It wasn’t unthinkable, but many observers considered the Yankees low on Jacoby Ellsbury’s shopping list. Ellsbury’s signing of a seven-year contract with the New York rivals was a twist of the dagger in the heart of Red Sox Nation, a sad defection evoking memories of Johnny Damon making the trip south a decade ago. Yesterday Damon reflected,
When I was a free agent, I did not want to leave Boston, I left my heart and soul on the field, but unfortunately us players aren’t the ones making those decisions. The owners are the ones who are paying us. They’re running their team and they’re running it the way that they want.
There are a lot of similarities in these signings, with Damon the erstwhile Red Sox center fielder with speed, clutch hitting, and some fragility in his body. In losing both Damon and Ellsbury to the Yankees, the Red Sox knew what they were giving up, but calculated their losses. In Damon the Yankees did get a clutch performer, but also one beset by injuries in the twilight of his career.
Without a doubt Ellsbury’s’ fragility must have figured into the limitations the Red Sox placed on the length of his contract. Dustin Pedroia received a substantial contract renewal this year, but his track record has been to play, even through crippling injury. Ellsbury plays a position subject to injury every night, and he has the penchant for fouling pitches off his foot and ankle. He is definitely in the deep end of the risk pool.
I won’t forget, however, the fall evening this year, when he fouled a pitch off the small unprotected spot on his ankle, then proceeded to steal a base and take third on an overthrow. That night his hustle turned the game around and showed his grit playing through an injury that later sidelined him. Maybe he was playing for a new contract, but he played to win, and the Red Sox benefited.
Losing Ellsbury to the Yankees hurts now and could become a plague in the future. Once on base he will torment the American League by moving around almost at will. The unanswered question remains whether he will stay healthy and give the Yankees playing time for their many dollars. The Red Sox are gambling that he won’t.
While handing out accolades of appreciation, we should also note those players who contributed with Hall-of-Fame grit this season. These players laid their bodies down for the team in a year plagued with injuries.
The first Grit Award goes to Shane Victorino who slammed his body into walls and thrown baseballs to record outs and get to first base. His ruthless attack on the outfield walls threatened a body already injury-prone. I have never wanted so much to tell a player, “Hey, take it easy. Spoil the out and spare the body.” I noticed fewer collisions in the second half of the season, so maybe I got through.
Then he made the historic journey to the right side of the plate, favoring his wounded right hamstring, and began to lean into pitches to get on base. Why the umpires allowed his regular joust with the inside pitch is a wonder to me. As they say, “He took one for the team,” but I would say he took several.
The Second Grit Award goes to Mike Napoli who played with plantar fascitis, a condition he compared to running on glass with bare feet. Much of the mid-season his bat had on-the-schneiditis, a condition of carving the air against high-outside and low-outside pitches. However, in mid-August during the fabled West Coast Swing (2 of 3 each from the Giants and Dodgers) he let the dogs and the bat bark in harmony. Napoli caught fire, while his feet burned, but nobody heard about the feet, only the feats of opposite field power. After writing heartlessly about “batting crappily,” I have to give Napoli a “Gritty” for running through glass while driving in runs.
The third “Gritty” is a tie between one player who rose from the grave of Tommy John surgery and another who broke his foot, stole a base, and scored on a shallow fly in the same inning. Of course I mean John Lackey and Jacoby Ellsbury. Lackey pitched inspirationally from Spring Training to the playoff-clinching win on Thursday night, a complete game of dominance. He worked quickly and gained more and more control as the season waxed, and he took a lot of hard-luck losses. No one should judge Lackey for wins and losses this year, but for the determination that will most likely give him the “Comeback of the Year” award. Not as prestigious as the “Gritty.”
Ellsbury’s romance with the disabled list would remind you of Mickey Mantle, the archetypal talent bedeviled by injuries. It looked like he was going to defy the DL this year until he hit a foul ball off the only place on his right foot unprotected by a shin guard. Ellsbury’s return to the Disabled List should not overshadow the important run he scored that same night, after stealing second with his broken foot, hustling to third on an overthrow, and scoring on a shallow fly ball, which few others in the line-up would have attempted.
So for a full season of rehabilitating a serious arm injury and for one inning of running and scoring with pain, John Lackey and Jacoby Ellsbury deserve to share a “Gritty.”
Still, as the cliche goes, every team member contributed, and it would be safe to say each one would lay out for the sake of the team. So the “Team Grit” award should go the Boston Red Sox. And who can forget the “bloody sock” that started the gritudinous tradition?
Apologies to Stephen Drew,
I hardly knew ya
I wanted to bench or perhaps platoon ya
But you were hitting .202
You had a brother J.D. Drew
Toiled five years on the Boston crew
Except for April, May and June
When his back was out of tune
Occasionally he could be spry
But that was only in July
Or when the stars aligned just right.
