May 22, 2004 – Red Sox vs Blue Jays

That was then

Ten years ago today the Boston Red Sox won their second straight game against the Toronto Blue Jays. They didn’t know it at the time, but the winning streak would last five games. Well before The Trade, things were going well enough.

That game was started by Pedro Martinez, won by Anastacio Martinez, and saved by Keith Foulke.

Manny Ramirez hit a home run. David Ortiz and Mark Bellhorn scored runs. Kevin Youkilis played in his fifth major league game.

Ted Lilly struck out 10 in 5.2 innings but his bullpen failed to deliver on the “Ted Lilly always beats the Red Sox” curse.

This is now

Tonight, the Red Sox will play the Toronto Blue Jays in an attempt to prevent losing their seventh straight game.

Jon Lester, who was nearly traded prior to the 2004 season for A-Rod, will be playing the role of ace that Pedro did so well a decade ago.

David Ortiz is still on the team, the sole remaining player from the 2004 club.

Opposing the Sox will be Mark Buehrle, a veteran in his own right.

Ten years ago things went well enough for the Red Sox. Maybe tonight that echo of a boxscore will penetrate Fenway Park and end the current slump.

Or their talented players will do what talented players do – win.

Kevin Youkilis: On the Block?

The 2012 Boston Red Sox look a lot like the 2011 version of the team. Two players entered this year as potential free agents: David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis. Ortiz, enjoying a tremendous resurgence, may have already guaranteed himself another arbitration deal with the Red Sox, but Kevin Youkilis, over whom the Sox have a $13 million option for next season, may not even finish 2012 in a Boston uniform. The question is: if he’s not playing in Fenway, where is he?

2012 did not start the way Youkilis would have wanted. Right off the bat his new manager was calling him out to the media questioning not his health or his playing ability but his intangibles: Bobby Valentine criticized his passion for the game. The new Sox skipper said Youk just wasn’t “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past.” While both sides tried to dismiss the comments and focus on the team – struggling mightily at the time – Ken Rosenthal is reporting that, according to a baseball executive,“Valentine wanted Youkilis out as far back as spring training, viewing him as a liability.”

If that wasn’t enough, the third baseman soon hit the disabled list and prospect Will Middlebrooks go off to a roaring start and, with a few slumps, is hitting .259/.295/.552 with 4 home runs. Middlebrooks has proven himself in the minors and has held his own in the majors, is generally expected to become the starter in 2013. If the Red Sox think he is ready to stay, maybe when Youkilis returns from the DL, he’ll be featured for a trade.

Who’s Looking?

There are a few teams who could use help at the infield corners who might be interested in the veteran “Greek God of Walks.”

The Dodgers, lead by superstars Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, are off to a surprising start in a weak NL West. Their current starter at third base? Juan Uribe. Uribe is hitting just .250/.302/.338 with a home run and a healthy Youk would be an improvement on his .640 OPS. The story doesn’t get much better across the diamond: James Loney, who never developed into the player the Dodgers always thought he would, is hitting .233/.310/.336. If a move back to first base could keep Youkilis healthy, an option the Red Sox don’t have, the Dodgers’ current roster construction wouldn’t make that very difficult.

North of LA, the San Francisco Giants, also looking at the weakness of their division, and currently without Pablo Sandoval, aka Kung Fu Panda, could be interested as well. Sandoval is currently sidelined with a hand injury, and while he should return in another month or so, Youkilis might be ready before then. Like the Dodgers, the Giants also have a question mark at first base. Prospect Brandon Belt hasn’t forced the team to pencil him into the lineup every day, giving an opening for Youkilis to take over. Belt also has experience playing the outfield, which could allow the Giants to upgrade offensively at two positions if Belt can really get into gear – he has the ability, just not the track record in the Majors.

What Red Sox trade talk would be complete without including his former boss, Theo Epstein? The breakout of Bryan LaHair at first base has been well publicized: the formerly-labeled quad-A player has slugged 10 home runs already this season while hitting (an unsustainable) .330/.422/.670. While the power is real his other stats will likely regress a bit as the season goes on. Behind LaHair is former Sox and Padres first base prospect Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo will eventually inherit the first base job when LaHair is traded or shifted to the outfield. But the hot corner is occupied by Darwin Barney.

