The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
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.
It’s amazing how quickly a team that has fallen out of favor with its loyal fans can win them over again by winning. What’s even more amazing, however, is how quickly a championship team like the 2013 Boston Red Sox can fade away again. This time a year ago, it looked like the beginning of a new era in Red Sox baseball where they would be contenders year in and year out again, like they were from 2003 to 2009. David Ortiz was the only mainstay from the 2004 team, but Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester would be the leaders of Boston’s next World Series run. This time a year ago, Jon Lester wanted to stay in Boston. This time a year ago, nobody wanted him to leave. Now, Jon Lester is a member of the Chicago Cubs, and the Red Sox front office has only themselves to blame, if they even wanted him back.
The Red Sox are run by very smart people. I’m convinced of that, even when I don’t like the decisions they make. You can win a World Series by accident, I suppose, but not three in a ten year span. They know what they’re doing, but sometimes it seems like they buy into their own reputations a little too much. They approached Jon Lester’s contract extension negotiations like the Boston Red Sox were the ones who taught him how to throw a baseball and gave him his natural talent. They thought they could put his loyalty to the organization that drafted him to the ultimate test, and that would be enough to keep him in Boston.
In the 2014 spring training, the Red Sox offered Lester the hometown discount to end all hometown discounts: a five year, $70 million deal. Including the club option for a seventh year that the Cubs gave Lester a few days ago, that’s $100 million less than he got on the open market. Lester’s camp was insulted by the offer and did not want to negotiate with the Sox again until after the season.Along the way, Lester had a career year and put himself right up there with Detroit’s Max Scherzer at the top of the list of soon to be free agent pitchers (For the record, I’d rather have Lester than Scherzer. Lester has been a top of the rotation pitcher longer, is left handed, and was not represented by Scott Boras). With the 2014 regular season all but a lost cause by the end of July, the Red Sox traded Lester (along with Jonny Gomes) to the Oakland Athletics for Cuban-born power hitting outfielder and back-to-back Home Run Derby champion Yoenis Cespedes. Any chance of getting hometown preference in the offseason went away for the Res Sox when they traded Lester to Oakland.
What is most frustrating, as a Red Sox fan, about the way the team handled Jon Lester’s future in Boston was that this was absolutely the kind of player worth extending themselves to keep around. He was the the #57 overall pick in the 2002 Major League Baseball Draft, the first draft after John Henry and Tom Werner bought the storied championship-starved baseball club. Before being traded to Oakland, he was the only player in the Red Sox organization who had been with the franchise longer than David Ortiz (who was acquired in 2003). He was a three time All-Star in Boston, who managed to take his game to an even higher level when the games mattered most, despite almost always going up against the other team’s ace. He was the best homegrown pitching talent the Red Sox had developed since some guy named Roger Clemens. He has no history of baseball related injuries that could lead to a decline in his early thirties. The Red Sox took a pitcher who was drafted and developed in Boston, who won two World Series titles in Boston, who beat cancer early in his career in Boston, who would have been an ideal leader and example for Anthony Ranaudo and Henry Owens in Boston, and approached his contract extension like he was some 35 year old reliever with a history of breaking down. It was insulting to Lester, and a slap in the face to Red Sox Nation, who was just starting to feel good about the team again (winning the World Series certainly as that effect) after Fried Chicken and Beer, and the Bobby Valentine season.
I was stunned that the Red Sox were able to acquire Cespedes from Oakland at the trade deadline, and I wrote more than one article in reaction to it (also, before I forget, here is my plea to the Red Sox front office to not trade Lester and to pay him what he’s worth from last summer). Nobody trades their cleanup hitter in the middle of a pennant race, especially when you already have three quality starters like the A’s did (Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija, and Scott Kazmir), especially not someone as smart as Brad Pitt’s character from that Aaron Sorkin baseball movie. Billy Beane’s bod plan backfired and the A’s lost the AL West to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (Seriously, when are we going to go back to calling them just the “Anaheim” or “California” Angels again? This is ridiculous!), even though Lester did his job every fifth day, and the Oakland bullpen blew the lead from Lester’s solid Wild Card Game start, inadvertently kicking off the incredible playoff run for the Kansas City Royals that will one day make a much better baseball movie than Moneyball. Cespedes impressed Red Sox fans in his short time in Boston. He hits the ball with real power (something the Red Sox have never been able to develop through their own farm system), and he has a cannon for an arm (something we’ve come to appreciate after years of seeing Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury struggle to get the ball to the cutoff man at second base from center field), but if anyone was naiive enough to get attached to Cespedes, they were doubly disappointed by the Red Sox this week.
Red Sox fans haven’t been blaming Lester. In fact, many of us were worried that the Sox would try to smear him after he signed with Chicago, and decided to get out in front of it with a Twitter campaign. #SmearCampaign was a rousing success, and if you’re looking for a few laughs from this bummer of a situation, you should check it out (also two of my Tweets made it into this Yahoo Sports article).
