Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Sunday, October 09, 2005

WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR

Once again, the battle cry is raised. Wait until next year! The triumph of 2004 makes the disappointment of this year so much easier to deal with. Remember the sting of 2003? This is nothing like that. Back then the Sox went further and had greater, though reasonable, expectations. Back then, they had a guy named Pedro.

But the 2005 version of the Boston Red Sox may have done as well as any of us could've realistically expected them to. During the off season they lost Pedro Martinez, arguably the best pitcher of his generation, and a bona fide first ballot Hall of Famer. And from the outset they were missing the customary Curt Schilling, the big game pitcher that Major League Baseball has come to know over the course of the past decade. Two number one pitchers were gone from the start. They also lost Derek Lowe who, though inconsistent, proved his value in big games during the 2004 World Series run. In their place the Sox signed Matt Clement, David Wells, and Wade Miller. We were all a hopeful bunch, and we thought they'd make up the slack. That was simply a case of optimism overcoming pragmatism.

Once again, Clement faded down the stretch, just as he'd done the year before in Chicago. After starting 10-1 with a 3.33 ERA, which earned him an All Star spot, Clement proceeded to fall apart in the season's second half, managing only a 3-4 record and a 5.72 ERA. In two previous post-season starts prior to this year, Clement had wilted under pressure in one of them. And true to form, he did so again this year, going just 3 1/3 innings while yielding 8 earned runs in Game 1 against the White Sox.

Clement was simply the victim of overly optimistic and highly unrealistic expectations. He was, and still is, nothing more than a competent number three starter. Pedro's shoes he will never fill. Yet the Sox committed more than $25 million over three years to him. If he'd simply been expected to solidify the middle of the order, then by that account he would have been acceptable. But he was forced into the position of being a number one or number two starter, and 13 wins and an ERA of more than four-and-a-half just doesn't cut it at that price.

David Wells is 42 and will require off-season knee surgery. Wells battled admirably, dealing with knee and foot injuries, but his best years are clearly behind him. Sure, he can still pitch at the Big League level, but just not like he used to. He deserved better than what he got in Game 2 (in the form of Tony Graffanino's error), but his effort just wasn't enough. Wells still possesses remarkable control, having walked just 21 batters all year - by far the fewest of any Red Sox starter who pitched as many innings. While he's considering hanging up his cleats and finally retiring, Theo Epstien has said he'd like to have Wells back next year.

The problem is that the Sox are in desperate need of a few changes in the rotation this off season, and they particularly need to get younger. Come Opening Day, Arroyo will be 29, Clement 31, Schilling 39, Wakefield 39, and Wells 42. They have no idea if Schilling will ever return to form, and in the absence of that they have neither a number one, nor a number two pitcher. At best, they have a bunch of threes and fours. Johnny Damon stated the obvious when he said, ''We didn't really have a No. 1 starter all year, or even a No. 2." As we've seen, that won't win a Pennant, much less a World Series. This group didn't get it done and changes are clearly needed.

The question is, where will the changes begin? All of these pitchers are still under contract, and none of them has great trade value at this point. The team would like to let both Schilling and Wakefield retire as Red Sox, and both of them deserve that honor considering their contributions to the club.

Bronson Arroyo, the club's youngest starter, led the team with 20 quality starts. After making $1.85 million this year, he is arbitration eligible and will surely get a raise. But he'll still come comparatively cheap. After pitching over 200 innings this year without injury, while earning 14 victories, Arroyo has proven that he is a quality number four or five starter.

Jon Papelbon proved that he's is worthy of a spot in the rotation, and he'd certainly help the staff get younger. But that's just one change for a staff that needs at least two. Assuming he takes Wells spot in the rotation, the Sox will come back with essentially the same group that wasn't good enough this year. The answer might be to see what value Clement has on the open market. He might be the only valuable bait in a rotation that needs to be remade.

Management could make a run at free agent A.J. Burnett, but his final month skid, coupled with his loud mouth, may have depreciated his value. Both he and his agent have acknowledged as much. The rest of the free agent market is said to be thin, so a trade may be in order. An opening day rotation of Schilling, Papelbon, Clement, Wakefield, and Arroyo (in that order) likely won't get it done.

Then there's the issue of the bullpen. The Sox pen had the American League's worst ERA (5.19). Of the seven pitchers sitting in the pen on Opening Day, only Mike Timlin and Mike Myers remained at season's end. The 39-year-old Timlin made a team-record, and league-leading, 81 appearances this year. He's now pitched more than 1,000 innings in career. He'd still make a quality set-up man next year, but at this point he's not a top flight closer.

