The 2016-17 NBA season has been the Year of Kevin Durant, ever since all of basketball, from the front offices to to the players to the fans to social media, held its collective breath last July 4th weekend as he decided to sign with the Golden State Warriors. For a weekend, The Hamptons was the center of the sports universe, and everything since has been in reaction to KD joining forces with a team that won a record 73 games last year.
- Russell Westbrook is playing out of his mind this season because he’s mad at Durant.
- The Boston Celtics made their biggest free agent signing ever with Al Horford because they missed on Durant.
- What are the Washington Wizards supposed to do now that they had hoped to sign Kevin Durant, being the team from his hometown and all, but could not even get a meeting with him?
- How far have the Lakers really fallen now that they could not get a meeting with Durant, and they get meetings with everyone because they’re the Lakers?
- The Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the five best players in the NBA (Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden, with the other two top-five players being LeBron James and Steph Curry) at the beginnings of their careers, and now only have one. Are they now officially this generation’s version of the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic that were super fun for a few years, but were gone before we could appreciate them and never won a title?
- Sure, the San Antonio Spurs will be good because they are always good, but in their first year without Tim Duncan, do they even have a chance against this Warriors team?
- Sure, the Houston Rockets will be interesting because they own the statistical darlings corner of the NBA and are the Oakland A’s of basketball, and the collaboration of GM Daryl Morey, newly hired head coach Mike D’Antoni, and star James Harden (who made the conversion from shooting guard to point guard this season and got even better) might even make them great, but can they hang with this Warriors team?
- Given the last two bullet points, are we destined (or doomed, depending on how you look at it) for a third straight Warriors/Cavs NBA Finals and the other 28 teams are merely bystanders in this inevitability?
That last bullet point was occupying my mind when I wrote about Durant-to-the-Warriors last July, and that still may very well be the end result of the Year of Durant, but the second tier contenders have been compelling this regular season (particularly Boston, Toronto, Washington, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Utah) and even teams that are not competing this year are made compelling by the bountiful crop of young talent in the Association from Kristaps Poszingis in New York, to Joel “The Process” Embiid in Philadelphia (whom the Sixers shut down for the rest of the season after appearing in just 31 games, but it was an unforgettable 31 games), Nikola Jokic in Denver, to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota to Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, and Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. The NBA is doing just fine, even if the end result feels inevitable. But just like everything else this season, when a post-trade deadline injury sent shock waves through the NBA, the injury in question was Kevin Durant.
A couple nights ago, playing against the Wizards in his hometown of Washington D.C. for the first time since he deliberately made it clear he did not want to play for his hometown, KD hurt his knee when he collided with teammate Zaza Pachulia. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Durant could be out for the rest of the regular season, and perhaps longer than that. All of a sudden, things are not as certain as they seemed.
It’s impossible to write the Warriors off completely. They still have Steph Curry, they still have Klay Thompson, and they still have Draymond Green. They still have Steve Kerr as their coach. Those guys made The Finals each of the last two years without Durant, including coming back in a seven game series against Durant and the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last spring. Even without Durant, their high-end talent in this high-end talent-driven league should make them better than most teams on any given night, but without him, their margin for error narrows significantly. Golden State also lacks the depth they enjoyed in previous seasons. In order to make room for Durant, the Warriors jettisoned Andrew Bogut (whose injury in the Finals was the straw that broke their collective back against Cleveland last spring), Harrison Barnes, and Festus Ezeli. The team they have is still very good, but the relative lack of depth was the risk they had to take by adding Durant to what could already be considered a super-team.
Durant’s injury also gives the Spurs and Rockets a better chance of crashing the party. I am not saying they are absolutely going to knock off the Warriors now, but this could make Golden State’s road that much more difficult. The Warriors currently sit at #1 in the Western Conference, with a 50-11 record. The Spurs are two and a half games behind them, at 47-13. If San Antonio could steal the #1 seed from Golden State, it would mean the Warriors potentially having to play the Rockets and the Spurs in order to get back to The Finals instead of the Rockets and Spurs having to play each other in the second round, as would happen if the standings remain the same. For Golden State, the possibility of Durant coming back and playing his first minutes in months in a second round playoff series against Houston, who could already pose as a touch match-up for them, is something that would scare me. The Warriors would much rather have San Antonio and Houston cancel each other out and only have to face one of them before their rubber match against LeBron and the Cavaliers.