The day after Lester signed with the Cubs, the Sox traded Cespedes to Detroit for starting pitcher Rick Porcello. Ultimately, the Red Sox traded Jon Lester for Rick Porcello, even if they were two separate trades a few months apart. The Red Sox also traded pitching prospects Alan Webster and Rubby De La Rosa to the Arizona Diamondbacks for 28 year old left-hander Wade Miley, and signed former Red Sox prospect Justin Masterson (traded to the Cleveland Indians in 2009 for Victor Martinez) to a one year deal after splitting time in 2014 between Cleveland and the St. Louis Cardinals. Right now, the Red Sox appear headed into the season with Clay Buchholz as the ace of the pitching staff… yes, that Clay Buchholz. The guy who makes J.D. Drew look like Cal Ripken Jr. is the best starter we have. The good news is that Porcello has a chance to take a big step forward this season (and I think/hope he will). Porcello has been in the Majors since 2009, but will turn 26 later this month. He was the fourth best starter in a rotation that had the 2011, 2012, and 2013 American Leaue Cy Young Award winners (Justin Verlander, David Price, and Scherzer), and he’s in a contract year. If Porcello becomes the pitcher I think he can be, and the Red Sox lock him up, then the Lester deal will not seem so bad. For now, though, it still hurts that an organization so smart can be so stupid with a pitcher any baseball fan could tell you was a perfect fit for them.
Lester is in a pretty good situation now in Chicago, reunited with Theo Epstein, who was the GM of the Red Sox when they drafted him, and they have a chance to make history. The downtrodden Cubs last won the World Series in 1908, and Lester and Theo have a chance to end more than a century of futility. More than anything, I’m thankful that this well done Photoshop job didn’t end up coming true. I guess it could always be worse.
The Boston Red Sox have won the World Series three times in my lifetime, and that’s three times more than they won it in my grandfather’s lifetime. I am grateful for being able to see the great local baseball I have seen, and I will do my best not to take it for granted. The current Red Sox owners deserve a lot of credit for accomplishing what they’ve accomplished, between renovating and revitalizing Fenway Park as well is turning the club’s fortunes around, winning more titles than any other Major League team in the 21st century.
Each championship team was distinct. We had the Idiots of 2004, who were just dumb enough to end an 86 year drought that dated back to Babe Ruth’s pitching career and the Woodrow Wilson administration. We had the 2007 club that dominated the American League all season, and could so it all. And then we had the Band of Bearded Brothers in 2013, who took baseball by storm righting the wrongs of the recent years. Turnover is natural and healthy in baseball. By 2011 and 2012, there were too many satisfied and overpaid guys on the roster, and changes needed to be made. While I’m okay with parting ways with members of the 2013 team (like the Red Sox did yesterday, sending Jake Peavy to the San Francisco Giants), there is one guy they need going forward, that the Sox are in danger of losing because of their own hardball tactics. If Jon Lester gets traded this week or leaves in free agency, Red Sox fans will have every right to be angry with the team and have every right to turn on the ownership.
David Ortiz is the only player take part in all three World Series titles in Boston in the past decade, but the list of players to play on two of them is not that much longer: Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Timlin, Jason Varitek, and Tim Wakefield were part of the ’04 and ’07 squads while Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz (although Buchholz did not play at all in the 2007 playoffs), and Jon Lester were part of the ’07 and ’13 championship teams. With Big Papi getting up there in age, and Pedroia under contract for the years to come, Lester should be the priority for the Red Sox, but they insulted him with an offer well below his market value during spring training. Lester has had a great season, and was one of only two Red Sox players selected for the 2014 All-Star Game in Minnesota last week (along with 39 year old closer Koji Uehara). He has been a model of professionalism and consistency, and has handled pitching in Boston, one of the toughest markets in North American professional sports, as well as just about anyone. The Red Sox have taken a step back, and the magic of 2013 seems like a distant memory, but one thing Red Sox fans have been able to take solace in has been how well the pitchers have pitched. Lester has been the ace and the leader in every sense of the word. Without him, the one certainty the Red Sox have anymore would be uncertain again. That does not bode well for the future.
The Red Sox have a lot of young pitching prospects in the system. The ones we have seen the most of so far have been Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa, with Allen Webster (who, along with De La Rosa, was acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the franchise-altering Josh Beckett/Adrian Gonzalez/Carl Crawford/Nick Punto trade of 2012) and Henry Owens in the big league club’s future plans. The thing about prospects is that they have plenty of upside on paper, but potential doesn’t always pan out. Remember Lars Anderson? Drafted by the Red Sox in 2006, we heard for years from the team and the writers who cover the farm system that he would be the power hitting first baseman of the future, but at 26, his rookie status is still intact and he’s playing in the Chicago Cubs’ farm system because it never happened. He has played in a total of 30 Major League games, has not reached the Majors since 2012, and has never hit a big league home run. Proven talent is always more of a certainty than unproven talent, and Lester is only 30, so he should have more than a few good years in his left arm. The young pitching talent could be good in the future, but to compete in the meantime, the Red Sox need Jon Lester, and he also doubles as the perfect role model for the young pitchers.
