Friday, September 08, 2006

What Went Wrong?

Sure, I could list the sixty thousand injury concerns, but what fun would that be? Everyone with a brain, even Yankee fans, is well aware that injuries took their toll on the 2006 Boston Red Sox; so let's move beyond that. Three things that have gone wrong that aren't in the Globe on a daily basis:

1) The Coco Crisp switcheroo: The gamble on Crisp transitioning well to Centerfield bombed tremendously. Why the front office believed Crisp could convert to CF when the Indians had already tried, and failed, to make Crisp a centerfielder was beyond me at the time - speed alone does not make a centerfielder. Furthermore, Crisp had shown considerable promise as a hitter, however he had done so mostly from lower slots in the line-up, not the projected leadoff role he was penciled into here. Crisp was not, and is not, a disciplined hitter fitting the prototype the Sox front office looks for in leadoff hitters. While that is not an indictment on Crisp, it is an indictment on the Sox Front Office for attempting to vainly put a square block into a circular hole. With Crisp trying to adjust to a new city, a new position, and a new and ever-changing spot in the lineup, I was far from surprised at his struggles. The Sox can survive in 2007 with Crisp as a centerfielder because in 2008 they may very well have a slot for Crisp open in LF, and a young CF ready to take over at the MLB level, Jacoby Ellsbury. Crisp is a fine defensive leftfielder, and he should be returned to that slot as soon as possible where he will nearly undoubtedly be an asset to his team.

2) Beckett has a track record of success at a very young age: What you say? How could that be a major factor in what went wrong this season? Please allow me to explain. Beckett, like most Marlins pitchers, moved quickly through the system - partially due to need. While Beckett statistically may have warranted promotion at each interval, his development, we now are seeing, was severely stunted by the accelerated promotions. In lower levels, Beckett was able to succeed relying solely on blowing fastballs by hitters. In achieving successful numbers by doing so, I can imagine young Beckett felt little need to work on peripheral pitches or learning how to pitch. After all, his numbers looked good and the promotions never stopped. In the MLB he succeeded on the grandest stage, the World Series, and an "ace" was made. But this "ace" still didn't know how to pitch. Fast forward to Beckett's arrival in Boston. He experienced major growing pains and continues to throw harder when in trouble, rather than relying on scouting reports and secondary pitches to get outs. So what does young and having success have to do with it? In the back of Beckett's mind, he knows this approach has worked, and his age makes him a particular risk for the dread affliction that affects so many young players . . . thick headedness. Because Beckett has succeeded, in my opinion, it makes it that much harder for him to accept that he needs to change his approach to succeed now. Hopefully within the coming months, he will have a Schilling-esque awakening as realize how good he could be if he started to use his mind more, like most of the all time greats have done.

3) Losing patience with Bard: Learning to catch a knuckleball takes time and practice. It took time for Mirabelli, and Varitek has had a rough time when he hasn't had the reps needed to stay fresh on the practice. But the front office gave up too soon on the Bard experiment, seemingly caving in to popular demand to reclaim Mirabelli. While this move probably hurt the 2006 Red Sox squad a bit (in that Meredith may have gotten a shot this season, minus the bases-loaded introductory experience), it has certainly hurt the 2007 and beyond squads. Bard has caught fire in the weaker NL, but he isn't the only individual to make Sox fans regret mocking those who "overvalue" prospects and advocate patience with new players. Meredith has been a shining beacon of bullpen stability since his arrival in San Diego. Bard has put up numbers that only the most optimistic scout could conjure up upon seeing his performance in a Sox uniform. And many Sox fans have now swapped sides and now regret being so adamantly against Bard in the first place. The Sox veered from their plan of long-term competitiveness when they hit the panic button and reacquired Mirabelli, who has been an offensive hole since rejoining the club. Bard's bat and glove would have been greatly appreciated when Varitek went down with an injury, sparing Sox fans the horror of watching Javy Lopez catch a Josh Beckett curve with runners in scoring position, and follow that by grounding out weakly to the second baseman.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

What to do . . .

Well, since Red Sox Nation has officially mailed it in, minus the irrationally optimistic folks we all know - people who can look at a 40-car pile-up and celebrate that it wasn't a 41-car pile-up - allow me to look at 2007 for you.

