Enough About The Red Sox Chemistry

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There is a place for chemistry in baseball and I’m not talking about PEDs. The Red Sox have been lauded for their improved clubhouse atmosphere coinciding with more likable people in the room such as Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, and manager John Farrell. It’s undoubtedly a more pleasant place without the rampant dysfunction and selfishness that culminated in a 69-93 last place disaster in 2012.

To put the team in context, however, they scarcely could’ve been worse in terms of cohesiveness and being on the same page than they were in 2012. The preponderance of the blame is placed on the desk of former manager Bobby Valentine because he’s a convenient scapegoat and is gone. But there’s more than enough responsibility to go around from owner John Henry with his increasing detachment from the Red Sox day-to-day affairs to focus on building the Fenway sports brand, much to the chagrin of the Liverpool football club’s faithful; CEO Larry Lucchino who spearheaded the Valentine hiring over the objections of the baseball people; and GM Ben Cherington who made the ill-fated decision to trade Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey among other questionable moves and whose head is now in the noose with the expensive signings of Victorino, Ryan Dempster and the trade for Joel Hanrahan along with the highly dubious decision to trade for Farrell to manage the team, ostensibly because they knew him and he was there when the team was at the height of its powers.

Amid all the chemistry talk and references—specifically from former manager Terry Francona in his book—that the 2011 club didn’t care about one another, all they needed to do was win one more game over the month of September that year and they still would’ve made the playoffs. You can’t blame a bad mix of players for the horrific final month of the season when they were widely regarded as the best team in baseball from May through August. They had two terrible months and they both happened to be in the first and last months of the season. If the players disliking one another wasn’t a problem in the summer, how did it turn into the biggest issue that led to their downfall?

Chemistry is not to be disregarded, but the media constantly harping on the dynamic of the personalities strikes as hunting for a narrative. If they play well, the new players and better communication will be seen as the “why” whether it’s accurate or not. Because the media no longer has to deal with Josh Beckett and his Neanderthal-like grunting and glaring; Adrian Gonzalez with his deer-in-the-headlights reaction to all things Boston; Carl Crawford and his “get me outta here” body language; and Valentine with his Valentineisms, their life is much easier and they don’t have to dread going to work. But so what? This isn’t about the media and the fans having players with a high wattage smile and charm; it’s not about having a manager who looks like he should be a manager, therefore is a manager even though his in-game strategies are widely regarded as terrible. It’s about performing and last night was an ominous sign for the third closer they’ve tried, Hanrahan, since Jonathan Papelbon was allowed to leave without so much as a whimper of protest and an unmistakable air of good riddance.

Closers blow games. It happens. Truth be told, the pitch that was called ball four on Nate McLouth could very easily (and probably should’ve) been called a strike, but big game closers have to overcome that and last night Hanrahan responded to not getting the call by throwing a wild pitch to let the Orioles tie the game, and then served up a meatball to Manny Machado to torch the thing completely.

Hanrahan is better than Bailey and Alfredo Aceves, but he’s never been in a situation like that of Boston where he’s expected to be a linchpin to the club’s success. He’s also a free agent at the end of the season. This isn’t a rebuilding Nationals team or the Pirates. There’s a lot of pressure on him. The starting rotation is woefully short and the aforementioned personnel and management issues haven’t gone away simply because of their attempts to weed out the problem people who are perceived to have led to the crumbling of the infrastructure. They may have been patched the personality gap to the satisfaction of the media at large, but the players also have to be able to play and play in Boston. Whether they can or not has yet to be determined in spite of the feeling of sunshine permeating the reconfigured room.

Chemistry only goes as far. If they don’t find some starting pitching and have a closer that can finish a game, this discussion on how much more positive the Red Sox are will be all they have to talk about in July because they certainly won’t be discussing preparations for a playoff run.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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The Red Sox, Hanrahan and “Stuff”

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For a team that has historically made clear that they don’t think much of designated closers, the Red Sox acquire an awful lot of them. Occasionally the operative term is “awful.”

