Talkin Sox with Dan

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Archive for the month “May, 2012”

The Perils of the 2011 Boston Red Sox

Since that fateful night on September 28th last season in Baltimore, the Boston Red Sox have been criticized by fans and media mercilessly. And rightfully so. They collectively let their foot off of the gas. They didn’t have each others’ backs. Their manager lost control of a clubhouse that was filled with players who wanted the luxuries of a five-star hotel but lost the ambition to work for the right to stay at one. They won seven times in the final month of the regular season. They lost 20. They were the ’04 Yankees. They were the ’09-’10 Bruins. All choke artists. And the Red Sox painted a masterpiece.

So I’ve been fine with the unabated criticism from talk-show hosts, writers, and fellow fans. It is well-deserved, and without it, accountability is often lost. However, there have been some serious inconsistencies when it comes to the appraisal of last season’s version of the Red Sox and their relationship to the 2012 team.

Under no circumstances is it acceptable for one to trash the 2011 team for being lazy, fat, spoiled, and drunk, then, out of the opposite corner of one’s mouth, discuss, and find consolation in, the fact that yesteryear’s squad began the season miserably before ascending to the top of baseball hierarchy a couple of months later.

Fans and media members have abused last year’s team, using it as both a punching bag and a comfort pillow. Can’t have it both ways, folks. That just simply is not fair. But let’s delve deeper.

I’m going to put forth two summations of the thought process for many Red Sox fans and media members concerning two subjects: The perceived ringleader of “Beer-Gate” and the sluggish start of this year’s version of the Red Sox.

1) During interviews conducted at the beginning of Spring Training, Josh Beckett doesn’t show a tremendous amount of contrition for faltering down the stretch and participating in activities that could not be described as intelligent at the end of last season. In his first start of the season, the Texas native promptly gets flogged by the Tigers on their turf on national television, rendering the Sox 0-2. Beckett goes on to pitch well against the Rays, Rangers, Twins, and White Sox. He skips a start at the advisement of his manager due to some minor discomfort he felt in his lat muscle. He plays golf with Clay Buchholz on an off-day. His next turn in the rotation is against the Indians, and Beckett gets bruised for seven earned runs over the course two and one third innings. In his post-game presser, Beckett is defiant, angry. His off-days are his off-days. Clearly, the Texas Tough Guy has learned nothing after his choke-job September that was filled with Bud Light and chicken thighs. Trade him. For what? Anyone, anything.

2) The Red Sox start off turtle-slow in 2012? No big deal, so did the 2011 Red Sox, and they were perfectly fine. In fact, that team started the season 2-10. Remember that? The Greatest Team Ever looked awful in April and pristine in July. Keep in mind that World Series rings are handed out in October, not April. A major league baseball season is not a sprint. It’s a marathon, a grind, a war of attrition. Meaningful games are played when the NFL regular season is in its infancy, not when OTA’s are just getting underway. We know this. We lived through it last season. Things don’t look good right now, but give it a couple of months, and they’ll be fine.

You can’t have both. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

The 2011 Boston Red Sox have been portrayed over and over again as the paradigm for not-to-be as a sports franchise. They were the anti-Bruins. Overpaid, under performers, who would rather carry a cold twelve pack to the clubhouse than their team to a victory. Fans, scribes, and sports radio hosts treated this team like Mike Tyson would handle a speed bag in his prime. Beckett quickly transformed from World Series hero into the Prince of Darkness. Jon Lester and Buchholz, his minions.

And you know what? Good. Because when you’re getting your legs taken out from under you by the Orioles deep in September in must-have, gotta-win games, you deserve the inevitable backlash from a fan-base in a region that, despite all of the championships captured in other professional sports, invests more of its heart and soul in baseball than any other athletic endeavor.

But don’t turn around and look to that team for comfort. You can’t blast Beckett one day, and then argue that the Sox will be fine by the time July rolls around because that’s what occurred last season. The same guys who walked off the field at Camden Yards in late September after ripping your heart out were the same cast of characters who beat up on their competition throughout the majority of the summer.

The 2011 Boston Red Sox remain a troubling narrative. But just because they lost in historic fashion does not give people who follow the team the right to pick and choose what they want to shape their arguments. Ultimately, the team was similar to a beautiful, expensive house that was built on a foundation of straw. A storm touched down, and the home fell apart. Their demise was part fluke, part inevitable.