I figured it was only deja vu
When you went down like brother Drew
Your active days in spring were few.
The coming of Iglesias I knew
Portended ill for the likes of you
So I dismissed another Drew.
The Red Sox had a vision true
Of a healthy Stephen Drew
And hitting seventh, who knew
Your timely swings would save this crew
When hitters five and six were overdue.
You could hit with power, too
In August saved the Beantown crew
With timely homers, not a few
And flashed a glove with ground ball glue
A shortstop with a swing, it’s true!
I regret remarks undue
Of the second coming of J. D. Drew
Of unfair comparisons with Iglesias, too
Of thinking a shortstop could never brew
What the so-called sluggers had failed to do.
For remarks that made you deja vu
I apologize, Stephen Drew
What happened to the sweet April surprise? What happened to the timely hitting and the shutdown pitching? What happened to the early inning offensives that put the opposition back on its heels? What happened to the impregnable infield?
In the words of the Obamanator, “That’s above my pay grade.”
Still I’d love to float a theory like everyone else in my pay grade. In a crisp soundbite I say: Bring back Iglesias! This is not so much a solution as a strategy. Here’s the reasoning.
The infield was impregnable in April, because Iglesias covered most of the left side and made an extra out every game. But he was worth more than the out, he brought confidence to the whole infield, so that they played an error-less month.
Stephen Drew is just hitting his stride, so move him to third. Middlebrooks is still not hitting his, so send him for a stretch in Pawtucket. With two shortstops on the left side, you have a impermeable infield.
However, this arrangement will not be permanent, because Drew will get hurt again, probably in the next four weeks. The Red Sox should know this, because they have previously waded in the Drew gene pool. Injuries are inevitable in this family. So Middlebrooks should not get comfortable in Pawtucket.
Let’s get the lead man on. Keep a consistent bat in the lead off spot. Ellsbury is not getting on base enough, so he should probably be batting fifth or sixth. Victorino and Nava have shown the best aptitude for getting on, so give them each an audition. Pedroia goes back to batting second, then Ortiz and Napoli. The rest of the line-up can be adapted for the opposing pitcher.
There’s enough here to shake up the line-up. The rest is patience and keeping a positive attitude. The veterans on the team know where these come from.
The pitching will continue to be the strength of this team, even with the injuries. Just give Allen Webster a big league chance, and he’ll fill a spot in the rotation.
There’s a little Sox Sanity for ya and way above my pay grade.
So my favorite baseball analyst, Tim Kurkjian, has put the Red Sox in third place in the AL East. I know he likes Boston, so I’m not going to accuse him of Hub-prejudice, but I think he is overly cautious in forecasting the success of a club with many unknowns. Admittedly some luck will determine where the Sox finish in 2013.
In Major League baseball Luck is always on deck. Typically, the Red Sox are stocked with starters with Achilles’ tendons, Tommy John elbows, and the constitution of Jimmy Piersall in center field. Add to this the mysteries of concussions and hidden hip ailments you have a line-up for the infirmary, rather than the All-Star team. So any hopeful predictions will assume a reckless disregard for the curse of injury.
But we are done with curses. Leaving Spring Training we have every reason to hope for dramatic recovery from David Ortiz and John Lackey. We have hope that Jacoby Ellsbury will survive his year leading up to free agency and dazzle his suitors. We have hope that Mike Napoli will earn the contract incentives he signed up for during the winter. And we believe that at least one unproven rookie, a Jackie Bradley, a Jose Iglesias or an Allen Webster will surprise his critics and reach Major League maturity early. And even if Luck goes three for seven on my wish list, that would be .428 and enough to get the Red Sox to second place.
Because, for the first time in five years, the Red Sox have an established pitching rotation, not one built on “Spahn, Sain and two days of rain.” Every pitcher in the five-man rotation is a proven starter. In the bullpen, there are three bonafide closers. In the middle innings there is a reliable right-hander and left-hander. And, of course, the usual number of works-in-progress named Bard, Breslow, and Morales. But what if just one of them fully recovered?
Luck’s greatest mystery is John Farrell, who has yet to prove he can manage a winner. Farrell brings the experience of past success with the Red Sox and especially the knowledge of handling pitchers. If he can motivate a team through long road trips and hardship, that will seal the season. The X-factors of injury, batting slumps, and lost confidence are frequently dispelled by good managing. My expectation is that John Farrell is the man for the job.
Luck is always on deck. I have seen Luck swinging and stretching and nodding as he looks over the Red Sox. With all the bad things that could happen this year, only a few will transpire. With all the miscues of a first-year manager only a few will set back the team. Under the pressure of September only one hitter will fold. Luck says we’re a cinch for second, and his sister “Good Luck” says “No Limit to the Possibilities.”
