Talkin Sox with Dan

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Archive for the tag “Dustin Pedroia”

Red Sox Offseason Notes: Napoli, Carp, Ellsbury

Photo via csnne.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via wcvb.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observations From Fort Myers

Photo via milb.com

From March 13-March 22, I was lucky enough to spend my vacation with my girlfriend, Meg, in Fort Myers. The last time we had visited the Fort was in 2011, the final year the Red Sox would make their spring home at the City of Palms Park. A year later, the Sox would move into a shiny new facility located near the airport in Fort Myers, fittingly dubbed JetBlue Park. They were also coming off a historical September collapse that the organization is still trying to recover from. Fast forward one year, and the Red Sox are determined to fix what is broken, to bring the fans back. On April 1, at Yankee Stadium, they will have their first official chance to “restore the faith.”

Unfortunately, I’m one of the suckers that, no matter what, will always keep coming back. Here’s what I saw in Southwest Florida:

Hammond Stadium is fine by me. The spring home of the Minnesota Twins opens its gates three hours before first pitch. That is exceptionally fan-friendly. Naturally, I made sure that we were at the park at 9:30 AM on March 14. I have to assume that Meg was thrilled.

WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford is a legitimately nice dude. Aside from a few interactions as a caller/tweeter, I don’t know Rob. I introduced myself to him at this past December’s Christmas at Fenway. WEEI was doing a radio show on-site that day. But again, I only know him as one of Boston’s better baseball scribes, and he only knows me as one of many Red Sox fans with an opinion. Despite all of that, I had the opportunity to chat with him while he was on the field at Hammond Stadium. He didn’t mind me bothering him to pick his brain about who has looked good in camp thus far. The next day, I found myself at the Red Sox minor league fields behind Jet Blue Park taking in some action when Rob approached me and offered to take me on an informal tour around the grounds at Fenway South. It was a cool, rare opportunity to get a peak at the complex and the park that the Red Sox occupy for much of the spring. Getting the chance to chat with someone who covers the team on a daily basis was pretty neat too. So thanks for that, Rob.

Jackie Bradley Jr. doesn’t run. He glides. Lost in the hoop-la surrounding the debate about whether or not the talented young outfielder should begin the season in Boston or Rhode Island has been how special JBJ really is. His approach at the plate is well-documented, but his defense may be even better. Bradley is not a burner by traditional standards, but he makes up for it by reading the ball off the bat, playing angles superbly. In short: He understands the game. If you’re interested in learning a little more about Bradley’s background, I can’t suggest this piece enough.

Minor league games at JetBlue Park are the absolute best. The best, Jerry. In all seriousness, it really is a phenomenal experience. Parking at Fenway South for a game costs $10, not bad at all considering the prices up north during the summer. For the minor league games? No cost. Admission is free as well. You are welcome to bring your own drinks, snacks, sunflower seeds. It’s essentially the opposite of any kind of sporting event you’ll ever attend when it comes to price and access.

At any one time, you have the ability to watch two, or sometimes, three minor league games going on simultaneously. The fields are extremely close to one another. I literally didn’t sit down during the two afternoons I spent at the complex. The players who are not scheduled to play or pitch that day occupy the small sets of bleachers located around the fields. Should you choose to sit, you will almost certainly be next to a flock of players in full uniform who will be playing up and down the Red Sox farm system in a matter of weeks. And these are not unknown guys. Blake Swihart, Matt Barnes, Henry Owens, Xander Bogaerts, and a plethora of other talented professional ballplayers are closer than you will probably ever get to them. You’re just as likely to stumble into a jewel from Red Sox’ past as you are the club’s future when taking in a few innings at the minor league games.

I had the chance to briefly chat with Frank Malzone who is one of the greatest third baseman in Red Sox history. Malzone is 83-years old and looks great. If anyone deserves the passenger seat of a golf cart at Fenway South, it’s him. Dwight Evans looks like he could still run down a well-hit ball to right field. I found it especially cool when I met him–a player who came just before my time, a guy who Bill James views as a Hall of Famer. I wouldn’t be telling the truth, however, if I said that the highlight of my trips to the ball field wasn’t meeting the great Pedro Martinez.

