RED SOX: A Lost Season, and Team

I’ve resisted this for so long.

I wanted to tell myself everything was going to be fine. I wanted to tell myself as soon as guys came off the DL and the pitchers started throwing to their capabilities, the 2012 Boston Red Sox would live up to their talent and contend not just for a Wild Card berth but the division title.

After winning five of their first seven games out of the break, it seemed like the corner was turned. But then the Blue Jays and the Rangers happened. With the team below .500 the latest in a season since the dreadful 2001 campaign, being buyers at the July 31 deadline isn’t an option for the first time in years. It’s either sell, stand pat, or make a Nomar-esque trade to shake up the present roster.

Hard to believe those are the only options for a team with this much talent, a payroll this big and ticket prices this high.

But for the first time since John W. Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino purchased the team, I have zero confidence this club will do the right thing. That’s because they seem intent on sweeping all the team’s obvious, glaring, smack-you-in-the-face problems under their vast PR rug and distract everyone with shiny objects like a 100-year-old “living museum” of a stadium.

They created this problem by allowing a model franchise that won two World Championships to turn into a bunch of griping, discombobulated ninnies who run to the papers anytime something goes wrong.

Here’s how we got to this point.

SIMPLE DYSFUNCTION BREAKS YOU CLEAN IN HALF

I feel no need to hash out what went wrong at the end of last season, we’ve been over it so much. What’s obvious is the team had a chance to address all the problems that made last season such an epic failure and they didn’t do it.

I didn’t have a problem with them not spending money in a depressed free agent market. In hindsight, trades should have been made to shake up the roster, and that didn’t happen. Sure, Kevin Youkilis is out of town now, but more moves should have happened and hopefully more will come.

What’s clear now is how epically bad the managerial search was handled. Yes, Terry Francona needed to go. It’s easy to forget now, but he made a lot of bad decisions in September (like hitting Jed Lowrie out of the cleanup spot) and there was no way he could come back after the collapse.

This managerial search episode, and the fall out, should clearly illustrate just how messed up this franchise has become.

The team president hired a general manager to replace the man who had constructed two World Series winning teams. That new general manager is a smart, capable man who other teams would love to have running their organization.

But as the team owner emphatically told a local radio station last fall, the team president “runs the Red Sox.” The perception that the general manager is little more than a puppet for the team president has never been quelled by either of the principle owners or the team president. Never.

So the general manager sets out to hire a new manager. He brings in about five extremely qualified candidates. He settles on his guy, a good, younger guy with a history in Boston who was well-liked by his old team. The general manager presents his guy to the owners and the team president. They sit down for lunch.

And they say to that winning candidate: “Thanks. We’ll be in touch.”

Now the general manager has to start over. Now. After his clear first preference was already known publicly. Now. He has to start over.

It’s a wonder the general manager didn’t quit on the spot.

The team president clearly had someone in mind. Someone who was a big name. Someone who would be perceived as being able to “whip the team into shape.” So weeks later, that man was hired.

Once again, the perception that the team president, not the general manager, hired the manager, was not disproved. It has still never been disproved. The perception that the manager was not the general manager’s choice is the accepted reality.

So what do they do with the manager the general manager never wanted? They don’t allow the manager to choose his coaching staff. Well, they let him choose the third base coach. Other than that, he has to live with the first base, hitting, pitching, bullpen and bench coaches they give him. Most of them are hold-overs from the last manager. And most of them are beholden to the general manager.

My guess is you’d be hard pressed to find many baseball people who would ever think an arrangement like this would work.

What’s even more confounding is, in what was likely a showing of mercy for the manager, they allowed him to bring in his own assistant pitching coach who sat on the bench for the entire first half of the season. Again, I haven’t seen, heard or read anyone with a background in professional baseball say they’ve ever seen an arrangement like this.

Not only that, but the manager who was apparently hired to clean up the team’s act hasn’t been allowed to truly be himself, not after he criticized the commitment of a veteran player. (The manager turned out to be right all along.)

So are we to be surprised when stories like this become public? Is it shocking at all that the bullpen coach usually says nothing to manager on the daily basis? That the pitching coach doesn’t tell the manager what he says to pitchers during mound visits? That the head trainer apparently holds more power than the manager in some instances? That some players take their gripes to the general manager instead of the manager, whom the general manager is perceived to have not hired himself?

