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

Photo via wcvb.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Red Sox: Observations and Opinions

Photo courtesy of sportsillustrated.cnn.com

Terry Francona will return to manage a game at Fenway Park on Thursday night. For Francona, his vantage point will much different. He hasn’t managed a game against the Red Sox at 4 Yawkey Way in nearly 14 years. Back in 1999, Tito was at the helm of the not-so-good, very mediocre Phillies. Fast forward to 2013, Francona is back in the saddle. This time, it’s with the Tribe. It’s expected to be a wet, rainy night at the Fens on Thursday. And I’m sure Tito thinks his return as an opposing manager is not a big deal. But the banners, the wins, and the memories make for a much different argument. If in fact Francona doesn’t believe Thursday night is a big deal, he’s wrong. It most definitely is.

— On Wednesday night, ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted this:

Olney has connections that pretty much everyone could only dream about, but I see that statement as pure, relatively uninformed, speculation. First of all, Jacoby Ellsbury hasn’t even been displaced from his usual leadoff spot yet. And really, that probably couldn’t happen until Shane Victorino and his hamstring are feeling good enough to get back on the field. The idea of sitting a player like Ellsbury who has a major league track record — as head-scratching as it may be — in favor of guys like Mike Carp and Jonny Gomes is absurd.

So maybe Olney is talking about some of Pawtucket’s young stars? Well, Jackie Bradley Jr. is back on the field, but he is still recovering from biceps tendinitis and isn’t playing every day. Olney later went on to mention that Bryce Brentz is an option. Brentz is a talented power hitting outfielder with eight home runs on the year, but he is not on the 40-man roster. That means the Red Sox would have to make room on their 40-man before even thinking about adding him to their 25-man roster.

Would the Red Sox really make roster-altering moves because Ellsbury is simply struggling? I don’t believe there is even a small chance that happens.

— Speaking of struggling hitters, Will Middlebrooks continues to disappoint at the plate and, at times, in the field. There is no doubt that the young third baseman is playing through pain after colliding with David Ross and injuring his ribs. Even before the injury, however, Middlebrooks was scuffling. Late in the game on Tuesday night, Middlebrooks came to the plate against the White Sox’ reliever Jesse Crain with the bases loaded and one out. He struck out, swinging at a ball outside of the strike zone. The talented right handed hitter has been very frustrating, despite hitting for a fair amount of power and delivering a clutch two-out, two-strike double that plated three runs and ultimately won the game in the ninth inning against Fernando Rodney last week.

I don’t like Middlebrooks’ approach right now. When I watch his at-bats night in and night out, it feels like he is doing a lot of guessing, rather than recognizing the spin of the baseball out of the pitcher’s hand. Middlebrooks is a big, strong kid who can hit the ball to right field with authority. I’d like to see more of that. The good news is that the season is still relatively young. Middlebrooks is a good month/month and a half away from a much more respectable slash line than what he is sporting these days — .208/.243/.423. Ick.

Spring Training Notes

Photo courtesy of bleacherreport.com

The offseason can be fun, but it sure is nice to have baseball back in our lives. Real life, reach out and touch it baseball. That’s not to say that Spring Training doesn’t get tedious, for both fans and players. But for now, let’s be happy that we can turn on our televisions tonight and watch live baseball. It’s hard not to smile.

— Lost in the fray a bit this spring has been newly acquired starting pitcher Ryan Dempster. Relative to players like Zack Greinke, R.A. Dickey, and James Shields, all guys who changed uniforms over the winter, Dempster is not sexy. The 15-year veteran is certainly not on the front-nine of his career. The righty does not boast a big fastball that is designed to blow opposing batters away. As a guy who will play the majority of the 2013 season at age 36, Dempster sort of is what he is–roughly 200 innings, 4.00 ERA. But that may prove to be exactly what the Red Sox need. I’m excited to watch him pitch in meaningful games.

— I have been extremely cautious when it comes to David Ortiz and his Achilles injury. When he strained it (over seven months ago), the reports indicated that it was only going to be a few days. As we all know, that quickly changed. Ortiz must be himself this season if the Red Sox hope to contend. When you start hearing that the left handed slugger will be ready for Opening Day, it doesn’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. Opening Day!? How about Spring Training games!? Let’s set games in March as a goal before we talk April!

Lately, however, the news has been sort of, kind of encouraging. Doctors have told him that his Achilles is good to go. At this point, it’s fair to say that Ortiz needs the peace of mind of knowing that the injury is completely healed. Has the progress been slow? Absolutely. But maybe that will be the key in preventing re-injury during the season. For the first time in a long time, I’m confident that Ortiz will be 100 percent on April 1.

— Spring Training, as I mentioned, can be dull. The writers can get a bit bored from time to time too. And that is perfectly fine. But Jackie Bradley Jr. is not breaking camp with the Boston Red Sox. It ain’t happenin’. Look, the kid’s good. He’s a mature, well-rounded hard working player. Bradley knows how to get on-base and plays stellar defense. There is nothing not to like about the left handed hitting, right handed throwing outfielder. In fact, I would go as far to say that I believe he’s ready to make a legitimate impact on the major league level. So why not give him the nod at the end of Spring Training? It’s simple: I don’t see the benefit of starting Bradley’s service-time clock when he will only serve a part-time player. Jonny Gomes, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shane Victorino make up your outfield. Barring injury, count on Bradley playing in Rhode Island, not Boston.

Power Plays

Photo via mlive.com

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

But he did.

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

Why?

The answer has everything to do with Daniel Bard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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