RED SOX: Why Fire Farrell?

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Up until the last six or eight months, I listened to Boston sports talk radio pretty regularly dating back to when I first moved to an area where I could easily pick up the signals of WEEI and the Sports Hub in my car. But, I gave it up and went back to music and podcasts for one, simple reason:

I refuse to be a sucker for bullshit, easily-disproven narratives meant to whip the already-rabid local sports fanbase into a frenzy.

Because that’s what virtually all of these shows do. They aren’t there to inform or enlighten. There’s no place for in-depth discussions like the one Bill Simmons recently had on his new show with Mark Cuban and Malcolm Gladwell about the business of basketball. Sports talk radio exists solely to get people like you and me to listen by taking an “everyone and everything sucks” position to get people talking and drive up ratings. That’s it.

In Boston, this attitude feeds into a sense of entitlement that, like it or not, makes the fans in nearly every other city in America hate our guts. Most of them think we should not be allowed to complain about anything for the next 50 years.

And I get very disappointed when people who I know are smart buy into these hot take narratives instead of thinking critically.

Just yesterday, several of these blowhards were discussing the Red Sox’ decision to utilize former big league pitcher Brian Bannister, who has served in the front office doing pitching analysis, in more of an on-field role. They railed against this move, calling Bannister a “nerd” and saying the pitchers don’t need more “numbers” to help them. This is the kind of anti-intellectual dreck that we do not accept in analysis of other mediums (like politics and business, for example) but seems perfectly acceptable when it comes to sports.

I still listen to Toucher & Rich most every morning because those guys are in on the joke. You can tell that neither of them take any of this stuff seriously. Hell, they even have a segment called “The Hot Take Police” where they mercilessly destroy professional and well-paid bloviators (like the ones who work at their station) for their absurdness.

On the rare occasion lately when I’ve unfortunately listened to non-T&R local sports radio, I’ve been bombarded with call after call after call for Red Sox manager John Farrell to be fired. To which I ask: why? And what purpose would it serve?

If the season were to end today, the Red Sox would make the postseason and appear in the Wild Card game. I know since June 1 the team hasn’t played well, going 13-18 in that time.

But given the low expectations of their pitching staff coming into the year, and the injuries they’ve dealt with that have mostly depleted their depth, doesn’t this feel like where you’d expect them to be right now? Within striking distance in the AL East and, at worst, in the postseason?

This isn’t to say everything is wonderful. While his peripheral numbers appear fine, on the whole David Price hasn’t delivered. Besides the surprising performance of Steven Wright and the decent, workman-like job by Rick Porcello, every other starting pitcher has been a flat-out disaster. Not one member of the bullpen, including Craig Kimbrel, has been consistent with the possible exception of Heath Hembree.

And while the Red Sox offense remains first in the AL in hits, runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, it has disappeared for stretches and undoubtedly has cost them games. Not to sound too much like Nick Cafardo, but it appears this Red Sox lineup “can be pitched to” and taken out of commission.

At times, Farrell has had to turn to the likes of Bryce Brentz, Ryan LaMarre, Deven Marrero and Mike Miller (not THAT Mike Miller) in key situations due to a constant stream of injuries to position players, primarily to left fielders. The devastating injury to Carson Smith, lost for the year and probably most of next to Tommy John surgery, left Farrell with few options he can consistently rely on in the bullpen. Plus, he’s had to parade out Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Eduardo Rodriguez, Roenis Elias, Sean O’Sullivan and various other assorted flotsam and jetsam as starting pitchers, all with varying degrees of ineptitude.

All of this is to say that I fail to see where any of the club’s struggles this year are directly the fault of the manager. He has done his best with the team he was given. It is not his fault his bench is almost always made up of guys who belong in AAA. It’s not his fault two-fifths of the starting rotation he’s been handed can’t get out of the 5th inning most nights. In turn, it’s not his fault his bullpen is so constantly taxed that he must option pitchers back and forth to AAA just to get fresh arms. William Cuevas, anyone?

The manager is always an easy target when a team struggles (again, the Red Sox are in the playoffs if the season ended today). But at what point do we pin blame on the actual big-league ballplayers themselves who aren’t performing, and the front office who didn’t identify these problems in the first place?

Sure, Smith’s injury was a surprise since he was apparently given a clean bill of health at the time of that trade. That injury fundamentally changed the bullpen’s structure, and Dave Dombrowski and Mike Hazen are still yet to address that change with help from outside the organization (although I have little doubt they will once the market settles).

However, in the offseason the front office seemed completely OK with going into the year with Buchholz, Kelly and Rodriguez in the rotation. Only an injury to Rodriguez in spring training opened the door for Wright’s unbelievably great season to date.

After signing Price, I’m not sure how serious the team was about adding more pitching either through free agency or trades. At best, this now appears to be a miscalculation by the front office, that the team didn’t put in an effort to sign Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija or even Scott Kazmir or Doug Fister to complement Price and Porcello.

Now, none of this is to say John Farrell is the second coming of Earl Weaver or Casey Stengel. Nobody is above criticism. His usage of bullpen arms is often questionable (although some of his odd moves are out of necessity, as noted above) and in the past he’s stuck with veterans/players with big contracts too long when they’ve under-performed (although that hasn’t been the case as much this year, with Travis Shaw winning the 3B job over Pablo Sandoval an example).

I just don’t see how firing him is going to make the team play better. I’m guessing everyone would want bench coach Torey Lovullo to take over, since he did so well when Farrell was receiving cancer treatments last year. Yes, Lovullo did a great job when the team was well out of contention and there was no pressure on him to perform. Nonetheless, he did so well the Red Sox reportedly rewarded him with a contract for this year on par with that of first-year managers to keep him in Boston.

So that should make this decision all the more easy: fire Farrell, elevate Lovullo and we’ll all be happy, right?

Well, I hate to put in a pin in that particular hot-take-filled hot air balloon, but here’s a newsflash for you: in baseball, the bench coach’s job is to act as an in-game consultant for the manager. If a manager is smart, he bounces his decisions off the bench coach and they come to a consensus on what to do. In addition the bench coach often acts a conduit to the players regarding day-to-day decisions by the manager. So whatever decisions are being made by Farrell, and whatever messages he’s sending the players, are going through Lovullo as well. If they weren’t on the same wavelength, Lovullo would not be here. They’re basically bookends.

So if you’re going to fire Farrell, you might as well fire Lovullo too and start over completely. You’ll have to go outside the organization to find a new manager. And what you’ll have is a cadre of angry Red Sox players who’ll have to learn the tendencies of someone completely new in the middle of their season.

And besides, the history of firing the manager mid-season for a team expecting to make the playoffs isn’t pretty. Only one team since 1980 that’s done that has won the World Series: the 2003 Marlins. From what I can tell no other team who replaced their manager mid-season in that stretch has won a league pennant.

