Series Recap: April 5th-8th. (0-3, 4th AL East)

It’s difficult to take stock of this weekend’s Debacle in Detroit and try to pull some positives out of the ruins, but being that we’re only three games into the season, I’ll do my best.

2011’s miserly beginning felt altogether different than this year, and with good reason. After spending the offseason being dubbed the kings of the AL, Boston stumbled out of the gate to the tune of an 0-6 and 2-10 start. Pitches were gripped too tight, bats swung too hard, and expectations were set simply too high.

This year, though, Boston is recovering from a grease-laden, hops-fueled collapse which left players with a sour taste (maybe the result of sweet and sour dipping sauce) leading into an extended offseason. The much maligned and listless roster was overhauled through retirements, injuries, and free agency, giving rise to a 2012 roster noticeably different than its 2011 predecessor.  

This season, baseball pundits and stats junkies had much more reasonable forecasts for the Red Sox, and most of them brutally realistic. Even with an expanded playoff, in a deep and talented American League most experts had the Red Sox finishing third in the AL East, and missing the playoffs with the 6th best record.

It was hard to argue with them at the time, as the teams ahead of them (NYY, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Anaheim, and Texas) all bolstered strong 2011 lineups with acquisitions and trades.

After Opening Weekend, it’s even harder to find fault with a prediction that leaves the Red Sox playing out the string in September rather than gearing up for a playoff run.

Following three games in Detroit, the Sox find themselves in an 0-3 hole altogether different than last year.  Three losses, two in Detroit’s last AB, terrible starts by Beckett and Buchholz, and a festering, gaping hole where the bullpen should have been leave a healthy serving of pressure on Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard for this week’s series in Toronto.

While all seems lost with but 98% of the season to play, here are some of the positives and an abbreviated thesis of the negatives from this weekend’s slate of games.

Sunny Side Up–

Jon Lester: Needing to be nearly perfect opposite Koufax Verlander, Lester led off 2012 with a quality start, tossing 7 innings of one-run baseball. He nearly matched the reigning AL Cy Young/MVP award winner through 7, only allowing his run on a well placed double by Alex Avila which Cody Ross narrowly missed tracking down. Starts like this are exactly what this team needs.

Adrian Gonzalez/David Ortiz: Though largely and deservedly overshadowed by the Tiger’s ridiculous Cabrera/Fielder duo,  A-Gon and Papi combined to go 10-25 with 2 2B’s, HR, and 4 RBI’s in the three-game set. While it wasn’t as prolific as the five HR’s combined by the 600 pounds batting 3 and 4 for Detroit, it’s solid early-season production for Boston’s big guns.

Vicente Padilla: Shaking off a rough debut for the Sox, Padilla and his 52 mph eephus saved an already taxed bullpen in the final game of the series, going four innings of two-hit baseball, with four K’s and no walks. Most importantly, he kept the Sox afloat after a disappointing outing by Buchholz, stymieing the Tigers for no runs, allowing the Sox to (temporarily) stage a comeback. His most impressive moment? Getting away with back-to-back 52 mph meatballs to Prince Fielder, eventually getting a line out to McDonald.

Definitively Scrambled

Jacoby Ellsbury: Though he broke out a bit in Sunday’s game with a two hits and a double, the 2011 MVP runner-up managed only a walk through his first two games, and was held without a stolen base in the series. Additionally, after tracking the ball across most of center field in the first inning on Sunday, he allowed a ball to clank off his glove for a three-run double by Jhonny “Don’t call me Johnny” Peralta.

Josh Beckett/Clay Buchholz: In a rotation lacking a true fourth or fifth starter, the Red Sox success this year hinges heavily on the three established starters. Unlike Lester’s performance in game one, #’s two and three had starts they’d like to forget. Throwing a combined 8.2 innings, they allowed 14 runs on 15 hits, while walking three and only striking out five. Beckett allowed five home runs, none of which were cheap.

