After enduring a season with the worst-hitting outfield in baseball, the Red Sox have an embarrassment of riches: Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino, Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, and Jackie Bradley Jr. All seven are bonafide starting Major Leaguers, but only two are guaranteed left-hand hitters: Nava and Bradley. Victorino has resumed hitting from the left side, but his jury is still out.
Given that Bradley has not proven he can hit Major League pitching, Daniel Nava has virtue as a back-up outfielder. Nava has shown some of the flair he wielded at the plate in 2013, and he is stronger from the left side of the plate. The fickle hand of fate points to Nava.
Allen Craig and Shane Victorino pose the most delicate of dilemmas. What to do with two once-been All-Stars who can not keep their bodies intact for half a season at a time? “Clutch” comes to mind when we think of both of these journeymen. Late innings and the fireballing reliever comes in to polish off the bottom of the line-up: who do you call? Craig from right and Victorino from the left. They manufacture hits against the worst odds and revive the sagging hopes of Red Sox fans. Would Nava or Bradley rise to that occasion? Doubt it.
Ultimately one of these players will be expendable because another team wants them, a team with an extra third or fourth slot starting pitcher. Package a minor league pitcher with one outfielder and you could have another arm in the rotation, someone to pick up if Joe Kelly or Clay Bucholz go down with arm problems. This is an unkind fate for a veteran like Craig or Victorino, but fate favors the young in baseball.
Fate also favors the left-hand bat, because the Red Sox are set from the right side. The projected starting line-up has two from the left side–Ortiz and Sandoval. Not enough to face the likes of Masahiro Tanaka and Corey Kluber. This favors Nava, Bradley, and Victorino as the reserve outfielder. One of these is guaranteed a spot on the Beantown squad.
In the next two weeks fate will gather up two of these brilliant candidates and toss them into oblivion or even a starting role on another stage. The Red Sox have seen this coming. Maybe their best move is yet to happen.
We’re all wondering if the Red Sox have again succumbed to the temptation to sign the biggest names possible and thrown team chemistry into the disposal. Pablo Sandoval was a likely target for a team without a run-producing third baseman, but Hanley Ramirez has not distinguished himself as a clubhouse guy or a durable every-day player. Could his signing signal the abandonment of Jon Lester in free agent negotiations?
And Sandoval is known as a free-swinger. Bringing him in along with Yoenis Cespedis suggests a change in hitting philosophy. Both of them like to swing outside the strike zone, and neither has an impressive on-base percentage. Does this signal the end of the patient hitting philosophy that has governed the Red Sox for a decade or more? With Sandoval, Cespedes and Mike Napoli in the line-up every day, there is going to be a steady breeze generated in Fenway Park.
So here’s a proposal that would preserve the approach that has won the Red Sox two World Series. Trade Mike Napoli and Yoenis Cespedes for some strong starting pitching. Keep the hustling and versatile Brock Holt and Shane Victorino to conserve the energy they bring to the line-up, wherever they play. Sign Jon Lester and Andrew Miller to preserve what has been great in Red Sox pitching. Count on one young pitcher to fill out the rotation and make sure you have four veterans to anchor it. Which of the many young talents can fill the fifth position is anybody’s guess.
It is heartening to see the Red Sox making bold moves, showing they want to be competitive immediately, but no one wants to see the follies of the past repeated. And certainly no one wants to be compared to the N.Y. Yankees’ revolving door, which has failed to form a successful team for half a decade. We want to see home-grown athletes like Xander Bogaerts and Jon Lester succeed in a Sox uniform. We want to believe that the team has a soul, not inter-changeable parts.
So keep building this team, Ben Cherrington (and John Henry and Larry Lucchino), but build on the foundation. Don’t trade it away.
It’s a no-brainer that you need hitters who can drive in runs, but that is exactly what the Red Sox lacked this year. Forget the low team batting average and the spotty pitching out of the bullpen. It all turns on driving runs in after the table is set.
Yoenis Cespedes is batting .421 (16-for-38) with runners in scoring position. That’s changed the offense significantly in the last month, even given David Ortiz pitches to hit. There is hope that if one of those guys get to bat with runners in scoring position, something good will happen. Dustin Pedroia can be that kind of hitter when he is well. So is Shane Victorino. After that, no one.