Firing Farrell won’t make the pitchers better. It won’t make the bench longer. It won’t make the offense more consistent. Dombrowski has to make make moves to fix what ails this team. Based on his history, I believe he’ll do just that. Addressing the bullpen and bench won’t be overly difficult. The starting rotation, however? He may have to get creative, with a total lack of arms available.

The failure or success of the 2016 Red Sox should not fall on the shoulders of the manager alone. He does not deserve to lose his job over it. It’s up to the front office to make the right moves, and the players to play up to their capabilities.

That’s my hot take.

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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.

RED SOX: Life After Lucchino

On Saturday night, Boston’s media outlets reported the impending departure of Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino from those organizational roles. A transition for longtime COO Sam Kennedy to take over as team president appears set for October, but there’s no immediate clarity on who becomes CEO.

I have a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head about what this all means, so I’ll present them as bullet points starting…now.

  • Lucchino’s departure doesn’t come as a surprise. Going as far back as spring training, reports surfaced that his role in the organization was getting diminished and that more of his energies would be focused on the PawSox. He became part-owner of the PawSox this year and took on a bigger role in new stadium efforts there when his partner, Jim Skeffington, died suddenly in the spring. The writing was on the wall here, but I do find the timing, right after a quiet Red Sox trade deadline during the third disappointing season in four years, to be interesting. I’m still not sure what to make of it. It was also the rarely-seen Saturday news dump, which Roger Goodell is probably angry he didn’t think of first.
  • I’m thrilled Kennedy will be team president. A Brookline High School classmate of Theo Epstein, Kennedy is super-sharp, super-bright and learned at the feet of Lucchino for over two decades. Numerous franchises in several sports have tried to lure Kennedy away from Boston (including the Toronto Maple Leafs last year) but he always stayed. I’d have to think this part of Lucchino’s succession had been in the works for a long time. Kennedy won’t have any say in baseball operations matters, unlike what Lucchino’s role had been since arriving in 2002. The Red Sox business interests will be in good hands with Kennedy for hopefully many years to come.
  • So, who then becomes the next Red Sox CEO, or will there even be one? Will the Red Sox go outside the organization to bring in a “head of baseball ops” or “chief baseball officer” type to run the show? Could Ben Cherington be elevated to that role and a new GM gets hired? If owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner decide to go outside for a new CEO/head of baseball ops, where would that leave Cherington? These are all extremely important questions to be ironed out over the next few months.
  • A lot of interesting names will be thrown out there for a new CEO-type for the Red Sox, and I suspect current Tigers CEO/president/GM Dave Dombrowski will be atop many of those lists. His contract is up after this season and it’s unclear if he’ll return to Detroit. He’d be an outstanding choice, as the architect of the 1997 Marlins and the successful run of Tigers teams dating back to 2006. You may hear A’s VP and GM Billy Beane’s name mentioned (after all, he nearly took a Godfather offer from Henry to be Red Sox GM before Epstein was ultimately promoted), but according to Cot’s, he holds a four percent ownership stake in the A’s, so I doubt he leaves that behind to go run a different team.
  • Lucchino’s departure, and the possibility of someone else having a major, final say on baseball decisions, may present an opportunity for the Red Sox to reset some of their baseball ops structure. The results of these last two seasons in particular lend credence to the idea that something just isn’t working there, that while many moves looked solid at the time they were made (including the John Lackey trade to St. Louis, trading Yoenis Cespedes for Rick Porcello, signing Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to market-value deals), the immediate return on most of them has been subpar at best. A new voice may change things a bit.
  • The remainder of my thoughts here will be about Lucchino and the complicated legacy he leaves behind. While it seems he’ll continue to have some role within the Red Sox, running the day-to-day operations of the club won’t be part of that. As he’d already started to scale back his duties, I wonder if it’s been for the best. I’ve criticized Lucchino as much as anyone over these 14 seasons, and he was always better at business than baseball operations, but some things about his tenure are inarguable: the change in Red Sox culture that started when Henry bought the team came about because of Lucchino. He spearheaded improvements to Fenway Park, making it a destination after years of neglect. There is no chance the Red Sox win three World Series, come within one game of getting to two other World Series and appear in the playoffs seven times total without his guidance, direction, ambition, drive and gravitas. Period. End of discussion. The Red Sox are losing that and, depending on who comes in, they could be worse off for it.
  • Conversely, Lucchino is at least partly responsible for many things that went wrong with the Red Sox over the last decade or so. He briefly won a power struggle with Epstein that resulted in the latter’s winter “sabbatical” after the 2005 season. It was an embarrassing episode for the organization but Henry’s affection for Epstein eventually won out and he returned with relative autonomy over baseball ops from 2006 until he left after 2011. During that time Lucchino’s influence seemed fleeting, but his status as president/CEO meant Epstein could only get so far, leading to Epstein’s move to Chicago. That influence crept back in when Cherington was promoted and it was mostly because of Lucchino that Bobby Valentine was hired as manager in 2012, leading to the biggest joke of a season in recent memory (much bigger than the last two years). Likely because of his domineering and sometimes off-putting personality, I think people around here tended to blame Lucchino every time things went wrong and assigned very little of the credit to him when things went right. That comes with the territory in Boston, but again, that’s why his legacy is complicated. While the Red Sox don’t win those three World Series without him, they are also about to come in last place for the third time in recent years. He deserves both blame and credit for it all.
  • I want to get back to Lucchino’s sense of gravitas for a second. When the Red Sox failed to sign Cuban defector Jose Contreras before the 2003 season, despite offering just as much and possibly more than the New York Yankees, Lucchino dropped an all-time quote on the New York Times: ”The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.” That quote sent shock waves around the baseball world and reverberated especially in New England. This was the indication the Red Sox were not willing to take things lying down, that they wanted to beat their rival and bring a World Series title to Boston for the first time since World War I. It was not a quote that typified previous Red Sox regimes and made fans around here realize things would be different. That’s what Lucchino brought to Boston, and in turn, that’s what they’ll be missing when he’s gone.
  • In 2013, in the days between the end of the regular season and the AL Division Series, the Red Sox held an open workout/scrimmage at Fenway Park that fans could attend for free and sit anywhere they chose. It was on a weekday afternoon and I was between jobs, so I went and got myself a great seat in the grandstands directly behind home plate. It’s easy to forget now how awesome 2013 was, especially after the 2011-2012 debacles, because that team was so much fun to watch and they’d essentially been wire-to-wire division champions. So getting to see them do their thing for free that day was quite a treat. Anyway, later in the proceedings, I noticed Lucchino strolling through the walkway between the grandstands and the box seats behind home plate. He was wearing a plaid button-down shirt and jeans and blended in with the crowd so well that I doubt many people realized it was him. After saying hello to a few people, he took a seat by himself in the box seats a few rows in front of me. For the next half-hour or so, he conversed with fans sitting nearby and several came over to sit down near him and ask him questions about the team and the ballpark. I didn’t go up to say anything myself, but if I had I would have told him how much I appreciated the club’s turnaround that season. I just thought it was neat thing for the team’s CEO and president to do that.

