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Lost baggage

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 5, 2010 06:27 PM

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ortizwince.jpgWhen I started piecing together this angry maelstrom of a semi-mailbag Monday night, I was beginning to wonder if I was the Last Rational Baseball Fan in New England.

My cries from atop my creaky soapbox that these disappointing Red Sox, coming off a three-game sweep to the Baltimore Orioles, were too talented to continue to fail were drowned out by the wails of an aggrieved majority.

(Completely unnecessary early digression here, but the Orioles, despite a hideous start, aren't the pathetic sad-sack operation they're being made out to be. They have a nice core of potential cornerstones -- Jones, Markakis, Wieters, Matusz -- and they absolutely will finish ahead of Toronto. Though Garrett Atkins does kinda stink. Agree there.)

I believe TATB readers tend to be more thoughtful, informed and grounded than the typical three-Bud Lights-and-a-screechy-call-to-Ordway type, so it was a little disconcerting to watch them abandon the bandwagon before May was a week old. According to my e-mail inbox (and Twitter account, and Facebook page), Sox fans not only were racing to declare this team a lost cause, but they were racing to say they saw it coming before anyone else.

While it was disappointing, I understood it to a degree. The Sox had been stunningly inept, they have a new, relatively unfamiliar additions to the cast who need to win over the fandom, their two rivals in the division have been terrific, and Theo Epstein's offseason mantras of "run prevention" and "the bridge" -- sources of skepticism from the moment the words rolled out of his mouth -- had become full-blown talking points of mockery and derision.

Yeah, that's right -- had. Past tense. Maybe I'm still exuding too much optimism here for the entitled and short-sighted bleacher cynics, but I do still expect those with faith to be rewarded to some degree by this team when October comes around. The postseason remains a reasonable goal. We've seen encouraging signs since the Baltimore debacle -- two straight wins over the Angels, the team that ended their 2009 season, some thump from various sources in the lineup (will you please give Adrian Beltre a chance?), a third straight sterling start from Jon Lester. It's not all good, but they're getting there.

It's probably not fair that I'm addressing the negative mail now. It may even seem disingenuous, coming after two victories. But you know how slowly I roll -- I started this post four days ago, and I'm not about to abandon it now.

All facetiousness aside, I suspect the small progress of the last couple of days doesn't change the perspective of the stubborn doubters who are convinced a 6.5-game deficit in the division to a very good Rays team with 135 games to play is too steep to overcome.

But we're sticking to our positive approach anyway. Let's get to the questions and comments . . .

The first game of the season I predicted [you will have to confirm with my brother] that the Sox will miss the playoffs this year. . . . This team hits when the pitching stinks and doesn’t hit when the pitching is good. The vaunted defense stinks. If you’re an opposing pitcher, does a regular outfield of Cameron, Drew, and Ellsbury scare you? There is not one power guy there and then throw in Papi and there are many holes here in relation to the Yankees and the Rays. All in all I don’t see progression or improvement in the roster or the players on it in that many are on the decline. . . . They are built for Fenway and that is it. There is no speed sans Ellsbury and there is no big bopper in the lineup. Dice-K is a colossal waste of $ . . .

I am 48 years old and I remember the times before 2004 and I am not the newfangled breed. This ownership group is very good but to think this team as constituted is a playoff team will be born out. -- Ken M.

I should note that this reader went on to note that he doesn't much like the Beckett signing, he's not sold on Buchholz, and kids these days, will all their video games and roller skates and other gadgets of the devil, they have it too easy, and . . . HEY, YOU LITTLE PUNK, GET OFF MY LAWN! (OK, just the Beckett/Buchholz stuff is true.)

As for the other gripes, let's go to the always trusty bullet points to respond:

  • The vaunted defense has underperformed. But I will take Beltre, his six errors, his knack for the spectacular, his tasering-a-Philly-moron arm, and his ridiculous range (I might start keeping track of all of the grounders he cuts off before they get to Scutaro) over last year's third baseman, whose range was essentially a wave of his glove in either direction.

  • I would like to see Drew, Cameron and Ellsbury play together for more than six games before I judge their cumulative skills. But I know this: They will be great defensively (despite Cameron's early hiccups), and better than you think offensively. His batting helmet may be too clean for you loyal Trot-O-Philes to notice, but J.D. Drew is on one of his pitcher-tormenting hot streaks right now. And he's pretty fun to watch.

  • There is not one power guy, and yes, Papi looks equal parts dilapidated and despondent. Yet the Sox are second to the Blue Jays in the AL in home runs (37). Power isn't the issue, and it won't be going forward. Kevin Youkilis is a premier hitter, and once again he is being inexplicable sold short by someone who watches him every day. Dustin Pedroia is off to a hellacious start. And Victor Martinez will have his .300-20-100 by season's end.