But the Red Sox are now a young, developing team, and we may be able to say that about Xander Bogarts and Mookie Betts and Brock Holt in the future. They are talented young hitters who need some coaching and practice in situational hitting, but they all have the eye for it.
But batting average and power are not enough to score runs and win games. You have to hit when it counts. I question whether Mike Napoli and Daniel Nava and Will Middlebrooks have that skill. They’ll swing at bad pitches even with runners in scoring position. They may hit for average or power, but they are not reliable with RISP. They get desperate and look bad on the low outside or the high inside pitch. Not sure what their future is with the Red Sox, even though I like their desire and intensity.
How do you get that RISP hitting efficiency? I have no idea, but I wish Greg Colbrunn could bring these young players along. I don’t hear anyone giving him credit, so I question whether he is helping in this regard. It seems to me this is a skill that can be taught, even if some players like Cespedes seem to have it innately.
Everything else except starting pitching can be mediocre if you can hit RISP. The Red Sox have been great when they could and awful when they couldn’t. It was probably obvious, but it had to be said.
For my money the stars of the 2013 Championship Season were Koji Uhehara, John Lackey, and Shane Victorino. If all three of them played in the same game they probably shortened it by thirty minutes with their no-nonsense, step-up-and-play-ball attitude. I love to watch them play.
Then we have Junichi Tazawa, Felix Dubront and Jonny Gomes with their stalling, fussing, fidgeting rituals that slow the game to a sputtering crawl. Their shenanigans between pitches resembled golf more than baseball, as they tried to break their opponents’ rhythm, spiking my interest at the same time.
Leaving aside the conferences on the mound (often called from the dugout), there are two ways for players to slow down a baseball game: fouling off pitches till the pitcher gives in and taking breaks between pitches. The first is an art that the Red Sox cultivate in their hitters, the second are stalling rituals adopted by both hitters and pitchers to summon their scattered resources.
The Red Sox are less interested in cultivating the deliberate approach to batting and pitching. Josh Beckett was given the bum’s rush out of town partially because he would not speed up his game on the mound. Look at the pitchers the Red Sox have acquired since then: Ryan Dempster, Jake Peavy, Craig Breslow, and Koji Uhehara. These veterans are masters of aggressive pitching and they look like they’re in charge even when they’re getting pelted (especially Dempster and Peavy).
Tazawa is the sole exception to this trend. He looks like he’s staving off an attack of gastritis as soon as he comes in. He adds drama and stomach acid to his performance by grimacing and walking around the mound until he finally decides to deliver–what will it be–ball one! He managed well in the post-season with this ritual, so it looks like more of the same in 2014.
At the plate Gomes and Pedroia are the worst offenders, adjusting their wristbands with every pitch a la Nomar Garcia-Parra, and Gomes has an intractable problem getting his helmet to sit comfortably on his head. Ortiz likes to spit on his batting gloves, but he gets back in the box with business-like intent. Nava likes to back out and re-group, but he gets down to business with the same intensity as Ortiz.
Jon Lester was a portrait of anxiety and frustration early in the season, but come August as his control sharpened, he worked faster and faster. By the World Series the hitters were starting to back out on him, so methodical was his delivery. When hitters uncharacteristically begin to stall at the plate you know your mojo is working.
Baseball is a slow game, so you might think the true masters are the slowest ones. But quite the contrary, the masters are the ones who make opponents try to slow them down, the John Lackeys, the Koji Uheharas, the Justin Verlanders. When those guys are pitching for your side, it’s a pleasure to watch. At the same time, the Shane Victorinos and the Mike Napolis, who step up and glare down a pitcher, give you that feeling that no nonsense is happening here. Their posture says, “Let’s get on with it!” We are here to play ball!
With more guts than brains, but a lot of brains, Shane Victorino was the heart of a Red Sox team that played above its talent in 2013. Yes, David Ortiz is the soul of the Red Sox, and Mike Napoli played hurt and hefty with the bat, but Victorino was a Kamikazee in the field and at the plate, a magnetic field of hustle that pushed the Sox into over-achievement and beyond.