I do not wish injury on anyone, and I am also not one to hold it against Kevin Durant for leaving OKC and joining the Warriors rather than beating them, but I have to admit this second half of the NBA regular season is more interesting than I expected, all because it is the Year of Kevin Durant.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Oakland Athletics earned critical acclaim and notoriety for fielding competitive baseball teams in spite of their noncompetitive payrolls. The success with the deck stacked against them made Billy Beane the poster boy of the baseball analytics movement and Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game spawned a genre of outside-the-box-front-office-strategy books from Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2% about the Tampa Bay Rays, to Molly Knight’s The Best Team Money Can Buy about the Los Angeles Dodgers, to Travis Sawchik’s Big Data Baseball about the Pittsburgh Pirates, to Steve Kettmann’s Baseball Maverick about Beane’s mentor Sandy Alderson and the job he rebuilding the New York Mets into a contender. Fast-forward to 2016, and the A’s still have not reached the World Series since 1990, yet they still have the reputation of baseball intellect that has carried them through the lean years as The Ringer’s Claire McNear so aptly pointed out earlier this week.
The landscape of Major League Baseball has changed since 2002, with revenue sharing and even a change in ownership in Oakland, yet the A’s are still content to act poor to show the world how smart they are. They found themselves as sellers at the trade deadline for the second straight year, which to be fair, is something big budget teams like the Red Sox are more than capable of doing as well, and there are more than a couple of former Oakland A’s making meaningful contributions to contenders in 2016. A popular move in the Billy Beane playbook has been to trade away a star player for prospects before he has to pay them like a star. Josh Donaldson being dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays the winter before his 2015 American League MVP season was just the most recent in a long line of stars Oakland fans got attached to even though they knew they should not have. In 2014, they traded Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox at the deadline for Jon Lester, who was set to become a free agent at the end of the season. Before them, it was Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Nick Swisher, Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi. In Oakland, there will always be good players, but the front office does not want to invest enough in them for fans to justify investing in that specific star’s jersey.
In my opinion, the Lester/Cespedes Trade was the one the A’s missed on the most, even more than the Donaldson Trade. As a Red Sox fan, it’s not like I’m over the moon about the way that whole situation played out (The Sox had low-balled Lester in contract extension negotiations after he had led them to the 2013 World Series, then traded him and John Lackey away at the deadline with no immediate solution to replace them. They ended up flipping Cespedes that winter to Detroit for Rick Porcello, and while Porcello has been Boston’s most consistent pitcher this year, he’s no Jon Lester.), the A’s gutted the heart of their lineup during a pennant race for a pitcher they were not going to be able to re-sign. Had they stood pat with Cespedes, their rotation was already pretty good with Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija, and Scott Kazmir. Maybe they aren’t playing in the play-in Wild Card game against Kansas City, and their postseason doesn’t end after one game. The failure of the 2014 Jon Lester Era A’s ultimately led to Beane blowing up the team with the Donaldson Trade. Sure, Toronto gave up a fan favorite in the form of Brett Lawrie, but like everyone else, Lawrie did not stick in Oakland, while Donaldson has thrived with the Blue Jays. Not only was he the 2015 American League MVP, but he helped end a playoff drought that had been going on since the Jays won the 1993 World Series. If the result of the Lester/Cespedes Trade was a wash, the Donaldson/Lawrie Trade was a clear win for Toronto.
There is something to be said about being on the cutting edge of your industry. There are different metrics to measure success. Is it better to be more popular, or be recognized for doing what you do smarter? Jay Leno consistently had higher ratings, but David Letterman made a bigger cultural impact. Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s fancy themselves as Letterman, if Letterman was doing his show in his mom’s basement on a cable access channel like Wayne Campbell, when the reality is he’s on CBS. Other small market teams have broken through and won the World Series, with the 2015 Kansas City Royals being the most recent example. Other executives have applied analytical practices and won at a high level, perhaps most notably Theo Epstein with the Red Sox and Cubs, and yet a common perception that analytics are synonymous with Beane and the Athletics still persists. Billy Beane does not have a monopoly on smart ideas in baseball, and his teams have not even won an American League Pennant, but he’s the one who gets to be played by Brad Pitt in an Oscar-nominated movie. How is that fair?
