Flashback: John Burkett

Ten years ago today (September 19, 2003) the Boston Red Sox played the Cleveland Indians in Jacobs Field. Progressive Insurance was still five year away from buying the naming rights to the stadium, the Indians’ Eric Wedge was in his first season as a manager, and the winning pitcher was John Burkett.

While he didn’t know it at the time, Burkett was making one of his last appearances in the major leagues. No team would step forward to offer a contract to the then 38-year-old right hander.

The Red Sox would be the last of five stops in the career of the veteran pitcher. In 59 starts during the 2002 and 2003 seasons Burkett won 25 games and compiled a 4.85 ERA as the team’s fifth starter. Although he posted a shiny 3.01 ERA and struck out a career-high 20% of batters in 2001, his second of two seasons with the Atlanta Braves, Burkett was still nearly a decade removed from his fourth place finish in Cy Young voting for his work in the 1993 season.

Burkett would pitch two times in the Red Sox 2003 playoff run: once against the Oakland A’s and once against the New York Yankees. He held the A’s to four runs in 5.1 innings, which was enough for the Boston bats to overcome. In Yankee Stadium, Burkett started Game 6 of the ALCS and lasted just 3.2 innings while surrendering five runs, though only three were earned. The Red Sox would win that game, tying the series at three and giving Pedro Martinez the chance to send the Sox to the World Series with a victory in the final game.

That his career ended with the Red Sox is somewhat interesting in it’s own right because of a trade that took place in August of 1996. The Marlins traded Burkett for a young pitcher on the Texas Rangers, a guy in the A level South Atlantic League named Ryan Dempster. Still just 19 years old, Dempster wouldn’t make his debut in the majors for two more years.

What did he do after baseball? Bowling, of course. And it turns out he’s pretty good, just as the Nike commercial featuring Randy Johnson as a ten-pin pro would have you believe.

Happy Birthday Nomar!

Since Nomar Garciaparra and I share a birthday, I always imagine that he hit those three home runs on this date in 2002 for all the important people born on the 23rd of July.

According to @highheatstats, this is a unique feat: 

Did the Phillies Learn the Wrong Lesson from Boston?

 From 2006 to 2011 the Philadelphia Phillies won more games each season than the season previous, raising their win total from a modest 85 to an outstanding 102. 

Their front office built a starting rotation headed by a trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels that teams and fans around the sport would drool over. The Phillies finished first in the NL East in five consecutive seasons from 2007 to 2011. 

But like a character in a sitcom who is living “the life of Riley” until the show needs a ratings boost and they draw the short straw, the Phillies began to realize that the good times would not last forever

Posting a .500 record last year and on pace to lose more games than they win for the first time since 2002 this season, reality has arrived in Philadelphia. The time to rebuild their once championship-caliber core may be at hand.

GM Ruben Amaro, however, is taking his time adjusting to the lean years. Looking at a roster that includes names like Lee, Papelbon, Hamels, Rollins, Utley, and Howard, the Phillies executive remains bullish on his club. 

Speaking with CSNPhilly.com in June, Amaro argued his team could duplicate the turnaround of the Boston Red Sox, a last place team in 2012 currently leading the AL East as the All-Star break approaches. 

Amaro expanded on this idea, saying, “There’s no blowing up. There might come a time when we make changes to improve for the future, but we don’t have reason to blow it up. Boston didn’t blow it up last year. They retooled.” 

Since then the GM has backed off his denials that the team could become a seller before the trade deadline, but his point stands: if the Red Sox could return to respectability in an offseason, why can’t the Phillies? It’s not quite that simple.

In Ben Cherington first year as general manager for the Boston Red Sox, the team fell on its face. 

One year after being heralded as the best team in baseball, only to miss the playoffs in embarrassing fashion, the Red Sox made a series of lesser free agent signings: Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, and Koji Uehara. 

Rather than go after Zack Greinke or Josh Hamilton, Boston moved down a tier in their acquisitions and filled in gaps with players who had some question marks. 