It’s not so much that they keep trading for closers simultaneously to making the point of not paying money for saves, it’s that last winter they acquired Andrew Bailey to be the “ace” out of the bullpen and Mark Melancon to back him up, but that they gave up “stuff” to get them and turned around a year later, giving up more “stuff” (including Melancon) to get Joel Hanrahan to replace Bailey. Eventually, that pile of “stuff” could wind up having been better used if the Red Sox had kept them (Josh Reddick) or used them in different trades to fill other holes.

The trade for Bailey was understandable. They needed to replace Jonathan Papelbon and Bailey wasn’t set to be a free agent until after 2014. In retrospect and considering the ancillary factors—the players they traded, the reluctance to waste a draft pick by signing a big name free agent, Bailey’s injury and Melancon’s failure—they would have been better off simply paying Papelbon. With Papelbon, at least they knew what they had and wouldn’t have gone through this level of histrionics to fill his underappreciated shoes.

The acquisition of Hanrahan is different from the one of Bailey in several ways. In this trade, they traded Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus Jr., Stolmy Pimentel and Melancon to the Pirates for Hanrahan and Brock Holt. They had acquired Sands and De Jesus Jr. in the August housecleaning that dispatched Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto to the Dodgers and the club had no future plans for either of them, so trading them for Hanrahan makes sense.

Hanrahan doesn’t have the injury history that Bailey does and he’s a short-term solution with free agency on the horizon after 2013. If they’re struggling as a team and he pitches well, they can trade him at mid-season. Once he enters the free agent market, they can keep him for another year if he accepts their qualifying offer or they can get a draft pick when he signs elsewhere.

Teams are increasingly reluctant to surrender draft picks or overpay financially for “name” closers, but the Red Sox keep giving up assets to get them.

For all the talk of GM Ben Cherington now being in charge of the operation, evidenced by the hiring of “his” manager, John Farrell, and the flurry of “character” players he’s signing on short-term deals to improve a toxic clubhouse, he should not get a pass for 2012, nor should the disastrous product be labeled the sole responsibility of former manager Bobby Valentine. Valentine was a part of the problem, but not the problem. The same foundation of players from the 2012 club behaved as abhorrently as they did when the team collapsed in 2011 and forced the departures of Terry Francona and Theo Epstein.

Nothing’s been solved. They’re just making changes. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

The 2013 Red Sox are more palatable and are being credited for the new atmosphere, but in spite of media accolades they’re still not much better than they were and the talk that they’re returning to what built their championship clubs is inaccurate, because that’s not what they’re doing at all.

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Anatomy Of A Yankees Swoon

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The Yankees, their fans, and the media that covers them on a daily basis are all wallowing in denial, excuses, self-pity, delusion, and desperation. The team itself still has time to save its season, but they’re well on the way to joining the Red Sox and Mets in the lore of historic and embarrassing collapses that, for the Yankees with their payroll and superiority complex, will surpass those of teams past.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on with the Yankees and the likelihood of steering out of this spiral.

Injuries and lack of depth

This is the batting order they presented last night against the Rays:

1. Derek Jeter-SS

2. Curtis Granderson-CF

3. Nick Swisher-1B

4. Robinson Cano-DH

5. Alex Rodriguez-3B

6. Raul Ibanez-LF

7. Jayson Nix-2B

8. Chris Dickerson-RF

9. Chris Stewart-C

And pitching, Freddy Garcia.

This is the starting lineup for one of the latter days of spring training, not for a pennant race in September against a younger, faster, healthier Rays team in direct pursuit. On the heels of journeyman Steve Pearce batting cleanup, Eric Chavez having to play almost every day after A-Rod got hurt, Ibanez playing too much, Swisher having to play first base in place of Mark Teixeira, and using Garcia and David Phelps in the starting rotation, is it any wonder the 10 game lead has been extinguished?

