The Boston Red Sox have designated third baseman Pablo Sandoval for assignment, ending a tumultuous tenure for one of the greatest free agent busts in baseball history. Sandoval, the overweight, oft-injured former World Series MVP was a fan favorite with the endearing”Kung Fu Panda” nickname in another life, but the Red Sox never got any of what made him so popular in San Francisco. The team is willing to eat the rest of his salary (pun intended, but almost too easy to acknowledge), and were willing to make him go away without getting anything in return, which speaks to just how bad he has been. Hopefully, the Red Sox will recognize what went wrong so the do not repeat the mistakes of this signing.
The blame game is never simple when evaluating acquisitions in Major League Baseball. Ben Cherington was the GM of the Red Sox in the 2014-15 offseason, when the Sox signed Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, and traded Yoenis Cespedes in exchange for Rick Porcello. But in order to cough up that kind of money, Cherington had to have the blessing of ownership, and former team president Larry Lucchino was still in the picture at the time. Lucchino was a great baseball executive, an inevitable and deserving Hall of Famer–from overseeing the building of two beautiful modern ballparks in Baltimore and San Diego to the renovation and revitalization of Fenway Park–but his track record of meddling in Boston’s baseball operation, particularly this decade, was not a great one.
Lucchino clashed with Theo Epstein, who left the Red Sox for the Chicago Cubs in 2011, and who will go down as baseball’s greatest executive since Branch Rickey. He brought in Bobby Valentine to replace Terry Francona, going from the best manager in Red Sox history to maybe the worst to manage a full season. He lowballed Jon Lester in contract extension negotiations, which set off a series of events that led to a player who never wanted to leave getting traded to Oakland at the 2014 trade deadline, signing with Epstein’s Cubs that winter, and being Chicago’s go-to big game pitcher in their 2016 World Series run.
The Sandoval signing had all the markings of a Lucchino move. He was a big name, one of of the most recognizable characters on a Giants team that had won the World Series three times in five years, including in 2014. Surely, he’d be just as marketable in Boston, right? Wrong. As it turns out, past success on a west coast team in the other league combined with never being able to stay on the field, and being absolutely terrible when you do play does not make for a marketable star in Boston.
Cherington left the Red Sox in 2015 and now works for the Toronto Blue Jays. He was replaced by Dave Dombrowski, the former Detroit Tigers GM with whom he made the Porcello trade. Lucchino retired in 2015, and now runs the Pawtucket Red Sox. Dombrowski inherited the Sandoval problem, but he did not make the third base situation any better by trading Travis Shaw for Tyler Thornburg, who still has not pitched for the Red Sox.
Nobody is innocent in this mess. Sandoval himself should have a better work ethic when it comes to keeping himself in shape. I’m not usually one for body shaming, but he’s a professional athlete. His job is to play baseball, and he has been well compensated for the poor job he did in Boston. San Francisco offered him a similar contract but with weight and health clauses written into it. The Red Sox did not hold him to that, and they got the player. It’s hard to feel sorry for the Red Sox as an organization when they sign a fat guy, and then are mad that he’s fat. Same thing when you sign an ace pitcher who has never won a start in the playoffs and is prone to social media meltdowns, and then are mad when he chokes in the playoffs and loses his cool with the media, social or otherwise.
For all their success this century, this is what the Red Sox are: constantly straddling the line between competence and dysfunction, between baseball decisions and marketing decisions, between joy and despair. This is what the Red Sox have been for a hundred years. They were the first dynasty of the 20th century, then they traded a young pitcher to New York, and he became the greatest power hitter of all time. John Henry is no Harry Frazee, and he may be one of the better owners in the game today, but he has had his share of slip ups to go along with his success.
The Red Sox may have broken through and broken the Curse, but they still have the DNA of the franchise that lost Game 7 of the World Series four times in 40 years. As great as David Ortiz was, and Pedro Martinez was, and Chris Sale is, and Mookie Betts is, they are always a couple of bad signings, or a couple of terrible trades away from it all falling apart. Such is baseball. Such is life.