Photo courtesy of espn.com

Pedro doesn’t adhere to anyone’s schedule. He never really did as a player and certainly doesn’t now. Serving in a part-time role as a special assistant to GM Ben Cherington is perfect for Pedro. He can sort of come and go as he pleases. I just happened to get lucky that he was roaming the minor league fields on my final day there. Flanked by two security guards — not that they were needed, as there are simply not many people who attend the games — Pedro was dressed in full uniform, leaning against a pole behind home plate of Field 3. I’m not being facetious when I say that I firmly believe he could go out and give you five strong frames tomorrow if you needed him in a pinch.

After the third out of an inning, I took a deep breath and approached one of the best pitchers the game of baseball has ever seen. I shook his hand and thanked him for everything he did for the Red Sox. I meant it too.

Given the circumstances, it was probably the most I could have done or said, even though I felt like giving him a Jason Varitek-after-the-last-out-in-Game 5-of-the-1999-ALDS-type embrace. But I can’t imagine that would’ve gone over too well.

Grown men seeking autographs is just plain weird. There’s something not right about it. Look, I’m a fan. I’m not above shouting to a player before a game and wishing him luck. It’s cool to be close to the game. I get it. But at some point, you have to stop chasing around guys your own age — or even younger — for a signature on a card or a baseball. If you’re someone who does this, it’s nothing personal. I don’t think you’re a bad dude. I just think you’re taking up the time of a ballplayer who could be signing something for, ya know, a ten year old.

(Full disclosure: I stood in line this past winter to get Terry Francona‘s signature on the cover page of his book. Yes, I think that’s different than the men who pester players who are trying to get their work in on the day of a game or practice.)

Dustin Pedroia and Brian Butterfield are probably a month or two away from being best friends. They both have a tremendous amount of personality. They both get to the yard extremely early. And most importantly, they both love the game. Here’s what Butterfield said about Pedroia back in November: “Dustin, the way he goes about his work, the way he competes and carries the torch and reacts to game situations, you can tell the Red Sox are his top priority. I’m so anxious to work with him.”

Before the Red Sox, Twins game on March 14 from just a few feet away, I watched Pedroia and Butterfield interacting on the top step of the visitor’s dugout of Hammond Stadium. They weren’t finalizing dinner plans either. Pedroia was wearing his helmet and batting gloves, leaning against the top of his bat. Butterfield stood to his right, leaning with his hand against the foam padding on the dugout rail. Their discussion was, at times, quite animated. It certainly appeared that the pair was talking about Pedroia’s approach to his first at-bat of the game. Both Butterfield and Pedroia are two guys cut from the same cloth.

Ryan Dempster is going to be a guy that fans will like watching. The two games we attended both featured Dempster as the starting pitcher. I had the chance to observe what it looks like when he is sharp and also when he is not so sharp. He is not going to blow hitters away, but he always seems like he is pitching with a plan. The Red Sox aren’t looking for Dempster to be the savior. If he stays healthy, expect to get a nice return on the righty. It also helps that signing him did not force the Sox to relinquish a draft pick.

Will Middlebrooks‘ wrist is just fine. It’s hard to believe that it was one month ago that Middlebrooks suffered, what appeared to be, a wince-worthy injury to his right wrist on an awkward check swing in a spring training game against the Orioles. At the time, I panicked. I’ll admit it. The young third baseman is such an integral part of this team. The Red Sox simply cannot afford to lose him. Thankfully, it only turned out to be a scare. Middlebrooks has gone on to tear up Grapefruit League pitching. This spring, he has hit at a 362/.400/.617 clip. Because of the work Jackie Bradley Jr. has done, Middlebrooks’ impressive camp has gone under the radar. In the two games I saw, even when he made outs, he struck the ball with authority. The kid’s going to be fun to watch over the course of a full season.

——

Spring Training often gets to be a monotonous time for fans, media, and players, but man, it is cool. The idea of watching baseball games when it is still basically winter in New England is an enticing thought in and of itself. If it were not for some convenient circumstances, I probably couldn’t afford to go on a nine-day vacation in Southwest Florida. Even without being as lucky as I have been, there are ways to do it relatively cheaply. You don’t need to stay near Fort Myers Beach to still spend a good amount of time getting a tan burnt. Public transportation is less than ideal, but you can get to the airport, the beach, and the ballpark inexpensively.

