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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Red Sox Return to a Strategy From 10 Years Ago

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After a last place finish and disastrous 2012 season, it’s a convenient storyline for the Red Sox to get back to their “roots” that built the annual title contender under Theo Epstein from 2003-2011. That the reality of this narrative isn’t precisely accurate is beside the point. They won. Because they won, the SparkNotes version of how it happened has degenerated into a brief and simplistic summary that using stats and undervalued attributes while also spending money was the “formula”.

Facts get in the way, so the facts are being eliminated in most Red Sox-centric circles.

I’m indifferent to allegiance and twisting truth to fit into what a constituency wants to hear, so here are those facts:

  • A large chunk of the Red Sox 2004 championship team was built by Dan Duquette
  • What Billy Beane had planned to do (according to Michael Lewis, so take it with a bucket of salt) had he followed through on his agreement to take over as the team’s GM after the 2002 season would’ve resulted in a horror movie
  • The Red Sox were somewhat dysfunctional during that whole time with the mad scientist closer-by committee experiment; Epstein eventually resigning and returning to win a power struggle with Larry Lucchino; and other examples of infighting
  • They were lucky with players like Mike Lowell, whom they were forced to take even though they didn’t want him
  • The 2007 club that won their second World Series in four years was the product of tossing money at their problems as a reaction to fan anger following their 2006 stumble
  • There were numerous other unquantifiable occurrences that were equally as important in the building of the brand as their adherence to new age statistics.

Rises of this nature tend to take on lives of their own and the Red Sox, who had turned to the new age techniques in part because their new ownership was intent on running the club as a business and in part because what they’d tried for so many years—keeping up with the Yankees and other clubs by doing the exact same things—had failed repeatedly. They made the switch to cold-blooded calculation out of necessity as much as design. What they were doing wasn’t working; what Beane was doing in Oakland was working, so they consciously mimicked the template and souped it up by hiring Bill James and backing up their newfound convictions with money.

Eventually though, after two championships, it wasn’t enough. There could no longer be the intelligent free agent signings stemming from their own analysis and volition, reactions and outsider perspective be damned; they had to compete with the Yankees and get the biggest names; a season in which the club finished with 95 wins and lost in the ALCS was not good enough anymore. In the World Series win or bust world, the Yankees had been joined by the Red Sox. It’s an almost impossible vacuum in which to function over the long-term. When operating under such self-administered constraints, teams tend to do things they might not otherwise do. The Red Sox were bounced in the 2008 playoffs by the low-budget Rays; the Angels took them out in 3 straight games in the 2009 ALDS; they were riddled by injuries in 2010, but still somehow won 89 games and missed the playoffs; and they spent wildly and absurdly in the winter of 2010-2011 to import more names whose suitability to Boston should have been known beforehand as players to avoid. Unlike acquisitions from the early days for the transformation when Johnny Damon and Curt Schilling could handle the madness surrounding the Red Sox, Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Adrian Gonzalez couldn’t.

Culminating in the overriding expectations and disaffected personalities that behaved as entitled and disinterested brats, the 2011 Red Sox undermined their manager Terry Francona, acted as if they were entitled to a playoff ticket simply due to their payroll and reputation, and collapsed. Trying to patch it together with one more run, the club took the shattered strategy to its logical conclusion by hiring a “name” manager to replace the discarded and exhausted Francona, Bobby Valentine. Epstein climbed the exit hatch to take over as President of the Chicago Cubs and the new GM, Ben Cherington, didn’t want Valentine. Lucchino overruled him, the coaching staff and factions in the front office passive aggressively set Valentine up to fail. Predictably Valentine’s reputation and personality resulted in a mid-season mutiny and exponential selfishness that dwarfed that which doomed Francona.

A 69-93 season, endless ridicule, and a livid fanbase spurred the Red Sox to get back to the drawing board and they’re in the process making a show of returning to what it was that sowed the seeds for their decade long dominance.

Amid all the ESPN headlines of expectancy for the 2013 comeback; with the money freed from the salary dumps of Crawford, Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett; the promises of a return to the past by hiring a link to that past as the new manager John Farrell, the signing of “character” players such as Jonny Gomes, David Ross, and the pursuit of Mike Napoli, it’s taking the tone of an on-paper back to basics of a strategy that is now behind the times.