I subscribe to the idea of critically acclaimed teams. When people look back at the champions in any sport fifty years from now, that will not tell the whole story. The Steve Nash Era Phoenix Suns, for example, never won a title, or even made the NBA Finals, but they were a fun and exciting foil to the Lakers and Spurs of the mid-2000s, and paved the way for a team like the Golden State Warriors of the last two years to exist and thrive. They never won themselves, but they were a game changer. The A’s of the early 2000s were a game changer, but they’re still clinging onto an identity that made them innovative over a decade ago, but now they’re just another team that hasn’t won anything while others have.
No baseball fan sheds a tear for Brian Cashman, the GM of the New York Yankees who inherited a team that already had the infrastructure of Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams when he got the job in 1998, and kept that train rolling for a solid fifteen years with the benefit of one of the most free-spending ownership groups in all of baseball. Cashman’s Yankees were sellers at the deadline for the first time in his tenure, and while it was very strange, he will not get the amount of credit he deserves for the haul he got back for the players he traded away, and the praise for inevitably turning the Yankees around will be muted compared to other teams. On the other side of that coin, nobody should shed a tear for Billy Beane and his predicament in Oakland at this point. He doesn’t have the spending power of the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Dodgers, but he likes the position he’s in. If he wins, he’s a genius. If he loses, he’s a genius in a really tough situation. He cannot lose. It’s good to be smart, but it’s better to win, and if I were a fan of the A’s, I’d be tired of the Moneyball routine by now. It never ends, does it?
Last weekend, the Baseball Hall of Fame had their annual induction ceremony and the Class of 2016 included Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza, two of baseball’s biggest stars of my childhood. Both are worthy and both inductions are significant (Griffey became the first #1 overall pick to get into Cooperstown, and Piazza, taken 1390th overall in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, is the lowest draft pick ever to make the Hall of Fame), but with each passing year, there are more worthy players being left out of Cooperstown. My thoughts on the Baseball Hall of Fame are well documented, from David Ortiz to Jack Morris, going through the archives of this blog, but one case I haven’t really discussed at length (if at all) is that of Tim Raines.
Raines first became eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in 2008, when he earned just 24.3% of the vote, but in 2016, his ninth year on the ballot, he was up to 69.8% (with 75% being the cutoff required for the Hall). This upcoming ballot will be his last to chance to get inducted by the esteemed Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), and it seems like a real toss up whether he gets in or not in 2017. Jonah Keri, one of my favorite baseball writers anywhere, and one of my biggest writing heroes, is an analytically inclined guy, and while he’s mostly indifferent to teams and rooting interest based on laundry, his weakness is the late great (Well, maybe not great. Critically acclaimed, though? 1994 was something special, but we’ll never know how great that team really was? I like that description better.) Montreal Expos, of which Tim Raines was one of the biggest stars along with Andre Dawson, Vladimir Guerrero, Larry Walker, and Pedro Martinez (Sorry, Randy Johnson. You don’t make the cut. It would be a little like listing Jeff Bagwell as a Red Sox legend or Sammy Sosa as one of the all time great Texas Rangers.). Keri is not a Hall of Fame voter at this time, but he has made Tim Raines his personal crusade. I was always aware of Raines, and I knew he was a good player, especially in the Montreal years, but I never really dug deeply into his career. The more I read and listened to Jonah Keri, the more intrigued I was by this Hall of Famer who isn’t.
