King Felix’s Mariners Deal Will Get Done Because It Has To Get Done

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The dual-sided coin of big signings leaked to the media before they’re “officially” official is landing incoveniently for both the Mariners and Felix Hernandez now that there’s a sudden snag in the finalization of his $175 million contract extension with the club. Did he fail the physical? According to this Geoff Baker piece, that’s what it sounds like. But we won’t know until we know even though, technically, it’s not our business. More information will be whispered to various media people by unnamed sources and it will, of course, wind up in front of the fans’ prying eyes.

This puts the sides in an equally unfavorable position. The Mariners were basking in the glow of the positive aspect of keeping their franchise arm through the 2019 season. Hernandez was becoming the highest paid pitcher in baseball and wouldn’t have to worry about being traded or heading into free agency.

The Mariners were presumably worn out from having to answer the phone with, “Hello? Seattle Mariners. Felix Hernandez is not available, how may I direct your call?”

GM Jack Zduriencik’s typical conversations must have gone the same way, fending off Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman’s advances as he tried to cajole, beg, demand and whine Hernandez away from the Mariners. Given his history with the Cliff Lee switcheroo and pawning Michael Pineda off on the Yankees, if Hernandez were truly suffering from a potential elbow problem, Zduriencik would’ve traded him to the Yankees long ago. The Yankees would’ve taken him, signed him and it would’ve been their problem for the future.

Now it’s the Mariners’ risk. They’ll have to live with it.

Buster Olney writes that there is “concern” about his pitching elbow. Of course his workload and the number of innings he’s pitched were referenced with context in the above-linked ESPN piece. Its relevance is cherrypicking considering clubs like the Nationals have taken great pains to limit the number of innings for their young pitchers such as Stephen Strasburg only to see them blow out their elbows anyway. Why point to Hernandez’s workload with the unsaid implication that it’s eventually going to be a problem with long-term durability when there have been pitchers who’ve gotten hurt with lighter touches and others who haven’t despite being “abused?”

This highlights the gray area of giving a player a massive contract and the new practice of making sure the player isn’t signing it with a foreseeable injury already in place and ticking like a time bomb. We saw it earlier this winter with the Red Sox and Mike Napoli as a $39 million deal over three years became a $5 million base salary with $8 million in incentives for one year because of a hip problem. In fact, the Red Sox were something of a pioneer in this practice. Whereas other clubs were signing players without worrying about the future and getting torched for it as the Mets did with Pedro Martinez, the Red Sox made it their life’s work to install protective language in the event of injury. They did it with John Lackey and Napoli. It’s a sound business practice even if it’s going to upset the fans and put players in a situation where they have to shop their services elsewhere. Just as easily as it gets out into the public that a deal is “done,” it can also hinder a player if he tries to go somewhere else if an injury is found and disclosed before he signs.

Deals of this kind would be better for all parties if they weren’t leaked to the media prior to official completion, but every reporter worth anything has his sources in management and with player agents. It benefits the club and the player to have the information out to prevent cold feet, second thoughts or a better offer from someone else. It benefits them, that is, until something unexpected like this happens.

This is bad on multi-levels for each side and why the Mariners will eventually sign Hernandez. The Mariners had their one star locked up and are trying to give their increasingly irritable fanbase a reason to think that brighter days lie ahead.

Now that’s on hold.

With this news, Hernandez’s trade value is slashed significantly. The Mariners would get a big package for him if they chose to deal him now since he’s signed through 2014 and, as far as we know, is healthy enough to pitch in the short-term. It’s nowhere near what they’d get if the trading team thought they were getting him and keeping him for the long-term.

For Hernandez, it’s become public knowledge that there’s something going on in his elbow. If this contract fell through, Hernandez might tell the Mariners to trade him; he might start becoming concerned about what this news is going to do to his value if he winds up on the free agent market, and rightfully so. How would it look for a team to have warning two years in advance that there’s something off in the elbow, then signs him for $150+ million and having him get injured? They’re not getting full insurance on the contract with this out there until he’s been checked and given a clean bill of health from multiple doctors.

The leaks made for a few days of big headlines, but boomeranged on both Hernandez and the Mariners. What was a happy marriage is a shotgun wedding. The deal will get done because now it has to get done.

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Francona: The Red Sox Years by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy—Book Review

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It’s a fine line between revenge and clarification. In his new book detailing the eight years he spent as manager of the Boston Red Sox, Terry Francona straddles the territory between the two. In Francona: The Red Sox Years written with Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, Francona does so with a mostly objective point of view and occasional digs at those who sought to undermine him and diminish his substantial accomplishments during his time at the helm.

The book functions as a biography, telling the story of Terry Francona’s father Tito Francona’s Major League career; the younger Francona’s life of frequent address changes as his father switched teams; the experience of hanging around the clubhouses with his dad; his own playing career as a college star and first round draft pick; the injuries that sabotaged him and relegated him to journeyman whose lifelong dream ended at age 31. When he became a manager in the White Sox system, he was making the same innocent climb that players make first running a single A club in Indiana, then spending three years in Double A. The second year was notable because it provided Francona a crash course in a media circus managing basketball star Michael Jordan during his yearlong break from the NBA and foray into baseball.

By the time he was 38, he was named manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997. The Phillies were a bad team and Francona, by his own account, didn’t do a very good job running the club. Fired after four seasons, he seemed more relieved than unhappy. Following the firing after the 2000 season, he burnished his resume by working in the Indians’ front office in 2001, as the bench coach for Buck Showalter with the Rangers in 2002, and Ken Macha with the Athletics in 2003.

