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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.

Red Sox, Blue Jays: What to watch for

Photo via weei.com

The pitching matchups. The Red Sox, on paper, have the upper hand on the 9-17 Blue Jays in each of the three games during the series. Jon Lester will take the mound on Tuesday–opposed by Brandon Morrow. Clay Buchholz draws Mark Buehrle on Wednesday, while Ryan Dempster will take on either Josh Johnson or J.A. Happ. The Jays’ starting pitching, like much of their team, certainly does not lack talent, but the Red Sox hurlers are absolutely rolling right now.

Lester’s demeanor. The big lefty is an emotional guy. And he has no problem admitting that. However, I firmly believe that when Lester doesn’t get a close call (or two or three) he can let his emotions negatively affect his pitching. I’m confident that John Farrell has had discussions with him about showing up umpires while he is on the mound–like he did during his last start on Wednesday. It just doesn’t help your cause as a pitcher. Nevertheless, as long as Lester is pitching well, I don’t care if he gives the umpire the finger (seriously don’t do that — you’ll get ejected). But when his antics begin to affect his ability to execute his pitches — that’s when it becomes a problem.

Jose Bautista is back. The powerful right handed hitter did not play in any of the three games against the Red Sox earlier this month due to a minor ankle injury. He will be back in the Jays’ lineup this time around and is 10-45 against Lester with four home runs to his credit. (Side note: Brett Lawrie is back too. And he is an important player. I also really appreciate his hard-nosed approach to the game).

Jose Reyes is not back. He is nursing a severe left ankle injury suffered in mid-April during a game against Kansas City–a devastating blow for a struggling Blue Jays team. Reyes, as he so often does, showed us why the Marlins, the Jays, and a myriad of other teams salivated over acquiring his services as he blistered the baseball around the Rogers Centre in Toronto during the early-season series against the Sox. The guy is an elite talent at a primer position. We’ll wish him a successful recovery, but we certainly won’t mourn his absence during the next three games.

— (Keeping up with the theme) Shane Victorino‘s back. Literally. His back. It’s sore. According to reports, there is only inflammation present, and, by all accounts, the Red Sox are determined to keep Victorino off of the disabled listed. It’s worth noting that Jackie Bradley Jr. was back in Pawtucket’s lineup on Tuesday serving as the designated hitter. That is a solid indicator that Victorino will in fact be able to avoid a trip to the DL. However, he will not be in the lineup on Tuesday night. Daniel Nava has served admirably in right field.

The closer situation. Joel Hanrahan was officially activated by the Red Sox today. Although Farrell has not formally disclosed who will work the ninth during the next save situation, he has indicated enough to make fans believe it will be Andrew Bailey who gets the ball.

If that is the decision, I agree with it. Bailey, by and large, has been outstanding in Hanrahan’s absence. His stuff plays in the ninth–his fastball has shown a tremendous amount of life. And when he is healthy, he has proven to be excellent. For now, I would leave Bailey alone and ride things out.

Update: CSNNE.com’s Sean McAdam reported that Farrell informed both Bailey and Hanrahan that Bailey would remain the closer. Look for Hanrahan to work a few low leverage situations as he is eased back from his hamstring injury.

Deep Depth

Photo via bostonherald.com

On Wednesday night, Andrew Bailey ran to the pitcher’s mound from the bullpen at Progressive Field in Cleveland and recorded three consecutive outs. He pocketed his first save of 2013, and the Red Sox notched their tenth win of the season.

The scene was similar on Thursday night for Bailey and the Red Sox in the ninth. Strike out. Foul out. Ground out. Save. Ballgame.

It was a pair of uneventful ninth innings — just what you’d want from your closer — but it represented something larger, something that the Red Sox desperately missed last season: bullpen depth.

In 2012, before Bailey even pitched in a regular season game, he underwent surgery on his thumb due to an injury he may have suffered during a collision at first base during Spring Training (it was pitching coach Bob McClure who disclosed that Bailey first felt soreness in his thumb when he was squeezing his bottle of shampoo in the shower). With Daniel Bard transitioning from eighth inning reliever/fireman to starting pitcher, Bobby Valentine was left to choose between Alfredo Aceves and the newly acquired Mark Melancon.

