Thursday, December 22, 2005

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Is now the winter of my baseball discontent?

When my New York Yankee-loving brother starts posting random comments goading me to blog about baseball, you know it's not a good sign for the Boston Red Sox.

Indeed, Johnny Damon's decision to join the Yankees has prompted quite the media backlash against the performace of Red Sox management since Theo Epstein's departure as GM. One commenter on Jacob Luft's blog put it well:

So right now, the Sox have four guys who played second last year (Graffanino, Loretta, Cora and Pedroia) and three guys who played third (Lowell, Youkilis, and Marte); no real first baseman, no clear shortstop, no center fielder, a disgruntled left fielder and no leadoff hitter.
The New York Daily News' Bill Madden sounds a similar theme:
[A]s of now, [the Red Sox] have no center fielder, no shortstop, no first baseman, no bona fide closer and seemingly no game plan.

On paper anyway, there's been another seismic shift of power in the American League East with the Yankees adding the prototypical leadoff man they haven't had since Chuck Knoblauch in their last world championship season in 2000, and the Red Sox subtracting another pillar from their only world championship team since 1918.

Lest you think the criticism is coming only from Yankee-lovers, consider this Tony Massarotti rant in the Boston Herald (link via David Pinto):
[T]he 2006 Red Sox look like an 84-78 squad with a management team that is playing rotisserie baseball. The Sox still can go out and get players, but there seems little regard for how they fit together. And until we learn otherwise, there is simply no way to know that Mark Loretta and Mike Lowell can shine in Boston, that Julio Lugo or Coco Crisp is coming (or that they, too, can succeed), that Kevin Youkilis can play every day or that Keith Foulke can close again....

For Red Sox ownership and upper management, in particular, there are some bad trends being established, particularly during the last two offseasons. Pedro Martinez left. So did Derek Lowe. Now Damon is gone, too, his departure coming after negotiations with Theo Epstein also resulted in an ugly divorce between the Sox and their young general manager. When it comes to negotiating with their high-profile personalities — Jason Varitek is the exception — the Sox generally seem inclined to let the market dictate the price, then decide they do not want to pay it.

Uh, fellas?

Sooner or later, if you want to keep good people, you will have to fork over the dough.

Of course, while all of this has been going on, the Sox have been throwing away money in other areas. Last winter, even when Epstein was the GM, the Sox overpaid for Matt Clement. They forked over $40 million for Edgar Renteria, then decided he wasn’t worth it (after one year) and shipped him to the Atlanta Braves. They ate $11 million of Renteria’s remaining contract and took on the $18 million due Lowell. In the same trade that brought the Marlins third baseman, they shipped away Hanley Ramirez, a highly regarded prospect who seemed part of their long-term plan.

Confused yet? You should be. Amid all of the comings and goings this offseason, Fenway Park has become baseball’s version of Wisteria Lane. There has been speculation and finger-pointing, controversy and confusion.

Meanwhile, a team suffers.


Is there any hope for Red Sox Nation? I think the answer is yes, but it takes a little work.

First, consider that each of the individual trades/signings that the Red Sox have made this offseason can be defended. No one except the Yankees thought Johnny Damon was worth $13 million a year. Trading a backup catcher for a former All-Star second baseman seems like a shrewd move. Renteria was never comfortable in Boston, and in trading him the Red Sox got one of the top ten prospects in all of baseball. Getting Josh Beckett was worth the costs in prospects -- especially since the Sox also got a premier set-up man and a Gold Glove third baseman. The problem isn't with the individual moves -- it's whether one can see an overall plan when the moves are combined.

Second, left unsaid in all the critiques is the fact that the Sox have done a very good job of rebuilding their pitching staff. In the past few months the Sox have lost Mike Myers and Chad Bradford while acquiring Josh Beckett, Guillermo Mota, and Jermaine Van Buren via trade, re-signing Mike Timlin, signing Rudy Seanez, and picking up Jamie Vermilyea via the Rule V draft. They have also developed a raft of quality arms -- Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, Craig Hansen, and Jon Lester -- from their own farm system. That's a set of pretty decent moves made at low cost given the way the market for pitching has gone as of late. And while it may be overly optimistic to expect Curt Schilling or Keith Foulke to perform at their 2004 levels, it would be way to pessimistic to see them be as bad as they were in 2005. To be sure, not all of these pitchers will pan out, but enough of them will for the 2006 pitching staff to look better than the 2005 version.

