“I feel like somebody just kicked my ass. Actually somebody did…That was fucking unbelievable.”
Thus spake David Ortiz in the wake of Friday’s twin killing; one can only imagine what his mood was like after yesterday afternoon’s abomination. Ortiz (putting up monster numbers for the fourth straight year) and Manny Ramirez (putting up monster numbers for the 12th straight year) are far and away the best 3-4 combo in the game; at this point, there’s legitimate debate about whether they’re the best ever.
And right how they’re toiling for a team that appears to be heading quickly down the toilet. There’s a lot of time left in the season, and even after a frighteningly bad stretch, the Red Sox are still only 4.5 games out; a pair of wins tonight and tomorrow will bring them back within 2.5. Admittedly, that doesn’t seem likely. And admittedly, this appears to be a Red Sox team that will miss out on the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Are the Sox squandering one of the last remaining years of Manny and Papi?
Ever since the trade deadline, there’s been a lot of chatter — online, in print, over the airwaves — about the Red Sox’s long-term plan versus a focus on the present. I’m at least partially the cause of (or at fault for, depending on your perspective) this discussion because of a scene in the introduction of my book, where I write about a senior staff meeting the Sox held in the days immediately following last year’s playoff loss to the White Sox. In that meeting, Theo Epstein spoke frankly about the future of the organization. “In general, we’ve had a lot of success in player development,” he said. “We’re going to need a lot of patience, because there’s going to be a lot of failure. It could get rough. … Sooner or later we might need to take a half a step backward in return for a step forward. … What if we win 85 games [next year]? We’re bringing up some young players that are going to be better in ’07 than they will be next year. And they’ll probably be even better than that in ’08. … We can be both a large revenue club [that can afford to sign high priced free agents] and have a strong farm system. But it’s probably not going to be a seamless transition. This year we had a great year. We will probably be worse next year.”
In my book, Epstein’s comments — made less than a month before he walked out of Fenway in a gorilla suit — are offset against those made by Larry Lucchino. This scene has been interpreted as Epstein throwing in the towel for 2006 and Lucchino wanting to go for it year after year.
That’s not accurate. Epstein and Lucchino were both, in their own ways, discussing the team’s approach to dealing with the public, not its approach to dealing with the team. That hasn’t changed much: take advantage of what you have, don’t mortgage the future, search out possible bargains, and spend big money when you find someone worth it. This Sox administration has always been willing to trade its prospects so long as it felt like the deal made sense — it was Jon Lester, after all, who was set to go to Texas along with Manny during the week or so in which it looked as if A-Rod would be playing in Boston. And last month it was Lester (along with Coco Crisp) who would have gone to Atlanta for Andruw Jones.
What’s more, it’s hard to look objectively at this year and see a team that had decided to throw in the towel. The 2006 Red Sox have a $120 million payroll. Among this year’s new acquisitions, there’s Mike Lowell, a $9 million third baseman. The Sox spent $5.5 for two middle relievers, and a combined $6 million for a shortstop and second baseman. That, right there, is higher than the Florida Marlins payroll, and more than half of that of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Instead of Mike Lowell, Alex Gonzalez, Mark Loretta, and Kevin Youkilis — a $15 million infield — the Sox could have had Andy Marte, Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, and Youkilis — a $1.25 million infield (slightly more if you factor in the money the Sox sent to Atlanta in the Renteria-Marte deal). Instead of Rudy Seanez and Julian Tavarez, the Sox could have begun the season with Sanchez and Hansen, for a savings of about $5.5 million. Instead of Beckett, they could have begun the year with a rotation of Schilling, Wakefield, Clement, Wells, and Papelbon, with Foulke out there as the closer, Lenny DiNardo as a backup starter, and Arroyo sent packing for Wily Mo Pena, who would have been the team’s full-time center fielder. That, my friends, would have been a rebuilding year.
Instead — and despite the fact that the Sox were basically held together in 2005 by spit, luck, Damon, Ortiz, and Ramirez — Boston made a series of moves it thought would both allow the team to compete in 2006 and compete down the road. (I’m not going to argue the Damon non-signing again. The Sox couldn’t have re-signed Damon unless they’d offered him a seven-year deal. And I still think within a year or two we’ll all be glad Johnny’s not picking up his annual $13 million check from Yawkey Way.)
So what happened? Well, where do you want to start? Jason Varitek hit like a shell of his former self; then he got injured. Trot Nixon hit for less power than at any point in his career; then he got injured. Matt Clement, David Wells, Tim Wakefield, and Keith Foulke all spent (or are spending) serious time on the DL. Coco Crisp got injured and had a harder time adjusting to Boston than was predicted. Mike Timlin got injured and stopped looking like an ultra-durable 33-year old and started looking more like the 40-year old he actually is. Seanez and Tavarez were both busts. That’s a whole mess of crappy luck. The real mystery isn’t why the Sox are sucking right now; the real mystery is how they managed to do so well for so long with so much going wrong.
