Ed Note: Watched Pedroia drive in three runs with two solid hits today, March 25. I could be wrong about 2016. Maybe this will be the year he starts hot. Couldn’t happen to a better guy. If I am about to eat the words dished out below, hallelujah!
Dustin Pedroia, for all his preparation and hard work, never seems ready for baseball in the spring. I remember his first year, beating everything into the turf and even looking uncomfortable in the field, and he seems to come out every season in the same funk.
In yesterday’s exhibition against the Mets he hacked his way through another oh-fer and airmailed a throw to the plate, when he had no chance to get the runner anyway. He gets a lot of AB’s in the spring, more than most starters, but he continues to flail and flub like someone trying to break in to a new position.
Pedroia has always been my Red Sox hero. He is the Tom Brady of the Red Sox for his loyalty, for making fellow players better, for his obvious hustle. He never jumps into controversy for fear of hurting the team. He keeps his head down and runs out every grass-cutter in the infield. How can you not like that kind of player?
Well, I don’t like him much in the spring, because he looks like he’s learning the game all over again. When he is hitting, he takes the outside pitch to right field. When he’s slumping he takes vicious swings and pounds the ball into the turf– a portrait in frustration. I’m thinking, “Go the other way, Dustin. You know how good you are when you do that.” Still he swings vainly from his heels.
And it’s probably a lot more complicated than that. But why the spring malaise? Why do we look at the bench for Brock Holt, when Pedroia is the soul of the Sox? Yeah, we know something magical will happen in May and suddenly pitchers can not get him out. But what about the first month, Dustin? What’s going on then?
Yet I know no one is harder on himself than Dustin Pedroia. His frustration will be double mine. He mutters to himself and pounds his bat and glove into the wall, living the curse of spring. While I mutter, “Take it to right, Dustin.”
Ironically Clay Bucholz managed to avoid the Fire Sale of 2014 by having a dismal season far below expectations. His performance remains an enigma with curve balls sharp and lethal, but change-ups and cutters wild and unpredictable. No one vied for his services, so he is the last man standing in the Red Sox rotation.
That would not have been the case in July, 2013, when he was the subject of many inquiries about pitching. In the late Spring of 2013, he was the most dominant pitcher in baseball. In this space I lobbied for him to be Opening Day pitcher in 2014.
But the dominant Bucholz mysteriously disappeared while he was on the disabled list, so he became the problem instead of the prodigy.
It may be too soon to write off the talented Bucholz. He still shows some spectacular change-ups and the cutter often goes where he wants it to. Bucholz actually has the chance to head up a young and unproven pitching rotation. I’ll try not to oversell him this time, but I have seen the brilliant version (1.0) of Clay Bucholz and will not give up on its revival.
Juan Nieves has his work cut out for him, with a reconstituted pitching rotation, but he knows what he has with Bucholz. There might still be a dazzling return to the days of Bucholz 1.0
Not me. The beaning of Alex Rodriguez shows that the clean players in baseball want to make the dirty ones suffer. In his entire career I have never felt sorry for Alex Rodriguez before Sunday night. I did feel sorry for him, because he wanted to play despite his transgressions and Dempster and the Red Sox wouldn’t allow it.
This also says something about how I feel about hitting a batter to make a statement. There is no reason for a pitcher, who has a weapon, to attack a batter who is standing at the plate unprotected except for his helmet. To me it is a coward’s statement to throw at a batter. To say it is part of the game shows that the game has some growing up to do.
The savvy and wise will speak of the unwritten laws of fairness, and managers like John Farrell will insist, contrary to all evidence, that it was only a strategic pitch inside. It was what it was. Rodriguez, for once, was standing at the plate following the contract supported by the Players’ Association, and he was targeted three times with a baseball. That’s weak.
I was not proud of Dempster and the Red Sox on Sunday night. They may have made a statement, but making it with a ball that can maim a player is poor sportsmanship, Major Leagues or not. Let the players who think this is a travesty say so, as John Lackey did on Saturday. The rest of you shut up and play ball.
The Red Sox have never hit like a good road team. They are very comfortable hitting the wall and the corners of Fenway Park, but they lose their confidence on the road. That would have been good enough in a rebuilding year, but now we think they are contenders.
Contenders do not always play from behind or wait for two strikes to start swinging. Contenders do not depend on big swings to produce runs. Contenders are not predictable.
At home the Sox score early and they take what the pitchers give them at the plate. On the road they wait and watch and take third strikes. There is no excuse for taking a third strike except for the occasional breaking ball that leaves you flat-footed. Facing the Royals the Sox kept holding back, hoping to get a free pass. Victorino even threw his body into a few pitches, a practice that will soon get him a reputation among umpires.
The hitters that are getting on base, Ellsbury, Gomes, Drew and Ortiz, are taking what they get and putting the ball in play somewhere. The hitters that are watching the strikes go by and then flailing, currently Pedroia, Napoli, Saltalamacchia and Nava, are always hitting behind in the count and then swinging from the heels. Pedroia, of course, always swings from the heels, but when he’s hitting well, he takes the ball to right field.