The Bullpen: Outside of Padilla (and a solid outing by Franklin Morales), the bullpen was, for lack of a more violent adjective, abysmal. Our de facto set-up man Mark Melancon sports a shiny 36.00 ERA (4 ER in 1.0 IP), Matt Albers has 2 runs and 2 hits in less than an inning, and newly-anointed closer Alfredo Aceves has allowed three runs on four hits and a HBP without recording an out. When a team performs so poorly that they leave fans pining for the days of John Wasdin, you can be sure things are not going in the right direction.

_ _ _ _ _

But, with 159 games to play, all hope is not lost. Melancon will not finish the year with a four-digit ERA, Josh Beckett will not allow the 150 he’s on pace for, and Jacoby Ellsbury is going to best .154 for the season.

We just need to hope those trends are righted sooner, rather than later.

The Rebirth

In honor of the Red Sox first victory over the Yankees for the 2012 season, I’ve made a few changes to the way things look on here.

Most notably, things don’t look completely like crap anymore. That’s the biggest change.

Actually, it’s the only change. I don’t see the point in spending too much time trying to delve into the in’s and out’s of a Spring Training game, mainly because it’s Spring Training. It’s obviously nice to see Michael Bowden pitching well thus far, but it’s going to be an entirely different story when the real games start, and he’s not throwing to a 35% interested Alex Rodriguez.

I have much more time on my hands this week, as I’m taking a few days off work, so expect my usual helping of less than insightful one-liners later as we inch toward the weekend.

In the meantime, here’s the new manager of the Boston Red Sox, explaining how he invented the wrap sandwich in 1980. History is made every day, folks.

Spring Chickens

Two-thirds of a Paris Hilton jail sentence.

That’s how long we have until baseball, mercifully, is back in our lives.

You’ll have to excuse the terrible pun heading the title here, but it just works on so many levels. On the one hand, spring training has once again dredged up questions regarding Josh Beckett and John Lackey, specifically whether their level of Popeye’s consumption violated various animal cruelty laws. On the other, the clubhouse is now, officially, devoid of Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield, thus lowering the average age on the 40-man roster from Steely Dan to Lil’ Wayne.

The team, needing a facelift from its frowney-faced end to last year, enters camp with three starting pitchers in the rotation. One other spot seems destined for Daniel Bard, the man long thought to be the heir-apparent to Jonathan Papelbon, who departed for a $50,000,058 contact with the Philadelphia Phillies.

(Repeating a mantra of “it was never about the money” is difficult to defend when you negotiate an extra $58 in you contact to match your uniform number, Jonathan).

The remaining spot is up for grabs, with stalwart names like Vincente Padilla, Aaron Cook, Andrew Miller and Alfredo “The Pastaman” Aceves vying to take the mound every fifth day. Though this rings, quite strongly, of the Smoltzian theory of Baseballnomics from a few years past, I’m willing to reserve judgement on new GM Ben Cherington’s first off-season until I can see the results sometime in July to bemoan his missteps.

When you’re very rarely right, hindsight is really all you’ve got. Cut me some slack here.

I don’t think, however, I’ll need hindsight to evaluate the move which netted our new closer, Andrew Bailey. Bailey, something of a glass arm with injuries, is nonetheless a two-time all-star, just two years removed from a Rookie of the Year campaign which saw him save 27 games for an abysmal team, while maintaining an ERA under two and a WHIP less than 1. Pap, undoubtedly, is a loss, but Bailey for $3.9 million is unquestionably a better value than Papelbon at $11,000,058.

Can you tell that extra $58 dollarsreally bugs me?

