Teams Shouldn’t Follow the Red Sox Template

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Much to the chagrin of Scott Boras teams are increasingly shying away from overpaying for players they believe are the “last” piece of the puzzle and doling out $200 million contracts. This realization spurred Boras’s reaction to the Mets, Astros and Cubs steering clear of big money players, many of whom are his clients.

Ten years ago, the Moneyball “way” was seen as how every team should go about running their organization; then the big money strategy reared its head when the Yankees spent their way back to a World Series title in 2009; and the Red Sox are now seen as the new method to revitalizing a floundering franchise. The fact is there is no specific template that must be followed to guarantee success. There have been teams that spent and won; there have been teams that have spent and lost. There have been teams that were lucky, smart or lucky and smart. Nothing guarantees anything unless the pieces are already in place.

The 2013 Red Sox had everything click all at once. They already had a solid foundation with Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury. They were presented with the gift of financial freedom when the Dodgers took the contracts of Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez off their hands. Bobby Valentine’s disastrous season allowed general manager Ben Cherington to run the team essentially the way he wanted without interference from Larry Lucchino. John Farrell was the right manager for them.

To think that there wasn’t a significant amount of luck in what the Red Sox accomplished in 2013 is a fantasy. Where would they have been had they not lost both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey and stumbled into Koji Uehara becoming a dominant closer? Could it have been foreseen that the Blue Jays would be such a disaster? That the Yankees would have the number of key injuries they had and not spend their way out of trouble?

The players on whom the Red Sox spent their money and who had success were circumstantial.

Mike Napoli agreed to a 3-year, $39 million contract before his degenerative hip became an issue and they got him for one season. He stayed healthy all year.

Shane Victorino was viewed as on the downside of his career and they made made a drastic move in what was interpreted as an overpay of three years and $39 million. He was able to produce while spending the vast portion of the second half unable to switch hit and batting right-handed exclusively.

Uehara was signed to be a set-up man and the Red Sox were reluctant to name him their closer even when they had no one left to do the job.

Jose Iglesias – who can’t hit – did hit well enough to put forth the impression that he could hit and they were able to turn him into Jake Peavy.

The injury-prone Stephen Drew stayed relatively healthy, played sound defense and hit with a little pop. The only reason the Red Sox got him on a one-year contract was because he wanted to replenish his value for free agency and he did.

Is there a team out there now who have that same confluence of events working for them to make copying the Red Sox a viable strategy? You’ll hear media members and talk show callers asking why their hometown team can’t do it like the Red Sox did. Are there the players out on the market who will take short-term contracts and have the issues – injuries, off-years, misplaced roles – that put them in the same category as the players the Red Sox signed?

Teams can try to copy the Red Sox and it won’t work. Just as the Red Sox succeeded because everything fell into place, the team that copies them might fail because things falling into place just right doesn’t happen very often. Following another club’s strategy makes sense if it’s able to be copied. What the Red Sox did isn’t, making it a mistake to try.

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Dealing With The Closer Issue

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Complaining about closers is like complaining about the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The difference between the weather and closers is that something can be done about closers.

Amid all the talk about “what to do” with struggling relievers Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney and the references of clubs who have found unheralded veterans to take over as their closer like the Cardinals with Edward Mujica and the Pirates with Jason Grilli, no one is addressing the fundamental problems with needing to have an “established” closer. Here they are and what to do about them.

Veteran relievers like to know their roles.

Managers like Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver had the ability to tell their players that their “role” is to pitch when they tell them to pitch. Nowadays even managers who are relatively entrenched in their jobs like Joe Maddon have to have the players on their side to succeed. The Rays are a different story because they’re not paying any of their relievers big money and can interchange them if need be, but they don’t because Maddon doesn’t operate that way until it’s absolutely necessary.

Other clubs don’t have that luxury. They don’t want to upset the applecart and cause a domino effect of people not knowing when they’re going to pitch; not knowing if a pitcher can mentally handle the role of pitching the ninth inning; and don’t want to hear the whining and deal with the aftermath if there’s not someone established to replace the closer who’s having an issue. Rodney was only the Rays’ closer last season because Kyle Farnsworth (a foundling who in 2011 had a career year similar to Rodney in 2012) got hurt.

Until managers have the backing of the front office and have a group of relievers who are just happy to have the job in the big leagues, there’s no escaping the reality of having to placate the players to keep clubhouse harmony.

Stop paying for mediocrity in a replaceable role.

