The flocks have gathered for Spring Training, and it looks like the Red Sox are happy with the pitching staff and pitching prospects they have. Ubaldo Jimenez has signed with the Orioles, and the Yankees captured the pitching prize of the season in Tanaka. The Sox will match up with them with John Lester, Clay Bucholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Dubront and a cast of young, hopeful candidates.
No one in the rotation could be defined as a workhorse, with the possible exclusion of John Lester. They are not unfamiliar with the disabled list, especially Bucholz, who has yet to prove his arm has a full season in it. In spite of these questions the Red Sox seem to have a personnel strategy that runs counter to the American League East— bring on the youngsters!
The Red Sox have stocked their pitching staff with a number of home grown starters, considering Lester, Bucholz and Dubront, and they appear to have faith in the starters of the future in Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Drake Britton, Rubby DeLaRosa, Anthony Renaudo, and Matt Barnes. Workman has already proven he can start in the Majors. He is good enough to replace anyone at the bottom of the rotation. And Webster seems to be on the brink of gaining some composure to go with this astounding curve ball. And the others appear to be bonafide contenders. So the odds of coming up with two more starters out of Spring Training are good.
The exit of Ryan Dempster is a signal to all of these prospects that arms are for hire in Fort Myers this spring. That is a good signal to send to young pitchers, who need to feel that their time is now. They have the opportunity to join the staff of World Champions and a manager who knows pitching talent. A vacancy is just what the Red Sox needed to get their attention and get them on the fast track to the Major Leagues.
I was perturbed by the Red Sox’ inaction in the pitching market over the winter, and I think they are taking a risk now by depending on unproven pitchers. But I like the risk and I like a pitching staff that has roots in the farm system. It shows confidence in the drafted talent, the coaching in the system, and in the principle of loyalty. The Red Sox may yet prove that team loyalty is not an outmoded concept and that the young arms have realistic hopes of throwing for the parent team as soon as 2014.
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 .
His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at
(“The Pitcher,” Robert Francis)
John Farrell understands that pitching is the art of learning from failure. He was not a great pitcher himself, and he has nurtured a host of Red Sox pitchers through failure, among them Cliff Bucholz, Felix Dubront, John Lackey, and most recently John Lester.
Pitchers and quarterbacks are unique for throwing to miss the target. If you put the ball right into the strike zone or right into the receiver’s hands you risk a home run or an interception. Instead you throw to the batter’s weakness or the receiver’s strength, and the difference, as a poet once said of his craft, is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.
It was utterly painful to watch John Lester struggle with the strike zone on Friday night at Comerica Park. The man has won nineteen games in a season and thrown a no-hitter. As recently as this season he has flirted with a hitless outing, where his curves and cutters were biting the corners and baffling big league all-stars. He started Opening Day in 2012 and 2013, the projected ace of the pitching staff.
Lester was missing badly Friday night, turning Jerrod Saltalamacchia into a goalie blocking shots low outside, low inside. Some pitches were just off the plate and his eyes pleaded with the umpire to see them into the strike zone.
After Miguel Cabrera launched a three-run homer into the Tiger bullpen, I yelled at John Farrell on my television screen, “Now will you take him out?” It was 6-5, the Sox leading by one fragile run. But Farrell waited with the infuriating patience that baseball managers uniquely display. He waited while Lester walked the hapless rookie Garcia in the fifth and Pena, the ninth batter in the order in the sixth, then struck out Omar Infante.
Now he comes out and takes the ball from Lester with a pat on the back. The former journeyman with the Cleveland Indians sends his ace to the showers on a strikeout. Only a pitcher would understand what that meant to John Lester. He left on a high note after five innings of very low notes, many of them in the dirt.
In the meantime I’m gasping, “At last!” At least I wouldn’t have to witness the so-called ace squandering the rest of his five-run lead. Some shred of humanity in my cold fan’s heart is saying, “Yeah, but did you see the hell that guy went through for five and two-thirds innings? The man was practically on the cross.”
Remarkably it is the humanity of a baseball manager that makes him great, not his ruthlessness. Leave it to the basketball coaches to scream and throw balls at their players, the baseball manager has to reason with a pitcher and pat him on the rump when he takes him out of the game. And he keeps sending him out to pitch every five days, even though his cutter is biting the dust and his curve ball is missing the corners.