    Which reminds me: Of all the players to feel the wrath of the fans this season, Martinez probably deserves it the least. This team doesn't make the postseason without him last season. He has a long track record of producing at a high level, and he also has a long track record of streakiness. A hot stretch is coming, he's improving his throwing, and he's one of this team's true assets.

  • Dice-K is maddening. He's overpaid. He's no fun to watch. He's not what he was supposed to be, and he never will come close to that. But as a fourth or fifth starter, he can be an asset. With health and his usual five-inning, 120-pitch walking-the-tightrope victories, he could win a dozen games. I'm willing to give him more than one start to judge. Heck, I might even give him three.

  • Your brother does not return my calls since "the incident." And that shall never be spoken of again.

    OK, that's way too much time on this one question/comment. Let's move on.

    Still enjoying the Theo Kool-Aid Chad? This team is unwatchable, boring and old. I continue to be amazed at your over the top optimism in your weekly chats. They are ill-conceived and destined to be a middle of the pack team...maybe after the embarrassing performance this weekend, you will find a dose of reality. Your loyalty and optimism are admirable...but naive and short-sighted. -- PRC

    Theo Kool-Aid? I don't know, seems like he's been pretty successful here: six playoff berths in seven years, two World Series titles, and rich and productive farm system, which, as you might recall, was a pile of rubble at the end of Dan Duquette's tenure. I'm not claiming Theo is flawless -- I think he may have finally found a shortstop in Marco Scutaro after multiple failed efforts and millions of wasted dollars -- but compared to every other Sox GM of my lifetime, he's far and away the most well-rounded and competent. Tell me: Which MLB GM would you rather have?

    050510pedroia.jpgPedey's remarks after [last] Monday's loss reminded me of when Jeter got critical of the Yankees in 2002 (the Mondesi Year). Derek told the writers "this isn't the same team as last year." same goes for this year's Sox, who have different starters at four different key positions.

    I could see them having the kind of year Tampa had last year. You knew the Rays were good last summer but they started poorly and wore themselves out trying to catch up.
    -- Terry N.

    The Tampa point is a great one -- you burn a lot more fuel in accelerated pursuit, and perhaps having to play catch-up virtually all season will affect them in the dog days of August.

    And the Jeter point is an even better one. For all of the shots that we take at him here -- many as a reaction to the over-the-top fawning, some due to pinstripe envy, but most just for the sport of tweaking our delicate Yankee-fan lurkers -- there is no arguing with his professionalism or the respect he commands among his peers.

    It didn't escape our notice around here that Pedroia and Jeter hit it off like little brother/big brother at the World Baseball Classic last year, and it's impressive and reassuring to watch Pedroia evolve into a similar -- if yappier -- leader with the Sox. Varitek is the captain and Ortiz is long the emotional fulcrum, but make no mistake, this is Pedroia's team now.

    That became apparent -- to my great amusement, and probably yours as well -- Tuesday night, when he offered these pitch-perfect postgame comments after being asked about Ortiz's struggles:

    "He's had 60-something at-bats A couple years ago I had 60 at-bats I was hitting .170 and everyone was ready to kill me too," Pedroia said. "What happened? [Pause] Laser show. So, relax.

    "I'm tired of looking at the NESN poll, 'Why's David Struggling.' David's fine, he's one of our teammates. He came out of it last year, he's going to come out of it this year. Put that online -- I'm going to go online and vote. Papi's fine. Thanks for playing."

    Now that's leadership. And the comedy only makes it better. When I heard that, I'm pretty sure I did a one-man slow clap from the La-Z-Boy.

    Chad, it's ovah--and was BEFORE the truck arrived in Ft. Myers. -- David S.

    That's a very efficient way to judge a team -- make up your mind before they've even taken the field. Saves you a lot of time wasted watching baseball in the summer.

    Hey, even if you're down on the Beltre-Cameron-Scutaro-Lackey pickups, it's worth remembering that this isn't the roster that the Sox will end the season with. They could conceivably need two things -- a quality bat and a relief arm. They also happen to be the two easiest things to acquire before or at the trade deadline, as Theo reminded us last July after the Victor Martinez deal.

    050510lars.jpgAnd given Lars Anderson's encouraging resurgence, the Red Sox may be able to put a more appealing package together for a premier hitter than we would have thought a few weeks ago.

    Adrian Beltre = Edgar Renteria, the Sox run generating defense not working quite as planned. That's at least 4 games lost by the offensive defense. Time to sit Beltre and Ortiz and play Lowell and Varitek. Martinez makes a nice DH option. What do you think? -- Alan M. (via Facebook)

    I think that would be regrettable. You cannot play Varitek every day. It's easy to forget given how he fell apart last season, but he was also similarly excellent last April (four homers, .881 OPS) before getting worn out and beaten down. He's perfect in the role he's in. Besides, he's not a whole hell of a lot better at throwing out runners than Martinez.

