[While I've written at length about my aversion for much of what passes for major league baseball, surprisingly, this summer, I've found myself watching more Red Sox baseball than I have for the past four or five years. If I'm not actively consumed by the images on the screen, I've got Jerry (Trupiano) and Joe (Castiglione) on in the background, while I'm doing some work. Because of this, I've developed my own opinions about the 2006 version of New England's boys of summer. Not surprisingly, I find myself at odds with much of what's written, or talked about on sports talk radio.
Here is my "state of the nation" report and indictment of much of what I see is wrong with this team. For much of the summer, this team has lulled most New Englanders to sleep, especially since many have been mollified by the World Championship in 2004.--JB]
Headed south...in a hand basket
The Red Sox season is over. After 121 games, the Sox, while still 17 games above .500 and still within striking distance of the “Evil Empire,” don’t need to be bothered with printing playoff tickets this year. After last October’s train wreck against Chicago that might not be a bad thing.
Francona (more on him, later) and Co. have hit the proverbial banana peel in their season and are reeling. Last night's debacle exposed them for the playoff poseurs they are, courtesy of the team that beat them on the field, but more importantly, have beaten them in the general manager’s suite.
Theo Epstein, who was the talk of the town when he maneuvered his chess pieces at in 2004, being dubbed, “the boy wonder,” has seen reality set in, as experienced by most of the other 28 members of his elite fraternity. While at least Epstein gets to breath the heady air that comes with well-heeled owners, he still is a distant second compared to the cash available in Brian Cashman’s player acquisition account.
More than any other group of modern day sports fan, the legions of New Englanders and the many other bandwagon riders from the rest of the country who call themselves members of Red Sox Nation (a fairly recent moniker, one I never heard uttered back when I was rooting for Yaz, the Conigliaro brothers, Ray Culp and Sonny Siebert), these folks live in a constant state of delusion. Now a tenuous grasp on reality isn’t new for Sox fans. Most of us who grew up with the team, pre-2004, never could be accused of being fair weather fans, as Boston baseball lived in the fog of fading playoff hopes and late-season collapses. Those older than me, remember the days when the Sox were perennial second division members, living at the back of the pack with perennial losers like the old Washington Senators and Kansas City Athletics, teams that rarely if ever found themselves in a meaningful game come August, or September.
Enough of ancient history. There is more than sufficient fodder to discuss with the 2006 edition of the Sox. It has been said that pitching is 90 percent of the game. Whether it’s 90, or even 75 or 80 percent, the sorry group of pitchers that pass for a major league staff in Boston this summer are a sad assortment to hitch ¾ of your hopes and fortunes to.
With the exception of Curt Schilling, who looks wrung out and at the end of the line, bags under his eyes and all, the Sox lack no other starter remotely resembling consistency. Overpaid and over hyped Josh Beckett seems to have reached the wall, now that his innings have reached the 150 mark. Beckett, despite overpowering stuff, has a history of running out of gas around the 150-180 inning mark (his career high is 178, coming into this year). That’s not a track record worthy of the Sox’ recent contract extension.
Yesterday, Francona ran household name, Jason Johnson, out to the bump in game one. This is a guy so valuable to his team that after the game, he was cut lose, being designated for assignment after another substandard outing. While his 3-12 mark and 6.35 ERA are certainly the marks of a guy worthy of the scrapheap, why would you as a manager pin your hopes for October on someone this ineffective? While Epstein has made some decent moves in the past, his recent track record offers ample ammunition for scrutiny.