As baseball scribes declare, the game is a game of failure. You get a hit every three chances at the plate, you’re an all-star, every four times, you’re on the bench, every five times, you’re back in the minors. Your fastball catches the clean-up hitter napping, you’re a crafty hurler; it catches the sweet spot on the ninth hitter’s bat, you’re a chump who’s lost his control.
A little like life, isn’t it? A game of failures, where the strong accept and learn from them, and the weak are defeated by them. And our mentors and managers are there, patiently enduring our failures and patting us on the back for the smallest success.
The moment when Jacoby Ellsbury crossed the plate in the bottom of the tenth inning on Saturday was the beginning of the new Red Sox under John Farrell. The Sox had just beaten the Tampa Bay Rays with the same combination of aggressive base-running and pitching that the Rays had used to dominate the Red Sox in recent years.
The Red Sox held the Rays to one run with a succession of strong pitchers from the new John Lester and revamped Andrew Bailey to the relentless pounding of the strike zone by Koji Uhehara. For the Red Sox of previous seasons extra innings had been like Russian Roulette, with each reliever coming out of the bullpen a possible bullet or an empty chamber. In 2013 the chambers are mostly empty.
The Red Sox scored on a single, a stolen base, an advance on an overthrow and an infield hit. How many times had the Rays used that formula to beat them? The Rays have always been the fundamentally sound team that pushes their opponents into mistakes. That formula has worked consistently against the Red Sox since 2008.
Another way the Rays could beat you was getting run production out of role players with .200 batting averages. On Saturday the Red Sox plated their other run with a home run from their back-up catcher, David Ross. That catcher, if he never hits another home run, will earn his keep throwing out base runners.
Fabric is the key to the new Red Sox. Defensive fabric and offensive fabrication. The beauty of this style of game is that it can produce a victory on any given day, not just the day Will Middlebrooks hits three home runs. The Sox could always win with power. Now they are winning with fabric.
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.
The proactive signing of Jacoby Ellsbury to avoid arbitration was a welcome show of good sense between the parties. The Red Sox have a worthy record of signing all their arbitration-eligible players since 2002. Now if they could only lock up long-term contracts this way.
Admittedly Ellsbury still has to prove he can stay healthy for a full season to be worthy of the big payday. I can still remember the gifted Jimmy Piersall, another center fielder, who never reached his potential due to a penchant for throwing himself at baseballs and down the base paths. Pete Rose could do it with impunity, but some players simply do not bounce off the turf. They bend and break.
But the Red Sox have spent many millions on players with shaky physical credentials, just look at Stephen Drew and Mike Napoli this year. Yes, they are only one-year investments, but the assumption is that they might be re-signed after a healthy season. Other reclamation projects, like Franklin Morales and Andrew Miller, paid off with handsome dividends and have also by-passed arbitration with modest contracts.
But if Ellsbury manages to play healthy at nearly the level of the 2011 season, the Sox should lock him up for another ten years. From Ellsbury’s point of view this move could make sense for several reasons:
- 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
Much of the argument relies on an archaic concept of “team” that the Red Sox should nurture, now that they have moved their “rent-a-stars,” Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. There will always be flux in the personnel of Major League teams, but Red Sox fans have appreciated loyalty in their players and consistency in their lineup. One reason Pedroia and Ortiz are loved in Boston is their devotion to the team on the field and in salary negotiations. The Red Sox should honor this loyalty and try to cultivate it in other players, like Ellsbury and Lester.
Signing Ellsbury to a long-term contract will certainly depend on whether he can make it to the All-Star Break without visiting the “Disabled” list. Given a show of good health and consistency, the Sox should try to wrap up Ellsbury’s contract for the coming years as soon as possible.
With Scott Boras as his agent, Ellsbury may prefer to test the riches of the free agent market. But Ellsbury may have the loyalty of a Pedroia or an Ortiz buried in him. He may see the value of a consistent team culture and a throng of adoring fans when he plays at home. He should certainly weigh those intangibles against the riches to be gathered in another ball park.
Here is one fan who is ready to say–“Ellsbury forever!”
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?