I’m already looking forward to the next Spring Training trip because seeing Luis Tiant drive a golf cart while smoking a cigar never gets old. Ever.

Red Sox Quick Hits: Youkilis, Uehara, Drew

Photo via boston.cbslocal.com

Kevin Youkilis inked a one-year pact with the New York Yankees for the upcoming season. Tom Brady’s brother-in-law will earn $12MM in 2013, which is a nice chunk of change for the soon-to-be 34-year old. In fact, it is only one million less than the option the White Sox held after he was traded from Boston last summer. He passed up a chance at a multi-year deal with the Indians and a reunion with his longtime skipper, Terry Francona. It’s a great deal for Youk.

So Youkilis, a three-time All-Star and World Champion, will head to the Bronx, and many a fan in Boston will take the opportunity to boo him or cowardly insult him in the comments section of blogs on the internet. As I wrote here nearly six months ago, Youkilis is the type of player who should be embraced in Boston, cheered when he returns, and revered when his playing days come to an end. I’m not sure what fans really want from a player. I guess I can’t speak for everyone, but I root for guys who care about winning and leave it all on the field. And if Youkilis didn’t do that when he was in a Red Sox uniform, then no one did.

Koji Uehara‘s one-year deal worth a reported $4.25MM became official yesterday. I’ll preface this by saying that I was head-over-heels in love with the Mark Melancon trade last offseason, so take my assessment of Uehara with a grain of salt. But I’m head-over-heels in love with this signing.

The 37-year old right hander will help solidify a bullpen that could evolve into quite an asset for the 2013 Red Sox. If Uehara stays healthy, he will be one of the most reliable arms John Farrell has at his disposal. Although the native of Japan pitched for the Texas Rangers last season, he is very familiar with the rigors that come with pitching in the AL East. Over the course of two and a half seasons as an Oriole, Uehara compiled a more-than-respectable 3.03 ERA.  Additionally, he strikes out nearly eight batters for every one batter he walks. That’s good stuff. GM Ben Cherington has stated that he is looking to add arms who attack the strike zone. Mission accomplished.

Stephen Drew agreed to a one-year contract with the Red Sox worth $9.5MM. Well, there goes my whole ‘start Jose Iglesias at shortstop if he has a good camp’ theory. The brother of Red Sox World Series champion and ALCS hero, J.D. Drew, this Drew is looking to rebound from what was a wretched 2012 campaign. Still recovering from a wince-worthy ankle injury he suffered in the middle of 2011, Drew missed the first half of last season and played a combined 79 games with both the Diamondback and the Athletics. His .223/.309/.348 line didn’t exactly leave Drew and his agent, Scott Boras, with a plethora of can’t-refuse offers this offseason. But Boras, as he so often does — see Adrian Beltre with the Red Sox in 2010 — found a home for his client where he will make a substantial salary and have the opportunity to rebuild his value in anticipation of cashing in this time next offseason.

Drew isn’t a player that gets me especially excited. He is an average to good defender — nothing spectacular with regards to the leather. It is true that he does offer much more upside at the plate than a player like Iglesias, but offense is almost never the real problem for Red Sox teams of recent memory.  Granted, the lineup that took the field in the subsequent games after Nick Punto and friends were traded to the Dodgers was pitiful. Generally speaking, however, the Red Sox tend to hit well enough to win on a consistent basis. Pitching has been the source of most of the headaches throughout the summer. So aside from adding a legitimate ace to the staff, what is a better way to assist in run prevention? Quality defense, especially in the middle of the diamond.

Cherington added David Ross who is excellent behind the plate. Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are superb at second base and center field, respectively. Iglesias at shortstop would have not only been extremely fun to watch — it would have helped save a great deal of runs. For now, I have to assume that Iglesias will be back in Pawtucket, continuing to work on developing his bat.

Drew’s deal is only for one-year, so I’m not especially angry over it. Is $9.5MM an overpay? Probably. But, for this team, it’s all about long term flexibility, and Drew is a yet another free agent who should, if healthy, be able to contribute as an above average player at his position in 2013.

