Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Monday, October 31, 2005

THEO WALKS

Rather than share authority on baseball decisions with, much less defer to, team President Larry Luchino, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein surprised the baseball world with his sudden resignation today.

Losing Epstein may or may not be a blow to the Sox in the long run - time will tell - but losing their GM right at the start of the free agency period could prove to be disastrous.

The contracts of Johnny Damon and possibly Bill Mueller, John Olerud and Mike Meyers have yet to be negotiated, not to mention those of the outside players the Sox will turn to in an effort to fill holes in their pitching staff as well as first base.

To have rejected a three-year deal worth $1.5 million per year, Epstein was clearly concerned about issues other than money. The offer would have made him one of the most highly compensated GM's in baseball. After initially declining offers of $850,000 and $1.2 million per year, it seemed that the most recent Sox offer would seal the deal. No such luck.

According to Curt Schilling, Theo's departure won't go over well in the clubhouse. "It's obviously going to be an incredibly unpopular decision with the players."

Look for Padres GM Kevin Towers, and old friend and confidant of Larry Luchino's from his San Diego days, to replace Epstein. Towers has been unhappy with his lack of authority in the Padres organization - sound familiar? - and is looking for a change. He interviewed for the Diamondbacks GM spot, which was recently assumed by Epstein’s top assistant, Josh Byrnes.

Whoever the Sox choose to replace Epstein, they will likely move quickly to fill that vacancy. There is no time to waste. Most free agent deals will be consummated by the end of November, which doesn't leave the club much time to act. So the timing of Epstein's announcement could hardly have come at a less opportune moment.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

MONEY TALKS

Will the Red Sox give Johnny D. the contract he desires? Considering that $20M is earmarked for Manny, $13M for Schilling, $10M each for Renteria and Varitek, $8M for Clement, $7M for Foulke, $6.5M each for Ortiz, and Nixon, the Sox have $81M committed to just seven players, and if they give Damon a contact worth only $10M per season, that's $91M going to eight players on a 25 man roster. They'll still have 17 other players to pay.

It's conceivable that the Sox might chose a less expensive option like Torri Hunter or Juan Pierre in center for the short term, while Jacoby Ellsbury, David Murphy, and Brandon Moss continue developing in the minors.

Damon wants to return, saying that he fell in love with Boston and it's fans, but he is in his prime and this will be the last long-term, big-money contract he'll ever sign. With that in mind, he wants to get paid - big time.

One important consideration that Damon should, and likely will, keep in mind are his marketing opportunities as a member of the Red Sox. Boston is a large market where Damon has become a sort of folk hero. He's had numerous endorsement deals in Boston that he wouldn't have gotten elsewhere. New York and LA are filled with stars - athletes being just one of a variety. Damon is a standout in Boston, and not simply one among many. Those endorsement and marketing deals as a member of the Red Sox will push his earning potential upward by millions of dollars over the life of the contract. And playing for such a consistently competitive team with such a large national following also gives Damon tremendous national marketability that he wouldn't receive in many other cities throughout the country. That creates a peripheral, or even integrated value that is worthy of consideration.

There's a good chance that we'll have our answers within a month, or certainly by Thanksgiving. If Damon and the Sox can reach a mutually satisfying agreement, then everyone will have something to give thanks for.

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

LET THE CHANGES BEGIN

The Red Sox season both began and ended with pitching problems. They had all the offense in the world, but what they lacked was first rate patching to back it up. Without the necessary changes to the starting rotation this off-season, the Red Sox will be on vacation again at this time next year.

In 2005, the Red Sox led the league in runs (910), team batting (.281), hits (1,579), doubles (339), walks (653), on-base percentage (.357), and on-base-plus slugging percentage (.811). Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz accounted for nearly a third of the runs scored by themselves. Even so, the Red Sox were bounced by Chicago's American League entrant in the first round of the playoffs.

The Red Sox relied too heavily on Ramirez, Ortiz, and their offense in general, to win games. The Sox came from behind to win 46 times in 2005, tying Cleveland for most comeback wins in the majors. Six times they overcame a deficit of four or more runs to win. Essentially, half of their wins were come from behind. The point is that their pitching often let them down and didn't keep them in games. The offense had to bail them out all too often.