Criticize them. Rip them apart. They deserve it. Just don’t seek solace in the fact that the 2011 Red Sox were 11-15 after the month of April, and this year’s team was .500 when May 1st rolled around.

Last year’s team did not show us that slow starts can be overcome. They demonstrated that how you finish is all that matters.

Hitting Quick on the Red Sox

Kevin Youkilis was activated on Tuesday and promptly participated in some heavy bridge work courtesy of Brian Matusz. Because my Little League All-Star team had more outfield depth than the Red Sox currently possess, Adrian Gonzalez started in right field, Will Middlebrooks held down the fort at third base, and Youk reclaimed the first base bag. I’m not a fan of of displacing Gonzalez for the sake of keeping better bats in the lineup. The Sox pitching staff isn’t exactly filled with Cy Young candidates and sacrificing defense surely won’t help Clay Buchholz‘s ever-rising earned run average. Nevertheless, I would rather have Gonzalez pushed to the outfield than Middlebrooks. So for now, I’ll accept the lesser of the two evils.

—Related to the above note, if you are someone who calls into radio stations, comments on blogs, or tweets to reporters stating that Player X should be able to play the outfield because Player X once played right field for his T-Ball team, please, for the love of Christ, stop.

—Bobby Valentine’s comfort level as manager of this team has certainly increased. It not out of the ordinary to see Valentine take a trip to the mound, speak with the pitcher, and head back to the dugout–without making a change. He gently slapped Matt Albers in the face within the past week. I like it.

Felix Doubront lacks efficiency, but man, the kid has some poise. He knows how to pitch. I feel pretty good when the Venezuelan toes the rubber.

—I had an interesting exchange with a friend of mine today about Jacoby Ellsbury. Essentially, his premise was that Ells’ injury can only hurt him at the negotiation table following his first crack at free agency after the 2013 season. In turn, that benefits the Red Sox. My counter was that I would rather have a healthy, productive Ellsbury while he is making roughly $8MM and under team control. We finally realized that we weren’t disagreeing with each other, but rather raising two extremely fair points. Ultimately, the Red Sox are losing out on valuable team-controlled years thanks to two freak injuries that have derailed significant portions of Ellsbury’s young career. Simultaneously, it would stupid for any potential suitor to not bring up Ellsbury’s injury marred past when he reaches free agency.

—I was at the afternoon game against Seattle, where Tim Wakefield was honored. Minus the tackiness of Doug Mirabelli busting out of a police car, it was a well put together ceremony.

—In the bottom of the sixth inning, Doubront and Adam Jones, who is awesome, engaged in a pretty good battle. It lasted eleven pitches. Doubront threw only two pitches out of the strike zone during the exchange–one of which was a pitchout. Ultimately, Doubront won the showdown, striking out Jones on a breaking pitch. Again, I was impressed by the young lefty.

David Ortiz held a players only meeting sometime after the first game of the four game set with the Indians a couple of weeks ago. Josh Beckett had just pitched like trash. Ortiz focused on the importance of accountability for each individual player and emphasis was placed on the pitching staff. Good for him. That is a guy is talking the talk and walking the walk.

Shopping for a Catcher

The Red Sox do not have a surplus of many of things. Wins are a good example of something they certainly do not have an excess of. Their outfield that once played host to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury is now home to Daniel Nava and Ryan Sweeney. Alfredo Aceves was once a strong candidate to break camp as a member of the rotation. A freak thumb injury to Andrew Bailey, combined with Red Sox brass’ steadfast belief that Daniel Bard is best served as a starter, thrust Aceves into the role of closer. The minute they thought that had six viable starting pitchers, Aaron Cook’s knee was gashed by a spike, landing him on the disabled list.

The 2012 version of the Boston Red Sox is not exactly dripping with depth.

They do have catching, however. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is posting a so-so  slash line of .250/.281/.512. He has shown a knack for hitting the ball out of the ballpark on the young season. Salty’s gone bridge five times. The 27-year old was once a highly touted prospect and a former first round pick. He has the pedigree and is still developing at an extremely demanding position. Kelly Shoppach mashes lefties and seems to be vaulting into the position of personal catcher for Josh Beckett. It should not be ignored that on Monday night, Shoppach caught Jon Lester‘s complete game against the Mariners. Whether it is factual or not, pitchers seem to be more comfortable working with Shoppach. Finally, Ryan Lavarnway is biding his time at Triple-A Pawtucket. He certainly looks like the catcher of the future or at least a power bat from the right side.