While with the Athletics, Francona received a first hand look at his future in two different ways, neither of which he likely saw when he was traveling with his dad, playing or working his way up as a field boss: the general manager of the new millennium was openly interfering with the way in which a manager ran the games. All through 2003, Macha was constantly fending off the regular “suggestions” (more like interrogations) that the A’s manager was forced to endure from the newly minted star of Moneyball, Billy Beane. Also in 2003, Francona was on the opposite bench when the Red Sox, then managed by Grady Little and in year one of their remaking with Theo Epstein as their GM, came from 2 games to 0 behind to defeat the Athletics in a dramatic 5 games series. It was a glimpse into the future for Francona with the tentacles of chance gripping him, Little, Epstein and the Red Sox, sometimes around their throats.

In the very next series, Little’s decision to leave Pedro Martinez in to pitch game 7 of the ALCS against the Yankees cost him the job and opened it for Francona. Francona, ironically, was friends with Little for years and they even lived together when Francona served as Little’s bench coach in the Arizona Fall League in 1992. Also ironically, Francona—jokingly or not—told the Red Sox during the arduous interview process that he would have taken Pedro out of game 7 of the ALCS as Little was supposed to do. The interview process included written tests and games of the computer simulated baseball game “Diamond Mind” against Epstein’s assistants to see how Francona would react to game circumstances. Did Francona tell the Red Sox people what he knew they wanted to hear in terms of Little or would he have acquiesced to the demands of the numbers and ignored that the Red Sox bullpen didn’t have that one big arm in the bullpen that the manager could unequivocally trust in lieu of his ace?

Only Francona knows, but given the old-school sensibilities he exhibited, it’s not as cut-and-dried as implied that he wouldn’t have done the exact same thing Little did—the thing that got him fired.

This clash of civilizations is a key contention in this book and the books written by other managers such as Joe Torre with the Yankees who were unceremoniously relieved of their duties after immeasurable success that had not been enjoyed by their respective clubs for decades prior to their arrivals. The new landscape in baseball makes it necessary for managers to agree to listen to information that may or may not have real world validity in an exercise of going along to get along. Some managers like Joe Maddon embrace it; others, like Torre and Little, rebel against it with a head shake and bemused smirk; still others like Francona and Joe Girardi listen to the advice and try to incorporate it where applicable.

The fundamental civil war makes being a big league manager in today’s game an exercise in tightrope walking by maintaining respect with the players and not appear as a puppet while accessing and sifting through the reams of information burying them like corn in a silo. Torre, in fact, had his own issues magnified due to the presence of the big market rival using stats to build a club that was cheaper and better than his Yankees were. The Red Sox were Patient X in this experiment and where the entire virus got its start.

Little unabashedly ignored the advice. Francona was nuanced as he ignored some of it too, rebelling when he couldn’t tolerate it and telling Epstein to have his people back off a bit.

If anyone has the breadth of experience to be a manager and do his job without the overbearing interference of a staff of numbers crunchers and find methods to meld the highly paid egos, deal with the media, and make the players perform on the field, it’s Francona. The numbers crunchers that managers are forced to endure today may never have picked up a baseball and would be swallowed alive after two days of inhabiting the same space as Manny Ramirez, yet they see fit to question, criticize and send suggestions that eventually take the tone of orders.

For a pure baseball lifer, it’s a conundrum and necessary concession. Any manager who doesn’t adapt to the way baseball is run today is not going to get a job.

The battles he fought as manager were mostly with a front office that in the ownership suite didn’t appreciate the job he was doing. Francona was lowballed in his contract when he was initially hired and was saddled with the onus that he was taking orders from his bosses in every single aspect of on-field decisionmaking (this was right after the publication of Moneyball), and that he was selected because he was one of the few managers for whom Curt Schilling wanted to play. The Red Sox were closing in on acquiring Schilling simultaneously to hiring Francona. The Red Sox and Francona deny this, but the denial is formulated on a shaky premise. They didn’t decide out of the blue to get Schilling and it would certainly help to grease the negotiations if he knew he was getting a manager he wanted to play for instead of, say, Bobby Valentine.

The book doesn’t discuss significant conflict between Francona and Epstein in spite of Epstein making Francona’s life difficult with the overbearing and constant presence of the GM and his youthful assistants, or with acquisitions of the likes of David Wells, but there’s an unexplored and unmentioned tension that Francona may not admit or realize existed between him and Epstein.

Epstein, in fact, comes off as profoundly immature when the Red Sox fell behind the Yankees 3 games to 0 in the 2004 ALCS and his assistants decided that he couldn’t be left alone. Did they think he was suicidal? He couldn’t be left alone? It was a baseball game that they lost badly in a series they were about to lose, not life or death.

Rather than jump off the Green Monster, Epstein got drunk on a friend’s couch and passed out. As the GM was drowning his sorrows, the manager who was supposed to be manipulated by the “geniuses” in the front office was calmly saying that his team would show up to play and the series wasn’t over. While Epstein has continually denied the story of breaking furniture in Nicaragua when the Red Sox lost the bidding for free agent Cuban Jose Contreras to the Yankees, this type of story makes me believe that maybe he really did break the furniture in a tantrum that a 20-something is known to throw when he doesn’t get his way.

Reading between the lines, Epstein comes off looking immature, arrogant and self-centered.