The 2016 Major League Baseball season was one for the ages, capped off with an unforgettable World Series played between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. It was a great year for baseball, I could not help but feel like my team, the Boston Red Sox, squandered a golden opportunity, when they were swept in the ALDS by the Tribe. The 2016 World Series, which featured a team built by Theo Epstein and a team managed by Terry Francona, and a half dozen other players between the two teams won earned World Series rings with Boston earlier in their careers, validated so many of my long held baseball beliefs, but was also a stark reminder that those people I believe in–particularly Francona, Epstein, Jon Lester, and Andrew Miller–are no longer with the Red Sox, and now, neither is David Ortiz. Where do the Red Sox go from here?
The David Ortiz Era is over in Boston, and what an era it was. Barring some kind of desire to play on always nagging feet again, and barring some kind of Instagram rumor being any more than that, we are more likely to see Dave Dombrowski or John Farrell go all Rick Pitino on the Red Sox press corps (Side note: having just re-watched that clip for the first time in a while, that press conference feels like a million years ago, but amazingly, Vince Carter is still playing in the NBA) than we are to see even one more Big Papi walk-off hit. The only David Ortiz highlights Red Sox fans should expect now are when the team retires his #34, when they induct him into the team Hall of Fame, and hopefully when the BBWAA votes him into the Baseball Hall of Fame (Although, I’m not sure when that will be. If it were up to me, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jack Morris, and Tim Raines would already be in Cooperstown, and Manny Ramirez would be elected in this year on his first ballot.). It would have been nice for Ortiz, the greatest playoff performer in Red Sox history and of of the greatest of all time, to get one last deep postseason run, but it did not happen. The pitching could not keep up with their hitting, and Cleveland’s pitching was really, really good. Now it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation in Red Sox baseball.
For a decade, Red Sox Baseball was all about David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jon Lester. Ortiz is now retired, Lester is now going to be at least equally remembered for being a Chicago Cub as he was for his two stellar World Series winning performances with Boston, and while Pedroia is still here, I feel like going forward, it’s about the kids. Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi are the present and the future of the Red Sox, and I am fine with that. These kids are alright, and I am really glad Dombrowski did not have to deal away any of them to get Chris Sale.
I have a feeling the Red Sox’ pitching will be better in 2017 than it was in 2016. I could be wrong, as I thought they were going to be better in the first half of last season than they were, but the way David Price improved in the second half was encouraging, even if he turned back into Playoff David Price in the playoffs. I think Rick Porcello had a great year, but he did steal the Cy Young Award from Justin Verlander. I have to agree with Kate Upton on that one. He has yet to pitch for the Red Sox, but I have wanted for years for them to make a run at Chris Sale. The guy has a bit of a nutty streak in him, best exemplified by that jersey cutting incident with the White Sox last summer, and every picture of him pitching on Google Images looks like his elbow is about to explode, but the dude can pitch, and pitchers with that kind of edge to them have done very well in Boston, from Clemens, to Pedro Martinez, to Curt Schilling, to Josh Beckett (when he cared), to Jonathan Papelbon, to John Lackey, and if any of that attitude rubs off on Price (Porcello showed a little bit of attitude last season too, which I liked), then everybody wins.
I would also be remiss if I did not take the time to mention that Clay Buchholz is no longer a member of the Red Sox, and I am as overjoyed as one can be about something that should have happened three years ago. Clay Buchholz is my least favorite Red Sox player ever, and my least favorite Boston athlete who never (to my knowledge) murdered anybody. Yes, he had good stuff, but his flashed of brilliance were not worth the frustration of injuries and poor performances when Boston needed him. I got off on the wrong foot with him when he first pitched brilliantly after being called up from the minors in the summer of 2007, even throwing a no-hitter in his second career start, but then the Red Sox had to shut him down when he was too fatigued to pitch in the playoffs. I knew he was trouble back then, and when he took a summer vacation in 2013 because his child slept in an uncomfortable position on his shoulder, and then pitched like he did not want to be there in the World Series, I was done. No player has ever done less to earn two World Series rings in Boston. The Red Sox traded Buchholz to the Philadelphia Phillies for a minor league prospect named I Don’t Even Care. All that matters is I do not have to root for him anymore.