Compared to the catching situations for the Angels and the Nationals, the Red Sox look like they have Ivan Rodriguez, Johnny Bench, and Yogi Berra.

In Washington, the backstops are dropping early and often. Wilson Ramos, a talented young catcher, is likely out for the duration of the season with a right knee injury. On Monday night, Ramos’ replacement, Sandy Leon, a rookie, fell victim to a high right ankle sprain courtesy of the Padres’ Chase Headley during a play at the plate. Out West, the Angels are suffering a similar fate. Chris Iannetta will be out for the best part of two months following wrist surgery. Their top catching prospect, Hank Conger, is currently on the shelf as well.

So this tweet from the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo does not come as much of a suprise:

Conveniently enough, as I mentioned previously, Shoppach caught Lester’s masterful performance last night. He also went very deep to left field, just for good measure. He is a veteran guy, playing under a one-year deal at short money. John Heyman of CBSSports.com sees a tremendous amount of interest brewing around baseball in Shoppach.

This is an interesting situation for GM Ben Cherington and the Red Sox. It’s not like they are openly showcasing their catchers, but other organizations are in need, and, in this situation, the Red Sox have. But what does it all mean?

Ryan Lavarnway is not going anywhere. He hasn’t hit his stride in the International League as of yet, but he is as close to a proven commodity as a prospect can get. Saltalamacchia is not your typical bridge player. The Sox have Mike Aviles keeping Jose Iglesias‘ seat warm, but I do not get the impression that Salty is strictly a placeholder. That is not to say that he is untradeable. If the right deal came along, I believe Cherington would be willing to part with Saltalamacchia. That would be the ultimate vote of confidence for Lavarnway.

Shoppach is the most interesting piece in all of this. At first glance, he is the most tradeable catching commodity the Red Sox have. But is role on this team has expanded. Valentine openly stated that he was not in favor of his pitchers having personal catchers, but it would be moronic to say that Shoppach has not evolved into Beckett’s new version of Jason Varitek. After Lester’s best performance of the year on Monday, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shoppach behind the dish for the lefty’s next turn.

It will be a curious situation to monitor over the course of the next several days. In all likelihood, the Red Sox will not make a deal. But I would be extremely surprised to hear that they did not listen.

Beat the Bad Teams

The Mariners are in Boston for a quick two-game series. Aside from bringing the typical rainy Seattle weather to the Hub, the Mariners also tote an underwhelming 16-20 record to town.

I’m going to keep this simple. The M’s are bad. They have some nice pieces like Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley, but they hit like I did in high school. Which is bad. Very, very bad. The Mariners rank 29th in on-base percentage and 27th in team batting average.

Felix Hernandez pitched in the Bronx on Friday night, rendering him unavailable in the brief series against the Sox. Bobby Valentine’s boys have no business letting the M’s walk out of Boston with a win.

On Monday, Jon Lester will toe the rubber for the home team. The following day, the much-maligned Josh Beckett will get the ball. The Mariners will counter with Jason Vargas, who has tossed well as of late, and Blake Beavan. If this were a game of Texas Hold ‘Em, the Sox have hole hards of Ace, King, while the M’s were dealt a three and an eight, off suit.

It will be up to Lester to start acting like belongs in the same zip code as other aces, something he has yet to show me this year. Beckett, who I still have faith in, will be pitching on Tuesday with a purpose, unless he really is a zombie that lacks a pulse.

Taking the final two games of the home stand would be big as the local nine ready themselves to head south to Tampa Bay as they embark on a tough eight-game road trip. Philadelphia and Baltimore follow.

If the Red Sox hope to get back into contention this season, the performance of Lester and Beckett are paramount. And if they can’t beat the bad teams, they’re certainly not going to beat the good ones.

Playing Telephone

Since the end of 2011, I have struggled with how to analyze the Red Sox and its ownership group. On one hand, I want to grab John Henry by the arm and say “hey, what in God’s name is going on?” On the other hand, I say to myself “well, the guy is doing exactly what a good owner should do–invest heavily in his team.” I am beyond conflicted. I don’t know what my opinion is. I am confused.

