RED SOX

RED SOX: A Team at a Crossroads

Earlier today the Red Sox season came to an end after a fun, tense but ultimately disappointing ALDS Game 4 at a rainy Fenway.

I have a lot of thoughts about how the 2017 season went down and what’s to come next, so here we go:

IT WAS FUN. REALLY.

This particular incarnation of the Red Sox was a study in interesting contrasts. There were a lot of young players making their first impression in MLB playing alongside numerous longtime veterans. They only equaled their win total from 2016 but managed to win (and generally play in) an absurd number of close games, including going an unimaginable 15-3 in extra inning games.

And, for the first time in recent memory, the Red Sox saw consistency in their pitching staff while failing to join the MLB-wide trend of increased power, finishing dead last in the AL in home runs (168).

But I never understood how people could call this first post-David Ortiz Red Sox team boring or “unlikable” as was the narrative after the David Price/Dennis Eckersley kerfuffle.

The young core of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. was joined this year by Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers, plus Christian Vazquez finally came into his own as an everyday MLB catcher. That’s six guys 27 years old or younger who will be starters on this team going forward barring any trades.

Chris Sale was either the best or 2nd-best starter in the AL this year and Drew Pomeranz came out of nowhere to finish 10th in the AL in fWAR (3.1). Craig Kimbrel genuinely had one of the best years for any closer in baseball history, striking out just shy of 50 percent of all batters he faced.

And Price, who dealt with a significant elbow injury and a major PR disaster, was redeemed by returning healthy and pitching extremely well in relief late in the season and into the playoffs. Hopefully he can put what happened this past year behind him as 2018 presents a quasi-walk year for him.

But there was much to celebrate this season when it came to individual moments and performances.

I got to be in the park Aug. 1 for one of the craziest games I’ve ever seen, the one that included Austin Jackson’s unbelievable catch. I saw Vazquez hit a walkoff and I can recall few times ever hearing Fenway that loud.

Devers hitting that home run off Aroldis Chapman in Yankee Stadium to silence that crowd is something I won’t soon forget. Nor will I forget that catch by Bradley in the triangle to rob Aaron Judge.

Dustin Pedroia had a tough year injury-wise but he turned in the signature defensive play of his career with this play in Texas in July.

Benintendi showed us this year I believe a fraction of how good he can truly be. Sale wowed us every start and became the first appointment-viewing starter for the Red Sox since Pedro’s heyday. The bullpen, constantly tested by long and close games, came up big game after game this year.

I know this season didn’t end the way we wanted. But for those of us who watched night in and night out, it was memorable. And I’ll miss not watching this team every night. They were fun, and good. They just were.

WHAT WENT WRONG, AND WHAT’S NEXT

As I touched on above, the team’s biggest weakness was on offense and in particular a lack of power (they still finished 5th in team OBP and 6th in runs in the AL).

It’s easy to say this was because of losing David Ortiz, but it was more than that. Take a look at the OPS+ figures for these Red Sox hitters from 2016 and 2017:

Hanley Ramirez – 2016: 126 2017: 95 (-31)

Jackie Bradley, Jr. – 2016: 118 2017: 89 (-29)

Mookie Betts – 2016: 133 2017: 108 (-25)

Dustin Pedroia – 2016: 117 2017: 101 (-16)

Xander Bogaerts – 2016: 111 2017: 95 (-16)

You can blame some of this on these guys getting pitched tougher now without Ortiz in the lineup, but I don’t have empirical data to back that up. The bottom line is these five guys significantly underperformed in 2017 to their 2016 levels and that had a real impact on wins and losses and their ability to hang with the Astros in this ALDS.

Much has been made about the Red Sox refusal last winter to delve into the free agent hitting market beyond Mitch Moreland. Edwin Encarnacion signed for a pittance (3 years, $60 million) compared to his expected contract. I was OK with not going that route because I expected the remaining hitters could maintain or improve on their 2016 performances to make up for Ortiz’s absence.

The opposite happened and adding Eduardo Nunez at the deadline, while an effective move for about a month until he got injured, and turning over 3B to Devers didn’t do nearly enough to make up the gap.

So, with luxury tax penalties lessened for 2018 since the Red Sox managed to stay under it this year, I fully expect them to add at least one power hitter to this lineup, most likely at 1B. They are most likely stuck with the final guaranteed year on Ramirez’s contract at $22.75M (his 2019 option at $22M would vest based on plate appearances). Depending on who the Red Sox get, it could be a DH/1B timeshare between Ramirez and a new counterpart.

I don’t personally think the winter’s big free agent 1B, Eric Hosmer, really fits the bill of what the club would be looking for (he doesn’t really hit for enough power and would be very expensive). JD Martinez makes a ton of sense from a hitting perspective but it’s hard to see where he’d fit in besides as a full-time DH (with Ramirez then as a full-time 1B, which presents a lot of issues). Logan Morrison, who just hit 38 HRs for Tampa, would be a great fit but he’s only 30 and may be more expensive than the Red Sox would like.

They could explore a trade for someone like Joey Votto, the hitting savant who’d be loved here after years of being unappreciated in Cincinnati. His $25M annual salary isn’t an albatross, but he’s guaranteed for six more years and may not be as great of a player at the end. Plus, who knows if the Reds would even entertain trading him.

You’re likely to hear a lot about a potential Giancarlo Stanton trade this winter with the Red Sox likely prime members of that rumor mill. I don’t see it for a lot of reasons, namely that the Red Sox and every other team could’ve taken his massive contract for nothing in August and no one bit. As good as Stanton is and as amazing as his LF pull power would play at Fenway, he always gets hurt, his contract is way too long and by all accounts he’s kind of a jerk. Pass.

I doubt very much the Red Sox will add much on the pitching staff this offseason, barring trades of the current guys. The health of Price, Steven Wright, Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg will play a role in what happens there. I do wonder if Dombrowski starts to think a little more about the long-term with Pomeranz, Kimbrel and (potentially) Price all in walk years in 2018.

OK, LET’S TALK ABOUT FARRELL

I’ve come to believe there is no more thankless job in the world of sports than being the manager of the Boston Red Sox. Even the most successful Red Sox manager of my lifetime, Terry Francona, was called “Francoma” by parts of the fanbase.