Going into 2017, the Red Sox are, on paper, the team to beat in the American League thanks to the addition of Sale. I have my concerns about how sustainable their operation is, though. The 2016 World Series validated how good the people who made 2004, 2007, and 2013 happen were, but with each passing season, fewer of those people are working in Boston. Dave Dombrowski has no emotional connection to that era, and he has not been operating the way Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington were, for better or for worse. The biggest knock on Cherington, who was the initial replacement for Epstein, and a longtime assistant GM to Theo, was that he did not pull the trigger on trades of prospects. With the departure of Mike Hazen (who last year served as general manager under Dombrowski as president) to become general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Red Sox are drifting towards a new philosophy from what helped them win in a bigger way than they have since Dan Duquette was still in charge of the baseball operation.
Dombrowski has shown a fearlessness in dealing prospects from the Red Sox farm system for Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz (and even after the San Diego Padres were penalized for improper medical disclosure before the Pomeranz trade, the fact that Dombrowski did not try to renegotiate the deal to get Pomeranz for a lesser prospect than Anderson Espinoza remains a head-scratcher to me), and Chris Sale, which is on one hand refreshing, but at the same time worrying because when he was the GM of the Detroit Tigers, he strip-mined their farm system for an octogenarian owner who demanded the Tigers win now. The Tigers were among the best teams in baseball for a good stretch, even reaching the World Series in 2006 and 2012, but they never won it, and when it was clear they would have to rebuild, Dombrowski was out of a job, and here he is in Boston. The fact that he is operating the same way here as he did in Detroit makes me wonder if he learned from what went wrong there, and while he did have his share of trade success (Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, and David Price, to name three), it’s not the most sustainable way to win consistently. I hope this is what Dombrowski is doing to put his stamp on the team, to make the roster his roster and not Ben Cherington’s roster anymore, but that every offseason is not what the 2015 and 2016 offseasons, with the farm system eventually getting depleted. That is a long-term concern, but it will not be a major talking point in 2017 if the young guys continue to hit.
The Boston Red Sox traded a highly touted pitching prospect to the San Diego Padres for left handed All-Star starting pitcher Drew Pomeranz yesterday. In Pomeranz, the Red Sox gain much needed starting pitching help, and a guy on a good contract under team control for two more seasons after this one. The trade off is that in bolstering their roster in the short term, they let Anderson Espionoza go, taking one more promising young pitcher away from an already depleted pitching system. Trading the future for the present, sacrificing a high ceiling for a known commodity, and doing these things swiftly are what separate Major League Baseball executives from guys like me with a laptop and constantly open tabs of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. It’s not an easy decision, and in the end, it may not be the right one, but this is what the Red Sox pay Dave Dombrowski to do.
With this trade, Dombrowski is signaling to the Red Sox and their fans that he is going for it this year. Dombrowski has not even been President of the Red Sox for a full year yet, having been hired late late summer after being let go be the Detroit Tigers, and I did not expect him to have the kind of personal attachment to the roster that former GM Ben Cherington, who had been with the Red Sox in various capacities since 1999. This fresh perspective could cut both ways. He might be more willing to deal away prospects he does not believe in and has no attachment to because he did not draft them, but it might not matter to him that the Red Sox continue to compete at a high level while they still have fan favorites like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. By dealing an 18 year old prospect like Espinoza for Pomeranz, Dombrowski parted with a prospect before anyone could find anything wrong with him, and it improves their chances for the second half of Big Papi’s final season.
The thing about prospects in every sport, but especially in baseball where there are so many rounds of the draft that it inspired one of the funnier Onion headlines of the last couple years, is that they’re not all going to make it in the Majors. Not every promising lefty out of high school becomes Madison Bumgarner, in fact most don’t. Ben Cherington fell in love with the guys he drafted. The Red Sox couldn’t possibly keep them all, but he let their stocks fall as they floundered in the minors or flamed out with the big league club, and that is why the Red Sox are in their current predicament. I think they overvalued the pitching talent they had in their farm system when they decided to low-ball Jon Lester in contract extension negotiations before the 2014 season, and they were left exposed in the starting rotation after they traded away Lester and John Lackey, who had led them to a World Series title the previous October. All this was happening while Ortiz and Pedroia weren’t getting any younger.