No one wants to hear about injuries. No one wants to hear whining about the umpires or a “woe is me” lament. No one cares about the Yankees problems. They’re scouring the bargain bin for the likes of Pearce and Casey McGehee and expecting to move along smoothly without a hitch. A 4-A player doesn’t stop being a 4-A player just because he puts on a Yankee uniform.

Non-issues become problems when the team’s losing

Cano’s repeated incidents of nonchalance weren’t an issue when the team was winning, so it can’t be referenced as one when they’re losing. The Yankees let Cano’s jogging around go because there wasn’t much they could do about it and it was okay with a 10 game lead. Now that the lead is gone, it’s not okay? It doesn’t work that way. Jeter runs out every ground ball, why can’t Cano?

In a similar vein, manager Joe Girardi wasn’t scrutinized heavily for his occasionally strange strategic decisions when the team was star-studded and rolling unstoppably toward another division title with an eye on the World Series. Once the decisions actually make a difference not just in a game, but in the standings and the team is in danger of falling out of the playoffs completely, there’s ludicrous speculation about his job security if they complete this collapse.

Girardi, like most of the other 2012 Yankees, has never been in this pressurized situation during the season. In 2008, it was known by September 1st that, barring a miraculous comeback, they weren’t making the playoffs. In 2009, they won 103 games. In 2010, the biggest decision they had was whether or not to try and win the division or accept the Wild Card. In 2011, they coasted late in the season and played a lineup similar to the one they’re currently playing and allowed the Rays to sweep them and overtake the Red Sox (something I don’t hold against them).

Now they have to play and they have to win. When Girardi was in a pressurized situation of the post-season in 2009 and his maneuvers were important, he was found wanting. He made odd and panicky pitching changes and ill-thought-out lineup and in-game moves. That Yankees team happened to be talented enough to overcome Girardi’s overmanaging and win the title.

I don’t blame Girardi for this stumble, but it’s now that he has to maintain control of the ship and not grip the handles too tightly, but his volcanic eruption last night that resulted in an ejection and his snippy replies to questions in post-game press conferences indicate a growing tightness that will permeate the team.

Personnel gaffes

The Yankees and GM Brian Cashman have made it clear that they no longer intend to purchase every star on the market to have at least 2 players who could be or have been All-Stars at each position. They want to get under the luxury tax when the draconian measures to restrain salaries come into effect and it shows on the field. They didn’t pursue Cliff Lee when the Phillies were listening to offers on him; they didn’t make a substantial package available at mid-season to get Justin Upton; they weren’t avidly chasing any of the available players who might’ve been able to help them drastically. Instead, they traded for Ichiro Suzuki and got him for nothing. Ichiro can still catch the ball in the outfield and steal a base, but he’s hitting identically with the Yankees as he did with the Mariners: lots of singles and no on-base skills with an average hovering around .270.

These in-season acquisitions come after consecutive winters in which they wasted money (Pedro Feliciano); signed fill-in veterans and scrapheap denizens (Russell Martin, Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Chavez); and gave away assets (Jesus Montero) for literally nothing (Michael Pineda and the “key” Jose Campos).

This is not to suggest Montero would be a significant contributor to the Yankees in a Yankees uniform—he’s been okay learning on the job behind and at the plate with the Mariners—but he was something other teams coveted; they could’ve traded him for a known commodity rather than going the cheap and “controllable” route with Pineda.

Hiroki Kuroda was a great signing.

The Yankees vaunted young pitching that they developed with it in mind that they wouldn’t spend tons of cash on other teams’ abused arms? That’s not working either. Phil Hughes is an okay big league pitcher, but he’s a 3rd or 4th starter that you can find on the market. Joba Chamberlain is a bottom-line disappointment. Ian Kennedy wasn’t good for the Yankees; they received Granderson for him making it a win. Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Campos, Pineda—where’s the next Andy Pettitte? A Yankees’ pitcher they brought through their system and turned into a top-flight starter?

