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?
I’m through second-guessing John Farrell. The man has “gut” intimations that defy numbers or logic, and they mostly have worked magic in the 2013 World Series.
Choose the players with the lowest averages on the Red Sox and place them in critical roles, and you have Farrell’s formula for success. Bat Jonny Gomes against right-handed pitchers, and he makes the difference in Game Four with a three-run homer. Start the defensive-back-up catcher, David Ross, in three out of five games, and the dude bats in the winning run in Game Five. Start the woeful Steven Drew at shortstop and watch him plug up the infield and execute miraculous double-plays. Start the youthful rookie Xander Bogarts at third and watch him work pitchers for walks and take pitches to right field, when they venture into the strike zone.
Meanwhile you bench players with proven talent during the regular season: Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamachia, and Daniel Nava. They have all started a couple of games, and they produced long at-bats and extra-base hits, when they did. (Except for Saltalamachia, who has slumped in the post-season). But they had to wait their turn, while the .220 hitters led the way.
Farrell deserves credit for his management of the middle innings pitchers as well. The starters and closers are no-brain decisions, but who to bring in for the fourth, fifth and sixth innings? So far Brandon Workman and Felix Dubront have proved nearly invincible in those roles. Probably they are logical choices for middle innings, but give him credit for seeing the vulnerability of Morales and Dempster and removing them from critical positions in the bullpen.
Bringing young talent like Bogarts and Workman along has been a specialty of the Farrell administration. Previous managers would never trust Pawtucket recruits in roles like this, but Farrell and his staff have hand-picked these rookies and turned them into Major Leaguers in a few short months. It shows not just an eye for talent, but for courage and maturity as well. For every Bogarts and Workman, there were several that did not make the cut this year.
So second-guessing is out of season for October. The World Series is not finished, but the record after five games is superb. Whatever hunches Farrell has left to play will be my hunches, too.
Mike Napoli deserves credit for playing through the pain of the plantar injury to his foot. On Sunday night he not only played, but drove in three runs with a double and a home run. He looked like the Mike Napoli of April who went missing for three months. Whether this is the real Mike Napoli or the once-in-a-blue-moon Mike Napoli remains to be seen.
But it takes plenty of nerve to play on an injury he describes as the pain of an ice pick stabbing you. Having given Napoli the Bronx cheer in this space (“Batting Crappily”) it seems only fair to applaud the guts it took to play with such pain. The Red Sox have a gutsy first baseman, if not a consistent one.
Meanwhile the jury is out on whether Napoli deserves a new contract at the end of the year. He still strikes out more than any other Red Sox batter, despite seeing more pitches than anyone in baseball. Apparently he is selective until he gets two strikes on him and then swings with abandon. That seemed to work in April, but finally pitchers figured he would rip at the high ones and the low outside ones, and the punch-outs started to add up.
I’ve given both Napoli and Stephen Drew a little spite this month, and both have found the groove and anchored the lower half of the line-up. It proves that the baseball season is long, and some players contribute seasonally. At the end of October you can put that all in perspective.
However, I’ll stand by my original judgments about both of these players. I place a lot more faith in Daniel Nava and Xander Bogaerts for the future of the team. Already Drew is sagging a little, and even shows uneven play at shortstop. Napoli may fare less well against American League pitching, because they know what he likes, and he misses a lot of pitches he likes.
But Napoli showed some intestinal fortitude on Sunday, and I would be heartless to ignore it. When the season’s tab is paid in full, Napoli’s feat should not go unnoticed.
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.
Apologies to Stephen Drew,
I hardly knew ya
I wanted to bench or perhaps platoon ya
But you were hitting .202
You had a brother J.D. Drew
Toiled five years on the Boston crew
Except for April, May and June
When his back was out of tune
Occasionally he could be spry
But that was only in July
Or when the stars aligned just right.
I figured it was only deja vu
When you went down like brother Drew
Your active days in spring were few.
The coming of Iglesias I knew
Portended ill for the likes of you
So I dismissed another Drew.
The Red Sox had a vision true
Of a healthy Stephen Drew
And hitting seventh, who knew
Your timely swings would save this crew
When hitters five and six were overdue.
You could hit with power, too
In August saved the Beantown crew
With timely homers, not a few
And flashed a glove with ground ball glue
A shortstop with a swing, it’s true!
I regret remarks undue
Of the second coming of J. D. Drew
Of unfair comparisons with Iglesias, too
Of thinking a shortstop could never brew
What the so-called sluggers had failed to do.
For remarks that made you deja vu
I apologize, Stephen Drew
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.
It has come to pass that the Red Sox need to fret about hitting more than pitching. The sidelining of Cliff Bucholz is worrisome, but it is also clear that John Farrell understands his fragility and intends to keep him healthy with rest. The bullpen has been a little unpredictable, but it is still deep in both left and right-handers.
The big worry is the bottom of the batting order, which is a rally-killer. There should be no day that Stephen Drew, Will Middlebrooks and Dave Ross, the .200 club, are in the line-up together. They each have something to offer the team, but, as a unit, they are they are a yawning burial ground where rallies go to die. As a group they prefer the strikeout, rather than putting the ball in play.
I make the case for Jose Iglesias as an every-day player, because he puts the ball in play and more frequently makes hits out of mere contact. No one disputes his defensive prowess, and I have argued he makes the rest of the infield better. To consider him now as an offensive player requires an altered appreciation for his talent.
It is also inspiring to see Jonny Gomes making better contact on the recent road trip. Everyone wants him to succeed, and he clearly has talent and a good eye at the plate. However, any day when Daniel Nava sits, the Sox are a weaker team. Nava, along with Pedroia and Ortiz, is one player I like to see with men on base. He also brings a decent glove to the outfield. Having four decent outfielders is a problem I like to have, especially when you have two suicidal performers like Victorino and Ellsbury crashing into fences and throwing themselves around the bases. But, please, let Nava play with as little rest as he needs.
Admittedly it is a delight to talk about the Red Sox as though they were pennant contenders, urging line-up fixes, instead of trades and siphoning reinforcements from Pawtucket. When you are talking about securing the lower third of the line-up, you are talking about competing with the best teams in the league, like Baltimore and Texas.
To say there is a grave pit at the bottom of the line-up, is to say we have a problem we can fix. So, please, don’t let the .200 club populate the lower third. Iglesias forever and Ross on the weekends!