Need I go on?

UNFOCUSED OWNERSHIP TO BLAME

Where are Henry and Werner in all this? Doesn’t it seem like those two were much more active in their roles as owners during their first six or seven years owning the club? How often do you hear either of them talk publicly about the problems of the Red Sox these days? If ever?

As I wrote in February, I don’t buy into the theory they don’t care about the team anymore. They have poured tons of money into the personnel and the stadium. They bought an English soccer team for a pittance and are trying to run a multi-layered business. That’s what businessmen do.

But they left the operation in the hands of Lucchino, who clearly didn’t have as much influence in the baseball operations side when Theo Epstein was in charge. Now he apparently does have that influence.

And perhaps, spending all that time running the business side has caused his baseball operations skills to erode. I don’t know how else you explain the mess on his hands now.

But would you hear him, or the owners, admit they’ve made any kind of mistake? Or have the courage to step up and fix the dysfunction, or at least tell the problem children to get their act straight?

Of course not. Because PR and making ridiculous amounts of money have become the most important things to Henry, Werner and Lucchino. Again, they want the team to succeed. They want a winning club and they’ve spent the money to prove that. But unlike 2002-2007, they want to be rich more than anything else.

How else do you explain Lucchino’s idiotic, tone-deaf, shameful letter to season ticket holders at the All-Star break? Are we really sure that letter was supposed to be for season ticket holders and not the Pink Hat, “Sweet Caroline”-singing, fair-weather morons who wouldn’t know Wade Boggs if he hurled a bucket of chicken at them?

The club did a phenomenal job with the 100th anniversary celebration, which I witnessed in person and will go down as one of my all-time favorite memories as a Red Sox fan.

But why does just about every other promotion, every other PR move, every other decision, every other word that comes out of their mouths, seem to be catered to the people who didn’t know the Red Sox existed before 2004?

The endless pursuit of placating the casual yet well-to-do fans has caused the owners to take their eye off the ball. If this club misses the playoffs, they will surely blame it on injuries, which is such a sick insult to the fans with IQs higher than salad dressing.

Do they think we’re stupid? Do they think we don’t read reports like the Edes link above? Do they think we don’t know how much of disaster things are behind the scenes?

Now we’re stuck with a team that badly needs to be made over. The die-hard fans will not only understand, but will be supportive of such an effort.

But then they’ll have to re-cut all the ads on NESN. And we surely can’t have that.

THE PLAYERS AREN’T WITHOUT SIN

Cody Ross has been fun to watch and he’s an easy guy to root for. Mike Aviles has grown into a strong defensive shortstop with pop. Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach are probably the best catching tandem in the game. Felix Doubront has exceeded expectations and appears to be a good 4th starter for the foreseeable future.

Aaron Cook and Franklin Morales have done more-than-admirable jobs as starting pitching depth. It’s been a lot of fun to see Will Middlebrooks become a productive rookie Major Leaguer. The bullpen overcame a wildly rocky start to be a solid, reliable unit filled with interesting characters and great stories. Daniel Nava’s a great story, too, of course.

Those are really the only guys on the team about which I have a purely positive opinion for 2012. Everyone else has either underperformed on the field, been a negative presence off the field, or haven’t been on the field long enough for me to fully form an opinion (although Jacoby Ellsbury hasn’t skipped a beat since coming off the DL).

I’m not going to get to everybody, but I wanted to make sure I hit on some key points about the following players:

DAVID ORTIZ: On the field, Ortiz has been by far the team’s best hitter. During this rough stretch of losing five of six his bat has been missed. But off the field? It’s pretty obvious he cares first and foremost about Big Papi. Every couple of weeks he’s been spouting off at the media, motivated mostly by his lack of contract security past this season.

He wasn’t wrong when he recently said playing in Boston was “starting to become the s***hole it used to be.” But this doesn’t seem like the right year for him to show so much public angst, not with the world crumbling around him. Besides, this is the third straight year he’s effectively been on a one-year contract. His OPS since the start of ’10 is .949. You think that’s a coincidence?