What I do know is that there are some serious communication issues on Yawkey Way. A good friend of mine who is an unadulterated Yankees fan asked me yesterday to explain the chain of events that led to the powder keg surrounding Josh Beckett. So I did my best. Beckett had soreness before his 126-pitch effort in Chicago. It was decided in the middle of last week that he would skip his start against the Orioles on Saturday. That Thursday he golfed with Clay Buchholz. Over the weekend, Aaron Cook took Beckett’s turn in the rotation. On Sunday, the same day that Darnell McDonald toed the rubber for the Red Sox, Beckett was not available to pitch.

That’s it. That’s my take, and I think it’s a reasonable one. But there are so many questions that still remain, and almost all of them have to do with poor communication. No one is on the same page. No one.

Here is what we know for sure: It was Beckett’s turn to pitch on Saturday. He did not pitch. A couple of days before, he played golf. About a week before that, he had some stiffness in a lat muscle located behind his right shoulder. He decided he could pitch through it. Because he did not communicate the discomfort to his manager, Valentine felt comfortable letting him throw 126 pitches in a game against the White Sox. Beyond that, who knows?

In an interview with WEEI’s Rob Bradford before Friday night’s game, Beckett sounded like a guy who was ready to take the ball last Saturday against the Orioles: “I certainly didn’t tell him (Valentine) I wasn’t pitching. I respected whenever he came in and told me I wasn’t pitching because we definitely had some issues we had to deal with.”

Fans are quick to question why Beckett couldn’t have stepped up to pitch the next day during the 17-inning marathon game. Well, here is at least part of the answer from pitching coach Bob McClure.

“That would be ludicrous. What we were trying to do is give him a breather, and now we’re going to throw him in the game? That doesn’t make any sense. Even if he was available, I don’t know he’s the one you want to do that to.’’

Beckett’s take: “Nobody asked me to. I think it was a precautionary deal. I think when they tell you you’re going to miss a start … If they would have asked me I could have went out there and pitched.”

Holy crap.

Let me know if your head is spinning because mine definitely is.

If you read the tea leaves, it seems like Beckett felt a tug in a muscle behind his shoulder. He didn’t tell anyone. He threw a ton of pitches. Then told someone. That someone then decided it would be best to let Cook take the ball on Saturday against the Orioles, giving Beckett an early season respite. The two righties from Texas had a tee time on a day off and decided not to cancel it because Beckett’s stiffness had subsided.

The Red Sox do not have a strong voice in the dugout or the ownership box. There is no consistency. If you’re looking for a line of communication within the organization, stop looking. There isn’t one. Valentine serves as a nice scapegoat, but he is just a pawn in a problem that spans throughout this organization. It starts with John Henry and bleeds onto the field.

At this point, the coaches and players in the Red Sox dugout need to get on the same page. Get on the same side of the rope and pull. Ask what Beckett recently asked himself in an interview: “Am I part of the solution or am I part of the problem? I want to part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Winning ballgames will solve a lot for the 2012 Boston Red Sox. Winning is the ultimate elixir. And good communication goes a long way in helping the cause.

Corner Controversy

Will Middlebrooks smashed two home runs on Monday night, powering the Red Sox to a win over the Kansas City Royals. The Texas native won’t turn 24-years old until September of this year. He plays third base, a position that is bereft of talent around baseball. Middlebrooks is a major cog in the future of the Boston Red Sox. The question now becomes–when is the future?

In four games in the bigs, Middlebrooks has gone bridge (hat tip to HOF’er Dennis Eckersley) three times. He has collected eight hits in 22 at-bats and shown the ability to drive the ball to all fields.  Middlebrooks was on a tear in Triple-A Pawtucket, and he certainly has not let a promotion derail him.

Based on his performance, it seems as though Middlebrooks punched a one-way ticket when he took the trip from Rhode Island to the Hub.

But not so fast.

Kevin Youkilis will be back this season. He is making $12MM in 2012, and when he is right, Youk changes the dynamic of this lineup. Believe it or not, the Red Sox offense misses the scrappy right handed hitter. He grinds out at-bats and provides stability to a middle of an order that relies heavily on production from lefties David Ortiz and the recently-maligned Adrian Gonzalez.

