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Archive for the tag “Will Middlebrooks”

Thoughts on the Left Side of the Infield

Photo courtesy of usatoday.com

There is a growing sense that Stephen Drew is destined for a reunion with the defending World Champions. As the 30-year old’s stock seemingly plummets, the chances that he winds up playing shortstop for the Red Sox on March 31 in Baltimore increases. Drew turned down a qualifying offer from Boston earlier this offseason, and it’s likely that the Red Sox would welcome him back on their terms. But I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

The argument for bringing Drew back focuses almost exclusively on the short term. Conversely, the reasons for not pursuing his services this offseason have a great deal to do with the Red Sox future. However, it would be entirely too simple to position this solely as a  present versus future debate. Let’s flesh it out a bit.

The 2014 Red Sox are certainly deeper with Drew on their team. That in and of itself, however, doesn’t make acquiring Drew the correct play.  I don’t see a realistic way that they would be able to keep Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, and Drew on the major league roster. That puts Middlebrooks back in Rhode Island to face more Triple-A pitching. There is no doubt that Middlebrooks has had some of his flaws at the plate exposed at the major league level, but relegating him to an extended period of time in Pawtucket would likely be rendered a waste. At some point, the Red Sox have to see what the 25-year old can do over a full season in the big leagues. If he is able to perform at the level I believe he can (.260/.315/.490 and a home run total around 30), Ben Cherington can leave him at third base for the foreseeable future or shop him in a trade that would bring Boston a hefty return. Middlebrooks manning third base in 2014 would also allow Bogaerts to remain at shortstop.

Bogaerts isn’t going to be a special player — he already is. The poise he exhibited throughout the month of October would have impressed the toughest skeptic. His bat will likely play anywhere on the field. Should the Red Sox bring Drew back on, let’s say, a one-year deal, Bogaerts would shift from shortstop to third base. Would a full year away from one of the most demanding positions on the diamond hinder him from shifting back there in 2015? I believe it’s plausible that a year away from shortstop would prevent Bogaerts from remaining at that position long term. Third base coach, Brian Butterfield, in a conversation with Boston Globe correspondent Maureen Mullen last month, gushed over Bogaerts’ future as a shortstop.

“I love him as a shortstop. Even though he’s a bigger body, he’s athletic. He’s very compact. He moves his feet like a smaller guy playing shortstop. He has great body control. He has a good imagination. He can get the ball in the air quickly when he needs to.”

Butterfield, a huge Bogaerts advocate, knows that success at this position requires a tremendous amount of work.

“He’s continuing to learn, and I think the most important thing for him, and the thing that he did so well, was the more reps he got at the big league level the more comfortable he got.”

Moving Bogaerts to third base, even for just a season, would likely prevent him from getting the big league repetitions necessary for an adequate young shortstop to evolve into an above average defender at the position. If he is able to stick at shortstop, Bogaerts, who is as prized as virtually any young player in the game of baseball right now, will carry even more value than he would at the hot corner.

None of this takes away from Drew’s skill set. He is an excellent defender who hits right handed pitching very well. Drew is a top tier shortstop who is having a hard time finding his footing in a market that doesn’t seem to want to pay what Scott Boras is demanding or is apprehensive to relinquish a draft pick. In reality, it’s probably a combination of the two. His presence on Boston’s roster in 2014 would give the club a tremendous amount of depth on the left side of the infield, something that the 2013 Red Sox needed. But Middlebrooks’ upside, Bogaerts’ value as a franchise shortstop, and the fact that the Red Sox would receive a supplemental first round draft pick, outweighs the depth that retaining Drew would provide.

The Red Sox and the Offseason

Photo courtesy of bostonherald.com

“The key for the Sox is to entertain during the season, not the Hot Stove season.

To do both, it wouldn’t hurt if the Sox had some logs in the fire.

It’s been brr . . . boring this winter.”

That is an excerpt from Christopher Gasper’s column that ran in the Boston Globe on Friday. Often times, I find Gasper to be insightful, smart, and thoughtful. I enjoy listening to him on 98.5 The Sports Hub and reading his pieces in the paper. But on Friday, he couldn’t have been more off base.