For all their shortcomings in the pitching department, the Red Sox have done an excellent job drafting and developing hitters the past few years. As much as I get on Cherington for not acting sooner on minor league pitchers like Henry Owens, the Red Sox were absolutely right to be patient and not make a panic trade involving Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, or Jackie Bradley Jr., all of whom appeared in their first-ever All-Star Game earlier this week. In those three guys, the Red Sox have the foundation for great lineups for years to come. The Red Sox offense far exceeded my expectations for this season, and kept the team in contention even with the pitching disappointing at every level from expensive free agent ace David Price to All-Star closer who cannot stay composed in a tie game Craig Kimbrel, to my least favorite Red Sox player ever Clay Buchholz (Seriously, I’ve been done with Buchholz ever since he was too fatigued to pitch in the playoffs as a rookie in 2007. No player has done less to earn two World Series rings in Boston in the 21st century.), but it’s July and for the first time since 2013, the season is not yet over.
This is the last chance the Red Sox have to make a playoff run with David Ortiz. Ted Williams might be the best hitter ever to wear the uniform, but the argument could be made, given the postseason success the Sox have enjoyed since Ortiz arrived in Boston in 2003, and given how many big hits in big moments the guy has had over the years, that Big Papi is the greatest Red Sox player ever. So much of what made him great happened in October, and failure to get there in his final season would be so disappointing. We just had to sit through a season of Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour from the NBA. Kobe, like him or hate him, is one of basketball’s all time greats and a five-time champion, but seeing him play out the string on a historically terrible Lakers team this year was just depressing, and I hate the Lakers.
The much more graceful exit this year was by Tim Duncan, who announced his retirement this week, and who never missed the playoffs in his 19 NBA seasons, all with the San Antonio Spurs. Duncan didn’t put us through a farewell tour, unlike Kobe or Ortiz, but right now the Red Sox have a chance to make Ortiz’ ending more like Duncan’s than like Kobe’s. In 2015-16, the Spurs set a franchise record, winning 67 games in the regular season, and while they did not even advance far enough to face Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, they showed they were as competitive as ever as Duncan became a supporting cast member on a TV show he created, wrote, and starred in for the first 19 seasons before passing the torch to Kawhi Leonard. In 2016, David Ortiz is still a valuable contributor, but wouldn’t another playoff run be the perfect ending before Bogaerts, Betts, and Bradley Jr. take ownership of the team going forward?
Drew Pomeranz probably isn’t the answer to all of Boston’s pitching woes, but the kind of thinking that led to him coming to the Red Sox that gives me hope the Red Sox can have a strong second half, and give the Greatest Designate Hitter of All Time the finale he deserves.
This time a year ago, I wrote about the state of the Chicago Cubs, America’s lovable losers, who appeared poised to be doing more of the same. Cubs team president, Theo Epstein, and general manager Jed Hoyer, made names for themselves in the game of baseball as general manager and assistant manager, respectively, for the Boston Red Sox when they won the World Series in 2004 and 2007, the first titles for Boston’s American League ball club since the Wilson Administration. It’s been a slower process building Chicago’s National League club into a winner, and they continued to do a lot of losing in 2014, but they seem to be heading in a better direction, or they have at least picked a direction, which could not be said a year ago.
I pointed out that they had an easier job turning the Red Sox into winner than they have with the Cubs, because they inherited from (current Baltimore Orioles GM) Dan Duquette a pretty good roster that included Boston mainstays like Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Trot Nixon, Tim Wakefield, and Nomar Garciaparra, and I pointed out that the roster already included two guys named Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez. Building a championship team is never easy, and there is a lot of luck involved when it comes to actually playing out the games, but it’s a lot easier to get to October with a chance at a title when you already have the best right handed pitcher and the best right handed hitter in the American League (if not all of baseball). While Theo did make his share of moves to put the Red Sox over the top, and he bolstered the farm system through the draft, paving the way for success beyond 2004, Dan Duquette deserved a World Series ring for 2004 as much as anyone employed by the team when they won it.
While I think Theo Epstein is a very smart baseball executive, and he has as good a chance as anyone in the last century to lead the Cubs to a World Series title, his tenure at the top of the Red Sox baseball operations department is overrated for more than just 2004. During the 2005-06 offseason, Epstein resigned as general manager of the Red Sox in a power struggle with team president Larry Lucchino that defined his tenure in Boston as much as the two championships did. He signed back on with the Sox before the start of the 2006 season, but in the interim, the Red Sox made a bold move that Epstein would not have made, and set the stage for the 2007 World Series run. The Red Sox, led by Epstein’s assistant GMs Jed Hoyer (currently serving under Epstein as GM of the Cubs) and Ben Cherington (currently serving as GM of the Red Sox) serving as co-interim GMs, traded highly touted shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez along with Jesus Delgado, Harvey Garcia, and Anibal Sanchez to the Florida Marlins for Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, and Guillermo Mota. Epstein was hesitant to trade Hanley, as the Red Sox have had a bit of a revolving door at the shortstop position, not unlike the Defense Against the Dark Arts professorship at Hogwarts, ever since they traded Nomar in the middle of the season in 2004. Hanley Ramirez became an All-Star, but the Red Sox would not have won the 2007 World Series without Beckett and Lowell.
