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Archive for the tag “Carl Crawford”

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.

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.

Two Thoughts on the Red Sox

—-On November 24, 2005, the Red Sox came to terms with the Marlins on a deal that was headlined by Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell coming to Boston, while Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez moved south. Sanchez turned out to be a fine pitcher — he is in line to make a ton of dough this offseason — and Lowell, who was viewed as nothing but a salary dump by the Marlins, captured the 2007 World Series MVP. But that Thanksgiving Day Deal came down to two pieces: Beckett and Ramirez.

So would the 2013 Red Sox make that same deal during the offseason before an extremely important season? Would GM Ben Cherington trade top prospect Xander Bogaerts for a young, raw power arm? It’s a tough question. Cherington played an integral role in the group that orchestrated the deal that brought Beckett to Boston seven years ago while former GM Theo Epstein was on a hiatus. He’s also the same guy that sent Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto packing this past offseason, simultaneously regaining financial flexibility and acquiring a nice load of quality prospects.

I believe that if the opportunity presented itself, Cherington would let go Boegarts, a promising talent, to acquire a potential ace.

—-No one is really talking too much about him, but Dan Haren would be a nice fit for this team. The Angels did not make the 32-year old right handed pitcher a qualifying offer. In turn, the team that signs him will not have to relinquish a draft pick. According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, teams are less concerned about Haren’s nagging back than they are with his hip. The guy has injury issues–there’s no doubt about that. But Haren an absolute innings eater. Before 2012, a year in which he tossed 176 frames, Haren had thrown at least 200 innings in each of the previous seven seasons. A one-year deal with a large figure attached to it would be ideal. Overpay in the short term.

Catching up with the Red Sox

I remember watching the television and reading the articles that came after the Red Sox traded for Adrian Gonzalez and signed free agent Carl Crawford. I was in awe. I went to Spring Training in Fort Myers for the first time that year (it was pre-planned and didn’t have any correlation to with the Sox’ acquisitions). Nearly every expert had the Red Sox penciled in as AL East champs. I remember feeling legitimately proud of my team. But the feeling didn’t last long. Consequently, I learned, first hand, a valuable lesson — just because you win the offseason, that does not mean you’re going to win when it counts.

So when I see fans on Twitter panicking because the Red Sox haven’t made any big splashes, I just take a deep breath and relax. By no means am I saying that the Sox are going to win the championship in 2013, but I can tell you that if they do, it won’t be because of what they have or have not done in the middle of November.

Let’s catch up with the folks on Yawkey Way.

On Mike NapoliWe all know the story by now — kills the Sox, mashes at Fenway. Let’s look at everything independent of those two facts. Napoli is poor/average defensively whether we are discussing him as a first baseman or catcher. But, for the Red Sox, that is okay. I believe their infield will include Jose Iglesias, so there is room to sacrifice some defense for much-needed pop from the right side. Napoli has reportedly met with (or will be meeting with), the Red Sox, Mariners, and Rangers. He is pushing for a fourth year, which I hope the Sox don’t give him. Go heavy on the dollars, less on the years — not just for Napoli but for every free agent. Inking the burly right handed hitter is not a must, but, all things even, I would rather than him than Adam LaRoche. Napoli is just a good fit for this team, at this time.

On draft picks (and Napoli, kind of)…As baseball fans, we don’t relate to the NFL or NBA drafts. They are highly publicized and televised on networks like ESPN and TNT, respectively. First round talent is expected to produce immediately. Baseball is different. Partially due to the lack of national publicity that the MLB First-Year Player Draft receives and the nature of the game in and of itself (it’s really, really hard), draft picks do not garner the attention they deserve. So my point is simple: They’re important. Really, really important, especially if you’re a team like the Red Sox that is looking to rebuild. It makes Napoli even more intriguing because the Rangers chose not to extend a qualifying offer to the 31-year old. If GM Ben Cherington and the Red Sox lose out on Napoli, they will have to look elsewhere, like to LaRoche. Unlike Napoli, the Nationals did offer LaRoche a qualifying offer (one-year deal at roughly $13.3MM). Therefore, the Red Sox would be forced to forfeit their pick.

Let’s put some meat on the bones here.

