Red Sox

Just like 2020, the future’s not now for the Red Sox, but that’s not all bad

It won't make fans happy, but it appears they've learned from the ratings-driven mistakes of a decade ago.

The Red Sox were bringing up the rear in the AL East in 2020.

COMMENTARY

Even by the glacial standards of this baseball winter, the Red Sox don’t much seem in a rush to win you back.

There are worse things, I guess. Anyone who lived through the Carl Crawford Experience knows what I’m talking about.

In this last offseason before the sides likely nuke the sport over a new collective bargaining agreement, half of the top 15 available free agents (according to MLB Trade Rumors) remain unsigned in late January, and that’s with George Springer, DJ LeMahieu, Liam Hendricks, and Michael Brantley all recently coming off the board. The Red Sox were in on some of them, as I’m sure they’ll have been in on some of the remaining biggies when they land elsewhere, but their acquisitions to date consist of possible platoon outfielder Hunter Renfroe, swingman pitcher Matt Andriese, and fan favorite Martin Perez.

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All are capable major leaguers under Red Sox control for at least two years. None are stars on a title winner, will sell one cable package, or figure to spark a huge bounce off last year’s 65-win pace.

Coming off the worst pitching season in Red Sox history and a 54-percent plummet in their NESN ratings, there’s no panic in Chaim Bloom and the Red Sox braintrust. Were you unsure, Sox CEO Sam Kennedy said as much to Dan Shaughnessy in an interview released Tuesday.

“There was a price to be paid in 2018. We are proud of that championship, but we’re now building back up,” Kennedy said. “If we do the right thing, success will come more quickly than maybe people can imagine.”

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Later, he added: “We’re working to build a team that will contend for a championship year in and year out. We’re not prioritizing a short-term splash over getting to that goal.”

We’d noticed.

Kennedy comes off snippy and defensive, both a testament to his interviewer and, frankly, a welcome change from the corporate rah-rah. Boston is arguably the fourth-best team in the American League East on paper, and it’s only arguable because the Toronto Blue Jays — with Springer now atop their blossoming lineup — still need some more pitching.

The Yankees kept LeMahieu and might get a similar buy-low steal out of Corey Kluber. Tampa traded Blake Snell, but they just went to the World Series. The Red Sox appear content to let them run, and if that means you check out until 2022, so be it.

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How far we’ve come.

Three winters after their 2007 title appeared the start of a massive run, Theo Epstein birthed “bridge year” into our vernacular. A week later, the Red Sox gave John Lackey and Mike Cameron about $100 million, ownership speaking publicly with dollars instead of words.

“Theo must have been tied down to make that deal,” Mike Dee, former Red Sox COO, told Shaughnessy for Terry Francona’s 2013 autobiography. “That was about television ratings. They were panicked about the ratings.”

It was the start of the transition away from the Epstein-Francona regime. While the 2010 team wilted to 89 wins under the weight of injuries, Sox brass — led by TV man Tom Werner — hired a consulting firm to study declining interest in the team. It’s no coincidence the following offseason, in which Werner critiqued Epstein’s words publicly, brought not only free-agent blockbusters Adrian Gonzalez and Crawford, but $12 million for Bobby Jenks when Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard were a rock-solid 1-2 to finish games.

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“I thought we gave in and tried to take the shortcut, and I don’t think there are any shortcuts in baseball,” Epstein said years later. “We tried to take a shortcut by throwing money at some problems, and the irony is that that led to even more problems.”

A decade later, again three winters after a title, the Red Sox are pointedly not throwing money at a problem, be it on-field or on-air. They didn’t so much as sniff at Jon Lester, who signed with Washington for less than what they’ll pay Perez (including buyouts). They were interested in Kluber, but didn’t get what they wanted in the contract.

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The $8 million that durable lefty Jose Quintana got from the Angels? Nope. The $8 million J.A. Happ is getting in Minnesota? Nope.

Those are all one-year agreements, and the Red Sox are simply not chasing 2021. They’ve just come as close to telling you as they ever will, an incredible shift and admission for a team that, prior to last season, hadn’t been out of the top five payrolls during the regime of John Henry (who also owns Boston Globe Media Partners, including Boston.com).

It is not, however, all bad. With as many things as these Red Sox would need to compete for anything beyond a wild card this season, there’s no way they wouldn’t hamstring themselves in ways that led to the cratering of 2012. Which, let’s not lose, was clambered out of to the tune of two more world championships built by two different general managers.

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Ben Cherington was the logical successor to Epstein, a man of a similar mind replacing a GM who left the Sox as much as they left him. Dave Dombrowski was the logical successor to Cherington, brought in to win now with a cabinet Cherington stocked. Bloom is here for a restock, and to build the sort of recurring contender that Epstein, all those years ago, was on his way to doing.

Mistakes brought them to this place: Not only the free-agent ones, but the continued inability to get pitching out of the draft. The pandemic certainly has as well, but it also saved them truly having to wear the six months of boos and unsold tickets a performance like 2020 earned. Everything in this world is a two-way street, and it’s a lot easier to full-on play for the future when you can blame the empty seats on something else.

In the handful of weeks until spring training is scheduled to start, the Red Sox will add. The market will come to them in enough places, they’ll find deals that help now and help more later, and they’ll put out a reasonable facsimile of a playoff contender this year. The plan, however, is the plan. You’ve seen it yourself. You’ve now read it yourself.

It doesn’t mean it will work, but it beats a haphazard chase after things that don’t win games at the expense of things that do.

Even if that means another summer where the broadcast booth is among the most compelling reasons to watch.

 

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