Barney is a fine stopgap while the Cubs rebuild, but the Cubs may decide to play up their Red Sox knowledge again. Adding Youkilis to man third base this year, and possibly next year, would give the club a veteran leader with a solid batting eye. Youkilis is injury prone at this point in his career and can’t be expected for 162 games, but Epstein and Hoyer know this. The money isn’t a huge obstacle for the large-market Cubs and even the option is just a one year commitment. Like evert rebuilding team, the Cubs need to balance putting a decent product on the field with their efforts to become competitive again. Alfonso Soriano is a high-priced player well past his prime, but Youkilis probably still has something left in the tank, and it might be enough to warrant an upgrade from Barney to keep the team looking respectable, if not competitive. Even an understanding fan base likes to go to the ballpark with a chance to see their team have a good game.

Full Circle

In a way, the situation facing Kevin Youkilis today is not all that different than the one he was in during 2004. Bill Mueller, the 2003 batting champion and Red Sox third baseman at the time, went on the disabled list. The Sox called up the already Moneyball-famous Youk to take over at third base. Youk impressed, but not enough to win the job away from Mueller that season. In 2005, Youk got in work at third and first as Kevin Millar, John Olerud, and the immortal Roberto Petagine spent time in a first base platoon. In 2006, the starting job at first was his because of the arrival of Mike Lowell (with Josh Beckett) to handle the hot corner.

Maybe Middlebrooks will stay cool until Youkilis returns. Maybe he’ll heat up and force the Red Sox hand on a trade before Youk gets going himself. Maybe Carl Crawford has another setback but Middlebrooks ends up returning to the big leagues as a left fielder this season. As they say, these things have a way of working themselves out.

Sellout Streak: The End is Nigh

The Boston Red Sox have been the hot ticket for nearly a decade now: the team has sold out every home game since May 15, 2003. The total surpassed 700 consecutive games in 2011 but was not a guarantee to continue through 2012.

September’s collapse, combined with the departures of Theo Epstein and Terry Francona, the large amounts of money tied up in the so-far disappointing John Lackey, Carl Crawford, and a two seasons watching the playoffs on TV left fans without much to look forward to in 2012 besides a rebound. The excitement the preceded 2011 was nowhere to be found.

Watch any NESN broadcast and they are pimping tickets like made during commercials. A few years ago it was necessary to be a member of Red Sox Nation, Rem Dog Nation, Hot Dog Nation and more to get the latest word on when tickets MIGHT be available (at face value – always tons on Stubhub) for even the lowliest of games.

Today marks what is likely the end of the sellout streak: A Google Offer for Red Sox tickets:

Google Offer Red Sox

This doesn’t mean the streak will end, but the Red Sox are getting having to sell tickets during the season that used to sell out in December and January.

The last night of the Red Sox Dynasty may have been Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS, but the magical run the team has been on since 2003 will end for good when the sellout streak finally bites the dust.

Daniel Bard Headed Back to the Bullpen?

According to CSNNE’s Sean McAdam, the Red Sox front office is preparing for the possibility that Daniel Bard returns to the bullpen for 2012, rather than take a place in the starting rotation. Instead, Alfredo Aceves, the swingman from 2011, could complete his own transition from relief to starting.

In 12.2 innings this spring, Bard has allowed eleven hits and ten runs, good for a 7.11 ERA. The right hander, who posts  a career 2.80 K:BB walk, has not been as stingy with the base on ball this spring, handing out ten walks to just six strikeouts.

Aceves, on the other hand, has allowed only one run during his 9.0 Spring Training innings. On top of that he has struck out eight and has not issued a single walk.

Of course, Spring Training statistics are nearly meaningless: they represent a very small sample of work during a warm-up period that makes even talented veterans like Roy Halladay look foolish at times. In addition, the nature of spring games is such that pitchers are not put in and taken out of games as they are in the regular season, but to “get in work.” If a starter is pitching well, he will still be removed early in the game for the relief pitchers slated to go that day. Same with hitters. The Red Sox know this, so the question is why run the experiment if the highly flawed results will make a difference?

The Red Sox have not made an official announcement or confirmation of this report and perhaps a good outing by Bard next time will end all speculation if it appears he has settled into starting and found the comfort he normally has while relieving.

On the plus side, Aceves is a perfectly acceptable back of the rotation starter. If Daniel Bard cannot be better than that, for any reason, why mess with a good thing? In concert with Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, a return to the bullpen by Bard would give the Red Sox a formidable trio to end ballgames.

And as a bonus, David Ortiz will probably be happy too.

Cross-posted from Sports of Boston

Dan Duquette Finally Back in Baseball as Orioles GM: What’s Next?

In a year where it seems like every team has been hunting for a general manager, dozens of names have been tossed about: former GMs, assistant GMs ready to take over for their current team or accept a promotion with another team, and long-rumored potential candidates like Kim Ng. One name that didn’t get much attention until he emerged as the front-runner in Baltimore: former Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette. After nearly a decade away from a management job in Major League Baseball, Duquette has returned to rebuild a Red Sox rival in a tough AL East.