So, what do we do once the season ends? Well, we rebuild, for one. I remain truly optimistic that we CAN compete next year, in a major way. Maybe not win the division in 2007 (though in 2008 and beyond, I can see the tides changing), but be a front-runner for the AL Wild Card. Five key moves to get us there that need to be made this off-season.

1) Trade an OFer to the Angels (our strength), for a middle infielder (their strength). No, no, no - not THAT OFer! Here's the deal - Coco Crisp for Brandon Wood. The Angels need some speed in the OF (C'mon, Garrett Anderson?) and Coco's skills would be FAR more utilized in the speed-oriented and aggressive Angels offense. Coco could play LF and become far more valuable defensively, and Figgins can continue in CF. Wood would be a welcome bump in offense, providing some power in a power-hungry system, as well as allowing us to only pursue a part-time SS capable of filling in temporarily if Wood needs some time in the AAA next year (Cora?). With Kendrick, Aybar, and Cabrera around, and Figgins capable of filling in - the Angels can let him go. With Murphy, Pena, and Ellsbury on the horizon, we can move Coco. This deal, unlike the Manny deal, can work because there's no pitching involved and two young players fitting the needs of the respective teams.

2) Go out and sign Daisuke Matsuzaka. He's certainly a risk - young with some wear on his arm and no proven track record in MLB. But he has been ridiculously good in Japan, and done well on an international stage. The Sox get to make a blind bid for exclusive rights to negotiate. While there is NO chance the Sox can win his services by sticking to the low risk mentality, they CAN get him by making a generous bid. The money going towards negotiation rights does not count against the payroll - only the cost of the contract would. That money would be quickly recouped by the instant appeal the Red Sox would have to a market we have yet to enter with any real zeal. That’s me speaking Lucchino and Werner's language. Here's me speaking Theo's language - he's young with a ton of potential and can be locked down to anchor our rotation with the equally young Papelbon, Beckett and Lester for years to come. That's four potential aces, two of which are locked down at a very low rate, and two at higher rates (not high if they become aces though). It won't hurt us and will probably end up even in the end, but could quite possibly turn out to be one helluva bargain. If he cannot be signed, the Sox need to go bid quickly on Schmidt and lock him up for 3 years with an option for the 4th year.

3) Move Clement to the BP. I know it sounds completely counterproductive because of his mental strength, but bear with me. He's a bust as a starter, but he has a great slider and pure stuff. It's the mental approach that kills him - an approach that kills starters more than relievers in my humble opinion. His numbers suggest he's better the first few batters he sees, and progressively gets worse as the game goes on. So basically the choice for Theo is whether or not to pay him to pitch elsewhere. Before you do that, might as well see if this is a role more conducive to success AND helping the Sox. Worst-case scenario - he's Rudy Seanez redux and we end up eating the contract anyhow. Best case - he's pretty good and we get at least some contribution from him for OUR team. Oh yeah, and a warm body for the pen that we already have figured into our budget.

4) Trade for a minor league catcher with some upside . . . possibly work Mathis or Napoli into the Crisp for Wood trade by adding a pitcher or OF prospect. Another option is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, currently blocked by McCann in Atlanta (maybe for Murphy plus a middle-tier prospect).

5) Explore options for the following players: Brad Lidge (trade), Roy Oswalt (trade), Roger Clemens (FA), Ted Lilly (FA), David Dellucci (FA for bench) - and my pipe dream, Miguel Cabrera (at season's end, I'm calling the Marlins and offering Hansen [still a top prospect and Marlins favorite], plus Buchholz or Bowden [two top starting prospects having great years], plus another midlevel prospect of their picking [like Murphy, Moss, Pauley, or maybe even Martinez]).

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Is the Sky Falling?

Sox fans - breathe. Remember, this year was supposed to be an off year. We were warned. And we have been told that Theo is not going to sacrifice our future for a fleeting present - he's fixed on greater things. I know it's tough to stay calm in the heat of any pennant race now that we have "the taste" of what Championships feel like, but would you rather be the 2002 Angels, or have a Red Sox Dynasty on par with those of our foes to the South? Some offer a compromise, the Braves - a string of dominance, but only one title. How can I not worry about that?

I do see a similarity with the Braves - we have a young core of pitchers that came from our farm system. I’m not particularly worrying that we'll become perennial contenders, but never champs. We have the money to buy the extra toys that Atlanta had to make due without. The Braves had to find career journeymen to turn into gold, while the Sox can shop the top talent.

