Talkin Sox with Dan

Where baseball fans gather for commonsensical, opinionated Red Sox banter.

The 2013 Red Sox and the difficulty of moving on

photo via washintonpost.com

“Nobody in here is wearing the … World Series champ shirts, you don’t even see anything like that in here. Forget that.” – Jonny Gomes

The 2014 Red Sox seem perfectly content moving on, not forgetting their miraculous run to a World Series title, but putting it aside to savor at a later date.

I wish I could do the same.

In 2013, the Red Sox won 97 games and and the American League East. In the ALDS, they outpitched the Rays who produce quality young arms in their sleep. The Tigers, despite stifling Red Sox bats for the majority of six games, couldn’t capture the American League crown. Boston was too timely, too clutch. They beat the Tigers with good starting pitching, big hits in big spots, and a bullpen that flexed its muscle all series long. The Fall Classic was a wild series between two of baseball’s powerhouses. In the end, David Ortiz and Jon Lester were too much for the St. Louis Cardinals. The two former champions smothered the birds on the mound and at the plate, proving that the best that the Cards had to offer simply could not match up with the weapons the Red Sox possessed.

And I still can’t believe it. I can’t. I’ve written about how good this team was, how their World Series title was not a uniquely a product of a collection of good breaks along the way. So why can’t I do what Jonny Gomes and the rest of the team — you know, the guys who actually won the damn thing and didn’t just sit on their couch in their apartment in Worcester — are doing?

“It’s no different this spring. It’s not highlight and delete, but our motto is: Turn the (expletive) page.”

It’s fair to say I didn’t see this coming. For me, the 2004 World Series was the most important. It was absolutely vital. Three years later, they did it again, and it was the most fun. I went to my first playoff game that fall. I was in college. It was great. Last season, 2013, was the most unlikely. I simply didn’t see it coming.

Before the season, a co-worker, friend, or family member would casually ask how I thought the team would perform during the summer. My response was simple — I said I would happy if the Red Sox were playing meaningful games in September. I meant it, too. After 2012, I was desperate to watch baseball games that mattered after Labor Day. With two Wild Card spots available and a team that looked like it would be competitive in a difficult division, I believed that contending for a playoff spot in the final week or days of the season was certainly an attainable goal. And then they paid a visit to the talent-laden Dodgers.

The Red Sox left Los Angeles on August 25 after winning the three-game series. They had a one-game lead in the division, and a nine-game home stand at Fenway Park. By the time it was complete and the club landed in New York on September 4, they had a 5.5-game lead in the division. Boston never looked back, building as much as a 9.5-game lead in the AL East. They were a wagon in September, going 16-9 en route to a 97-65 record–good for tops in the American League. The Red Sox played meaningful games in August, September, and throughout October. They met, exceeded, and annihilated my expectations. I still can’t believe it. I still can’t let go.

But I sure am proud.

Sticking with Clay

Photo coutesy of nesn.com

The Red Sox won the 2013 World Series without an ace. Jon Lester? John Lackey? Good pitchers. But not aces. Not anymore. Boston did, however, boast a deep, talented staff that, by and large, stayed relatively healthy last season. Lester’s regular season was far from elite (109 ERA+), but he did elevate in game in the second half. Beginning on August 8, the big lefty started ten games. He threw 70 innings and produced a 2.19 ERA during that stretch. Lester went on to pitch brilliantly in October. In the fall, he was the ace of spades.

No one will remember Lester’s inconsistent regular season. Instead, they’ll back on 2013 and point to the magnificent final month of the season he put together. It takes a special type of pitcher to do what Lester did in the postseason–4-1, 1.56 ERA, 29 strikeouts in 34.2 innings. Clay Buchholz is a player who possesses that same ability to go through stretches of unadulterated dominance. His upside, talent, and contract render him a commodity that is virtually untradeable.

Beat writers, radio talk show hosts, and bloggers are not demanding that Ben Cherington sell Buchholz to the highest bidder. No one is saying that. But there has been chatter that Buchholz represents a solid trade candidate given the Red Sox’ surplus of pitching combined with frustration over the slender righty’s lack of durability. Many of these points are correct in and of themselves, but bundling them together in order to reach the conclusion that Buchholz should be shipped out of Boston is borderline ludicrous.