The Phillies and Yankees are paying big money for their closers Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, but these are the elite at the position. Other clubs who have overpaid for closers include the Dodgers with Brandon League, the Red Sox with money and traded players to get Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, the Nationals with Rafael Soriano, and the Marlins who paid a chunk of Heath Bell’s salary to get him out of the clubhouse.

Bell has taken over for the injured J.J. Putz with the Diamondbacks and pitched well. The Cubs, in desperation, replaced both Carlos Marmol ($9.8 million in 2013) and Kyuji Fujikawa (guaranteed $9.5 million through 2014) with Kevin Gregg. The same Kevin Gregg who was in spring training with the Dodgers and released, signed by the Cubs—for whom he struggled as their closer when they were trying to contend in 2009—as a veteran insurance policy just in case. “Just in case” happened and Gregg has gone unscored upon and saved 6 games in 14 appearances.

As long as teams are paying closers big money, closers will have to stay in the role far longer than performance would dictate in an effort to justify the contract. It’s a vicious circle that teams fall into when they overpay for “established” closers. When the paying stops, so too will the necessity to keep pitching them.

Find a manager who can be flexible.

A manager stops thinking when it gets to the ninth inning by shutting off the logical remnants of his brain to put his closer into the game. If it’s Rivera or Papelbon, this is fine. If it’s anyone else, perhaps it would be wiser to use a lefty specialist if the situation calls for it. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hitting back-to-back and a club has Randy Choate in its bullpen, would it make sense to use a righty whether it’s the ninth inning and “his” inning or not?

Maddon is flexible in his thinking and has the support of the front office to remove Rodney from the role if need be. One option that hasn’t been discussed for the Rays is minor league starter Chris Archer to take over as closer in the second half of the season. With the Rays, anything is possible. With other teams, they not only don’t want to exacerbate the problem by shuffling the entire deck, but the manager is going to panic if he doesn’t have his “ninth inning guy” to close. Even a veteran manager like Jim Leyland isn’t immune to it and a pitcher the front office didn’t want back—Jose Valverde—is now closing again because their handpicked choice Bruce Rondon couldn’t seize his spring training opportunity and the “closer by committee” was on the way to giving Leyland a heart attack, a nervous breakdown or both.

The solution.

There is no solution right now. Until teams make the conscious decision to stop paying relievers upwards of $10 million, there will constantly be the “established” closer. It’s a fundamental fact of business that if there isn’t any money in a job, fewer people who expect to make a lot of money and have the capability to make a lot of money in another position are going to want to take it. Finding replaceable arms who can be used wherever and whenever they’re told to pitch, ignore the save stat, and placed in a situation to be successful instead of how it’s done now will eliminate the need to pay for the ninth inning arm and take all the negative side effects that go along with it. Games will still get blown in the late innings, but at least it won’t be as expensive and will probably happen with an equal frequency. It’s evolution. And evolution doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.


Red Sox and Yankees: Early Season Notes

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Boston Red Sox

There haven’t been any glaring John Farrell managerial mistakes as of yet. He’s pretty much gone by the book. They’re over .500 and the main concern is Joel Hanrahan’s poor start and now hamstring injury.

What’s been prominent with the Red Sox has been the continuing talk amongst the media about what a better atmosphere there is in the clubhouse with the new faces they’ve brought in. Positivity has to lead to wins and whether that occurs over the course of a long season with the Red Sox remains to be seen. Their positive attitude won’t amount to much if they’re under .500 at mid-season. There’s a media-created desperation to bolster the Red Sox into the behemoth they were five years ago and that’s not going to happen, especially with this roster and that manager.

The latest hype is the attempted credit given to GM Ben Cherington for the acquisitions he made in last August’s salary dumping trade with the Dodgers. Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster are receiving most of the attention for their arms. In realistic context, it’s not like the Dodgers were doing the Red Sox a favor by taking a load of money off their ledger. Josh Beckett was a “get this guy outta here” trade and Carl Crawford was hurt, but Adrian Gonzalez was acquired from the Padres for three of the Red Sox top prospects a year-and-a-half earlier and is a star in his prime. If you’re trading him, you’d better get some good prospects for him and not just add him as the X in the deal as a, “if you want X, you’d better take Y.”

New York Yankees

The Yankees have treaded water with Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter all out. Andy Pettitte’s been great, but now he’s having a start pushed back due to back spasms, thus dampening Mike Francesa’s elementary school enthusiasm that Pettitte could pitch forever and ever and ever as if he was trapped in the Francesa Overlook Hotel in which he’s overlooking Pettitte’s age and injury history.

They’ve gotten hot starts from newcomers Kevin Youkilis, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner. The pitching, that was supposed to be a strong suit, has been bad behind Pettitte and CC Sabathia. The season will hinge on whether the new additions can maintain some level of production and the injured players return ready to contribute.