Epstein left the Red Sox for good after the 2011 season and hired Hoyer (who had left the Red Sox for the San Diego Padres a couple of years earlier) as his general manager shortly thereafter. Since then, they have made trades to cu salary and lose as much as possible to improve draft position. The free agents they have signed have been used as trade bait for contending teams like the Oakland Athletics with deep farm systems. This offseason, however, they appear trying to win for a change. When Joe Maddon opted out of his contract as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Cubs pounced on the chance to hire their third manager in four years. Maddon was annoying to Red Sox fans within the division because of his arrogant personality leading the little ball club that could down in Florida. Annoying and arrogant as he may be, they guy is a winner. By hiring Maddon, the Cubs are showing that they look to take advantage of the chances they get and the breaks they may catch, as opposed to just sitting back and hoping their prospects become big ballplayers.
Building through the draft is great when your prospects are working out. When Epstein was in Boston, they went on a run where almost all of there homegrown talent was panning out. Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Manny Delcarmen, and Jacoby Ellsbury all turned into impact players for the Sox, but when you go cold, you go cold. The last of those guys made it up to the big league team in the midst of the 2007 title run, and Kevin Youkilis is now 35 and retired from playing. Lars Anderson, Ryan Westmoreland, and Ryan Kalish never became who the Red Sox and their fans hoped they would become. Prospects are nice, but established Major League players are better to bank on. Good teams find a way to strike a balance between building through the farm system, and filling needs through free agency. It is hard, if not impossible, to sustain success doing just one or the other.
The Cubs have decent assemblage of talent that includes former Red Sox prospect Anthony Rizzo (who was traded to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez Trade), starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, who nearly threw a perfect game at Fenway Park last summer, and this week, they signed my favorite pitcher not named Pedro Martinez. Last season, one of the highlights for the Cubs was going into Fenway and sweeping the then-defending World Series champion Red Sox. It must have felt good for Theo Epstein, now that he finally has a chance to call the shots as team president, and it showed how small the margins between the best teams and the worst teams are in baseball, as the Red Sox proceeded on their way to their second last place finish in three years, making a miserable bookend for the magical season that was 2013.
The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Ottoman was the name of an empire, and not just the thing Dick Van Dyke trips over (and I realize that’s a half century old television reference itself), but they just might have the foundation in place for it to happen this century, or even this decade. Or maybe 2015 is the year, after all.
The title says it all. That’s all I can say at this point. Everything that went right for the Red Sox last year is what’s going wrong for the Red Sox this year, as they have currently lost nine straight games and sit in the cellar of the American League East. What the baseball gods giveth, the baseball gods can taketh away in an offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury is in pinstripes, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia has taken his talents to South Beach, but that’s not the only problem with the 2014 Red Sox. This could be a long season, but I don’t expect it to be the long term trend.
Right now the Sox’ lineup lacks the thunder it had last year, but that was to be expected. Jacoby Ellsbury is one of, if not the best lead-off hitters in the Majors, and Salty provides above average production at the plate for a catcher, but they were not worth getting overpaid by the Yankees and Marlins the way they were. Every Red Sox fan knew that, and nothing has changed, but in the meantime, their production is missed. The hope is that Jackie Bradley Jr. can eventually replace Ellsbury’s production (and Bradley is already a better defensive center fielder than Ells) and that Xander Bogaerts becomes the hitter people think he will be, but right now it’s a team that struggles to drive in runs. The Red Sox are showing us this year why batting average and RBIs still have value as statistics in an age where on base percentage, OPS, WAR, and VORP are replacing the traditional columns on the backs of baseball cards. Sure a walk is as good as a hit, but sometimes you really need to hit.