Buchholz is really, really good at baseball. Even Buchholz’ harshest critic will quickly concede that the Texas native is extremely talented. There’s no debating it, and it’s been that way for awhile around here. Too often, however, the discussion around Buchholz focuses on his inability to stay on the mound. The value he brings when he is pitching actually ends up getting lost in the fray. Get ready for this — Baseball Reference has Lester’s WAR at 3.0 in 2013. Buchholz, who threw 105 less innings than Lester, earned 4.3 WAR. It’s actually sort of unreal. Basically, when Buchholz was on the mound last season, he was better than just about everyone else. And that is absent of any exaggeration. There is no doubt that he raised his level of performance from April to June in 2013. He went 11-1 in 12 starts, punching out 81 batters in 84.1 innings. He posted a 1.71 ERA during that span while his opponents couldn’t get above the Mendoza Line. The way he manipulated the baseball for those two months was truly something special.  But pitching at an extremely high level is old hat for Buchholz. Since 2010, the right handed starter has compiled a 46-19 record to go along with a 3.15 ERA. Over those four years, he averaged 138 innings with a 135 ERA+. He has put together 12.7 bWAR since 2010.  To put that into perspective, Zack Greinke, during that same four-year stretch, had 111 ERA+ and 12.3 bWAR. Greinke will make $128M over the course of the next five seasons. Buchholz’ contractual situation is quite a bit different.

If the Red Sox choose to exercise their team options, the highest annual salary that Buchholz will earn over the next four years is $13.5M. That will be during the 2017 season. As television money continues to surge into the game and the cost of pitching remains extremely high, Buchholz is primed to be an absolute bargain for a team that is flush with young pitching prospects in their organization. In 2014, the wiry righty will make $7.7M. If he’s healthy — and all reports indicate that he will enter Spring Training that way — it won’t take Buchholz very long to earn his salary in terms of WAR. He jumps to $12M in 2015, his age 30 season, and remains relatively cheap still. The Red Sox hold team options in 2016 and 2017 that are worth $13M and $13.5M, respectively. Should Buchholz’ health woes begin to outweigh the value he brings when he takes the mound, the Red Sox can simply cut ties after the 2015 season ($250K buyout). The way his contract is structured, even if he suffers a catastrophic injury, it is virtually impossible that Buchholz ever becomes an albatross on the Red Sox’ payroll. Conversely, if things break right for Buchholz, the Red Sox will have a player who has the ability to be the best pitcher in baseball for the next four seasons at a price that will make GM’s around the game drool. No matter what, until he puts together a season that resembles more 2010 and less 2012, health will always be a question that looms over Buchholz.

Durability, or lack thereof, is something that may very well plague Buchholz his entire career. His frame is not conducive to bearing the load required to shoulder a 34-start season. He is injury-prone. There’s really no way around it. Throughout the course of the second half of the season last year, Buchholz received a tremendous criticism for his lack of toughness. He dispelled that notion during the World Series. Buchholz wasn’t close to being 100 percent in Game 4, but he yielded one run — which wasn’t earned — over four innings. And it’s likely that no one will remember his effort. If those four very solid innings came in relief, it’s likely that his performance would have much more memorable. Nevertheless, Buchholz’ level of “grit” may not match his ability, but it’s significantly closer than most fans would like to believe.

No player is untradeable. But the value that Buchholz brings to the Red Sox makes him a player that is worth guarding, unless a deal comes along that Cherington cannot refuse. Given his fragility, it’s hard to see a team blowing the Red Sox out of the water with an offer. In the end, it’s probably best to stick with Buchholz and hope that he is healthy for an October run, whether it is in 2014 or 2017. If that happens, the rest of the league, heck, the rest of baseball, will be in for quite a show.

Thoughts on the Left Side of the Infield

Photo courtesy of usatoday.com

There is a growing sense that Stephen Drew is destined for a reunion with the defending World Champions. As the 30-year old’s stock seemingly plummets, the chances that he winds up playing shortstop for the Red Sox on March 31 in Baltimore increases. Drew turned down a qualifying offer from Boston earlier this offseason, and it’s likely that the Red Sox would welcome him back on their terms. But I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

The argument for bringing Drew back focuses almost exclusively on the short term. Conversely, the reasons for not pursuing his services this offseason have a great deal to do with the Red Sox future. However, it would be entirely too simple to position this solely as a  present versus future debate. Let’s flesh it out a bit.