In order to pry Bailey from Oakland, we parted ways with Josh Reddick. While he was an adequate replacement in right for the emotionless vampire inhabiting J.D. Drew’s body, his glaring inability to hit a ball with some arced trajectory (scouts often refer to this as a “curve-ball”) was becoming something of an issue. In addition to Bailey, Ryan Sweeney was also included in the deal. Sweeney, sporting a 6’4” 225 lb frame, boasts 14 home runs in 1681 career plate appearances. If you’ve ever seen him stand in the batter’s box, you understand how what I just said makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

This move followed a trade which brought Mark Melancon to Boston, in exchange for the oft-injured Jed Lowrie and last year’s surprise, Kyle Weiland. The two departed pieces, though are a tale of two prospects: Lowrie, an offense-first utilityman, showed flashes of power and excellent contact skills, but struggled mightily to stay even remotely healthy. Weiland, who impressed with a solid early-season showing in AAA Pawtucket, didn’t do a whole lot to impress during his time in the majors. Consistently leaving an average fastball and below-average slider up in the zone doesn’t translate to a period of extended success at the big-league level.

Selling high on Weiland, selling low on Lowrie, Do the math, and we’re left with an established set-up man. The move makes a little less sense now, in the wake of Marco Scutaro’s salary dump to Colorado, but starting Mike Aviles in his stead shouldn’t have that pronounced an effect, either positively or negatively.

While the bullpen still has its question marks (most notably, people not named Melancon or Bailey), hopefully we can see the first-half Matt Albers for the whole year this year. Also, best wishes for a speedy recovery to Bobby Jenks. It turns out that after the surgery on his pulmonary embolism, he got spinal surgery. Only, the surgeon was a Yankees fan, and left a medical time-bomb in Jenks’ back, which exploded and almost killed the reliever. He won’t be available to pitch for the foreseeable future, though that’s really secondary to him, you know, having a functional back again.

Back in the Swing

When last we met, I was writhing in a pit of despair.

No, scratch that. Writhing implies signs of life. I was existing at the lowest level of human functionality.

The Red Sox, having just completed the worst regular-season collapse in the history of Major League Baseball, were crumbling to greasy, beer-soaked ashes before our eyes. The manager had been strung up and run out of town, a scapegoat for a team that quit. The team themselves, presented with ample time to publicly take responsibility for their actions, instead opted for silence and (at best) feigned indifference. Morale was at an all- time low, and the only beacon of hope presented by the ownership group was Gene Lamont.

Yikes.

With all apologies to Mr. Lamont, when hearing your name alone increases the national average for narcolepsy diagnoses, you are likely not the man most suited for the job of managing a listless baseball team. Once Dale Sveum’s signature hit the dotted line in Chicago, doomsday soothsayers all around New England proclaimed that the end was nigh. Suddenly, the pamphlet-bearing blind prophets clogging Kenmore didn’t seem quite so off base.

Then, riding a proud steed across a sun-drenched mountaintop, Bobby Valentine arrived, and a light appeared at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Admittedly, I had some reservations with the hiring; mainly because Bobby Valentine could very well be insane. I’d been holding out hope for former Pawtucket manager, and current Toronto 1st base coach Torey Lovullo, though there was little basis for my choice. I’d read some high praise from Dan Hoard, former announcer for the Paw Sox while Lovullo was the manager, so I was sold.

Basically, he wasn’t Lamont, and he didn’t claim that he invented the wrap sandwich. Good enough for me.

But, the news came out, and every day I’m learning to approve of the move even more. His dedication, something I’d had reservations about, seems unquestionable. The day after he was hired, he flew to the Dominican Republic to be with the team at David Ortiz’s charity golf tournament. Calling players, rebuilding bridges, doing everything a manager fully committed to the well-being of his team should be.

Then, in the middle of December, new GM Ben Cherington flipped oft-injured Jed Lowrie and a middle of the rotation ceiling Kyle Weiland for Mark Melancon. The closer for Houston in 2011, Melancon likely could have closed should the need arisen for Boston in 2012, but relying heavily on the Ghost of Bobby Jenks as the primary set-up man (assuming Bard and Aceves are destined for spots in the rotation) seemed irresponsible.

Lowrie, who was developing into something of a super-utility man, has battled poor luck and a myriad of injuries over his four years in the majors. While his offense was essentially league-average for 2011, with WAR of just 0.3, his defense had become something of a liability.

