat anybody" with the roster the Sox currently possess.
Nonetheless, with regard to Messrs. Beckett and Lester (and Lackey), one can only wonder whether some sort of shakeup is necessary, particularly as it pertains to Lester. Count yours truly among those who believe that Lester can be salvaged. He is 28. He is left-handed. Coming up through the minor leagues, Lester had the reputation of a hard-working, competitive, unassuming young man with good values. The Red Sox all but entrusted him to Beckett's care early in Lester's career, and Lester was one of the winningest pitchers in baseball through the first five years of his career.
What has happened to Lester since is an utter mystery. In his last 24 starts, Lester is 5-11 with a 5.85 ERA. He has allowed 163 hits and 19 home runs in his last 140 innings. Prior to that, in 151 career outings (150 starts), Lester was 76-31 (a .710 winning percentage) with a .343 ERA. During that same period of time from 2006 top early September 2011, there was not another pitcher in baseball who made at least 150 starts and had a higher winning percentage than Lester.
Think about that. Not Roy Halladay, not C.C. Sabathia, not Justin Verlander. None of them won a higher percentage of decisions than Lester. And now Lester can't make it out of the fifth inning at a time when pitchers have reclaimed their dominance and he is in the prime of his career.
Maybe Lester is injured. (Was it just me or did he have a slight hitch walking on and off the mound yesterday?) Or maybe the influence of high-priced, entitled veterans like Beckett and Lackey is now having a negative effect.
Whatever the case, Red Sox fans have rightfully grown impatient. As Lester labored through the early part of the game yesterday, the boos at Fenway Park were noticeable. Fans routinely attack him on Twitter.
Lester has done a better job than Beckett or Lackey at accepting responsibility for last September, but he has also had the biggest hand in the team's failures.
This week, the Red Sox have perhaps their toughest test of the season, a six-game road trip through Texas and New York. Beckett will face the Rangers on Wednesday. Lester will face the Yankees over the weekend. The Red Sox have now slipped 3-1/2 games back in the wildcard race - behind the Angels, Orioles, A's, White Sox, Rays and Blue Jays - and they suddenly look like lambs being led to slaughter.
If you're Ben Cherington, you may want to delay making any decisions for at least another week.
By this time next week, after all, Cherington might want to pull the trigger for altogether different reasons.
1. Will the Red Sox make any substantive acquisitions before July 31?
This assumes, of course, that the Sox will be buyers and not sellers, something that is still very much in question, despite the team's recent stretch of good play. So far this year, the Sox have stretches where they have gone, in order, 4-10, 7-1, 1-8, 16-6, 1-7 and 10-3. And before anyone suggests that the schedules of most teams would reflect that kind of erratic behavior, bite your tongue. That is simply not true.
At the moment, the Red Sox are just 1-1/2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Angels (tied) for the two American League wildcard spots, which is a little deceiving. Overall, the Sox are on just an 85-win pace. They won 90 games a year ago. The only difference is that there is an extra playoff spot, which has lowered the bar for postseason eligibility.
Nonetheless, the Red Sox may very well be in contention precisely one month from now. They saved a few bucks on the Marco Scutaro trade a few more on the Kevin Youkilis deal, but they now seem to be guarding their prospects more than ever before. With the changes in free-agent compensation, it simply does not make sense anymore to give up prospects for a veteran player who can walk at the end of the year.
In case you haven't noticed, the Red Sox have been much more conservative at the last two trading deadlines than they were at the previous two. In 2008 and 2009, they acquired Jason Bay (in the Manny Ramirez deal) and Victor Martinez, respectively. Since then, they have focused on people like Erik Bedard (2011), Mike Aviles (2011), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (2010), acquisitions that were either low-cost angled far more toward the future.
This year, assuming the Sox are not selling, bet again on something relatively conservative. The Sox have been far too frugal since the end of last season to suggest otherwise.
2. Will the starting rotation ever really find its groove?
If and when the Sox do make a deal at the deadline, a durable starting pitcher would seem to be the priority. The Red Sox needed innings last fall and tried to acquire them by placing Daniel Bard in the starting rotation, an experiment that exploded into a spectacular ball of fire and has since been scrapped.