The 2014 Red Sox are certainly deeper with Drew on their team. That in and of itself, however, doesn’t make acquiring Drew the correct play.  I don’t see a realistic way that they would be able to keep Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, and Drew on the major league roster. That puts Middlebrooks back in Rhode Island to face more Triple-A pitching. There is no doubt that Middlebrooks has had some of his flaws at the plate exposed at the major league level, but relegating him to an extended period of time in Pawtucket would likely be rendered a waste. At some point, the Red Sox have to see what the 25-year old can do over a full season in the big leagues. If he is able to perform at the level I believe he can (.260/.315/.490 and a home run total around 30), Ben Cherington can leave him at third base for the foreseeable future or shop him in a trade that would bring Boston a hefty return. Middlebrooks manning third base in 2014 would also allow Bogaerts to remain at shortstop.

Bogaerts isn’t going to be a special player — he already is. The poise he exhibited throughout the month of October would have impressed the toughest skeptic. His bat will likely play anywhere on the field. Should the Red Sox bring Drew back on, let’s say, a one-year deal, Bogaerts would shift from shortstop to third base. Would a full year away from one of the most demanding positions on the diamond hinder him from shifting back there in 2015? I believe it’s plausible that a year away from shortstop would prevent Bogaerts from remaining at that position long term. Third base coach, Brian Butterfield, in a conversation with Boston Globe correspondent Maureen Mullen last month, gushed over Bogaerts’ future as a shortstop.

“I love him as a shortstop. Even though he’s a bigger body, he’s athletic. He’s very compact. He moves his feet like a smaller guy playing shortstop. He has great body control. He has a good imagination. He can get the ball in the air quickly when he needs to.”

Butterfield, a huge Bogaerts advocate, knows that success at this position requires a tremendous amount of work.

“He’s continuing to learn, and I think the most important thing for him, and the thing that he did so well, was the more reps he got at the big league level the more comfortable he got.”

Moving Bogaerts to third base, even for just a season, would likely prevent him from getting the big league repetitions necessary for an adequate young shortstop to evolve into an above average defender at the position. If he is able to stick at shortstop, Bogaerts, who is as prized as virtually any young player in the game of baseball right now, will carry even more value than he would at the hot corner.

None of this takes away from Drew’s skill set. He is an excellent defender who hits right handed pitching very well. Drew is a top tier shortstop who is having a hard time finding his footing in a market that doesn’t seem to want to pay what Scott Boras is demanding or is apprehensive to relinquish a draft pick. In reality, it’s probably a combination of the two. His presence on Boston’s roster in 2014 would give the club a tremendous amount of depth on the left side of the infield, something that the 2013 Red Sox needed. But Middlebrooks’ upside, Bogaerts’ value as a franchise shortstop, and the fact that the Red Sox would receive a supplemental first round draft pick, outweighs the depth that retaining Drew would provide.

The Red Sox and the Offseason

Photo courtesy of bostonherald.com

“The key for the Sox is to entertain during the season, not the Hot Stove season.

To do both, it wouldn’t hurt if the Sox had some logs in the fire.

It’s been brr . . . boring this winter.”

That is an excerpt from Christopher Gasper’s column that ran in the Boston Globe on Friday. Often times, I find Gasper to be insightful, smart, and thoughtful. I enjoy listening to him on 98.5 The Sports Hub and reading his pieces in the paper. But on Friday, he couldn’t have been more off base.

In all fairness to Gasper, I understand segments of his argument. The Red Sox hit it big last year and won a World Series, and they shouldn’t sit back in the offseason, leaning on their new-found goodwill that they accrued over seven months of playing excellent baseball. I get that. I’m confident that Ben Cherington does too. The 2013 Executive of the Year has methodically augmented his bullpen by adding Burke Badenhop and Edward Mujica. The former is adept at inducing ground balls, while the latter is a legitimate strike-throwing machine who resembles a JV version of Koji Uehara. A.J. Pierzynski will serve as a stopgap while Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart cook a bit longer. Cherington shrewdly didn’t overextend to retain Jacoby Ellsbury who received a significant overpay from the Yankees. He inked Mike Napoli to a two-year deal worth $32MM, a contract that beautifully represents what the Red Sox philosophy is when it comes to free agency–allocate a higher number dollars to shorter term deals. Flexibility rules all.