There are sudden concerns about Ichiro Suzuki’s slow start which shouldn’t be concerns at all—they should’ve been expected. He hit .322 as a Yankee last season and had a BAbip of .337. In 2013, he’s hitting .176 with a .167 BAbip (and no, I don’t have it backwards; his BAbip is really lower than his batting average). Ichiro’s success is contingent on his soft line drives and ground balls dropping in and finding holes. If they’re not doing either, he’s not going have numbers that appear to be productive.

Check out my appearance on Donn Paris’s Seamheads Podcast from yesterday here. We discussed the Angels, Astros, Mike Scioscia, the Red Sox, Yankees, Jeff Luhnow, player development, the draft and much more.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.


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.


The Tigers’ Options At Closer (AKA Coffee, Cigarettes And Baseball)

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Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland is openly and passive aggressively letting it be known that he’s unhappy with the concept of Bruce Rondon as his closer. So far in spring training, Rondon has been wild with 5 walks in 3.2 innings pitched, and has surrendered 5 hits and 3 earned runs. That’s in four appearances.

The Tigers spent the entire winter shunning any pretense of bringing back erstwhile closer Jose Valverde (who Leyland wanted back as recently as a few days ago), stayed away from any and all available veterans like Rafael Soriano, Heath Bell or Joel Hanrahan, and essentially handed the job to Rondon. With the regular season three-and-a-half weeks away, Leyland is looking at his loaded club with a powerful lineup, a deep starting rotation and a solid pre-closer bullpen and panicking at the thought of the entire thing crashing down because he doesn’t have someone he can moderately trust pitching the ninth inning. Valverde had some major meltdowns at inopportune times, but in 2012 he did save 35 games and had a solid hits/innings pitched ratio of 59/69. His strikeouts and velocity were way down making me think there was something physically wrong with him that the Tigers kept quiet, attributing his slump to the ambiguity of closing and mechanical woes. To a veteran manager like Leyland, the known and shaky veteran who’s gotten the outs for him before is better than the unknown rookie who can’t throw strikes.

So what to do about it?

Are there still-available closers—apart from Valverde—that are any good and gettable? Carlos Marmol can be had and if he’s in a better situation than with the Cubs, he might work. The Nationals aren’t trading Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard. The Tigers could sign Brian Wilson and hope the remaining bullpen members—Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit—hold down the fort (or seize the job) until Wilson is ready to pitch. If the Brewers fall out of contention, John Axford might be on the market. Francisco Rodriguez is sitting out. There are outside-the-box arms like Derek Lowe—40 in June—who was an All-Star closer with the Red Sox before becoming a starter and still wants to pitch. He’s said that he doesn’t want to be a reliever, but that was as a long-reliever. Would he want to take a last shot at closing for a championship-level team? Could he do it? Physically, who knows? Mentally, there’s no doubt. His ground ball rate is still superior and he’d be ridiculously cheap.

At his age, Leyland doesn’t need the aggravation of a rookie closer who can’t throw the ball over the plate. If he’s publicly carping about it, you can imagine what he’s saying to his coaches and is only being slightly more diplomatic with his ostensible boss, GM Dave Dombrowski. Leyland has a bratty side and, like any overgrown child even as he protests that he’ll deal with the situation as best he can, his sour face and underlying tone of displeasure combined with his already tense and jittery presence from a lifetime of coffee, cigarettes and baseball is surely felt throughout the clubhouse in spite of his protestations to the contrary. The players know Leyland, know the American League and probably don’t feel any more comfortable with Rondon sabotaging a potential championship season than the manager does. Rondon doesn’t have much time to get his act together. If he doesn’t, the Tigers are going to have to do something about it before it destroys everything they’re trying to accomplish.


The Red Sox Should’ve Just Paid Papelbon

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Misunderstanding the value of a closer is the Red Sox blindspot.

Adhering too strictly to theories, stats and factoids about closers, the Red Sox have repeatedly made the same mistakes by going back to where their hearts and minds and supposed logic reign instead of where reality and how baseball actually works. They cling to an ideology, occasionally bow to need and concede the point that a legitimate closer is necessary while still holding true to the fanaticism of not paying for saves.