The new arrivals in Boston have not stepped up enough. I expected growing pains with Bradley, Bogaerts, and Will Middlebrooks (who is on the disabled list once again), and I am okay with that. Bogaerts has incredible plate discipline, and I’m not losing too much sleep over his struggles in the field at shortstop because I don’t think he’s going to be there forever. Go back and Google Image search the pictures of a young skinny Miguel Cabrera. That kid was originally projected to be a shortstop, too, but he’s since bulked up and become the best hitter in baseball, and this season has moved from third base over to first. Bogaerts is going to be such a good hitter that he’ll be worthwhile no matter where you put him on the field. Middlebrooks is the guy to be worried about, as he’s spent more time at the Major League level than Bradley or Bogaerts, and he has a deep pipeline of third base prospects waiting in line behind him. If he can’t stay healthy, this might be his last year in Boston.
What’s really killing the Red Sox is their starting pitching, and the biggest offender is Clay Buchholz. I was done with Buchholz last year, but he got bailed out by the fact that the Red Sox won the World Series. If the Red Sox had fallen short (knowing full well that they would be taking a step backward this year no matter what with the loss of Ellsbury and Saltalamacchia), then Buccholz would be the #1 scapegoat in Boston all last winter. Buchholz basically took a summer vacation in the middle of last season for an injury where there was no structural damage to his throwing arm, pitched like he didn’t want to be there in the World Series, got the team to baby him through spring training, claims to have no physical problems, and now is just pitching like crap. No player in Red Sox history has ever done less to earn two World Series rings. What’s the point! I’d say trade him, except I can’t imagine teams would want to give up much of anything for him.
If Red Sox fans want something to be hopeful about, they should look to the National League and the west coast. The San Francisco Giants are a couple years ahead of the Red Sox in their franchise’ developmental arc, and have had a similar on-and-off success pattern. The Giants won the World Series in 2010, missed the playoffs after being eliminated in the last week of the regular season in 2011, won the World Series in 2012, and finished in last place in the National League West in 2013. Nearly two months into the 2014 regular season, San Francisco currently has the best record in Major League Baseball (31-18) and appear poised for another playoff run. It’s very early for this kind of thing, but we could be looking at a rematch of the 2012 World Series between the Giants and Detroit Tigers of a rematch of the 1989 Earthquake World Series between the Giants and their Bay Area rivals, the Oakland Athletics. A year ago, the Giants couldn’t get out of their own way on the field, but they stayed the course as an organization and are right where they want to be in 2014. San Francisco GM Brian Sabean is one of the best, as is field manager Bruce Bochy, and they have been smart enough not to overreact to one season. In Boston, Ben Cherington and John Farrell are the same way, it seems.
Who knows? Maybe we’re in for a run where the Giants always win in even numbered years, and the Red Sox take the odds. Of the last four World Series champions, the only team that has consistently competed has been the St. Louis Cardinals, who lost in the NLCS to the Giants in 2012, and who lost in the World Series to the Red Sox in 2013, and are currently gaining ground on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. Baseball isn’t easy, and just because you win it all one year, doesn’t mean you’ll even be in the discussion the next, as the Red Sox and Giants know all too well.
Theo Epstein is in the midst of his third winter as the man in charge of the Chicago Cubs, but he’s still not giving Cubs fans much to be excited about. Epstein was the general manager who led the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years when they won in 1918, and a second title in 2007. In 2011, he left the Red Sox for the Cubs to have more control over baseball operations and for a chance to become a legend in the world of baseball executives. Winning in Boston is one thing, but to also be the guy to lead the lowly Cubs, the most miserable franchise in professional sports, he could be the greatest executive of all time. Since then, the Cubs are still among the worst teams in baseball, while the Red Sox team he left in the hands of Ben Cherington followed up their hitting of rock bottom in 2012 with a World Series title in 2013. Should Cubs fans still have faith in Theo to take them to the promised land?