When Epstein sought to remake the club in the statistical image, it was new and few clubs understood it, were willing to implement it, or knew what they were doing if they tried. Already in place was a megastar starting pitcher in Pedro Martinez and some young players in the organization such as Kevin Youkilis who would cheaply contribute to what they were putting together.

These factors are no longer the case. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are a good place to start a rotation, but are not on a level with Martinez and there’s little backing them up; the bullpen is weak; the lineup is pockmarked with gaping holes. In 2012, when clubs scour the market for players, everyone has the same numbers and uses them. It’s not 2002. Clubs are taking the initiative by signing their young stars long term; the Red Sox farm system has been gutted by ill-thought out trades for “name” players. Players that had undervalued attributes like on-base percentage are not floating around for a pittance. When the Red Sox made the decision to dump Shea Hillenbrand in favor of a player who had been a journeyman, Bill Mueller, it was reasonable to wonder what they were doing. It was a stroke of genius as Mueller won the batting title, the Silver Slugger, and was a key component to the 2004 championship.

Is Gomes a Mueller? Is he going to develop into something other than what he’s been his whole career? How about other players they’re avidly pursuing like Napoli or Nick Swisher?

Yes, they’re good players and likable personalities who will help the Red Sox be better than what they were in 2011-2012 on and off the field. Unfortunately, that doesn’t eliminate the inherent problems of clinging to a bygone template to sell to the fans and media to put forth the pretense of getting back to fundamentals. The days of a player being different from his perception are over. Substance is required, but the substance is lacking as the Red Sox revert to the past.

Farrell is straight out of central casting as a manager. He’s well-spoken, handsome, big, intimidating, and the remaining players from his time as Francona’s pitching coach like him and lobbied for him. Everyone from the front office is onboard with his hiring and they’re giving him a freedom to hire coaches he wants and a voice in the construction of the roster that was not given to Valentine. That doesn’t alter the fact that no one from the Blue Jays has expressed regret that he’s gone; that the Blue Jays were one of the worst run clubs in baseball during his time and were atrocious in the most rudimentary aspects of the game to the point that had the Red Sox not wanted Farrell back so desperately the Blue Jays were probably going to fire him. Francona, for his faults, was a sound strategic manager who had managerial experience with the Phillies. But like the Francona Phillies, the new team Francona has been hired to manage, the Indians, doesn’t have very much talent and his mere presence isn’t going to change that or the end results on the field. The same thing applies to Farrell on a different scope tied to higher expectations. Farrell’s limited managerial experience and terrible results won’t be glossed over in Boston as they will for Francona is Cleveland because Francona knows what he’s doing and Farrell doesn’t.

The Red Sox of 2004-2010 would have won with Farrell as the manager because they were so talented that there was little for the manager to do other than write the lineup, make the pitching changes, deal with the media, and steer the ship—perfect for a figurehead. It also helped that the competition in the division was mostly limited to the Yankees and, for a couple of years, the Rays. Now, with the Red Sox lack of talent and stiff competition in the division, they can’t toss out their return to glory concept and expect to win because they’re all on the same page with the manager and they have a couple of gritty players added to the clubhouse. They need pitching; they need bats; they need guidance; and they need to be managed.

Napoli, Swisher, Gomes, Ross, and Farrell aren’t going to undo the dilapidation that was an end result of years of patchwork repairs reaching its nadir in 2012. The obvious thing is to blame Valentine and make the claim that the mistakes are now understood and won’t be repeated. It’s easy. It’s also inaccurate. Farrell’s back; James is more involved; everyone’s working toward the same goal. The Red Sox are upfront about operating from the 2002-2003 playbook in 2012-2013. Is that going to vault them from 69-93 to 90-72 or a similar win total that will put them in playoff contention in a bearish American League?

Do you see the problem there? Considering what they’re doing and how they’re marketing it, the Red Sox clearly don’t.

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Schilling and the Red Sox

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When I think of Curt Schilling, I think of Doug Neidermeyer from Animal House: “shot in Vietnam by his own troops”.

Schilling is polarizing.

He’s intelligent, well-spoken, self-interested, slightly disingenuous, generous and astute.

He’s a person who can’t be pigeonholed.

His latest controversy stems from comments he’s made regarding the Red Sox.

In short, he doesn’t think the Bobby Valentine-Red Sox marriage is going to work. You can read about it here on ESPN.com.