Aceves was anointed the closer, and like many members of the Red Sox bullpen, he failed. His command suffered greatly in the role, but he was far from the being the only ineffective reliever.

April 21, 2012. It was a Saturday afternoon game at Fenway Park against the Yankees. And it epitomized the utter disaster that was the Red Sox bullpen. The Sox lineup pounded out crooked number after crooked number early in the ballgame. They had racked up nine runs before Mark Teixeira hit a seemingly innocuous solo home run off of Felix Doubront during the lefty’s last inning of work. Doubront left the game after the sixth with 9-1 lead, and when Cody Eppley threw the last pitch of the game it was 15-9, in favor of the Yankees. Vicente Padilla, Matt Albers, Franklin Morales, Aceves, and Justin Thomas (Junichi Tazawa gave up one hit and no run in his 1.1 innings of work) combined to allow 14 runs, 13 of them were earned. The Yankees won the game, and the Red Sox bullpen was downright atrocious.

To be fair, it’s not as if the Red Sox bullpen was relinquishing nine-run leads from the first pitch of the season all the way until Game 162. In fact, the bullpen turned things around a bit following their aforementioned implosion on April 21. From April 23-May 25, the Sox ‘pen posted to lowest ERA in the big leagues. So while things may not have been as bad as they were that Saturday afternoon at the Fens in April, it’s fair to say that the Red Sox bullpen was much more of a weakness than it was an asset last season.

Just like 2012, this year’s Red Sox team lost their closer early. Joel Hanrahan was placed on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring on Tuesday. He is still experiencing soreness.

Hanrahan wasn’t available on Monday, and yes, Bailey blew his first save chance on Patriot’s Day against the Rays. But this year’s Red Sox are much more capable of dealing with the loss of a key member of their bullpen. With Hanrahan on the shelf, John Farrell has the luxury of turning to Bailey, a guy who the Boston Globe’s Chad Finn accurately characterizes as “a statistical comp for Jonathan Papelbon during his three seasons in Oakland.”

What if Bailey falters in the role? The Red Sox have options.

Tazawa has emerged as one of the most reliable options out of the bullpen, not only on the Red Sox, but in the entire American League. He has everything that a manager would look for in a closer–he has excellent stuff and refuses to issue free passes. Ideally, Tazawa will not be asked to close ballgames in 2013 but should Bailey and Hanrahan succumb to injuries or fail to perform, the Red Sox have a legitimate third option. Not many teams can say that about the backend of their bullpen.

Do the Red Sox have one of the game’s top tier closers like they did when Papelbon was still employed by the team? No. But they do possess a tremendous amount of depth that should only deepen as pitchers like Hanrahan, Craig Breslow, and Morales return from injury.

Baseball is a war of attrition, and the bullpen is certainly not immune. The 2013 Red Sox, unlike last year, stand a real chance to succeed in battle.

Motivation May Fuel Red Sox in 2013

Photo via espn.com

If you’re looking to gauge what the 2016 Red Sox will look like, the 2013 roster is not a good place to start.

GM Ben Cherington unexpectedly and creatively unloaded three lucrative long term contracts last August. Josh Beckett (signed through 2014), Adrian Gonzalez (signed through 2018), and Carl Crawford (signed through 2017) were suddenly no longer in the fold, leaving the Red Sox a roster bereft of talent but provided the organization with plenty of financial flexibility.

Improvement was undoubtedly needed, but they were not going to put their newfound fiscal flexibility in jeopardy this offseason.

That resulted in a revamped roster that includes several newly signed veterans who have experienced success in the past but are coming off disappointing seasons. Cherington exhibited discipline by staying away from the Josh Hamilton‘s and Zack Greinke‘s of the free agent world. Instead, he set his sights on players with less raw talent who were willing to accept shorter term deals–guys who have something to prove.

