Looking Back on 2011 & Assessing the Off-Season
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are ‘it might have been.’”
It’s truly heartbreaking to imagine what “might have been” had the 2011 Red Sox not suffered their historic collapse. Fans and reporters alike anointed the Red Sox as World Series champions before pitchers and catchers even reported. It wasn’t a positive attitude that permeated spring training last season. It was assumption. This led to the insidious sense of entitlement that plagued the players, fans, and media.
After the overwhelming success the Red Sox had this past decade–two championships in four years–fans and media started to expect championships. Everyone has expectations, but it is the attitude that fans, players, and media have toward these expectations that can affect on-the-field performance.
There is no doubt that Epstein assembled an exceptional team. But I think things started to go wrong when people started to prematurely compare them to the 1927 Yankees before a game had even been played. People forgot that baseball is not played on paper. The 2011 Red Sox suffered from entitlement issues.
The collapse was slow and painful. After an less-than-thrilling April that inspired doubt, the Red Sox turned around and had an incredible summer. I spent many summer nights watching Adrian Gonzalez litter opposite-field doubles; I watched Josh Beckett have his typical odd-year success (including a one-hitter), and I watched Jacoby Ellsbury earn himself second place in the American League MVP race. It was almost too good to be true. When the Red Sox started to struggle in September, I tried not to get too concerned because they always stumble a bit in September. I wasn’t as confident that they’d win the World Series without cornerstone players such as Clay Buchholz and Kevin Youkilis. I was 100% confident they would make the playoffs though.
September 28th, 2011 is a day that will live on in infamy. It was like watching an Aristotelian tragedy, but I doubt that Aristotle himself could write something of this magnitude. I thought I was still bitter about Vladmir Guerrero ending the Red Sox’s 2009 campaign, but I will never, ever be able to erase Robert Andino’s fly ball that should have been caught by Carl Crawford. But I was still confident that the Yankees wouldn’t blow a seven run lead to the Rays.
I still maintain my conspiracy theory that the Yankees blew their seven-run lead on purpose. You don’t just leave a fastball up in the zone to Evan Longoria. I try to be objective as a fan who hopes to be a sports writer, but that was the day I lost my objectivity. I cried. It was an awful combination of disbelief, shame, and shock.
As much as I have always thought that Terry Francona is overrated as a manager, I will not assign the blame to him. I don’t think he managed his pitching staff well (you and I both know that he always leaves pitchers in too long), and I think he plays favorites. Maybe I just love national league baseball, but there are so many times where a bunt would have been effective. And there is no excuse for Jacoby Ellsbury only having 39 steals when he had a career high on-base percentage. (Obviously Crawford should be mentioned when it comes to base stealing, but he had a career low on-base percentage).
I will also not assign blame to Theo Epstein. I know he has made some mistakes with free agents (see: Julio Lugo, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, Bobby Jenks, no Carl Crawford is not on this list), but those signings were made with good intentions. Julio Lugo terrorized the Red Sox when he was with the Tampa Bay Rays, John Lackey was dominant in the AL West, and Daisuke Matsuzaka had the same amount of hype as Yu Darvish had this year. I guess the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.This is why I hate long-term contracts though. I don’t know why, but I feel like I’m the only person in favor of incentive laden contracts. It’s risky to base a contract on the past, no matter how consistent the numbers are. Would incentive-based contracts really be that radical? If a player performs as he has been, he’ll get the money he wants. But it’s not fair to pay guys like John Lackey ridiculous amounts of money if he’s not performing the way he did in the past (which is why he earned the contract in the first place). I digress.
I will, however, shamelessly assign blame to the pitching staff. There is no denying that everything went wrong at once. But the beer and chicken incidents that surfaced exemplify the entitlement issues that I talked about earlier. As unacceptable as it was, one has to wonder if the same reprimanding reaction would have occurred had the Red Sox advanced in the playoffs.
Josh Beckett can argue all he wants that the 2004 champions drank whiskey in the dugout. We have to assign context to these situations, though. Kevin Millar encouraged everyone to take a shot of whiskey before Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS to loosen everyone up. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, and others lackadaisically drank during the game on days when they were not pitching. I know it only happened once or twice, but from a fan’s perspective, it just doesn’t look good.