When it comes to John Farrell, I made my feelings known last year that I think the vitriol toward him is almost entirely unfounded. Do I think he’s a great manager? No. I think right now there are only two managers in all of MLB I’d call “great”: Francona and Joe Maddon.

But Farrell is at best good and at worst competent. The idea he should be fired for merely being good is one that only exists in Boston where every nanosecond of action for any of our teams is overanalyzed by radio blowhards and social media crazies among others.

These are the facts about Farrell: he won back-to-back AL East titles, taking 93 wins both years. He manages personalities in the clubhouse well by all accounts. He’s very good at his media responsibilities which is a big part of the job. The players like him, for the most part (there were some rumblings this year about his difficulty connecting with the younger players on the team). He’s accountable when things go wrong. He appears to have a good relationship with his direct boss, Dave Dombrowski, and the rest of the front office and ownership.

But, still, he’s not remotely safe in the eyes of many. It’s fair to wonder if Farrell has taken this group of players as far as he can go and if another manager could do better. It’s hard to say sitting here, not being there everyday, if that’s true.

Part of me wants the team to can Farrell just because I’m getting extremely sick of this storyline. He’d be fine. He’d get paid for the last year on his deal and would almost certainly get another managerial job as soon as he wants it. Red Sox fans are crazy if they think a team like the Mets or Tigers wouldn’t take him in a second.

If Farrell is let go, I don’t know who’s out there that would be better. For in-house candidates I’m sure the players would love to see Brian Butterfield get a shot. As much as he should be a big league manager, he’s also 59 and would likely just be a stopgap. If I’m the Red Sox, and the rift between Farrell and the younger players is actually an issue, I’d rather find a younger, analytically-driven manager who can connect and grow with those guys.

I’m not up on a lot of the possibilities that fit that description, but two former Red Sox World Champions come to mind. One is Alex Cora, current Astros bench coach, who is 41, has extensive experience running teams in Puerto Rico and as a player was someone I was certain would manage in the big leagues some day. The other is Gabe Kapler, 42, who was runner-up for the Dodgers managerial position heading into 2016. He’s managed in the minors and has a strong player development background.

I have no idea if either of those guys would be a better manager than Farrell. No one does. But if the team does decide to move on I hope it’s because they genuinely think they’d be better without him.

I think Red Sox fans should be prepared for news to break this week about a contract extension for Farrell. In the aggregate, it’s hard to say he doesn’t deserve it.

LAST THOUGHTS

As excited as I am for the future of this team, and as much as I’ll miss watching this group, I do have a twinge of uncertainty about them. It’s very clear both Houston and Cleveland are better than the Red Sox right now. Also the Yankees have a team on the rise and will have boatloads of money to play with over the next couple winters.

This Red Sox team is good. But will they be good enough to overtake those clubs the next few years? Dombrowski finds his team in a very similar situation to what Danny Ainge and the Celtics found themselves in this past summer. Sure, they had a good team that had just gone to the Eastern Conference Finals. But, were they great? Could they get over the hump to compete for a title?

Ainge decided to effectively blow up his entire roster in the name of putting together a great team. It remains to be seen if it will work, but he’s decided to take a risk.

The Red Sox have the aforementioned six young position players to build around. They have stars atop their rotation and an all-world closer. They have veterans in Pedroia and Ramirez who may be declining but aren’t necessarily albatrosses. All these things are good.

But what if Dombrowski decides that having a “good” team isn’t good enough? Then, once again, the Red Sox will steal winter headlines away from the teams actually playing.

I can’t wait to see what happens.

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RED SOX

RED SOX: Dombrowski in, Cherington out

Like with my post when Larry Lucchino stepped down as Red Sox president and CEO, I have many thoughts swirling around my brain about the hiring of Dave Dombrowski as the Red Sox first-ever president of baseball operations and the departure of GM Ben Cherington. As such, I will present my thoughts in bullet form starting…now.