DUSTIN PEDROIA: It’s been an off-year for him, no question. He’s still giving max effort everyday and I give him every ounce of credit in the world for playing through his thumb injury, which was yet another injury mishandled by the team’s medical staff. I’ve lost count of how many that is now.

No one hates losing more than Pedroia. His leadership was obvious last weekend when he gave Jon Lester a very spirited, very public pep talk in the dugout during his horrendous start against Toronto.

But for the first time ever, I found myself extremely disappointed in Pedroia earlier this year. When Bobby Valentine publicly criticized Kevin Youkilis, Pedroia responded by saying what Valentine did was “not the way we do things around here.”

No one was closer to Francona than Pedroia. For him to cut the legs out from under the new manager during the first month of the season was inexcusable. While Valentine was forced to apologize to Youkilis, I highly doubt Pedroia was forced to apologize to the manager he embarrassed with that comment.

ADRIAN GONZALEZ: Why has the power not been there for Gonzalez? I’m not sure if even he knows. This month Gonzalez has picked up his play significantly and has been hitting the ball more in general, even recently earning AL Player of the Week honors.

My hope is he can somehow end the year with that OPS over or around .900. The counting stats aren’t as important, no matter what some people say, but the production is. I feel for Gonzalez, who I believe has unfairly become a lightning rod for much of the team’s failures this year. He is a quiet guy who goes about his business and is much more in the “lead by example” camp.

In this town, that’s not what people want to see as much as the Youkilis/Nixon/Pedroia/Millar/Varitek types (just ask J.D. Drew, who’ll go down as the most misunderstood Red Sox player of his generation). But that’s not who Adrian is. Any good team needs both types, really.

CARL CRAWFORD: I’ll preface this by saying I don’t have any problem whatsoever with Crawford as a player or as a person. He is driven, he wants to beat you every time he hits the field, he plays the game hard, when he’s on he’s fun to watch and he seems like a genuinely good, team-oriented guy who will battle through anything to get on a baseball field.

My problems stem mostly from how he’s been handled. Had the Red Sox had some kind of clear idea about how they were going to use Crawford from the get-go, and they’d stuck to it, few of my problems would exist.

After a disappointing 2010 Red Sox season, and with uncertainty about what kind of player they had in Ellsbury, they simply decided to outspend everyone else for the services of Crawford, who was the best free agent on the market, regardless of how he fit into the team.

They made a huge splash, had the press conference, made all the winter headlines and then said, “Well, we’ll figure all that other stuff out later.”

It’s like what happens when a studio attaches a huge star to a movie for which they have a title and a basic premise and then they say, “We’ll worry about the script later.”  I assume this happens with just about every Nicholas Cage movie.

Anyway, Crawford’s first season in Boston was mostly a disaster, with the manager losing confidence in him after three games and moving him to the bottom of the order, where he was never comfortable. Why is he here, and why did they spend all that money, for the guy to hit 7th or 8th?

Then there was the wrist injury. Then there was the even more serious elbow injury. Then there were the attempts to come back to soon, making the elbow injury potentially worse. Then he came back, regained his 2nd spot in the batting order, and starting hitting the ball as soon as he showed up. Everything’s great, right?

Then he stopped hitting. Then the manager dropped him in the order, again, despite hitting higher in the order against lefties earlier in his return. Then the manager started to pull him, the fastest guy on the team besides Ellsbury, for defensive replacements late in games because he doesn’t want Crawford hurting his elbow on throws.

So yeah, none of this makes sense. If Crawford is still really that hurt, why doesn’t he just get Tommy John surgery now so he can be ready for the start of 2013? And why doesn’t the team come up with a clearly defined role for a guy in whom they are investing $142 million? Is that too much to ask?

He’s got five years left on his contract. It’s still salvageable. But the effort to rebuild Carl Crawford into the great player he was has to start now.

JON LESTER: I could not be more frustrated, sad, angry, upset, you-name-the-negative-emotion than I am right now about Lester’s absolute stinker of a season. From day one, it’s either been mediocrity or sub-mediocrity from one of baseball’s best left-handed pitchers. There is no reasonable explanation for why he’s pitched so poorly at a time when the club needs him the most.