End of an Era

Dan Duquette was the last GM of the Yawkey ownership and failed to end the championship drought while the team was still owned by the family. During the eight seasons between 1994 when he won the job and 2002 when he was fired, Duquette’s teams went 656-574, reaching the playoffs three times and taking home one AL East division title. Duquette drafted Nomar Garciaparra and Kevin Youkilis, although the latter didn’t reach the majors during Duquette’s time in Boston. He acquired Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe in trades. He brought Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon to Boston, and for what it’s worth, eventually freed the team of clubhouse cancer and dinosaur denier Carl Everett. These moves built the foundation that the Red Sox would transform into some of the greatest teams to take the field under John Henry’s ownership.

On the other hand, Duquette draftee Justin Duchscherer was traded for backup catcher Doug Mirabelli and plucky  shortstop David Eckstein was lost on waivers to the Angels. Duquette also failed to sign Mark Teixeira, a move which could have altered the fortunes of the early 2000s Red Sox tremendously.

Overall his tenure in Boston was nothing to sneeze at, and maybe, had the Yankees not gone on such an amazing run at the end of the last century, one of Duquette’s teams could have gotten lucky and made a run at a World Series. With Pedro and Nomar in their primes, a few breaks in the Sox favor could have changed history.

However, the Red Sox string of second place finishes and their inability to make it past the ALCS during Duquette’s reign left the fans wanting more. The bad taste surrounding Duquette’s time in Boston would be forever tied to one moment in 1996 when the GM said these words: “The Red Sox and our fans were fortunate to see Roger Clemens play in his prime and we had hoped to keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.”  The twilight of his career. Those words would sting Red Sox Nation while Clemens took his skills to Toronto, New York, and Houston, winning Cy Young awards along the way and made Duquette look foolish.

Today we know that part of Clemens’ rejuvenation was fueled by performance enhancing drugs. While this may be of little consolation to Duquette, it at least partially validates his assessment of Clemens in the mid-90s.

When John Henry’s ownership group completed their purchase of the Red Sox there was still a lot of work to be done before Henry could really make the team his own. In his behind the scenes book about the Red Sox, Feeding the Monster, Seth Mnookin describes the Duquette days as “needlessly combative.” Henry said the secrecy surrounding the team was worrisome and that under his control the Sox would be “committed to being open and having open lines of communication” in response to stories about minor league pitching coaches worrying about being fired if they spoke to the press. The money quote from a reporter Henry relayed to Mnookin: “Get out your broom and sweep out the Duke.” When Duquette reached the end of the road in Boston, he landed hard.

After Boston

The aftermath for Dan Duquette was not as welcoming as the GM shuffle that has taken place this year. The former Red Sox and Expos executive found himself shut out of the exclusive network of Major League Baseball. In America. Duquette was part of a team that formed the Israel Baseball League. The league lasted just one season, 2007. However, Israel, denied a team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, will be participating in the 2013 WBC. At the very least, the effort helped baseball gain traction in another country, while graduating several players to other professional baseball leagues.

Now that Dan Duquette is back in the helm of a team, time will tell if the executive can rebuild a historic franchise. Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Matt Weiters form the core to build around. Uber-prospect Manny Machado looms on the horizon, and the O’s have a stable of pitching prospects who have struggled with injuries, ineffectiveness or both.

With a three-year contract in place, Duquette has his work set out for him, the AL East is a tough division with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays battling each other for playoff contention, and the Blue Jays are pretty good too. The next wave of prospects should arrive during Duquette’s tenure and if he can surround them with some excellent under the radar pickups while drafting well, the Orioles could make enough progress to keep him around long enough to see his team be competitive.

The ultimate wild card: the Orioles have money. Baltimore was in on the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes a few years ago and it wouldn’t be impossible to see them surface as a mystery team for Prince Fielder or even Albert Pujols. At the end of the day, Duquette may leave his mark on baseball as an Oriole, rather than a Red Sox.

 

Cross-posted from Sports of Boston

Don’t Blame the Game, Blame the Player(s)

The 2011 season is the low-point for the John Henry-owned Red Sox. Not since 2003 has Red Sox Nation faced such a tragedy. This year, however, there was no Aaron Boone moment to provide a quick death to Boston’s World Series ambitions. This was a death by a thousand paper cuts. Eight-year manager Terry Francona and the Red Sox have already parted ways, on somewhat mutual terms, and general manager Theo Epstein may be next to go. The training staff and pitching coach Curt Young may need to dust off their resumes as well.