But back to the trade deadline. Let’s say the Sox had pulled off one of the blockbuster deals that was being discussed. Let’s say they’d acquired Roy Oswalt. Or Andruw Jones. They’d both be worth between 7 and 8 win shares for the two months remaining in the season — and that could, potentially, be enough to make up for the lost ground with the Yankees. Except these were trades, and in most iterations of these trades, the Sox would be losing Crisp, Lester, and perhaps another player. Lester and Crisp are projected to be worth between 7 and 8 win shares each over the season’s final two months…which leaves a net gain of zero. Having Andruw Jones in center would undoubtedly have made the Red Sox a better team…but the rotation would still be relying on two guys closer to AARP membership than they are to their teenage years, and the non-Papelbon bullpen would still be frighteningly shoddy. Oswalt would have bolstered the rotation, to be sure…but he wouldn’t have done anything about the relief, and wouldn’t have done anything to help bolster the offense. This is, after all, a team that yesterday relied on Javy Lopez for protection after Manny drew a couple of intentional passes.
How about Bobby Abreu, whom the Yankees picked up for chump change (in terms of what they had to give up)? As Gordon Edes and Nick Cafardo pointed out in yesterday’s Globe, Abreu would have cost the Sox $27.7 million for a season and a third. That’s a lot of cake. Instead, they got Eric Hinske for a little less than a season and a third at a cost of just over $4 million. Last year, Abreu had 17 win shares; Hinske had 12. And if twenty million dollars can only get you a net gain of five win shares, you’re not spending your money wisely. (A quick aside: the Sox haven’t made a decision to forego high-priced free-agents; to the contrary, they’ve decided that in order to cough up the money for truly valuable free-agents — those in their late 20’s as opposed to their late 30’s — they need to spend their money wisely.)
I’m not saying win shares are the be all and end all of evaluating players; like every metric, it’s flawed. Clearly the Sox thought straight up deals of Crisp and Lester for Jones or Crisp and Lester for Oswalt were worth it: they would have pulled the trigger on either one of those. But start throwing in other young pitchers in their first year of MLB service, and a good deal becomes a bad one.
On October 27, 2004 — you remember that day, right? — John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino sat in a hotel suite in St. Louis. “We don’t really want to go for it in any particular year,” Henry told me. “We want to be competitive every single year. Larry thinks we can expect to make the playoffs eight out of 10 years. I feel like we can do 10 out of 10.”
I asked what the difference was between going for broke one year and staying competitive every year.
“You’ve got to keep your eyes on both goals,” Lucchino said. “You canâ€šÃ„Ã´t go for broke without some longer term perspective and you canâ€šÃ„Ã´t have a longer term perspective, particularly in Boston, without some kind of annual focus on getting to the postseason. We have to operate on both dimensions every year, and I think we have. Thereâ€šÃ„Ã´s a lot of focus on what weâ€šÃ„Ã´ve done at the major league level and our post-season success and all that but if you look below the surface, weâ€šÃ„Ã´ve had a pretty good couple of drafts the last couple of years. And commitments to player development.”
That was Lucchino talking, not Epstein. It’s true that Epstein warned of the possibility of needing to take half a step back before the team could take a step forward…but not because he was advocating that. He was advocating a more tempered public relations approach. The Red Sox have been on the verge of an aging team for several years; all things considered, they’ve managed to make that transition pretty gracefully.
As of late, I’ve been accused of being an apologist for the Red Sox administration. I understand where that comes from — in Boston, anyone who doesn’t turn into Chicken Little is accused of being an apologist. But the fact that I understand where the Red Sox are coming from does not mean I think they’ve executed their plans brilliantly. I’m no baseball scout, so I won’t try to pretend to know what to look for when it comes to evaluating pitchers. I do know this administration has a mixed record (at best) of picking up pitching talent. There are obviously reasons (beyond the 2003 World Series; Mark Bellhorn had a great 2004 World Series and no one’s throwing cash at him) the Sox felt Josh Beckett was worth $30 million. I don’t know what they are, and the past month has made me wonder if any of us will ever know. The failure of Seanez and Tavarez this year would be easier to take if it hadn’t been preceded by the failure of a lot of other middle relievers the Sox thought might succeed, from Matt Mantei to Chad Bradford to Ramiro Medonza…the list goes on.
This season has been hard to stomach, but I understand what’s going on: shitty luck plus aging players is no recipe for success. I also understand why it didn’t make sense to go all in this year: all in still likely wouldn’t beat the Tigers or the Yankees. If, in a year, Beckett’s ERA is still hovering around 6.00 and the young guns in the bullpen are still coughing up runs, I’ll be more upset, both at the time and for the future. After all, we only have two more years of Papi and Manny anchoring the middle of the batting order.