Seeking solace

Teams, fanbases and media members who’ve experienced a collapse have all done the same things. They look at the schedule; they lean on one another looking for positive reassurance; they repeat the mantra of “Everything’s gonna be alright” with the unsaid, “Isn’t it?” as an addendum.

Mike Francesa had Yankees beat reporters Sweeny Murti and Mark Feinsand on as guests and it was something of a sycophantic think-tank in which the schedule was seen as the Yankees friend and the three discussed not what the consequences would be if the Yankees missed the playoffs or that increasingly real possibility, but how many games they would recover and win the division by.

Michael Kay sounds so disconsolate that he can barely stomach a third piece of chicken parmesan.

Fans are clutching each other as if they’re in a prayer circle looking towards the heavens wondering why the Baseball Gods that have smiled so consistently on the Yankees hath forsaken them.

It’s not a conspiracy. They’re just not very good.

Meteorology

It wasn’t a stand-alone instance that the Mets and Red Sox collapsed in 2007 and 2011. There was a perfect storm that assisted greatly in the fall from the playoffs. The Mets kept losing to the Phillies and blew their lead, but would’ve made the playoffs if not for the Rockies ridiculous hot streak in September that launched them from also-ran to the World Series.

The Red Sox had a blazing hot Rays team chasing them and the Yankees who didn’t play their regulars in the last series against the Rays.

Now the Yankees, even with the extra Wild Card available, are in an American League with 8 teams for 5 playoff spots. If they fall from first place, there’s a good chance that falling from playoff position will come immediately after.

Studying the schedule is meant to be a calming device, but it’s not. Referencing games against the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Twins is a stretch as well. Mets and Red Sox fans can tell Yankees fans all about the futility of studying the schedules during a swoon such as this. The 2007 Mets consistently lost to the horrific Nationals; the 2011 Red Sox were undone by the then-terrible Orioles; the Yankees lost 2 of 3 to the Blue Jays just last week and the Red Sox would see vengeance and a salvaging of their dismal season by taking part in the Yankees downfall.

The Yankees can’t count on other teams helping them to get them into the playoffs. They have to win a few games themselves—something they’re not doing and with this lineup, may not be capable of doing.

Clinging to the past; reaching back for the stars

This Yankees team finds itself chained to a past that’s not going to return. Still reliant on Jeter to be the star; waiting for Pettitte to return and save the day; blaming their stumble, ridiculously, on the loss of Mariano Rivera—they haven’t replaced them and are finding out how truly hard it is to do so with hardened veterans who’ve been through the battles and come out on top.

Rafael Soriano has been at least as good as Rivera would’ve been during the season, so the absence of Rivera is not a viable reason for the way they’ve played. The idea that Soriano’s shift to the closer’s role hindered the set-up area is ignoring how thoroughly unreliable Soriano was as a set-up man.

While Jeter has had a renaissance in 2012, that can’t last forever. What are they going to do then?

What are they going to do when Pettitte is retired and stays retired? If Rivera can’t be as effective as he was prior to his knee injury or can’t come back at all?

They don’t have ready replacements as was the intent when they “developed” their young players and the players they have now are feeling the heat they never expected to feel to make the playoffs when they joined the Yankees.

Sign free agents? They’ve openly said the vault isn’t as open as it once was and they’re on the hook for a ton of money for A-Rod, Teixeira and CC Sabathia for the foreseeable future. Make trades? Does anyone want those prospects who’ve leaped backwards and been hurt this season?

There is no endless dynasty. The Yankees of the 1960s came undone because they failed to adapt to the draft and their stars got old all at once. The same things that happened to other teams that collapsed like the Mets and Red Sox are present with this Yankees team and they’re not so easy to gloss over when the team doesn’t win. In fact, they become more stark; they become the foundation for a slide that takes years to recover from.

I happens to everyone. And whether the Yankees recover from this in time to make it to the playoffs and even win while there, that’s not going to stop the inevitable reality. This is a sign of the beginning of the end and it will be pointed to as such when things really come apart, sooner or later.

Right now it looks like sooner.

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