If you will, permit me one more extended thought from what has quickly become Tito Week around here. (It’s like Shark Week, but with snark instead of sharks.)
It’s just that there are a couple of subtle insights in former Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s new memoir that are getting lost amid the juicier anecdotes about his relationships with Manny Ramirez and Larry Lucchino and the championships and heartbreaks and other headline/excerpt material.
I want to spend a few sentences here acknowledging a couple of them, not just because they’re part of what makes the book so engaging, but because they’re particularly relevant to the current state and perception of the Red Sox. There are lessons to be learned here, reminders of some history that the Red Sox should strive to repeat and some they should not.
The first takes us back to August 2006. Theo Epstein was getting flame-broiled on the only significant sports radio station in the city — talk about how things have changed — for failing to swing a deal at the trading deadline to bolster a talented but injury-plagued roster. The Yankees went out and acquired Bobby Abreu, who promptly tormented the Red Sox in a five-game sweep that essentially lowered the curtain on Boston’s season.
The backlash was brutal, the common, caterwauling refrain being that Epstein had sacrificed the season because he was unwilling to part with his precious prospects. Epstein, who had just returned to his GM chair after a brief hiatus spurred by philosophical differences with ownership (aka Sick of Lucchino Syndrome), saw it with a more clear-eyed, long-term perspective. Here’s what he said at the time regarding the discipline necessary to take a big-picture approach when there’s so much pressure to win immediately and annually, as recounted in the book.
“It’s a longstanding impediment for the Red Sox. With the Red Sox there’s been so much emphasis and building an uber team this year, so much focus on tomorrow’s paper, so much focus on the Yankees. Some of that had to do with the end of the Yawkey regime. There’s no doubt that we feel the only way to sustain success over a long period of time is to have a successful farm system … Two years ago I said we were two years away. Finally we’re at a point where the farm system is going to start paying dividends at the big-league level.”
It actually had paid dividends before then. Jonathan Papelbon debuted on July 31, 2005, better remembered as the day Manny Ramirez was nearly traded for some baseball shepherd’s pie made up of Mike Cameron, Julio Lugo, Lastings Milledge, and Aubrey Huff. Jon Lester came up in June 2006 and won his first five decisions. Kevin Youkilis emerged as a dependable everyday player in that window. Dustin Pedroia arrived in the August 2006 chaos and hasn’t stopped chirping and hitting since. And just a season down the road, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz would make impressive debuts during the second World Series-winning season in four years.
That’s an extraordinary collection of core players who arrived from within between championships. I don’t think it requires a breaking news alert to suggest that’s exactly the approach Ben Cherington is taking now. Perhaps the pressure is not the same — the 76-113 record since September 1, 2011 has tempered daydreams of champagne celebrations and October duck boat parades just a bit — but the discipline it takes to wait for the best of the farm system to arrive in lieu of a quick fix deserves praise.
Sure, there is risk in expecting Xander Bogaerts (my favorite Sox prospect since Hanley Ramirez) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (an on-base machine and the best defensive outfielder in the organization, Ellsbury included) to be everything their ability and the glowing Baseball America scouting reports suggest. They’re being counted on to be important parts of the next great Red Sox team, and there’s pressure on their shoulders. But belief in talented, determined players who are under team control for years isn’t just the most prudent step toward building and sustaining a winning franchise. If it goes according to plan and the promise is fulfilled, it’s far and away the most enjoyable way.
Of course, there is that gap that must be navigated until they arrive, and that brings us to an unnecessarily controversial comment Epstein made three seasons later when the franchise was at another crossroads and the next batch of prospects — Ryan Kalish, Anthony Rizzo, Lars Anderson, Casey Kelly and Josh Reddick among them — was presumably on the horizon.
Right — the bridge year.
What Epstein said was more or less the same thing he said about patience in 2006, with one major difference — he used a phrase that could easily be taken out of context, misinterpreted, and used against him in a way that had nothing to do with what he intended. Here’s his original comment — yep, the world premiere of the term we can’t escape — from December 2009:
“We talked about this a lot at the end of the year, that we’re kind of in a bridge period. We still think that if we push some of the right buttons we can be competitive at the very highest levels for the next two years. But we don’t want to compromise too much of the future for that competitiveness during the bridge period. We don’t want to sacrifice our competitive during the bridge period just for the future. So we’re trying to balance both of those issues.”
As the book notes, it was a week later that the Red Sox gave a combined $98 million to John Lackey and Mike Cameron. So much for that. Cameron might have made some sense as a bridge to something younger or better — he got hurt, and it didn’t work. But Lackey was an overpriced luxury, and perhaps already damaged goods.
“I felt badly for Theo on that one,” Francona recalls in the book. “I knew exactly what he meant, and it got taken so far out of context. I completely agreed with it when he said it. It [ticked] me off the way that it got twisted. He was saying that we’re going to find a way to win, but we didn’t want to commit money to players who weren’t worth the money.”
Which again brings us back to the present tense. The gripes about the Red Sox’ approach this offseason have been consistent, if not relentless, and usually focus on their failure to sign Josh Hamilton. Who knows, maybe all of those emails and tweets are being ghost-written by NESN underlings on Tom Werner’s orders, but it’s disconcerting that after all the Red Sox have been through the last couple of seasons, after signing Carl Crawford for marketing rather than baseball reasons, after losing their way for a quick fix that only escalated the descent, and after getting a heaven-sent get-out-of-jail-free card last season from the Dodgers, that so many don’t recognize or refuse to accept that the current approach across that bridge is the right one.
Signing proven, established, well-regarded if imperfect major league players to short-term deals is the smartest way to begin repairing this ball club, which had a truly abysmal roster last September. Chances are there will be a Mike Cameron or two among the bunch, a signing that just doesn’t work out, because flops and busts always happen to every team in every single season. But many, if not most of the likes of Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, and Stephen Drew, should go a long way toward enhancing the core of Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Will Middlebrooks and David Ortiz, all of whom were hurt or uncharacteristically ineffective last year. And all the while, Bogaerts and Bradley and their prospect peers should and will be striding closer and closer to the big leagues.
That’s how they escape this malaise.
I understand the skepticism to some degree — Cherington has made mistakes (I cringe at trading young position players for relief pitchers), and this franchise has made it easy even for the few among us who don’t naturally lean toward cynicism to doubt anything and everything they do. But the inability or unwillingness of so many to recognize the current approach as the most logical and the one with the highest potential payoff reminds me of one last Francona comment from the book.
He said it in regard to second-guessing he endured after deciding to pitch Tim Wakefield on regular rest rather than Josh Beckett on short rest during Game 4 of the 2007 ALCS against the Indians. But it applies on a much grander scale, particularly when it comes to those who who’d rather complain about what the Red Sox aren’t doing rather than trying to understand what they are.
“I understand the fans and media second-guessing,” Francona said. “I’m a fan. I do it. I just wish people would remember we know a few things about the team that they maybe don’t know. I have more information than anybody. And it’s my job to know the team.”