No matter what you think of him, things won’t be the same without Larry Lucchino running the Red Sox. What that means for the long-term success of the franchise remains to be seen.

MLB: 2015 American League Preview

It was another terrible winter in Boston, and now that the 83 weeks of spring training are just about over, it’s time for my annual American League preview! I’ve been doing this in some form since 2005 and I hope you still enjoy reading this as much as I enjoy writing it. I know spring is either just around the corner or has arrived whenever I put this together.

As I’ve done the last few years, I stay away from specific predictions with where teams will place in the coming season and instead just offer a general outlook on each club. If nothing else, it makes me look like less of a doofus at the end of the year when I get things wrong.

Clubs are presented in alphabetical order by division, going east to west. I welcome your critiques in the comments.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the real games when they start Sunday night.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE: It appeared 2014 would be the year these Orioles made it to the World Series, before running into the Royals October buzzsaw. After the offseason soap opera around Dan Duquette’s aborted attempt to flee to Toronto, Baltimore will be mostly the same team with one significant difference: gone will be Nelson Cruz and his 40 HRs. They’ll fill the gap with Travis Snider, Delmon Young, Matt Wieters (when he’s healthy) and Chris Davis (when his suspension ends). Buck Showalter’s pitching remains in tact, so I expect the O’s to be in it all year.

BOSTON: The biggest question: Will the pitching match the offense? No question Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval add firepower to John Farrell’s lineup, while young guns Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts won’t be relied on as much to produce. Yet no one knows if this rotation will hold up all season and we may be whistling past the bullpen’s graveyard. But, Ben Cherington has more than enough trade chips to fortify his core of arms. Given just how much talent Boston has, a trade or two seems inevitable anyway.

NEW YORK: I can only imagine what Yankees fans thought when Brandon McCarthy signed with the Dodgers for $48 million and Brian Cashman said, effectively, he was too expensive for them. Meanwhile, they’ll spend $98.5 million this year on five veterans (Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann) who won’t play up to their contracts. The Yankees’ quiet offseason may be a harbinger of what’s to come as they wait for albatross contracts to clear. Fans will have to be patient as a result.

TAMPA BAY: A wind of change blew through Tampa this winter, starting with Joe Maddon opting out and Andrew Friedman fleeing for Chavez Ravine. Will the Rays still be the Rays with Kevin Cash and Matt Silverman in charge? When healthy, they likely have the division’s strongest rotation, yet health is the big concern. By mid-season, however, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly and Jake Odorizzi could make the Rays the most dangerous team in the league. But all the pieces have to fall into place and we’ve never seen Cash at the helm.

TORONTO: It’s been a long, long time since I’ve believed in the Blue Jays and once again, I don’t believe in them. Spending lots of money on Russell Martin was OK and Alex Anthopolous pulled a terrific trade for Josh Donaldson. No doubt Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista will form a deadly mid-lineup force. But their pitching may be worse than Boston’s, with R.A. Dickey and Mark Buerhle entering their twilight years, Marcus Stroman devastatingly blowing out his knee in spring training and no clear dominant bullpen piece. It won’t be their year, once again.

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO: The Pale Hose went from also-ran to legitimate AL favorite in the course of one offseason. They added a bonafide closer in David Robertson, a solid #2 starter to pair with Chris Sale in Jeff Samardzija and some great lineup compliments in Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche. Combine those guys with the existing infrastructure of Sale, bomb-hitting phenom Jose Abreu and strong supporting cast members like Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia and Jose Quintana and it’s easy to see why there’s so much hype around the White Sox. This is a stacked division, but Robin Ventura’s team in positioned to win now.

CLEVELAND: Raise your hand if you saw Corey Kluber’s dominant Cy Young season coming at this time last year. No one out there? That’s what I thought. It goes to show you never can tell when it comes to pitching and who qualifies as an “ace.” Terry Francona has one now with Kluber and his presence gives stability to a developing rotation that will rely on younger guys like Carlos Carrasco and the perpetually-underwhelming Trevor Bauer. With few other changes besides the addition of Brandon Moss, it should be a good year in Cleveland.

DETROIT: The Tigers’ super-rotation is no more with Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello gone, yet David Price, Anibal Sanchez and a hopefully-healthy Justin Verlander remain. Those guys should be enough to prop up another playoff-worthy edition of the Tigers, but the issues in their bullpen should scare the crap out of anyone who thinks they can sail into October again. Joe Nathan was abjectly terrible last year and I can’t imagine much faith in Joakim “Two Tommy Johns” Soria exists. Detroit may need some luck, given the Central’s strength.

KANSAS CITY: Man, what a fun ride that was for the Royals last October. They were the Cardiac Kids, winning in dramatic fashion until Alex Gordon was (correctly) held at third base in World Series Game 7 and their impossible dreams for a title were dashed. While baseball may be revitalized in KC, its team didn’t improve much for 2015. James Shields is gone, replaced by Edinson Volquez. Billy Butler and Nori Aoki departed for Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios. But everything else remains in place, including that devastating bullpen.

MINNESOTA: The weak link in the AL Central, once again, is in Minnesota. With Paul Molitor now at the helm, the Twins will struggle to be relevant with a lineup bereft of elite talent (unless you still think Joe Mauer is elite, which is quite debatable) and a rotation that will be without Ervin Santana for half the year thanks to a steroid suspension. Phil Hughes may continue his bounce-back and Glen Perkins is a decent closer, but it seems very likely the Twins will top 90 losses for the fifth straight year.

AL WEST

HOUSTON: For once, the Astros have some hope. Guarded hope, but hope nonetheless. A solid core is growing thanks to George Springer’s dynamism, Jose Altuve’s electricity, Chris Carter’s power and the unexpectedly strong pitching of Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. They’ve fortified their bullpen with Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, added Evan Gattis, Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbeuna to their lineup and have future pieces like former top picks Carlos Correa and Mark Appel. Houston may not be great yet, but the rise is coming.

LOS ANGELES: Mike Trout is the best, their rotation should be great when healthy, Huston Street gives them an excellent bullpen, Mike Scioscia is excellent, blah blah blah…I’m having a hard time thinking positively about the Angels right now in the aftermath of their shameful handling of Josh Hamilton winning his drug suspension appeal. Hamilton clearly has personal issues to deal with and for the team to pile on like it did was inexcusable in every way. I sincerely hope Hamilton gets help and never has to play for this team again.

OAKLAND: The Athletics had one of the strangest offseasons of any team I can remember. They dealt off Jeff Samardzija just months after giving up a prized shortstop prospect to get him and puzzlingly sent Donaldson away for Brett Lawrie, but also added Billy Butler, Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard. So while the A’s may be solid once again, it’s anyone’s guess what Billy Beane will do during the season. It doesn’t matter if they’re bad or good, Beane could deal anyone at anytime. It makes predicting how they’ll be this year very difficult.