Acquisitions via trade and free agency, combined with a couple of team controlled, soon-to-be free agents, have left the Red Sox with several key players who will enter 2013 with a tremendous amount of — let’s face it — money riding on this season.

And we all know that there is nothing wrong with a small fire being lit under a player, even if the flame is fueled by the dollar bill. In fact, that is often when the results are the most fruitful.

——

Jacoby Ellsbury is the most obvious and the most important player that falls into this category. The 29-year old center fielder recently agreed to a one-year deal worth $9MM, successfully avoiding arbitration during his final year of eligibility. Following the 2013 season, Ellsbury will be a free agent and quite an enigmatic one. We know the damage he inflicted on opposing pitchers in 2011, a year that saw him post a .321/.376./.552 line. Ellsbury was a hardware hoarder that year as he appeared in his first All-Star game, took home the Silver Slugger Award for his position, and nabbed his only Gold Glove. Do you want to make a case that he, not Justin Verlander, was the American League’s Most Valuable Player? Good. Do it. You can certainly make a sound argument. Scott Boras definitely will when Ellsbury officially hits free agency.

But he has a lot to prove. Ellsbury’s critics will point to 2010 and 2011 and claim he’s injury prone. And if he’s not injury prone, he is certainly a slow-as-molasses healer. It would be hard to debunk that theory. When healthy, the talented center fielder has the ability to carry a team for a long period of time. Barring any ailments during the spring, Ellsbury will enter 2013 with the opportunity to solidify himself as a legitimate candidate to receive a nine-figure deal in free agency. Should he spend a great deal of time on the disabled list or simply struggle to produce at the top of the Red Sox’ lineup, it will further muddy the water on Ellsbury’s value as a free agent. It is officially put up or shut up time.

Like Ellsbury, closer Joel Hanrahan is entering his final year of arbitration eligibility and is eyeing a big payday next offseason. Hanrahan was traded to the Red Sox from the Pirates earlier this winter in a swap that cleared some clutter on the 40-man roster for Boston, while giving Pittsburgh some salary relief. The power righty has already been given the keys to the car by manager John Farrell who swiftly and shrewdly made his decision to unseat Andrew Bailey as the closer apparent in favor of Hanrahan. That is good news for a player entering the most important season of his career. It also comes with added pressure. Bailey, as injury prone as he may be, is a proven commodity. He can close ballgames. If Hanrahan struggles early, Farrell may look to make a change. He is keenly aware of how badly the bullpen meltdowns of yesteryear affected the Red Sox in April. The pressure and spotlight are on Hanrahan. The stage is Boston. His response will dictate whether or not he receives the fat, multi-year contract offer he will undoubtedly seek next offseason.

Hanrahan’s likely battery mate, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, will have plenty of motivation this season to build on his 2012 campaign. The soon-to-be 28-year old switch hitter had a breakout year of sorts last season, establishing himself a legitimate power hitting backstop. Saltalamacchia is hardly a player without warts, however. He managed to post a .288 on-base percentage in each of the past two seasons, a miserable, yet consistent feat. He strikes out too much and is starkly better when hitting from the left side of the plate. Despite his flaws, Saltalamacchia is a catcher who has pop, and that’s valuable. If he can find a way to not fade as the season wears on, retain his power, and improve his on-base skills (even marginally), Saltalamacchia could be in line for a multi-year deal from a team following the season.

Saltalamacchia isn’t the only player with catching experience on the Red Sox who will be looking to parlay a productive 2013 into a big contract next offseason. Last week, Mike Napoli officially signed a one-year deal worth $5MM, a far cry from the original three-year, $13MM agreement the two sides agreed to on December 3. The reason for the hold up and subsequent $34MM reduction in guarunteed salary? Avascular necrosis–a condition that destroys bone due to lack of blood supply to the specific area. It sounds bad, and it is. But it was caught early, and according to doctors, should not get worse. Still, it cost the 31-year old a ton of dough this offseason. Naturally, Napoli will look to respond with a productive 2013 and prove to clubs that he deserves a multi-year deal. He is in the right lineup and the right ballpark to bounce back.