In theory, Tim Raines should be in Cooperstown already. He’s a seven time All-Star, the 1986 National League batting champion, led the NL in stolen bases four times, and won two World Series rings as a player with the New York Yankees (and was a coach for the 2005 World Series Champion Chicago White Sox). His 808 career stolen bases are good for fifth all time, behind Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Billy Hamilton, and Ty Cobb, making him the all time leader in stolen bases by someone who is not in the Hall of Fame already. Even if you think stolen bases are overrated, as I do to a degree, it’s hard to overlook that kind of production on the base path. Raines was as good a leadoff hitter as anyone in the 1980s, and when he got on, he found his way into the pitcher’s head. Even if you think the All-Star Game is a glorified popularity contest that only rewards players with great first-half performances and pre-existing reputations, but being selected for the All-Star team seven straight times, as Raines was from 1981 to 1987, it is hard to ignore that kind of name recognition. Outside of baseball, how many seven time All-Stars miss the Hall of Fame?
The best cross-sport comparison I can think of for Tim Raines is Clyde Drexler. Drexler was a great shooting guard, a ten time All-Star, the Portland Trail Blazers’ all time leading scorer, was a member of the 1992 United States Olympic “Dream Team,” and an NBA champion with the Houston Rockets in 1995. He had a great career, and is in the Basketball Hall of Fame (Seriously, being a 1992 Olympic Gold Medalist practically puts him into the Basketball Hall of Fame by default. The Dream Team has been inducted as a team and Christian Laettner is the only player who has not been inducted as an individual.), but with a career like that in baseball, he might not be a Hall of Famer, as evidenced by the plight of Tim Raines.
The biggest knock on Clyde Drexler’s career was that he wasn’t Michael Jordan. Picked 14th overall in the 1983 NBA Draft by Portland, the Blazers felt Drexler was good enough at the shooting guard to pass on Jordan when he was there for the taking at #2 the following year. Instead, Portland took the immortal Sam Bowie. If you think falling to #3 didn’t annoy and anger Jordan, you don’t know Jordan. MJ made it his mission in the 1992 NBA Finals when his Chicago Bulls played Portland, and later that summer in Dream Team practices to embarrass Drexler, to make sure that anyone who thought Drexler was on his level was made to look the fool. When Drexler retired, one thing was clear: he was great, but he was no Michael Jordan, and that’s fine. Nobody is Michael Jordan except Michael Jordan. Not Joe Dumars. Not Dwyane Wade. Not even Kobe Bryant. Certainly not Clyde Drexler. Maybe the biggest difference between the way we remember star players in basketball as opposed to baseball is that all the good players get into one Hall of Fame, and even some of the truly great players don’t make it into the other.
Tim Raines’ Michael Jordan is Rickey Henderson. Rickey made his Major League debut in June of 1979, and Raines debuted in September of 1979, but while Raines played his last game in 2002, Henderson stuck it out through the 2003 season. Raines had a very impressive 808 career stolen bases, while Henderson compiled a record-breaking 1,406 stolen bases. Raines made seven All-Star Games, but Henderson made ten. Both earned two World Series rings, but while Raines earned his as an older veteran with the Yankees in 1996 and 1998, Henderson got his rings closer to his apex in 1989 with the Oakland A’s and 1993 with the Toronto Blue Jays. Both had cool nicknames by baseball standards: Raines was “Rock,” but Henderson gets a slight edge with “Man of Steal.” Raines is remembered less than he should be because there was another player in his era who did the things he did, and did them better.
Pro-Raines people will argue that while Henderson without a doubt compiled more impressive numbers over his near quarter century in Major League Baseball, that Tim Raines did what he did more efficiently. While Raines hit (2,605) and home run (170) totals pale in comparison to Henderson’s (3,055 hits, 279 home runs), Raines’ career batting average (.294) was fifteen points higher than Henderson’s (.279). It was recently brought to my attention in a Reddit post about Raines’ superior base stealing efficiency that Raines was a much more efficient base-stealer. Raines ranks 14th in career SB% at 84.696% according to Baseball Reference, with Henderson ranked 44th at 80.758%. What’s 3.938% really in the grand scheme of things? Enough that Henderson, in 2016 at the age of 57, would need to steal 448 consecutive bases without getting caught to match Raines’ stolen base efficiency. That’s something.
