There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in Red Sox Nation after the season ended abruptly with the greatest September collapse in baseball history. The Sox blew a 9-game lead and surrendered the Wild Card to the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night by losing to the Orioles. The Rays came back from a 7-0 deficit against the Yankees to win in extra innings and punch their ticket to October baseball. Meanwhile, Red Sox fans are left wondering what happened to their team this season and with even more questions about the future.
The Red Sox came into the year with high expectations, some deserved, some undeserved. After some major offseason acquisitions in the form of 1B Adrian Gonzalez and LF Carl Crawford, some people were ready to anoint the Red Sox the greatest team ever and were comparing them to the 1927 Yankees before a single pitch was even thrown. These people were idiots. SP Josh Beckett got some overly excessive criticism in the preseason for saying that he’d never been on a 100-win team and thought this team could do something special. 41 of 41 ESPN “experts” predicted the Red Sox to win the AL East and most of them also predicted the Sox would make or win the World Series this year. Expectations for this team, both internally and externally, were pretty high.
So what happened? They started out 2-10 and ended the season 7-20 in September. In between they went 81-42, which is a .659 winning %, which if they had maintained for the entire year would have put them around 107 wins. The way they started had everyone baffled, because of the talent on the team. Then they hit their stride and everyone thought they were the best team in baseball. And then they imploded in September and the way they finished was even more baffling than the way they started.
Part of the reason for their implosion can be attributed to injuries, certainly. For most of August and September, the Sox had to rely on John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, Erik Bedard, and Kyle Weiland to mix and match around the starts of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. The loss of Clay Buchholz with a back injury was significant. Less significant was the season-ending injury to Dice-K, the Japanese “National Treasure” that they can have back anytime. But a look at the contrast in their offense and defense is troubling: 1st in runs, 2nd in batting average, 1st in on base percentage, and 1st in sligging percentage, but 22nd in ERA, 28th in quality starts, 16th in WHIP, and 9th in batting average against. And those offensive numbers are misleading, because they scored a lot of their runs in bunches and had a lot of games where they struggled to produce runs when they needed them.
Some players had great individual years, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz, and Alfredo Aceves in particular. Lester and Beckett were mostly good, but wore down toward the end. And other guys like Lowrie, Scutaro, Salty, Reddick, and Bard had stretches where they played well. But too many guys had atrocious seasons; most notably John Lackey, Carl Crawford, J.D. Drew, and Dice-K. Kevin Youkilis had a lost season with several nagging injuries.
Crawford, whom they spent $142 million to acquire in the offseason, was never comfortable all year. A dynamic player in Tampa Bay his entire career, he seemed to struggle initially trying to live up to the expectations of his big contract and never got on track. It didn’t help that they never really found a proper place for him in the lineup either. I still think Crawford can return to form and be a productive player, but he needs to do some serious work and soul searching in the offseason. There are some guys that just aren’t able to cut it playing in the intense atmosphere that is Boston and I hope Crawford is not another name that has to be added to that list.
John Lackey easily submitted one of the worst pitching performances in franchise history. The only thing he didn’t do this season was squat down and leave a steaming turd on the pitchers mound. Although that probably would have been more impressive than the way he pitched this year. In his two years in Boston, he has simply not gotten the job done. Beyond that, he is a terrible teammate by the looks of things. He throws his arms up in the air and rolls his eyes when defenders make mistakes behind him when he is on the mound. He is abrasive and antagonistic with the fans and media, who tried to cut him a lot of slack because his wife is dealing with breast cancer. But now it has come out that he is leaving his cancer striken wife. So not only is he a bad teammate, his is also a bad human being.
Now that the season is over, word has come out that there were some serious clubhouse issues going on behind the scenes that were not talked about. People complaining about bus rides, a pitcher drinking beer in the clubhouse on days he wasn’t scheduled to pitch, and general team chemistry issues could not be resolved for some reason. Also, a lack of conditioning on the part of some players was an issue. Part of the blame for that is on the manager, Terry Francona, and part of that is on the players as well for not stepping up and showing any leadership in the clubhouse to bring each other together and bond over the course of the season. There was a famous saying about some past Boston teams with a lack of comraderie that there were “25 cabs for 25 players” after every game. I would say that this team was a lot closer to that than the “Cowboy Up” group of 2004 that circled the wagons and, to a man, would probably take a bullet for one another (well, except for maybe Orlando Cabrera…). And when Terry Francona is the person divulging all of this information during a media session the day after the season, you know it’s a serious issue, because Francona goes out of his way to protect the players and shield them as much as possible from media scrutiny.
So, where do the Sox go from here after this historic collapse? Well, it looks like Terry Francona may move on and there is also a possibility that Theo Epstein does too. Personally, I think letting either of them go would be a mistake, unless they just don’t want to be here anymore. They share some blame here, but there is plenty of blame to go around and the players need to be held accountable for their performances and their actions too.
On the plus side, the team is able to rid themselves of J.D. Drew, whose contract is finally over. David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, Jason Varitek, and Tim Wakefield are also free agents. Tough decisions are going to have to be made about whether any of them are brought back.
They almost need Papelbon to come back, even if they need to overpay him by a few dollars, because Daniel Bard is clearly not ready to be the closer for this team as he wilted in a major way down the stretch, sporting a 10.64 ERA for the month of September.
Players like Varitek and Wakefield, as much as they have done for the organization and as beloved as they will always be by the fans, need to be nudged out the door, preferrably into retirement, but the cord needs to be severed with these guys.