SEATTLE: It seems like every year folks jump on the Mariners’ bandwagon and 2015 is no different. It’s hard not to be drawn in thanks to the AL’s best pitcher, Felix Hernandez, the new big bat addition of Cruz and Robinson Cano coming off a strong first year in Seattle. I’m just not sure they’ve added enough to really be a threat to the Angels. They’ll need healthy and productive campaigns from Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton while asking a lot of 38-year-old closer Fernando Rodney. Right now, I don’t see a big year in Seattle.

TEXAS: Yu Darvish became the latest major casualty of the Tommy John epidemic running through baseball these last few years, and man does that suck for him, the Rangers and baseball in general. Texas will attempt to make due with what’s left around including Derek Holland and newly-acquired Yovani Gallardo. The Rangers were inundated with injuries last year and will look to get a full season out of Prince Fielder in 2015. They should be competitive if their rotation and bullpen hold up.

RED SOX: Ten Years Gone, ’04 Still Special

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How is it possible it’s been 10 years?

Ten years ago, I was an 18-year-old high school senior. My biggest worries were keeping up my ‘95 Pontiac Grand Prix, making it to school and football practice on time and figuring out where I’d be going to college.

It was a world ago, but the memories of the Red Sox from 10 Octobers ago all feel so fresh. When the team won its third world series in 10 seasons last October, I called it the most special to me as a fan, because I was so close to the action all year. But nothing will ever stack up to what happened in 2004. It was the greatest experience I’ve ever had as a sports fan and I suspect it will always be as long as I live.

I’ve written a lot about the ‘04 Red Sox in other places (including my previous blogs and school papers), and you’ve seen excellent retrospectives across the Internet (such as Chad Finn’s terrific recaps of each ‘04 American League Championship Series (ALCS) game on Boston.com) that I won’t spend much time rehashing what you already knew happened.

Instead, I’m making this a bit more personal that I usually do here, sharing my own memories of that incredible stretch.

I wrote extensively about the ‘04 Sox five years ago when I called them the Team of the Aughts on my old Backdoor Slider baseball blog. Of the 25 men on the roster that October, I said “all 25 were part of the most amazing sports story of my lifetime, an iconic piece of American history and the greatest baseball team of the last 10 years.”

Did a baseball team really make American history? Was it really that important? To the people in the Northeast, to the fans who lived and died with that team, the answer is unequivocally “yes.” The ALCS comeback and subsequent World Series sweep changed the attitude of an entire region. Suddenly anything was possible.

You didn’t realize it at the time, but if you’re a Red Sox fan, you can’t say your life didn’t change in at least some fashion after Dave Roberts stole 2nd base in the 9th inning of ALCS Game 4. It certainly changed the way we looked at our teams. I’ll get to why it mattered so much to me in a little bit.

Here are the things that stand out most to me 10 years gone. These thoughts are in loose chronological order and will include bits I’ve written in the past.

  • I feel pretty lucky I got to see the Red Sox play twice that year, including once after they made the biggest trade in franchise history to net Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz, while sending Nomar packing. The game was in August and I went with my mom, my stepdad and my stepsister. We sat in the bleachers on a misty night for a game against Toronto in which injuries forced Mientkiewicz to man second base. But the Sox won, as they did so much those last two months of the regular season. I’ve always said it was the best time in history to be a Red Sox fan and that remains true today.
  • Because Boston teams have been so prolific going on 13 years now, it can’t be emphasized enough hard to believe that comeback was at the time. Only a few years before, Gerry Callahan anointed Boston “Loserville.” The ‘90s were tough around here, with each of the four teams experiencing the lowest of depths possible (the Pats went 1-15 in ‘90, the Sox went 73-89 in ‘92, in ’97 the Celtics went 15-67 and the Bruins 26-47-9). I think everyone went into any playoff series or game expecting the worst to happen. When the Sox laid a steaming turd in Game 3 of the ALCS, well, anyone who says they expected the comeback that ensued is lying. Sure, the Pats had one two Super Bowls the previous three years. But… these were the Red Sox. It was different. It just was.
  • Hell, I remember going to a friend’s house to watch Game 2 and after the Yankees beat Pedro in a close contest, we all pretty much agreed it was over. Curt Schilling could barely walk and Pedro didn’t look like Pedro. And that was TWO DAYS before the 19-8 debacle of Game 3. That’s where we were at as a fanbase.
  • Mariano Rivera was ready to give the Red Sox season its last rites in Game 4. I didn’t know what to think. Theo Epstein had loaded up the team for the year, given us not one but two aces, a real closer and kept up a historically powerful offense. But now winter was upon us in such pathetic fashion…but then, it wasn’t. Kevin Millar walks. Roberts steals. Bill Mueller strikes a scorcher under a diving Rivera’s glove. The Sox weren’t dead, yet.
  • I can’t lie, I didn’t stay up to watch the end of Game 4. Maybe I didn’t think the comeback would wind up making a difference. But it was a Sunday night and I had to go to school the next day (remember, college was around the corner!). I know, it sounds blasphemous. I kept the radio on and remember waking as Joe Trupiano’s voice raised when David Ortiz hit the blast well after 1 a.m. to win it. I wouldn’t sleep before the last out was recorded for the rest of that particular month.
  • What kept the Sox alive through Games 4, 5 and 6 was the bullpen. Sure, we all remember the astounding performance by Curt Schilling, sock soaked in crimson, in Game 6. But with each starter only going six innings at most, the bullpen picked up the slack with big inning after big inning. Mike Timlin, Alan Embree and Curt Leskanic were the middle relief core. Keith Foulke was particularly amazing, throwing everyday and mowing down everyone. Of course, he never pitched anywhere close to that well again.
  • My perception (and I assume many others too) of Alex Rodriguez changed the split second he slapped the baseball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove late in Game 6. Before, I always respected A-Rod, thought he played the game right and was a terrific player. The guy was very nearly a Red Sox himself. But not only was his reputation tarnished that night, it wound up being representative of everything A-Rod became over the next decade: he cheated, hurt his team and then immediately denied any wrongdoing while acting like a petulant brat. All that was missing was him running back out to third base the next inning dressed like a centaur.
  • The word “nervous” doesn’t quite describe the feeling going into Game 7, for me at least. I couldn’t think straight the whole day. When Johnny Damon got thrown out at the plate in the first inning, it seemed the luck had run out…but then Ortiz went deep and an inning later, Damon himself hit a grand slam. The nervousness was gone. Well, until Francona inexplicably brought in Pedro to get knocked around in the 7th inning. I still don’t understand that one. But they got out of that and we were rushing towards history.
  • People from North Conway and the surrounding area may remember this: I don’t recall who the cable provider du jour was back then, but during the 9th inning of Game 7, with the Red Sox three outs away from ending the biggest comeback ever, some dolt in a control room somewhere decided it was a good time to test the Emergency Alert System and knock out the cable feed for several minutes. The game was well in hand, but I was furious. My dad and I raced to turn on the radio, but the cable feed was restored just in time for Ruben Sierra’s at-bat that would end the game. Phew.
  • I didn’t cry when the Sox won the World Series that year. That’s probably because I didn’t have any tears left to cry after beating the Yankees. At first, when Sierra grounded out to Pokey Reese to end Game 7, I was elated, jumping around my dad’s living room like a crazy person. Then, I hit the floor, screaming some variation of “WE DID IT! WE FUCKING DID IT!” over and over while laying on my stomach and pounding the floor with my fists. It was somewhere in there the tears came. And I just couldn’t stop. My dad wondered if I was going to be OK. My sister was going to college in California at the time and I could barely form words when she called that night. So why did I lose it like that? Here’s what I wrote on my old IM Chaos blog (which has disappeared from the web but lives on in saved Word Docs on my MacBook) in ‘06: “As I explained to my Dad, sister and others that night through my hysterical sobs and tears, this win was almost like a personal reward for my years following the team. Ever since I was six, the Red Sox and baseball were always there for me, they were my way out of living in a boring little town, they were my respite when my parents were getting divorced, and they were my outlet for interest and love when so many other things could have taken me in a different direction. Now, I was going to see my team play in the World Series for the first time. It was overwhelming for someone that had devoted so much time and love to the team and to baseball itself.” That might sound ridiculous today, but at the time, at 18, that’s how I felt.
  • I tweeted about this the other day: Remember Pedro had, like, a little dude he took around with him everywhere during the playoffs that year? What was that all about? Well, it turns out Pedro’s “little dude” was Nelson de la Rosa, a TV star from the Dominican Republic who went by the nickname “Mahow.” Mahow was one of the shortest men ever on record, standing about 2-feet, 4-inches tall. He died in Providence in ‘06 at 38 and left behind a wife, child and a place in the best sports story of this century. Now that’s a legacy.
  • The World Series itself was such an anti-climax I don’t even have that much to say about it here. The Sox had three major impending free agents that offseason: Pedro, Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. I was confident Tek was coming back, but deep down I knew Pedro and Lowe were done in Boston (it’s easy to forget now just how bad things were with Lowe here before he became the ALCS savior). That the last performances for the Red Sox for those guys came in World Series victories in Games 3 and 4 was a perfect send-off.
  • I love Manny Ramirez as much as the next Red Sox fan in his late-20s. But Bill Mueller should have won World Series MVP. I think Manny won it because he was a bigger name (Mueller was also charged with three errors in Game 2). But winning the MVP would have been a deserving cap on a great season for Mueller, a vital cog in the Red Sox engine all three years he was here.
  • One of my biggest regrets was missing the duckboat parade in ‘04. I lived 2.5 hours away and I don’t recall if the parade was on a weekend or not, but either way I wished I’d been there. I don’t think anyone would have begrudged me. I felt redeemed when I made it to the parade last year, though. Certainly worth the wait.
  • Winning the series was such a huge deal for me that I ripped nearly everything off the walls of my childhood bedroom and put up newspaper clippings and full pages from the Globe and Herald around the victory. They’re all still there to this day. One of my favorite was a full-pager from the Globe with a picture of Schilling and this quote: “The ankle was in trouble. The heart was just fine.”