The owners John Henry and Tom Werner, along with CEO Larry Lucchino are presented as the nemeses of Francona with Epstein serving as a buffer between the manager and the out-of-touch front office, but the book—again in an unsaid manner—presents Lucchino as the hatchet man carrying out the edicts of the two owners. More a devil’s advocate and overseer, Lucchino didn’t harass Epstein and Francona as much as he dared to question them and want an answer other than a spiraling stack of sludge that would placate a less-informed front office person or owner.

Francona’s health problems were much more serious than has ever been publicly revealed and his life was in jeopardy due to blood clots. He still endures terrible pain because of his wounds from a long playing career and the well-known issues with deep vein thrombosis. His use of pain medication was a point of contention and weaponized by someone with the Red Sox to impugn Francona’s reputation and justify his firing as if he was an addict whose use of the medicines, combined with the separation from his wife, led to a lack of focus allowing the players to run roughshod over all sense of propriety and culminating in the beer and chicken “scandal” that engulfed Francona and his team during their collapse in September 2011. The book explains Francona’s use of the medication in an evenhanded manner.

The players took advantage of Francona’s old-school demeanor in letting the players run their clubhouse. It’s an excuse to say that the beer and chicken had little to do with the collapse. If the players—especially pitchers Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey—had been in better shape, perhaps they wouldn’t have pitched as poorly as they did down the stretch and the team wouldn’t have missed the playoffs in the first place.

What Francona getting and losing the job hinged on was chance and the slippery slope of “if-thens.”  Would he have gotten the nod had Bernie Williams’s looping single in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS fallen into the glove of Nomar Garciaparra and the Red Sox held on to win the game and advanced to the World Series? Would he have retained the job if Dave Roberts hadn’t been safe by a hair on his stolen base in the ninth inning of game 4 in 2004, sparking the inconceivable four game comeback? Would he have lost the job if the Red Sox had been able to win two more games in September of 2011?

The final portion of the book centers around Francona’s estrangement from the Red Sox and his continued and understandably obsessive questioning of everyone as to who leaked to the media that he had a problem with prescription medications. Lucchino is alleged to have said he was going to find out who it was, but never did. Henry, the detached Dracula whose presence was rare and awkward, contributed his beloved stats and was notably out-of-touch in his attempts to get a grip on his crumbling would-be dynasty, had no reply for Francona. Werner was too busy trying to bolster his own bona fides and overemphasize his influence.

The book is not a vengeful and vicious, “I’m gonna get back at the guys who screwed me,” as Torre’s, at times, was. It tells Francona’s side in a context to put him in the best possible light, to be sure; he’s more calculating than an “Aw shucks,” baseball man who’s happiest at the ballpark and with the players. Clearly he’s hurt by the way his tenure ended especially considering he accomplished something in winning a World Series that hadn’t happened for 86 years prior to his arrival, then he turned around and won another title three years later. The concerns about his perception might have been the catalyst to jump back in the ring in a situation that isn’t ready-made to win immediately with the Indians. He took a job while the jobs were still being offered.

Francona gets his story out there, highlights how difficult the job of Red Sox manager truly is, and that it’s a borderline miracle that he: A) lasted as long as he did; and B) had the success he had while maintaining some semblance of sanity.

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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

vs

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.

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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.

//

Josh Hamilton—Free Agency Profile

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Name: Josh Hamilton

Position: Outfielder

Vital Statistics: Age—31 (32 on May 21st); Height—6’4”; Weight—240 lbs.; Bats—Left; Throws—Left

Career Transactions: Drafted in the 1st round (1st overall) by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 1999 amateur draft; drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the Rule 5 draft in December of 2006; purchased by the Cincinnati Reds in December of 2006; traded by the Cincinnati Reds to the Texas Rangers for RHP Edinson Volquez and LHP Danny Herrera.

Agent: Michael Moye

Might he return to the Rangers? Yes.

Teams that could use him, pay him, and might pursue him: Boston Red Sox; Baltimore Orioles; Chicago White Sox; Kansas City Royals; Texas Rangers; Seattle Mariners; Washington Nationals; Philadelphia Phillies; Atlanta Braves; Milwaukee Brewers; Chicago Cubs; San Francisco Giants; Los Angeles Dodgers.

Positives: Hamilton has the power to hit the ball out of any park at any time and is capable of hitting 10 home runs in a week. He is a former MVP, is a good defensive left fielder and can play a decent center field.

Negatives: He’s injury-prone. His concentration lapses amid negativity leading to off-field questions as to how he’ll cope with them. Hamilton’s substance abuse problems and known incidences of drinking since supposedly getting clean raise massive red flags. At age 32, his body has been abused for extended periods making it reasonable to wonder when his physical decline will begin and if it’s going to be earlier than it would be with other players.

What he wants: 7-years, $175 million

What he’ll get: 4-years, $95 million

Teams that might give it to him: Red Sox, Orioles, Rangers, Mariners, Nationals, Phillies, Dodgers

The Red Sox were said to have serious interest in Hamilton, but that was later played down. Unless they’re shut out on every other avenue, the Red Sox are not going to repeat the mistakes they made with players like Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and John Lackey who were not emotionally equipped to handle Boston and the intense pressure and expectations that come along with being a big name free agent signee. That said, with the Blue Jays improvement and a very tough division, they might panic.

The Orioles have the money and a hole in the middle of their lineup. It was at Camden Yards that Hamilton hit 4 homers in one game earlier this year and is a career .370 hitter there. Baltimore is sufficiently less-pressurized than New York, Boston, and Los Angeles that the temptations Hamilton has to face will be limited.