Stephen Drew is looking to repair his stock as a free agent that, like Napoli, has been marred by injury. Drew, a Boras client, agreed to a one-year deal with the Red Sox that will pay him $9.5MM in 2013. Once a top level performer at his position, Drew, due to a vicious ankle injury that occurred in July of 2011 and forced him to miss the first three months of 2012, did not garner a great deal of interest in free agency. With a strong performance in 2013, Drew will almost certainly see more teams bid on his services next time around. As long as Drew leaves camp healthy, it is hard to envision a scenario where he will not be the Red Sox’ Opening Day shortstop. He will have an opportunity — not unlike Adrian Beltre in 2010 — to capitalize on the ever-intense baseball environment in Boston. His ankle issues seem to be behind him. Health and productivity at a shallow position are all that stands between Drew and a much more memorable crack at free agency.

Cherington and the Red Sox are hoping to take advantage of the motivation that comes naturally with a player operating on a one-year deal. One-year pacts are essentially wagers entered into by both the player and the team. If the bet works out, the player almost always has a big payday waiting, and the team receives the benefit of a playoff run.

In 2013, the Red Sox will gladly go all in.

News on Baseball, the Red Sox

Photo via boston.com

Ahhh. That’s better.

After an absolutely brutal Sunday evening, it is important to remember that life goes on. You’ve got to be able to go out there and get ‘em the next day. So today, that’s what we’re going to do.

Mike Napoli and the Red Sox made their deal official last week. It consists of $5MM guaranteed for one year. The powerful right handed hitter will have the ability to make up to $13MM as long as he does not spend any time on the disabled list due to a hip injury. Expect the Red Sox to add some insurance at first base in case Napoli breaks down. A bit more on Napoli later.

Craig Breslow successfully avoided arbitration (and then some) as he and the Sox came to terms on a two-year pact worth $6.25MM on Saturday. The Red Sox possess a team option worth nearing $4MM for the 2015 season. Breslow was acquired by the Sox at the trade deadline last season from the Diamondbacks. The lefty specialist is a Yale graduate and a Connecticut native.

— Courtesy of the Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham, here is the list of players that the Red Sox reached agreements with, avoiding arbitration:

OF Jacoby Ellsbury: $9 million
RHP Joel Hanrahan $7.04 million
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia: $4.5 million
RHP Andrew Bailey: $4.1 million
RHP Alfredo Aceves: $2.65 million
RHP Daniel Bard: $1.8625 million
LHP Franklin Morales: $1.487 million
LHP Andrew Miller: $1.475 million

— A couple quick notes on the arbitration process: Headlines are often misleading, especially for those who are not familiar with the the process. (As an aside, if you’re not well-versed in the stimulating world of salary arbitration, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Seriously.) For example, “Ellsbury signs one-year deal with the Red Sox worth $9MM.” That is true. He did. But it makes it seems as though he could have signed elsewhere. I saw a few people on Twitter who are fans of other teams saying things like “we easily could have gotten Ellsbury if the Red Sox only gave him a one-year contract!” Players who are eligible for arbitration are also under team control–they’re not free agents–it’s just a matter of negotiating salary for a one-year deal, like Ellsbury, or a multi-year agreement, like Breslow.

— Despite the fact that it took well over a month for the Red Sox and Napoli to finalize the deal that they first agreed to, in principle, on December 3, I never thought the two parties would go in different directions. The Red Sox needed Napoli to fill a gaping hole at both first base and in the middle of their lineup. As it turned out, Napoli needed the Red Sox to serve as a landing spot to rebuild value as a free agent. The Rangers approached Napoli about returning to Arlington but were ultimately turned away–not because he didn’t want to return to Texas but because he will have more of an opportunity to play day in and day out in Boston. Nolan Ryan and Co. do not have an obvious need at first base or catcher. It is easy to see Napoli spending 2013 here, experiencing success, and subsequently leaving in free agency, but I wouldn’t make that assumption. Napoli isn’t represented by Scott Boras, and 2013 could easily be the first year of a nice little marriage between the former Ranger and the Red Sox.