If this were coming from anyone other than Schilling—Pedro Martinez; Jason Varitek; Tim Wakefield; Kevin Millar—an acknowledged Red Sox hero and/or leader from the past, it would be taken as a legitimate concern without pretense or favor. Since it’s coming from Schilling, the comments are being dissected to interpret what he’s really trying to say; what underlying reason he has for basically telling the Red Sox and their fans that they’re in for a long year.

The Valentine hire was rife with risk. This was known from the start. Because he has controversy attached to him like an underdeveloped and troublesome conjoined twin, the media is going to take everything Valentine says and magnify it. The perceived disagreements regarding the decision to start Mike Aviles over Jose Iglesias at shortstop and the role of Daniel Bard are no more outrageous than what any other club with similar questions would deal with.

Since Valentine has that history of clashing with management, media and players, those small fires are going to be stoked to create an inferno where there normally wouldn’t be one. If Terry Francona were still managing the team, the decisions would be questioned, but the motives wouldn’t be; nor would they be exacerbated by implying a “fight” between manager and front office that’s nothing more than a discussion and disagreement within the organization.

Had the Red Sox hired Pete Mackanin, Sandy Alomar Jr., Gene Lamont or any of the other candidates for the job, the personnel issues would still be present.

That’s the bigger problem for the Red Sox.

For observers who’ve grown accustomed to writing the Red Sox down as championship contenders every year, this is a new dynamic. They could win 90 games; they could win 78 games. The Red Sox circumstances haven’t been so ambiguous for over a decade. Valentine increases the spotlight.

If you look at their personalities and how others view them, Valentine and Schilling are basically the same guy.

That and Schilling’s experience playing for the Red Sox give him an insight into the clubhouse that others don’t have. He can see what’s coming.

There’s a possibility that Schilling is advancing a personal agenda by saying negative things about the Red Sox. I don’t know what that agenda could be. But he might in fact be telling the truth as he sees it.

And that would be far worse for the Red Sox than Schilling trying to get his name in the newspapers and blogs. It’s not the comments that are making people angry. It’s the fear that he might be right.

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Seamheads Podcast Appearance and 2012 MLB Preview

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I was a guest with Donn Parris on his Seamheads podcast yesterday talking about Michael Pineda; the Yankees; Jose Campos; the Red Sox; Larry Lucchino; Bobby Valentine; Ben Cherington; the Angels; Jerry DiPoto; the Orioles; Buck Showalter; Jesus Montero and many other things.

Listen below.

Listen to internet radio with Seamheads on Blog Talk Radio

Donn knows both Pineda and Montero well and has unique insight into them as players and people.

My book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide is available.

A full excerpt is available to read here (this one is about the 2012 Red Sox).

It can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way. It’s great for fantasy players and useful all season long.

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The Red Sox Out-of-Book Experience with Bobby Valentine

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The Red Sox made the smart and gutsy decision to shun the “middle-manager” nonsense that came en vogue after Moneyball and hired Bobby Valentine to take over as their new manager.

Here’s what to expect.

The beer and chicken parties are over.

The somewhat overblown Red Sox beer and chicken parties of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and their crew are referenced as the fatal symptoms of apathy under Terry Francona.

When Valentine’s name was mentioned as a candidate amid the “new sheriff in town” mentality, the 1999 NLCS card-playing incident is presented as an example of what went on with the Mets under Valentine.

What’s missed by those who constantly mention the Bobby BonillaRickey Henderson card game as the Mets dejectedly entered the Turner Field clubhouse after their game 6 and series loss is that Bonilla was gone after the season (at a significant cost to the Mets that they’re still paying); and Henderson was released the next May.

Those who expect Valentine to storm in and start getting in the faces of the players immediately are wrong.

He won’t tolerate any garbage, but it’s not going to be a both-guns-blazing, walking through the door of the saloon like Clint Eastwood bit.

He’ll try a more smooth approach at first, telling them what the rules are, what’s expected and demanded and what won’t be tolerated. If he’s pushed, he’ll make an example of someone and it’s going to happen fast.

This is not to say that he’s an old-school social conservative who’s going to interfere with his players’ personal business. Bobby V liked chewing his dip when he was managing the Mets; he treats his players like men; but if their off-field activities are affecting on-field production—as was the case with Todd Hundley and Pete Harnisch—they’re going to hear about it. It will be done privately at first, then publicly if it continues.