The Rangers and Hamilton have set their winter positions with the Rangers saying they won’t go past 3 years and Hamilton wanting 7. There’s room for negotiation and if they aren’t able to get a Justin Upton, a B.J. Upton, or to improve their offense in another manner, they and Hamilton might agree to re-up.

The Nationals have a ton of money and would be able to make room for Hamilton by moving Mike Morse to first base. The Phillies need an outfield bat desperately, but I would not put the sensitive Hamilton in Philadelphia. The Dodgers don’t have room for Hamilton, but with the money they’re spending and the willingness of GM Ned Colletti to do anything and everything, they can’t be discounted.

Would I sign Hamilton? Yes and no. I would not go over 4 years. If he’s so insistent on 5-7 years, I would give 4 guaranteed and want the option to nullify the contract immediately if he fails a drug test or is caught drinking.

The Players Association would never go for it and nor would Hamilton, so reality dictates that he would not sign with me.

Will the team that signs him regret it? If he signs a 3-4 year contract, no. If someone gives him 6-7 years at $150-175 million, they will absolutely regret it.

Prediction: Hamilton will either sign with the Orioles for 6-years or wind up back with the Rangers on a 4-year contract with a reachable incentive to get a 5th and 6th year and legal language giving the Rangers some recourse if he starts using/drinking again.

//

Blame for Bobby Valentine’s Red Sox Failure Extends Worldwide

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Bobby Valentine was fired as manager by the Boston Red Sox yesterday with approximately $2.5 million remaining on his 2-year contract. He’s taking the fall for what wasn’t simply an organizational set of problems, but for issues that extended far beyond Boston and were negatively influenced by people, perceptions, and circumstances. Valentine certainly bears a portion of the responsibility for what went wrong in his dream job that rapidly—immediately–degenerated into a nightmare, but there’s plenty to go around.

Let’s look at the map with percentages as to who’s at fault.

Boston, MA

The Red Sox were in total disarray after their collapse in September of 2011. Manager Terry Francona’s contract options were not exercised (technically he wasn’t fired, but he was fired); GM Theo Epstein left for the Cubs shortly thereafter; and the roster was essentially stagnant with owner John Henry slamming shut the vault that had bought and paid for Carl Crawford, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

They had a choice: either hire one of the names that GM Ben Cherington preferred like Gene Lamont or Dale Sveum, or do as team CEO Larry Lucchino wanted and hire the polar opposite of Francona and a big name, Valentine. Lucchino was reestablishing his power with the departure of Epstein and, as expected, got his way. This implication that had the Red Sox hired one of Cherington’s choices as manager, everything would’ve been okay, is ridiculous. The team needed structural changes on the field—changes they didn’t make. Such maneuvers would’ve been nearly impossible to construct with other clubs and sell to their fanbase and media, but they could’ve done something to break from the past by dispatching a veteran or three.

I understand why they did what they did with Valentine, but do they? Are they willing to admit it and look into the mirror? Does the Red Sox front office know what they did wrong and why it didn’t work? That it was a huge gaffe to drop Valentine into that toxic stew without altering the ingredients by getting rid of Josh Beckett over the winter? That saddling Valentine with coaches that were a sure bet to undermine him would serve nothing apart from giving the players a sympathetic ear to complain to and the media an “unnamed source” through whom the players could anonymously air their gripes? That these coaches would play clubhouse politics to expand their own influence and possibly become the manager of the team themselves?

The transformation from intelligent and comprehensive decision-making that was implemented under Epstein was gone in favor of spending on free agents and making headline-worthy trades for big names to keep up with the Yankees.

After the 2011 debacle, rather than formulating a cogent plan that may or may not have included Valentine, everyone was looking out for himself. Lucchino with his freedom from Epstein to do what he preferred and have the world know he was in charge again; Cherington going along to get along and letting Lucchino have his way; Valentine for not making sure he wasn’t surrounded by a pack of Judases; and the players for behaving as spoiled, entitled brats.

35% at fault

Arizona

I’m sure Francona, observing the Red Sox train wreck from the ESPN booth and his Arizona home, was amused and satisfied at the 69-93 record and last place in the American League East that the Red Sox “achieved”. Not to imply that Francona wanted the Red Sox to disintegrate as they did, but the implosion somehow validates that the 2011 collapse was not the fault of the former manager when, in part, it was. Francona’s lackadaisical discipline and inability to stop the breakdown of intensity; stem the rise in overwhelming arrogance; and harpoon the sense that because the Red Sox had become such a machine over the years that they were automatically anointed a spot in the post-season, made 2011 inevitable. Francona had been there too long; the team had become complacent under his leadership; and his refusal to appear at the Red Sox 100th anniversary celebration and then decision to show up in a passive-aggressive display of selfishness against Lucchino while he knew the difficulty Valentine was having only exacerbated the situation.

His looming presence as a popular and well-liked person who happened to be in the ESPN broadcasting booth shadowed Valentine and the Red Sox. The idiotic entreaties from the likes of Ken Rosenthal and now others that the Red Sox bring him back are similar to a divorced couple that splits and only remembers the good times and not the reasons they broke up in the first place.

Francona is a good, but not great manager who will do well if he has the players to win. Put him in a rebuilding project such as the Indians and he’ll revert to the, “nice guy, okay enough manager…I guess” individual he was with the Phillies when all he did was lose. He got the Red Sox job because he was willing to take short money for the opportunity, he was agreeable to Curt Schilling whom the Red Sox were trying to acquire, and he would adhere to stat-based principles and do what the front office told him. In short, he was the opposite of Grady Little. The concept that he’s more than that because he was the manager of a loaded Red Sox team is a concocted story that will be proven to be false if he does indeed go to the Indians. (I don’t think he will. He’ll wait out the Tigers/Angels/Dodgers/Diamondbacks jobs.)