On the road the Sox don’t play much small ball. The days of powering their runs over the plate are gone, but that doesn’t mean they can’t score by bunting, stealing and moving the runner over. The double plays are killers, and the Sox should be playing to avoid them. The crazy running and sacrificing game the Astros modeled in Houston has its virtues, especially when the home team is not expecting it.
Which brings us to predictability. When the Sox are predictable, they lose. What is predictable about their game? Taking the first pitch, hitting into the defensive alignment, yanking the ball on the ground, pitching into high counts, never pitching out. These tendencies give their opponents an advantage, because they can defend them more easily.
The Beantown boys do all the right things at home, where they feel confident and expect to win. On the road they are much more predictable and defensive, both hitters and pitchers falling behind in the count. You can call it a slump, but contenders break slumps by aggressive and unpredictable play.
The players that demonstrate this kind of aggressive play are Koji Uhehara and Stephen Drew. (Yes, I am through maligning Stephen Drew).
Uhehara throws strikes and never pitches from behind. Of course he only has to do it for one inning, but that’s his job, and he does it with flair.
Drew is a fairly discriminating hitter, but he does not get behind in the count much. He is not waiting for a walk or the ideal pitch to hit. Earlier he was taking third strikes. Not anymore. He is putting the ball in play all the time, and he does it early in the count.
The Road is long and winding, and you have to navigate it with confidence, if you are a contender. Because the Red Sox are truly contenders, they should take the road aggressively and play with confidence, even though when they play on the other guy’s turf.
What do the Red Sox need to capture the American League East in 2013? Everyone is talking about pitching, because pitching is what is available, but what the Sox need is hitting. They need to fortify the soft spaces in their line-up. And maybe a relief pitcher.
First, we have to concede that there are two positions that don’t always command offense: shortstop and catcher. Those are acceptable soft spots in the line-up, and in those roles we have Jose Iglesias and Jerrod Saltalamachia. Stephen Drew? He was a mistake from the beginning. He has his streaks, but he does not make up for hitting slumps in the field. Iglesias does, and his presence at shortstop makes the whole infield better.
But if you concede two soft spots in the line-up, you can’t have three. Drew is the odd man out, and furthermore he is fragile, like his brother, J.D., who was equally fragile and erratic at the plate. So the Red Sox should trade for a consistent hitter, like Michael Young, and shore up the bottom of the line-up.
While we’re talking about defense, let’s consider platooning Mike Carp and Mike Napoli at first base, so the infield is tighter. Napoli may improve, but he is a defensive liability at first. Why not play him against left-handers, since he hits them so well, and play Carp against right-handers, since he has more experience at first base?
Finally, the bullpen. It has been hopeless in the last week, allowing opponents to stretch their leads beyond recovering. We need relievers who attack the strike zone. Craig Breslow and Matt Thornton are not attacking anything. Koji Uhehara and Junichi Tazawa show more aggressiveness and could be solid set-up men. Bring in another closer, and they could be even more effective.
As for the starting rotation, the Red Sox already have some exciting prospects in Brandon Workman and Drake Britton on the squad. One of these pitchers can certainly fill the fifth starting spot, supporting Lester, Lackey, Dempster and Dubront. They just need good support in the bullpen and more consistent hitting.
Clearly nothing will be resolved until the top of the Red Sox line-up resumes hitting, but once they get on base, they will need help from the bottom third to keep rallies alive. So bring in a live bat to toughen up the bottom of the line-up. The Red Sox need to be in every game, regardless of what devastating opponents take the mound.
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!
Some really short-sighted advice on Jackie Bradley: keep him and start him. We need hitters.
With so much speculation about Bradley’s need for experience and what the future salary implications will be, I thought it was time for some here-and-now thinking. Who in this line-up is currently hitting consistently? Ortiz? Pedroia? Ellsbury? Middlebrooks? Not so much. But Bradley? Oh yeah.
In a week, someone will need to get on base and score runs. Who has been doing that this spring? Bradley. The Sox will need some potent left-handed batters. Anyone answering that description in camp this spring? Oh yeah, Bradley!
We know this is a re-building year, so why not bring up players with a future with the Sox? Why not play the hot hand? Maybe he won’t be ready, but then someone has to move once Ortiz comes off the disabled list. That would be the moment of truth for Jackie Bradley. By then he will be indispensable or a work in progress.
Last spring I made the same plea for my favorite underdog: Pedro Ciriaco. The Sox waited till mid-season to bring him up, and he instantly delivered. He hit, he ran, he played the whole infield. Why didn’t that merit coming up in April with the major league team? I can tell you why. There was this veteran free agent infielder, who seemed like a sure thing. He was gone in July.
The Red Sox treat rookies like vintage wine. They will play no prospect before his time. I don’t subscribe to the vintner theory of developing ball players. You should play them to see if it is time. Middlebrooks was not thought to be ready for the big leagues. Then they had to play him to replace Youkilis at third. Whaddya know? The guy could hit!
With the hitters sputtering out of the gate, the Red Sox will need speed, defense and pitching to win games in April. Bradley can supply two of those and who knows? Maybe the guy can hit! Let’s find out if it is his time.