  • There hadn’t been much indication the Red Sox were interested in hiring Dombrowski when word came down this week that it was, in fact, happening, and after being offered a chance to stay on, Cherington would leave. It took me by surprise for sure, and the Red Sox did a great job of keeping the whole thing quiet until they broke the news themselves. I’m excited Dombrowski is coming on board for a multitude of reasons, but my surprise is mostly due to what I believed was a philosophical clash between John Henry’s stats-driven approach and Dombrowski’s more traditional, scouting-based evaluations. But, clearly discussions between the two sides left both believing the arrangement will work. In all of his stops, Dombrowski has shown willingness to do the bidding of his owner (for example, building up, tearing down and then building back up the Marlins of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, then building up and sustaining success for the Tigers for nearly 10 years).
  • If the Red Sox were going to hire someone from outside the organization to run baseball ops, they could not have picked a better candidate than Dombrowski. For nearly 30 years, Dombrowski has been a successful GM, winning the World Series in Florida in ‘97, building the foundation for the ‘03 championship Marlins club, taking the Tigers to the World Series twice in ‘06 and ‘12 and nearly going there in ‘11 and ‘13. Mike Ilitch wanted to win a World Series and while it didn’t happen, it wasn’t for lack of work by Dombrowski. He made big, bold, ballsy moves throughout his tenure, signing the likes of Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez, while trading for Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. While running baseball ops, Dombrowski also drafted stars like Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson while also picking up scrap-heap guys like J.D. Martinez. So the pedigree for sustained success is there.
  • The biggest knock against Dombrowski in his time in Detroit was not putting together a championship-caliber bullpen. To me, this isn’t a huge concern. At different times, Dombrowski had guys like Todd Jones, Joel Zumaya, Joaquin Benoit, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria and many other guys with terrific track records in his bullpen. The problem with bullpens is you could put together a collection of All Star closers and there’s still a chance they all suck. These guys are so volatile and can go from being amazing one year to out of the big leagues the next. Dombrowski just never hit on the right mix. Don’t forget that in Florida his closer was Robb Nen, so it’s not like he has no idea how to find relievers.  
  • Dombrowski comes to Boston with a treasure chest of prospects, many at lower levels, and a solid amount of young talent at the big league level. It’s going to be very interesting to see how he handles those guys, since he has no attachment whatsoever to players drafted, signed or traded for before he arrived. In some respects that’s a good thing, since I think Cherington and Theo Epstein before him were hesitant to move prospects they’d brought into the franchise. At the same time, it’s up to Dombrowski to pick the right players to move to address the team’s big league needs. Based on his track record in Detroit, I have a lot of confidence in Dombrowski to do just that.
  • Dombrowski plans to hire a GM to work under him, mostly to cross the Ts and dot the Is on contracts, initiate discussions with other clubs and agents on moves, and generally ease the workload Dombrowski will now face. While the Red Sox will hold an interview process for GM candidates, much of the recent speculation has focused on Frank Wren, who worked with Dombrowski in Montreal and Florida and was most recently GM of the Braves from ‘10 to ‘14. Wren has a reputation as a bad manager of people and, like Dombrowski, doesn’t grasp analytics in a way Henry probably likes. He also signed Melvin Upton Jr. to a bad free agent deal and gave Dan Uggla an ill-advised extension. But, as Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointed out here, Wren did take the Braves to the playoffs three times as GM. And, it’s not like he’d have final say on baseball ops like he did in Atlanta. I wouldn’t get too hung up on who gets hired to be GM under Dombrowski. It will effectively be like what Cherington was to Epstein before Epstein left.
  • The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier has a good look at how Dombrowski may handle the logjam of DH-types the Red Sox currently employ, given that Dombrowski faced a similar conundrum in Detroit after ‘13. As long Dombrowski can drum up interest, I could see him moving Hanley Ramirez as early as this month and definitely in the offseason. As much as I love Hanley’s bat, there simply isn’t a position here for him. I like that Dombrowski didn’t simply stick to the club mantra that Ramirez will be the LF going forward. I’d stick with Pablo Sandoval at one corner and address the other corner in the offseason, depending on what’s out there. An outfield of Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo looks awfully good for next year. As long as they can all remember how many outs there are each inning, of course.
  • Dombrowski faces a very delicate, very difficult decision involving John Farrell. Under normal circumstances, when a new president of baseball operations comes in, they will understandably want the opportunity to bring in a manager they know can work with them. If Farrell were currently in the dugout, I’d have little doubt Dombrowski would fire him. Instead, Farrell is undergoing the fight of his life, receiving chemotherapy treatments after lymphoma was discovered during hernia surgery. It’s hard for me to imagine Dombrowski would fire Farrell while undergoing cancer treatment. But, at some point, a decision will need to be made. I would assume that may happen early in the offseason, since it will be a factor in free agent signings and the availability of other candidates. My guess is that if all goes well, Farrell will get a shot to manage the team next year but will be on a short leash. The only way that doesn’t happen is if a candidate becomes available that Dombrowski doesn’t want to see go elsewhere.
  • An exasperating game around here the last few years played by Red Sox fans and observers has been “Who is really running things on Yawkey Way?” With Dombrowski now in charge of baseball operations and Sam Kennedy in charge of business operations, I think we now have a much clearer picture of what’s going to happen. The buck on baseball decisions will stop with Dombrowski. If something goes right, or wrong, he will be pointed to. This is a very, very good thing for the Red Sox going forward.

I’ll wrap this up with some thoughts about Cherington. It’s hard to see him leave. I think I first became aware of Cherington around 2002, when he was one of several whiz kids the Red Sox were elevating to high positions following Henry’s purchase of the team. Cherington was hired as a scout under Dan Duquette. He leaves Boston as one of two general managers since 1918 to win a World Series for the Red Sox.

It’s hard to say Cherington deserved to keep his job, or at least all of his powers, after experiencing what will likely be consecutive last place finishes after winning the ‘13 World Series. For all the great moves he made to put together that team, nearly every move he’s made since has backfired. This is a results-based business, and the results simply weren’t there to justify Cherington continuing on as GM.

I think ultimately, Henry and Tom Werner didn’t trust that Cherington was the right person to turn this team around and find sustainable success. That’s got to really sting Cherington.

As a fan, I always held Cherington in high regard, and still do. He seemed like a truly honest, intelligent and thoughtful guy who worked very hard for over decade to get his chance to run the organization he grew up rooting for in small-town New Hampshire. He succeeded immensely, and then failed miserably.

Now he’s out of the picture. Based on numerous reports, it sounds like Henry and Werner were not entirely forthright with Cherington about their pursuit of Dombrowski and what it would mean for his future in Boston. Henry also claims he told Cherington about the Dombrowski discussions more than a week before Cherington said he was made aware of such talks. I can’t blame Cherington for walking away, especially in that light, after taking so many shots for the club’s failures since 2013.

After seeing things like this happen for so many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Henry and Werner are very good businessmen who’ve been successful in many walks of life…but they’re simply bad with people. Ask Terry Francona. Hell, even ask Lucchino. Look at the statement they released when Farrell left for cancer treatment. What happened to Cherington is probably the least egregious of all these. I’m not saying he deserved to keep his job, but he deserved better than this.

It’s still disappointing as a fan that this is apparently the way the guys who brought us three World Series championships feel they need to treat people and do business. Still, that didn’t keep a quality baseball executive like Dombrowski from coming here, so maybe I’m making too much of this.

I hope Cherington gets another shot soon to run a team.

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RED SOX

RED SOX: The Improbable Champions

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Shortly after the 2012 All-Star Break, I found myself no longer able to withhold my feelings about the train wreck known as the Boston Red Sox. I didn’t hold back in this space. Players, coaches, front office, owners–everyone was to blame for turning a proud franchise into a laughingstock.

Fast forward 15 months.

The Red Sox find themselves back on top of the mountain, holding the World Series trophy aloft for all to see, this ownership group solidifying itself as the best in franchise history with three titles in 10 years, completing a monumental turnaround and the most enjoyable season of my life.

How did this happen? How did the Red Sox go from a joke to improbable champions? No team in history had ever won the World Series after finishing the previous year with a winning percentage as low their 2012 mark of .426.

It took a commitment to going back to what had worked in the past. It took finding the right players instead of trying to assemble a superteam. And, for sure, it took a little luck to get here too.

BACK TO THE BASICS

The 2012 team was so profoundly screwed up I honestly wondered how many years it would take for them to be simply functional. When the Los Angeles Dodgers came calling to save the Red Sox from themselves last August, suddenly a swift turnaround seemed possible.

