Your 2012 Trade Deadline Reality Check for a 2011 “Guaranteed” World Series Participant—Part I

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It’s not all that long ago that the Red Sox were being compared the 1927 Yankees.

Of course that was the 2011 version of the Red Sox that tossed money at all their problems and were a World Series guarantee. It was as if they didn’t have to play the season at all. The expectations went unfulfilled as the team collapsed in September. That collapse and perceived lack of discipline and continuity spurred an exodus that led to the departures of manager Terry Francona and GM Theo Epstein, followed by the hiring of Bobby Valentine as the new manager and departure of a stalwart star of the past 9 years, Kevin Youkilis. Now, there are poorly hidden fissures in the front office as to the direction of the franchise and they still harbor thoughts of saving this season.

They’re 50-51, 10 ½ games out of first place in the AL East and 5 games behind in the Wild Card race. It might as well be 15 games. All outward signs point to them trying to hang around the playoff race—a race they’re not really a part of—and making a few moves to bolster the roster. Larry Lucchino’s letter to fans and the idea that they’re still hovering around veteran arms like Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jason Vargas and anyone else is postponing the inevitable. If they’re doing it to placate the fans and keep the media quiet, it’s bad but not as bad as them thinking they’re still contenders. They’ve played this way for four months and aren’t going to suddenly galvanize and make a historic run to the post-season.

Forget it.

If you read today’s NY Times piece on Valentine and what he’s dealing with, you see that hiring him was a mistake and clearly wasn’t the brainchild of GM Ben Cherington or the new era baseball people. Lucchino wanted a name, and he got it. Valentine is at fault for some of what’s gone wrong with the Red Sox, but he’s had one hand tied behind his back from the beginning of the season. The Carl Crawford situation is a prime example of that. Resting him every fourth-fifth day and hoping he makes it to the end of the season is a half-measure doomed to fail. If he needs reconstructive surgery, he should simply get the reconstructive surgery and be done with it. No one’s taking his contract and the team’s going nowhere.

If Lucchino and John Henry nudge (AKA force) Cherington to make a “bold” maneuver they’ll be speeding their freefall to 65-97 in the coming years and repeating the mistakes that other clubs have made in chasing “it”. If Cherington hasn’t yet called Epstein and said, “Thanks for nothing,” in handing him that job, he’d like to. Cherington can put up the front that he’s onboard with everything the organization is doing, but he wasn’t enthusiastic about hiring Valentine and he’s smart enough to know where this season is heading. The Red Sox would’ve been better off if they were hammered this weekend at Yankee Stadium to eliminate all ambiguity and feed the public poor-tasting medicine that they need to take to get better.

As for the fans refusing to “accept” the team bagging the season with 38 home games left, those fans need a reality check of their own. This organization has done nothing but cater to their whims on and off the field for the past decade. They won them two championships and put them in a position where anything short of a World Series win was considered a disappointment. If those greedy fans can’t accept two months of one bad year in the interests of not ruining their chances for 2013 and beyond, then they’re not real fans to begin with.

Here’s the bitter pill for the Red Sox: Don’t do anything stupid or desperate. Accept the truth. It’s not happening this season and no blockbuster trade is going to fix their current issues. This team, plainly and simply, isn’t very good.

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The Negative Validation of Bobby V

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In his first opportunity to show that he’s learned from his mistakes, all Bobby Valentine proved was that he hasn’t changed.

He’s a great manager and a self-destructive force who will insist on going down his way.

That’s not a good thing.

Last season, when Terry Collins took over the Mets after a 10-year absence from managing in the big leagues, many who knew him and his intense, overbearing ways didn’t think there would be a “new” Terry. At the first sign of trouble, he’d revert to the raving maniac that polarized two talented clubhouses and labeled him as an impossible person to deal with.

Collins is still intense and fiery, but has toned down his act to discipline his clubhouse while not alienating it.

The Red Sox veterans viewed the hiring of Valentine with, at best, trepidation.

Throughout spring training the media tried to stoke the fires of controversy with everything Valentine did. From bunting to his lineup and bullpen decisions to the supposed “rift” between him and GM Ben Cherington, the traps were set for the “old” Bobby V—condescending, abrasive, uncontrollably arrogant, vindictive—to appear.

For the most part he kept himself in check.

But on opening day he reverted to the old Bobby V in one of the worst ways imaginable.

In the past, one issue he constantly had was the way he ran his clubs in a self-interested, paranoid, cold-hearted fashion.

The players didn’t trust him because he didn’t trust them.

The list of players with whom Valentine had public dust-ups included Todd Hundley, Pete Harnisch, Darryl Hamilton, Bobby Bonilla, Goose Gossage and David Wells.

Wells never actually played for Valentine.

Yesterday Valentine contradicted himself, the organizational strategy based on stats and told the players that he didn’t trust them to do their defined jobs.

One argument that stat people constantly use is to adhere to the percentages. That’s evolved into the rote maneuver of never using the “closer” in a tie game on the road unless they have no choice. Valentine had a choice.

Of course it’s ridiculous to cling to an ironclad strategy to be used in the face of reason, experience and situation, but the one thing Valentine did not want to do—on opening day!!!—is to give the veteran players a reason to start bashing him behind his back more than they already are.

By using Mark Melancon in the tie game and then panicking by yanking Melancon after, with one out, the next two Tigers’ hitters in the tenth inning got on base with balls that were conveniently placed and not hit hard, he told the players something they already suspected and were presumably whispering about from the time he was hired: he’s a mircomanager who won’t put the game in our hands.

Contrast that with Charlie Manuel—a manager the players love and run to play for.

Manuel was criticized in recent years because he stuck with Brad Lidge too long as closer when Lidge couldn’t get anyone out; for letting Jimmy Rollins run wild with his outrageous statements; for letting Ryan Howard swing on a 3-0 count in the NLDS last season with his team down a run and Howard in a horrific slump.

But for all of his perceived strategic lapses, the players know what they’re getting from Cholly privately because that’s what they get publicly.

Cholly’s got their backs because his actions are in the front.

He gives his players rope and if they hang themselves and the team with it, so be it.

Can Valentine say that?

Right off the bat, he’s telling Melancon, the entire roster and upper management that he doesn’t think much of a pitcher he’s going to need to do well if the Red Sox are going to contend.

This is not a defense of Melancon, who I think is mediocre, it’s a statement that even if they’d lost with Melancon (which they wound up doing anyway with “closer” Alfredo Aceves), it would’ve been a better conclusion because Valentine wouldn’t have immediately validated the players’ fears about him.

If the players believe the manager is out for himself—trying not to be criticized; always holding his finger over the panic button; nitpicking—they’re going to tune out and quickly look at their own situations superceding team goals.

With most managers it would be judged as one game in a 162 game season. With Valentine it’s a signal that he hasn’t changed; that he’s still going to ignore his mandate; that he’ll shun long-term harmony for one game desperation.

The Red Sox had better start winning games fast or by early May the ticking time bomb that is Valentine in that mercurial clubhouse will be set to detonate.

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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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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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