I’ll wrap this up by going back to what I wrote in ‘09. It all still works to this day.

What the Red Sox accomplished went so far beyond winning eight straight October games and breaking an 86-year string of disappointment. They united an entire region, captivated an entire country and accomplished a comeback that will be talked about for generations to come. How could something like this happen? How could 25 guys who play a game so deeply affect millions who will never meet them? How could one of their most prominent fans write a book called “Now I Can Die In Peace” and nobody thought he was exaggerating? It’s probably because baseball always meant a little too much to the people of New England, caused in part by a rampant desire to shake the Curse. Couple that with a skilled, exceedingly likable team, and the recipe for baseball romance was in place. For once, the Red Sox had a team that knew how to win, didn’t feel sorry for itself down 3-0 against the Yankees, and refused to let up until the trophy was theirs. They were, more than anything, a team, in every sense, down to the very end. The ’04 Red Sox didn’t stay together past that final out and the ensuing duckboat ride. But trust me. There’s no way the ’04 Red Sox can ever die.

I leave you with the best song from Jimmy Eat World’s Futures, which was released during the ALCS and will always serve as the soundtrack for that incredible time.


MLB: 2014 American League Preview

Given the winter we’ve had in the northeast, baseball is coming at the most welcome time possible. With that comes my annual preview of the American League, which marks my 10th year doing it.

Once again I’ll be staying away from specific predictions (this approach was a good one for me as the only team I was truly wrong about last year was Chicago) and just going with my general feelings about all 15 clubs going into the season.

Clubs are presented in alphabetical order by division going east to west. Feel free to critique me in the comments.

Enjoy and pray for spring.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE: After his meddlesome owner forced him to back out of more than one deal this winter due to medical concerns, including one with closer Grant Balfour, Dan Duquette finally opened the Orioles’ checkbook and landed compensation free agents Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez for market-value-or-under deals in late February. But it’s unlikely the Orioles improved themselves enough to jump back in the playoffs after missing them in ’13, with Chris Davis and Matt Wieters a year closer to free agency and Manny Machado opening the year on the DL.

BOSTON: With the improbable World Series run behind them, questions loom over the Red Sox chances for a repeat. Can they count on unproven Jackie Bradley, Jr. or Roy Hobbs impersonator Grady Sizemore to replace Jacoby Ellsbury in center field? Will wunderkind Xander Bogaerts stick at shortstop? Will the starting pitchers and relievers bounce back after a short offseason? Is Will Middlebrooks going to produce? After an improbable title, is an improbable repeat possible? With David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester leading the way, it’s hard to deny any possibility.

NEW YORK: The Yankees didn’t take losing lying down after ’08 and they didn’t take missing the playoffs in ’13 lying down either. After a dizzying offseason of signings including Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka, the Bombers have pieces in place for a successful year. But they also have as many questions as any team in MLB. There’s no guarantee Mark Teixeira or Derek Jeter will perform after injury-plagued years. Their rotation has no sure things, David Robertson has massive shoes to fill and who exactly will play second and third are up in the air.

TAMPA BAY: There were at least two really surprising things about the Rays offseason: first, they didn’t trade David Price, who with two years left seemed a lock to be moved; and second, they actually spent some money in free agency, bringing back James Loney for $21 million, Balfour for $12 million, extending David DeJesus for $10.5 million and picking up $4.5 million for reliever Heath Bell‘s deal. There’s absolutely no reason to expect the Rays to be anywhere besides the playoff race again this year and going all the way isn’t out of the question.