12% at fault

Toronto, Canada

The Red Sox are enamored of John Farrell. They wanted him a year ago and didn’t want to surrender what the Blue Jays supposedly asked for (Clay Buchholz) in compensation for their manager. Farrell desperately wants to go back to Boston and he is the next manager of the Red Sox, for better or worse.

That the Blue Jays are willing to let him go to a division rival should be a warning sign to the Red Sox that they may not be getting the problem-solver they’re looking for. Farrell is popular with the players, beloved by the Boston media, and a conduit to the memory of when the Red Sox were a championship team. But, as the Blue Jays and their fans will attest, his in-game managerial skills are lacking and the Blue Jays were an undisciplined and haphazardly run bunch that was expected to be much better than they were in 2012. His longing gaze back at Boston and that Boston was gazing back didn’t help Valentine either.

1% at fault

Chicago, IL

From poor drafts in 2008 and onward, to overpaying for free agents nationally and internationally, the 2012 Red Sox were largely put together by the current president of the Chicago Cubs, Theo Epstein. Those are the same Cubs that lost 101 games under Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer, and the manager that Cherington preferred, Sveum. The Cubs were in need of a total overhaul and that’s what Epstein and his crew are doing, so he can’t be blamed for the monstrosity they were this season, but the 2012 Red Sox are absolutely Epstein’s responsibility. He decided to git while the gittin’ was good, but that doesn’t absolve him of the carnage that his acquisitions, signings, and failure to address lingering issues created.

Also in Chicago was Kevin Youkilis of the White Sox.

One of the seminal moments of Valentine’s downfall in Boston was his innocuous criticism of Youkilis early in the season in which he said he felt that Youkilis’s commitment was lacking. It was amazing how a presence like Youkilis, who had begun to be seen as a problematic clubhouse lawyer and divisive busybody in September of 2011, evolved into a rallying point for the Red Sox veterans to say, “See?!? Valentine’s a jerk!!”

Whatever the catalyst was of Valentine’s criticism and Youkilis’s eventual trade to the White Sox, was Valentine wrong?

The injury-prone Youkilis wasn’t hitting for the Red Sox, they had a replacement at the ready in the younger and cheaper Will Middlebrooks, and after Youkilis joined the White Sox, he was the same inconsistent, limited player he’d become for the Red Sox.

Youkilis was an outlet for strife within the Red Sox roster, but he was one of convenience.

30% at fault

Los Angeles, CA

Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Crawford were traded to the Dodgers in a salary dump that the Red Sox were beyond lucky that they were able to complete. Gonzalez was a bad fit for Boston due to his laid back West Coast personality and desire to be left alone to do his job. As the veteran leaders like David Ortiz got injured and Gonzalez was called to the forefront on and off the field, he was swallowed up, unable to come up with any legitimate, intelligent response as to why the club faltered in 2011 and was coming unglued in 2012 aside from referencing God.

Crawford tried hard, but was hurt. His deployment was a point of contention between Valentine and the front office with the random decision that he would play X number of games and get Y number of games off to account for an elbow that required Tommy John surgery.

Beckett is the epitome of the problem child bully who needed a smack, but no one in Boston willing to give him that smack. The one person that Valentine needed to come to an understanding with was Beckett. Or the Red Sox had to trade Beckett. Neither happened in time to save 2012, and when they finally traded Beckett in August, it was too late to do any good.

Is it fair to blame Beckett for not behaving as a professional and an adult when he’s never done it before in his entire career and it was up to the front office to accept that and get rid of him? Is it fair to blame Gonzalez for not being any more of a leader than he was with the twice-collapsed Padres clubs for whom he was also the centerpiece? Is it fair to blame Crawford because he was hurt?

Not really.

4% at fault

Stamford, CT

After waiting so long to get back into Major League Baseball as a manager, there has to be a sense of embarrassment for Valentine that he got the chance of a lifetime with a team that spends a lot of money and was rife with stars and that he “blew” it.

But did he blow it?

Valentine, being Valentine walked into the job with the knives already out to get him. The perception of him being a loud, arrogant, condescending, abrasive, micromanaging nuisance notwithstanding, it was up to him to get the players to take him at face value based on their dealings with him rather than dredging up old criticisms from those with an axe to grind such as John Franco, his deposed closer with the Mets.

Valentine saw how Francona became lauded and celebrated after breaking the “curse”; that it could have been him who was managing the Red Sox back in 2003 had he been willing to compromise on his principles and tell Lucchino during an informal chat that he disagreed with Little’s decision to leave Pedro Martinez in to pitch in that fateful game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. But he refused to criticize Little, wound up in Japan for several years, missed out on the Marlins and Orioles jobs and was left with one final opportunity.

Early in the season, had Valentine been the strategic wizard he was portrayed to be, then it might’ve been okay. But he was rusty having not managed in the big leagues for 10 years and in the American League for 20. In an apropos analogy considering Valentine’s bicycle spill in Central Park during the last series against the Yankees, managing is not like getting on a bicycle. Valentine tried and fell.

Valentine won’t regret taking the job, but he will regret not making a greater effort to get the veterans on his side; on not allowing coaches that he didn’t want and were likely to be undermining influences to be on his staff; and for not making a greater effort to dispel the aura than he carried around with him. Making the effort could have helped. Telling Beckett and others, “Listen, I’m sure you’ve heard all the stories about me. Some are true, some aren’t. But I was in my 40s then. I’m 62 now. This is my last chance. I know it, you know it. I wanna win. You guys wanna forget about what happened last year. Let’s work together to make it happen.”

