Aceves’s Problem, the Red Sox Solution

Games, History, Management, Media, Players, Spring Training

Bobby Valentine is no longer available as the root of all evil in the Red Sox clubhouse. It’s seemingly lost on the organization that they did everything possible to undermine Valentine as soon as he was hired by saddling him with coaches that he neither knew nor wanted. Immediately, he was surrounded by people he was aware were pipelines to factions in the front office that didn’t want to hire him who simultaneously functioned as Lucy Van Pelt-style purveyors of amateur psychiatric help for 5¢ and open enablers to whining players as a means of ingratiating themselves with the inevitable victors in the battle for control. It began the moment he got the job and continued even after he was dismissed. A vast majority of what happened is the fault of the front office for not stomping the insurrection immediately.

But that’s over. At least it was supposed to be. A new day dawned in Boston with the manager they want in John Farrell and the clubhouse cleared of toxic personalities and people who didn’t fit in Boston like Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. More importantly, their contracts are gone. “Character” guys such as Mike Napoli, David Ross, Ryan Dempster and Shane Victorino were signed and the issues that doomed Terry Francona and Valentine are in the process of being weeded out.

That was the preferred narrative until the first few days of spring training when the notoriously petulant and quirky Alfredo Aceves decided that he’d lob balls toward the plate during live batting practice.

Whatever the reason for Aceves’s behavior is, it’s largely irrelevant. There are times when there should be a liberal viewpoint to someone’s actions because they’re salvageable and useful. Aceves is so versatile—he can start, pitch in long relief and close—that giving him away would be painful and self-destructive. Perhaps there’s an underlying cause that, once it’s eliminated, will make Aceves happy and less of a magnet for controversy. Other times, however, the conservative tack is preferable. By that I mean telling him, “I don’t care why you’re doing it. Just knock it off.”

Is Aceves an insecure alpha male who equates shoving back at authority as a means to improve his status and self-esteem? Does he need…STOP!!!

Know what?

I don’t care.

And that’s what the Red Sox should say.

While Aceves can help them, it would hurt them more to keep him around if he insists on acting like this. Last season there was the tantrum he threw when Valentine removed him from the closer’s role and the public confrontation with Dustin Pedroia over a popup. That’s the stuff we know about. There are probably ten other incidents that were kept in-house.

It’s been a strange turn with Aceves. He was one of the few 2011 Red Sox who acquitted himself as a professional while the world came crashing down in September, pitching on an almost daily basis in a multitude of roles for multiple innings and almost singlehandedly keeping the team afloat. Now, a year-and-a-half later, he’s a problem. The “why” is meaningless. If the Red Sox hired Farrell as the big, tough, stoic sheriff to restore order in a lawless town, the first thing they need to do is react with overwhelming force when his authority is challenged. They need to get rid of Aceves not just to get him out of the clubhouse, but to send a message that the inmates aren’t running the asylum anymore.

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Does Mike Napoli Miss Mike Scioscia Yet?

Award Winners, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MVP, Players, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

The notoriously contentious relationship between Mike Napoli and his former manager with the Angels Mike Scioscia was probably due to the manager expecting and demanding more from his catchers than Napoli understood. It wasn’t personal. With the deal between Napoli and the Red Sox in suspended animation and each side staking out their positions while showing no evidence of moving anytime soon, Napoli might be longing for those halcyon days when the main thing he had to worry about was whether Scioscia was going to yell at him for calling a curveball instead of a slider in the sixth inning of a July game against the Orioles.

Sciosica’s tough on his catchers. The Red Sox are tough on their prospective free agent signees.

This essence of the Red Sox-Napoli holding pattern stems from a problem the club saw with Napoli’s hip during his physical and it’s being reported that the club wants to shorten the 3-year, $39 million contract that was agreed to in early December to one year. It’s not a small thing and it presents more problems for Napoli than it does the Red Sox. At this late date, the Red Sox can still figure out another option for first base (Mike Morse, Justin Morneau or even taking a flier on Kyle Blanks) and already have three catchers with David Ross, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway able to provide defensive competence and pop. They don’t need Napoli as the final piece to a puzzle that’s already haphazardly constructed and not improved enough from the 69-93 monstrosity they were in 2012 to be considered viable contenders in 2013.

But Napoli needs the Red Sox.

Teams and player agents like to leak information prior to official, legally bound contracts so it’s harder to come undone. Once there’s an “agreement” there’s not an official agreement until the player has undergone his physical and both sides have signed the contract, but the deal is done…unless the club spots an issue and is prepared to use that issue to hold up or nix it. Generally it’s a formality, but with the Red Sox that’s not always the case.

The Red Sox deserve credit and blame for their behaviors in this vein. One one level, many clubs would blow off the concerns they may have found during the physical to spare themselves the embarrassment and aggravation of having to announce that the deal is off or trying to alter it and protect themselves. With Napoli, they’d move forward in spite of the hip problem and hope he stays healthy. On another level, that they’ve held up the finalization for over a month traps Napoli. When news of a signing leaks, both team and player, to an extent, are boxed in. Without the hip issue, the Red Sox would be beholden to signing Napoli regardless of possible second thoughts; Napoli wasn’t going to do better anywhere else.