In a lot of ways, Lester has been underrated and taken for granted by Red Sox fans. Part of it is his consistency, but another aspect the near death experience he had earlier in his career that he recovered from so quickly. After a strong start to his rookie season in 2006, Lester was diagnosed with cancer. He fought it, and he beat it, and a year later he was pitching for the winning team in the World Series. It reminds me a lot of what Paul Pierce went through early in his career. In September of 2000, just two years into what has become a Hall of Fame career, Pierce was stabbed 11 times at a club in Boston, and needed surgery to repair his lung. In spite of that, Pierce played all 82 games for the Celtics that season, and with the exception of the 2006-07 season when the C’s were holding him out to try and improve their chances of drafting Kevin Durant, was an incredibly durable and consistent player during his 15 year tenure in Boston. Since his battle with cancer, Lester has been so good, people have largely forgotten what he went through, and the 2007 World Series was just the start.
In 2008 and 2009, Lester established himself as Boston’s best starting pitcher. While Josh Beckett held the honor of being the Opening Day starter both seasons, Lester was the guy Terry Francona wanted on the mound for the first game of the playoffs, a decision John Farrell also made when the Sox returned to the postseason in 2013. Lester has demonstrated a great ability to go blow for blow with everyone else’s ace pitchers whether it was rival turned teammate John Lackey, or “Big Game” James Shields, or David Price, or Max Scherzer, or Adam Wainwright. In a year when pitching has been the only thing to write home about for the Red Sox, Lester has been the best. If the Red Sox don’t pay a Jon Lester what he’s worth, there is no reason to believe they would do that for someone who has never pitched in Boston. They won’t replace Lester with Price or Scherzer.
Jon Lester has said that he wants to pitch for the Red Sox, but there are plenty of teams who are willing to spend money that would love to have him. The New York Yankees come to mind. He’s pitched well against them his whole career, and knows what it’s like to compete in the American League East. The Detroit Tigers could also be in play, especially if Max Scherzer leaves in free agency. Lester’s hometown Seattle Mariners, who are as close to being a contender as they have been in a decade with the offseason addition of Robinson Cano, might also make a push to acquire the Lester, and create a deadly one two punch at the top of their starting rotation with Felix Hernandez. If anything, it’s worth it to the Red Sox to overpay Lester so he isn’t pitching against him in pinstripes for the second half of his career. I don’t care how much it costs and I don’t care if they sign Lester for longer than they should, but the Red Sox cannot win in the next two or three years without him. The title of this post says it all. Pay this man. He’s earned it.
When Robinson Cano left the New York Yankees this past winter to sign with the Seattle Mariners to the tune of $240 million over ten years, it was the rare case of the Yankees losing one of their own free agents that they wanted to keep. It shocked the fabric of Major League Baseball much the way Dwight Howard leaving the Los Angeles Lakers to sign with the Houston Rockets shook the status quo in the National Basketball Association. Cano has the right to sign wherever he wants and the Mariners offered him a lot more money than the Yankees did. The thing that amuses me is how upset the Yankees are about Cano leaving when they’ve been luring away the star players from every other team since the beginning of free agency some 40 years ago.
Robbie Cano is the best power hitting second baseman in the Majors, and deserves to be paid as such. When he first signed with the Mariners, it seemed like a ridiculous contract, but before he played a game in Seattle, the Los Angeles Dodgers gave ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw $215 million over the next seven years, and the Detroit Tigers gave Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in the game and the two-time reigning American League MVP, $300 million over the next ten years, and Cano’s deal does not seem so outlandish anymore.
The Yankees have gone out of their way to be bitter about Cano’s departure. They did not prepare a video tribute for when he returned to Yankee Stadium last week as a member of the Mariners (while the Red Sox prepared a tribute for Jacoby Ellsbury who left Boston for the Yankees of all teams), and John Sterling went off in the broadcast about how Cano should have taken the Yankee money. If Sterling was offered that high a pay raise to call games for the Mets, I would wonder if the Yankee money would be good enough for him. Earlier this week, it was reported that Mariano Rivera would rather have Dustin Pedroia at second base than Cano, as Mo wrote in his new book. The Yankees are quick to forget that Cano, not Derek Jeter or Rivera, was their best player over the last five seasons, and was a big part of the World Series winning roster in 2009.
Of all teams, the Yankees should understand a star player’s desire to get paid. That’s why Ichiro Suzuki is in New York and not Seattle. That’s why Jacoby Ellsbury is in New York and not Boston. That’s why Brian McCann is in New York and not his native Atlanta. That’s why C. C. Sabathia is in New York and not Cleveland or Milwaukee. That’s why Masahiro Tanaka is in New York and not Japan. Ever since players gained the right to hit free agency, the Yankees have had their pick of the All-Star litter more than any other team, thanks to their enormous media market and the Steinbrenner family’s willingness to spend big in the name of winning. It’s part of the game, and for once they’re feeling the sting of rejection, but for baseball fans everywhere, it’s fun to see happen in New York. What goes around comes around eventually.