The big story of Spring Training is the rehabilitation of Grady Sizemore as a starting center fielder and the sitting of Jacoby Ellsbury with a calf ailment. There’s a long season ahead, but the results of letting Ellsbury go and signing Sizemore has to be Ben Cherrington’s coup of the spring. And ultimately the decision to send Jackie Bradley, Jr. to Pawtucket for seasoning figured shrewdly into the equation.
How can you anticipate that a physically broken player will return to All-Star form and an up-and-coming young star will need more experience before he breaks into a championship line-up? It is the kind of baseball acumen that makes champions. At this early juncture, you have to admire what John Farrell and his boss have wrought.
Ellsbury may yet be the league’s Most Valuable Player and more power to him. But his fragility had to figure in the Red Sox’ reluctance to give him the long-term contract. He only played two seasons in which injuries did not seriously impede his performance, and he was hurt in those seasons, too. He and Sizemore may share stints on the disabled list in 2014, but the difference is that Ellsbury will get hundreds of thousands for those days, while Sizemore will make hundreds of thousands for the entire year.
The Red Sox made a similar switch with Chris Capuano and Franklin Morales, two injury-plagued lefties. Morales was traded back to the Rockies after spending a year rehabbing his arm and then walking himself off the mound in the World Series. He was always a few inches off the plate, the difference between dominance as a reliever and a liability in the mid-innings.
Capuano returned to his home state with a history of shoulder injuries, but a strong record in the National League, both as starter and reliever. Like Sizemore, he was a long shot to make the team. Like Sizemore, he came in shape and worked his way into competition. He beat out the young arms like Drake Britton and Allen Webster. He comes north in a pivotal role as reliever and spot starter. Will he survive the long 162-game trek? No one knows, but from this perspective another shrewd move by the Red Sox management.
A year ago, the Red Sox performed a similar feat signing the physically-suspect Mike Napoli and the aging Koji Uhehara. More calculated risks, which made the difference between also-rans and champions. It appears they have a method to their madness. They find low-profile and physically-battered players and turn them into stars.
Or, to coin a phrase, “To sign big stars is human, To rehab the old ones, divine.”
Why did Brandon Workman stick with the Red Sox through the World Series while his highly touted peers Allen Webster and Rubby DeLaRosa finished on the sidelines? I think the answer is simple; he threw strikes. Workman did not throw terribly hard like DeLaRosa, and he didn’t have the devastating curve that Webster flashed, but he had location. And what’s true in Real Estate is true in pitching.
What made John Lester a devastating pitcher in the fall, while he stumbled through the heart of the season? Location. What made John Lackey harder and harder to hit as he completed his rehab in early 2013? Location. Out of all the bullpen staff, why was Koji Uhehara the first nominee to replace the fallen Andrew Bailey? Location. If any one of these pitchers does not throw strikes, the Red Sox would not have gotten into the American League Championship Series.
I think this all changed when John Farrell returned to the Red Sox. Falling behind hitters became the cardinal offense. Pitchers could stay on the mound and get slapped around a little, but as soon as they let the count go to 3-1, they were living on borrowed time. For all his talent, Franklin Morales was through with the Red Sox when he couldn’t stay ahead of hitters in the World Series. Felix Dubront would be the same way, until Juan Nieves went out to the mound to remind him what his job was. To his credit, Dubront did not nibble around the corners as much in the World Series and proved his value in middle relief, as much as a starter.
From a fan’s point of view, it is a much more interesting game when pitchers throw strikes. The other eight fielders get into the act more, and the batters get less picky when they realize the pitcher is coming after them. And if a pitcher is not hitting his spots, he paces around the mound and plays with his cap and the rosin bag— like a batter between pitches. This is base-stall. We don’t enjoy it.
For all the promising hurlers featured at Fort Myers this spring, the word is “Throw strikes.” Watch Lackey and Lester and Uhehara and Workman. They do not come to fence or parry, they come to pitch. To them 2-2 is a hitter’s count. No one wants to go 3-2. So come in with it.
And you’ll be the next Brandon Workman .