TORONTO: File this one under “ho-hum.” The Blue Jays had as quiet a winter as any team, changing up their catching situation by fetching Dioner Navarro and shedding J.P. Arencibia but really not doing much else. They were linked to several free agents, including Jimenez and Ervin Santana before each signed. It was perplexing Alex Anthopoulos didn’t bite on either since their first two picks are compensation-protected. Their lack of action could lead to an in-season fire sale if they once again disappoint, possibly undoing many of their big moves last year.

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO: For once, it really seems like the White Sox have a plan. All it took was Rick Hahn to take over the GM chair from now-team president Kenny Williams. Yes, there is a plan, but that plan probably won’t involve a lot of winning right away. Paul Konerko‘s likely final year in the Majors will represent the last vestige of a bygone Pale Hose era. The new era is likely to be marked by hitters like Avisail Garcia, Matt Davidson, Adam Eaton and Cuban phenom Jose Abreu. Will Chris Sale remain in place as the ace they’ll build around, or will they cash in on a big package now?

CLEVELAND: The feel-good story of ’13 took place in Cleveland, where Tito Francona came out of his one-year hiatus and led the Tribe to a berth in the Wild Card game. They didn’t make a ton of changes heading into ’14, adding John Axford as their likely closer and David Murphy as a spare outfielder. Carlos Santana is poised for a real breakout as he moves out from behind the plate and Danny Salazar has ace potential. The health of veterans like Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher will determine if the Indians make that next step to a real contender.

DETROIT: GM Dave Dombrowski seemed to have a grand scheme when he traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler early in the winter, but little materialized outside of a curious trade of Doug Fister and adding a real closer in Joe Nathan. The Tigers have a huge question at shortstop with Jose Iglesias on the shelf for the year; my guess is Stephen Drew signs a one year deal. With Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera all here, their challenges could be overcome quite easily with great years from their superstars and supporting players.

KANSAS CITY: No question the Royals are suddenly the hot sleeper team in the AL, with pundits tripping over themselves to declare them a division favorite. I’m not ready to go that far, but coming off a surprisingly good season and adding Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki to plug their lineup holes, getting to the playoffs for the first time since 1985 (whoa) is within grasp. James Shields is a contract-year strike-throwing badass, Greg Holland might be the game’s best closer, Yordano Ventura is a stud, their bullpen is stacked and their lineup is balanced. Why not this year for the Royals?

MINNESOTA: Hope is in the pipeline for Minnesota with Byron Buxton, the game’s best prospect, possibly close to patrolling center at Target Field. That’s the most positive thing I can say about this team’s future. Their chronic inability to develop pitching resulted in laughable contracts for Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, guys just mediocre enough to lift the team above the White Sox in the standings. Still, Joe Mauer‘s career and numbers should see a boost with a full-time move to first base and the dynamic talents this moribund franchise needs could be around the corner.

AL WEST

HOUSTON: This June, the Astros will be the first team in MLB history with the top pick in the draft three years running. It’s likely they’ll break their own record in ’15 after another “rebuilding” season. These top picks will eventually pay off because Carlos Correa and Mark Appel are bonafide studs along with budding superstar outfielder George Springer. But after a winter of puzzling moves like signing Scott Feldman, trading for Dexter Fowler and pointlessly bringing in veteran relievers Chad Qualls and Jesse Crain, it makes me wonder if there’s really a plan here at all.

LOS ANGELES: I like the Angels to have a big bounce-back year. There’s too much talent here for anything else. Mike Trout continues his reign as the best player on Earth while Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols could see comebacks worthy of their past glory. Healthy and effective years for Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson will make a potent right-left rotation punch with the flame-throwing Ernesto Frieri at the end of wins. Don’t be surprised if Kole Calhoun, Peter Bourjos‘ outfield replacement, creates some serious head-turning early in the season.

OAKLAND: I’m a little dubious on the Athletics having the horses in their rotation for another postseason run unless they can pull a trade. They’ve lost Jarrod Parker to TJ, A.J. Griffin is already hurt and Scott Kazmir is, well, Scott Kazmir. Their two best remaining starters, Sonny Gray and Dan Straily, are unproven over 162-plus. Their lineup remains excellent anchored by rain-bringer Josh Donaldson, beastly Yoenis Cespedes and a parade of ex-Red Sox and they’ve got a deep bullpen with new closer Jim Johnson. But I’m not sure it’ll be enough without more moves.

SEATTLE: Let’s not mince words here: the Mariners wil regret giving Robinson Cano a 10-year contract sooner rather than later. Before that happens, there’s a window of Cano’s prime where Seattle can capitalize and win. While Felix Hernandez remains an elite ace, they’ve got question marks throughout the rest of the rotation and bullpen, plus they clearly didn’t add enough offense to support Cano. I don’t see ’14 being the M’s year as a result, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen for them before Cano’s deal becomes cringe-worthy if the right moves are made.

TEXAS: The injury bug bit a huge chunk out of the Rangers’ rotation during winter and spring training, with Tanner Scheppers of all people earning the Opening Day start. Yu Darvish will be back soon and that’s a great thing as he continues his development as an ace. But how they piece together these first few months with their rotation will be important in determining if they’ll have enough in the tank for a postseason run. Fielder is in, Cruz is out as the Rangers enter a new era without Nolan Ryan as an important franchise decision-maker.

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.

MLB: Ryan Braun’s Trail of Lies

800px-Ryan_Braun_2008-1

It all makes sense now.

I would count myself among the defenders of Ryan Braun since word leaked in December 2011 that he’d failed a drug test and was appealing a 50-game suspension from Major League Baseball.

At every step, it appeared he had a case. Not necessarily that he was 100 percent innocent, but that he wasn’t being given the measure of due process owed to him by the Joint Drug Agreement.

But I didn’t think he could beat Bud Selig, Rob Manfred and the MLB. They don’t get beat. They aren’t in the business of getting beat. They have a legal monopoly for Pete’s sake.

After his suspension was overturned by an arbitrator, I was flabbergasted. I could not believe he’d won.  And similarly, I could not believe MLB had gone out of its way to tarnish the reputation of one of its biggest stars for seemingly, ultimately, nothing.

When MLB issued a biting statement about how they “vehemently” disagreed with the ruling, it appeared like sour grapes and nothing else.

Then Braun got up in front of the Arizona microphone and proclaimed his innocence, decried the haters, swore he’d never done anything to result in a positive test, denounced a system that showed its flaws and, of all things, trashed the tester he blamed for thwarting the process and possibly tampering with his urine.

So why had MLB done this? Why did MLB go to such great lengths to go after Braun? And why, when his name popped up in a relatively tangential fashion in the Biogenesis case, did they seem hellbent on making Braun fall?

It all makes sense now.

Because Braun was a cheat, and, worse so, a liar, who made MLB look like fools. MLB knew who Braun really was. They weren’t going to lose this time.

I found myself, over this last year and a half, always feeling like Braun had been seriously wronged by MLB. In some ways, that is still true.

His argument about how Dino Laurenzi may have mishandled his sample clearly had some merit, especially if it was convincing enough to lead an arbitrator to overrule his suspension.