Francona: The Red Sox Years hits shelves on Tuesday. From everything I have heard/read, I think this book is going to be real good stuff. I wouldn’t expect Tito to expose John Lackey, Jon Lester, and Josh Beckett for drinking beer and acting completely unprofessional in the clubhouse during the 2011 season, but I would anticipate some great stories from the eight years he managed in Boston — some of which will be funny and entertaining while others make John Henry and Larry Lucchino look quite bad. No matter what, it will reaffirm what we already know–managing in Boston is not easy. The two book covers below illustrate that point. Long live Tito.

Power Plays

Photo via mlive.com

On Wednesday, the Red Sox officially addressed an area of surplus. They have a closer. Andrew Bailey is injury-plagued. There is no debating that. But he is a legitimate ninth inning pitcher, a former All-Star with 81 saves on his resume. The bottom line is that GM Ben Cherington did not need to bring in a proven closer this offseason.

But he did.

Joel Hanrahan was traded by the Pirates to the Red Sox in a six-player swap that will also send reliever Mark Melancon to Pittsburgh. The Red Sox still have not come to terms with free agent Mike Napoli, leaving a vacancy at first base. They remain shallow in the outfield with Jonny Gomes likely needing a platoon-mate that can do damage against hit right handed pitching. Clearly, Cherington still has several areas of need to address, yet he chose to actively pursue adding a late-inning arm to a bullpen that already has Bailey and Koji Uehara.

Why?

The answer has everything to do with Daniel Bard.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Red Sox possessed two of the game’s absolute best in the eighth and ninth innings. Bard and Jonathan Papelbon were a powerful one-two punch that helped former manager Terry Francona win more than a few games during the final segment of his tenure in Boston. Both Bard and Papelbon threw hard and threw strikes. The pair represented exactly what every team wants at the end of games.

In the offseason that followed the 2011 season, Papelbon left Boston for Philadelphia. Bard, who, despite fatiguing down the stretch for the Red Sox in ’11, seemed tailor-made for the closer role in 2012. His powerful stuff played well in the late innings of ballgames. Fans were used to watching him wiggle out of high leverage situations, using his fastball that consistently registered well above 95 MPH to blow away hitters on the regular.

But then the Red Sox got cheap, and Bard got a little greedy.

Cherington and the rest of baseball operations understood the potential payoff of converting Bard to a starter. Let’s face it — Bard made roughly $1.6MM in 2012. Good luck getting Hiroki Kuroda to pitch for your team for that salary. At the same time, Bard knew that starting pitchers do not need to pitch at the level of a Justin Verlander or a Clayton Kershaw to get paid. Pick up the phone and give Edwin Jackson a buzz. He will tell you all about his four-year $52MM deal that the Cubs gave him last week.

It was a perfect storm. Bard wanted to start, and the Red Sox saw it as a cost-efficient opportunity to fill a vacancy in the rotation.

Bard performed miserably as a starter. His outing on Sunday June 3 in Toronto was the breaking point of the experiment. In an inning and two-thirds, Bard walked six Blue Jays and plunked two others. It was like watching the goriest of horror movies, when one is only able to catch a glimpse of the television screen between fingers as their hands shielded their face. It was that bad. The whole thing was an unmitigated disaster that ultimately earned Bard a demotion to Pawtucket and a question mark when it comes to where he fits on this team in 2013.

The Red Sox subsequently spent their second straight offseason looking for ways to plug the gaping holes left by both Papelbon and Bard. Had the latter embraced the role of closer in the same fashion the former did, the Red Sox would likely not be participating in the annual game of bullpen pick ‘em. If Cherington and Co. had recognized that Bard’s stuff as well as his mentality is best suited at the end of ballgames, Hanrahan may not have been a trade target this offseason.