Since the trading deadline has come and gone, all I’ve heard emanating from the lips of Theo and his apologists are that there are no pitchers available. No shit, Theo! That’s because Cory Lidle was snatched up by the Yankees and future hall-of-famer, Greg Maddux, is now donning Dodger blue and pitching like he did a decade ago. A casual glance at the standings should have given Cleo (I mean, Theo) an idea what teams might be in the market to dump salary, or part with pitching for some prospects. Speaking of prospects, I’m sick and tired of hearing all the talk about Epstein not wanting to “mortgage the future for the present.” The future is all speculative. The present is that you are sniffing the Yankees’ hindquarters and battling with Chicago and Minnesota for the chance of playing in the post-season. There's no guarantee that you'll ever be this close, next year, or for years to come. A more experienced and skilled GM would have recognized that and not have been so enamored with the likes of Lester, Hansen and Delcarmen, who’ve done nothing of much value at the major league level other than light up the radar gun and get hit, in Hansen’s case and give his team 120-pitch, five-inning outings consistently, in Lester’s case. Delcarmen, if he had any real value, would be able to do more than fill a middle relief role that traditionally had been the last vestiges of the careers for 35+ pitchers on the downside of their careers, not a so-called prospect.
Contrast the Red Sox pitching, which now is forced to rely on geriatric left-handers like David Wells to chew up innings, with wild card contenders, Minnesota and Chicago. With Johann Santana pitching 7 innings, or more, in nearly 70 percent of his starts and former ace, Brad Radke (who is pitching with a torn labrum, btw), giving them solid starts of late, not to mention rookie phenom Francisco Liriano (currently on the DL), along with a #4 starter like Carlos Silva, the Twins have the superior pitching. Chicago counters with Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia, not a bad threesome to pin their hopes on for repeating as World Champions, if they can win the race to the finish with Minnesota.
Back to Francona. This is a guy whose handling of pitchers makes me look back fondly on the Grady Little years. Anytime any of his starters begins getting a whiff of 100 pitches, Francona’s into his bullpen, chewing it up, not recognizing that you might need some of these guys for the stretch-run. Francona’s been doing this since April. Particularly with Schilling and Beckett. How many times has he taken Schilling out after six, when he wasn’t at, or barely over the 100-pitch mark? And then there’s Beckett. A 24-year-old guy who throws 97 ought to be able to give you regular outings of 115 to 120 pitches. Instead, they baby this guy, which with his track record, might be a good thing. This only furthers my post so far about the Sox. If you have a guy as your #2 guy that can’t consistently get you into the 7th, you’ve got some problems, especially when the guys at the back of your rotation are 43-year-old David Wells and Jon “I’ll give you five innings” Lester.
I want to say something about the entire philosophy of pitching at the big league level that’s totally fucked. Looking back at historical prototypes for pitchers like Schilling and Beckett, you naturally settle on Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. Ryan, particularly early in his career, routinely had outings where his pitch count was in the 150 to 175 range. He pitched several ball games where he threw well over 200 pitches. This is the same guy that was still throwing in the mid-90s at the age of 45! Clemens’ career was very similar, although he didn’t have the pitch counts that Ryan did. It all comes down to how these guys were developed.
The modern pitchers, guys like Hansen, Delcarmen, Lester and even Papelbon (who in his current role of throwing 20 pitches per outing and racking up 80+ innings for the year is an absolute waste of his Clemens-esque talent), are handled with kid gloves at their minor league stops in Portland and Pawtucket. If you want to use Papelbon out of the pen (stupid and not anything I’d ever support as manager), then get Hansen up pitch-wise so he can give you six, seven innings per outing. Personally, I think Hansen is a bust, but that’s just me. Unlike many Sox-watchers, I’ve actually coached players and made personnel moves at a level above T-ball. I know what 19, 20 and 21 year-old arms are capable of. Hell, 37-year-old John Carriero (of Patriot Mutual fame) could probably go out and give the Sox more quality innings than 75 percent of the current crop of “prospects.”
I’ve gone on longer than I wanted to, but I wanted to weigh in and bring some reality to this never-ending dysfunctional dialogue that goes on about the Red Sox. The Sox pitching sucks, you can’t contend with two starters, Terry Francona is a sorry handler of pitchers (as well as managing a game) and Theo ain’t all that the Nation thinks he is.
Give it another two weeks and see if I’m not right about this. Hell, give it another three days and I think you might begin to get on board with what I’m telling ‘ya. Unless you are as delusional as most other Sox’ fans that is.