Beckett would probably have still acted the way he did (and does), but Valentine could say he tried.

This was Valentine’s last shot. There are two strategies to take when facing a last shot: 1) go for the deep strike and say, “If I’m going down, I’m going down my way,” and make sure you’re comfortable with everything for better or worse; or 2) be conciliatory and agreeable, hoping it works out based on talent level and available money.

Valentine chose the latter with the results we see. He bears a significant portion of the responsibility and was jettisoned, but this was a combined effort from all over the map and top to bottom. No one should be spared from their part in the horror film that is the 2012 Boston Red Sox.

18% at fault

//

Bobby Valentine—Sympathetic Figure?

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The Red Sox have done the impossible. They’ve made Bobby Valentine, one of the most polarizing people in baseball this side of Barry Bonds, into a sympathetic figure.

Valentine has not done a great job with the Red Sox this season, but, in an appropriate analogy, he walked in to the clubhouse trussed like a chicken about to be placed on the spit ready for the rotisserie. And rotisserie them they have.

As soon as he was hired it started with players complaining about him without even knowing him or considering that he might have mellowed from his time as Mets’ manager. It was never entertained that the players themselves were the ones who forced the club into dumping the laissez-faire Terry Francona and set the foundation for the hiring of Valentine.

Has Valentine mellowed? We don’t know because he was on the defensive immediately and instead of preparing to run the team, was spending much of his time negotiating the landmine-strewn clubhouse and having anything and everything he said and did turned into “evidence” that Valentine was still Valentine and the baggage he carts around like an unwanted appendage would sabotage his tenure before it began. If anything, he was being marinated for the roasting he’s experiencing now.

It does appear that the 10 years away from MLB and the 20 years away from managing in the American League have negatively affected his well-known (and self-pronounced) strategic wizardry. The game’s changed from the time Valentine last managed. With his reputation as a paranoid micromanager and cold, callous, vindictive personality combining with a spoiled clubhouse of enabled stars who feel entitled (Josh Beckett) or just want to be left alone (Adrian Gonzalez) among other self-involved people from the top of the Red Sox structure to the bottom, this arranged and forced marriage was doomed from the start. The excuses and lukewarm defenses aside, no one wants to hear Larry Lucchino blaming the “jaded and cynical media” for the club’s poor performance and unprofessional behaviors on and off the field.

What we’ve learned is that you can’t just pull in the reins and expect the new rules to be taken at face value without resistance from certain quarters. The players were allowed to do what they wanted as long as they won and if that meant the starting pitchers not pitching that day sat in the clubhouse eating and drinking beer, so be it. That type of activity isn’t isolated. Starting pitchers not pitching that day are pretty much left to their own devices (within reason) everywhere; Steve Carlton used to go in the clubhouse and sleep, for example. The Red Sox lost and Francona was blamed, so it became a “reason” when it really wasn’t. It didn’t matter when they won, so why should it matter when they lost?

The lack of discipline under Francona was actually an attractive aspect of the club as they were left to its own devices. “This guy will leave you alone and let you do your job.” When that was the case, it was a positive. When they began losing and Francona’s way was seen as a detriment, the players were essentially told, “You can’t behave when we treat you like adults, okay then, deal with Valentine.” But you can’t discipline the undisciplinable. Much like the strength and conditioning coaches—since dismissed in a purge—couldn’t force the likes of Beckett and John Lackey to adhere to a physical fitness program, what precisely was Valentine (or Lucchino or owner John Henry) supposed to do to stop the freefall that began long before Valentine arrived?

Injuries? Injuries happen when players are older and are no longer able to use *special means* to stay on the field; when they’re unwilling to take the extra steps to make sure they’re in shape to play every single day. Beckett and Jon Lester have pitched poorly and if they’d pitched as they have in the past, the Red Sox would be close to first place? You can look at any team that’s underachieving and find a reasons such as that. Or you can look at a team that’s playing well and wonder where they’d be if X player was doing Y. It’s a loser’s lament.

Joel Sherman, adhering to his daily template of baseball ignorant idiocy, suggests the Red Sox consider hiring Jason Varitek as the new manager in the event that Valentine is dismissed. The basis of this is that first time managers such as Robin Ventura, Mike Matheny and Don Mattingly have done well in their rookie managing seasons and that Varitek knows the terrain in Boston and is “respected” in the clubhouse. It’s a logical fallacy to think that because the new managers are doing well in the standings, then it would also work for the Red Sox. It’s also ignorant of the Red Sox issues as they stand now. Since they didn’t listen to Varitek in his waning days as a player and captain of the team (and was out-of-shape himself), it’s foolish to assume that they’re going to listen to him as manager.

The Red Sox want John Farrell? Is he going to fix things? The Blue Jays are again underachieving under Farrell and haven’t overcome similar injuries to those that have befallen the Red Sox. Even if Farrell is respected by the players and media, his strategic calls as Blue Jays’ manager haven’t been particularly impressive and it’s possible that the Blue Jays will be willing to part with him—if that’s the case, then buyer beware. My first question if the Blue Jays are open to letting him go (to a division rival no less!) would be to ask why.

Both Varitek and Farrell are examples of clinging to the past, placating the tantrum-throwing players and media, and haphazardly plastering over fundamental problems that have to be repaired correctly in order to move forward. They’re chasing championships as they did when they were legitimate contenders, but now they’re only speeding their descent and postponing the inevitable.