The Red Sox Take You Into the Weekend

It’s Friday. That’s a good thing. Celebrate by reading a few must-know points on the Red Sox. I’ll keep it short and sweet.

Torey Lovullo was officially hired as the Red Sox bench coach today. The former major leaguer was John Farrell‘s first base coach last season in Toronto. Lovullo is a known commodity in these parts. He managed the Pawtucket Red Sox in 2010. He also interviewed for the Red Sox’ manager job last offseason. Lovullo is a manager-in-waiting, but the take away here is that Farrell is going to surround himself with guys he trusts, knows, and respects. It is a stark difference from what the Red Sox did last year with Bobby Valentine.

— I’m eager to see who is hired as pitching coach. Farrell has a strong pitching background, but it’s important to realize that the pitching coach is the individual who will be managing the staff on a day to day basis. The Red Sox and Farrell must choose a guy who is given full autonomy over the pitchers. Rick Peterson would be a blessing.

— I have a feeling that the 2013 Red Sox are going to be very fun to watch. David Ortiz, Cody Ross, Dustin Pedroia, and Mike Napoli would be a fun core to root for.

— The Red Sox would be smart to stay away from B.J. Upton and Justin Upton. The former is a free agent who doesn’t get on-base. The latter is a good player who is under contract for reasonable dollars, but it would require quality young talent to get him here. Spend your minor leagues commodities on pitching. Or don’t spend them at all.

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.

No Voice, Just Noise

“You’re right that some of his [Josh Hamilton] at-bats aren’t very impressive from the standpoint that he doesn’t work deep into the count. He’s swinging at a lot of bad pitches. He just doesn’t seem to be locked in at all. So what you’re hoping is that his approach will change, and he’ll start giving quality at-bats because there’s a lot of those at-bats that he just gives away.” – Nolan Ryan, President of the Texas Rangers

The Boston Red Sox do not have a voice. John Henry, despite the mass-email that he sent to various media outlets and beat reporters on Monday, is not the backbone of the organization. Larry Lucchino may, according to Henry, run the Red Sox, but when he speaks (or writes), it’s hard to not feel like you’re being sold something. Ben Cherington can be refreshingly honest, but he does not possess the autonomy necessary for a GM to be completely successful. Lucchino lurks. Castration occurred early for Bobby Valentine. He is a hard-nosed manager being forced to toe the company line. Because of that, fans are much more apt to roll their eyes when he speaks, not listen.

From ownership, to baseball operations, to the on-field leaders, the Red Sox have proven to be exceptionally good at organizationally undercutting one another.

Let’s examine.

Dale Sveum, Cherington’s first choice as the next Red Sox manager, is pushed aside by Lucchino in favor of Valentine, a sexier name who brings a reputation that runs perpendicular with Terry Francona’s style. Before Valentine is done unpacking, a combination of Dustin Pedroia and Cherington scold him for being himself, something he was seemingly brought to Boston to do. Would I publicly criticize a veteran player like Kevin Youkilis? No. But I’m also not Valentine, and when you make a hire like the former glasses and mustache-wearing Mets manager, that type of incident should be expected.

Roughly two months ago, Valentine makes a comment to rookie third baseman, Will Middlebrooks, as he comes off of the field follow an inning where he apparently made a couple defensive miscues: “Nice inning, kid” — or something of the like. It was a completely innocuous comment, designed loosen up what was likely a white-hot Middlebrooks. A player in the dugout witnesses the exchange and deems it necessary to mention it to a member of the Red Sox front office. Valentine is later approached by ownership, discouraging him from making comments similar to the one he made towards Middlebrooks.

It has been dysfunction at its finest.

Worst of all, there is not a figure like Nolan Ryan or Cam Neely to set an organizational tone for the Red Sox. Both Ryan and Neely, although experiencing success in two different sports as players, serve as presidents of their respective franchises and command the respect that is often needed to bridge the gap between ownership and on-field employees. Do you think Henry, Lucchino, or Cherington could get away with criticizing David Ortiz‘ approach at the plate the way Ryan (see above) dissected Josh Hamilton’s two weeks ago? Me neither.

The Red Sox advocate the idea of everyone contributing before a decision is made. Everyone gets a seat at the table, sort of thing. But that is likely the root of the problem.