But they are paying for saves with currency other than money and, in retrospect, the $50 million guarantee Jonathan Papelbon received from the Phillies would have been better spent by the Red Sox to keep him rather than do what they’re currently doing, having just acquired their third replacement for him in one year. $50 million is a lot of money, especially for a closer, but here’s the tree of what the Red Sox have spent so far in getting Papelbon’s replacements:

Andrew Bailey

Bailey was acquired from the Athletics and earned $3.9 million in 2012. He spent most of the season on the disabled list with thumb surgery—an unforeseen circumstance to be sure and one that played a large role in the sabotaging of the 2012 season.

To acquire Bailey and Ryan Sweeney however, they surrendered Josh Reddick and two minor leaguers. Sweeney was paid $1.75 million in 2012. Sweeney is a good defensive outfielder in both right and center, but received 219 plate appearances, provided 0 homers, and a .263/.303/.373 slash line, making him nearly worthless at the plate.

Josh Reddick

Reddick earned $485,000 from the Athletics in 2012 and hit 32 homers with 11 stolen bases in 12 attempts and won a Gold Glove in right field for the AL West champs. The Red Sox could certainly have used Reddick in 2012, but they clearly misjudged him, used him as a chip to get a closer and replaced him with Cody Ross.

Cody Ross

Because of his feistiness and everyman likability, Ross became a popular player with the Red Sox and their fans in his lone season as their right fielder. Like Reddick, he could play center field in a pinch; like Reddick he had pop (22 homers), but with no speed and average defense in right field. He cost them $3 million and departed as a free agent for an inexplicable $26 million from the Diamondbacks. To replace Ross, the Red Sox signed Shane Victorino.

Shane Victorino

The Red Sox signed Victorino to a 3-year, $39 million contract. Keith Law referred to Victorino as a “fourth outfielder,” which is absurd. Victorino is a good player with a great attitude and clubhouse presence. He’s versatile and can play both right and center field, is a switch-hitter with power and speed. Victorino gives the Red Sox the freedom to consider trading Jacoby Ellsbury before his heads into free agency after the 2013 season.

That sort of sounds like what Reddick added, except with Reddick they’d have spent around $37.5 million less.

The separate tree to replace Bailey, who replaced Papelbon goes something like this:

Jed Lowrie

Lowrie is an average defensive shortstop at best, but he hit 16 homers with a .769 OPS in 387 plate appearances for the Astros in 2012. He earned $1.15 million last season. The primary Red Sox shortstop, Mike Aviles, had a solid defensive season and hit 13 homers while being paid $1.2 million. It’s a wash on the field, but the Red Sox could’ve gotten something more useful than Melancon for Lowrie.

Aviles was traded to the Blue Jays for the rights to manager John Farrell, whose hiring will be eventually seen as a mistake if he actually has to do some managing rather than sit there and look managerial. Given this roster, his stern face and ability to deal with the press won’t be enough.

Melancon was shipped along with Jerry Sands and Ivan De Jesus Jr. (two players the Red Sox got from the Dodgers in their salary dump/clubhouse enema deal sending Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to Los Angeles) to the Pirates for Joel Hanrahan.

Mark Melancon

Melancon made $521,000 in 2012. He had closed for the Astros and was acquired to be a set-up man/backup closer for Bailey just in case Bailey got hurt. But when Bailey got hurt, the decision was made (by manager Bobby Valentine or someone in the front office) to use Alfredo Aceves as the closer.

Aceves was, to put it lightly, not Papelbon. As gutty and useful as Aceves was in 2011, he was equally inconsistent, difficult and contentious with management and teammates in 2012.

Melancon? He got off to a dreadful start and wound up back in the minors. When he returned, he pitched better in a far less important role than as the set-up man. To acquire Melancon, the Red Sox gave up Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.

Joel Hanrahan

Now it’s Hanrahan who’s going to be the closer.

Hanrahan is a free agent after 2013, is arbitration eligible and set to make around $7 million next season. He’s probably better-suited than Bailey to the pressure of pitching in Boston as the closer for the demanding Red Sox, but he won’t be a known commodity until he performs. He’s never pitched for a team with these expectations and with free agency beckoning, he might try too hard and pitch poorly. Or he could be Brad Lidge, circa 2008 and be shockingly close to perfect. We don’t know.

All of this is without the horrific misjudgment the team made in trying to make Daniel Bard into a starter and succeeded in nothing more than popping his value like a balloon. Nobody even talks about him anymore, let alone mentions him in a prominent role as a reliever or starter.

Short of re-signing Papelbon, the easy move would’ve been to use the succession theory and simply insert Bard as the closer to replace Papelbon, but they didn’t do that either.