Managers do have a limited shelf life (see Joe Torre’s tenure in New York) Tito should not be targeted as the bad guy here. Perhaps Epstein and Red Sox ownership wanted to bring in a different manager didn’t want to change horses in midstream. After all, why mess with success? Theo Epstein, while he shares some responsibility as GM, is likewise not the villain here. On the balance, his moves have been successful, and without injuries to key players, have built another strong core of talent in Boston. Ultimately, the blame for missing the playoffs lies with the players.

Hall Pass

Even among the 25 men who entered the season as the team to beat, there are a few players who get an immediate pass. Jacoby Ellsbury, Marco Scutaro, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon formed the core of a team that looked unstoppable for four months. At one point Ellsbury, Pedroia, Ortiz, and Gonzalez were all in contention for MVP honors, and at the end of the season Ellsbury packed his bags with a better than even shot of walking away with the award himself. We have to wait a few weeks to find out if he’s the MVP, but it’s safe to say his injury-plagued 2010 campaign is in the past for the franchise, the player, and the fans.

While he was on the mound for unlikely comebacks fueled by Orioles’ utility infielder Robert Andino, Jonathan Papelbon’s failing is a product of circumstance. The hard-throwing closer put up his best season since 2007 with rebounds in WHIP, strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout to walk ratio. Whatever the righty had been lacking the past few seasons seemed to have returned. Whether it was mental, physical, or free agent year magic, Papelbon was once again a force to be reckoned with. The truth about relief pitchers, closers especially, is that outside of Mariano Rivera there is no such thing as a guarantee. Even Rivera isn’t perfect, but he sets unrealistic expectations for every other pitcher. If Carl Crawford makes a play that one of the best outfielders in baseball is expected to make, Papelbon gets out of the inning. In the big picture, Papelbon may have been on the mound when the season ended, but he performed as a top tier closer this season.

Without question, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz are absolved from the collapse due to injury. Buchholz’s absence was probably the single largest factor in the Red Sox disappointing finish as his replacements, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, and Kyle Weiland, all failed to perform at his level, but the circumstances regarding his availability were out of his control. Thankfully his back should be fully healed and ready to go in spring training.

Rocks and Hard Places

While Carl Crawford was certainly the most disappointing player on the Red Sox in 2011 (2010: .307/.356/.495 with 19 HR and 46 SB, 2011: .255/.289/.405 with 11 HR and 18 SB), the Red Sox still lead the league in runs, hits, doubles, on-base percentage, and slugging while taking second place in walks and third place in home runs and triples. Don’t let sports radio fool you: this was one of the best teams ever and Carl Crawford’s down year was nothing compared to Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, or Vernon Wells. People are looking to blame beer, conditioning, computers, the manager, pitching coach, and more for the Red Sox bloated payroll and lack of playoff wins since the 2008 ALCS. Those people are wrong. The blame for missing the playoffs (aside from Clay Buchholz’s aforementioned back) rests solely on the pitching staff. Primarily on three men: Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and of course, John Lackey.

Don’t misunderstand, Lester and Beckett were valuable contributors this season. Lester made 31 starts, threw 191 innings and struck out almost a batter per nine innings. Beckett enjoyed a tremendous bounce-back season after a very disappointing 2010 and ended the year with an ERA under three for the first time in his career while cutting his walk rate by nearly one per nine innings. Both had terrific seasons.

The problem? Josh Beckett made four starts in September. In back-to-back outings against the Baltimore Orioles he allowed 6 runs. Beckett allowed more than three runs in a start just six times this season: three times against Baltimore and once each against the Yankees, Phillies, and Mariners.

Lester similarly hit a rough stretch at the end of the year. Fresh off a decent outing against the Yankees where he allowed one run over five innings on September 1st and a dominant 7-inning, 11 strikeout, 3 hit, zero run performance against the Blue Jays five days later, a series of bad starts came as a surprise. In his next two starts Lester faced off against the Tampa Bay Rays. He allowed four runs in four innings and four runs in seven innings in Tropicana Field and Fenway Park respectively. He also allowed as many walks as strikeouts (7) over the two losses. Lester would then face the Yankees in a 2.2 inning, 8 run disaster. The Sox lefty did recover somewhat in Game 162, allowing just two runs in six difficult innings, while pitching on three days rest. Although the bullpen would eventually cost Lester the win, this is not the type of game that brings down teams – a few such losses every season are impossible to prevent.

