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.”
Larry Lucchino, Red Sox’ CEO, likes to stoke the fires of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry every year, making barbed comments about their strategy to attract the top of the free agent market, including Jacoby Ellsbury, who left Boston for greener currency and a longer contract. He knows he can only sell more tickets by baiting the Yankees’ front office.
And the Yankees rose to the bait recently as their President Ben Levine, retorted,
“I feel bad for Larry. He constantly sees ghosts and is spooked by the Yankees. But I can understand why. Two years ago, under his and Bobby Valentine’s plan, the Red Sox were a last-place team.”
Besides keeping their managers in the hot seat all year, this is what team officers get paid to do: remind the fan base that the enemy is out there, and they have to rally around their team to keep them at bay.
Despite the huffing and hype, the Red Sox have shown incredible restraint in the free agent market and left themselves vulnerable to a dangerous Yankee line-up when the teams square off. With Ellsbury at the top of their line-up and Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann surrounding the recovered Mark Teixiera in the middle of the order, the Yankees are poised to do damage in Fenway and at home. Too many clutch hitters means not enough space to pitch around a lethal line-up.
And if these guys march intact through the season, it will probably be lights out for the Boston Red Sox. But the chances of all four of these guys staying off the disabled list during the season are slim indeed. They all have recent histories of injuries and, with the exception of Ellsbury, are probably past their prime years physically. Ultimately the Yankees’ success will depend on who fills in for these guys during their inactivity.
The Red proved they could respond to injuries in their championship season by pulling one magical replacement after another out of their hat. The most noteworthy was Koji Uehara, who stepped up after two big free agents went down for the season. Brandon Workman filled a chasm in the bullpen, when Andrew Miller was injured in the middle of his best season in the Majors. Daniel Nava stepped up when Jonny Gomes went down and proved the more reliable hitter and fielder. Mike Carp took up where Mike Napoli left off in the middle of the season and tore up the American League for a spell. Shortstop was a carousel of players from Stephen Drew to Jose Iglesias to Xander Bogaerts, each of whom could make us forget the one who was hurt.
Call it luck, if you will, but having capable replacements is what keeps a team alive in the long chase for the American League East Championship. It’s what made the Red Sox a long shot in 2013, but it’s what made them a team in the final month of the season.
Foresight or luck? If the Red Sox are also-rans in the 2014, we can concede it was mostly luck, but if the Red Sox show the same resilience, while the Yankees keep the infirmary busy, then you will have to say there’s a formula for success. Because the Red Sox are stocking their bullpen and rehabbing outfielders and trying out young pitchers just the same as last year.
The Yankees are betting $500 million that it was a lucky shot.
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?
Pedroia Gives the Royal Wave
Lord Pedroia, you define loyalty and determination. You are a model to the young, who hope to emulate your intensity. You offer every moment on the diamond to the service of almighty baseball. You make me your proud servant.
As your loyal subject, Duke of Fenway, I have a timely message to deliver. Resist the temptation to yank the ball to left and go with it to right field, as you do so well. (While you’re at it, mention this to Mayor Napoli, the Regent of Saltalamachia, and Squire Drew, all of whom will whiff at David Price fastballs, while trying to out-muscle him.)
No doubt I will receive your contemptuous stare for thinking I can give you batting advice. It’s not as if I invented the art of going with the pitch. It’s just that I can see you struggling with pitches, you have smoothly delivered into right field in the past, and I think, “His majesty is striving overly hard. He needs to relax and go with the pitch.”
Notice the stout Lord Ortiz who gently guides the ball into left, when they pitch him away. He knows he can jack it and often he does. He takes what is served and serves it right back. Notice the Earl of Ellsbury who slashes the pitch to left, spinning toward the foul line. He gave up on his long-ball aspirations and raised his average fifty points. The Baron Nava patiently watches the world go by until he takes the two-strike pitch to the opposite field. O.k., maybe the Baron could be less patient.
When I see these pretenders negotiating with the fierce Price or the relentless Moore, I think, “His majesty can negotiate with the best of them. Indeed look at the fine contract he has negotiated with Count Cherrington. He acquitted himself with such dignity to complete a prosperous contract in the midst of the tourney. Surely he can out-fox the sinister Sir Price!”
My lord Pedroia, I implore you. Hold back a modicum as the pitch slips over the outside corner. Swat the delivery into right field and take your modest station at first base. You will vanquish the fearless Price and his minions of the bullpen. You will humiliate them with the might of small ball and win the war of attrition.
I beg your forgiveness for my impudence and wish you Godspeed on Monday.
Your loyal servant,
Now that Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz have been signed to contracts, the Red Sox should consider getting the jump on Steve Boras, Jacoby Ellsbury’s agent. These three players represent the heart of a team that has shifted personnel with abandon in the last three years. If there is a core to the team, they are it.
Ellsbury is a special case, because he has the ruthless Steve Boras as an agent, but ultimately the decision to sign is Ellsbury’s (as far as I know). As I argued in the spring, Ellsbury represents a critical mass of players the Red Sox brought through their farm system and managed to stay with the parent club for more than a cup of coffee. They include Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, John Lester, Clay Bucholz, and Felix Dubront. Maybe Jose Iglesias. For each of those there are two or three talented recruits who were traded and successfully transplanted. Lots of talent leaks out the Red Sox farm system.
Perhaps this idea of retaining the talent from your farm system is archaic, with the significant fire sales before the trading deadlines. There is already talk about the great reserves the Red Sox have to trade for pitching before July 31.
But talent can be squandered, too, and many successful teams have used their farm systems to great advantage, such as Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh. These teams are compelled to develop their own talent for lack of revenue, but they are the look of the future, because they have taken the time to grow their own stars.
Jacoby Ellsbury has reached a place where his speed and timely hitting have made him indispensable. The Red Sox have lacked a good lead-off hitter for most of their existence, and Ellsbury has the potential to be the gold standard in that role. With some mentoring from Shane Victorino and support from those below him in the order, he could bring a consistent threat the Sox need against the top flight pitchers in the AL East.
Ellsbury should seize his opportunity as well. He has a good support system in Boston. The Red Sox have a number of experienced outfielders to keep the pressure off him. Fenway fans are savvy and appreciative of contributions, not just the power and RBI numbers. You need that appreciation when you bat first in the order.
So let’s get this contract done. Take Steve Boras out of the loop and give Ellsbury the security he needs at this stage of his career. If there’s a chance to build this team with solid, homegrown talent, let’s seize it. Ellsbury forever!
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.