So let’s tally it up:

Hanrahan (±)$7 million + Ross $3 million + Sweeney $1.75 million + Victorino $39 million + Melancon $521,000 = $51.271 million


Papelbon $50 million + Reddick $485,000 + Lowrie $1.2 million = $51.685 million

This is before getting to the Red Sox results in 2012; the dysfunction; and what they could’ve acquired in lieu of Bailey and Hanrahan if they chose to spend the money they spent and players they traded to get them.

Papelbon received a guaranteed $50 million from the Phillies with a vesting option making it worth a possible $63 million. If he reaches the appearance incentives in 2014-2015 to gain the vesting option, that will mean that Papelbon is healthy and pitching well, making the money moot because the club would be getting what they need from him.

The Red Sox never fully appreciated the value of having a pitcher who was automatically the ninth inning man. They’d underestimated the value of a closer in 2003 when not having one cost them the pennant and possibly the World Series; they accepted that they needed one in 2004 when they signed Keith Foulke, paying him $20 million for what amounted to one productive season. If you conducted a poll of everyone involved with the Red Sox from ownership on down and asked them if, prior to 2004, they’d make a bargain in which they paid any closer that amount of money for one season and were rewarded with a World Series, each and every one of them would’ve said yes without a second thought and been right to do it.

Any manager with experience and who isn’t beholden to taking orders from the front office or brainlessly attached to new theories will say that it takes a great deal off his mind to know that when he calls down to the bullpen, more often than not, his closer will be ready and willing to pitch and, the majority of the time, will nail the game down. The numbers of every game in which a club is leading in the ninth inning winning the game being X% regardless of who closes the game is separate from the sigh of relief self-assuredness the team as a whole feels when a Papelbon is out there.

Yet they still hold onto that ideology like it’s the last bastion of what they aspire to be.

A year after Papelbon’s outstanding rookie year in 2006, they put forth the farce of making him a starter before acquiescing to reality and shifting him back to the bullpen. In large part to Papelbon, they were rewarded with a World Series win in 2007.

Conceded the point; clinging; practically; financially; logistically; ideologically; injuries—there are so many words to attach to why the Red Sox run on this treadmill, but none cancel out that the simplest and smartest option would have been to re-sign Papelbon.

You can go on about his WAR being less than 2 wins in both 2011 and 2012, his failures late in the season of 2011 and how he was inaccurately perceived as a clubhouse problem. How inaccurate that was only became known in 2012 when it wound up being Youkilis, Beckett and the other malcontents who were the troublemakers and not Papelbon, who came to play every day.

You can mention the injury concerns, but as you can see in this posting on Fire Brand of the American League, the Red Sox medical staff hasn’t distinguished itself in a positive way in recent years.

You can talk about Papelbon “wanting” to leave or the clubhouse issues, but sometimes all it takes is a branch of communication and the expression from the club that they truly wanted him and said so. They never did. They constantly diminished his importance by refusing to give him a lucrative long-term contract to forego his arbitration years and free agency as they did with other young stars Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Kevin Youkilis. They gave Beckett a 4-year $68 million extension. They paid $106 million in total for Daisuke Matsuzaka. They gave Crawford $142 million. They gave John Lackey $82.5 million.

There was no money to pay one of the best closers in baseball over the past seven years? No financial wherewithal to pay one who had proven himself in the post-season where the true separation between the Mariano Rivera-type and the Joe Nathan-type is made? They were unable to provide a reasonable deal and tell Papelbon that they wanted him back? That was too much of a commitment?

The bottom line with Papelbon is that he was proven in the post-season, durable, able to handle the cauldron of baseball madness that is Boston, and they knew what they were getting without having to do a tapdance to replace him.

Hanrahan might work out or he might become another Bailey. They don’t know. With Papelbon, they did know. They just went cheap and retreated to their core beliefs of not paying for a closer while presenting a litany of excuses as to why they were doing it. All they succeeded in doing, though, was to cost themselves more money and prospects, simultaneously adding more questions to the ones that would’ve been answered had they just accepted reality and paid Papelbon to stay.


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.


The Dual-Edged Sword of Hiring Gary Sheffield as an Agent

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A player agent with experience might’ve had it in mind that there was the possibility—injury or trade—that his client’s new contract might require a few “if-then” incentive clauses. That doesn’t appear to have been the case with Jason Grilli whose agent, Gary Sheffield, didn’t get such clauses inserted into the contract Grilli signed to return to the Pirates. Because of that, as Grilli is set to take over as the Pirates’ new closer once the Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox trade is finalized, he will collect his salary for 2013-2014 (2-years, $6.75 million), and not get one penny more whether he saves 40 games or 0.

Was Sheffield required to do more and what’s the trade-off when Grilli shuns an established agent who might see Grilli as a low priority and opts for Sheffield, who doesn’t have a long list of clients?