Removing Bard from the bullpen created quite a large void for the Red Sox–one that was only amplified by his abject failure as a starter. Since then, Cherington has been searching for that power arm that is almost always needed at the end of games. Simply put, swing and miss stuff limits the amount of balls that are put in play, and Bard certainly racked up a great deal of punch outs as a set-up man.

The addition of Hanrahan is yet another example of how poor baseball decisions can negatively impact a club for years down the road. Hanrahan’s performance in 2013, good or bad, will serve as a reminder of how sorely Bard is missed in the Boston bullpen and how desperately Cherington has searched for someone to anchor it.

Red Sox Trade Talk

In a three team deal made last season, the Red Sox acquired Erik Bedard from the Seattle Mariners. The Sox shipped Tim Federowicz, Stephen Fife, and Juan Rodriguez to the Dodgers who sent Trayvon Robinson back east. Robinson wasn’t a member of the Sox for long as he and Chih-Hsien Chiang headed to Seattle while Bedard joined a staff in Boston that had been limping along.

Bedard was not the sturdy crutch the Red Sox rotation desperately needed. The Sox missed the playoffs, due in large part to their inability to find quality outings from their starters. As the trade deadline approaches, the Red Sox find themselves in a similar position–a World Series offense and a Little League World Series starting pitching staff.

One could argue that last year’s version of the Red Sox was much better positioned to qualify for postseason play. I’m not going to debate facts, but the point is that this year’s team, like the 2011 squad, is in the thick of the playoff hunt, despite the bed-wetting that occurred at Fenway Park over the weekend. And if the members of the Red Sox front office believe that this team is one piece away from making the postseason, I would appreciate it if they would bring in a better starter than a soft lefty with bad knees who is on the back nine of his career.

Matt Garza would be an ideal addition. Unfortunately, there are a number of things that muddy the trade waters for not only the Red Sox, but many soon-to-be active teams around baseball. The complicating agent at work here is of course baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement. But that is a story for a different day.

Let’s take a look at what we can glean from how the Red Sox approach this year’s trade deadline.

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Could the Red Sox actually be sellers?

The short answer here is an emphatic ‘no’. It’s not easy for a big market team that plays in front of a demanding fan base to begin to auctioning off pieces. The current ownership current group is obsessed with sellout streaks and commemorative bricks. It’s easier to push the product when their team is successful, or at least operating under the cloak of success. Yes, the Red Sox may be a .500 ball club, in last place in their division, and looking up at six teams in an expanded Wild Card race, but I wouldn’t look for brass to make a move that would end up qualifying the team as sellers. If the Red Sox end up going 0-6 on their road trip that will send them into the Texas heat and back north to play the Yankees, however, it may force the organization to hold a mirror up to its face and take stock of reality.

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Ben Cherington’s first crack at the deadline

The first-year GM had the right idea when he sent Jed Lowrie to the Astros for Mark Melancon and Josh Reddick to the A’s for Andrew Bailey in the offseason, but neither deal has proved to be wildly successful. Cherington will always be compared to his predecessor, Theo Epstein, who may be most well-known for the 2004 deadline deal that shipped one of Boston’s most beloved sports figures, Nomar Garciaparra, to Chicago. The three team swap netted he Red Sox Orlando Cabrera, Dave Roberts, and Doug Mientkiewicz. A historic comeback and a World Series championship later, and all of a sudden, Cherington has his work cut out for him.

It would not be an absurd deduction to think that Cherington would be conservative during his first trade deadline as GM, especially given the climate of the market–everyone’s in it and no one is out of it. It is a seller’s market. However, Cherington was part of the team in the fall of 2005 that pulled the trigger on the deal that brought Josh Beckett to Boston and sent prized prospect Hanley Ramirez to the then Florida Marlins. Epstein was on leave at the time. So what does this mean for the Red Sox, seven years later? It’s clear that Cherington isn’t afraid of parting with young, top tier talent if an opportunity to improve presents itself.