For some scribes, like Gasper, and many fans, this is simply not exciting. I don’t get it. I honestly don’t. Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field doesn’t get you fired up because he didn’t look like a world beater in his first 95 major league at-bats? That’s how we’re going to judge our young, promising talent? You should be thrilled, Gasper. The Red Sox are World Series champions, and they didn’t have to supplement their roster by investing in high priced outfielders in their 30’s like Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, or Carlos Beltran. Jhonny Peralta on a four-year, $53MM deal because you have a gaping hole on the left side? Nope. Not necessary. Your farm system has produced quite a fruitful harvest.

There is a very good chance that the Red Sox open the 2014 season in Baltimore with inexperience on the left side of the infield and in center field. Will Middlebrooks has a great deal to prove, but he is adequate defensively at third base and possesses a tremendous amount of power. Bradley will be a slight defensive upgrade in center. He will get on-base enough to hold his own at the dish. It is likely that Xander Bogaerts will take his lumps defensively throughout the course of his first full major league season, but he is just so damn talented.

Writers and fans should not be frustrated or bored with the Red Sox lack of activity this offseason. Instead, we should celebrate the success of the organization that has manifested itself in a club that can infuse young talent to an already strong core of players.

That is not brr…boring. That is exciting.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia: The imperfect, obvious choice

Photo via boston.com

Brian McCann is Bronx-bound. Carlos Ruiz was gifted a three-year deal that includes a $4.5M club option to remain in Philadelphia. The best backstop left on the free agent market is unquestionably Jarrod Saltalamacchia. And it’s time that the Red Sox realize that Salty is now clearly the best fit for the team.

I can’t argue that cases could not be made for both McCann and Ruiz. I’ve ardently opposed the idea of paying the former Braves catcher big money over the course of five years (never mind a vesting option for a sixth year), but it would be silly to contend that McCann would not have been an immediate upgrade behind the plate. Ruiz, on the other hand, is a guy that would have made a ton of sense. GM Ben Cherington shrewdly presented a two-year offer that would have paid Ruiz more money on an annual basis than what he ultimately received. He didn’t budge from that stance, and the Phillies won out. The goals of the team that motivated Cherington to pursue Ruiz can still be achieved by re-signing Saltalamacchia, however.

By now, you are familiar with Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart, two quality young catching prospects who will begin 2014 in Triple-A Pawtucket and Double-A Portland, respectively. Based on how Cherington has approached the catcher position thus far in free agency, it is safe to say that building a bridge to one or both of these players is imperative. A five-year deal for McCann was too long. A three-year pact for a soon-to-be 35-year old Ruiz was one year too many. Saltalamacchia for three years, however, is a smart compromise that gets both the team and the player what they want.

Ideally, the Red Sox would re-up with Salty on a two-year deal. It’s impossible to know for sure, but I’m going to make the assumption that Saltalamacchia is holding out for a three or four-year contract. I would approach him similarly to Ruiz–offering two years with an elevated annual salary. Maybe you can entice him. Maybe not. Because Saltalamacchia is essentially six years younger than Ruiz, I would be comfortable with a three-year deal at a lower average annual value. This would provide the player with some security while giving the team a little bit of insurance should Vazquez and/or Swihart hit a bump in the road, something that is pretty common among young catchers.

Saltalamacchia, however, is more than just a placeholder.  In 2013, he slashed .273/.338/.446/.804. Since 2010, McCann — who, to be fair, dealt with injuries off and on during that time — hit .257/.342/.444/.786. McCann just received a deal that could pay him upwards $100M. I’m certainly not advocating that McCann and Saltalamacchia belong in the same tier, but, despite his .372 BABIP, there is reason to believe that Salty, who will play the majority of the 2014 season at age 29, is showing legitimate improvement. I would expect his slash line to look worse after 2014 than it did at the end of 2013 due to the fact that his batting average on balls in play simply isn’t sustainable, but he is walking more, and that is definitely encouraging. Saltalamacchia has improved both at the plate and behind it.

Salty will likely never be regarded as a superior defensive catcher, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a serviceable. Sure, the majority of his value derives from his offensive production. That will likely never change. However, Saltalamacchia is an everyday catcher who has learned how to successfully handle a staff. Pitchers Jake Peavy and especially John Lackey have gone out of their way to praise the work that Saltalamacchia has done.