What Stan Kasten and Ned Colletti gave the Red Sox was a clean slate. Clearing the salaries of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez meant Ben Cherington would be free to mold the team in 2013 and beyond the way he wanted.

A lot got made of the team’s 93 losses in 2012 and while they certainly earned every loss, nothing that happened after the stunning waiver trade in August mattered at all. Bobby Valentine was the lamest of ducks and many who played down the 2012 stretch were not around for 2013. The Sox probably would have finished 2012 as about a .500 team without the trade.

Once the season ended and once Valentine was shown the door, Cherington could finally begin the process of creating his team.

When Theo Epstein briefly quit the Red Sox after the 2005 season, it appeared he’d lost a power struggle with Larry Lucchino. Just before spring training in 2006, Epstein agreed to come back in his old role with what appeared to be expanded powers over baseball operations. For the remainder of his time in Boston, Epstein seemed to operate with the autonomy he craved while Lucchino mostly stayed in the background, where he belongs.

Well, Lucchino was much more out front during the 2012 debacle, when it was never disproved that he overruled Cherington’s move to bring in Dale Sveum and wound up instead with a total buffoon as manager.

You wonder if John W. Henry, who always loved Epstein and questioned his own wherewithal to own a big league club when Epstein fled Fenway in a gorilla suit, stepped in during this scenario to make sure that once again Lucchino took a step back to allow Cherington to make all the important decisions.

I’ve got nothing against Lucchino as a businessman; he is, however, miscast as a baseball decision-maker and once again to a needed backseat this year.

With that, Cherington focused his offseason plan on bringing in trusted, character-laden veterans on short-term deals, handing out no contracts longer than three years to any new players. They would join the existing core of Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey Cherington wanted to build around.

The first of those signings was a two-year pact for David “Blue Wolf” Ross. When they signed Ross, a longtime National League catcher known for his fantastic defense and game-calling, I knew Cherington was trying to take the club in a new direction.

There was a thread between Ross, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli: They were high-character players with successful track records both on and off the field whom Cherington believed could handle the pressure of Boston.

Nearly every one of those players lived up to expectations in one way or another, an astounding success rate not likely to be duplicated soon. The signings remind me of those Epstein made before 2003 and 2004 including Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, Mark Bellhorn and others.

Dempster gave the Sox 171 innings of league average performance. Gomes became a spiritual leader of the club, coming up with key hits and posting a .344 OBP. Drew, while maligned by many simply because of his name, was a major piece while healthy, knocking 13 dingers and providing rock-solid defense.

Victorino turned into a fan favorite quickly, assuaging fears that he’d received too much money ($39 million) to justify his performance. He hurt himself early in the season crashing into the right field wall and battled through a myriad of other injuries to club 15 homers, go 21-of-24 in steal attempts and provide sterling right field defense.

Napoli also dealt with his share of injuries and some ups-and-downs at the plate. But he still hit 23 homers, posted his best OBP in years (.360) and made himself into a great defensive first baseman after a career behind the dish.

But then, there’s Uehara. Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, two “proven” closers, both went down with injuries and the Sox turned to Uehara, who I felt going into the year would be too fragile to pitch on back-to-back days. He sure proved me wrong.

After he was named closer in late June, these were Uehara’s numbers through the end of the regular season: 44.1 innings, 59 K, 2 BB, 2 ER, 14 H, .097 BAA, 0.41 ERA, 0.36 WHIP. Then in the playoffs, Uehara went 13.2 innings, 16 K, 0 BB, 1 ER, 7 H, 0.66 ERA, 0.512 WHIP.

These numbers aren’t just great. They defy logic. Nobody should be this dominant in Major League Baseball. Especially not when all you have is a 90 mph fastball and an 85 mph splitter in your arsenal. His ascendence allowed guys like Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa to settle into appropriate roles and the bullpen was a great strength all season.

Uehara was also hopefully dispelled the notion, at least locally, that you need a “proven” closer to win. In fact, the last three World Series winners have now ended their championship runs with a different ninth inning man from their Opening Day closer.

The Red Sox also may have dispelled the notion you need a proven manager to win it all, too.

THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE JOB

John Farrell’s tenure in Toronto was obviously rocky. I don’t know how else the asking price to negotiate with Farrell went from Buchholz to Mike Aviles in one year.

But Cherington knew Farrell was the right fit here. Familiarity with many of the players was one thing, but Farrell’s education at the feet of Terry Francona ensured he would know the right way to handle a winning ballclub in a rabid market.

At the time of his hire, I didn’t think Farrell was any more or less special than guys like Brad Ausmus who’d interviewed for the job. But Farrell had something the other candidates didn’t: the approval of every important decision-maker in the organization. When recent history suggested discord throughout the franchise, stability in the manager’s office and a voice everyone could agree on was not to be underestimated.

Farrell still has a ways to go as a field manager and tactician. But he learned from his struggles during the playoffs, including throwing a useless Franklin Morales to the wolves in ALCS Game 6 and the out-and-out catastrophe of World Series Game 3.

But unlike his direct predecessor, Farrell handled the ins and outs of the job extremely well during his first year as manager here. Sure, the manager’s job is easier when the club is stocked with talented players who come to play every night. Yet it was clear from the first day of spring training this was his team and his commitment, intelligence and communication skills permeated through the organization. Heck, not only did Farrell actually talk to all of his coaches, they were all extremely important assets to the final result this year, with Brian Butterfield, Juan Nieves and Torey Lovullo in particular making big contributions.

There’s been a lot of debate in baseball in recent years about the importance of managers, with general managers increasingly having a bigger say in what happens on the field on a day-to-day basis.

As the Red Sox disproved conventional wisdom about bullpens this year, can they too stand as a shining example that managers do, in fact, matter in the modern game? If Valentine were still around, do we really think this club wins the World Series? I sure as hell don’t.

With Farrell providing that stability and the undeniable fact he will continue to improve, the manager won’t be an area of concern moving forward.

WHAT THEY MEANT TO ME

The achievement of the 2004 Red Sox will always be the most amazing experience a baseball fan could have and something I know I’ll still look back on with the same fondness at 87 that I now do at 27. Three years later, a different Red Sox team mowed down the competition as a wire-to-wire champion with a memorable playoff run of its own.