First off, let’s compare the levels of misery that the Red Sox and Cubs had been through prior to Theo Epstein. A lot of people like to lump Red Sox fans and Cubs fans together as kindred spirits, but the reality is that Cubs have been so much worse throughout their history that it’s not fair to compare. The Red Sox went 86 years without winning the World Series, but at least they were relevant in the years between. The Sox made it to Game 7 of the World Series four times in that span, falling to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1946 and 1967, the Cincinnati Reds in 1975, and the New York Mets in 1986. There were other years where they were close, falling to the Yankees in heartbreaking fashion most notably in 1978, 1999, and 2003. When the Red Sox only managed 69 wins in 2012, it was their worst season in 50 years, but for the Cubs that’s a much more regular result. The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908, and last reached the World Series in 1945. They have the occasional year like 2003 or 2008, but inevitably crumble in October. They’re the Cubs. That’s what they do. After that, they fall back to earth the following year and become the awful team we know and love yet again. With the Cubs, losing is familiarity, with the Red Sox, losing is agony becuase they were so close to winning.
The most overrated aspect of Epstein’s job performance in Boston was his ability to to actually build a championship roster. In reality, Theo inherited a very good roster built by Dan Duquette. The Cubs may have had some young talent in the system when Theo arrived in Chicago, but the Red Sox of the early 21st Century already had Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, Nomar Garciaparra, PEDRO MARTINEZ, and MANNY RAMIREZ. That’s right. It’s a lot easier to build a World Series winning roster if the roster you’re given already has one of the best right handed pitchers and one of the best right handed hitters in the history of baseball on it. In 2005, Theo left the Red Sox during the offseason, but was brought back before the 2006 season started. During the interim, Epstein’s assistants Jed Hoyer (who is now the Cubs’ GM still working under Theo) and Ben Cherington (who is now the GM of the Red Sox) made a franchise altering trade that Theo never would have made when they sent shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez to the Florida Marlins in exchange for starting pitcher Josh Beckett and veteran third baseman Mike Lowell. Even though things did not end well with Beckett and the Sox, this was a good deal for the team. The Red Sox do not win the 2007 World Series without this deal, as Beckett was the ALCS MVP and Lowell was the World Series MVP that year. It’s hard to give Epstein a ton of credit for that one.
The Red Sox and the Cubs are both committed to building their teams through the draft and their respective farm systems, but so far Ben Cherington is looking like more of a genius than his former boss. Epstein and Cherington did a good job of drafting and developing prospects who are now producing for the Red Sox. The Cubs’ farm system was in bad shape when Theo took it over, but he’s been reluctant to make any big free agent signings to help the team compete in the meantime. Cherington won a World Series by striking a balance between young prospects like Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks and affordable veteran signings like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross, and Koji Uehara to go with the core of David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Jon Lester, who were all on the 2007 team. Epstein is being patient with the farm system, but if he was in a different city, his seat might be a little hotter going into 2014.
This time last year, the Boston Red Sox were pathetic. The was absolutely nothing to like about the team. From their clown manager to their entitled, funeral-skipping players to their out-of-touch owners, the BoSox were failing in every aspect of the game. It seemed that we, as Red Sox fans, had been spoiled by winning the World Series in 2004, and we got cocky after winning so soon after in 2007. This week, the nightmare of 2012 feels a million miles away as the Sox clinched their first playoff berth since 2009 and their first American League East Division title since 2007. With just a few days left in the regular season, they are fighting for the best record in the American League. On top of that, the team is genuinely likable for the first time in years. These Red Sox get it. It’s not about punching the clock and collecting paychecks for these guys. This is a baseball team, and not just a collection of baseball players wearing the same uniform.
A lot of factors can be credited for the change in culture at Fenway, but who has made the biggest contributions to the 2013 turnaround?
Ben Cherington. After a first miserable season as the Red Sox general manager under his belt, Cherington had more power to make the team his own. He got to choose his own manager in Farrell this time around, and the two have proven to be an effective team. Building this team really started when Cherington dealt the expensive contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford (as well as the more affordable contract of Nick Punto) to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Getting rid of those overpaid malcontents was just the restart the franchise needed. After that, Cherington went out and signed established veterans of high character to short term deals, which put the team in contention in the short term and gave the young players in the system positive role models to emulate.