Overall, Salty can accurately be described as a league average defensive catcher. For the first time, he didn’t fade in the second half, and when David Ross missed a substantial amount of time with a concussion, Saltalamacchia stepped up. During the middle of June, with Ross sidelined, Salty caught both halves of a doubleheader. The next night, the big, burly switch-hitter was back in the Red Sox lineup. Saltalamacchia is not a defensive wiz, but he is a hardworking player who can be counted on to handle a veteran staff night in and night out.

We don’t know who the everyday catcher is going to be for the Red Sox next season. What we do know is that Saltalamacchia is an above average offensive player who can hit from both sides of the plate. Ross, a right handed hitter and plus defender, is complimented almost perfectly by Salty who is dramatically stronger when hitting from the left side of the dish. Saltalamacchia will go through frustrating patches that make you think he’ll never make contact with another pitch all season. Defensive lapses are bound to happen (see: 2013 World Series), but they can certainly be limited by simply making better decisions with the baseball. Ultimately, Saltalamacchia is a flawed player among a handful of free agents who all have their warts, but he is the best fit here, for what this team is trying to accomplish now and in the not-so-distant future.

Red Sox Offseason Notes: Napoli, Carp, Ellsbury

Photo via csnne.com

We are only a couple of weeks into the Red Sox offseason. The World Series trophy is somewhere, presumably in New England–where it belongs. Qualifying offers have been made and turned down. All is right with the world.

Here are some brief thoughts on the Red Sox, free agency, and the 2014 season.

— I think too many fans are underestimating the hole that Jacoby Ellsbury‘s likely departure is going to leave in the Red Sox outfield. Most of us know that Ellsbury is an excellent player. But because the Red Sox have Jackie Bradley Jr. waiting to play center field, some fans believe that Ells won’t be missed as much. Ellsbury was close to a six win (5.8 WAR) player in 2013. It wouldn’t be hard to make a case for him as team MVP. Bradley makes it easier to not overspend on Ellsbury, but he certainly does not fill the void the Oregon native is going to leave.

— My outfield next year has Shane Victorino in right field. No matter what.

— I understand why the Red Sox didn’t give Jarrod Saltalamacchia a qualifying offer, but I think they made a mistake. No free agent in the two years this system has been in place has accepted a qualifying offer. 22 offers, 22 “no thanks.” The Red Sox can afford to be aggressive with their QO’s. They missed out here.

— I would try to find a way to begin the year with Brandon Workman starting baseball games. Ideally, it would be in Boston, but if it’s in Pawtucket, I’m cool with that.

— I owe Mike Carp an apology. When GM Ben Cherington traded essentially nothing to acquire his services from the Mariners, I said that I didn’t think he was very good at baseball. I was wrong. Carp brings legitimate power, a coveted asset around baseball. He slugged .523 in limited time last year. WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford has reported that clubs have inquired about Carp, but the Red Sox don’t want to move him. I don’t blame them.

Daniel Nava‘s OBP in 2013 was .385. Victorino, Nava, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli are my ideal/realistic top five hitters on Opening Day.

— Where does Joel Hanrahan play next year? I wouldn’t be against bringing him back on a one-year, low cost deal.

Brian McCann should be a target of the Red Sox if he can be had for less than a five-year pact. It’s unlikely that he would sign a three or four-year deal, so I’m passing on him.

— The Red Sox should give Napoli a two-year deal with an option. Defense isn’t especially sexy, but the burly first baseman proved to be an excellent fielder in 2013. Power, on the other hand, is sexy, and Napoli provides plenty. Does he strike out a lot? Sure. But he sees a ton of pitches, gets on base, and fits in well here. Chicks dig the long ball, and I dig Nap.

— Napoli was at Tuesday night’s Celtics game in Boston. He was, reportedly, wearing a shirt.

A Timely Champion: How a game in April told us a lot about the 2013 Boston Red Sox

Photo via wcvb.com

The Red Sox won a game in early April on a cool, cloudy day against a division rival by a score of 3-1. It was one simple game plucked out of the first week of what is a long six-month regular season. There were no extra innings. There were no walk-offs.

Sitting in the right field bleachers on April 8, Opening Day at Fenway Park, I had no idea that the performance I was witnessing would, in many ways, come to epitomize the eventual 2013 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.

I believe that the members of this year’s Red Sox team genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. Furthermore, I’m confident that the guys in that clubhouse truly cared about one another–a trait that Terry Francona often highlighted as being vital to any team’s success. There is no doubt that the 2013 Red Sox possessed a unique blend of character, camaraderie, and yes, chemistry. Sometimes, however, teams that are labeled as possessing good chemistry often have their talents overlooked. Teams bereft of talent that bulge with chemistry don’t win 97 games, and they certainly don’t win championships.