The biggest reason I think Raines belongs in the Hall of Fame is because just because you had two great players who did similar things but one was significantly more prolific, would it really kill you to have them both in Cooperstown? Clyde Drexler is nobody’s Michael Jordan, but if he had been left out of the Basketball Hall of Fame or the more-exclusive-if-less-official Bill Simmons Hall of Fame Pyramid (Drexler is ranked 44th), fans in Portland and Houston would have lost their collective minds. Maybe this is what works against Raines the most: the fanbase that saw his best baseball lost their team when they Expos moved and became the Washington Nationals in 2005. This “one but not the other” issue doesn’t seem to happen in other sports. The Pro Football Hall of Fame did not let in John Elway and Dan Marino in and then decide they had hit their quarterbacks from the 1983 NFL Draft quota so they could exclude Jim Kelly. Charles Barkley and Karl Malone were both all-time great power forwards who couldn’t get past Jordan in the Finals, but the Basketball Hall of Fame had room for both of them. Not everyone is the greatest ever, but that does not make them not great. See Tim Raines and Clyde Drexler.
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.
Sorry to leave without saying goodbye. I went back to school this fall for the first time in over a year, and felt it was going to be hard enough balancing a full time job with classwork, but there was so much I wanted to write about in the last three and a half months! I have a lot to talk about, and I’ll start with a quick recap of what I might have written about.
The World Series
When I last posted, I thought the Baltimore Orioles were the best team in baseball. Whoops. I had no idea about the Kansas City Royals, but I don’t think I was alone on that one. The Royals ended a playoff drought that was older than I was, having reached the postseason for the first time since they won the 1985 World Series, back when Ronald Reagan, the actor, was President. It took them twelve innings to knock the Oakland A’s (which was Jon Lester’s last game as an Athletic, signing with the Chicago Cubs earlier this week, and they didn’t even get to use Jeff Samardzija, who was traded to the Chicago White Sox last week), and proceeded to make short work of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Orioles, two teams that conventional wisdom would lead one to believe were better than the Royals. At the same time, the National League winners of the Wild Card Game, the San Francisco Giants, were also making it look easy. The ease of victory came to a grinding halt when the two teams met, though.
It was a tough series to figure out. Neither team was your typical team, and neither was accustomed to losing in the World Series, either. The Royals may have gone 29 years without playing in the playoffs, but the last time they were there, they won it all. The Giants had a championship drought of their own for a time, but in 2010 they won their first World Series title since moving from New York to San Francisco in 1958. They won again in 2012, and in 2014, they made it a dynasty. In previous series the heroes were many. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, Barry Zito, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Edgar Renteria, Hunter Pence, Aubrey Huff, Jeremy Affeldt, to name a few. In 2014, it was all about Madison Bumgarner. MadBum is now the only pitcher to start games in all three San Francisco Giants title runs, and he is still only 25. He pitched more innings in the World Series than the other San Francisco Giants’ starters (Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong, and Tim Hudson) combined, and ended it all with a five inning save in Game 7 in Kansas City. Usually, the contributions are evenly distributed along a championship roster, like the 2013 Red Sox or the 2010 and 2012 Giants, and that’s what the 2014 Royals would have been if they had won, but sometimes a pitcher can go out there and refuse to lose. The 2014 Major League Baseball playoffs will be remembered for the incredible and improbably run that made October in Kansas City mean more than just Chiefs football, but it will mostly be remembered as the Year of the Bumgarner.
This season in football, regardless of what my Patriots do in the playoffs, will be the year I more or less tuned out of the NFL. I was busy on Sundays with homework, but I didn’t feel like I was missing all that much. And I love football. The problems off the field have made it hard to be excited about the NFL this year. It’s bigger than Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. The problem lies in the commissioner’s office. Roger Goodell is the worst commissioner in all of sports and his constant change in the rules depending on how he feels any given week is maddening. I can only imagine what being a player in that league must be like. What Ray Rice did was wrong. What Adrian Peterson did was wrong, but the way the NFL handled it would not be acceptable in any other line of work. This isn’t a new opinion, but I didn’t have time to write about it in September. I look forward to the day when the NFL hires a competent commissioner, but until then, wake me up in the playoffs.