In addition, someone from MLB obviously leaked that initial information regarding Braun’s 2011 positive test and suspension to ESPN, which is and always has been a violation of the testing program. It would make no sense for anyone in Braun’s camp to leak that information.

The Players Association has to take such breaches seriously. This is especially true after someone leaked names of players with positive tests on the 2003 survey that led to mandatory testing.

It was collectively bargained, between the union and the league, that no one would ever learn the identities of those who tested positive. Someone broke that contract, hence breaking the law. As far as I know, no one was ever held accountable for that.

MLBPA even has a case this time, since virtually all the names of players in the Biogenesis case are out there and details of the investigation have been widely reported.

Someone has a big mouth over at MLB, and it’s not because steroids made their head too big. It’s something that needs to be fixed.

I always hated it when people said Braun “got off on a technicality.” MLB’s drug testing system, like the U.S. criminal justice system, is based on a series of rules, regulations and procedures to ensure fairness to all involved.

If those procedures are broken in any fashion, the accused cannot get a fair hearing. They can’t. To me, that’s a little bigger than a technicality. That’s the way these systems have to work.

So perhaps Braun deserved his initial reprieve from discipline. Apparently this time, however, with no chain of custody issues at hand, Braun had to cut a deal. All things considered, maybe he got off a little easy this time, missing the rest of a lost season for the Brewers.

When this first broke, my initial feeling was Braun’s reputation in Milwaukee would survive, and maybe it will. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if that will be the case.

See, it’s not so much that he cheated. Over the last dozen years I’ve accepted that cheating is part of sports, after so many people lauded as heroes have come crashing back to Earth as disappointments. I don’t get let down when this happens because I don’t let myself get let down anymore.

It’s that he lied. And was so damn convincing at it, too.

It’s that he pulled a Rafael Palmeiro on us. It’s that he did what Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds did to us. It’s that he did what we’re probably going to find out Alex Rodriguez did to us.

Could Braun have come right out in 2012 spring training and said, “I was on the juice but my due process was breached”? Of course not.

But his outright, steadfast denials? His righteous indignation? His defiance of the entire episode? The fact he lied to his own teammates, who were reportedly furious Monday? That’s where Braun enters into a different category.

We’ve mostly given passes to players like Mark McGwire, Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi because they contritely admitted the truth about their PED use.

None of them lied like Braun, nor did any of them go out of their way to publicly disparage a participant in the process like Braun did with Laurenzi.

If I were a Brewers fan, I could handle rooting for a cheater. Hell, David Ortiz was supposedly on the 2003 list, and it doesn’t stop me from cheering every time he comes to the plate. But someone who did what Braun did? That’s a tougher sell.

Time will be the determining factor here.

I have more thoughts about the turning tide in baseball among the players, the ones who feel wronged by the cheaters and liars. They are clean, but they can’t be above suspicion, because of jerks like Braun and A-Rod. And they no longer want the likes of Braun and A-Rod to be protected by their union. They are pissed off and they should be.

I’ll offer those the next time a star gets suspended. Which you can guarantee will be soon.

MLB: Lester, Buchholz Bouncing Back

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It was not my plan to write on Red Sox-related topics every week when I re-started by blogging career this season. But I feel like the best thing about the 2013 season to date, for me at least, has been the resurgence of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

There were times last year when both guys seemed so lost, so out of sorts that I wondered if they’d ever regain the form that made them so formidable not that long ago.

Buchholz, 28, was horrendous from the outset of 2012, got sick but then came back strong. By the end of the year he was the most consistent pitcher on the team, but it’s still hard to call it anything but a lost season for him (4.56 ERA). He did make a career-high 29 starts, however.

Lester, 29, for reasons I still don’t understand, went from being one of the most consistent starters in baseball, and one of the finest left-handed pitchers in the game, to astounding mediocrity. He went over 200 innings but his 4.87 ERA and drop in strikeouts (225 in ‘09 and ‘10, 182 in ‘11, 166 in ‘12) were definitely alarming for a starter Lester’s age. Brian MacPherson has a good comparison of Lester to other elite AL lefties here.

But that’s all different now. Through three starts each, Lester sports a 1.42 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 18/3 K/BB while Buchholz has a microscopic 0.41 ERA, also an 0.95 WHIP with 23/10 K/BB.

Each guy has made hitters look silly with the best of their stuff, making all of their pitches work and without much fear of using any pitch in any situation. I always felt like Buchholz may have better stuff than Lester, and that’s borne itself out so far this year.

Most importantly, the Red Sox have won all six of their starts, all coming against AL East opponents.

Some of the renewed success of Buchholz and Lester must be attributed to the return of John Farrell. Since the start of 2010, these guys have worked with five different pitching coaches (Farrell, Curt Young, Bob McClure, Randy Niemann and now Juan Nieves). It seems working with Farrell and Nieves, and the idea there will hopefully be some stability in those positions going forward, has helped significantly.

With Josh Beckett gone, Lester and Buchholz have taken it upon themselves to be leaders and positive influences for the pitching staff. It’s easy to be positive when you’re actually pitching well.

For Buchholz, the key will be remaining healthy and on the mound. His dominating performance Sunday against Tampa where he took a no-no into the 8th inning was an important statement for what he can be. But he’s never made 30 starts in a season and can, once and for all, shed the title of “fragile” if he can keep it together.

Lester has corrected whatever mechanical or mental issues that plagued him a year ago. He’s thrown a lot of pitches in his starts so far, but on Saturday, while I was sitting in the right field grandstands, Lester got stronger as the game went on. Being efficient will be his biggest test in 2013.

Thanks in no small part to these two, the Red Sox have a 2.07 ERA for their starters through 11 games. With enough offense to go around and a deep bullpen, there’s no reason this team won’t compete all year as currently constituted.

And with Lester and Buchholz pitching like this, it’s not hard to imagine the Red Sox being more than just competitors in 2013.

***

I don’t have much more to offer on the topic of Carlos Quentin than what’s already been said ad nauseum, but it’s clear his rage was in the wrong place this week when he charged the mound and knocked Zack Greinke out for at least two months. Was eight games enough for Quentin’s suspension? I say no. As much as I’d like to see Quentin have to sit as long as Greinke will be out, that’s probably a bit too punitive. I still wish MLB would factor in the severity of the opposing player’s injury in determining discipline as the NHL does.

Fair or foul? D’backs owner Ken Kendrick forced some Dodgers fans sitting behind home plate at Chase Field to change their shirts Friday night, or move to a different location. The Dodger blue was apparently uncouth in such a high-visibility area of the park. If you plunk down $3,000 for a suite, should you be allowed to wear whatever you want, within the boundaries of good taste? What I find funny is the fans seemed so willing to don the gear of an opposing team to keep their seats. I can’t imagine ever doing something like that, even if it came with free booze.