Going into last offseason, durability was chief among the concerns in the Boston rotation -- and still is. Of all the projected starters, Jon Lester was the only one with any real track record of recent durability, something that is again holding true. Since Bard went to Pawtucket, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz have landed on the disabled list.
As for Felix Doubront, who has been a nice story overall, his last four starts have produced a 6.65 ERA and an opposing OPS of .961. Doubront already has pitched more innings this year (85.1) than in any season since 2009, and he has never pitched more than 129.1 innings in any professional season.
By the simplest definition, the best starting pitchers are generally consistent and durable. The Red Sox currently do not have even a single one of those - and they haven't all year. Given the likelihood of a conservative approach at the deadline, is that likely to change?
3. Is the performance of the bullpen more of a reflection on Theo Epstein and Terry Francona or on Cherington and Bobby Valentine?
Let's put it in these terms: would you rather have Bard and Jonathan Papelbon at the back end, or Vicente Padilla and Alfredo Aceves? The efforts of Valentine, in particular, have been nothing short of sensational in this area given the relative shortage of personnel with which to work, particularly after the Sox lost Andrew Bailey (injury) and Mark Melancon (ineffectiveness) before the season was a couple of weeks old.
Valentine has not been afraid to think outside the box here, most notably with Scott Atchison, whom Francona used primarily when the Red Sox were behind. In 2010 and 2011, the Sox were eight games under .500 when Atchison appeared in a game, 42 games over when he did not.
This year, the Sox have won in each of Atchison's last six appearances, including Tuesday's win over Toronto, and he has become a major contributor when entrusted with greater responsibility. That is largely a reflection on Valentine, who has consistently put his relievers in a position to succeed.
Will it continue? That is hard to know, especially given the reported issues some Sox relievers (and coaches) have had with the number of times Sox relievers have warmed up. Entering Wednesday, Red Sox relievers had walked the second-fewest batters of any bullpen in the league despite the fifth-most innings. If that changes, at least we'll know why.
4. Will Carl Crawford help the Red Sox or hurt them?
Look at this way: Last year, the Red Sox ranked a surprising fifth in OPS (.723) from the left field position, a number that Crawford >694 overall, .701 in LF) brought down. This year, the Sox currently rank fourth thanks largely to the combined production of Cody Ross and Daniel Nava, the latter of whom currently has a .913 OPS overall, a .923 OPS as a left fielder and an .843 OPS (with a .412 on-base percentage) as the leadoff hitter.
Given the investment the Red Sox have made in Crawford -- seven years, $142 million -- he obviously deserves the chance to play when he returns from the disabled list. Still, Valentine kept Will Middlebrooks in the mix when Kevin Youkilis returned from the disabled list and he would be wise to do the same with Nava, who is an even better story now than he was in 2010.
Is Valentine bold enough to put Crawford on the bench if the multimillionaire is outplayed by the undrafted 29-year-old? Valentine's history suggests yes, which would create quite a story over at Fenway Park. But then, one of the problems with the Red Sox over the last year or so is that too many individuals have placed themselves ahead of the team.
It's about production, boys. Not paychecks.
5. What should the Red Sox do with Jacoby Ellsbury?
Ellsbury is linked to Crawford in many ways, and not solely because both could return to the club at roughly the same time. Last season, Ellsbury turned into perhaps the very best leadoff hitter in baseball, meaning he will likely supplant Nava atop the lineup. The Red Sox subsequently could be left with a group including Nava, Crawford, Ross, and Ryan Kalish for the remaining two outfield spots, which could have Valentine doing a lot of mixing and matching. (We also should mention Ryan Sweeney.)
With Ellsbury, the greater questions concern the long term, particularly as he approaches free agency in the fall of 2013. Agent Scott Boras is likely to eye a deal for Ellsbury worth in excess of at least $20 million per season -- the amount the Sox gave Crawford. There is little to suggest the Sox will extend themselves to that extent, and the new compensation rules mean the Sox will get just one draft pick (and not two) if they lose Ellsbury to free agency.
Think about that. In the past, the Sox could let players like Papelbon walk with the knowledge that they would get two selections as compensation -- all inside of the first two rounds. Now they will get just one. The Sox would be far better off trading a player like Ellsbury for an established prospect than rolling the dice in the draft, which produces mixed results.
If the Sox are in contention, Ellsbury is going nowhere. But between and Opening Day of next season, assuming the Red Sox regard Ellsbury as impossible to sign, trading him would be the best course of action.