The Red Sox have the seventh overall pick when the draft rolls around this June. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the top ten picks are protected. Essentially, the Red Sox, no matter who they sign this offseason, cannot lose that pick. As a result, if they do sign someone like LaRoche, Kyle Lohse, Nick Swisher, or Josh Hamilton (and there are others), their second round pick would be shipped to the team that the free agent played with last season. Again, putting context behind this — if the Red Sox sign LaRoche they will relinquish their second round pick to the Nationals. That would be the 38th overall pick. Is a first round pick better than a second round pick? Sure. But in 2009, there was a player taken 13 slots before where the Red Sox will pick in the second round of the 2013 draft . His name is Mike Trout. Draft picks are important.

On Jonny GomesTwo years, $10MM. I’m skeptical. But he did produce admirably for the A’s last season — .262/.377/.491. The OBP is eye-popping. Gomes has a career on-base percentage of .334, which is certainly not poor, but when he is given more than roughly 350 at-bats, he becomes exposed. I’m sort of indifferent on the signing. I didn’t expect it, but I’m not extremely angry over it. If the Red Sox deploy him properly (platoon role against left handed pitchers), he will thrive. It would stupid to ignore the influence he brings in the clubhouse. Gomes is considered one of the better clubhouse guys in the game, which is interesting given his involvement in on the field brawls. He was suspended following the punches that were thrown in the 2008 fight with between the Red Sox and the Rays. From everything I read, Gomes, like the newly acquired David Ross, will help make the Sox clubhouse an enjoyable atmosphere.

On the offseason…Please do not be one of the people who complains during the season about having overpriced, spoiled players and then turns around and criticizes the Sox for not jumping at every big name on the market. Don’t be the guy who calls in 98.5 The Sports Hub, complaining about how the Red Sox are not disciplined and just throw their money away on a two-year deal for their star DH because they need to support their ratings on NESN — and then contend that signing Hamilton is the best avenue to take. I mean, really?

The Winter Meetings start on December 3. Until then, let’s all at least try to relax.

Bad Investment

The Red Sox scratched a winning lottery ticket last weekend. It was a one in a million winner, and they cashed in. Suddenly, this franchise finds itself with sacks of money and not a ton of toys to spend it on.

With roughly $260MM heading from John Henry’s wallet to the bright lights of Hollowood, it is almost natural to believe that Jacoby Ellsbury will remain with the Red Sox after the 2013 season, when the talented center fielder hits free agency.

Not so fast.

For an organization that is suddenly preaching the practice of discipline when it comes to baseball decisions, Ellsbury is simply not the individual the Red Sox want as the spokesman for their new campaign.

Generally speaking, there are three different avenues that the Red Sox can take when dealing with last year’s MVP runner-up. The team can allow Ellsbury to play out the final year of his final arbitration-eligible season and allow him to walk after 2013. GM Ben Cherington and the Red Sox can explore trading the Oregon State product this offseason or potentially at next year’s deadline. Finally, they can vigorously pursue Ellsbury when he hits free agency after the culmination of the 2013 season.

The third option is no doubt a popular one given the newly acquired fiscal flexibility of the team, and the fact that Ellsbury is a homegrown World Series champion who happens to be a fan-favorite. However, if Red Sox brass is serious about taking a disciplined stance when it comes to free agency, they will trade the speedy outfielder this offseason.

Unlike Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Clay Buchholz, or Jon Lester, Ellsbury and super-agent Scott Boras will not be willing to ink an extension that will keep the former first-round pick from hitting free agency. And you really can’t blame the Ellsbury camp.

He is a dynamic, marketable player who possesses tremendous skills with the glove and the bat. Let’s not forget that Ellsbury is one year removed from a year that saw him post a .321/.376/.552 line to go along with 32 home runs and 39 stolen bases–a truly remarkable season.

Boras will certainly attempt to parlay Ellsbury’s MVP-level 2011 season into a contract that resembles what Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp received from the Red Sox and the Dodgers, respectively. Let’s say the asking price lands somewhere in the middle of the two aforementioned stars–an eight-year, $155MM contract seems realistic. Depending upon what the Red Sox do between now and the end of next season, it is fair to assume that they could afford to offer Ellsbury that type of high-priced deal.

But it would be a mistake. Ellsbury will be 30-years old when he gets his first crack at free agency. He is a player who relies heavily on legs, hits from the left side, and occupies center field.

Sound familiar?

Ellsbury is a talented player, but he is not middle of the lineup run-producing slugger. So why pay him like one?

