And then it hits you, like a pair of Yankee outfielders flailing after a fly ball in vain. For the first time in three years, neither the Red Sox nor the Yankees will be participants in the American League Championship Series, which begins tonight between the Chicago White Sox and the Humpty Dumpty Los Angeles Angels, who are trying to form some semblance of a pitching staff after using all their resources (and losing Bartolo Colon and Jarrod Washburn) in dispatching the most expensive division champs in history. Oh right, co-champs. OK, Dr. Charles?
Never mind that New England is satisfied to see its team’s bitter rivals fall at the hands of the Angels, the Yankees (and Alex Rodriguez in particular) did us all a favor in that the White Sox-Angels series should be a good one, provided the Angels can recover in time to play it. Both teams play the same style of game, small-ball, smart-ball, long-ball, whatever you call it, and to witness how Ozzie Guillen will manage against Mike Scioscia will be one of the many fascinating plot lines this October.
And once it’s all out of the way, this annual baseball tournament of autumn (White Sox will beat the Astros in six for their first title since 1917), we will have four months of similar intrigue as it refers to the old ball club down on Yawkey Way. Who stays? Who goes? Who comes? In a winter that is sure to conjure up memories of the aforementioned A-Rod sweepstakes two years ago, the Red Sox will keep themselves on the forefront of the Nation’s minds, of course, with a flurry of moves, both expected and not, as they look to rebuild an aging club, still with their eyes on the ultimate prize in 2006.
For that to be the case, the changes need to be intelligent (re: don’t drop $40 million on a former Gold Glove shortstop who goes on the lead baseball in miscues), swift (the sooner you sign Theo Epstein, the quicker the shopping can begin), and controversial (is trading the weeklong headache that Manny Ramirez will be every July worth losing his incomparable production?).
Let’s get it out of the way, 2005 was not a shining year for Epstein. He lost out on Pedro Martinez (due to the fourth year the Mets gave him), a move that continues to haunt the Red Sox, and replaced him in a tizzy with Matt Clement, a guy who can’t seem to escape his history of problematic second halves. Epstein proved for the second time in three years that his one Achilles’ heel is building a bullpen, although the devil’s lease on Alan Embree’s soul running out probably didn’t help much. Epstein brought in Renteria, who while not a disaster was an utter disappointment, and do we have to even mention Mike Remlinger?
The good: David Wells continued to be one of baseball’s best control pitchers. We got to see the fruits of Epstein’s labor, as the farm system started to spout its competitive flowers, and a phenomenal 2005 draft already saw one prospect (Craig Hansen) striking out Devil Rays by September. This is the overwhelming resume Epstein pins on his wall for all to see, while Larry Lucchino’s portrait of Renteria serves as a reminder why he makes the last calls.
First and foremost on Epstein’s list (assuming he’s with Boston and not New York or Philadelphia — how’d that go over you think?) is obviously fixing a pitching staff that was the team’s undoing. Ideally, the situation would be a lot brighter if Esptein could find somebody stupid enough to take Keith Foulke off his hands (hey, Jim Leyland admitted he doesn’t know anything about the Tigers, the team he just signed on to manage, so what about a Foulke for Jeremy Bonderman swap?). And what if the Bruins are in the Stanley Cup Finals? How is Foulke going to handle being at Fenway every night when that’s happening across town?
Expect next season to see Manny Delcarmen get some setup action finally, Hansen to attempt to mature into a closer over six months, and Jonathan Papelbon, the sensation of the farm system, in the starting rotation as your No. 2 as it stands now. And the scary thing is, that’s not even all that questionable. In my view, you bring back Mike Timlin if the interest elsewhere is minimal and the money short, but I don’t bend over backwards. Offer competitive but not outrageous deals to free agents B.J. Ryan, Kyle Farnsworth, and Scott Eyre, and then deal closer Ryan away at the deadline for needed commodities if Hansen is ready to take the reins by then.
Short of bringing Roger Clemens back for a farewell tour through the American League East, no free-agent starter really puts the “Wow” into your morning breakfast while poring over the transaction list, and we could be looking at another offseason in which it’s more Matt Clement than Curt Schilling. Matt Morris, AJ Burnett, and Jarrod Washburn are all OK options, but at the right money. Kevin Millwood’s numbers are nice (he led the AL with a 2.86 ERA), but it’s far too coincidental that he put up his best numbers since 2002 (18-8, 3.24), which was another free agent season for the righty.
Johnny Damon’s demands for a five-year deal may play him right out of the Boston market, which in turn might help the Red Sox decide whether Carlos Beltran is enough in center field to replace both Damon and Ramirez. You need an answer to that now? (Hint: think Shane Mack and Steve Avery with money rejected by Roger Clemens.)
Bill Mueller will likely not be back, paving the way finally for Kevin Youkilis to man third. Dustin Pedroia can have the job at second until the Red Sox decide they need a veteran presence there at the last minute of spring training and pencil Alex Cora into the spot. For first base, where Kevin Millar will be no longer, they’ll make a run at Paul Konerko, but probably come up short. I suppose Epstein could make a run at Colorado’s Todd Helton, and take a chance that his home/away splits won’t translate to Fenway, but that’s an expensive risk. Sean Casey is due $8.5 million next season, a contract the Reds would surely like to rid themselves of. John Olerud might be a cheap option in a backup role, but certainly not anything close to a priority.
The San Diego Tribune reported today that the Red Sox might be suitors for right fielder Brian Giles when he hits free agency next month. Although Giles’ power numbers dipped a bit this season, his .423 on-base percentage was the fourth-best in baseball. That would open the door for Epstein to include Trot Nixon in a possible trade for pitching, a move that would be seen as extremely unpopular in the clubhouse and the stands for sure.
As would trading that big ol’ run producer in left field too, you know.
Ah, yes, the names and faces and dollar signs are going to come before we know it, starting in November right up until pitchers and catchers report around the time the Torino Olympiad is winding down.
The end result will be a far different baseball team than the one that we just watched get swept by the eventual World Series champs. Whether that’s good enough, we’ll have to wait and see.