Napoli and Victorino were coming off down years, Gomes had succeeded mainly as a platoon player, Dempster was moving to the DH league, Ross was only a backup catcher, and Uehara had been a very good relief pitcher who, as he neared 40, was scaling back his workload. 

Yet, the Red Sox are among the best in baseball, one season after losing more than 90 games.

Ruben Amaro would seem to be correct: the Phillies were a .500 team in 2012 and are just a bit off that pace this year, why can’t they stick with a their already-signed core (Lee, Hamels, Howard, Papelbon, and now, Dominic Brown) and match the Red Sox, adding a few complimentary free agents and return to the top of the NL East? 

Phillies fans, if you are starting to get excited, don’t hold your breath.

The Red Sox didn’t just retool, a storm of signings, health, and a miniature fire sale worked in concert to make the 2013 roster possible. Starting with The Trade, we know that the Red Sox didn’t just dump spare parts onto the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

They parted ways with Adrian Gonzalez, their starting first baseman who was acquired for a package of prospects just shy of two seasons prior. The Dodgers took on nearly all of the remaining 6 years and $127 million left on his contract. Gonzalez was a player the Sox did not want to trade. He was the result of a multi-year search for a new franchise first baseman. 

But the team did so to sweeten the rest of the trade: five years of Carl Crawford’s at approximately $85 million dollars and the remainder of Josh Beckett’s deal, worth approximately $31.4 million over two years. 

While Beckett pitched well down the stretch in 2012, his 2013 was disappointing before he succumbed to season-ending surgery. Crawford, battling injury himself, is on his way to a bounce back season hitting .284/.343/.443 with five home runs and nine steals when he’s been able to take the field. 

Adrian Gonzalez too has rebounded from his disappointing 2012 hitting nearly .300 with some decent power (13 homers, 19 doubles) in the first half. The Dodgers got a lot of talent for a number of years from the Red Sox in exchange for pitching prospect Allen Webster and and young pitcher Rubby De La Rosa, who was making his return from Tommy John surgery.

The 2012 Red Sox were not in last place simply because of a trade: the team was without Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, John Lackey, and Andrew Bailey for much of the season, all of whom have returned to the field and, with the exception of Bailey, performed above expectations in 2013. 

The Phillies are missing Roy Halladay, who struggled in 2012, dropped down another peg in 2013, and is now recovering from surgery. But other than that, the Phillies have their team on the field. And it’s performing like an aging roster is expected to: not that well.

The version of the Red Sox story that Ruben Amaro is telling is one of offseason additions. Roy Halladay, even if healthy, is a free agent at the end of this season. He is not signed for the future the way John Lackey was during his lost year. This is important to remember because Lackey has been a force for Boston out of the rotation when his contribution was expected to be minimal.

For the Phillies to duplicate the revival of Boston they need to free salary, move valuable assets (Lee, Papelbon, pending free agent Chase Utley) with a bad contract like Ryan Howard’s. Hopefully they can acquire some prospects in the exchange and then use the money freed up from the veteran players to do what the Red Sox did and fill in their lineup with fresh, new, players. 

The Red Sox did all three of these things, not just the last bit about signing free agents in the offseason after a down year that Amaro is pointing to as the retooling rather than rebuilding.

There is a lesson to be learned in what the Red Sox have accomplished: big market teams working with other big market teams, can unload contracts, grab a few prospects, and trade a slice of their competitive window for a temporary step back. 

The Red Sox were still at .500 on August 6, 2012, and just six games under .500 when the trade with the Dodgers occurred. Without the trade they might have avoided last place in the AL East, but would not have had the financial or roster flexibility to do what they did in the offseason. 

There is no reason the Phillies can’t take some dead money, tie it to a few valuable players who can bring back a solid return in terms of prospects, and have plenty of room to spend in the offseason, reallocating a couple big deals into several small ones.

Today In “Greek” History: Kevin Youkilis

Per @HighHeatStats on Twitter, the Kevin Youkilis era of the Boston Red Sox concluded one year ago today. It’s strange to look back and think about how much Youkilis was around for and how quickly he became irrelevant. 