Third, the off-season is only half over. The $64,000 question is whether the Red Sox can trade from their strengths (pitching, second base, third base, farm system) to improve their weaknesses (leadoff hitter, centerfieldier, shortstop, first base) between now and February. The big concern here is whether these obvious deficiencies will force the Sox into desperate moves in January and February. However, it's also worth remembering that the Sox had uninspiring production from two of those positions in 2005 and still made it to the playoffs.

Finally, it's worth remembering that at this point last year everyone was trashing White Sox GM Ken Williams for a series of moves that laid the foundation for the 2005 team. The only thing that matters is the how the team performs on the field between April and October.


[How convinced are you by your own analysis?--ed. About 55% -- the other 45% of the time I'm with Massarotti.]

UPDATE: Sam Crane offers Confucion and Taoist perspectives on the Damon signing.

posted by Dan on 12.22.05 at 04:24 PM


Look on the bright side, Dan. The Renteria trade was very good for the Braves, in desperate need for a shortstop after the Dodgers paid crazy money to Rafael Furcal. Marte was never going to play in Atlanta as long as Chipper stayed healthy, but for a couple of years he was touted as the No. 1 prospect in the Atlanta system, better than Jeff Francouer or Kyle Davies. So he might work out in Boston.

posted by: Zathras on 12.22.05 at 04:24 PM [permalink]

Mostly, Red Sox Nation is worrying too much. Youkalis can play first just fine, and get on basee a lot. Loretta, Graffanino and Pedroia all have experience at short. None of them are particularly good over there, but the Sox pitching staff doesn't give up a whole lot of ground balls anyway. Center field is the only real hole the Sox have, and it should be fixable by trading for either Jeremy Reed if you're lucky, or Jason Michaels if you have to.

posted by: J. Michael Neal on 12.22.05 at 04:24 PM [permalink]

What's truly puzzling about the Damon trade is that Damon and Boras were "only" asking for 12 million, but Steinbrenner is giving him 13. Q: What's the extra million for? A: His soul.

Not that I'm sorry to see him go, or any of the other turnover for that matter (though much of the specifics defy logic, as you point out). Last season he was a damp squib compared to the fireball of both years preceding.

It's funny, but I just can't seem to generate much interest in the team since they won the World Series. Any fellow feeling out there in "Red Sox Nation" or is it just me?

Realistically, we could be looking at another long drought for the Beantowners. I think I'll stick with the White Sox, they're closer and look better prepared to come back fighting.

posted by: Kelli on 12.22.05 at 04:24 PM [permalink]

Its my understanding that its an odd market year, where there is not a lot of good talent available and the price for mediocore talent has gone high. Another words, its a good year to sell.

posted by: PD Shaw on 12.22.05 at 04:24 PM [permalink]

I'll remind Boston fans that there's another team across town that has seen nearly perpetual turnover of star players -- and has won three of the last four Super Bowls.

Further, you don't need to score 950 runs a year to win the World Series. Just ask the Marlins, Angels and White Sox, none of whom had anything like the offensive firepower of the 04/05 Red Sox, and all of whom won a title just the same.

Leave the overpayment for past performance to the Yankees. The Red Sox are getting younger, hungrier, and most importantly, have taken huge strides to improve their pitching. Viva la revolucion.

posted by: no problem on 12.22.05 at 04:24 PM [permalink]

A big part of the story -- and a tiring, "what else is new" part of the story -- is the financial gulf between the Yankees and everybody else. The Bosox were willing to gamble $40 odd million on an aging and increasingly injury-prone (albeit terrific in his last few seasons) center fielder. But they weren't willing to gamble $50 odd million on the same. But for the Yankees, it's not really a gamble -- there's not really any financial risk involved. Because if Damon underperforms, they Yankees' ability to sign superstars and pay big salaries in the future won't be hampered in the least. But the Red Sox, as wealthy an organization as they may be, aren't in the same financial situation.

If there is anything positive about the Bosox' situation right now (and as a Bostonian I've been wildly grasping at straws to find reasons for optimism), it is that they could well have a dominating pitching staff in '06. I certainly like their arms better than the Yanks' at this point. The Bosox can't possibly hope to compete offensively with New York next year, no way, no how. They certainly need another bat, and I hope they sign a first class hitter. But with regard to Manny, if I were them I'd try and use him to acquire yet more pitching. As a long-suffering Red Sox fan, it's a simple article of faith with me that you can NEVER have too much pitching, especially when you don't have a prayer of matching your arch rival's offensive potency. More often than not, it comes down to pitching in the end.

posted by: P.B. Almeida on 12.22.05 at 04:24 PM [permalink]

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