But 2013 was different, and more personal, for me. I moved to the Boston area in January, a move that gave me more opportunities to be at the park when spring arrived.

I went to 10 games at Fenway in 2013, starting with the second home game of the year which actually marked the end of the vaunted “sellout” streak and ending with ALDS Game 1, when Wil Myers forgot how to play outfield and the Sox trounced the Rays to take their first step to the title.

I was in the park when Victorino came up with his first big hit in a Red Sox uniform, when Gomes sent us home happy with an interleague walkoff, when the Sox put up 20 on the Tigers and David Ortiz cracked his 2,000th career hit. I was there for Jake Peavy’s first start after the “controversial” trade of Jose Iglesias (that any smart baseball person would do 100 times out of 100), for Napoli’s grand slam to ice an April win against Oakland, for a seven-run second inning against Toronto in June, and for an amazing September start for the ace, Jon Lester, against the Yankees (I saw Lester start five games this year and the Sox won each game).

Then on Saturday I got to attend my first championship parade after watching my favorite teams win eight titles since 2002. It was a phenomenal experience, seeing the joy on everyone’s faces on Boylston Street, where just a few months before the horror of the Marathon bombings jarred the region.

I watched as Ortiz hopped off his duckboat and started jogging towards the Marathon finish line, an incredible sight that made the entire day unforgettable in and of itself. (PS: Guess what, terrorists? You lost.)

More than any other year of my life, I felt connected to this Red Sox team. That’s why the 2013 campaign and playoff run will always be the most special to me as a fan.

Next year’s team might be very different, with Jacoby Ellsbury likely to funnel a solid contract year into the lucrative deal he wanted when he got Scott Boras as an agent. He’ll be tough to replace unless he agrees to take a shorter term deal here, but I expect Napoli, Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to all be back. There’s a surplus of starters, as well as young talent, so be prepared for a move that will net the Red Sox a big bat.

Xander Bogaerts, the 21-year-old Aruban inserted into the postseason lineup who displayed poise and maturity in all phases of the game, has potential to be a franchise cornerstone. I can’t wait to see him progress and eventually form a formidable double play tandem with Pedroia.

But the future can wait. For now, this team deserves to be celebrated for its amazing accomplishment. They exorcised the demons of their immediate past to stand taller than all comers by being a team and playing together.

In short, the Red Sox got back to what made them great when Henry & Co. came to town. Here’s hoping that will continue to make them great in the years ahead.

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MLB

MLB: The Pride of The Valley (And, A New Promise)

lockejpg_originalWith the return of the greatest game on Earth comes a commitment from me, to you.

I blogged on a regular, nearly-weekly basis for at the end of high school and the first couple years of college. I’ve decided it’s time to get back to that and share my thoughts on baseball with you every week.

Each Monday throughout the season there will a blog on baseball in this space. I’m attempting to model it somewhat after Buster Olney’s daily blog on ESPN.com (a big-picture take, followed by links), except that I’ll be doing mine weekly.

This is for real, people. I’m going to do this, even if it kills me. You will get fresh takes from me every week. If I don’t, get at me about it.

In case you missed it, here is my annual American League preview, which doesn’t contain many predictions but just a general feel for each club.

For my first edition, I figured I would share something very few people have seen that seems particularly timely given some recent happenings.

As many of you know, I played baseball from T-ball through my senior year at Kennett High School in Conway, N.H. During my last three years at KHS, I played with Jeff Locke, one of the greatest baseball talents to ever come out of the Granite State.

Last Wednesday, news came down that Jeff, who made his MLB debut in September 2011, had won a spot in the Pirates’ starting rotation after a spring training competition.

I can only imagine how proud people were up in North Conway following the news, especially for his mom, dad, two sisters and all of his immediate and extended family.

Jeff was certainly born with talent, but I can tell you from experience he worked so hard from an extremely young age to live out his dream. To see him get rewarded for that work is nothing short of exhilarating.

Jeff and I were very close those three years, and the year after when I was a part-time coach at the high school. Although I didn’t have anywhere close to Jeff’s ability on the field, we shared a fierce, intense passion for baseball that we didn’t see in many other people around us.

I slept over his house countless times, gave him rides to school before he had his license and trekked with him all over the state to play the game we loved. More often than not, we won, and won big.

There was a weekend, several weeks before the start of one of our seasons, when Jeff wanted to play catch. His boyhood home was feet from the car dealership where his dad worked. We walked over to a back lot behind the dealership and amidst tall snow banks and a dusting of snow on the pavement, I tossed the baseball back and forth with a future big leaguer.

Over the years, when people would ask me if I thought Jeff would make it to the Majors someday, I’d tell them I didn’t think he’d make it, I knew he’d make it. How did I know? Because of days like that January or February morning in Redstone, when our footsteps left snowy impressions on cold pavement, when no amount of snow or cold would keep Jeff from working to attain his dream.

After Jeff’s made the Pirates’ rotation last week, I dug out a paper I wrote for my creative nonfiction class during my freshman year of college. From what I can tell it was written in April 2006, just as Jeff’s memorable senior season at KHS got underway.

I can’t recall specifically what the assignment was, but I interviewed Jeff and one of his fellow players for it. It’s interesting to look back on that time now, a few months before he’d be drafted in the second round by the Braves, a few years before his trade to the Pirates, a few more years before his MLB debut and more years still before Wednesday’s great news.

I present, in full, the paper I wrote about Jeff as he stood on the precipice of a professional baseball career. Enjoy. I’ll be back with the first regular edition of this blog next Monday.

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           It is just another day, another game, and another inning for Jeff Locke. Staked to a fairly decent lead by his Kennett High Eagles teammates in this baseball game, Locke, the tall, slender senior with raven-black hair and a very serious demeanor at the moment, heads out to the pitcher’s mound for the bottom of the fourth inning. His opponents today, the host Oyster River High Bobcats of Durham, New Hampshire, send up their first batter to face Locke. The sun beams down brightly, the way it should on an April day meant for baseball. The wind blows dusty swirls from the infield dirt into the faces of a few hundred onlookers, admittedly not a typical amount for a regular season high school baseball game anywhere in New Hampshire. Many on these sidelines are friends and family of those playing in the game today, while others are there just to see the boy on the pitching rubber: Locke. About a dozen middle-aged men in windbreakers and slacks stand behind the backstop, holding up radar guns as Locke gets set to throw his first pitch of the inning. They’ve been sent here to watch this kid they have heard so much about, and they cannot miss a second of the show Locke is putting on.