“Big Papi” David Ortiz is a bigger problem. He returned to for this year after there were serious questions the last two seasons over whether he was pretty much done. At 35, his best days are behind him, but he can still be an effective player for another 2 or 3 years. But the problem is that the Red Sox have 3 elite guys for 2 positions. The trade for Adrian Gonzalez moved Kevin Youkilis to third base, and the conventional wisdom was that Youk would be fine because it was his natural position. But this season showed that his body is not capable of being an everyday third baseman any longer. It is a position that is taxing on the body, and his body broke down over the course of the season.
Here is essentially what I see as the crux of the Red Sox offseason. As Papi is a full-time designated hitter, something has to happen here. Either the Red Sox allow Big Papi to leave and sign with another team and make the DH spot a position where they can get guys like Youkilis routine days off in the field, or they bring Papi back and ship Youkilis out of town for whatever they can get for him. The benefits of keeping Papi over Youk are as follows: he is a local icon, he is universally loved by about every player in major league baseball, and his presence in the clubhouse is a significant bridge for management in relating to Latino players. The downside to keeping Papi: He is 36, he is limited to pretty much just DH which limits your roster flexibility, a left-handed hitter in a lefty-heavy lineup, and there are some injury concerns. The benefits of keeping Youk are: you can play him a three positions (1B, 3B, DH) if necessary, Youk is younger and cheaper to keep and the Sox would probably have to pay some of his salary for someone to take him, he is intense and driven on the field, and he is a right-handed hitter in a left-heavy lineup.. The downside of keeping Youk is: he may have more significant injury concerns than Big Papi, even though he is 32, his best days may be behind him as his production slipped significantly this year, and sometimes he psychs himself out for big games.
There is no easy answer for which player to choose to keep. My heart says Papi, my brain says Youk, mostly. The deciding factor here may be their lineup composition. As it stood in 2011, their batting order featured Ellsbury, Gonzalez, Ortiz, Crawford, and Drew; all of whom are left-handed hitters. That’s more than half the lineup. In matchups vs. left-handed pitchers, that is problematic. And if Ellsbury, Gonzalez, Ortiz and Crawford are supposed to be four of your best five hitters, with the fifth being Pedroia (a right-handed hitter), you can’t hit them all in order like that without running into trouble at some point. And when Crawford doesn’t like to hit leadoff and is making $20 million, so he can’t very well hit 9th, and Gonzo is your best source of power and highest average, it makes sense to hit him 3rd or 4th, it complicates things. Ideally, the Sox need Crawford to be able to bounce back in 2012. Ellsbury leads off, and then Pedroia and Crawford hit 2 and 3 in some order, followed by Gonzo in cleanup. If they bring Youk back, he hits behind Gonzo most nights. If they bring Ortiz back, then he hits sixth with whatever right-handed bat they bring in for 3B or RF hitting in the 5-spot.
The right field position is going to be upgrade almost by default with the departure of J.D. Drew. Whoever they get to play there may not be as good defensively, but as long as he is adequate, the upgrade he will represent at the plate and his ability to play through any small injury will more than balance things out. Might I suggest Corey Hart as a replacement?
As for pitching, Buchholz returning healthy would be a good start. If you can get a bag of balls for Lackey, I would move him, even if it meant paying half his salary for the next three years. Dice-K can take his time coming back from Tommy John surgery. If he never suits up in a Red Sox uniform, I’ll be happy. Lester and Beckett wore down toward the end of the season. For all of the speculation about Lackey and other players, I wonder if the comments during the press conference yesterday from Francona and Epstein about conditioning were at least partly directed at them. Bedard can walk as far as I’m concerned, as the Sox clearly picked the wrong Seattle pitcher to rent while Detroit got the right one in Doug Fister. After two years of the John Lackey experience, I am wary of the team just throwing money at the top-rated free agent pitcher in the offseason, even if that pitcher is C.J. Wilson and is someone I like as a pitcher. However, if C.C. Sabathia opts out of his contract for a bigger payday, you offer him a blank check to bring him in, because that guy is a stud, a workhorse. Sadly, I don’t think they have the pieces necessary to make a trade for someone special like Felix Hernandez, although I would really like to see them try, and Felix deserves to be on a team that can get him wins to match his amazing pitching abilities. He is too good to be toiling away on a sub-.500 team in Seattle.
With it looking more and more like Francona may be done as manager of the Red Sox, it is fair to speculate who could/should replace him. I think they have to hire a name manager, they can’t just promote any ol’ Joe Schmoe bench coach from another team. The first person I would ask is Joe Torre. Although, I don’t think that is a direction they would go in, because of the chemistry issues on the team and they may think they need to bring in someone more hardnosed and someone who won’t coddle the players as much. Both Francona and Torre are “player’s managers” and so that might disqualify Joe. Tony LaRussa would have to be considered. If they were to hire a bench coach from another team, I would suggest Tony Pena. A name I haven’t heard, but I would be interested in because of what he had done before he quit earlier this year in Washington is Jim Riggleman. I don’t know his style or philosophy as a manager, but I know that the Nationals had started to turn a corner with him at the wheel, and for some reason the managment there was not willing to commit to him.
Lastly, if Theo Epstein were to leave for the Cubs job or anywhere else, my first call would be to Billy Beane. Why not? They almost hired him away from Oakland last time before they settled on Theo. I would love to see what Beane could do with a sizeable budget for once. Barring that, I would look to guys who used to be in the Red Sox organization, like Jed Hoyer in San Diego. Either that, or bring in a local boy like J.P. Ricciardi.
The 2011 Red Sox season was a subpar performance and a disappointment, but I do not think it is the catastrophe that some people are making it out to be, even though it was a historic collapse. There are a lot of tough decisions to be made in this offseason, but I am still confident that this team will stay competitive and be in the mix for the postseason again next year.