The Red Sox have lost four games in a row, two to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and two to the Kansas City Royals. Those teams have a combined record of 87-141; their combined payrolls are $83 million, compared to $120 million for the Red Sox. This is pathetic. Despicable. Unacceptable. Right?
Wrong. Here’s why.
Theo Epstein’s resignation last October was — and usually is — portrayed as a result of a personality clash with team president and CEO Larry Lucchino. As I detail in Feeding the Monster, personal animosity had something to do with what happened, but just as important was Epstein’s frustration with the PR approach of the team. Epstein — and Lucchino and John Henry and Tom Werner and everyone associated with the team — is thankful that the Red Sox are successful enough financially to allow them to compete with the Yankees even though Boston’s payroll is only about 63 percent of New York’s. (In percentage terms, this is roughly equal to the Tigers’ payroll in relation to the Yankees’. In pure dollars, the difference between New York’s and Boston’s payrolls is more or less the same as the difference between the Red Sox’s and the Royals’ or the Pirates’.)
I’m sure some folks will say that that’s exactly the point: the Tigers, with an $82 million payroll, have 11 more wins than the Red Sox, as well as the best record in baseball. But 2006 will be the Tigers’ first winning record in well over a decade; twice in the past five years, Detroit has lost more 100 games. If that happened in Boston, there’d be riots in the streets.
Epstein and the Sox’s baseball operations crew have focused, over the last several years, on developing the team’s minor league talent. That’s meant not only holding on to prospects but teaching developing players how to deal with success and failure, how to handle the media, and how to develop (and maintain) good working habits. “We’re going to need a lot of patience,” Epstein told a meeting of the team’s senior staff last October, “because there’s going to be a lot of failure. It could get rough.” Epstein warned about telling fans the Red Sox were an “uber-team.” “Sooner or later we might need to take half a step backward in return for a step forward. â€šÃ„Â¶ What if we win 85 games [in 2006]? Weâ€šÃ„Ã´re bringing up some young players that are going to be better in â€šÃ„Ã´07 than they will be next year. And theyâ€šÃ„Ã´ll probably be even better than that in â€šÃ„Ã´08.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Right now, the Red Sox have three players — Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez, and Jason Varitek — whose combined salaries ($41 million) is greater than the payrolls of the Colorado Rockies, the the Devil Rays, and the Florida Marlins. That kind of spending power is both a blessing and a curse. Players that get huge contracts — the Jeters, the Randy Johnsons, the Pudge Rodriguezs and Barry Bonds and Miguel Tejadas — are players who have reached free agency (and therefore have six years of MLB experience), and demand long-term contracts. It’s rare for players to break into the majors before they’re 22; it’s therefore safe to assume that most players who reach free agency are at least 28…which is more or less the age, historically, at which players reach their peak. That means that those same free agents will likely see a decline in their performances at the exact moment they seem an exponential increase in their salaries.
The entire Red Sox organization thinks (and hopes) that by using the money the team does have judiciously to pay for high-priced free agents and also developing its own talent, the Sox should be one of those rare teams that can compete for the playoffs year after year after year, and not just once a decade, like the Tigers. But that won’t always happen. Some years, a team with a lot of older players will also have a lot of injuries. Some years, the young players will have growing pains. Some years, the free agents who pushed the team to success one year (like Keith Foulke in 2004) will be salary drains another year (like Keith Foulke in 2005 and 2006). And some years, fans need to be patient enough (and smart enough) to realize this.
A few weeks back, at a game in Fenway, I sat next to someone who spent most of the game griping about how much the Sox sucked. He was jabbering on to anyone who would listen: Fuck this, screw that, this team is awful, the front office is stupid, I’m a better pitcher than Matt Clement. When Jason Varitek tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt in a late-inning situation, this guy starts telling all his buddies how that move demonstrates how stupid Terry Francona is. “See, if he’s going to have Jason Varitek bunt, he should just send in Willie Harris.” His friend was impressed: “I don’t even know who Willie Harris is.” “He’s our best bunter,” the guy said. “And he’s fast.” He also was playing for Pawtucket that day. He also isn’t a catcher, and the Sox would still need someone to receive pitches. (And no, it wouldn’t have been a good move to put in Doug Mirabelli.) Losing is painful. Part of the reason rooting for the Red Sox can be so wonderful is because our emotional connection to the team is incredibly strong. But let’s not become knee-jerk naysayers.
These last few weeks have been frustrating. Without David Ortiz (or without their 16-2 record in interleague play), it’s frightening to think where the Sox would be right now. While it’s possible the Sox will sack up, come back, and rip off a string of wins reminiscent of their late-August, early-September run in 2004, it doesn’t seem hugely likely: there are a lot of injuries, a lot of older players, and a lot of pitching woes. Red Sox fans have been cited as the most passionate fans in baseball; it’s a good time to show we can be the smartest ones as well.
I watched a couple of innings of last night’s game from a sports bar in Delray Beach, Florida. It made for grim viewing: even though the Red Sox were leading, the team looked dispirited, exhausted, and overwhelmed. It’s hard to imagine that Javy Lopez ever knew how to catch a baseball; last night, he seemingly was unable to get to any ball more than a couple of inches out of the strike zone. Even Gabe Kapler, a player Terry Francona loves for his hustle and attitude, looked miserable after he got caught in a rundown.
Last year’s August series with the Royals was pretty brutal, too: Schilling got shelled in his return to the rotation, and the Sox lost 2 out of 3. And plenty of good teams go through miserable stretches: the Yankees, remember, started last year 11-19. Let’s hope that, whatever happens this postseason, the Sox can get back to making games fun to watch. That, at least, is not too much to ask.