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Gauging how the team feels about its minor league assets

If Cherington and his team determine that Jon Lester and Beckett are capable of turning their lackluster seasons around, it would be reasonable to believe that they view the Red Sox as a playoff team. The second half of that contingency is necessary in order for the Sox to pursue a deadline deal. You’re typically not going to move young talent in the middle of the season if your team does not possess a real opportunity to play beyond the month of September.

For the sake of this argument, let’s assume that the Red Sox view themselves as legitimate contenders and will look to add a piece or two next week. Matt Barnes and Xander Bogaerts are two blue chips prospects in the Red Sox system that would certainly garner interest from GM’s across baseball.

Matt Barnes is a starting pitcher currently at High-A Salem. He is 22-years old, throws hard, and represents exactly what the Red Sox desperately need–a low cost, front half of the rotation starter. I can’t imagine him being moved.

Xander Bogaerts is the cream of the crop on the Red Sox farm. He is 19-years old, plays shortstop, and projects as a middle of the order hitter. He is 2012′s version of Hanley Ramirez. The Providence Journal’s Brian MacPherson does not see Bogaerts going anywhere.

MacPherson’s response is an indication of exactly how the organization feels about Bogaerts, and it is extremely likely that Cherington isn’t the only general manager who views the native of Aruba in that same light. Needless to say, Bogaerts carries a truckload of value on the market.

Ultimately, I agree with MacPherson. The Red Sox are not likely to include Bogaerts’ name on a list of prospects that another ball club can pick from when negotiating a potential trade. However, the only caveat is that the Sox possess three quality young players who play on the left side of the infield. Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, Jose Iglesias could eventually be vying for two spots in the Red Sox infield. Bogaerts is a player who could become at least somewhat expendable if the Red Sox had confidence in Iglesias’ ability to hit at the major league level. I don’t, so I can’t believe they do either.

Going forward, even beyond this year’s trade deadline, it will be interesting to monitor the availability of both Iglesias and Bogaerts. If one guy’s name is consistently tied to potential trades, it would simultaneously serve as a testament to the confidence that the organization has in the other player.

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My thoughts

It is starting to sound redunant, but it is true: If the Red Sox do not get drastically better performances from Lester and Beckett, they will not seriously contend as the season progresses. In that respect, the trade deadline is almost meaningless in terms of its potential impact on the 2012 season. Garza, tricep cramping aside, would be a solid pick-up. He is young. He would not be a rental as he is signed through next season. He is a guy that would come here and compete his butt off. But without Lester and Beckett pitching up to their expectations, Garza’s efforts would not propel them into October.

Things to Watch For This Weekend

Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals rolled into Fenway Park on Friday night and won the first game of a three game set against the Red Sox. Strasburg was electric, using all of his pitches effectively. The guy looked good. Harper went bridge to most cavernous area of Fenway–the apex of the triangle in center field. He also made an above average catch as he tracked down a hooking liner off Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s bat. He is a concoction of both Five Hour Energy and Red Bull. I was impressed. Let’s examine some other points of interest as the series continues on Saturday.

One of the most frustrating things is baseball is when a pitcher goes out and gives up runs after his offense provides him support. This was on display last night when Felix Doubront surrendered three runs in the top of the third inning after the Red Sox drew first blood in the bottom half of the second. With two outs in the bottom of the second inning, Mike Aviles smacked a clutch two-out double to left center, scoring two runs. Strasburg, at the time, seemed to look human. Doubront promptly went out and let three runs cross the plate the next half inning. So, so frustrating. Baseball is a game of momentum, and a one-two-three inning in the top of the third could have seriously changed the complexion of the game.

Daisuke Matsuzaka is back. Damn it. I’m half kidding. Dice-K will pitch Saturday afternoon for the Red Sox for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. This will undoubtedly be his final year in a Sox uniform, and maybe, just maybe, he can bring something to the table. Hope resides in the idea that Bobby Valentine may have some sort of a positive impact on him due to his ability to speak Matsuzaka’s native language. Time will tell, but if I wouldn’t place any kind of a substantial bet on the Japanese import.

