Even having ended Tampa Bay’s nine-game winning streak, the Boston Red Sox proved nothing that would elevate them to playoff contention. They scored seven runs in three games, they suffered a bullpen implosion, and they played back on their heels, as Tampa Bay bunted and ran around their defense. Except for a resurgent performance from their bullpen in Sunday’s finale with the Rays, the Red Sox offered no promise of ascending to the first division of their division.
So raise the white flag and let’s see what the young prospects can do in August and September. Unload some salaries this week, Jonny Gomes, Edward Mujica, Stephen Drew come to mind. Andrew Miller would be worth a good hitter in exchange. Do not trade Jon Lester or Shane Victorino, because you have to preserve what’s good about the team. The enigma is Mike Napoli, who seems to require two months of wild flailing in order to be lethal for the other four months. Depending on the time of year, you love him or hate him.
What should be clear is that the cast that won the World Series has passed their expiration date, and the new Red Sox will have new skills, maybe more speed and ironclad defense and maybe more zip on their fastballs. This should be a youth movement.
Please, no broken-down superstars like Matt Kemp. Please, no pitchers recovering from surgery. And no good-hit, no-field types that used to anchor positions like shortstop and left field. You have to be proud of something when a team is re-building, so let it be the defense.
So let the final week of July be about building for the future, bringing in talent that can and will mature in the next fifteen months. Maybe the Red Sox will be good enough to reach .500 this year, but let’s make a team that can reach .600 next year.
Baseball players take longer to mature than in any other sport. That’s why they have minor leagues. The Red Sox are decidely unripe fruit. The fans can now adopt the vintner’s adage for their team: we will make no wine before its time. That time is next year.
I’m through second-guessing John Farrell. The man has “gut” intimations that defy numbers or logic, and they mostly have worked magic in the 2013 World Series.
Choose the players with the lowest averages on the Red Sox and place them in critical roles, and you have Farrell’s formula for success. Bat Jonny Gomes against right-handed pitchers, and he makes the difference in Game Four with a three-run homer. Start the defensive-back-up catcher, David Ross, in three out of five games, and the dude bats in the winning run in Game Five. Start the woeful Steven Drew at shortstop and watch him plug up the infield and execute miraculous double-plays. Start the youthful rookie Xander Bogarts at third and watch him work pitchers for walks and take pitches to right field, when they venture into the strike zone.
Meanwhile you bench players with proven talent during the regular season: Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamachia, and Daniel Nava. They have all started a couple of games, and they produced long at-bats and extra-base hits, when they did. (Except for Saltalamachia, who has slumped in the post-season). But they had to wait their turn, while the .220 hitters led the way.
Farrell deserves credit for his management of the middle innings pitchers as well. The starters and closers are no-brain decisions, but who to bring in for the fourth, fifth and sixth innings? So far Brandon Workman and Felix Dubront have proved nearly invincible in those roles. Probably they are logical choices for middle innings, but give him credit for seeing the vulnerability of Morales and Dempster and removing them from critical positions in the bullpen.
Bringing young talent like Bogarts and Workman along has been a specialty of the Farrell administration. Previous managers would never trust Pawtucket recruits in roles like this, but Farrell and his staff have hand-picked these rookies and turned them into Major Leaguers in a few short months. It shows not just an eye for talent, but for courage and maturity as well. For every Bogarts and Workman, there were several that did not make the cut this year.
So second-guessing is out of season for October. The World Series is not finished, but the record after five games is superb. Whatever hunches Farrell has left to play will be my hunches, too.
If Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are the heart and soul of the Red Sox, Jacoby Ellsbury is the pacemaker. If the Memorial Day Ellsbury survives without injury or major slump, the Sox will be contenders for a World Series berth and World Championship.
The new Red Sox can ride the energy of Pedroia and the clutch hitting of Ortiz to a winning season, but they need someone to create havoc in low-scoring contests. That someone is Ellsbury. Between his speed and situational hitting, Ellsbury puts the team in contention in games when the heart of the line-up is befuddled by breaking balls and pinpoint pitching. Pedroia has the gift of getting on base as well, but only Ellsbury can create panic by his presence on the basepaths.
This should not undervalue the many role-players that make up the Red Sox, but those role-players are not enough to attack dominant pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda or Matt Moore or Justin Verlander. When the Red Sox need to manufacture runs, they need Ellsbury and Shane Victorino to get on and keep moving. The Sox find it fairly easy to load the bases, but getting the runs across the plate remains a challenge.
So when the heart is failing, bring on the pacemaker. He has the talent to bunt his way on or to reach out and poke the outside pitch to left field. He has the speed to steal his way from first to third and don’t leave home plate unprotected!
There are too many uncertainties to put a lock on first plate yet. Injury is the widest pitfall and the pressure to go deep could thwart the good swings he is taking now, but if Ells stay healthy and keeps taking the outside pitch to left, he will keep the Sox in every remaining game.
And the fielding? We saw on Monday how his hitting put a charge into his fielding, as he made a spectacular over the shoulder catch (see photo) and threw out two runners on the base paths. He just needs to avoid a “Victorino,” a close encounter with a wall at full speed.
The best teams rely on every player to step up sometime in the game. But the best teams also have a pacemaker, someone who can make something out of nothing and fabricate runs on the bad days. Ellsbury is the pacemaker, the one who keeps the heart pumping on days when the main arteries are clogged.
Jacoby Ellsbury’s timely hitting on Sunday could be portentous for him and the Red Sox, not only because he drove in the winning run, but because he jumped on the first pitch instead of working the count to a called strike three.