In the past, agents like Scott Boras have treated their lower-tier clients as moderate inconveniences, expecting them to be happy to take a back seat to the big names and wait their turn. Felipe Lopez was such a player who pushed back in February of 2010 when he fired Boras. Lopez wasn’t in Grilli’s situation when Grilli hired Sheffield in 2010. Grilli was out of baseball and looking for work; Lopez, in 2009, had had one of the best seasons of his career with a .310/.383/.427 split and 9 homers for the Diamondbacks and Brewers. Lopez was a flawed player, but should’ve gotten a suitable job offer before February considering his bat, pop and that he was defensively versatile playing a passable second and third base.

Boras’s reaction wasn’t an apology to his client or an explanation. Instead, he announced that he was going to “confront the player,” and made cryptic references of “reasons” why Lopez wasn’t offered a job that he declined to disclose. It’s as if he—the employee—was in charge and was exacting revenge for being fired. Boras is powerful and Lopez had little leverage, but in the end, Boras worked for Lopez, not the other way around.

While Sheffield might not have the most sparkly reputation around the executives and teams that he angered throughout his career and that is definitely going to hurt the players he represents because they simply will not want to deal with Sheffield, he’s going to speak up and fight for the people on his side. His clients—Grilli and Josh Banks—weren’t in a great position to bargain. They were looking for work. Would someone have signed Grilli and Banks without Sheffield? Probably. But what’s the difference? Maybe players like these need someone like Sheffield who has nothing to gain by representing them instead of Boras who probably has lower level associates handling the Lopezes of the world on a daily basis and forgets about them completely until they do what Lopez did and publicly fires him, embarrassing him. Boras certainly couldn’t let that go by without face-saving response.

Grilli’s main obstacle as a closer is handling it mentally. The Pirates have a shot at a playoff spot in 2013, so his closing opportunities will be important. Pitchers in the past that have proven themselves as set-up men and couldn’t close have been legion—one in particular last season was David Robertson of the Yankees, who looked as if he was about to hyperventilate on the mound when he took over for Mariano Rivera, then got hurt. It opened the door for the more proven Rafael Soriano and Robertson went back to being a set-up man. It’s not that Soriano’s stuff is better than Robertson’s—it’s not—but Soriano can close. Whether Robertson can or not remains to be seen. The first impression wasn’t good.

That mentality, more than stuff, is the key to closing. Grilli’s strikeout numbers have spiked and he’s found a velocity in the mid-90s that he didn’t have earlier in his career. He has a chance to be good at the job that Sheffield the agent clearly didn’t expect his client to have. Should Sheffield and his partner, lawyer Xavier James, have realized that there was a chance that Grilli could accumulate a few saves and prove himself as a closer, possibly putting himself in line to make a lot more money? Yes. But Grilli is also 36 and his annual salary for a 15 year professional career surpassed $1 million for the first time in 2012. Taking the guaranteed cash was the smart move. Another agent would’ve insisted on the clause and that might’ve wound up costing Grilli the opportunity and left him sitting out and waiting as Lopez was.

It’s a dual-edged sword. Sheffield, perhaps unwittingly, served his client and got him a guaranteed two year contract in the now. That’s not a bad thing.


A Red Sox Return to the Past

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You, like the Red Sox, wanted to travel through time. Not as the basis of a morality play in a Twilight Zone episode, nor a movie whose theme is to appreciate the small things you have rather than lamenting what you don’t have due to opportunities missed. You just want to go back in time to a “better” place.

And you do. Your eyes open and, instead of the cold winter of Boston you’re in Florida. Walking toward the Red Sox spring training facility, there are several puddles on the ground from a morning rainstorm, but the clouds have given way to a bright blue sky and glowing sunshine.

You hear someone nearby say the words, “Let’s go see the idiots,” and immediately feel a twinge of joy, remembering Johnny Damon, Pedro Martinez, Kevin Millar—the heroes of 2004.

You pass a newsstand and glance at the headlines to prove to yourself that it’s actually real. You see:

“Red Sox new acquisitions bring positive vibe to clubhouse and power to lineup”

“Who among the Red Sox proven and talented short relievers will close?”

“President Bush declares U.S. will not bow to terrorist dictators”

“Young players indicate bright Boston future”

“Yankees have more questions than Red Sox”

You breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that your desire to reach back to what was—like that of the 2013 Red Sox—worked. You approach the park and see the sign.

“Welcome to Red Sox spring training…” and your heart stops when you read the words: “Winter Haven, Fla.”