What about this developing reluctance to part with prospects? First off that's a lot of tomfoolery. Theo has shown he will part with prospects, provided he gets someone young and under our control back in the deal, but it seems to be very significant that the returning talent meet these criteria. Cases in point?

1) Andy Marte was swapped for Coco Crisp - who has a much lower ceiling, but had shown he was an effective major leaguer who was also cost controlled and under our control. He's still not really in his prime, so there's room for improvement. Marte fit a desperate need in our organization - pure power with solid defense at a corner position. We have a lot of crap at the corners in the farm - he would have been HUGE.

2) Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez were swapped for Josh Beckett. We hear a lot about Hanley - he was a power prospect with solid defense and superstar potential. He's done well for himself as a rookie in the NL and shown flashes of his predicted ceiling. Scouts talked about Anibal in the same conversation as Papelbon and Lester. Some thought his combination of stuff possibly would allow him to succeed most of all, but obviously that's completely subjective. What isn't subjective is that we traded a top pitching prospect (hard to come by) and another highly sought prospect for Beckett (and Lowell). Beckett met Theo's criteria: young, under our control for more than a year, and cost controlled. Still had room for improvement. I realize this move happened while he was not a part of the organization, but it was made with this same philosophy in mind and I highly doubt Anibal and Hanley would have been traded for Jason Schmidt.

3) This year, Lester was offered up for Oswalt, allegedly. If not Lester, at least Hansen was on the block. I'm not sure this move would have put us over the edge, but at worst I would have been ambivalent about it. Oswalt is a proven pitcher who is still young. He has had stretches where he has utterly dominated the NL - something that one needs to do to even stand a chance in the AL. Oswalt would have been under our control for another season where we'd get to negotiate exclusively with him and offer arbitration. If he left, we would have gotten compensation and been able to further supplement our farm system with said picks. Lester is one of this organization's best prospects in YEARS, and has been contributing to the MLB team, yet was on the block for someone who filled the same role, but had more experience.

Now, I think there is possibly another thing at play. What you frequently hear about GM's is that since their job depends on the product on the field, they'd rather those people be THEIR guys. With baseball teams, the turnover is often a lot slower than with other sports because of guaranteed contracts and the length of time it takes for draft picks to reach the majors.

Theo's guys are just beginning to infiltrate the ranks. Since he has always put a great deal of emphasis in youth, I'm not surprised that the guys he wants to count on in the long term are guys he hand picked. Yes, you can hand pick guys via trades, but a portion of any trade is determined by the other team and out of one's control. Perhaps this is a thickheaded ego thing, but it's not different than all other GM's who prefer to put their job on the line with hand-selected players. This theory at work could explain some of the free agent departures.

Also, as has been stated before, there wasn't much out there that could really alter our season. Those players that were available - Oswalt and Clemens, for instance - were fully investigated as options, with fair deals being proposed. The deals worth spending time on received all of the attention. The other moves only would have been useful if our big holes were plugged first (for instance, adding Cormier makes little sense if our starters can't hand the BP a lead and our offense can't score enough to come back in the majority of the games Cormier would have appeared in).

While we have weak links, that alone doesn't explain our play as of late. The Yanks, for instance, had some seriously weak links predating the deadline - and yet they played through them, coped, sacked up, and still managed to gain ground on us. The issue with the Sox isn't merely our weak links, it's underperformance - and there weren't enough chips on the table to markedly improve this squad. It's not just a cost issue.

Thus far, we have been spoiled. This squad has competed more than I expected and, as a result, some of the progress of our younger core has been put on hold. Because we have competed and it’s so hard for us to concede a year, people are emotional about Theo standing pat when an incredibly weak crop of talent made it’s way into the market. That market was not worth conceding our future for, and the FO did its due diligence on those that would have been worth our future.

Theo’s reputation is on the line with the 2007 and 2008 squad, so I expect us to be active this off-season. Veterans will be on the market for packages of young talent. I expect some of our farm system to be made available for other young talent a year or two from free agency because we have the financial power to lock proven players up. I expect most of our free agents to be let go. We need to see the transition to start showing itself, because right now, we’re stuck in a limbo of competing, but not being totally ready with the guys Theo wants on the field.