Buster Olney implies that the turmoil surrounding the Red Sox will prevent free agents from wanting to enter the cauldron. This is why it’s nonsensical to look at teams that are having issues and call them a permanent wasteland where players won’t want to go. It was only a year and a half ago when players wanted to go to the Red Sox because they paid well and the team had a chance to win. They were controversial and a target of media scrutiny, but it wasn’t as perceptively negative as it is now. Of course players aren’t going to want to go there when they have options.

It’s not about Valentine. This is going to get progressively worse unless the Red Sox make substantial changes to the clubhouse and I don’t mean in the manager’s office. It’s the players. Not the manager. And if anyone from Francona to Farrell to Varitek to Whitey Herzog, Dick Williams, John McGraw or Walter Alston were managing this group, they wouldn’t be any better than they are now.

If I were Valentine, I’d be keeping a diary of this season for a book because, barring a miracle, he’s not going to be back in 2013 to fulfill the second year of his contract and he can make a significant amount of money telling the world exactly what’s going on in that clubhouse and disintegrating organization. He can call it “Fifty Shades of Red” and refer to the players’ eyes from crying; the fans’ faces at their anger; the media’s fire stoking; the front office’s embarrassment; and the bloodletting that’s most assuredly on its way.

//

Your Alternate Red Sox Universe

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You’ve all heard and read about the Red Sox players running to ownership to complain about Bobby Valentine. Analysis of this is rampant, but I’m going to do something different. Let’s say that Terry Francona wasn’t forced out and as a corollary to that decision, Theo Epstein stayed on as GM to fulfill the final year of his contract. What would the Red Sox look like right now without Valentine as manager; without Ben Cherington in this no-win situation and having his power usurped by Larry Lucchino; without the moves they made to patch over holes while keeping the foundation of the team intact?

Epstein said that his future with the Red Sox was tied to Francona. Epstein was entering the final year of his contract and, in a benevolently arrogant Theo way, would’ve done the Red Sox a favor and stayed under those terms contingent on Francona being retained as manager.

I think Francona wanted freedom from the out-of-control nuthouse and expectations the Red Sox had become. I think his desire to leave was due to his physical and mental health. What had once been appreciated was no longer so; in a state of World Series win or bust, there’s no enjoyment, only relief in winning or devastation in losing. Francona had had it.

I also think Epstein wanted out. Whether it was to escape the pressure of his hometown and the victories that had turned into a burden or that he wanted a new challenge, he needed to move on. Both achieved their ends. Francona is able to sit in an ESPN booth and luxuriate in the accolades of what he presided over and be absolved of the blame for the lack of discipline, overt disrespect, poor play, and questionable decisions that led to the 2011 collapse and set the stage for the exodus.

Is it something new for voices in the Red Sox organization to unload on employees who’ve departed by choice or by force? They did it with Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Johnny Damon, and now Francona. This offended the players? It’s par for the course. They ripped David Ortiz and Jason Varitek before both decided to stay. In 2005 Epstein left in a power grabbing snit and came back. It’s the way things go in Boston. The “grand returns as beloved conquering heroes” for these star players as if there was no bad blood is inherent and hypocritical. It’s not going to change.

Would the 2012 team be different with Epstein and Francona? Would Josh Beckett be pitching better? Would Jon Lester? Would they have moved forward with Kevin Youkilis?

Considering how he views the closer role as easily replaceable, I can tell you now that Epstein would not have traded Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey. Epstein would also have blunted Lucchino’s incursion into the baseball operations. But it was Epstein who put together the 2011 team. It was Epstein who paid over $100 million for Daisuke Matsuzaka; signed Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Bobby Jenks. Most of the roster and the players who are underperforming and throwing tantrums were brought in by Epstein. It was Francona who let the players run roughshod over all propriety and behave as if they were entitled to do whatever they wanted just because. To think that the club would be better now if Francona and Epstein had stayed is ignoring the fundamental issues that caused the 2011 collapse in the first place.

Both Epstein and Francona can feel badly for players they have affinity for and who played hard for them like Dustin Pedroia, but privately don’t you think they’re wallowing in what the Red Sox are going through now? Loving it? Sitting there with smug half-smiles as they’ve moved along and their former organization is teetering on the brink of revolution?

The Red Sox are 57-60 and are not making the playoffs. It would be the same circumstances with different actors in the drama if Epstein and Francona had stayed. If that had happened, Epstein’s expiring contract would be the hot topic of discussion and those who are looking back on Francona’s tenure with the remembrances of a long-lost love would’ve called for his head in May and the Red Sox would’ve had no choice but to fire him. Do you think the players would’ve defended him? Or, just as they leaked the meeting with ownership regarding Valentine, would they be privately saying that the clubhouse had tuned Francona out and a change needed to be made?

This is not a good team. Valentine has brought on many of the problems himself because of who and how he is, but the players were ready to mutiny the second he was hired before even talking to him and it was all based on reputation. He was a bad choice to patch over the holes that led to the massive changes, but it was either make structural changes to the personnel or put a Band-Aid on them and try to find someone who they felt would handle the stat-studded roster they were stuck with. It hasn’t worked, but they wouldn’t be in a better position with Francona; with Gene Lamont; with Dale Sveum; with John Farrell; with anyone.

The issue of the players failing to look in the mirror and accepting that they’re part of the problem still remains sans Francona and Epstein and with Valentine targeted for elimination. Beckett refused to take responsibility for being out of shape, arrogant and selfish last season and the same issues are in play now. Adrian Gonzalez’s looking toward the heavens and referencing God’s plan at the conclusion of 2011 along with him having been the star player for three teams that have collapsed and his whining about Valentine are validating the perception that he’s not a leader and has a preference to being a background player rather than the out-front star.