Youkilis, if healthy, will not be supplanted by Middlebrooks. That is a simple fact.

The Red Sox, like most organizations, seek value in almost everything they do–whether they’re successful or not is a different story for a different day. Nevertheless, a healthy Youkilis playing third base in Boston while Middlebrooks continues to get at-bats and become more selective at the plate in Pawtucket is likely ideal for this team.

Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. Good stories often result from no-name guys or future stars who put together good bursts at different points during the long season. Sprinters are applauded, but the proven players who can finish the marathon are the ones who generally succeed over the course of what amounts to an extremely long summer. Look, Middlebrooks has been white hot since his arrival to Boston, but it’s been four games. Four. Teams at this level adapt to a new face. Once there is a bit of a thicker book on Middlebrooks, pitchers will expose weaknesses. It’s bound to happen. It is the quality hitters who adjust to the adjustments. And Youkilis has shown that he has the ability to do that year in and year out. In no way is this an indictment against Middlebrooks. He is a fantastic talent who surely will evolve into an excellent major leaguer.

Maybe this problem works itself out. Maybe Youkilis never gets fully healthy. Maybe he is traded. Maybe the Red Sox find a way to keep both Youkilis and Middlebrooks in the lineup. It’s impossible to predict those scenarios. But all things even, I’m taking Youkilis. He is the one who has already evolved into that aforementioned ‘excellent major leaguer’.

Picture this: It’s the middle of September, and the Red Sox are one game out of the second and final Wild Card spot. They’re in Tampa Bay. Top of the ninth, down one, with runners on second and third. Who would you rather have up–Youkilis or Middlebrooks?

Think about it.

Pre-series Notes 5/4/12 — Orioles vs. Red Sox

The Baltimore Orioles come to Fenway for a three-game set, beginning tonight. The Birds are in second place in the AL East and seven games over .500 (16-9), while the Sox continue to toil in the basement (11-13). Below are my thoughts and some things to look for over the course of the next three days.

Dustin Pedroia is batting cleanup tonight. He is a career .397 hitter out of the four-hole. I like the move by Bobby Valentine.

—Dan Duquette returns to Yawkey Way as the GM of the Orioles. The Massachusetts native was fired by this ownership group in 2002. Theo Epstein attracts the majority, if not all, of the credit for winning the World Series in 200 (from a front office perspective, of course), but it should not be forgotten that the Duke is responsible for bringing in many of the major contributors to that team. It’s good to see a guy who obviously loves the game of baseball get back in the industry in a major way.

—Don’t bet on baseball. But if you’re going to despite my advice, bet on the Red Sox tonight. Jon Lester is 14-0 against the O’s. The offense has beat up on left handed pitching in the early going. Wei-Yin Chen is a rookie southpaw.

—Here are your pitching matchups, courtesy of the Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham:

Friday: LHP Wei-Yin Chen (2-0, 2.22) vs. LHP Jon Lester (1-2, 4.65), 7:10 p.m

Saturday: RHP Jason Hammel (3-1, 1.97) vs. RHP Aaron Cook (2012 debut), 1:10 p.m

Sunday: RHP Tommy Hunter (2-1, 4.26) vs. RHP Clay Buchholz (3-1, 8.69), 1:35 p.m

—Buchholz is the pitcher to monitor over the weekend. He needs a quality start. Another poor outing could seriously result in a demotion to Triple-A Pawtucket.

—Despite the Orioles’ impressive record, they are not a good team. The Red Sox need to take two out of three over the weekend. Anything less would be a failure.

Will Middlebrooks will bat second tonight as he hopes to inject some energy in this veteran team. He looked good in his debut on Wednesday against the Athletics. Kevin Youkilis is still this team’s third baseman for 2012, but Middlebrooks is a purebred. The guy plays good defense and has shown the ability to hit a ton a very shallow position (third base). Red Sox fans will enjoy watching him play in the short term and especially in the future.

Matt Wieters is the Orioles’ catcher and is an absolute stud. In 45 games against the local nine, Wieters has hit at a smooth .323 clip with three home runs. Red Sox pitchers will attempt to keep the young backstop at bay, but it won’t be easy.

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