Not just that, but there’s been nothing positive about Lester’s body language, his attitude and his general demeanor at just about any given time this year outside of an overplayed Ford truck commercial. You can tell it’s eating at him inside and based on his comments, he wants so badly to get over it and pitch well. For that, I give him credit.

Other than his inability to pitch well, it’s hard to see what has got Lester so down. He overcame a terrible disease. He plays a game for a living. He has a beautiful wife and young son. He was a World Series ring and a no-hitter to his name. He’s 28 years old and has financial security.

Is it because Francona and John Farrell, who molded him into the pitcher he was before 2012, are out the door? Is it because he’s accepted that Boston is “the s***hole it used to be” and believes everyone from the media to the fans are against him? Or is it simply because of his poor performance?

The answer is not to trade him. At 28, his best years could still be ahead. I believe Lester is still a great pitcher. Maybe 2012 is just an aberration. But the team has no shot of success this year or next unless Lester pitches to his potential.

JOSH BECKETT: In the course of a few months, Beckett went from being a terrific pitcher I truly respected to being the Red Sox player I have most actively disliked since the heyday of Carl Everett’s head-butting and dinosaur-disbelieving.

Just about any self-respecting ballplayer would look back at the events of last September, look at both his on-field and off-field conduct and say, “I’m gonna show those bastards something when we get back.”

Instead, Beckett has been below-league-average starter the whole year. He looked roughly the same in spring training shape-wise that he did in September, which is to say he was not exactly cut like Gabe Kapler.

Injuries could play a role. His ankle injury last year was serious and he’s dealt with an inflamed shoulder this year. Because of that he’s apparently tried to become more of a finesse pitcher, throwing 90-92 instead of the customary 95-98 of his better years. The results have been mixed and his first inning struggles have become more infuriating by the outing.

I’ve heard a lot of people say Beckett is like Lester in that he could easily be pitching better. I disagree. I think this is what Beckett is now, basically a 4th starter getting paid like an ace.

And you know what? I could accept all that, if it appeared Beckett gave a crap. Or half a crap. Or any portion of a crap.

The fact that Beckett played golf instead of taking the mound with a sore lat wasn’t nearly as bad as his reaction to the whole thing. But he pitched like absolute garbage against Cleveland and put everyone off by not appearing the slightest bit remorseful about the uproar he caused, or even appearing to understand what it was that he’d done wrong.

Then came the endless string of starts after which he has refused to speak to reporters, including Wednesday, after his wild pitch directly resulted in the loss. Who is telling Beckett this kind of behavior is acceptable? If Nolan Ryan was his team owner, do you think any of this would be happening?

Again, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him. And it’s not even clear at this point that he actually cares about baseball, about pitching, about even acting like he cares.

This point was driven home recently when a TV camera spotted a mounted beer bottle opener on his locker at Fenway emblazoned with the words “First Class White Trash.” Could there be a more clear indication of someone completely lacking in self-awareness?

So do us all a favor, Josh. If the Red Sox come to you by next Tuesday at 4 p.m. with a trade out of town, don’t rely on what I’m sure will be your natural inclination to be a complete jerk and hold the team from whom you’re presently stealing money hostage.

It’s OK that you’re no longer the pitcher you were in 2007 when nothing would stand in your way to a World Series title. Because of your attitude, we’d just like you to be that shell of an ace somewhere else.

Waive those 10/5 rights and become someone else’s overpaid problem. Come to the realization that there’s no way you or the Red Sox will get any better until you stop infecting this clubhouse and leave.

Heck, I’m sure you’ll even have the chance to be getting paid by two different teams at the same time. How cool is that?

LAST THOUGHTS

There is light at the end of the tunnel, people. Perhaps this organization suddenly becomes functional, all of the current players play the best baseball of their lives the last two months and they go on to the playoffs and the World Series. The talent is currently here for that to realistically happen.

But don’t hold your breath. What the Red Sox should do is sell at the deadline then take a long, hard look at the roster in the offseason and come up with an actual plan, one that doesn’t take into account what people in Pink Hats will say. Do what’s best for the team. There are still smart people in the organization and lots of them. This can be fixed.

This can be fixed.

I’ll be repeating that to myself for many days, months and probably years to come. And maybe eventually I’ll believe it.

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