In all fairness to Gasper, I understand segments of his argument. The Red Sox hit it big last year and won a World Series, and they shouldn’t sit back in the offseason, leaning on their new-found goodwill that they accrued over seven months of playing excellent baseball. I get that. I’m confident that Ben Cherington does too. The 2013 Executive of the Year has methodically augmented his bullpen by adding Burke Badenhop and Edward Mujica. The former is adept at inducing ground balls, while the latter is a legitimate strike-throwing machine who resembles a JV version of Koji Uehara. A.J. Pierzynski will serve as a stopgap while Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart cook a bit longer. Cherington shrewdly didn’t overextend to retain Jacoby Ellsbury who received a significant overpay from the Yankees. He inked Mike Napoli to a two-year deal worth $32MM, a contract that beautifully represents what the Red Sox philosophy is when it comes to free agency–allocate a higher number dollars to shorter term deals. Flexibility rules all.

For some scribes, like Gasper, and many fans, this is simply not exciting. I don’t get it. I honestly don’t. Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field doesn’t get you fired up because he didn’t look like a world beater in his first 95 major league at-bats? That’s how we’re going to judge our young, promising talent? You should be thrilled, Gasper. The Red Sox are World Series champions, and they didn’t have to supplement their roster by investing in high priced outfielders in their 30’s like Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, or Carlos Beltran. Jhonny Peralta on a four-year, $53MM deal because you have a gaping hole on the left side? Nope. Not necessary. Your farm system has produced quite a fruitful harvest.

There is a very good chance that the Red Sox open the 2014 season in Baltimore with inexperience on the left side of the infield and in center field. Will Middlebrooks has a great deal to prove, but he is adequate defensively at third base and possesses a tremendous amount of power. Bradley will be a slight defensive upgrade in center. He will get on-base enough to hold his own at the dish. It is likely that Xander Bogaerts will take his lumps defensively throughout the course of his first full major league season, but he is just so damn talented.

Writers and fans should not be frustrated or bored with the Red Sox lack of activity this offseason. Instead, we should celebrate the success of the organization that has manifested itself in a club that can infuse young talent to an already strong core of players.

That is not brr…boring. That is exciting.

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.

Road Tripping

Photo via cbssports.com

After a 13-0 win, starting the season 4-2, and doing it against the Yankees and Blue Jays, it is tough to complain about the Red Sox. A team that desperately needed a positive start to the season, the Sox have certainly answered the call. I’ll be at the home opener on Monday, and I couldn’t be more excited to watch this team in-person.

After six games, here are some of my initial observations.

Jon Lester looks good. His outing against the Yankees was nothing write home about, but it certainly wasn’t a poor start. He minimized the damage when he got in trouble and gave his team a chance to win the game. The Red Sox offense staked Lester to a lead on Sunday, and he never let the Jays believe they were in the game. Lester is my MVP of the road trip. Here’s why: 12 IP, 10 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 13 K. Two wins.

— He went 0-5 in the season opener, but Mike Napoli has started to heat up. More importantly, he’s been showing off some of his impressive power. His hip condition seemingly has not affected his play. Nap will head to Fenway with two home runs on the season.

Shane Victorino has proven me wrong. I know that Spring Training (and World Baseball Classic) stats don’t matter, but Victorino was especially bad this spring. Since the start of the regular season? It’s be a 180 for the right fielder. After Sunday, Victorino has collected eight hits on the young season. He’s not slugging, but he’s contributing night in and night out.

Will Middlebrooks has to potential to be legitimate source of power for this team. It’s easy to say that after witnessing him go bridge three times on Sunday, but it was his opposite field home run off of R.A. Dickey that really impressed. He’s a strong kid.

— Don’t let Sunday’s power surge fool you, the Red Sox need David Ortiz back. I actually like the lineup from top to the bottom, but the middle of the order lacks the muscle of traditional Sox lineups. When Ortiz is ready to come back, he will not only help instill some pop in the middle of the order, but his presence will help balance things out as everyone will be able to move down a spot.

Jackie Bradley Jr.’s torrid spring has not spilled over into the regular season. He’s been good defensively is getting on-base, so it’s not like this experiment has been a failure. There’s been some chatter about sending him down to Pawtucket. This is what I wanted to avoid when the JBJ debate was at its peak. I don’t see why you’d want to treat a prospect like a yo-yo. When he is ready, bring him up. And when you bring him up, understand that struggles and slumps are unavoidable. Nevertheless, it’s likely he will be in Pawtucket at some point this season.