When an average pitcher does not have his stuff on a given day, there is a good chance that major league hitters will make him pay. Conversely, when a pitcher who is supremely talented, like Clay Buchholz, lacks his usual sharpness, there is still an opportunity to be successful. April 8 was one of those days for the slender righty. Against a relatively tough Orioles lineup that featured excellent hitters like Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Adam Jones, Buchholz tossed seven frames, punched out eight batters, and earned his second win in as many starts. By all accounts, he was masterful on that spring afternoon in Boston. Here is what Buchholz said after that game: “I didn’t really have one thing that was working the whole day. [I] Was up in the zone, couple of balls hit early that would’ve gotten out stayed in the park. Other than that it was sorta a grind there for a little bit.” Must be nice, right?

Players — the actual guys who put on the uniform — routinely tell us about the importance of chemistry, so who are we to dismiss it simply because we can’t quantify it? Nevertheless, talent, for me, always wins out. Give me talent before anything else. And this Red Sox team provided us with plenty of it.

In 2011, the Red Sox possessed a talent-laden roster. On paper, they looked like an absolute wagon. Theo Epstein and Co. added Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to a core group of quality players that was already in place here. For much of the season, things seemed to click. The vast majority of the 2011 campaign was actually wildly successful, but no one will ever remember the good days of that summer (on August 9, the Red Sox were 29 games over .500). Instead, fans will recall a dreadful September in which the team went 7-20, relinquishing a nine-game lead for the only Wild Card spot, and, of course, chicken and beer. All of those things may be true, but the focus shouldn’t be on Bud Light and Popeyes. The proverbial finger should be pointed directly at that team’s lack of depth.  Kyle Weiland started five extremely meaningful games (three came in September) for the Red Sox in 2011. The righty was, as you might expect, absolutely awful (7.66 ERA in seven appearances). He last pitched in a major league game in April of 2012. The fact that Weiland played a legitimate role in the Red Sox season and subsequent collapse is rather embarrassing. Ben Cherington, who was the assistant GM of the Red Sox in 2011, had a keen understanding of the importance of depth when he assembled this year’s squad.

On April 8, when Buchholz was finished baffling Orioles batters, he turned things over to Andrew Bailey who looked excellent in his first two appearances of the season. Bailey kept rolling, punching out two of the three batters he faced. Joel Hanrahan pitched the ninth inning of that game, allowing one run. It was clear that the Red Sox had identified their setup man and closer. Of course, no one knew that the pair of hard throwing right handers wouldn’t throw another pitch after July 12.

When a team loses its all-star closer to a season-ending injury, they’re usually not able to replace him with another former all-star who is a proven back end of the bullpen piece. But that’s exactly what the Red Sox did when Hanrahan went down with a torn flexor tendon, and they were able to turn to Bailey. Ultimately and somewhat unsurprisingly, Bailey was lost for the season and required surgery to repair his shoulder. John Farrell turned briefly to Junichi Tazawa before handing the keys to the car over to Koji Uehara on June 26. Uehara never gave them back as he accumulated 21 regular season saves and seven in the postseason. He made sure to collect hundreds of high fives along the way.

There is no doubt that Cherington knew what he was doing when he added Hanrahan and Uehara to a bullpen that already had two guys who possessed arsenals that lend themselves to the closer role. Bailey was a proven closer, and Tazawa is an excellent pitcher who rarely walks a batter and has the ability to throw in the mid-90’s. Heading into the season, a case could be made that there was some redundancy in the Red Sox bullpen, but, because of that depth, they were able to overcome attrition and turn what easily could have evolved into a weakness into a legitimate strength.

Depth is something that general managers can build. To a certain extent, they can control it. Could Cherington have splurged, gone out and signed a sexy free agent, like Josh Hamilton? You bet. But it would have limited his ability to infuse talent around the diamond and build depth in certain areas. David Ross, Jonny Gomes, and Uehara are three good examples of players who Cherington could have simply passed on without getting a ton of pushback from the fanbase. Timeliness, on the other hand, is a characteristic that general managers do not have much control over, but most good teams seem to find a way to come up large in big spots.