Speaking of playoffs, I haven’t watched a minute of college football, but I love they new playoff system already. College football doesn’t need a tournament of 64 like college basketball has, but this Football Final Four thing excites me. They have four powerhouse teams: Florida State, Ohio State, Alabama, and Oregon. These four teams play in the semi-final round on New Year’s Day, and they National Championship will follow. I love it. I haven’t been this excited about college football bowl season in my life.
The Bruins can’t score, and the Celtics can’t defend
It’s that kind of year at the TD Garden. Both teams can make the playoffs (well, the Celtics can, and the Bruins should), but it does not feel like the kind of season that will end with a summertime duck boat parade for either team. For the Celtics, it’s part of the learning curve of a young team, and it’s completely understandable. For the Bruins, it’s frustrating. Peter Chiarelli mismanaged the salary cap because he thought it would go up more than it has, or something, and had to trade Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders for nothing that can help them this year. The Tyler Seguin Trade from the summer of 2013 does not look very good either, as Seguin has become one of the NHL’s top scorers with the Dallas Stars, and the Bruins struggle to put the puck in the net.
The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, That was awesome. They were bounced by the Washington Capitals in 2012. That was lousy, but Bruins fans were okay with it because they had just won the year before, and Tyler Seguin and Tuukka Rask were young and getting better. In 2013, they came within 17 seconds of the chance to play a Game 7 for the Cup in Chicago, but then the next 17 seconds happened (normally I would link a Youtube clip to a sentence like that, but it’s been a year and a half, and I still haven’t had the stomach to live through that again), and that was lousy, but it was a fun ride just to get there. In 2014, they lost to the hated Montreal Canadiens, who lost to the New York Rangers, who lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final. This year, the downward trend has continued. Can they right the ship? Of course. Can a lower seed win it all if they get hot at the right time? Just ask the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Champion Kings. If you’re going to take a couple of steps backward, is it a good idea to raise ticket prices? No.
I will write more soon.
Somewhere, Aaron Sorkin is probably going to town on an early draft of a sequel to the hit movie Moneyball, but one that has an ending like Rocky II. He’s probably feverishly typing away at different ways Brad Pitt can have his “Yo Adrian! I did it!” moment on the big screen in anticipation of what could happen in this year’s Fall Classic. Billy Beane has received all kinds of praise for running the Oakland Athletics and keeping them in playoff contention with a fair amount of consistency despite having a much tighter budget than the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, or Detroit Tigers, and it has earned him fame outside the baseball diamond in the form of a bestselling book and Academy Award nominated film. He has drafted well, been fearless at the trade deadline, and has led a revolution in the way baseball players are evaluated, but he still has yet to guide the A’s to the World Series. Baseball is a gamble. Risks have to be taken, and the margin for error for a club like Oakland is much smaller than New York or Boston (who has won three World Series titles since the 2002 season chronicled in Moneyball using player evaluation strategies made popular by the Athletics), and while what Beane has done in Oakland is incredible, he needs to win a World Series to validate his reputation at this point, and he knows it.
Flipping your best hitter in a trade for another pitcher is a huge risk on Oakland’s part, especially when Jon Lester is due to become one of the top pitchers in the free agent market this winter and out of Oakland’s price range in the future, but the A’s are really close this year. Billy Beane is a smart man. He saw Lester pitch for the Red Sox in the World Series last October. The guy has been an elite playoff performer his entire career. The 2007 World Series was just the tip of the iceberg. Lester is a good pitcher in the regular season, but not on the level of Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander, but he has proven time and again that he has the ability to step it up that much more and do his best pitching in the month where every pitch is exponentially more important than they were in the previous six. With Lester set to hit the open market at the end of the season, and the Red Sox playing hardball in contract extension negotiations with their ace, every general manager in the playoff hunt from New York to Detroit to Seattle was salivating over the possibility of acquiring his services, even if it was just as a three month rental.
Beane needed to blow Boston’s doors off with an offer for Jon Lester. The uncertainty of minor league prospects is always something to be wary about, but the Red Sox would also have to deal with the public relations backlash of trading their ace pitcher (and arguably best player on the roster) for players nobody has ever heard of while plummeting towards a second last place finish in three years, just ten months after winning fans’ hearts back with an improbable (and in hindsight, miraculous) World Series title. Acquiring Lester was a priority for the A’s, even if it meant giving up Yoenis Cespedes.
