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.
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.