Is Valentine to blame for Beckett? For Lester? For Daniel Bard? For Crawford?

No. But he’s the scapegoat.

Red Sox ownership is going to have to confront these hard truths. Yes, they can fire Valentine and install whomever as the new manager, but is that going to fix things? Will the players suddenly rediscover a work ethic that’s sorely lacking? And if Pedroia is so hell-bent on winning and doing things the “right” way, why didn’t he confront the players who were clearly acting in a manner that was diametrically opposed to winning and was affecting the team negatively last September?

The team doesn’t need a new manager. It needs a mirror. A big one.

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American League Ticking Tempers Of Ownership

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Let’s take a look at some American League teams that have unexpectedly struggled or made ghastly blunders that would normally elicit a reaction from ownerships.

New York Yankees

Does ownership have a right to be upset?

Yes.

In yesterday’s NY Daily News, Bill Madden wrote what I’d been thinking about a George Steinbrenner missive being issued following Michael Pineda’s injury.

I’m not going to give Cashman as hard a time as others did for letting Bartolo Colon go and keeping Freddy Garcia—neither could’ve been expected to replicate anything close to what they did last season—but his other pitching mishaps have been horrific. As much of a joke as Steinbrenner was for his instantaneous and combustible temper tantrums, many times he had a right to be angry.

Beyond Cashman, if the Boss was still around, Larry Rothschild would be in the crosshairs for what’s gone wrong with Phil Hughes.

I’m wondering that myself.

What should be done?

There’s really not much they can do. Having already bounced Garcia from the rotation in favor of David Phelps, Hughes has to improve or he’ll be in the bullpen or minor leagues when Andy Pettitte is set to return to the majors.

What will be done?

Hal Steinbrenner will be secretive and deliberate; Hank will be kept away from the telephone. Cashman will continue to spin doctor and “take responsibility” by saying how “devastated” he is about Pineda.

Devastated? Really?

Garcia will be kept around just in case and Hughes is going to wind up being sent to the minors.

The Boss would’ve made Cashman take responsibility in a way consistent with what Madden suggested and he wouldn’t have been out of line in doing so.

Boston Red Sox

Does ownership have a right to be upset?

Yes, as long as they have a mirror nearby.

The best things that could’ve happened to the Red Sox were the Sunday night rainout of the game against the Yankees and going on the road to play the bad Twins and mediocre White Sox. The ship has been righted to a certain degree.

For all the love doled out to departed GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, ownership—John Henry and team president Larry Lucchino—have been left to clean up the mess. Regardless of what you think of Lucchino’s insinuating himself into the baseball operations as he has, you can’t absolve Epstein and Francona. Epstein saddled the club with the contracts of John Lackey and Carl Crawford; Francona’s lax discipline as manager and passive aggressiveness from the broadcast booth as the team spiraled out of the gate gave a sense of the former manager exacting revenge on the franchise that gave him a job with a team ready-built for success when no one else would’ve.

What should be done?

A desperate trade would only make matters worse. There’s no one to fire. They have to wait and hope. Making a final decision with Daniel Bard and sticking to it would end speculation on the pitcher’s role.

What will be done?

They’ll wait it out. Had they continued losing following the series against the Yankees, they might’ve done something drastic like firing Bobby Valentine even though it’s not all his fault. Their winning streak has given them breathing room.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Does ownership have a right to be upset?

Very.

Arte Moreno has been a great owner. He’s let his baseball people run the club and hasn’t interfered. They have everything they ask for and more.

This past winter, he spent an uncharacteristic amount of money to address the offensive woes from 2011 with Albert Pujols and traded for Chris Iannetta.

The bullpen’s missteps have been magnified because set-up man Hisanori Takahashi and closer Jordan Walden have been horrible.

That’s not to say they’d be that much better with a more proven closer than the deposed Walden. In retrospect, they were lucky they didn’t sign Ryan Madson or trade for Andrew Bailey.

Their biggest problem has been at the plate.

When an owner throws that amount of guaranteed money at his roster, he has a right to expect more than 7-15 and 9 games out of first place before April is over.

What should be done?

The Angels released Bobby Abreu on Friday and recalled Mike Trout. They demoted Walden from the closer’s role in favor of Scott Downs.

Apart from waiting for Pujols to start hitting and perhaps dumping Vernon Wells, there’s little else of note they can try.

What will be done?

If Moreno were a capricious, “blame someone for the sake of blaming them” type, hitting coach Mickey Hatcher and bullpen coach Steve Soliz would have been fired a week ago and perhaps first base coach Alfredo Griffin for good measure.

He’s not a quick trigger owner, but if they’re not hitting by mid-May, Hatcher’s gone. This could expose a rift between manager Mike Scioscia and the front office. Scioscia’s influence has been compromised with the hiring of Jerry Dipoto and if one of his handpicked coaches and friends is fired, a true chasm will be evident. Firings will be shots across the bow of Scioscia and, armed with a contract through 2018 (that he can opt-out of after 2015), if he’s unhappy with the changes he’ll let his feelings be known.

It could get ugly.

As of right now, they’ll see if the jettisoning of Abreu, the insertion of Trout and the new closer will help. With Moreno, they have more time than most clubs would, but that doesn’t mean they have forever.

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The National League will be posted later and yes, that does mean I’ll be talking about the Marlins.

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