Wei-Yin Chen was matching Buchholz blow for blow, frame after frame. The Red Sox offense was essentially lifeless. Chen was dealing. Then Dustin Pedroia led off the bottom of the seventh inning with an infield single. Mike Napoli then jolted a ball to center for a double. Will Middlebrooks followed with a strikeout for the first out of the inning. Daniel Nava stepped in, batting from the right side. He took a ball and fouled off the next pitch. Chen’s third offering was clobbered by Nava. When the ball landed beyond the big green wall in left, it was 3-0 Red Sox. A game and an afternoon that had been a pitcher’s duel in every way suddenly and indelibly changed because of one well-timed swing.

Nava, the man who delivered the deciding blow that day, is a player who likely wouldn’t have been in the lineup that afternoon if David Ortiz had been completely healthy at the beginning of the year. Ortiz would have been the designated hitter. Gomes would have moved out of the DH role and slid into left field against the southpaw. But because of the Red Sox outfield depth, Farrell had the ability to use the versatile Nava in left that day. An undrafted former independent league standout, Nava’s talents are often overlooked because of his remarkable story. In reality, Nava is a very good ballplayer. He finished eighth in the American league with a .303 average, and his .385 OBP was good for fifth among AL hitters. And on this day in early April, Nava was incredibly timely.

The 2013 Red Sox are going to be remembered as an unlikely champion, a group of guys who loved baseball and beards. But for those of us who watched this team everyday, we’ll recall them as a talented, deep collection of players who had a knack for getting the timely hit. Time after time after time after time.

It’s Finally Here

Photo via washingpost.com

You know you’re spoiled when four years elapse, and it feels like it has been an eternity. October 2009 certainly feels like a hell of a long time ago, but maybe that’s what happens when it’s over before you even know it. After spending the last three postseasons devoid of the Red Sox, I couldn’t be any more excited about this afternoon’s game.

We deserve it.

Baseball fans, the ones who follow the game on a day-to-day basis, are a rare breed. Anyone can sit down on a Sunday and dedicate three hours to watch a football game. It’s not easy to allocate that amount of time  — sometimes more — on a nightly basis. We’re all busy. Families and careers take precedent. But many of us find the time. It comes after kids go to bed, when it’s the bottom of the third and our team has two on and no out. Sometimes, it’s in the car, between errands, when we catch fragmented pieces of the game through the voices of Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien.

Being a baseball fan requires a level of sacrifice. We exchange hours of sleep for innings when the Red Sox head to the West Coast. Off days are date nights–just to keep everyone happy. If we’re unable to catch the game, we’re constantly checking in on the score. It sounds a bit silly, but sometimes, it’s tough to do (imagine how the players must feel).

As fans, we participate in a sort of grand wager. We make bets. Our time and money serve as chips that we slide towards the center of the table with the hope of a big payday. 2013 has already served as a nice profit. Tomorrow is the first step towards claiming the jackpot. Enjoy.

Expectations and the 2013 Boston Red Sox

Photo courtesy of news.yahoo.com

This spring, sometime around May, a good friend of mine and I had a conversation, and we made a few decisions. The Bruins and Patriots are expected to reach the Stanley Cup and Super Bowl, respectively. Right now, they’re supposed to be excellent. We agreed that the 2013 Red Sox would be deemed a success if they competed for a playoff spot this summer. They didn’t even need to qualify for the postseason. The Red Sox have a solid foundation, but the idea of expecting them to reach the World Series would be a bit silly, even farfetched.

Things have changed.

The Red Sox will end the 2013 regular season with no less than 97 wins. Folks around baseball believe the Red Sox are the team to beat in the American League. They’re deep as hell. They have Jon Lester throwing like the guy we saw from 2008-most of 2011. Their lineup has virtually no holes, and Koji Uehara is arguably the best closer in baseball.

So have expectations for this team changed? It’s a difficult question that lacks absolute answers. There is an undeniable grey area that exists. Let’s take a closer look.

My early season goals for this team have been met and surpassed. As a fan who lives and dies with this organization, I couldn’t be more satisfied. They’re going to win close to 100 games. They are the best team in the best division in baseball. This 2013 squad has simply had one of the greatest seasons in team history. They’ve provided me with memories that have forever buried themselves deep into my soul. This version of the Red Sox will always hold a special place in my heart. They’ve been so damn good.

That doesn’t mean that everything from here on out is gravy. But it’s close.