No one in that organization just goes to work and does the job assigned to him. The players know that ownership will listen when they complain. Sometimes they’re even rewarded for their gripes. Cherington is promoted to be the GM and oversee baseball operations, but Lucchino pauses his perpetual Red Sox sales pitch to choose the manager, subverting his new GM’s authority. Henry has deep pockets but seems disinterested with the product he owns.

Ideally, players would stick to hitting, fielding, and pitching. They would respect their manager enough not to go to ownership about an exchange in the dugout they witnessed–and if they did, they would not be heard. Ownership would back their manager, simultaneously fostering a sense of respect for him within the walls of the clubhouse.

Ideally, Cherington would be allowed to do the job he was assigned to do by his bosses. He is the General Manager of the Boston Red Sox because somebody believes strongly in his skills as a decision-maker when it comes to baseball operations. In turn, if Cherington believes Sveum puts his team in the best situation to succeed on the field, he should be the manager, not Valentine, not Joe Torre, not Casey Stengel.

Ideally, Henry would identify that his ball club is in complete disarray. He would care enough not to let it continue. He would be vocal. Lucchino may “run the Red Sox”, but Henry owns them. He can do what he wants–that includes firing Lucchino.

From the players on the field, to the coaches in the dugout, to the executives watching from above, there is a tangible lack of respect that permeates throughout the organization. Everyone steps on each others toes and thinks that it is perfectly fine because no one says that it’s not. When things go awry, nobody in the Red Sox organization steps up to right the ship because they’re too busy bumping into each other.

Until a sense of respect is injected back into this organization, it would be silly to expect anything but mediocrity out of the Red Sox. With or without Valentine at the helm or whether Josh Beckett is on this team or not, the Red Sox will be .500 on the field because they’re .500 everywhere else.

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.

My Thoughts on Kevin Youkilis

Kevin Youkilis is a member of the Chicago White Sox. Will Middlebrooks is here to stay. There was never a real controversy. Trading Youkilis wasn’t the right move–it was the only move.

I was wrong. Close to two months ago, I argued that if Youkilis was healthy, Middlebrooks would not overtake him. The husky corner infielder was healthy–he simply did not produce. The young kid from Texarkana, Texas, did. Youkilis, who willed himself into becoming an All-Star caliber major leaguer, spent more time arguing with umpires since he return from the disabled list than he did putting together quality at-bats. Middlebrooks, on the other hand, chose to do his talking on the diamond, rather than in the runway that leads to the clubhouse at Marlins Park in Miami.

Injuries, declining performance, and the emergence of a bright young star combined to spell the end of the Youkilis Era in Boston. But it was a heck of a good run.

If you’re someone like myself–a high strung individual who feels anxious when he is not able to watch or listen to the Red Sox when they’re on–then you possess a deep rooted appreciation for the way Youk approached the game. It didn’t matter whether it was April or September–each game mattered immensely to the Cincinnati native. I hang on the result of each pitch whether it is overcast in May, blisteringly hot in July, or refreshingly cool in October. So did Youk. If Youkilis made a soft out in a game, it wasn’t “that’s okay, I’ll get him the next time.” It was a failure. It was an opportunity missed, a chance to help his team squandered. Fans saw pieces of themselves in Youkilis.

The former Gold Glove winner will always be cast in the same “dirt dog” light as fellow champion Trot Nixon, but Youk was more than just a dirty uniform. In 2008, a year that saw Youkilis finish with a smooth .312/.390/.569 slash line, the gritty then first baseman finished third in MVP voting behind teammate Dustin Pedroia and Justin Morneau. Not bad for a guy who used to provoke talk radio callers to refer to him as You-Kill-Us. That year was simply the apex of a Red Sox career that included two World Series titles. He served as a vital cog on the 2007 championship team.

I’ll never forget the job Youkilis did in the 2007 ALCS against the Indians. The Red Sox rallied to overcome a 3-1 series deficit and beat the Tribe, spurring them on to a World Series win over the rusty Rockies. Youk had 28 at-bats in the ALCS. He collected hits in 14 of them. You could rely on him.