Gio Gonzalez was close to becoming a member of the Red Sox, but the deal fell through. It would have included new fan-favorite Will Middlebrooks along with other prospects like Josh Reddick. The Sox would have likely landed Ryan Sweeney, Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey. Instead, the Athletics and Nationals brokered a deal that sent the young south paw to the nation’s capital, where he has been excellent. Gonzalez will tote a 2.31 ERA to the mound on Saturday.

Baseball is all about winning two out of three. Middle games in three game sets are vital. Think about it. If your club wins the first game of the series, then, a day later, takes the second game, you’ve already won the series. The final game is gravy. If your team drops the first game but is able to snag a W in the next game, you at least put yourself in a position to win the series with a victory in the final contest. So, if you’re the Red Sox, stack your lineup full of right handed hitters and grab a win Saturday–because then you’re only one win away from having an extremely successful weekend.

It’s easy to get down on Kevin Youkilis. I mean he did go down looking on a fastball in a 3-2 count with the bases loaded against Strasburg on Friday. Youkilis argued, probably to save face, and was ejected. The ballgame was essentially decided then and there. I’m not someone who believes that just because a player helped win a championship or two he must always receive the benefit of the doubt, but Youkilis is still an asset. He’s in a tough spot on a team where there isn’t a ton of flexibility at the corners. I wish there was a way to utilize both Middlebrooks and Youkilis, but it just may not be possible. I’d be surprised if Middlebrooks wasn’t in the lineup Saturday.

As a piece of advice, try not to let your new found affinity for the young, talented Middlebrooks manifest itself into hate or disdain for Youkilis. If you had a team of 25 Youks, you’d win a lot of games.

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.

Implications of a Friday Night in Chicago

The Red Sox won their fifth straight game last night as they downed the White Sox 10-3 for the second night in a row on their turf. David Ortiz hit his fourth home run of the season. It came against a relatively tough lefty in John Danks. The Sox offense once again held up their end of the bargain, throwing up a crooked nine runs on a very cold night at U.S. Cellular Field. It should be noted that the grinders at the bottom of the lineup were truly the ones who deserve a pat on the back. In the sixth inning, the Red Sox plated five runs, due in large part to some timely hitting from the latter half of the order. Specifically, Darnell McDonald once again proved that he is a more-than-serviceable off of the bench option in the major leagues as he smacked a clutch two-out three-run double down the left field line. McDonald has not received consistent playing time, so his performance on Friday night (he also hit a garbage time home run) is excellent news for a Red Sox bench that lacks a heck of a ton of firepower.

Daniel Bard threw seven strong innings, allowing three runs–only two of which were earned. The tall righty only issued one free pass. In this league, you’re better off making hitters earn their way on base. A good hitter posts an average of .300. The majority of the time, the guy is going to record an out. I say play the odds, especially when you have the raw stuff of a Bard.

I am convicted flip-flopper. A month or two ago, I firmly advocated for Bard sticking in the rotation. In my defense, I had no way of knowing that Andrew Bailey would have his debut in a Red Sox uniform delayed by three months due to thumb surgery. Even after receiving that devastating news and watching Alfredo Aceves struggle in the opening series of the season against the Tigers, I still argued that Bard should remain in the rotation. Just this week, however, I am on record as saying that Bard needs to take it upon himself to volunteer to return to the bullpen. Mark Melancon, a guy I truly counted on to serve as trustworthy arm out of the bullpen, turned into a puddle and was demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, further decimating a watered down Red Sox bullpen that is in desperate need of stability. So I’m as guilty of flipping and flopping as one could be.

Here is the bottom line: For now, the Red Sox will attempt to have their cake and eat it too. They want to win ballgames now, while doing what is best for its future, which is keeping Bard on the path of evolving into a quality, low-cost, under team control starting pitcher. As long as the former Tar Heel continues to put together quality starts and the bullpen doesn’t implode like it did a week ago today, both Bard and the Red Sox will be happy.

Ultimately, for the Sox to be considered a legitimate threat in the postseason, Bard has to be pitching well. In high leverage situations. Out of the bullpen.

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