His big theme concerning the way the players behave will be “don’t make me look like an idiot”.

The stuff that went on under the watch of Francona was more embarrassing than damaging. If the players had been performing their due diligence in workouts and not been so brazen about their clubhouse time, it wouldn’t have been an issue. But because they so cavalierly loafed and lazed, seemingly not caring what was happening on the field, it snowballed and became a flashpoint to the lax discipline of Francona and festered into unnecessary problems.

Relationships with opponents, umpires and the media.

Valentine has endured public spats with many other managers and hasn’t shied from any of them, even suggesting they possibly turn physical if need be.

During his playing days, no one wanted to mess with Don Baylor. Baylor, who crowded the plate and steadfastly refused to move when a ball was heading in his direction, led the league in getting hit-by-pitches eight times. Valentine had protested a mistake the then-Cubs manager Baylor had made on his lineup card when the Mets and Cubs played the season-opening series of 2000 in Japan; Baylor made some comments about it; Valentine, who never brought the lineup card to the plate as Mets manager, did so in the first game of the Mets-Cubs series in May; Valentine asked Baylor if the two had a problem, Baylor said no and that was it.

This was indicative of the personality and gamesmanship of Valentine. Managers and players from other teams don’t like him, but he doesn’t care.

As Red Sox manager, he’s going to bait Joe Girardi; he’ll annoy Joe Maddon; he and Buck Showalter will glare at each other from across the field at who can be more nitpicky in a chess match of “I’m smarter than you”; he knows the rules better than the umpires and finds the smallest and most obscure ones to get an advantage for his team; he manipulates the media and his temper gets the better of him—he’ll say he’s not going to talk about something, then talk about if for 20 minutes; and his foghorn voice will echo across all of baseball to let everyone know the Red Sox are in town.

Francona was well-liked by everyone.

Valentine won’t be. And he doesn’t care.

Valentine can be annoying. He was a three-sport star in high school and a ballroom dancing champion, is married to his high school sweetheart and is still remarkably handsome even at age 61; he was Tommy Lasorda‘s pet in the minor leagues and his teammates loathed him—he grates on people because of his seeming superiority and perfection.

He’s not irritating people intentionally unless he thinks it will help him win a game—it’s just Bobby V being Bobby V.

The GM/manager dynamic.

Did new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington want Valentine?

There will be an across-the-board series of analysis why he did and didn’t—most will detail why he didn’t.

But does it matter?

The whole concept of Valentine being impossible to handle, undermining, subversive and Machiavellian stem from his inter-organizational battles with Steve Phillips when the duo were the GM/manager combination for the Mets.

Valentine hated Phillips and vice versa; it wasn’t simply that Valentine hated Phillips as a GM, he hated him as a human being more.

But Phillips’s personal behaviors weren’t publicly known to the degree that they are now; it’s doubtful that Cherington will be stupid enough to get caught up in the number of foibles that have befallen Phillips and sabotaged someone who was a better GM than he’s given credit for and an excellent and insightful broadcaster.

Despite the disputes and cold war, something about the Valentine-Phillips relationship worked.

As long as there’s a mutual respect between Valentine and Cherington, what’s wrong with a little passionate debate even if it’s of the screaming, yelling and throwing things variety?

It’s better than the alternative of King Lear—the lonely man seeking to salvage what’s left of his crumbling monarchy—as there is in Oakland with Billy Beane; or what we saw eventually disintegrate with Theo Epstein’s and Larry Lucchino’s Macbeth and Duncan reprise with the Red Sox.

The only difference between the managers who are installed as a matter of following the script and out of convenience—as Francona was—and Valentine is that Valentine’s not disposable as the prototypical Moneyball middle-managers are and the Red Sox have to pay him a salary far greater than they would’ve had to pay Gene Lamont or Torey Lovullo.

In the final analysis financially, it’s cheaper to hire and pay Valentine than it would be to hire a retread or an unknown and run the risk of a total explosion of the team early in 2012 and having to clean house while enduring a lost season and revenues.

Valentine can tape together what’s currently there better than the other candidates could.

There will be disagreements and if Valentine has to, he’ll go over Cherington’s head to Lucchino or use the media to get what he wants. It’s Cherington’s first GM job; he won’t want to screw it up; plus, it’s a no-lose situation for him because if things go wrong, there’s always the head shake and gesture towards Bobby V and Lucchino to explain away what went wrong and why it’s not Cherington’s fault.