When Youkilis was right, he grinded out at-bats. Nothing was made easy for the poor guy on the mound. He got on-base. He scored runs. He drove them in. He was productive. As fans, we trusted him. When Youkilis came to the plate, we felt like we were in good hands. In baseball, you’re going to make an out more often than you get a hit, but with Youkilis, you never felt cheated. For at least four plate appearances each game, you got your money’s worth.

And for the better part of nine seasons, so did the Red Sox.

Ryan Kalish is Needed in Boston

Ryan Kalish should be in the next available Lincoln Town Car that takes him from McCoy Stadium to T.F. Green Airport and on a plane that heads for either South Beach or the North Side.

Either way, he needs to be up with the big boys. Now.

Since being deemed healthy enough to participate in games, Kalish has shined. In a small 13-game sample that spans from High-A ball to Triple-A, the 24-year old outfielder has hit at a .367/.475/.673 clip with an eye-popping OPS of 1.148. He’s launched four home runs, swiped two bags, and drawn nine walks.

This isn’t just some sort of aberration by a minor league standout. Kalish is a guy who has already showcased his talents on the major league level.

In 2010, the left handed hitter was called to Boston during the latter half of the season. The Red Sox were in need. In 53 games, he slugged four home runs, drove in 24 runs, and stole 10 bases. He navigated center field like a veteran (e.g., diving, tumbling catch in Tampa). Kalish looked like a kid that belonged.

Injuries derailed Kalish’s ability to immediately solidify himself as a fixture in the Red Sox outfield. Nevertheless, the Red Sox front office held enough confidence in Kalish to deal Josh Reddick to the Athletics. That’s the same Reddick who has 14 home runs this season in a cavernous home ballpark.

The point is that Kalish possesses both the pedigree and the production that warrants a promotion. More importantly, like in 2010, there is a need.

Offensively, the Red Sox have been potent this season. They’re second in the American League in runs scored and fifth in slugging percentage. Batting average? They’re third.  As of late, however, they have been stagnant to say the least.  In their past five games, the Red Sox have scored 12 runs. That’s an average of 2.4 runs per game. Good luck winning ballgames at that rate.

Over the course of those five games, the Red Sox have faced quality pitching courtesy of both the Nationals and the Marlins. Whether it is Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, or Josh Johnson toeing the rubber, scoring runs is not going to be easy, even if you have a lineup that consists of guys who flat out mash. And the Red Sox lineup certainly does not possess the thump that’s needed to combat quality starting pitching.

Right now, who are you confident in to get a hit, let alone a big hit? David Ortiz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are the only acceptable answers. Adrian Gonzalez is mired in a prolonged slump that forces followers of the team to count the number of walks, rather than home runs. Dustin Pedroia‘s thumb is not right, and, as a result, neither is he. Kevin Youkilis is either too busy grounding out to the left side or yelling at an umpire to actually care that he has been miserable at the dish since returning from the disabled list.

Have there been honorable contributions from Ryan Sweeney, Daniel Nava, and Mike Aviles? Absolutely. And they should be damn proud of themselves. At some point, however, good pitching beats mediocre hitting. And when the hitting isn’t very good to begin with, the good pitching makes said hitting look even worse.

Kalish is a polished, young hitter who can make an immediate impact on a team that is starving for a spark. The Red Sox have been lackluster against right handed pitching. Kalish would help. Their bench lacks any sort of substance. The broad shouldered kid from Jersey would help create roster depth.

If the Red Sox were ten games over .500, it would make sense for Kalish to remain in Triple-A Pawtucket in order to get back into baseball shape. But they’re not. They’re 30-32 and have exactly 100 games left to turn their season season around.

Reinforcements are needed. There is one less than sixty minutes away from Boston. Kalish should be playing with the Red Sox.

Some, if not many, will disagree. And their reasons are valid.

I recently had an exchange with the Providence Journal’s Brian MacPherson–who does an excellent job covering the Red Sox. MacPherson indirectly raised a fair point: Who do the Sox part with in order to make room for Kalish? MacPherson believes it would have to be Scott Podsednik, who has been better than good since getting called up. Here is a portion of our conversation via Twitter:

MacPherson’s point is well-taken. Nevertheless, whether it is a Podsednik decline, a Nava DL stint, or a different roster move all together, Kalish will impact the 2012 Red Sox at some point this season.

Eventually, no matter what, the cream will rise to the top.

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