Instead, the Red Sox should deal him this offseason when his value is at its highest.

Going Back to Cali

Carl Crawford was in Pensacola, Fl., on Thursday, awaiting surgery. That day, his left elbow was operated on by Dr. James Andrews. Roughly two days later, Crawford, who is two injury-plagued seasons deep into his seven-year $142MM contract, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers as a piece in a mega-deal that also brought Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to the hills of Hollywood.

But don’t get lost in the shuffle. Don’t get caught up in the noise. This nine-player trade was all about one very talented first baseman: Adrian Gonzalez.

The Dodgers and GM Ned Colletti had been sniffing out the former San Diego Padre  since before the trade deadline. Ben Cherington and the Red Sox rebuffed any attempts by the Dodgers to acquire the talented Californian during the month of July, refusing to give up on their hopes of reaching the postseason. As the Sox continued to plummet further in the standings, it became easier for front office members to recognize the need to do something that would drastically alter the path that this team was on.

Then Friday came, and Gonzalez was claimed off waivers by the Dodgers.

Then Beckett.

It is true that at this juncture the Red Sox could have simply pulled Gonzalez back off of waivers and, as long as Beckett waived his 10-5 rights, washed their hands clean of the much-maligned right handed pitcher. When the Dodgers plucked him off of the waiver wire, the Texas native and the remaining two-plus years of his contract at roughly $16MM a pop was officially their problem.

But that isn’t what happened.

Instead, Cherington (and Larry Lucchino) saw an opportunity, an avenue to bolster a farm system bereft of quality starting pitching prospects and gain a plethora of financial flexibility. The player who would pave this road was none other than Gonzalez. It is important to make one thing abundantly clear–the Dodgers would not have assumed the contracts of both Beckett and Crawford without including Gonzalez, let alone sending two of their top three pitching prospects back East. Gonzalez is what made this deal happen.

When the dust settled, roughly $260MM dollars was shipped from Boston to Los Angeles in the form of Crawford, Beckett, Gonzalez, and Punto. In return, the Red Sox received first baseman James Loney, pitching prospects Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, and two position-player prospects Ivan De Jesus Jr. and Jerry Sands. (In the interest of being accurate, De La Rosa and Sands are believed to be the two “players to be named later”. This will not become official until after the season as they were placed on waivers and did not clear them). For now, the former Dodgers farmhands are just names to most fans, but there is a truckload of both legitimate talent and potential sprinkled among the Red Sox’ haul. The real prize for the Sox, however, is the financial breathing room that has been afforded to them.

Digest this–Crawford signed a seven-year $142MM contract. To put that in perspective, the left handed hitter who relies on his legs will be 35-years old in the final year of his contract, making $21MM. It’s a ridiculous figure for a player with Crawford’s skill set who is in his prime and unquestionably healthy–never mind the fact that he underwent Tommy John surgery less than a week ago.

To say that Crawford’s personality did not mesh with the pressures that come with playing the game of baseball in the city of Boston would be an understatement. And now, that is no longer a problem of the Red Sox.

Beckett’s situation is different. He is the middle of a four-year contract extension that was given to him in 2010 by former GM Theo Epstein. He has succeeded and, at times, thrived in Boston. It may be hard for some fans to admit, but Beckett is a postseason hero, a linchpin of the 2007 World Series Championship.

But times have changed. Beckett is no longer the committed competitor he once was. He has evolved into the face of what is wrong with the Red Sox. Whether that is fair or unfair, he undoubtedly has done nothing to disprove that assertion. More importantly, he is owed roughly $32MM over the next two-plus years, and his fastball is sitting at a diminishing  91 MPH. And now, that is no longer a problem of the Red Sox.

Going forward, the Red Sox have an absolute ton of money at their disposal. According to Alex Speier of WEEI, the Red Sox have gone from around $100MM in locked up, guaranteed dollars to $39MM in 2013 (not including arbitration eligible or pre-arbitration eligible players). The 2013 free agent market is not exactly flush with talent, however.

It will be vital for the Red Sox not to succumb to old habits–signing a player to a lucrative, long-term contract just because he is the best available option. Not only is it bad way of conducting business, but it is lazy way of conducting business. Cherington certainly sounds like he is willing to put in the work.

“Find value in the market. Find the best opportunities. You’ve got to find players that fit your roster and your team, find the players that are going to deliver the best performance on the field in Boston and try to find those using resources in the most efficient way.”