The bigger issue facing Terry Francona heading in to the season finale: with a seriously depleted back end of the the rotation, why couldn’t his aces come through with just one more win? Both starters entering slumps as the season drew to a close left Francona with little ability to right the ship. But two pitchers do not a rotation make. There was another veteran pitcher on the staff. A “bulldog” on the mound who took the ball every five days and liked to see every game through to the finish. A prized free agent acquisition. This was of course, John Lackey.

A New World of Trouble

When the John Lackey deal was first announced the biggest question it raised was “what does this mean for Josh Beckett?” Entering his last season before free agency, Beckett, somewhat replaced by Jon Lester for the title of staff ace since the 2007 season concluded, seemed sure to depart once Lackey was in the fold. Rumors about a bidding war with the Yankees were aleady swirling. The former Angel was no longer at his best, but with Lester ascending to the top of the rotation, Lackey surely could handle the duties of a number two or three starter with Clay Buchholz emerging and Daisuke Matsuzaka still attempting to harness the great stuff he showed in Japan where he was nothing short of dominant.

After the Red Sox extended Josh Beckett, expectations for the starting staff were nothing short of historic. The Red Sox entered the 2010 season with what some termed as one of the deepest, best starting rotations ever assembled (of course, this was before the four-headed monster in Philadelphia). By the end of the opening weekend in 2010, Lackey was not being asked to anchor the staff for years to come, merely to fill a role doing what he did best: eat innings with gusto and give his team a chance to win every time he took the mound. Today, he is possibly the worst pitcher in baseball.

After a disappointing first season in Boston which saw Lackey go 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA, a career worst 1.419 WHIP and the second lowest K/9 of his career it didn’t seem like things could get much worse. He dealt with some off-field issues during the season and was pitching in the AL East rather than the AL West for the first time in his career. A new team, new park, and a new division generate a good amount of slack for a struggling athlete. Lackey entered 2011 with muted expectations.

What happened this season cannot be described as less than disaster. Lackey, a competitor on the mound, had become a shell of himself. This much is not new. What is: after his final appearance of the season, Lackey was 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA. Yes, John Lackey was a .500 pitcher this season. Pitcher wins measure something, but more of them doesn’t necessarily indicate value.

For reference, a quality start consists of six innings of work in which the starting pitcher allows three runs or fewer. In other words, a pitcher who always turned in quality starts would have an ERA of 4.50 at the strictest definition. On June 5th, Lackey’s ERA stood at a whopping 8.01 before his start against the Oakland A’s. The remainder of his season would consist of violent swings – positive and negative outings – but his ERA did trend downwards through the end of August. Although four earned runs in seven innings is not exactly a stellar outing, even against the Yankees.

Again, Lackey is one of the veterans on the pitching staff. He has won a World Series. He has been to the playoffs. Before arriving in Boston, Lackey was in the top few tiers of starting pitchers. As we now know, the Red Sox needed just two more wins (or Tampa Bay losses) in September to have reached the playoffs, one to have forced a 163rd game against the Rays. Oddly enough Lackey would have been in line to pitch that game. In his first three September starts, Lackey faced Texas, Tampa, and Toronto. He allowed six, five, and two runs as the Red Sox lost all three matchups. Against Toronto, while he only allowed two earned runs, Lackey lasted just 5.1 innings.

His next start was against those increasingly pesky Baltimore Orioles. Four and a third innings and eight runs later Lackey was gone. The Orioles lost 93 games this year. Their fourth straight last place finish. The Red Sox offence picked up Lackey by scoring 18 runs that day. When the Red Sox talk about getting Lackey “back on track” they certainly mean fewer outings like that one. Between 2002 and 2009 Lackey allowed six or more earned runs 20 times. In his two years with the Red Sox he has “accomplished” the feat on 12 occasions.

Looking Back

The Red Sox assembled what, at the start of the season, could be called one of the best teams ever. A lost season by Carl Crawford didn’t help them, but didn’t hold back the most potent offense in baseball. While Daisuke Matsuzaka only rarely lived up to the hype surrounding his move to America, his solid contributions, if not spectacular, were a valuable asset out of the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation. As we saw this year, a pitcher who can go five or six innings and not get shelled every time he takes the mound is a valuable guy. Clay Buchholz’s back turned out to be the lead domino which, when time was running out, could not be help up by the veterans of the staff.

In any situation, when things get bad we turn to those who we most believe can save us. For the Red Sox, still possessing two of the better pitchers in the game, the playoffs were not out of reach. Two strong pitchers can carry a team through the Division Series when they are supported by a strong offense. Had Lackey pulled himself together and summoned even his 2009 era self, the collapse would have been sad, but tragedy avoided. The 2011 season was cut short because when the Red Sox needed a hero, the three guys they expected to count on all came up short.


Cross-posted at Sports of Boston