No, it was absolutely a liability. At shortstop, his numbers projected over a reasonably full season put him an even twenty runs below an average fielder at the same position. While the backup shortstop for a middling team might be able to accept such production, Lowrie’s time was simply up in Boston. Weiland, needing an opportunity to pitch full-time, will have a shot at joining Houston’s rotation out of Spring Training. Either way. the Astros gained two full-time players, and the Sox gained a valuable relief piece.

But the true Christmas present for Red Sox fans was a belated one; on the afternoon of December 28th, the Red Sox acquired Andrew Bailey from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Josh Reddick and two minor league chips.

SPOILER ALERT: I LOVE THIS TRADE.

In complete seriousness, I expect that this trade can only mean that the Oakland front office has never seen Josh Reddick swing at a curveball. Or, perhaps they figured they needed to balance out the bounty they received on the Gio Gonzalez trade, so they shipped their All-Star closer across the country in exchange for two low-A ball prospects and a left-fielder who has gaping holes in his swing.

Don’t get me wrong; I loved what Reddick brought to the team this year, and was one of his biggest supporters throughout the year. But, when push came to shove, he had no plate discipline. If you’re going to make a career with the Red Sox, you have to make a pitcher work to strike you out. He didn’t.

For Oakland, I still feel that the Sox make this deal for Ryan Kalish and a couple of chips. Whether they scouted something more promising in Reddick’s game than Kalish’s, or they were scared off by a lost 2011 for Kalish, we’ll never know. What we do know, however, is that the Red Sox have an All-Star closer to replace their lost All-Star closer, and he’s under team control through 2014.

Oh how quickly the tides can change. With, technically, five starting pitchers in Beckett, Buchholz, Lester, Aceves and Bard, Cherington will be looking for another body, likely one that is more than simply a security blanket. Hideki Kuroda’s name has been linked to Boston in recent news, though the Sox will be reticent to dish out 13 or 14 million to lure him off the west coast. With that in mind, the only available names remaining with any kind of appeal are Joe Saunders and Edwin Jackson. Saunders, non-tendered by Arizona, will likely cost 7 million or so one a one-year deal, while Jackson hit free agency at just the right time and will likely fetch a three-year deal at 30+ million. I doubt the Red Sox will want to commit that kind of years while they have four starters under contract for a number of years already.

Regardless, things are shaping up nicely. Bring it on, Ft. Meyers.

Why can’t *we* get guys like that?

The Tigers, who staved off irrelevancy tonight by downing the Rangers 5-2, have a man named Victor Martinez manning their DH spot on a regular basis. You might remember him– he was the rock of the Red Sox clubhouse who did nothing but produce during his stay in Boston. While trying the game with a home run in the bottom of the fourth tonight, Martinez struggled around the bases, obviously in pain from the swing.

After the game, when asked about his availability for Game Four tomorrow night, V-Mart replied with “The only way I won’t play tomorrow is if I wake up and I’m dead.” Ignoring the obvious physiological problems with that statement (unless he was referring to the possibility he might turn into a Zombie, in which case touche’, my friend), it succinctly highlights one of the most glaring issues with this year’s Red Sox team. J.D. Drew claimed to have sprained his finger swinging a bat, which is quite honestly baffling to me. Carl Crawford, mired in clearly the worst season of his career, missed a doubleheader against Baltimore late in September with a stiff neck.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’ve any idea how severe either of those injuries actually were. What I will say, however, is that Victor Martinez isn’t blowing smoke. Short of a case of the deadsies, Victor Martinez will wake up tomorrow, throw batting practice to his son, and play in a playoff game for the Detroit Tigers.

With the apparent Fight of the Epstein nearing reality, it bears mentioning that the Boston Red Sox are in line for an overhaul. Personnel, talent, but perhaps most importantly with respect to their

attitude. Ben Cherington’s first order of business might be to demand accountability.