Because of the blockbuster trade that became official over the weekend, Cherington and the Red Sox will have financial and roster flexibility to reconstruct one of the premier franchises in baseball.

They can thank Gonzalez for that.

Quietly Unproductive

The Red Sox misbehaved. Their starting pitchers have been escorted to the principal’s office, while the members of the offense got to take their recess.

Somehow, the hitters have gotten off the hook. And I don’t believe that’s very fair.

The arms and the bats have worked together to get this team in the perilous situation it is in.

Have the starting pitchers, notably Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz, fallen well short of their preseason expectations during the first half of  the 2012 season? You bet. If you could augment only one area of this ball club as it is currently constituted, starting pitching would be the unanimous selection.

Pitching has been so consistently terrible throughout the course of the season that it has actually drawn attention away from the deficiencies of the offense. The first three weeks of the season, it was the bullpen taking the grenades. Alfredo Aceves and Co., have righted the ship, but the starters have not experienced the same success.

When one is asked about the failures of the 2012 squad, it is almost instinctual to immediately point towards the top of the starting pitching staff. The Red Sox have lacked consistency since the first toss towards home plate of the season was thrown in Detroit, but one theme for this team has remained the same–it is the pitching, not the hitting, that is to blame.

Beckett is an apathetic boat anchor on a staff that doesn’t need any help sinking. Buccholz cares more about vodka and partying than he does about the welfare of his team. Lester is fat.

These days, it seems as though whenever a starter not named Felix Doubront or Aaron Cook toes the rubber, fans, writers, and experts alike almost root, or at least expect, a poor performance. It has become trendy to hate the Red Sox, especially the three “aces”.

Whenever there is a scapegoat, there is a person or group of people tiptoeing away, looking over their shoulder, hoping that no one notices.

The point is not that the Red Sox lineup deserves the bear all, more, or even an equal share of the burden for the failures of the team as a whole. Instead, it is to highlight that its league-wide perception of being comprised of a group of hitters who consistently throw up crooked numbers against the opposition at will does not quite run parallel to the reality of the situation.

Let’s get a couple things out of the way now.

1) This is a lineup that has operated without two of its biggest offensive pieces for the majority of the season. Yes, it is true that Carl Crawford has yet to appear in a regular season game, and Jacoby Ellsbury has been sidelined since the home opener. Ellsbury’s absence has certainly taken a toll, especially when the Sox have faced right handed pitching. Crawford, on the other hand, is paid like a savior but is far from one. Evan Longoria, you’ll remember, has played in a grand total of 23 games for offensively bereft Rays. It wouldn’t be difficult to make a case that he is more vital to his team than any other player is to his respective squad in all of baseball. Have injuries negatively impacted this team? Of course. But don’t look to the DL for bailouts–the Red Sox have enough bullets in the chamber to spare a couple and still have enough to succeed.

2) The Red Sox offense, for all intents and purposes, has been good. Through 86 games, Sox hitters have produced 432 runs, good for second in Major League Baseball. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that the Red Sox are stellar in blowouts and lackluster is close, grind-‘em-out games. They’re excellent at winning the contests that lack pressure and relatively poor in the white-knuckle affairs.

Despite the Red Sox statistically robust offense, they often corner themselves into situations that require a clutch hit in order to score a run. In other words, Sox hitters, in spite of those classic 10-5 wins, tend to put themselves in favorable situations at the beginning of innings, only to fail to produce productive outs in key situations that ultimately lead to a plethora of stranded runners and missed opportunities. 

Essentially, the Red Sox have a hard time hitting their foul shots.

Free and easy opportunities to score runs without getting a base hit do not often present themselves in close, well-pitched games. Let’s take a look at two recent, glaring examples that occurred in back-to-back innings in a game that should have been an easy win.

On July 3rd, while the East Coast was getting ready to celebrate its independence, the Red Sox were busy giving away a victory. In the top of the eighth inning, the Sox were clinging to a 2-1 lead. Here is how the inning unfolded:

Pedroia walk — Pedroia steal — Ortiz walk.

As a reminder, that is a runner on first and second with no one out, and Cody Ross due up. The best case scenario here is obviously a base hit by Ross. But here, expectations are not that high. It would be unfair to ask the powerful righty to lay down a bunt, and a ground ball to the right side could easily result in a double play. It is fair, however, to look for Ross, at the very least, to lift a semi-deep fly ball to right, right-center, or center field–all three of which would have resulted in Pedroia tagging up and getting to third base with less than two outs, a prime run-scoring position.