David Ortiz and Stephen Drew are on the Disabled List, the line-up is short of left-handed hitters, the springtime hitting is anemic, and the biggest story is a 22-year-old kid who has hardly made footprints in the Minor Leagues. Are the Boston Red Sox in trouble? Not at all.
It’s all about the pitching, and the pitching is marvelous. Strong, young lefties in John Lester and Felix Dubront, seasoned right handers in John Lackey and Ryan Dempster, and a healthy Clay Buchholz. These are the signs of a brilliant spring, along with a stable bullpen of Hanrahan, Bailey, and Uhehara and an experienced middle relief corps of Aceves, Miller and Breslow. This is the best pitching staff the Sox have fielded since their last title run in 2007.
When was the last time the Red Sox did not begin the Spring depending on the likes of Beckett, Matsuzaka, and Wakefield? All good pitchers in their prime, but could we say the last three years were “prime” for any of them? In retrospect anchoring a staff with these three was a hopeless dream. Wakefield was always the heart of the Red Sox, but in the end, “heart” was all he had.
To assume anything without reckoning on injuries with this pitching staff would be reckless. They all have physical problems to overcome, but their conditioning this spring has given nothing but hope. Lester looks like the pitcher he has always been touted to be, Buchholz is developing his stamina, and Lackey looks like the second coming of Tommy John. Dempster and Dubront already look in mid-season form. Try to remember when the Red Sox left Fort Myers with this much promise in their starting rotation?
Perhaps this is what Ben Cherrington was thinking when he abandoned all comers for the managing position, except for John Farrell. Farrell was the last pitching coach to compose a champion pitching staff for the Sox. You can say what you want about Ramirez and Ortiz, but the missing piece was always pitching. More than ever, a healthy, reliable pitching staff is what makes a champion.
So here’s a prediction about pitching. The Sox will have no twenty-game winners, but Lester and Lackey will win thirty-five between them. Buchholz and Dempster will win thirty between them. And there will be 30 more games won by the likes of Dubront, Aceves, and maybe a late-season appearance by Allen Webster. And there will be enough hitting to make the pitching look splendid.
Gordon Edes of ESPN.com takes a dim view of the re-treads the Red Sox brought in over the Winter. He portrays the glass half-empty for 2013: fragile bodies, disappointing 2012 performances, uncertain clubhouse culture. But Edes misses the point when he evaluates what the Red Sox have added, because the one thing that has to change in 2013 is the pitching.
The Red Sox will hit, they always have hit, but what will make the Red Sox into a contender is their pitching. So it matters that they brought in Ryan Dempster, Joel Hanrahan, and Koji Uhehara, all pitchers with good credentials. Even more it matters that the front of their rotation, John Lester, Clay Bucholz, and John Lackey make a comeback from career-worst seasons in 2012. If those three pitch as they are capable, it hardly matters who is in the line-up next to Ortiz, Pedroia and Ellsbury. The Red Sox will hit, and they will win.
On their best days, no one can out-pitch John Lester and Clay Bucholz. The problem was they had maybe two “best days” apiece during the 2012 season. You could see the pitches, the aggressive approach, the frustration in the eyes of the hitters, but you saw it only occasionally. These are both blue chip pitchers. Other teams always ask for them in trade talks. What will they show in 2013?
In 2011 John Lackey spelled disappointment. Many doom-sayers thought the Red Sox had overpaid for him, and I was one of them. When it was disclosed he had a deteriorating elbow condition, a lot of things made sense. Lackey should be a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, but he hasn’t been healthy since he came to Fenway Park. If he can win 14-15 games in 2013, he will be what the Red Sox anticipated when they traded for him.
Rounding out the rotation will be Felix Dubront and Ryan Dempster. Both of them can be counted on for 10-12 wins if they stay healthy. Both of them have to prove they can endure a full season of starting at 6-7 innings a start. Both of them have proven they can face the best line-ups in baseball when they are healthy. So durability is the big question.
The bullpen has been reassembled with a new closer, Hanrahan, with Aceves moving back to middle relief. Andrew Bailey’s health remains a question, and Daniel Bard’s confidence needs re-building, but the bullpen can survive the collapse of either of them with the insurance of Uhehara, Aceves, Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller. Franklin Morales may yet play a vital role for the Red Sox, but where and how remains a question. The upshot is there are a lot of questions in the bullpen, but a lot of answers as well.
So what matters in 2013 is, Can John Farrell, the erstwhile pitching coach, assemble a strong pitching staff from these elements? The Red Sox were clearly counting on this when they aggressively pursued his contract from the Toronto Blue Jays. Ben Cherrington was clearly counting on this when he signed Hanrahan, Uhehara, and Dempster. All the noise about Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew is just distraction compared to what happens on the mound this year.
It’s a new era in Major League Baseball. With good hitting you might stake out third place in the division. For the long haul and in the playoffs, pitching rules.