Flatline

I’d start this by saying something along the lines of “well, now that the dust has settled…”, but that would imply that this team played with enough of a pulse to kick any up in the first place. I can’t say anything which hasn’t already been said with regard to how September played out; they didn’t even go down in flames— they drowned in three inches of tepid bathwater. The fact that Terry Francona willingly removed himself from arguably the cushiest managerial post in all of baseball speaks volumes about the behind-closed-doors dynamics of a team which never truly was.

Much of the pent-up evils from this year bled out in the wash that was the final four weeks of the season. John Lackey, the overpriced meatballer and absolutely deserving lightning-rod for criticism had apparently filed divorce papers with his wife. The same wife who, earlier in the year, was revealed to be fighting breast cancer. We obviously don’t know jack-squat about that relationship, but there is no viable way to spin that story into something resembling a redeeming quality. Our starting lineup in the pivotal 162nd game of the year included a man who sprained his finger swinging a baseball bat (J.D. Drew, and the physics of that injury still don’t quite add up) and a rookie catcher with a total of nine innings under his belt as a starting catcher. Should the season have been pushed to a 163rd game, we were weighing the pros and cons of the aforementioned John “Pariah” Lackey, Kyle “Why am I here?” Weiland, and Tim “Wake me up in time for Matlock” Wakefield.

Not exactly fighting from a point of strength.

When you can look back on your season and say that, looking at the entire pitching staff, the most valuable man was Alfredo Aceves, your season did not go well. That’s taking nothing away from Aceves because he did indeed have a phenomenal season; it’s an indictment on the rest of the staff. John Lackey did not pitch like a man intent on fulfilling the obligations of an $80+ million dollar contract, Daisuke Matsuzaka (remember him?) somehow became even more of an albatross, and Matt Albers turned into… well, Matt Albers.

The fact that they didn’t make the playoffs is shocking, there is no getting around that. A collection of all-stars and a laser show so disastrously choked that now even Mets fans can, and should, make fun of Neil Diamond Red Sox Nation. Now, with the rubble of disaster squarely in our rear-view, where do we go from here? We appear to have our scapegoat in Francona, though one’s willing acceptance of that role gives it less clout. Say what you will about his tendencies, but the man brought two world championships to a city annually resigned to heartbreaking defeat.

Should Epstein follow? He orchestrated the infamous Nomar trade in 2004 which changed the mentality of the eventual World Series champions, and outside of shipping Daniel Murphy for the ghost of Eric Gagne, his trade transactions have panned out. Free agency, however, has been a horror story. Looking only at the current roster, there are seven (7!) contracts, most of them sizeable, that the team unquestionably regrets:

  1. Daisuke Matsuzaka – 6 years, $52 million (plus ~$50 million posting fee). At a 42 pitch/inning ratio, Matsuzaka seems determined to somehow recreate the magic from his 250 pitch game as an amateur.
  2. J. D. Drew – 5 years, $70 million. Before this year, Drew had been eerily consistent throughout his tenure with the Sox, while playing very strong defense in right. However, his consistency was not the kind of consistency you expect out of a $14 million/year player, no matter how good his defense is. Also, I’m not convinced he can emote.
  3. John Lackey – 5 years, $82.5 millon. He doesn’t like it here, we don’t want him here, and he just completed the worst season statistically in the history of the Boston Red Sox. Also, he appears to be a mouth-breather.
  4. Bobby Jenks – 2 years, $12 million. He’s just… fat. Fat and athletic/uninjured do not often mesh. Jenks was no exception.
  5. Mike Cameron – 2 years, $15.5 million. Cameron is and always has been a nice guy. Doesn’t change the fact that for a .200 BA, I would have cost significantly less than $15.5 million.
  6. Dennys Reyes – 1 year, $900,000. Reyes was paid nine-hundred thousand dollars for an inning and two thirds of work. $180,000 per out just ain’t gonna cut it.
  7. *Carl Crawford – 7 years, $142 million. Crawford, short term, is absolutely on this list. This season was abysmal by any measure, and markedly the worst of his career. However, this season notwithstanding, he is an electrifying player, capable of altering opposing game plans with his speed. The jury is still out on this contract, but he’ll need to add a ton of value in 2012 to redeem himself.