Instead, Ross failed to produce a productive out and struck out swinging. At this point, the Red Sox officially lost the opportunity to score a “free run”. They now needed a base hit to record any insurance in a tight ballgame.

Adrian Gonzalez came to the plate and drove a deep fly ball to center field, which is the exact result the Sox needeed one batter earlier. Pedroia tagged and went to third. First and third with two outs. Jarrod Saltalamacchia proceeded to strikeout looking to end what initially appeared to be an extremely promising inning.

Thanks to some nifty pitching in the bottom of the eighth by Vicente Padilla, the Red Sox headed to the top of ninth still gripping a one-run lead. Here is how the inning unfolded:

Ryan Kalish single — Mike Aviles walk.

Here we go again. First and second, no one out–a situation where the Red Sox had the opportunity to score a run without a hitter getting a base hit. Nick Punto is headed towards the dish, the players on the field and the dozens of people at O.co Coliseum knew the bunt was coming. Punto squared and attempted the bunt, which was popped up and resulted in a double play for the Athletics. Kalish, for some strange reason, attempted to steal third and was promptly dispatched to end the inning.

Aceves went on to blow the save, as the Athletics came back to the tie and win the game in the bottom of the ninth. The loss went to Ace, but it really belonged to the Red Sox offense.

In close, well-pitched games, the margin for error is slim and opportunities are few and far between. Runs are often not doubled home or delivered by a round tripper. Instead, they are carved out by getting timely hits, earning walks, and selflessly finding ways to make productive outs.

The Red Sox have struggled against quality competition this season. According to the Boston Globe’s Tony Massarotti, they are 24-35 against American League teams who are at or above .500. The Red Sox are rarely able to match-up with the quality teams in their league. That is a fact. But it not just a pitching problem.

To pin the failures of this year’s Sox squad solely on the starting pitching staff is shortsighted, incorrect, and most of all, entirely too easy. It is the lazy fan’s excuse for why their team is perpetually treading water.

If the 2012 Boston Red Sox hope to succeed in the second half, it will be contingent upon their ability to find ways to beat quality teams. Improved starting pitching, combined with a more efficient offense will certainly increase their odds of nabbing a postseason berth.

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.

Nine Focal Points in 2012

Alright, so I’m pretty GD excited. Opening Day (in the United States) is awesome. It’s a feeling that is tough to beat. The negativity around the Olde Towne Team is justified, but, as objective as I try to be, I can’t help but be all sorts of jacked up for baseball to be back in Boston.

And I’m not even going to have the privilege of watching a single live pitch when the Red Sox fire up the 2012 season this afternoon against the Tigers in the Motor City. Working gets in the way of day games from time to time.

Last night, I checked in with Josh Johnson, the Cardinals, and the Marlins new amusement park stadium–which actually looks really nice. Baseball is back, and this guy couldn’t be happier.

——–

Back to business. Andrew Bailey has a bum thumb. So does Josh Beckett, but he is apparently fine for now. Surgery is a distinct possibility at some point down the road, which is a miserable thought. Alfredo Aceves is the closer of the Boston Red Sox. And Vicente Padilla is somewhere, sweating. With the first pitch of the 2012 season just a handful of hours away, the Sox could certainly be in a better position, but hey, it could be worse.

Here are nine points of interest to monitor throughout the season:

Bobby Valentine’s Approval Rating-Valentine is going to piss some people off. He isn’t quite as abrasive as an Ozzie Guillen-type. He’s more like an intelligent gnat. He has a little Joe Maddon in him. But instead of just having a glass of red wine in his office after a game, Valentine will trick you into buying the bottle and pouring it for him. Curt Schilling was largely off base in his premature criticism of Valentine last week in an interview on WEEI. However, there were some grains of truth in what he had to say–you just had to look hard for them. Valentine should not try to reinvent the game during his tenure in Boston. I encourage him to place his own stamp on the Red Sox, make them his team. I’m all about that. With that said, no one wants Mike Aviles leading off a ballgame. Ever. Kevin Youkilis belongs in the fat part of the lineup. Don’t even flirt with the idea of putting him at the top. In the end, it’s important to judge Valentine by the number of ballgames he wins. Try to keep that in mind. The rest is just noise.