Hopefully by now you’ve learned the story of Evan Gattis, the Braves’ catcher who’s overcome incredible personal adversity and is presently tearing the cover off the ball, including this truly insane homer off Stephen Strasburg. My favorite thing ever: he went to Venezuela to play winter ball and the fans called him “El Oso Blanco,” or, “The White Bear.” Gold.

Buster Olney tweeted Sunday the Rangers are “doing early reconnaissance and prep work” on a possible trade for Giancarlo Stanton. Later Sunday, Peter Gammons tweeted that the Rangers, Mets and Red Sox are among the teams to inquire on Stanton, but the Marlins aren’t making a deal now. As with all the Marlins’ best players, the question isn’t if Stanton gets dealt but when. He’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, will continue to get more expensive and probably wouldn’t mind getting the hell out of South Florida. The Rangers seem well-positioned to make any kind of big trade they want, be it for Stanton or David Price, given their wealth of prospects and younger players. The question, as it was with the Justin Upton sweepstakes over the winter, is whether they really want to pull the trigger.

It seemed like most people had the Rays pegged to be either first or second in the AL East this year on the strength of their pitching alone. But watching them this weekend, it really struck me how poor their offense is. Going into Sunday, they ranked dead-last in team OPS at .601 so far this year. You wonder how long they wait to call up Wil Myers, the prized outfielder who clubbed 37 homers in the minors last year and came over from KC for James Shields over the winter. But even Myers might not be enough.

My music recommendation for the week: “Wakin on a Pretty Day” by Kurt Vile. Until next time.

MLB: Get Over It, Blue Jays Fans

john-farrellIt takes a lot for anything in sports to surprise me anymore. But I can honestly say I met the reaction of the fans in Toronto to the return of their old manager John Farrell with a healthy dose of bewilderment.

Farrell was showered in boos, cat calls and obscenities from every corner of Rogers Centre during the Red Sox’ weekend series with the Blue Jays. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why.

Sure, Farrell didn’t leave under the best of circumstances. The 2012 Blue Jays had many problems and Farrell was criticized for his handling of the clubhouse.

But while I’m not privy to exactly how the negotiations went down, I feel certain no one held a gun to Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos’ head Luca Brasi-style and told him he had to let Farrell go.

Just a year before, the Blue Jays refused to allow Farrell to flee to Boston unless the Sox ponied up the exorbitant price of Clay Buchholz.

That the Blue Jays were willing to let Farrell walk 12 months later for Mike Aviles (whom they’d later trade to Cleveland) speaks volumes about how they valued Farrell. After all, he amassed just a 154-170 record and dealt with the aforementioned issues last year.

Farrell has paid the city of Toronto, its fans and the people he worked with there nothing but compliments since leaving, and that graciousness continued this week in the face of so much disrespect.

Fans seemed to focus their venom on one comment by Farrell where he called his current position in Boston his “dream job.” Did he realize what kind of backlash that kind of sincere comment would make? Probably not.

But let’s take inventory of some irrefutable facts. Farrell spent four seasons as the pitching coach in Boston, where he built strong relationships with people throughout the organization. He was still highly-regarded and clearly highly-valued by important Red Sox figures even after he left for Toronto.

Since the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, they have not been back to the postseason once. They have one second-place finish to their name, never winning more than 88 games. Few times have the Blue Jays been truly terrible (their 67-94 season in 2004 was the worst), but they are almost always mediocre and never really relevant.

Since 1994, the Red Sox have nine postseason appearances, two World Series titles, two AL East titles, two years where they came within one game of winning the pennant, just three losing seasons and one year that was an abject failure (2012). Farrell himself was pitching coach on three playoff teams, including the 2007 World Series Champions.

So forgive Farrell for having the outrageous idea the Boston job might be better than the one in Toronto.

Neither he, nor the Blue Jays, nor the Red Sox could have foreseen the circumstances under which Terry Francona would exit Boston and the ensuing debacles that would lead to Farrell eventually getting his “dream job.”

So why can’t the fans let this go? Farrell didn’t want to be in Toronto. The team didn’t want him to be there that badly anymore, either. The Blue Jays pulled several major moves in the offseason and have their best team in years on paper.

Part of me thought the ferocity of their hatred came from all their years of frustration coming to a boil. Their team has been fighting for relevancy for 20 years.

To wit: Roy Halladay’s prime was wasted on middling team after middling team; J.P. Ricciardi’s tenure as GM was mostly a disaster; they gave B.J. Ryan $47 million, for which they got two decent years; they had a manager in the late-’90s who lied about serving in Vietnam, eventually leading his his dismissal; after two incredible years they traded Roger Clemens for pennies on the dollar; Chris Carpenter had a 4.83 ERA in six years there before blossoming into one of baseball’s best pitchers in St. Louis; I could go on, but you get the picture.

I liken this to how Montreal Canadiens fans boo Zdeno Chara at every turn over the Max Pacioretty hit even years later. I’d be hard-pressed to believe Habs fans would care remotely as much about Chara this long after the hit if their team had won anything in recent years.

But then, Friday night, it hit me. When Jose Iglesias got plunked on the arm with a pitch and started writhing in pain, the fans booed. The booing got louder when Farrell emerged from the dugout. But they were booing the simple act of an opposing player getting hit with a pitch and reacting in pain.

In that moment, I realized how amateurish Blue Jays fans at that game truly were. And I guess it’s hard to reason with, or understand, such absurd behavior.

***

Nick Cafardo offers his take on the nonsense in Toronto, calling the fans’ antics “silly.” Cafardo makes a good point about how college basketball coaches change jobs all the time under similar circumstances, however I’m not sure that comparison makes Farrell look better.

Like Farrell describing his “dream job,” does it really make a lot of sense for Texas fans to get on John Hamilton for calling Dallas a “football town?” Really? Are we somehow doubting that football is the most important sport in Texas? Hamilton, meanwhile, has bigger fish to fry, including really unfortunate treatment of his family in Texas. It’s just a game, people.

I suspect when the Braves spent greatly in money and players this winter to get B.J. and Justin Upton in their lineup, they were hoping for results like what happened in Atlanta Saturday night. In case you missed it, this was pretty damn cool.

You know what’s not cool? A 16-year-old Japanese pitcher who was forced to throw 772 pitches in a week during the Koshien national baseball tournament. Jeff Passan takes a closer look at the culture that creates such astonishing abuse.

In honor of the start of the season, Jay Jaffe wrote this thoughtful piece for SI on 20 ways baseball can be improved. It’s a good read and while some are far-fetched (I highly doubt we’ll see Opening Day declared a national holiday, as much as I’d love it), many are very practical. You may see me tackle some of these in this space soon.

I’ll end these blogs every week with a YouTube video of a song you should be listening to. First up are Local Natives, whose sophomore album Hummingbird has been among my favorites of the year so far.

Like this blog? Hate it? Want to ask me something or have an idea for a future blog? E-mail me at jakeodonnell21@gmail.com or tweet me @jaketodonnell.