The Lester/Cespedes trade was a bold move by Billy Beane. That’s why he was played by Brad Pitt in Hollywood and not Rick Moranis, even if the Athletics haven’t won anything since Beane took over the baseball operations department. He’s embraced his status as the celebrity sports executive, with a movie that promoted his philosophy and his transformation of the way baseball clubs build their rosters, but he knows if it doesn’t happen this year, the critics will come out in droves to try and take him down. In a year, the A’s would likely lose Cespedes in free agency (and I’m worried I might be writing another “Pay this Man” article about Boston’s newly acquired Cuban slugger this time next year), and they will most certainly lose Lester to one of the rich teams, or poor teams, or fifty feet of crap ahead of them on the MLB payroll rankings, but it will have all been worth it if they win the American League Pennant, or better yet, the World Series.
My Red Sox are more or less out of the playoff picture here in the first weekend of August, so I have no problem being excited about this potential Moneyball sequel in the making. I would love to see Jon Lester carry the Oakland A’s on his back and take them to the same level of baseball glory he took the Red Sox to in 2007 and 2013. I would love to see Billy Beane get the validation he deserves, and prove that his system works and you don’t need lots of money to make Moneyball work (like the Sox already have three times). I would also love to see Lester leave Oakland with this winter and re-sign with the Red Sox, but that’s probably a pipe dream at this point. Time will tell. The law of averages has the A’s going all the way at some point, but regardless of what it says on paper, you still need to play the games. It should be fun.
Well, so much for paying Jon Lester. So much for extending John Lackey. So much for Jonny Gomes getting a chance to break the record for most pinch hit home runs in a Red Sox uniform, a record set by the great Ted Williams. We’re having a fire!!!! …sale. This is not what I expected less than a year removed from the Red Sox winning the World Series, but I’m working my way through the stages of grief as the Red Sox attempts to rise from the ashes of this fire sale.
When I first started writing this article, only the news items about the Jon Lester (along with Jonny Gomes) to the Oakland Athletics and John Lackey to the St. Louis Cardinals trades had broken, but that wasn’t all. Relief pitcher Andrew Miller and shortstop Stephen Drew within the division, with Miller being dealt to the 1st place Baltimore Orioles for minor and Drew going to the New York Yankees, who will be in Boston to face the Red Sox this weekend. In addition, starting pitcher Jake Peavy was dealt to the San Francisco Giants last weekend, and former starting pitcher (recently demoted to the bullpen, much to his dismay) Felix Doubront was sent to the Chicago Cubs earlier this week. That’s seven players who contributed to the team that won the World Series ten months ago, including the pitchers who earned all four World Series wins (Lester won two games, Lackey and Doubront each won one). Lackey, Lester, Gomes, Peavy, and Miller are joining teams that will be playing in October in all likelihood, and while the Yankees are having their struggles this year, Drew is joining a team that will have a vacancy at the shortstop position to fill this winter for the first time in nearly 20 years, so it’s a good place for him to be. I thought the Red Sox would be making trades this summer, but I am pleasantly surprised by the return they got on the players they traded away.
In Yoenis Cespedes, the Red Sox acquired an All-Star power hitter, who was batting cleanup on the best team in baseball this season, and who has won the Home Run Derby each of the last two years. Cespedes is part of the major surge of Cuban-born talent we have seen emerge in Major League baseball in the last few years along with Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, and Chicago White Sox first baseman (and likely 2014 American League Rookie of the Year) Jose Abreu. The biggest issue I had with moving on from Jon Lester (besides deciding that a guy who has proven he can perform at the highest level at Fenway Park, in October) is that the return wouldn’t be worth it. I was afraid of giving away Lester for minor league prospects that would never be successful at the Major League level. Cespedes has proven it. He’s already there. He’s 28 years old, and still hasn’t reached his ceiling. I had no idea A’s GM Billy Beane would give up his team’s biggest power hitting threat in a year when they have a reach chance to win it all, but that’s exactly what he did. For all the books and movies written about Beane over the years, he is still a general manager who has been in the same city for over a decade, yet has never won the World Series. He needs to win it to truly validate his reputation. Other teams have caught up and used the player evaluation practices he made famous in Moneyball, the Red Sox being the most successful example, but he still hasn’t broken through. Beane is hoping a two month rental of Jon Lester can outweigh what Cespedes could bring to the batter’s box in the playoffs.