John Farrell. It’s refreshing to see a manager who isn’t a complete buffoon like Bobby Valentine was. Valentine was by far the most famous candidate for the Red Sox skipper position after the team decided to part ways with Terry Francona, but he hadn’t managed a big league game in a decade, had gotten comfortable in front of the cameras at ESPN, and was overrated even when his teams were winning. In 2012, it was clear that the game had passed him by, and the Sox now had a stubborn old man who wouldn’t listen to the GM or communicate effectively with his players and coaches. Farrell might not be a great manager–we will find out in time–but he’s at the very least a competent manager who has been able to set a good tone in the clubhouse. Yogi Berra was the one who said the good players make a good manager, and so the list continues…
Koji Uehara. As I’ve written before, Uehara has been the biggest story for the Red Sox this summer. The way he has locked down the back of the bullpen is amazing. Since assuming the closer role in late June, the only way to fairly describe his performance is “dominant.” Signing Keith Foulke after the Red Sox 2003 playoff debacle was one of the biggest reasons they reversed the Curse in 2004, and Koji makes John Farrell’s job easier every time he steps on the mound. As long as he keeps throwing strikes, Red Sox fans will have little to be worried about late in the game. When the games come to an end, Koji will be the first to celebrate.
Shane Victorino. A guy like Victorino, on paper, strikes me as the type of veteran player who would mail it in and focus on getting paid, but Shane is not your typical veteran outfielder who already has a World Series ring. After being a key contributor to the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies World Series victory, and National League Pennant the following year, Victorino established himself as a household name in Major League Baseball, but he does not play as if he’s satisfied with his past accomplishments. Victorino runs around the vast expanses of Fenway’s right field with little regard for his own safety, like a wide receiver running over the middle of the field just to grab a ball no one would blame him for not catching. That mentality is what separates the okay from the pretty good, and the pretty good from the great. I get nervous that he’s going to get himself killed out there, but he needs to play that way to be as effective as he is. I love seeing guys play hard all the time. It’s a lot to ask over the course of a 162 game regular season, but Shane Victorino is a shining example of a gritty, winning ballplayer.
John Lackey. I’m not going to lie. Before this season, I didn’t like Lackey at all. I thought he was lazy, overpaid, and untalented. I thought he, along with Beckett, was the face of Fried-Chicken-and-Beer-Gate. This year, he’s slimmed down, pitched well, and has started to earn the money the Red Sox pay him. It reminds me a lot of Barry Zito, who signed with the Giants for a lot of money and a lot of years, and was the target of a lot of scrutiny as a result, but Barry was a major part of two World Series championship teams in San Francisco, which made his bad contract worth it. This is Lackey’s chance to redeem himself.
Jonny Gomes. Last decade, the Red Sox had Kevin Millar. Now they have Jonny Gomes. Where ballplayers like that lack in polish, they compensate with a combination of intensity and swagger. Gomes was on the Cincinnati Reds when the won the National League Central Division in 2010, and on the Oakland Athletics when they won the American League West in 2012. Now he’s won a third division title in four years and is looking for an illusive World Series ring. The way Gomes and Millar helped develop the personality of their respective Red Sox teams has had an even bigger impact on the team’s success than their actual play on the field. Millar was was the guy behind Cowboy Up in 2003, and the Idiots in 2004. He was a loud, trash talker who dared the Yankees to close them out in Game 4 of the ALCS because he knew winning one game would make the Yankees that much more nervous. Gomes’ love for punting things like batting helmets and beer cans should put him in the running for the Ray Guy Award, but maybe it will translate to other team awards this fall.
Mike Napoli. He either strikes out or crushes the baseball. There’s no in between with this guy, but that’s why we like him. He swings for the fences every time he’s up there like a cleanup hitter in an adult softball league, which is refreshing to see out of a guy who gets paid millions to play baseball. I guess the theme of the season has been going back to basics, being scrappy, and finding a way to win no matter what. Mike Napoli is a good example of that mentality.
The Red Sox have also gotten big contributions from guys who have already established themselves in Boston. David Ortiz still hits the ball well. Dustin Pedroia has committed to being on the Red Sox for a long time, and remains one of the two or three best second baseman in the game. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (I hope I spelled that right) has been steady behind the plate, and is no slouch in the batters box, either. Jon Lester has returned to form after Bad Influence Beckett left town. Clay Bucholz is often injured, but when he’s healthy, he’s really good. Jacoby Ellsbury is in a contract year, and will probably be playing for the Mets, Cubs, Astros, or Mariners this time next year, but that doesn’t mean he can’t produce for the Red Sox this October. Hopefully, there is still a lot of Red Sox baseball to be played in 2013, but for now, it’s good to look back at how bad it was and see how far they’ve come.