And under the circumstances, it might be the Sox' best chip in acquiring the starting pitcher they need.
Kevin Youkilis embraced his teammates and gave a series of heartfelt waves, and he descended once more down the home dugout steps at fabled Fenway Park, this time for good. And just like that, the Red Sox took another step toward the future and away from their past, third base now fully entrusted into the care of William Scott Middlebrooks.
Youkilis had to go, of course. The question now is how many others will follow. Youkilis was merely the most obvious and simplest move the Red Sox had to make this midseason, their team improving in both the short term and the long with Sunday's news that he had been dealt to the Chicago White Sox. With each passing day, the Red Sox further distance themselves from the embarrassment of last September, from an identity of overpaid underachievers to one of youth and grit.
Somewhere, assuming he is capable, Josh Beckett is smiling, bidding a short adieu to the man who might have been The Snitch.
The truth? The Red Sox missed Youkilis last September, if for no other reason than the fact that Youkilis always played hard, without exception. He rarely lost focus, perhaps to a fault. While the Red Sox were going down without a fight last fall, Youkilis was sidelined, yet again, with an injury. If he was in fact the snitch who ratted out Beckett and his fellow pitchers for an absence of commitment in what became a chicken fried clubhouse, at least we can say with certainty that Youkilis' heart was in the right place.
Unlike many of the players on this Red Sox team, after all, Youkilis was largely a self-made player. He was an eighth-round pick by former Sox general manager Dan Duquette - the last of the Duke guys - whose appearance in "Moneyball" made him a bit of a circus act. His greatest asset was, of all things, plate discipline. When Youkilis first reached the big leagues in 2004, many regarded him as nothing more than a bench player.
Instead, Youkilis became an All-Star, a cleanup man and a cornerstone who batted .306 in the postseason during his career and went an insane 14 for 28 in the 2007 American League Championship Series. He became a Gold Glove first baseman. He got the absolute most out of his ability, and then some, which is certainly more than we can say for too many multi-year, multimillionaires who played for the Red Sox last season and this one.
Maybe some of you didn't like Youkilis. Maybe some teammates found him to be humorless and over-the-top intense. Maybe he needed to chill out a little, which is exactly what Manny Ramirez rightfully tried to tell him when confronting him in the dugout in 2008.
But Youkilis never, ever mailed it in, which is more than we can say for the double-fisted Colonel Sanders crew.
What Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington needs to remember now is that Youkilis was never part of the problem, not really, at least with regard to the ultimate goal: winning. The Red Sox got their money's worth out of Youkilis. What Cherington needs to continue doing now is to further examine the makeup of a roster that still has some obvious issues, most notably among a group of overpaid pitchers whose inability to remain both healthy and productive is an ongoing concern.
Translation: If you can move one of your overpriced pitchers and get something good, Ben, you should do it. The reaction of the fan base may surprise. Maybe your team would take a hit in the short term and maybe it would not. But at the very least, you would continue to send a clear message to your clubhouse.
The team is what is important here. The individual credentials mean nothing anymore.
In that way, Youkilis was the easiest of sacrifices, no matter how relatively miniscule the return from Chicago. (You may grow to like Brent Lillibridge.) Youkilis and Bobby Valentine clashed from the start. Middlebrooks is a superior player. Given how tightly the Red Sox managed their payroll over the winter, the Sox now have another $1 million or so that they can take onto the money saved by dealing away Marco Scutaro in hopes of further improving by July 31.
Simply put, Youkilis had to go. That was apparent weeks ago. But anyone who thinks the Red Sox are now fully free of baggage is badly mistaken because there is still a long way for this team to go.
In many ways, Youkilis' departure on Sunday was terribly fitting, the Red Sox climbing to a season-high four games over .500 shortly after Youkilis walked off the Fenway Park lawn. You just can't keep moving forward sometimes unless you cut ties to the past. Along with David Ortiz, Youkilis was one of just two players remaining from the Red Sox team that ended decades of frustration by winning the World Series in 2004, but the Red Sox cut any ties with sentimentality long, long ago, from Roger Clemens to Mo Vaughn to Nomar Garciaparra and beyond.
Youkilis is now just the latest name on that list.
And so young Will Middlebrooks is on the clock.
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