           The first hitter for Oyster River seems horribly overmatched, a common sentiment for many of the hitters having to face the left-handed Locke on this breezy Wednesday afternoon. He winds up and releases the ball with incredible force, yet it almost seemed effortless. The baseball darts through the air and over the strike zone, into the glove of his catcher, Rob Knox. Bewildered, the hitter doesn’t move his bat as the home plate umpire signals “strike.” This exact scenario is repeated on the next pitch, the scouts clocking Locke’s velocity as his pitch comes in. With the count no balls and two strikes, Locke fires a fastball outside the strike zone that the hitter flails hopelessly at with his bat, followed by a long walk back to his bench. The second batter fares only slightly better, actually making contact with Locke’s second offering by fouling it back and later lifting a lazy pop fly, landing safely in the glove of center fielder Matt Fall.

           Expressionless, Locke walks off the back of the mound after the play, and licks his fingers so he can gain a better grip on the ball for what he hopes to be the final hitter of the inning. Kennett’s shortstop, Chris Donovan, yells words of encouragement from behind, “Stay up, Jeff!” After a couple of pitches, the batter hits a weak dribbler down the first base line, fielded cleanly by first baseman Sam Glynn. He touches the bag to end another easy inning for Locke and the Eagles. They stream off the field and back onto the bench for the top half of the fifth, each of them knowing their huge advantage because of the lefty with the number 11 on his back.

           Everyday is a test for Jeff Locke. Life as a teenager in a small northern New Hampshire town would seem to be simple enough, but not for Locke. The senior from Redstone, New Hampshire was born with an innate power that separates him from everyone at Kennett High School in Conway, and just about every young man in the state. Locke has played baseball his entire life; it’s what he eats, sleeps and breathes. And the combination of his love for the game, his dedication to hard work, and his natural talents have afforded him the ability to throw a baseball 90 miles per hour, which a good majority of current Major League Baseball pitchers cannot do. As a result, Locke is the only student athlete in New Hampshire’s high schools that is being heavily considered for entry into the professional ranks of sports.

           Last summer, Locke was named the New Hampshire High School Baseball Player of the Year by Manchester’s Union Leader, the most prominent newspaper in the state. He’s been contacted by 29 of the 30 Major League teams, and has had over a dozen representatives from those teams visit his small home in Redstone. Locke already has an agent, one that represents Major League stars Dontrelle Willis and Scott Rolen amongst others. Everyday, Locke takes and fields phone calls from scouts, journalists, and his agent concerning when next he will pitch for the Kennett Eagles, and how he feels about his prospects for the MLB Free Agent Entry Draft this coming June. While all this is going on, Locke has to try and live out his long-anticipated senior year at Kennett, and maintain some semblance of a normal life. He feels invariably that he has handled the pressure well, and he relies so much on his parents and family to bring him along.

           Locke was born on November 20, 1987 in North Conway, New Hampshire to his parents, Pam and Alan. He has two grown sisters, Corie and Cindy, both with young children. “I guess I better get a move on it,” Locke sarcastically remarked in regards to his own prospects for having kids. It didn’t take long for Locke to fall in love with baseball after he started playing, which he estimates happened around the age of four or five. “I would wake up early and head to the field and not step off it until dinner was ready or if the sun went down.” Locke starred on his Little League team, the North Conway Royals, for four seasons. Observers and fellow players from surrounding towns and teams began to take notice of the young lefty that was doing things no one else his age, or even years older, was doing.

           “Other people realized I had special talents before I actually did myself,” recalled Locke when discussing that earliest stage of his baseball career. “I think that the special talents were realized in my first and second years in Little League, when I was throwing progressively harder than everyone in the league, and younger than most of them.” After continuing to develop both on the mound and at the plate during two dominating years for Kennett Junior High, Locke made Coach Bob Burns’ Kennett High School varsity squad as a freshman, which Locke described as a “rush.” Locke continued to be a dominant force for Kennett, and has amassed an incredible 28-2 win/loss record through his junior season, and also leading his team in average and homers last year. Last June, he was named co-captain for the 2006 campaign, which for most high school players is the pinnacle of their baseball efforts. But for Locke, the honor he is most proud of was being named “New Hampshire Player of the Year” for 2005 by the Union Leader.

           As Locke’s ability and talent expanded as his body continued to develop and mature during his high school career, so also grew his stature and reputation as something special in baseball. All his life, Locke dreamed of being a Major League player, so he began to take steps towards turning those dreams into reality. Knowing the small confines of the Mount Washington Valley were not going to be enough to help him realize his Major League dreams, Locke accepted an offer from the Plymouth American Legion team to play summer baseball after his sophomore year at Kennett. Getting a chance to play alongside the best young talent from all of northern New Hampshire allowed him to show off his considerable abilities to a much more sizeable audience. “The ‘getting major attention’ thing started after my first summer playing in Plymouth,” meaning that professional and college scouts began to come knocking on his door after seeing this young lefty strike out established hitters three and four years his senior. “Everybody wanted to know [me] and it has only gotten worse.

           “Directly, as in at my house, I have met with the Red Sox, Yankees, Braves, Brewers, Reds, Phillies, Royals, Devil Rays, Marlins, Blue Jays, White Sox, Indians, and the Twins,” said Locke when addressing what teams have shown the most interest in his services. Representatives from every Major League team except the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics were present at the first Kennett game of 2006 alone. “The Braves, Yankees, and Red Sox have impressed me the most.” According to Locke, the Braves seemed most impressed with his talents, compounded by what he called an “infatuation” that the franchise has with high school pitchers.

           Along with all the attention, Locke has to face difficulties everyday in regards to protecting himself and his family. “Everybody says something about you now,” Locke pointed out emphatically when describing his current situation, “to the point where you will hear five different things about you a day and none of them are true. Everybody wants something but the problem is that everybody wants something for free. And nothing anymore is for free.”

