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.
It seems strange to me that in a year when they have a good lineup full of good, offensively productive players, and in a year that will be highlighted by Pedro Martinez, the best pitcher I’ve ever seen, one of the five best pitchers the Red Sox have had in their 110+ year history, and hands-down my favorite baseball player ever, is getting inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, that the Boston Red Sox do not have an ace in their pitching rotation. The yearlong celebration of Pedro should have been enough of a reminder for them that pitching is the most important part of a successful baseball club. Sure, it’s not the only thing, but how far have the Red Sox ever gone without it?
There is more than one way to win in baseball. different teams have different traditions and trademarks that make them unique. For instance, the Red Sox have a long tradition, with the exception increasingly unbelievable 2013 World Series run, of having a Hall of Fame caliber hitter manning the real estate in front of the Green Monster in left field when they are at their best. From, Ted Williams’ Major League debut in 1939 to Jim Rice’s retirement in 1989 (oh yeah, and Carl Yastrziemski had a 18 All-Star appearances, a Triple Crown and an American League MVP in the years between Williams and Rice), with the exception of the years Williams spent serving his country in World War II, the Sox always had a Hall of Famer in left. In the 90s, Mike Greenwell and Troy O’Leary, two pretty good players in their own right, were mere placeholders in left field at Fenway before the arrival of Manny Ramirez, who was a huge part of both the 2004 and 2007 World Series wins for Boston. Whether or not he gets voted into Cooperstown by the BBWAA, Manny is a Hall of Famer in my mind. That dude could hit as well as any player I’ve seen. The 2013 Red Sox were the exception to the rule. They are an all time great team in the history of the Red Sox, Boston’s 13th American League Pennant and 8th World Series Champion, but they did it with a platoon of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava in left. They got offense from other spots on the field, and a historically great postseason performance from the ageless wonder David Ortiz, and great pitching (which I promise the rest of the article will be about), and they won it all. The blueprint for that team’s success was not sustainable, however, and with the Red Sox crashing back to
earth last place in the AL East, the roster was gutted at the trade deadline, and now another All-Star hitter named Ramirez is in left field.
As crucial to the historical success of the Boston Red Sox as left field has been dominant pitching. This is a team that employed Cy Young. You know, the guy the CY YOUNG AWARD, awarded annually to the best pitcher in each league, is named after! They had Lefty Grove, as well! They don’t get to the 1967 World Series without Jim Lonborg, and they don’t get to the 1975 World Series without Luis Tiant. They employed Tom Seaver (who earned the highest percentage of the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame vote of any player in Cooperstown) at the end of his career to be a pitching mentor to Roger Clemens. This is a franchise that historically values and has benefited immensely from great pitching over the years.
In the three times the Red Sox have won the World Series in the 21st century, they had two aces each time. In 2004, it was Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. In 2007, it was Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett with a young man named Jon Lester showing the first signs of his future as a great big game performer. In 2013, it was Jon Lester and John Lackey. The one-two punch at the top of the rotation like that was the best plan for success for the Red Sox. To win it all, the Red Sox have needed not one, but two aces on their staff, which is why it is so baffling that they went into 2015 with zero.
I still don’t like the way things ended for Jon Lester in Boston. I didn’t like it before it happened, and while they got a pretty good player and traded him for another pretty good player, I would still rather have Jon Lester on the Red Sox than on the Cubs. I get that John Lackey didn’t really like it in Boston, and once they dealt Lester, it made sense to deal Lackey as well. Maybe it was the better move in the long term to move on from those guys, but not replacing two aces with even one ace was a huge mistake in the short term. Right now they have a rotation of Clay Buchholz (who is my least favorite Red Sox player ever, and has contributed the least of any player in Red Sox history with two rings), Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley, and Joe Kelly. All have their moments. All would make nice rotational depth behind ace pitchers. Without those aces, rotational depth is nothing more than mediocrity.
The Red Sox currently have a record of 12-12, which is good enough for 4th place in the AL East. For the lineup they’re paying, headlined by Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval, that is not good enough. Something needs to be done to improve that pitching staff. Maybe trade for Jordan Zimmermann of the Washington Nationals. Maybe trade for Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies. Maybe trade for Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox. Maybe, and I realize it’s unlikely because Billy Beane doesn’t usually like to trade pitchers within the American League, trade for Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics. There are pitchers out there and deals to be made, so do it!
Normally I’m much more excited for baseball season than I have been this year. Part of it was the Westerosi winter New England had to deal with in 2014-15, but most of it is because the Red Sox burned up all the good will in 2014 that they had generated with the fans in 2013. They’re still my team, but it’ll take a little more than Justin Masterson and Wade Miley to get excited for the Red Sox again.
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.