Winter Haven. Wait a second…

The Red Sox haven’t held their spring training in Winter Haven since 1992. They moved to Fort Myers in 1993.

Oh no…

You rush back to the newsstand and grab the paper The Lakeland Ledger and look at the date. March 24….1990.

Oh my God. I went back too far.

You rush toward the spring training facility with your mind calculating the ramifications. President Bush is the first President George Bush; the Red Sox, coming off a disappointing season in 1989, signed Jeff Reardon to join Lee Smith as the second closer; the word “idiot” wasn’t said as a term of endearment, he actually thinks they’re idiots; you arrive at the outer fields and see the minor leaguers and, oh dear Lord, in a Red Sox uniform is Jeff Bagwell, traded late in the 1990 season for Larry Andersen to help win a division championship; Bagwell was third in line at third base behind Wade Boggs and Scott Cooper and was expendable…so they thought. Cooper, Carlos Quintana, Mo Vaughn and John Valentin are four of the minor leaguers who were meant to lead a Red Sox return to prominence. The memories of the disasters come flooding back.

1990 will yield a division championship—having experienced the immediate future following that 1990 season, you see. And you know. More clubhouse “attitude” with Jack Clark. More wasted money and terrible results. Multiple pitchers who can close. A new manager who has a Boston history, minor league bona fides, support of the players and media and a tough guy persona, Butch Hobson. You remember the hope and desperation; the fear of knowing deep inside with an inherent negativity from history—1967, 1975, 1978. And you know.

Then you flash to the most horrifying words to a Red Sox fan, “GM Lou Gorman,” and it sends you into a screaming fit of hysterics that draws a crowd; you’re lying on the ground; people are telling you to calm down, that help is on the way; hovering on the outside of the group is a tall, swaggering man wearing a sportcoat, white pants and sunglasses. He casts a bearing of disinterest and says, “Somebody call the nutsquad for this guy,” you recognize the foghorn voice and gruff, old-school, matter of fact tone to be that of Ted Williams.

Your fear rises.

Medical staff congregates around you. Flashing lights enter your peripheral vision. Wild eyed and shaking, you find yourself restrained and placed in the back of an ambulance. Overhearing the driver say, “The Red Sox can do that to anyone.”

This is not 2004!!!!!!!!

“Would you shut up back there?!?” To his partner, he says, “I can’t stand the screamers.”

The siren wails as you scan for an escape. Pulling hard at the restraints, your resistance is futile. Then you remember. You close your eyes and repeat the words the time-bending shaman instructed you to say following his warning. The entire text enters your vision verbatim:

“He who seeks the future must look into the past. He who seeks the past understands the future. Neither is what you want. Neither is what you expect. Your key to freedom when understanding has reached you are the following three words: ‘Pesky Papi Theo.’ Then you will be home.”

You say the words. Your world spins and you awaken…to find yourself back in 2012. You’re home and relieved…for the moment. Then it hits you. Christmas is coming as is a brand new year to replace the hell of 2012 with Bobby Valentine, the year that was meant to replace the hell of the 2011 collapse. Valentine, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez—all symbols of the passionless and dysfunctional collection of bubblegum cards the front office mistakenly believed would maintain their annual trip to the playoffs on sheer numbers and talent alone. They didn’t. They’re gone, but your calm is transitory. Terry Francona is in Cleveland and Theo Epstein is in Chicago. Nothing’s changed, but everything’s changed. As happy to be home as you are, you look at the headlines. You read of the credit given to the Red Sox GM Ben Cherington for altering a toxic clubhouse with “winning” personalities; for hiring the “right” manager; or “fixing” a shoddy starting rotation and questionable bullpen; for getting back to basics.

But what basics are they? The basics of 2003-2004 or the basics of 1989-1991?

It’s not simply a matter of adhering to the fundamentals, but adhering to the right fundamentals.

John Farrell, Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli (maybe), Joel Hanrahan—a return to what built the new Red Sox in the first place—all reminiscent from the glory of less than a decade ago. Except you traveled to the true mirror of the 2013 Red Sox and see 1990. You see the name Bagwell in today’s headlines, but it’s not as a prospect; it’s for his possible entry into baseball’s Hall of Fame with the insignia of the Houston Astros on his hat. Peter Gammons was enthusiastic then; Peter Gammons is enthusiastic now.

The terror continues.

The early 1990s were another era of so near, yet so far; of hopping from one strategy to another and desperately waiting for one to work. Of maddening trades of youth for age; of signing that “last piece” giving the team what they “need,” be it a new starting pitcher; a new closer; a galvanizing personality in the clubhouse; a center fielder; a new manager—something.