Except for his penchant for running through walls, Victorino would be my choice for center field in the spring. He is fearless to a fault, chasing down balls with reckless abandon. He was Gold Glove quality in the tough Fenway right field, but he had fewer close encounters with immovable barriers than in center field, and that kept him in the line-up in mid-season. And you had to love a guy who would try to throw out runners at first base after fielding the “automatic” single on one hop. He joked with acquaintances who would hustle into first ahead of his throw, but he was dead serious about throwing out the unsuspecting.
He was no less gritty in the batters’ box, leaning over the plate and inviting pitchers to hit him. Many did, but mostly by his reluctance to stand aside with a fastball bearing down on him. I kept expecting umpires to warn him about leaning in to the pitch, but he found the stance that eluded their scrutiny. He took many for the team, while turning on the pitches that caught too much of the plate, like the one he hit for a grand slam in Game Six of the World Series.
He is the only switch hitter I’ve seen abandon one side of the plate for his own advantage. Plagued by an injury that weakened his stride on the left side, he batted right-handed for the rest of the year, with thundering results. Many times I’ve wished switch hitters would give up on their weak side of the plate, Jerrod Saltalamacchia comes to mind, but they doggedly move to the pitcher’s opposite side, even when said pitcher handles both righties and lefties with efficiency. Victorino broke that tradition and hit right-handed most of the second half of the season.
We knew Victorino’s body was damaged in some way the entire year. He sat on the bench for a few weeks early in the season, but mostly he just played hurt in too many places to mention. When he got on base he ran on gimpy legs and still stole timely bases. We may have forgotten his injuries because they rarely affected his performance, but he was hurting in some way from May to October.
Victorino and Jonny Gomes were Ben Cherrington’s “impact” players who were worth more than their statistics revealed. They were energy in the dugout and inspiration on the field. But when you consider Victorino’s fielding, you have to give him the nod as the daily charge in the Red Sox engine. He was “Boston Strong” and “Hawaiian Hustle” in one tightly-wound package.
When I think of the Red Sox repeating in 2014, I think: if only Victorino stays well. Other players will make their contributions, but Victorino will set the pace.
This is belated praise for the architect of the 2013 Red Sox: Ben Cherrington. Perhaps he stood on Theo Epstein’s shoulders, but what he did in one off-season outshines any year under the Epstein regime.
Look at the box score of the final World Series game: who drove in the six runs? Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, and Stephen Drew, all free-agent signings by Cherrington. Victorino was one of the most-criticized signings, but without him the Red Sox are probably not even American League Champions. He is the definition of a money player, and one who gives up his body to winning every game.
What about the signing of Koji Uhehara after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were already in the bullpen? Probably no way to predict what role he would have on the 2013 Red Sox, but maybe a hunch paid off. The word was that Uhehara had an expiration date and could not be counted on for regular bullpen duty. That was no deterrent to Cherrington.
Less dramatically the trade for Jake Peavy surely paid off at the end of the season, as Clay Bucholz never fully recovered and Ryan Dempster became increasingly unreliable. Cherrington sacrificed Jose Iglesias in a three-way trade to bring in Peavy. Then we watched the early-blooming Bogarts make us forget Iglesias. Iglesias will be a full-time gold glove winning shortstop some day, but he might never have gotten that chance on the Red Sox with Bogarts breathing down his neck.
I’m not sure what role Cherrington had in bringing Brandon Workman from Double-A ball to pitching the middle innings of the World Series, but it was shrewd choice. The Red Sox have always promoted young players very cautiously, perhaps allowing them to languish in the Minors. Ryan Lavarnway is in danger of dying on the vine. But Workman had the confidence and aggressiveness with batters that the Red Sox needed throughout the playoffs. That mindset promoted him past the Allen Websters and Rubby DeLaRosas, who could not pound the strike zone.
And of course, Cherrington brought back John Farrell, who managed this menagerie with consummate shrewdness and sensitivity.
Arguably the loss of any of these role players might have brought the Red Sox up short in their run for the World Championship, which suggests that Cherrington was prescient, the most important role player of all. Pretty amazing for one year’s work.
I’m looking forward to the Cherrington years.
Oh, by the way, Ben, could we make a good run at Jacoby Ellsbury?
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?