When Kevin Youkilis was called up to the Red Sox in May of 2004,  Moneyball mania was in full swing. The Red Sox were coming off a disastrous 2003 ALCS and the batting champion, third baseman Bill Mueller, was on the disabled list. Youkilis was a savior, and excitement, and a bit of a worry because Mueller had made such an impression the previous season. I still remember I had a friend who was doing a summer semester in Greece and was freaking out when he got back that Youkilis had been called up.

Youkilis was around for both World Series runs, played in three All-Star Games, and showed Boston fans what he could do at first base and third base. You could even say “Youk knows third AND Youk knows first.”

Now that he’s back on the disabled list with back surgery, the end may be near for Youkilis. If so, he would finish with a career .281/.382/.478 line, 104 hit by pitches, and 539 walks.

 

The Red Sox Shuffle : Kevin Youkilis, Will Middlebrooks, and Daniel Bard

When Terry Francona was manager, he usually pointed out that worrying about the bench and pinch hitters wasn’t a big concern for the Red Sox because the front office had built an everyday lineup. Players were responsible for one position, with a little background in another for the occasional “banged up” guy who avoided the disabled list by sitting out for six or seven days. He never imagined the type of injuries that would follow the Red Sox from Spring Training forward in 2012. Now that Alfredo Aceves has locked down the closer job, at least until Andrew Bailey returns,, the two players who are still, possibly, in flux as to their position going forward: Daniel Bard and Kevin Youkilis.

The Bard

One of the most surprising storylines of the past offseason was the plan to move Daniel Bard, heir apparent to Jonathan Papelbon, from the closer line of succession and into the starting rotation. There were views taken on both sides: Bard was not particularly impressive as a starter after first signing with the Red Sox but was lights out as a reliever and Bard as a even a 3/4/5 starter would be more valuable over 200 innings per season than as a closer or setup guy pitching at most 80 innings each year. Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe was ready to end the Bard experiment a few weeks ago. At the time, I wholeheartedly disagreed. Bard’s work in relief was brilliant: in 197 innings between 2009 and 2011 Bard struck out 213 batters, surrendered 76 walks of the unintentional variety, and gave up just 132 hits.

If even half of that stuff could follow him into the starting rotation the impact would have been huge. I hoped the Red Sox would stick with Bard as long as it took to find out if he could be a starter. While the Red Sox continued to send Bard out for the first inning, the wheels eventually fell off, and the car rolled all the way down a cliff into a ditch. On June 3rd against the Blue Jays, Bard lasted just 1.2 innings. While recording five outs Bard walked 6, hit 2, and allowed 5 runs. It took 55 pitches – nearly half as many as he normally threw over five or six inning outings, even those (most of them) where Bard wasn’t exactly sharp.

And so Daniel Bard was returned to the minors. The Red Sox were committed to the experiment. After all, Bard had just 55.0 MLB innings as a starter under his belt. On June 8th, Bard made his first minor league start. It could have gone better: 1.0 inning, 3 runs (but 2 Ks). After this outing, the Sox, still committed to Bard as a starter, decided to shake things up: he would continue to build back to a starter’s workload through relief outings. Returning Bard to the kind of outings he succeeded in the past seems to have worked. In his next five innings for the PawSox Bard gave up just 1 run and 2 walks while striking out 6.

At the moment, the Red Sox are still committed to bringing Bard back to the Majors as a starting pitcher, but nothing is written in stone. Daisuke Matsuzaka is back, Aaron Cook isn’t far behind, and the Red Sox have been rumored to be interested in Cubs’ starters Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza. Should any of these have success – either on field or via acquisition – the Sox could easily return Bard to the bullpen and have a deep back-of-the-pen including Aceves, Bailey, Melancon, and Bard. If the Red Sox can win a few more games on the back of a starting rotation that keeps the team competitive, that is a playoff-caliber bullpen.

Whether or not Bard makes another start, getting him back on track is the key. Right now, it looks like the trip to the minors is just what the doctor ordered.