With an ERA of 3 in non-save chances this year, and an ERA of 10 in save opportunities, I've always believed that Keith Foulke's troubles were more mental than physical. Why he was mentally tougher in 2004 we'll never know. But with public comments like "I never asked to be the closer", Foulke sounds pathetic, weak, and out of touch with reality. He's due $7.5 million next season, with player and team options for 2007. Yet the team may explore the possibility dealing him. He's now had surgery on both knees and that, coupled with his lackluster performance this year, will surely hurt his value. Craig Hansen and Manny Del Carmen will surely get opportunities to prove themselves for an entire season. By that virtue alone, the pen will get younger, and less experienced.

Prior to the ALDS, the Sox hadn't lost three straight games since July 16-18 (two to the Yankees and one to Tampa Bay), and had been swept in only one three-game series all season, in May against Toronto.

But pitching aside, the three-game Division Series sweep at the hands of the White Sox revealed another fatal flaw. The Red Sox were outscored 24-9 in the three games, and as had been the case too many times during the regular season, the team relied too heavily - almost exclusively - on David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez to carry them.

The Sox became the first team since 1951-54 Brooklyn Dodgers to lead the majors in runs for three consecutive seasons, and became the first American League team since the 1936-39 Yankees to score at least 900 runs in at least three consecutive seasons. They knocked in 910 this year, and Ortiz and Ramirez were responsible for nearly a third of them (292 RBI). That's what you'd call a very unbalanced attack. After Ramirez's 45 home runs, the next closest player had less than half that total - Varitek with 22 - and after that it fell of by almost half again to Nixon's 13 homers. There was no parity. After Ortiz's and Ramirez's totals of 148 and 144 RBi respectively, the next closest player was Damon with 75, and he's the leadoff hitter. Those issues need to be addressed if the team hopes to win another World Series title.

There is talk that the club may try to move Ramirez and the $58 million he's owed over the next three years. The size of that contract will limit the number of suitors, as could the concern about his attitude. The Sox will have a lot of difficulty in finding equal value in a trade for him, and could end up eating some of the contract. That said, Ramirez is a 10-5 player (10 years of service, five consecutive with the same club) and can veto any trade.

Manny may complain about the media attention and fan scrutiny in Boston, but he's a beloved figure in the city. He plays for an organization that has shown a commitment to winning, so let's hope that he doesn't seek a trade. If he's really looking into signing on with Scott Boras, that would indicate he wants out, but most teams don't like to deal with the hard-nosed agent.

As for the Sox, why would they ever seek to break up up the modern day equivalent of Ruth/Gehrig. Red Sox fans have become accustomed to the fairy tale combo, the likes of which we may never see again in our lifetimes. Barring injury or retirement, who in their right mind would willingly break them up? It's almost unimaginable. They not only add punch to the lineup, but cache as well. They increase interest from free agents who might like to play in Boston, like Johnny Damon for instance.

Will Damon come back and play for Boston next year? That's the question on the mind's of many Sox fans now that the season has come to a sudden end. By all indications, Damon hopes to return to the Sox. Reflecting on his four seasons with the team he said, ''I fell in love with Boston."

"It's been amazing. The players, the city, how the city loves us. It was different from the moment I became a Red Sox. The joy of the game and the way it's respected. You're proud to wear a Red Sox uniform, you play hard and the fans like that.''

Speaking of the virtues of playing at Fenway, Damon said, ''It's pretty magical. The fact is, you go out there and play hard and the fans always respect that, they cheer you. They welcome the Red Sox into their homes every single night. You just don't do that. Boston fans, from kids to grandparents and housewives, we're a part of their family. That they welcome us like that is pretty awesome."

The Sox have genuine concerns about the state of Damon's right shoulder, and his lack of power and accuracy from the outfield was a real liability. It was so bad that a Tampa player scored from second on a sacrifice fly to center. I'd never even heard of such a thing before. They're also concerned about the size and length of the contract that Damon will be seeking. Management doesn't want to get into a five-year deal with a 32-year-old outfielder who has a bum shoulder.

But this year, just as last year, Damon was the straw that stirred the Red Sox drink. He was the table setter who was seemingly always on base for Ortiz and Ramirez. In fact, he scored 117 times, good for fourth in the AL.