Changes needed to be made, and I firmly believe that change will come in the form of Bobby Valentine. I was admittedly skeptical at first (though I was delighted that I no longer have to listen to him on Sunday Night Baseball), but I think that Valentine is the perfect man for the job. Go ahead and complain about his less-than-impressive managerial record (.510), but Francona had a managerial record of .440 when he came over to the Red Sox.
The thing that really corroborated my confidence in Valentine was his attitude towards spring training. There are more PFPs, he has already added two B games (my favorite thing–I prefer them over A games), and players will now ride the bus to away games rather than driving themselves. Baseball is a team sport, and the Red Sox did not play like a team last year. Valentine doesn’t even think, like many of his colleagues, that spring training is too short. You all know that I wish spring training lasted loner, too.
I don’t think that I am the only person that notices the tension that pervades the atmosphere of this year’s spring training. Josh Beckett won’t name the players he had issues with last season, and it’s not hard to tell that Crawford was disappointed with Red Sox owner John Henry’s remarks that he did not support the signing.
It was always clear to me when I attended spring training that Josh Beckett is the ring-leader. He has an enormous influence over the younger players, and this concerns me because I don’t think he is the greatest example. I think he’s a great pitcher, but I have issues with his attitude.
There is no doubt in my mind that Carl Crawford will bounce back this season. He is the quintessential five-tool player and an incredible athlete. I’m not trying to make excuses for Crawford, but I can understand why he struggled. Transitioning to a big market team is difficult enough, but Crawford also lacked the permanence with his spot in the lineup when he was with the Rays. For some guys that matters, others it doesn’t. I’ve gotten different responses when I have asked minor league players their opinions about this, and that is what makes baseball so interesting to me: it’s all relative.
I can tell that Red Sox players are sick of discussing the collapse, which is fair. But the success of the 2012 Red Sox relies heavily on the players learning from their mistakes, which I think they have. It’s also important to leave the past in the past, and focus on the future. That being said, before I discuss the minor leagues, I’d like to go through a couple of the (major) off-season additions, and how they impact the roster.
Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney
The Red Sox sent Josh Reddick, Miles Head, and Raul Alcantara to Oakland for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney. I really like this trade, and I think the Red Sox got the better end of the deal. It was tough for the Red Sox to lose Jonathan Papelbon, but we all saw this coming. He kept signing one-year deals, and it was obvious that he wanted to test free-agent waters unlike Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Clay Buchholz who signed multi-year deals before reaching free agency for the first time.
Trading for Bailey, who is still under arbitration, was the perfect way to avoid spending a lot of money on closers like Ryan Madson or Heath Bell of similar caliber. Not to mention the fact that Bailey is fantastic when he is healthy. There’s a reason that he was voted 2009 AL Rookie of the Year.
Ryan Sweeney is the perfect guy to platoon in right field with Cody Ross until Ryan Kalish returns to form. I think that trading Josh Reddick shows the confidence the organization has in Kalish. I think that Kalish is Fenway’s future right fielder if he can maintain his health.
Miles Head had an incredible campaign with Single-A Greenville the first half of the season. He hit .338 with 15 home runs and 53 RBIs in 66 games. He struggled, however, when he advanced to High-A Salem where he hit .254, and suffered significant drops in his on-base and slugging percentages. Obviously the pitching becomes a lot more sophisticated in High-A, but if Head tweaks his mechanics a little bit, I think he has the potential for success.
Raul Alcantara is still extremely raw with his mechanics, and the highest level he has pitched in is Short-Season A. It is unclear to me at this point how effective he can be, but he certainly intrigued me when I watched him at extended spring training as well as the Gulf Coast League.
The Red Sox traded Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland to the Astros for relief pitcher Mark Melancon. Melancon had a terrific 2011 campaign with the Astros, and he is the perfect set up man. This trade obviously had personal repercussions for me since Jed Lowrie was my first “project,” and Kyle Weiland was my favorite pitching prospect, thus marking the second year in a row that the Red Sox traded my favorite pitching prospect.