— So far this season, the Red Sox have won games started by C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Josh Johnson, and Dickey. It’s nice to do well against good pitching. They’ll get Wei-Yin Chen tomorrow at Fenway Park.

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.

Housekeeping: Nieves, Napoli, Upton

Juan Nieves was named pitching coach of the Red Sox Wednesday. Nieves served as bullpen coach of the White Sox from ’08-’12. His selection came as a bit of a surprise as pitching guru Rick Peterson was the lead dog prior the announcement yesterday. The 47-year old Puerto Rico native once tossed a no-hitter for the Brewers in 1987. He has some New England roots too. Nieves spent his high school years attending Avon Old Farms Prep in Connecticut.  But it was ultimately the relationship he formed with a 24-year old highly-touted Indians prospect he met while pitching in the Puerto Rican winter league.

That kid was John Farrell.

—- Last year, Mike Napoli had an extremely disappointing, injury-plagued season. He finished his 2012 campaign with a .227/.343/.469 slash line. The bulky right handed hitter still contributed 24 home runs. Consequently, the Rangers chose not to make Napoli a qualifying offer (one-year, $13.3MM).

What does this mean for the Red Sox?

Well, they can pursue Napoli knowing that they will not have to relinquish a draft pick. GM Ben Cherington will be looking for a first baseman with some pop, and Napoli can catch a little bit too. He’s 31-years old and is less than stellar defensively. Nevertheless, it would be wise of Cherington and the Red Sox to pursue Napoli who will not be looking for an overly long-term pact.

—- Rumors swirled Wednesday evening concerning Justin Upton who is perpetually on the trading block. Like almost every free agent or semi-available player, the Red Sox seem like a good fit. Reports indicated that they would be in on the 25-year old right fielder. Upton is a quality player who is under control for the next three seasons. It’s hard to blame the Diamondbacks for shopping Upton, given the haul he would bring in return. And one can understand why a plethora of teams would stand in line for a shot at obtaining his services.

But when it surfaced that Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers would be looking for some combination of a starting pitcher and third baseman, the Red Sox essentially fell out of the Upton sweepstakes. The Sox are certainly not swimming in quality young pitching, and Will Middlebrooks is not going anywhere.

Time to Let Go

Moving on is tough. Change is difficult. The past can often seem better than the present. For the Boston Red Sox and its fans, this couldn’t be more true when it comes to their ball club. Nevertheless, it is time to look forward.

It is about 2013, not 2004.

Terry Francona is not walking through that door.

Francona will always be beloved in these parts. He brought Red Sox fans salvation in 2004 and again three years later. Tito is arguably the greatest manager in Sox history. And that’s part of the problem–he is history. He’s not the manager in Boston any longer. In fact, he’s now the enemy (a relatively benign enemy in the form of the Cleveland Indians, but an enemy nonetheless). On April 16 — when the Indians visit Fenway — Francona will officially begin attempting to beat his old club.

The Tito Love Fest needs to end. It went on all of last year, mostly due to circumstances that surrounded the Red Sox and their former manager. Francona was dismissed at the end of the 2011 season in a manner that most people who follow the team would describe as unfair. Despite the allegations concerning Tito’s prescription drug abuse, he walked away from the rubble that befell Yawkey Way pretty clean. He went on to hook up with ESPN in an innocuous gig on Sunday Night Baseball.  Bobby Valentine, who is the black to Francona’s white when it comes to managerial style, never really got settled in Boston–much to his own device. It was easy to long for the way things were under Francona when Valentine was busy looking like a total idiot.

Tito quickly became the figurehead for anti-Establishment. Cheering the old manager meant opposing John Henry, Larry Lucchino, and to a lesser extent, Valentine. It was a theme that permeated throughout the season — Francona received the biggest ovation during the 100-year celebration of Fenway Park on April 20. In July, the ESPN analyst held court with a small group of Red Sox players in the visitor’s clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. Despite the denials from both sides, it must have been incredibly awkward for Valentine.

Franonca, however, is no longer serving in a role that has no real bearing on the welfare of the Red Sox. He is actively competing against them. Valentine has been disposed as manager, and the Sox have a new man at the helm in John Farrell who possesses many of the same coveted managerial skills as Francona but has a starkly different style. It is no longer about Francona. It’s about Farrell, and his team’s performance this summer.