Oakland can now go into October with a pitching rotation of Lester, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, and Jeff Samardzija (acquired last month in a trade with the Cubs), which is just about as scary as the rotation the Detroit Tigers have, now that they have acquired David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays and not have the last three American League Cy Young Award winners (Price, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander) on their roster. It should make for a great playoffs, even without the Red Sox.
For Lackey, the Red Sox got bespectacled right-handed starting pitcher Joe Kelly and former All-Star outfielder Allen Craig. It’s amazing to see the exchanges of talent that have taken place between the two teams who faced off in the World Series last fall. I was impressed by Kelly in the playoffs last year, and Craig was a major reason why the Cardinals had been able to let Albert Pujols, who is right up there with Stan Musial and Bob Gibson on the list of all time Cardinal greats, walk in free agency and follow his departure with a trip to the NLCS in 2012 (before falling to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants) and a trip to the World Series (before falling to the eventual champion Boston Red Sox). Kelly was off to a great start this season before getting injured, and Craig’s production had taken a dip this season, but the acquisitions of these two players help the Red Sox going forward, adding offense to an outfield that has struggled mightily at the plate this season, and adding a quality starter to a rotation that saw its top two pitchers traded away this week. In my opinion, this is a huge haul for John Lackey, who asked for a trade as soon as the trade rumors for Jon Lester, and who would be playing for only $500,000 in 2015 and if he didn’t get an extension, he might decide to retire. Now, that’s St. Louis’ problem, but their a contender again this year, and they know as well as anyone how good Lackey can be in the playoffs, since they were on the losing end a year ago.
Before the trade deadline, the narrative was one of a wealthy, but overly thrifty baseball club squeezing every dollar out of a franchise southpaw, who they did not think was worth it. I was ready to hammer them if the return was not great enough, and I fully expected it to be. The Sox had made big deals at the deadline in the past under this ownership, but when they traded away Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez, they got pennies on the dollar in return. In both cases, they were not going to bring the star player back, and in Nomar’s case, they went on to win the World Series, an we were all okay with it.
I heard Mike Felger talking on 98.5 The Sports Hub before the deadline talking about the way fans view the Red Sox compared to the Patriots, and he brought up an interesting point. Whenever the Pats cut bait with a star player (like Wes Welker or Richard Seymour, for instance) fans call into the radio station defending the move and proclaiming their trust in Bill Belichick, and saying that it’s all part of his master plan. When the Red Sox decide to part ways with a guy like Lester, the fans panic and think the team has no idea what they are doing. The thing is, the Red Sox under John Henry and the Patriots under Robert Kraft have been the most successful franchises in their respective sports since buying their teams. After decades of futility, these two 20th Century punchlines have become models for how to win in baseball and football in the 21st Century, and you could argue that the Red Sox have actually been more successful. The Patriots never finished in last place after hiring Belichick, but the Red Sox have been a playoff team more often than not in a sport where it’s much harder to make the playoffs. We’re quick to second guess the Sox because of Bobby Valentine, because of the ten years Roger Clemens pitched after leaving Boston, because the Red Sox ownership will put their team’s logo on anything to sell it, but act like they have the spending power of the Oakland A’s or the Tampa Bay Rays when one of their home grown stars approaches the open market, and because the 86 years without a title began when the Red Sox traded the greatest baseball player of all time to the New York Yankees to finance a Broadway show.
More than anything, baseball is an easier sport to second guess, because I have more hands-on experience playing it as an organized sport (eight years of organized baseball to only one year of organized football), and a lot of people are the same way. Half the fun of watching baseball is trying to play skipper from the living room couch. I didn’t like the idea of dealing away Lester, and I’m still holding out hope that he’ll be back in Boston in 2015, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed by what the Red Sox pulled off this week.