Carl Crawford‘s Ability to Hit the Glass-He needs to rebound. Let me rephrase. He NEEDS to rebound. I’m expecting to see CC back in action during the first week in May, and it is vital for Valentine to handle his return correctly. There are three acceptable spots in the batting order where Crawford fits: Lead off, the two-hole, or the nine-hole. Look, I’m all about the idea of a guy hitting in the latter half of the lineup until he “proves” he is ready for a prime spot in the order, but that’s not the way to get the most out of the speedy left fielder. He is most effective when he feels comfortable, and he feels comfortable hitting in a part of the lineup where his speed can be utilized. I believe Valentine will excel at getting the most out of his players. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Crawford are a couple of great candidates. It is the job of the Red Sox and Valentine to put Crawford in the best possible position to succeed. Crawford will be responsible with taking advantage of that opportunity.

Alex Wilson‘s Impending Promotion-Here is Wilson’s player page from the folks at Sox Prospects. Wilson isn’t going to dial it up at a Bard-like 98 MPH, but he throws hard enough and locates his pitches extremely well. Good teams are able to bring up a player or two from their farm system halfway through the year who can contribute. Wilson could very easily be that guy for the Sox. Keep an eye on this kid who will begin the year as a starter in Pawtucket. You could see him evolve into a quality option out of the ‘pen.

Bobby Valentine’s Man-Crush on Jose Iglesias-Okay, so I share the same sort of affinity for the Cuban phenom–I just didn’t want to put it in bold writing. Mike Aviles will be at shortstop today in Detroit. That we know. I’m still not completely convinced that he is the best choice, but that’s an argument suited for a different day. The ideal scenario consists of Iglesias spending the majority of 2012 in Triple-A, remaining healthy, and receiving a ton of at-bats. However, that plan could be derailed by an injury to either Aviles or Youkilis–the latter hasn’t exactly been a model of health over the course of the past couple of seasons. A significant injury to a member of the left side of the Red Sox infield would likely prompt GM Ben Cherington to summon Iglesias from Rhode Island to Boston. Let’s just say Valentine wouldn’t put up a ton of resistance.

Jon Lester: Pony or Horse?-Alright, so pony is probably too harsh. If Lester is a pony, he is the best damned pony around. I have detailed my thoughts on the left handed pitcher. In short, he is not efficient with respect to his pitch count. He relies too heavily on his cutter and often nibbles around the plate. It is extremely frustrating because I am an absolutely massive fan of Lester and the tools he brings to the rubber. The tall lefty recently made some interesting comments during an interview on WEEI. Look, Jon, you don’t need to win 20 games to be considered elite. Instead, you do need to pitch north of 200 innings, decrease your walks, and work deeper into games. I am beyond interested to see if the Washington native finally puts together a season that leaves voters unable to leave him off of their Cy Young ballot.

Rich Hill is My Boy-There’s no point in hiding it. I love Hill like Tommy loved Walter. Hill is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Thus far, he has been making a tremendous amount of progress. When Hill is able to finally join the big club, he has the potential to serve a vital role as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen. His sidearm delivery and ability to consistently throw strikes make him quite the weapon against guys like Robinson Cano and Carlos Pena. Pay close attention to his road back to the majors.

Daniel Bard The Starter vs. Daniel Bard The Reliever-Let’s hope the former wins out. I’m not going to beat a dead horse here. I’ll make it quick. Bard wants to start. He would prefer not to close. Cherington and the Red Sox granted him the opportunity to start. He did nothing this spring to lose that opportunity. The Red Sox owe it to themselves and Bard to let the plan run its course. Bailey’s injury, however, is not good for Bard’s development as a starter. In all likelihood, there will be external and internal pressure to slot Bard back into the bullpen. It would be an easy fix, a cop out. Converting a stud reliever to starter is not supposed to be easy. If the Red Sox and Bard are equally committed to his long term success as a starting pitcher, they must not even consider moving him back to the bullpen. This will be something to monitor closely.

Jacoby Ellsbury‘s Encore-Call me a downer, but I’m not expecting another 32 long balls from Ells in 2012. I still think 24-28 home runs is within reach. Last season, Ellsbury got on base at a .376 clip. I believe that is a figure the Oregon native can improve upon. Pitchers will undoubtedly be more apt to work around the 2011 MVP runner-up. He will have the opportunity to take his fair share of free passes. The Red Sox don’t need Ellsbury to mash 30 home runs–getting on-base and applying pressure to opposing pitchers does the trick just fine. Ells had a massive year last year, and it will be fascinating to see how he responds in 2012.