Stop selling the past. Make a case for the future.

Let’s first deal with the facts. Last season was the 100-year anniversary of Fenway Park, and that is important. The aforementioned celebration this past April was necessary and well-done. The All-Fenway Team was acknowledged before the final home game of the season in September, and that too was appropriate given the circumstances surrounding the park’s birthday in 2012.

But recognizing the eight-year anniversary of the 2004 championship team? Please stop.

It’s time for ownership to stop leaning so heavily on the equity of good will that they have built up since purchasing the team. Instead, they must reinvest themselves in the 2013, 2014, and 2015 Red Sox. In turn, fans will reinvest accordingly.

Get excited about Will Middlebrooks, not Kevin Millar.

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None of this is easy. Francona was a superb manager during his tenure in Boston. Farrell owns a sub .500 record since taking over his first managerial gig in Toronto. Middlebrooks is heading into his sophomore season as a pro, and in the grand scheme of things, hasn’t done much of anything yet. Conversely, a player like MIllar helped deliver a World Series trophy to this city. It’s understandable why fans and even members of ownership gravitate towards these guys. They’re fun, likable winners.

And it’s perfectly fine to give Francona a nice ovation when he visits Fenway in an Indians uniform. Let him tip his cap and acknowledge the fans. He deserves that.

But after that, let go.

Advice for the Red Sox: Farrell, Morales, Ortiz

It’s not that these September games don’t matter at all. There is plenty of room for evaluating guys like Jose Iglesias, Ryan Lavarnway, and Ryan Kalish. However, every move that this organization makes going forward must be done with an eye towards the future. The 2012 Boston Red Sox are officially about the 2013 Boston Red Sox

Here are nine pieces of advice for a ball club in desperate need of putting its best foot forward.

—Do what you have to do to pry John Farrell from the Blue Jays. If Toronto’s GM Alex Anthopoulos demands a player like Clay Buchholz or even Daniel Bard (yes, that Daniel Bard), you move on–because that’s ridiculous. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Farrell should be the top candidate to replace Bobby Valentine.

—Bring David Ortiz back on a one-year deal. I love these tough-talkers who call into radio shows and proclaim how they’re sick of Ortiz, how he’s a baby, and the Sox need to move on. Get real. I wouldn’t necessarily offer him arbitration, but Ortiz has to be the anchor of that lineup next season. And remember: A pissed off Ortiz is a productive Ortiz.

—Sign Cody Ross this offseason and never let him play right field again. Ever.

—John Henry must empower GM Ben Cherington. He is an intelligent, qualified executive who deserves more autonomy. If that means somehow lessening the importance of Larry Lucchino, so be it. Wins are more important than selling commemorative bricks.

—Give Franklin Morales a fair shot to start in 2013. I’d go to battle with that guy as my fifth starter any day of the week.

—Integrate some patience this offseason. The Red Sox have gotten away from their bread and butter–taking pitches, working the count, and wearing down the opposition. You can get away with a couple of free swingers like Will Middlebrooks, but for every young, anxious hitter, you need two players who are willing to take what is given to them. ESPN’s Jeremy Lundblad explores this in more detail here.

—Trade Jacoby Ellsbury in the offseason. Fans will undoubtedly gripe, but it is the best decision. Here is why.

—Find a way to harness Alfredo Aceves. He is undoubtedly volatile, quirky, and, at times, troublesome. But he is a weapon, a guy who can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen, spot start, or even close an occasional game. If he proves to be detrimental to the team, cut bait.

—Do not be afraid of bad publicity. When discussing the idea of firing Valentine before season’s end, WEEI’s Rob Bradford advocated the idea by saying “rip the band-aid off.” I don’t necessarily agree with firing Valentine now, but Bradford’s point is actually a good one. This organization has gotten away from what is most important: Assembling a quality team that is capable of playing consistently good team baseball. Are there going to be bumps in the road along the way? Sure. Rather than compromising what is best for the franchise in order to avoid a few potholes, hit them head on. Face the music and learn from the mistakes.

Red Sox Trade Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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Could the Red Sox actually be sellers?

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

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Ben Cherington’s first crack at the deadline

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

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

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Gauging how the team feels about its minor league assets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My thoughts

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

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