Stuck in the Middlebrooks with Youk

Will Middlebrooks has played well enough to warrant a starting job on a Major League team. A .289/.328/.484 line with 7 home runs and a quality glove at third base is nothing to sneeze at. Despite being the youngest, least experienced, player of the bunch, Middlebrooks has stayed at third base while Adrian Gonzalez has played right field, allowing Kevin Youkilis to man first. It’s not ideal, but everyone is getting at bats.

The problem is that Youkilis is mired in a slump: .215/.301/.314 on the season and .211/.309/.338 since returning from the disabled list. It doesn’t matter how many teams Ben Charrington talks to about the veteran third baseman, a slumping player coming off tough injuries is not an easy sell.

However, Ken Rosenthal, the expert on knowing where players are going, hears that the end is in fact near for Youkilis. An official with a National League team told Rosenthal that the Greek God of Walks is “being shopped everywhere.” Among the leaders are the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Pirates in the National League and the White Sox and Indians in the American League. The demand is there, the price is probably low, although that doesn’t mean the Red Sox won’t get a decent player of some type in return if they pick up some salary, and the replacement is in-house. This is a combination of factors not often present when a trade is rumored or, in fact, imminent.

Where do they go from here?

Fourth place. At least. The Toronto Blue Jays have lost three starters in the past week – one has already undergone Tommy John surgery, ending his season. If Ellsbury, Crawford, and Bailey can contribute at anything close to their ability, Clay Buchholz avoids Logan Morrison, and Ryan Kalish is healthy, the Red Sox have the ability to field a dramatically better team in the second half. And that doesn’t include Adrian Gonzalez breaking out of his season-long slump. The bottom has likely already passed, even if it hasn’t been reflected in the win column.

Lester Hit Hard, Rangers Practice Home Run Derby Cruising to 18-3 Victory

Jon Lester has been one of the most consistent pitchers for the Red Sox the past few seasons. The past two years have brought Opening Day honors to the lefty. While the team was off to a slow start, Lester turned in two solid outings, each good enough to deserve the win under normal circumstances. That Jon Lester did not take the mound against the Rangers. The Lester who did had trouble locating his pitches and finding the strike zone. By the third inning, Lester would give way to the bullpen and the damage would really start to accumulate as the Rangers scored 18 runs, including six home runs on the way to their fifth straight win.

The Rangers, one of the strongest offensive clubs in the American League, went to work early with leadoff man Ian Kinsler getting a hit to start the game. Lester would limit first inning damage to hits and watch Dustin Pedroia’s laser show in the bottom of the inning put his team up 2-0 over Colby Lewis. That would be about it for good news.

The Rangers would score 4 runs in the second inning and 3 more in the third, chasing Lester from the game. Scott Atchison allowed two baserunners of Lester’s to score and one of his own in the third inning, but went on to pitch three more clean frames and, along with Matt Albers, keeping the score at a reasonably close 8-2 through the seventh inning.

Mark Melancon would change all of that. In an effort that makes Alfredo Aceves’ first appearance look downright brilliant, Melancon faced six batters in the eighth inning and failed to record an out. What he did do was allow towering home runs to Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, and Nelson Cruz as part of an 8-run eighth for Texas. ESPN reports that “Melancon is just the 8th pitcher in last 90 years to allow 3 HR without recording an out.” Not quite the history the Red Sox wanted to celebrate at Fenway Park this week.

Adrian Gonzalez would chip in with a home run of his own in the bottom of the inning but that was the only sign of the Red Sox bats since Dustin Pedroia’s blast many innings earlier. To add final insult to injury, Mike Napoli added a two-run shot in the ninth off Vincente Padilla, who filled the role usually occupied by a position player in these types of blowouts.

Sox Stud of the Game: Dustin Pedroia

Laser show. La luna. It doesn’t matter. The second baseman hits the ball, catches it, and defends Kevin Youkilis in a single bound.

Sox Dud of the Game: Jon Lester

Lester didn’t have his best stuff tonight and against a powerful Rangers lineup it came back to bite him. Hard.

Game Notes:

W: Colby Lewis (2-0) L: Jon Lester (0-2)

The performance of Lewis lost in this story. Striking out seven while walking one and allowing just two runs to score early in the game, Lewis set the tone for the Rangers and the bats helped him to sail.

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