This scenario is admittedly unlikely, but for argument’s sake, let’s say the Red Sox are swept in the ALDS and aren’t competitive, losing each game by at least three runs. It’s true that I would be disappointed. But i would not be angry. There would be no outrage. The pitchforks would remain in the shed, and the torches would stay unlit.

Some sports talk radio hosts — and fans — contend that if the Red Sox get bounced from the postseason in the ALDS, the season will be labeled an utter disappointment. Some believe that anything short of reaching (or winning) the World Series would be a failure. I can understand that point of view. It’s a testament to exactly how good this team has performed. It’s a compliment, really.

If you’re someone that believes it’s World Series or bust, I don’t think you’re in the wrong. You should have high expectations of this team. They’re very, very good. Conversely, if you think the Red Sox have met and exceeded expectations, and they’re playing with house money, I can’t disagree with you. Maybe I’m riding the fence. I don’t know. You decide.

Because of the turmoil of 2011 and the unmitigated disaster of 2012, this year’s Red Sox club has not carried the same bulging fanbase of year’s past. I was at the park a lot this spring and summer, and there were almost always pockets of empty seats. Some of you have not bought in. I understand why.

But I expect that many of you wish that you did. That’s something I know for sure.

The Red Sox and a Season-Defining Stretch

Photo via edmontonjournal.com

The 2013 Red Sox season, no matter how it ends, will be described by many as improbable, unlikely, and even magical. It’s hard to disagree. This is the same franchise that answered the collapse and controversy of 2011 with Bobby Valentine. It’s the same organization that lost 93 ballgames in 2012.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

The Red Sox will have at least an eight game lead with twelve to play in the American League East when they take on the Yankees Sunday Night at Fenway Park. They have the best record in the AL. If the season ended today, they would have home field advantage throughout the playoffs, including the World Series. Their first game of the postseason would be against the winner of the single elimination Wild Card game. The Red Sox have essentially played themselves into a position where they will likely be afforded every reasonable luxury–the ability to rest players, set up their pitching, and play more games at home than on the road (if necessary).

So how did this happen? How did we get here?

There are, of course, a myriad of answers. Good pitching, timely hitting, and Koji Uehara are just a few correct responses. However, when one takes a closer look at the season to date, it is impossible to ignore two separate stretches of games that are particularly responsible for the Red Sox ascension to the top of the American League.

(Disclaimer: This is not to overlook the importance of the team’s scorching hot start to the season. 20-8 is a heck of a way to begin the year. But, because of its obviousness, it will not be discussed at length here.)

The first one followed a 2-9 stretch in early May. The credibility of the team was being called into question. Maybe April was just a fluke, a good month in a long season that received too much attention because it happened to occur at the beginning. Like the quality team we now know they are, the Red Sox responded. I discussed the importance of their ability to right the proverbial shift back in June.

Since then, the Red Sox have piled up wins while avoiding extended losing streaks. Despite playing good baseball for four and a half months, they hadn’t separated themselves from the Tampa Bay Rays. On August 24, the Red Sox and Rays were all knotted up. Just 18 days the later, the Sox possessed a 9.5 game lead over their division rival.

For Joe Maddon and his team, it must have felt like a two-and-a-half week nightmare. But it wasn’t. The Red Sox turned into an absolute wagon, and the Rays couldn’t get out of the way of it.

Since August 19, the Red Sox have gone 18-6 over 24 games. They played the Giants, Dodgers, Orioles, White Sox, Tigers, Yankees, and Rays. During that same stretch, the Rays went 11-14 over 25 games. They played the Orioles, Yankees, Royals, Angels (seven times), A’s, Mariners, Red Sox, and Twins. The Red Sox beat teams that are regarded as being the best in baseball in the Dodgers and Tigers. They took care of business against the teams they should beat like the lowly White Sox. Meanwhile, the Rays simply couldn’t tread water during a difficult West Coast road trip.

If it seems like just a few weeks ago that the Red Sox and Rays were in a dogfight in the AL East, that’s because they were. The Red Sox applied pressure by winning tough games against good teams. The Rays simply didn’t respond. Consequently, Tampa Bay is relegated to fighting for their postseason lives for the next two weeks while the Red Sox have their eye on capturing the best record in the American League.

Should Boston make a deep run in the playoffs, there will be more than a handful of people looking back to this late season stretch that has helped identify the Red Sox as one of the best teams in baseball.

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