Ellsbury is touted as a lead-off man, and he may actually prove his worth in that role this year. Until now he has been an easy out at the top of the batting order. Most disturbing is his taking the called third strike, when he should be more aggressive, keeping pitchers off balance with swings at the outside pitch and going to left. That was signature Ellsbury in 2011.
Ellsbury should ignore the critics who whine about his power outage. Extra bases should be taken with his feet, not his swing. A lead-off guy gets on base and moves along by whatever means possible. The Red Sox have longed for this kind of player throughout their history, and I am too young to remember when they had a good one in this role.
In a year of surprises, Ellsbury has been the singular disappointment, and if this moment signals his return as a clutch, havoc-producing lead-off guy, then my final prediction for 2013 will be confirmed. Earlier I predicted that a healthy Ellsbury would have a breakout year , and that the Sox should sign him at whatever the cost by the end of the season.
The local wisdom has been to let Ellsbury go to free agency, since Scott Boras will have no sentiment about his remaining with the Red Sox. But maybe Ellsbury will see things differently.
Back in March I argued that Ellsbury might accept a competitive contract offer from the Sox because:
- He has a defined role as a lead-off hitter and center fielder with the Red Sox
- The fans love him; he brings a level of excitement that no other player brings to Fenway
- John Farrell has known him since his rookie year; he won’t ask him to do what he can’t do
- He has team mates who have come through the system with him: Pedroia, Lester, Bucholz
My conclusion was, if Ellsbury made it to the All-Star game without a major injury, the Sox should start the campaign to sign him. Give him credit and treat him like a life-time Red Sox player like Dustin Pedroia. John Farrell knows how to do this, because he touts players in the press to show his confidence in them.
One clutch hit does not make a season, but the way it happened portends well for the Red Sox center fielder. Staying aggressive and going to left field will make him an extraordinary threat to the toughest pitchers in early innings and late. We already know he can steal and run for extra bases. Now he just needs to get to first early and often.
Then let the Red Sox Front Office do the same.
Speculation around the 2013 Red Sox revolves around the new acquisitions in the off season, especially Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster and Joel Hanrahan. These players could revitalize the team at their respective positions, but they are not as crucial to the success of the 2013 Sox as two pitchers who have become veteran leadership: John Lester and Clay Bucholz.
If both Lester and Bucholz return to the form of their early years with the Red Sox, they could be the most potent top of the rotation in the American League. They are probably the two most-mentioned players in trade talks during the off season and simultaneously the biggest disappointments of 2012.
The 2012 World Series showed how critical pitching has become in Major League baseball. The Giants won because their pitching rose to the occasion and the Tigers lost, because theirs didn’t. Excellent pitchers can beat excellent hitters , even Triple Crown hitters like Miguel Cabrera. Bullpens can take over a game in the seventh inning with lefty specialists, set-up men, closers and defensive replacements. The last three innings have become like fourth quarter football with preventive defense.
The Red Sox have stocked their bullpen with multiple closers, set-up men and lefty specialists. It’s hard to imagine a less than competent bullpen from the likes of Hanrahan, Bailey, Uehara, Aceves, and Miller. With Breslow, Tazawa and Morales, they even have depth to anticipate injuries.
So it comes down to the top of the rotation, which could be the most feared in baseball. The physical health of Lester and Bucholz can not be assumed, but the discipline and mental preparation will definitely improve under John Farrell, who brought them into the Major Leagues as their pitching coach. Farrell’s value to the Red Sox really turns on his ability to manage pitchers, and these two pitchers are his proudest accomplishments as a pitching coach.
Even in their worst seasons in the Majors, there were days when Lester and Bucholz were unhittable in 2012. You watched accomplished hitters trudging back to the dugout shaking their heads. They knew they had been over-matched. Contending teams in baseball need two pitchers who can do that. Ryan Dempster can do that, too, if his arm holds up.
It’s a safe bet that the Red Sox will improve offensively with a healthy return of Ellsbury, Ortiz and Pedroia. The team chemistry has to improve with their new manager. Defensively they are stronger up the middle than in any recent season. The crucial element is the pitching and Lester and Bucholz are the critical members of this staff. Imagine a season when both of them are healthy and focused, and you can imagine two twenty-game winners. Then you can easily imagine playoffs and who knows what else?
The latest insult to Pedro Ciriaco is the signing of the fragile Stephen Drew. One Drew drawing disability on the Red Sox payroll was not enough, they had to hire his brother. Yes, J.D. Drew is now only a memory, but how soon we forget! The reputation of the Drews is that they are talented hitters and fielders when they are healthy, but how fragile that health!
I have campaigned for the elevation of Pedro Ciriaco, since his dazzling performance at Spring Training, 2012. He was a terror on the basepaths, a skilled bunter, and a clutch hitter, traits in short supply on the current Red Sox roster. Only Ellsbury can wreak as much havoc on base, and Ellsbury cannot bunt with consistency. So there is much to like in this hustling infielder.
So his numbers tailed off in September. Who on the Red Sox was playing well in September? If there is a curse lingering on the Red Sox, it is sordid September, the month of disappointments. Lift this curse and everyone will be playing better.
If there is a hesitation about Ciriaco, it is his work in the field. The Red Sox have a perfect late-inning replacement with Jose Iglesias, who needs some seasoning as a hitter. Both players could feed on each other’s strengths if they played together. Why the Red Sox will not trust Ciriaco as a starting position player mystifies me.
If the Sox let Ciriaco go, they will live to regret it. He will come back to torment their catchers stealing bases and bedevil their third baseman with his bunts. Give this young man a job! He is an offensive weapon that is scarce on this team. Let him play!