    As far as sitting Beltre. No . . . just . . . no. I will grant you this in your comparison to Renteria -- Beltre would probably have more range at shortstop.

    Via Twitter, @Loren1006 Maybe now those idiots who say "it's still early in the season" will realize all 162 count the same. 7 1/2 a lot to overcome

    It's only 6.5 now! The comeback is happening right before our eyes! Join me for the magic carpet ride to October? (Anyone?)

    Via Twitter, @jcraw33: u can say that again sox lineup is on par with baltimore and kc cameron, beltre, lackey bridge year to nowhere.

    Any Sox fan who dares to compare the Red Sox' current plight -- in any way, whether its sarcastic or serious -- to what's happening with the Royals deserves a five-year sentence of watching Yuniesky Betancourt flail at two-strike sliders in the dirt, Alex Gordon slinking around like baseball is some kind of chore, and poor Zack Greinke lose 1-0 game after 1-0 game. Perspective, people. Perspective.

    And really, down on Lackey already? After five starts, four of which were pretty high quality? C'mon, now. This isn't Matt Clement we're talking about here.

    If the Red Sox want to make the playoffs they will have to get a lot better real quick. If the plan is to expect the Yankees to regress it's probably not going to happen. The Yankees are [winning] and they're not even close to clicking on all cylinders. The Yankees just lost Curtis Granderson for a month and nobody's batting an eyelash because they have the depth to cover it. Our veteran players are turning back the clock. I consider Posada the most vulnerable but we have tremendous depth at that position and our backup is hitting .300. Javy Vazquez will get better [couldn't get much worse] and we have three more capable starters hiding in the bullpen. The Yankees are a second half team off to a hot start. The Red Sox usually start out hot and finish the year so-so. I doubt that the Rays can keep up this pace but I don't think they're going away. I'm not counting out the Red Sox anytime soon but the Yankees and Rays are not going fall off the map for them. Pitching and defense wins games but in the AL East you still need to score runs. With Manny and Jason Bay long gone and Ortiz fossilizing before our eyes I'm not sure Boston has enough stick to hang around. -- Rob S.

    What's this? A rational Yankees fan nearly sympathizing with the Sox? My goodness, I take it all back. Things have gotten bad.

    A couple of points:

  • Not sure Javy Vazquez is going to get better -- at least as a Yankee -- considering they're already down on him to the point that they're skipping his start at Fenway. Maybe Ozzie Guillen was right about him.

  • The Red Sox' habit of starting fast has no relevance to how they started this season. Different season, different chemistry, different schedule, different players in certain key roles.

  • Posada and Rivera are banged up. It's a nice start. Now if Pettitte and Jeter could just act their age, we might be on to something here.

  • All right, I suppose I should address the .149-hitting elephant in the room -- the Big Papi "fossilization." Even those of us who have defended him, who have said and written (and written, and written) that the Sox should give him time, are coming to grips with the fact that his baseball judgment day may be very near.

    It's just speculation, but you do wonder if it could come sooner rather than later, given that there is a definite "last chance" vibe to his start against Joel Pineiro tonight, a pitcher he habitually mauled during his glory days. There's no way of avoiding the desperate times: He needs a good game tonight.

    The Red Sox, given their current place in the standings, cannot afford to give him the leeway they gave him during last season's agonizing start, when he didn't hit his first homer until Game 54. They need him to hit, now, and while his two-homer game May 1 against the Orioles might have been a cause for optimism, there is a stronger sense given his ongoing struggles to make contact that his performance in that game was merely a brief delay of the inevitable. The fan in me would like to disagree with Keith Law's assessment of Papi's status, but the analyst in me agrees with every coldly honest word:

    "You saw last year that his bat speed was starting to slip. And now it looks at this point it’s all but gone. He is getting beaten within the strike zone on average stuff. You can throw 90-92 [miles per hour] right by him within the strike zone. A couple of years ago that is a pitch he absolutely murdered . . .

    "I think you finally see the decline taken right over the cliff at this point. I think there is very little chance for a recovery."

    The inevitability of it all at this point is a bummer, and I think I made my point clear about booing the man on my Twitter page last night: It's unforgivable. It's not from a lack of effort that he's failing, and it clearly pains him a hell of a lot more than it pains you (especially if you've had a couple of $8 beers already).

    Groan at his struggles, curse his failings, but damn, cheer than man for all he's done for this franchise. The opportunities to do so, we fear, could be dwindling to the final days.

  • About Touching All The Bases

    Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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