You went back too far. And so have the Red Sox. The results and fallout will be identical with many years to go before truly returning to the glory days that seem so far away.

You wanted to see the future and you saw the past. They’re identical. They’re a nightmare. Except you can’t wake up from it or utter a phrase to go elsewhere. It’s real. And there’s no escape from reality. It has to play itself out. And it will.

It will.


Hurdle’s Law vs Murphy’s Law—Fighting for the Future of the Pirates

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Pending a physical, the Pirates have agreed to a 2-year, $14 million contract with free agent lefty Francisco Liriano. This winter, in addition to Liriano, the Pirates have added catcher Russell Martin (2-years, $17 million) and retained pitcher Jason Grilli (2-years, $6.75 million negotiated with Grilli’s agent Gary Sheffield. Yes. That Gary Sheffield.) These moves follow last spring’s acquisition of A.J. Burnett from the Yankees and the summer trade for Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros. During the 2012 season, they also received cheap and talented youngsters Travis Snider from the Blue Jays and Gaby Sanchez from the Marlins.

Liriano’s acquisition mirrors the Pirates’ trade for Burnett. Liriano is a superiorly talented underachiever whose results will benefit from the National League and the big Pirates’ park. Looking at the club on the whole, the Pirates have a batch of young players that they’re in the process of surrounding with veterans who have playoff experience and have played for well-run, winning organizations.

The Pirates collapsed in the second halves of both 2011 and 2012; endured rightful public indignation at their assistant GM Kyle Stark implementing ridiculous physical and mental training techniques for their minor leaguers; and struggled to shake the hapless image that has been their albatross for two decades. The entire front office from team president Frank Coonelly to GM Neal Huntington to Stark were said to be in jeopardy of losing their jobs at the conclusion of 2012 and still aren’t completely secure, but owner Bob Nutting retained all three, staying the course along with manager Clint Hurdle and trying—not putting forth the pretense of trying, but actually trying—to win by spending some money.

They haven’t simply taken on onerous contracts of other clubs either, nor have they drastically overpaid in terms of years/dollars to get veteran help. The Pirates got Burnett from the Yankees for low level non-prospects while paying a third of Burnett’s $16.5 million salary in 2012 and will pay half in 2013. They got Rodriguez from the Astros for three nondescript minor leaguers and are paying $8.5 million of his $13 million salary. Now with Liriano, the rotation of Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, James McDonald and as early as 2013, Gerrit Cole, the Pirates can compete. Andrew McCutchen is a true all-around star and MVP candidate; Pedro Alvarez has tremendous power; and with Sanchez, Martin, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones, they’ll score enough to support that starting rotation. In the weakened National League Central—with only the Reds substantially better on paper—and the extra Wild Card, there’s an opening for the Pirates.

The front office is constantly on the precipice of doing something stupid and are discussing trading closer Joel Hanrahan. What they get for him and whom they use to replace him should be planned before pulling any trigger and I wonder whether Hanrahan’s pending free agency after 2013 is more of a catalyst to this talk than any potential return or concerns about the righty’s effectiveness. I would not trade Hanrahan unless there are extenuating circumstances or the offer is too lucrative to turn down. They’re going to need him.

As always, there’s a dubious nature surrounding the Pirates’ plans and intentions and much of their rise has been due to a vast number of high draft picks and not overwhelming wisdom from the front office. But in spite of the collateral stories and questioning glances, there’s much to be enthusiastic about in Pittsburgh and it’s not Sidney Crosby (if the NHL ever plays again) or Ben Roethlisberger. It’s McCutchen, Cole and the other youngsters the Pirates have developed along with their shiny new veterans. Players are no longer shunning the Pirates or going to Pittsburgh because they have nowhere else to go. Given the team’s reputation around baseball as a wasteland where young players run out the clock to free agency and veterans go for a final job, that new perception is not a small thing.

There’s still that hovering feeling of Murphy’s Law that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, particularly because of the still shaky status of the front office and the owner’s blindness to the harsh and exhausting realities of being a baseball player. It’s highly possible that Nutting’s expectations will outweigh what the team can accomplish and he’ll let his displeasure be known early if the team isn’t markedly better immediately. At that point, changes might be made in the front office.

Even with the looming dysfunction, they have enough talent to rise from the ashes of their 2011-2012 stumbles, use them as learning experiences, and contend for seven months rather than four. Murphy’s Law says that the Pirates will remain the Pirates, but that’s being counteracted by Hurdle’s Law—the law that dictates not taking crap and not making excuses.

They have the talent to win. And they just might.