           The pressures and expectations that Locke faces all the time have been tenuous, but by pacing himself he has not allowed it to consume his life. “I’d be lying if I said there was no pressure 24/7,” he said. “It sucks sometimes. It does get overwhelming sometimes but for the most part you just have to tuck it under your hat and do your job. I love pressure, though. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and say ‘What’s going on?’ It’s really tough sometimes, but you know what? I’m having the time of my life.” To him, with all that is going on, being a senior in high school is “the easy part,” because of a reduced workload and is excited to see where the rest of the year takes him.

           When talking about his success and his drive to be a Major League pitcher, Locke never fails to mention his parents as the most important people in helping make his dreams into reality. “My parents have been as supportive as anyone could have been,” he said. “They’ve been there for me every step I’ve taken during my process to complete the unbelievable dream. I would have nothing right now if it was not for the support of my parents. They deserve as much credit as I do… My biggest influences in baseball have been my father and mother. They want me to make it more than anyone in the world.”

           Having his parents there for support has been terrific for Locke, because what he has gone through to this point and is still ahead will certainly not be easy. It is the general consensus, after many years of trials and research, that a majority of high school pitchers drafted by Major League clubs either never make it out of the minor leagues or do not have success once they get to the Majors. Today, many teams avoid high school pitchers in the draft and look towards more seasoned college players, ones that have faced a better overall sample of baseball talent compared to what Locke faces each time he takes the hill. But the scouts know what real talent is when they see it. Despite the fact that Locke has done most of his work against other public school players, these scouts would not have paid so much attention to Locke if they did not feel his talent was Major League-appropriate now.

           The player closest to Locke right now and over the years is his battery mate, Rob Knox. Knox, who has been playing with and catching Locke for the better part of the last ten springs, sees the tall lefty as not just a ballplayer and a friend, but as someone that carries the complete package to be a fine professional player. “He’s such an athlete,” said Knox. “He gives it his all, and he’s a real competitor. Jeff’s also a good kid and teammate.” Knox will himself be playing football and baseball at Norwich University in Vermont next year. “I hope Jeff succeeds. He’s got the ability, and I think he has qualities that would fit at the next level.”

           Locke is trying to focus right now on being the best player and leader he can be for the Kennett Eagles. “Kennett Baseball in 2006 will be a solid year,” he said when talking about the team he has given his heart and soul to for four years. “As for a state championship I’d like to hope so, but the past three years I’ve called on and never made it out of the 2nd round. But what I can promise you is that every player on the field will give it 110% all the time or they’ll find somewhere else to play.” Locke will be preparing for another playoff run when Draft Day rolls around on June 6, when he hopes to be getting that long-awaited call from an MLB team.

           “On June 6, I’m not looking for anything I don’t feel I’m worth,” Locke said when thinking about his expectations for the draft. “I think that it hopefully will be a great day for me and my family and friends. If I do not get chosen I am going to go to Chipola College in Marianna, Florida for a year and then hop back into the draft. I want to play professional baseball.” Chipola College, located on Florida’s Panhandle, is a nationally-renowned junior college for young baseball players, and has been the proving ground for dozens of Major League draftees like Adam Loewen (currently the top pitching prospect in the Baltimore Orioles organization) and Russell Martin (currently the Los Angeles Dodgers’ top catching prospect). By creating this safety net, Locke knows that should his foray into the Draft not work out this time around, the path towards his goal will go on.

           “My long term goal is to make it to the Show,” said Locke, referring to the glamorous spotlight of playing in the Major Leagues. Despite his talent, Locke also is aware of the work he’ll still have to do in order to get there. “I know I’m going to have to bust my ass everyday and do everything I can, because I have talked to a lot of ex-MLB’ers and they say it’s an everyday-every second process. All that I know is that I want to go to the place where little boys never grow up: The Bigs.”

           The Show doesn’t seem to be of the greatest interest to Locke as the game against Oyster River wears on. With a man on in the top of the sixth, and with a big lead in the game already, Locke is at the plate facing a pitcher throwing a good 15 mph slower than what he himself has dealt all day. After trying to work around the intimidating left-handed hitter, the Oyster River pitcher makes a grave error and tosses Locke a fastball right in the middle of the strike zone. Locke swings unmercifully and drills the ball deep over the right fielder’s head. There is no fence at this field, so the ball rolls almost onto Coe Drive, perhaps close to 500 feet from home plate. By the time the Oyster River fielders can reach the ball, Locke has already sped to third base and can jog home, a rare sight for an inside-the-park home run.

           This incredible show of strength affirms the fact that whenever Locke takes the field, he is on a totally different plane than his any of his colleagues. This is why the scouts are here, and why baseball people from coast to coast know the name Jeff Locke, the kid with a big smile, a big heart, and a big fastball from a small town of a couple thousand people. This is why baseball franchises, wanting so badly to field great teams people will watch, will go to the farthest reaches of America, and the world, to find any baseball talent, because that one player they might not pay attention to could beat them in Game 7 of the World Series. When a ballplayer can throw more than 90 mph, or can hit a baseball near 500 feet, people who pay those players money will, and must, take notice. This is why Jeff Locke knows he can be a professional baseball player; as long as he keeps his talents in tact and continues to be blessed with good health, Major League teams will continue to court his services. And if Locke gets what he feels he is due, one of the 30 teams in the Majors will have Locke in their farm system perhaps as early as this summer.

           After setting down the Bobcats in the bottom of the sixth, Locke is relieved for the seventh, the last inning for high school games in New Hampshire. The final pitching line for Locke on the day seems incredible but is only ordinary for him: six innings, one hit, one walk, one run allowed and eleven strikeouts. But when reflecting on his outing afterwards, the genial and gregarious Locke deflected the credit off himself and towards the people around him.

           “I felt good,” Locke stated simply, “I felt good and strong, and confident with my defense behind me. This year we have a lot of seniors, and the truth is that there are three outfielders that know what they are doing out there. We look good, but now I guess all I have to worry about is my next start.”

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MLB

MLB: 2013 American League Preview

I’ve been doing an American League preview for as long as I’ve been blogging, which means the first year I did it was 2005. It’s taken various forms through the years, with it happening in audio form in recent times.