Even if it is.

Strategies.

Valentine isn’t Grady Little and won’t ignore the numbers; he was one of the first stat-savvy managers  who accessed the work of Bill James when he took over the Rangers in 1985.

That’s not to say he won’t make moves against the so-called new age stats that make sense on paper, but are idiotic or unrealistic in practice. He’s not going to demand his switch-hitters bat lefty against lefty pitchers because of an obscure and out-of-context number; he’ll let his relievers know what’s expected of them in a “defined role” sense (to keep the peace); and he’s going to tweak his lineups based on the opponent.

He doles out his pitchers innings evenly and finds players who may have underappreicated talents and places them in a situation to succeed—sounds like a stat guy concept.

Players.

With the Mets, there was a notion that Valentine preferred to have a roster of interchangeable parts with non-stars; functional players he could bench without hearing the entreaties that he has to play <BLANK> because of his salary.

Valentine might prefer to have a clear path to do what’s right for a particular game without having to worry about how it’s framed or answering stupid questions after the fact, but he dealt with his star players—Mike Piazza; Mike Hampton; Al Leiter; Robin Ventura—well enough.

What Valentine is truly good at is finding the players who have been ignored or weren’t given a chance and giving them their opportunity.

Todd Pratt, Rick Reed, Benny Agbayani, Desi Relaford, Timo Perez, Melvin Mora, Masato Yoshii were all Valentine “guys” who he trusted and fought for. All contributed to the Mets during Valentine’s tenure.

If anyone can get something out of Daisuke Matsuzaka, it’s Valentine; if anyone can put Carl Crawford in the lineup spot where he’ll be most productive—irrespective of Crawford’s personal preferences—it’s Valentine; and if anyone can work Jose Iglesias into the lineup without undue pressure, it’s Valentine.

Concerns.

While he managed in Japan for several years in the interim, Valentine hasn’t managed in the big leagues since 2002. Veteran managers sometimes hit the ground running after a long break as Jim Leyland did with the Tigers; or they embody the perception that they’ve lost something off their managerial fastball—I got that impression with Davey Johnson managing the Nationals in 2011.

Valentine’s 61 and in good shape, but ten years is a long time to be away from the trenches.

There will be a honeymoon period with the media and fans, but like the Red Sox attempt to hire Beane to be the GM after 2002, how long is this honeymoon going to last if the Red Sox are 19-21 after 40 games with the expectations and payroll what they are.

It’s hard to stick to the script as the Yankees fans are laughing at them; mired in a division with three other strong teams in the Yankees, Blue Jays and Rays possibly ahead of them; and the fans and media are bellowing for something—anything—to be done.

Valentine’s Mets teams tended to fade, tighten and panic at the ends of seasons. It happened in 1998 and 1999; in 1999 they squeaked into the playoffs after a frenetic late-season run and, once they were in, relaxed to put up a good, borderline heroic showing before losing to the Braves in the NLCS.

There will be players who ridicule, mock and question him. John Franco took the opportunity to get his revenge against Valentine by helping Phillips’s case to fire him in 2002 because Valentine had taken Franco’s closer role away and given it to Armando Benitez while Franco was injured.

Will Beckett push Valentine so one of them has to go? I doubt it, but Beckett’s a bully and won’t like being told what to do.

Will Bobby Jenks‘s attitude or Kevin Youkilis‘s whining cause Valentine to call them out publicly?

Will it damage the team if there’s an early insurrection or will it embolden the front office that a stricter force was necessary?

The real issues.

It’s nice that the Red Sox have hired a proven, veteran manager; a known quantity; someone they can sell to the media and fans, but it doesn’t address the player issues that sabotaged the team as they collapsed in September.

John Lackey is out for the year with Tommy John surgery and they need starting pitching.

David Ortiz is a free agent.

They need a bat.

They have to hope that Crawford straightens out and becomes the player they paid for.

Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia have been enduring multiple injuries.

Clay Buchholz is returning from a back problem.

They don’t know who their closer is going to be.

More than anything else, the Red Sox 2012 season is going to be determined by how these holes are patched and filled.

But the manager’s office is taken care of and they’re indulging in an out-of-book experience in hiring Bobby Valentine.

And it’s a great move.

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