Though Damon says he'd like to return, he has his own concerns. "There are some issues we need to look at," he said. ''Manny being here is very important. Francona being here is very important. And I can't imagine this team without Mike Timlin on the mound. He is the backbone of our pitching staff, the one guy who was solid all the time. And Bill Mueller, you can't get a guy like that for that kind of money anywhere. No one can understand how great a player he is until they see him for 162 games. He is, to me, the prototypical ballplayer."

Mueller coming back may be asking too much. The Sox may offer him arbitration, but it's more likely that they'll finally give Kevin Youkilis his turn. Youk is 27, he's cheap, and it's just time. He can't continue to ride the bench or get sent back and forth between Boston and Pawtuckett indefinitely. Mueller will be 35 at the start of the season, so it's about age as much as it's about money.

Tony Graffanino was the best in-season pick-up, and despite his Game 3 error, played solid defense for the Sox while hitting over .300. But the Dustin Pedroia era may be about to begin, and Graffaninio could be squeezed out. That would be unfortunate. Like many Sox fans, I'd love to see Tony return. He was a great presence both on and off the field.

The Sox may be saddled with Error Renteria's ridiculous contract. Renteria simply didn't earn his pay this year after leading the majors with a career high 30 errors. And he never made up for his defensive failures at the plate either. Worst of all, his contract has thrown out of whack all other contract values in this off-season negotiating period. What's Damon worth now? ER will surely get an encore next year, if only because his value has slipped. Everyone knows he's not worth the money. But it's also because Hanley Ramirez doesn't yet appear ready for the Bigs.

There will surely be a change at first. Kevin Millar is out, Aubrey Huff could be in. Hopefully the Sox will offer, and John Olerud accept, an offer to be the backup first baseman. A real professional, he's one of the truly good guys in baseball. Olerud proved he can still hit and field, but it's hard to say if any team will offer the 37-year-old a better opportunity as a starter.

That leaves right field. Trot Nixon is the longest tenured position player on the Sox roster, having come up through their farm system. The team values that, just as they value his hard-nosed style of play, and quiet, determined demeanor. Nixon never mouths off or causes any off-field distractions. He's another true professional who works hard at everything he does. The fans and his teammates value him and his blue-collar work ethic.

Nixon averaged 145 games, 26 home runs, and 90 RBIs from 2001 to 2003. But like last year, this season was another disappointment. In 127 games (104 starts), he hit .275, with 13 home runs, and 67 RBIs. After missing a month with a strained oblique muscle, he struggled upon his return. Dealing with nagging injuries, over the last two seasons, he's played in a total of only 172 games, hitting 19 home runs and driving in 90 runs. And it may be difficult for the club to justify having a starting outfielder who has difficulty hitting lefties, and has to platoon on those occasions.

This year, the Sox had a total power outage at positions from which they should have been getting some significant output; first, third, and right field. First and third will be addressed, but the question remains in right. Hopefully Nixon will return to the player he was between 2001-2003. Though he'll only be 32 next year, it's also possible that his injuries have gotten the best of him and he's now a fading player who's been relegated to a shadow of his former self. Let's hope not.

So management has their work cut out for them, not the least of which is resigning Theo Epstein and Terry Francona. There is a rotation and a bullpen to remake, infield and outfield positions to be determined, and free agents to be signed. One thing that the ownership should know for certain, and never take for granted; Red Sox Nation has come to expect an exceptional team to take the field each Spring. Nothing less will do. The fans expect a team that will compete, and that will win. A high calibre team has become the norm at Fenway, and it can't be done on the cheap. The Sox have finished in second place behind the Yankees for eight consecutive seasons, and it's unlikely that the Bombers will start dumping payroll in any significant manner.

The Sox established a home attendance record for the third consecutive season, drawing 2,8847,888 fans. The team joined the Indians (1996-2000) as the only team ever to sell out all 81 games in consecutive seasons. The fans have proven their dedication time and time again, for many years. And the Sox keep putting a good product on the field.

The Sox won at least 95 games in each of the last three seasons for the first time in team history. They finished the season 54-27 (.667) at Fenway, clinching the best home record in all of baseball for the first time since 1978, when they compiled a .720 winning percentage (59-23).

Let's hope this sort of synergy continues, and that next year results in an ending like 2004, instead of one like this year.

Copyright © 2005 Kennedy's Commentary. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

2 comments:

Emily Santiago said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Askinstoo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.