With the 2013 MLB season upon us in just a few days, I decided to slap together a few thoughts on each of the 15 (yes, it’s 15 now) teams that will comprise the Junior Circuit.

I won’t be making predictions about where each club will finish in the standings this year because I pretty much always get them wrong. I was the same guy who boldly predicted the Orioles would come in last in the AL East last year. No more egg on my face, please.

Instead, each team is presented in alphabetical order by division, working east to west. Feel free to critique me in the comments if you think I’m way off base. Enjoy.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE: It’s probably safe to say the Orioles played a little over their heads last year. Nearly every pitcher had a great year and their lineup came together really well for once. But Dan Duquette didn’t really add anyone this winter. Will Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen really produce at that level again? Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are stars and they have truly insane pitching depth. But I can’t seem them repeating 93 wins this year.

BOSTON: After their worst season in 20 years, the Red Sox set out to remake everything about their club this winter. Success in 2013 will be predicated on their five starters and the health of their position players. The bullpen appears to be their strength, but that’s not enough to be successful for 162 games. I’m banking on John Farrell making the right adjustments and getting strong years from Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey.

NEW YORK: The problem the last few years for the Yankees has been their age. They did literally nothing this winter to address that and in fact got older by bringing back most of their 2012 team save Nick Swisher. Now they are battling significant injuries with so many veterans. They still have CC Sabathia, a solid offense and Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour. But this will certainly be Joe Girardi’s toughest test yet as a manager.

TAMPA BAY: It’s a major testament to what Andrew Friedman has built that he could lose BJ Upton, trade away James Shields and still be a favorite to win a division title. I don’t know if Fernando Rodney can do it again, but their rotation (which will probably be entirely homegrown once again) is the absolute class of the league and their offense should be great with a full healthy season of Evan Longoria. Even adding a malcontent like Yunel Escobar won’t derail the Rays.

TORONTO: Fighting for relevancy for years, the Blue Jays finally made some big moves to grab baseball’s attention. They added three new starting hurlers, an All-Star at shortstop and are taking a chance on Melky Cabrera. But I heard one interesting theory on these new-look Jays: They essentially combined two last-place teams for their 2013 squad. Will that equal success, with a manager in Jon Gibbons who always seemed overmatched his first time in Toronto?

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO: It won’t be surprising to see the White Sox contending once again, thanks in no small part to their solid if still fragile rotation. The top three in their rotation is gangbusters but health is usually a concern for Chris Sale and Jake Peavy. Adam Dunn is back to his old ways, Paul Konerko remains ageless, a very good OF of Dayan Viciedo, Alejandro de Aza and Alex Rios has formed. There’s no reason why this club won’t be in it all year.

CLEVELAND: The Indians are trying to win now. You don’t go out and hire Terry Francona, give up high draft picks for Swisher and Michael Bourn and trade for the likes of Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer without making an attempt to make the postseason for the first time since 2007. But it remains to be seen if their starting pitching will carry them to October. They’ve created a surplus of outfielders, one of whom could be dealt off for a starter if needed.

DETROIT: Despite some improvements to other teams in the division, it’s hard for me to see how the Tigers don’t win the Central again. They have the division’s best pitcher and best hitter, added a still-relevant Torii Hunter and are getting Victor Martinez back as another acquisition of sorts. The bullpen is an area of concern but they have enough talent back there I’m confident it’ll sort itself out. My money is on the insane Phil Coke taking the closer job.

KANSAS CITY: Like Toronto, KC finally realized they needed to do SOMETHING to be relevant. Wil Myers is totally legit and I don’t think the Royals got the better of that trade, yet Shields is a strike-throwing, bad-ass mofo ace. They have a dangerous lineup and a fine back-end of their bullpen with four legit closing options. But past Shields they have no one in the rotation they can rely on. That will keep them from finishing in the top half of the division.

MINNESOTA: The Twins have hit a rough patch after many years of consistent success. The reason? Their usually solid starting rotation has dried up in terms of talent. Their ace was supposed to be Scott Diamond and he’s starting the year on the shelf after elbow surgery. That their next best starter is probably Vance Worley doesn’t bode well for their chances of losing fewer than 90 games. Does Joe Mauer go to bed at night wondering why he signed that extension?

AL WEST

HOUSTON: I am not going to get used to the idea of the Astros being in the AL for a long, long time. But for now, it doesn’t really matter. There is absolutely, unequivocally no chance the Astros lose fewer than 100 games this year. In fact, they’ll defy expectations this year by losing fewer than 120 games. That’s how bad they truly are. Yet, strangely, it’s a franchise that’s headed in the right direction overall after so many years with no hope.

LOS ANGELES: With the signing of Josh Hamilton, the Angels can now sport three of the greatest baseball talents of the last decade-plus in one lineup. The best days of Hamilton and Albert Pujols are probably in their rearview, but that can’t overshadow the best days of Mike Trout that hopefully lie ahead. After not retaining Zack Greinke, their rotation has question marks. I’m not sure if there’s enough here to overtake the other two strong teams in this division.

OAKLAND: The 2012 A’s defied all the odds, pulling off a miraculous comeback to get to the playoffs, winning a round before bowing out to Detroit. Billy Beane did not rest, remaking his middle infield and adding the underrated John Jaso to catch. Oakland has a tremendous bullpen and a potentially devastating starting rotation. Yoenis Cespedes will be a super-duper star this year. They should not need another miracle to contend all season.

SEATTLE: It’s always the same story with the Mariners: so much pitching prowess but nowhere near enough pop to be a real threat. I can’t see the story changing much this year. Felix Hernandez remains the best pitcher in this division and Tom Wilhelmsen is the best closer you’ve never heard of. But unless the likes of Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley find their way at the plate (all had sub-.300 OBPs last year), they won’t get out of the cellar in 2013.

TEXAS: I feel like people are sleeping on the Rangers this year, and probably with good reason after dropping Hamilton and Mike Napoli, trading away Michael Young, losing the Greinke sweepstakes and with Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz coming back from surgery. But Ron Washington seems expert at getting the most out of his guys. There’ll be excitement when Jurickson Profar, the sport’s top prospect, gets regular playing time at some point this year.

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