Not making the cut on this list is the recently off-the-books Julio Lugo, who completed a tidy 4 year, $36 million contract in 2010. His defense was terrible, his bat was possibly worse, and he looked suspiciously like Dobby from the Harry Potter series.

But we can’t sit here stewing about those deals; something has to be done for the future.

All indications seem to point to John Lackey having thrown his final pitch in a Red Sox uniform. He doesn’t want to be here, and we perhaps want him here even less. Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe presents an interesting proposal in swapping one awful contract for another, with the two viable options being Carlos Zambrano and Barry Zito. While Zambrano is feast-or-famine, the much more preferable option in that shakeup would be Zito. The left-hander, while admittedly not very good, is much less likely to physically attack the ownership.

Matsuzaka’s Tommy John surgery makes it seem unlikely they’ll count on much out of the Emperor of Walks. Even if he managed to speed his recovery along and push to be back mid-May, do the Red Sox really plan on making him a huge part of their rotation next year? If we have no in-house options (Weiland, Doubront, or Alex Wilson being the most likely candidates), there are plenty of injury-reclamation projects out there that might be better than a Healthy-suzaka. Bedard again? Brandon Webb? Edwin Jackson is going to be a FA, and Fatbathia is set to opt-out, so if John Henry decides to open the checkbook again, there are splashes to be made.

With Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick poised to fill the void left by the ghost of J.D(L). Drew, there aren’t a ton of position options open for next year. Scutaro’s $6 million option looks to be a lock to exercise, as Iglesias hasn’t demonstrated he’s ready to step in offensively. Aviles coming off the bench was one of Boston’s only productive options following the All-Star break, so look for them to toss him an offer as well. The interesting question is going to be Jason Varitek who, in limited playing time this year, was passable. It remains to be seen if his intangibles combined with his game-calling are enough to merit the Sox using a roster spot on him.

As an aside, I know Ortiz wants a multi-year deal, but that just should not happen. Sure, he had a monster year, but he’s going to be 36 next year. Do we really want to be locked into paying a 37 year old David Ortiz $12 million in 2013? If we can talk him into a one year, $12 million deal with an option on the 2nd with a $3 million buyout, I’d be happy.

The bullpen is another story. Putting aside Jonathan Papelbon for a moment, there are only two untouchables in Daniel Bard and Alfredo “Pastaman” Aceves. Wheeler, Albers, and Miller are all soon to be unemployed, and if I had my choice Morales and Atchison would be safe. If Papelbon returns, 7-8-9 are set going into Spring Training, so filling in the remaining parts might take on a “throw a bunch against the wall and see what sticks” mentality.

The final piece that needs to be addressed before the team ships down to Ft. Meyers is the attitude in the clubhouse, which will ideally be set by the new manager. The “Cowboy Up” and lovable idiots mentality from the first two championships devolved to a pronounced detachment and complacency. When push came to shove this year, the Red Sox folded like a paper crane (sorry). We need a manager who is willing to yell, willing to upset the delicate sensibilities of even the most pampered of players, in order to light a fire under a team in the thick of a pennant race. Francona hadn’t been faced with that kind of apathy before, and his handling of September 2011 wasn’t his shining moment.

This team will compete next year. There is too much talent for them not to. But they’ll need more than talent alone to make it into October; they’ll need to want to get into October.

Next Stop: Fort Meyers

I’ll have a eulogy for the season tomorrow, any prolonged thought on the subject right now just makes me want to crack one-liners about Buck Showalter. Also, it’s two in the morning, and I switched my shift so I could come in early,  in anticipation of having a playoff game to watch 14 hours from now.

So, in a word, September was a slow, painful death-spiral around the drain. The last 5 minutes of the season, however, were gut-wrenching and mystifying.

See you tomorrow. So begineth the off-season.