The Red Sox pitching staff registered a 4.74 ERA this season, 11th in the AL. And their bullpen ranked last in the league with a 5.15 ERA - but that's another story, for another entry. The White Sox and Angels, the two teams that battled for the AL Pennant, shared the best ERA in the league, 3.75. Coincidence? Nope.

Of the 35 World Series winners since 1969, 26 had pitching ranked in the top three in the league. If the Sox want to get back to the World Series and win again, they need to improve their pitching staff, as well as their bullpen. Losing Pedro Martinez was a huge blow that the Sox didn't prepare well enough for, or recover from. Matt Clement, David Wells, and Wade MIller could not replace Pedro and Curt. They couldn't even soften the blow.

With an Opening Day average age of 36, the starting rotation clearly needs to get younger. Age and experience are important to a staff, and for those reasons, as well as for their service to the club, pencil in Curt Schilling (39 on Opening Day) and Tim Wakefield (39) for two spots in the 2006 rotation. Jonathan (don't call me Jon!) Papelbon, who will be just 25 next year, has also earned himself a spot. Wells, big game experience aside, has seen his best years come and go. Boomer, who turns 43 in May, gave the Sox a good effort every time out, but this rotation needs changes and he is the odd man out. The Sox cannot enter next season with three 40ish pitchers in their starting rotation.

That leaves Bronson Arroyo and Matt Clement; the two youngest, healthiest and therefore most tradable assets. The free agent market is thin, so a trade may be in order. And the team will likely have to give up something if they expect to get something good in return. Clement's contract, and tendency to falter in the second half, will hurt his value. But the Sox have to do something. At just 28, and after leading the club with 20 quality starts, Arroyo may have more value. The six starters from the 2005 squad - Wade Miller included - couldn't, and will not, get it done. They will not return the Sox to the promised land that is the World Series. Aside from Papelbon, the rotation still needs one other new arm.

If the Sox do go the free agency route, Kevin Millwood will garner consideration. Millwood's 2.86 ERA led the the American League. What's more, he'll be just 31 at the start of the season. Jarrod Washburn posted an impressive 3.20 ERA, also particularly good for the AL, and far better than any Red Sox starter this year. Matt Morris will be 30 next year, and his considerable post-season experience (14 appearances) might interest the Sox brass. The Giants won't let Jason Schmidt get away, and Kenny Rogers and Jeff Weaver aren't worth whatever they'll be asking for.

That leaves A.J. Burnett, the man the Red Sox considered trading for at the All-Star break, and would have pulled the trigger on if Mike Lowell and his ridiculous contract weren't part of the equation. Burnett is expected to be the most sought after free agent starter, which is odd considering that he's a game under .500 for his career (49-50). At least he consistent; he went 12-12 this year. Another major concern is the fact that Burnett had Tommy John surgery and missed a lot of action as a result. His 3.44 ERA, while respectable, would likely jump with a transition to the AL. Still, it was considerably better than the Sox best pitcher this year, Tim Wakefield, and his 4.15 ERA.

Changes must be made for the Sox to succeed. Who knows how much Schilling still has in his tank? His gutsy 2004 post-season performances may have jeopardized his future. It certainly jeopardized his performance this season, resulting in the highest ERA (5.69) he's posted since the '88-'89 seasons in Baltimore. At the time he was a kid who made a mere five starts, and a total of just nine appearances during that span. He was young, he was green, unseasoned and untested. Soon after, Schilling established himself as one of the better pitchers of his generation, posting a 2.85 ERA over the course of his next 15 seasons. Then there was this year. We can only hope, if ever so cautiously, that he will be more like the old Curt - the one who reigned from 1990-2004. But we can't count on it. Age and injury may have taken their toll. Let's hope the Sox don't naively count on him as much next year as they did in this year. At this point, all bets are off.

The Sox have plenty of depth at the back end of the rotation,. They have a number of guys who'd make great 3,4 and 5 starters. As of now, they have no ace, and no number two either. David Wells (4.45 ERA), Bronson Arroyo (4.51 ERA), and Matt Clement (4.57 ERA) could not fill out the front three spots in the rotation, and until that is addressed, the Sox won't see another World Series title for a while. And we waited long enough for the last one.

Let's just hope they address their pitching deficiencies in a more meaningful way this winter than they did last year. If they do, and they keep the heart of their offense intact while making improvements at the corners, we may just be watching the right kind of Sox in next year's World Series.

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

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.