Lowrie was always a health liability, and even though Weiland didn’t have success when he was in Boston, he showed a lot of promise in the minor leagues, and I think he will have more opportunity to succeed in a small market like Houson.
The Marco Scutaro trade
If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’m a huge Marco Scutaro apologist. I think he was completely under appreciated during his time with the Red Sox. He didn’t choose the right time to commit his errors. He quietly batted nearly .300 last season, and he has always had a great eye. The Red Sox traded him to the Rockies for the irrelevant Clay Mortenson (though he is a former first round pick). I think the Red Sox could have gotten more for Scutaro, but they got what they really wanted, which was a salary dump, so I digress.
Mike Aviles and Nick Punto will platoon at shortstop. Jose Iglesias is not ready yet after struggling so much at the plate in 2011. No one expects Iglesias to put up numbers like Hanley Ramirez (ignoring 2011) or Troy Tulowitzki. He is heralded for his glove, not his bat. I think that the Red Sox were a little too aggressive in throwing him into Double-A his first professional season. Iglesias undoubtedly needs to see more pitching at the Triple-A level. His glove alone will not keep him in the majors.
I’m not going to beat around the bush: I do not like Nick Punto. For those of you that wanted Scutaro gone, I’m telling you right now that you are not going to like Punto. He is overrated, and I will NOT be a happy camper if I ever see him facing a left-handed pitcher.
Free Agent Additions:
The biggest free agent additions were probably Cody Ross, Kelly Shoppach, Nick Punto (whom I have already discussed), Vincente Padilla, and Aaron Cook. Ross had a down year last season, but his swing suits Fenway Park, so that will benefit him. He and Sweeney are perfect guys for platoon roles.
Kelly Shoppach is an alright addition for a catcher (he was actually initially drafted by the Red Sox). There won’t be much there with his offense, but he is superb behind the plate. Just wait for Ryan Lavarnway to come up, it won’t be long (I’m assuming he will start the season in Triple-A). It looks like Saltalamacchia will be the leader of the catching staff. I thought he improved A LOT last year–especially in the middle of the season when he actually started to throw out runners.
Vincente Padilla and Aaron Cook figure to be in the battle for the last two spots of the rotation. Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Ross Ohlendorf, and Andrew Miller also figure to be in those talks.
I don’t know if I can see Bard in the rotation. Bard consistently throws 97-100, and relies on the speed of his fastball to get hitters out. He is not going to be able to throw 97-100 for seven (ideally) innings. That being said, his changeup is typically 87-90 mph, so if he has to tone down his fastball for the sake of longevity, he’s going to have to adjust his changeup accordingly. He’s also going to have to use his secondary pitches more. He has a fantastic slider, but he lost confidence in that pitch in his abysmal September. If he can bring back the cutter, I think there’s potential for success. What bothers me, though, is that Bard resembles Aroldis Chapman and Neftali Feliz (both known for their speed), and neither have had success in the starting rotation. (Why the Rangers are trying Feliz there again, I do not know). C.J. Wilson had success in his transition because he didn’t rely as much on his speed as those pitchers do. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out, but I have my doubts.
Aceves belongs in the bullpen, in my opinion. His long-term relief is invaluable, and he was so effective out of the ‘pen last year. He can be a spot starter as we saw, but I think his spot is in the ‘pen.
If Bard is successful in his endeavors, then Beckett, Lester, Buchholz, and Bard would be an incredible rotation. If it doesn’t work out though, I’ll be nervous. I can’t say much about Aaron Cook and Vincente Padilla until I see them pitch in spring training, and I have no idea why the Red Sox re-signed Andrew Miller. I know he is a tall lefty with a high ceiling, but after a certain point (and a certain WHIP), you just have to let it go.I also cannot explain to you the logic behind the Ross Ohlendorf signing.
This offseason was extremely different from last year’s. There were no high-profile signings, just a lot of low-risk high reward type signings. It reminds me a lot of the offseason going into the 2008 season with the John Smoltz and Brad Penny experiments. Those did not work out. I’m confident in the offense, I feel pretty good about the bullpen, and Daniel Bard is pretty much the determining factor when it comes to my feelings about the starting rotation.