Now Napoli’s in a cage and the Red Sox have the only key. With public knowledge of the hip problem, what team is going to give him more than the Red Sox newly rumored offer of one year? And forget the $39 million, which is probably more money that Napoli had realistically imagined he’d get in the first place. He’ll be lucky to get a guarantee of half that.

It’s late in the winter, pitchers and catchers report in a month and the hip problem is known leaving any executive vulnerable if Napoli is signed and gets hurt. I suppose a team hunting for offense and desperate to make a splash in an unusually tranquil winter (such as the Yankees) wouldn’t mind taking Napoli away from the Red Sox on a one-year contract. If the Red Sox are steadfast with their new offer and Napoli wants some vengeance on the Red Sox, that’s the way to do it and it would certainly enliven a Yankees fanbase that is growing angrier and angrier by the day. Aside from that, where can he go?

Teams like the Rangers that are looking at the situation objectively and might possibly have had interest in Napoli have filled his role cheaper with Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski. Other clubs like the Mariners and Orioles are destinations, but they’re not going to surpass the Red Sox renewed offer and does Napoli really want to go to Seattle?

Napoli has two choices in the staredown with the Red Sox: sign the reduced deal or talk to the Yankees and secure an offer before telling the Red Sox to take a hike. The fact is that he’s at the mercy of the Red Sox who’ve altered their template from systematically ripping a player and leaking his medical records on the way out the door (Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Bay) to doing it before he walks in the door.

Napoli’s caught in the bear trap and it’s up to him whether he’s willing to gnaw off his limb to escape. A year of captivity and sustenance is better than nothing and that appears to be what the Red Sox are banking on in their hardline stance with a player to whom they offered too much money and too many years to begin with.

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The Red Sox Are Different, But Are They Better?

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Calling Shane Victorino a “fourth outfielder” as Keith Law did yesterday on Twitter is flat out wrong and obnoxious in its wrongness, done so for affect. He’s not a fourth outfielder. He’s an everyday player who provides speed, pop, good defense, versatility, and toughness. His subpar 2012 season was an aberration because he was placed in an unfamiliar situation of having to bat either third or fifth for the Phillies due to injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley; he was singing for his free agent supper; and was traded to the Dodgers in July, adding more uncertainty. Statistics can’t quantify the mental adjustment it takes for a player to adapt to different circumstances, responsibilities, and a new surrounding cast. Victorino is best-suited to bat second and presumably that’s where he’ll hit for the Red Sox.

Does this add up to him being worth $39 million over three years to the Red Sox? (Some reports have it at $37.5 million.) They obviously think so. It’s a lot of money for Victorino and, as of right now in spite of the flurry of acquisitions and subtractions the Red Sox have made since mid-season 2012, they’re not much better than the .500 team they were before they cleared the decks in August. Victorino, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and David Ross turn them into a more likable team than the dour and infighting group they were with Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis, but as for being “better”? No.

As has been proven repeatedly—and exemplified by the 2011 Red Sox—hot stove championships mean nothing. Nor do accolades or criticisms for an unfinished product. The Red Sox aren’t done shopping because they can’t be done shopping. What they’re doing now is abandoning the fractious and dysfunctional with what appears to be a cohesive statement of purpose and conscious decision to return to the grinding, tough-it-out Red Sox of a decade ago.

But it’s not a decade ago and the players they’re acquiring with GM Ben Cherington calling the shots, along with a new manager in John Farrell aren’t going to bring back those days when it was possible to write the Red Sox and Yankees down in ink for a playoff appearance and eventual collision and be safe in the knowledge that it wasn’t probable, but likely.

They still need pitching in the starting rotation and bullpen—both of which are woefully short; they have to come to a decision of what they’re going to do with Jacoby Ellsbury and their stash of extra catchers; and they need to do more than simply go in the opposite direction from collecting the biggest names on the market to “feisty, dirt-caked” tough guys before thinking they’re “back”.

Rather than spend their money spaced out over 5-7 years as they did with Carl Crawford and John Lackey—neither of whom were fits for Boston—the Red Sox decided to go shorter term and big money for Napoli and Victorino. Instead of dumping their prospects for Gonzalez, they’re holding their prospects and signing veterans. They might trade Ellsbury for pitching and bring back another tough as nails player and one of the few who acquitted himself professionally as a Red Sox in 2012, Cody Ross. The Victorino addition is a signal that they’re willing to move Ellsbury to get some pitching because if they weren’t looking for someone who could seamlessly shift to center field, they could’ve signed Nick Swisher, presumably for that same amount of money.

The short-term/heavy pay deals are less onerous and intimidating than the huge numbers they gave to Crawford and Gonzalez. If they don’t work, the players will be gone by 2016 and the club will have had time to rebuild the farm system while maintaining a semblance of competitiveness in the big leagues.

Competitiveness isn’t what the Red Sox and their fans are accustomed to. They’re used to a World Series contender each and every year. With the additions they’ve made, they’re certainly better than they were, and they’re less loathsome; but Farrell has proven nothing as a manager and his main attribute to the Red Sox was that he was there during the glory years and the players don’t hate him as they did with Bobby Valentine.

This team is okay. Not great. Not bad. Not in desperate straits like the Yankees.

Before jumping back on the Red Sox bandwagon, however, it has to be understood that “okay,” “likable,” “professional,” and “organized,” are not going to cut it as stand alone attributes. The team is different. That doesn’t make it good.

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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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