Three’s Company-Everything discussed above is meaningless if Lester, Beckett, and Clay Buchholz do not perform well. In order to perform well, health is a necessity. Beckett has already begun to deal with thumb issues. Buchholz is coming off of an always ambiguous back injury. Lester is the only guy who can be described as anything close to a sure thing. With an already weakened bullpen, the Red Sox top three starters must combine to start at least 90 games and throw in the neighborhood of 900 innings. If healthy, Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz are bound to find success in 2012. They’re that talented.

And in the interest of Opening Day…

“You look forward to it like a birthday party when you’re a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.”- Joe DiMaggio

Always Fun to Forecast

We are now firmly entrenched in the latter half of March. Eight days from today the Athletics and the Mariners will square off in Japan to officially open the 2012 season. Many people, like myself, have already made a handful of different predictions involving the Red Sox this fall and winter. As we begin to stare spring in the eyes, let’s take a look at some of the issues on this ball club and make some semi-educated guesses.

Alfredo Aceves, regardless of how well he pitches during the rest of Spring Training, will be in the bullpen. It’s too bad because I’m all about meritocracy, and Ace has tossed well enough to round out the rotation for the Red Sox. Nevertheless, his value as a member of the ‘pen is greater than it would be as a tail end of the rotation starter. Does Aceves deserve the chance to start? Yes. Will he get it, at least right away? No.

Mike Aviles will be the Opening Day shortstop for the Red Sox. Yeah, yeah–I know I had said that Jose Iglesias was a good spring away from nabbing the position. Iglesias has had a good spring, but Aviles has played exceptionally well too. Iggy is the better shortstop between the two. He plays better defense and is just downright intriguing. The Cuban defector needs to show that he can handle the stick a bit better before GM Ben Cherington and company gives him the keys to the convertible. It is an integral year for Iglesias–at some point, the Red Sox will have to decide whether he is the shortstop of the future or not. I believe he is. A solid 300+ at-bats in Pawtucket will go a long way in confirming that belief.

Rich Hill will eventually prove to be an important piece in Boston’s bullpen. As Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe points out, the Milton, Mass., native is progressing nicely as he attempts to return from Tommy John surgery. I know that many of us choose to forget the miserable start the Sox had last April, but Hill was one of the few bright spots. The guy was deadly out of the ‘pen on left handed hitters. From Robinson Cano to Carlos Pena, there are a bevy of dangerous left handed hitters that call the AL East their home. Hill, if healthy, is a tricky southpaw who offers a sidearm delivery that works to neutralize tough lefties. When he is right, Hill throws strikes. It’s easy to find a lefty who comes out of the bullpen. It’s tough to find a guy who gets the ball over the plate, while using a deceptive delivery. And

Felix Doubront will begin the year as the fifth starter, but Aaron Cook will ultimately assume that role. I like sinkers. I like quick innings. I miss me some Derek Lowe. Maybe Cook will make me miss Lowe a little bit less.

Carl Crawford will continue to disappoint. Make no mistake about it–I will be rooting for CC the whole way, but I just don’t see it. He has begun swinging again, but he will not even be close to ready for Opening Day. He has a wrist injury. And that’s never good. It is likely that Crawford will come back in late April/early May and begin hitting in the latter half of the lineup, where he is notably uncomfortable. Fenway Park simply does not play to his strengths. I wasn’t a huge fan of the signing when it happened last winter, and I really don’t like it today.

Bobby Valentine will struggle to get a handle on the bullpen. Is it just me or does the Red Sox ‘pen seem a bit disorganized these days? Andrew Bailey is the closer. Mark Melancon is the set-up man. I think. Or is it Aceves? I know that there is still plenty of time left this spring to sort things out, but I think it is time to start making some decisions. Doubront, Aceves, and Andrew Miller are in a sort of purgatory between the rotation and the bullpen. If Bailey struggles early on or suffers some sort of injury, things could get ugly. I believe it is important for Valentine to begin to designate at least who will be where (rotation, bullpen). Every move he makes will be heavily scrutinized, so he needs to be sure he has the right guys in the roles that are best suited for them to succeed.

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