Saturday, December 29, 2012

The 2013 Boston Red Sox: Bringing and Buying Character Back

"A license to love, insurance to hold.
Melts all your memories, change into gold.
His eyes are like angels, his heart is cold."

Clearly something needed to be done, and as the last out of the 2012 Red Sox was being recorded in Yankee Stadium, on the heels of an eight-game losing streak, one of the most critical off-seasons in the history of this franchise begun.

After the worst season for the Red Sox since the Vietnam War era, the prophecy of ownership trying to run the Red Sox was finally realized. After labeling the hated Yankees as the "Evil Empire," they became the very same enterprise. Ten years ago, after winning the first world title in 86 years for the franchise, it was thought that this ownership group was almost sent from the divine. Fearless entrepreneurs who would stop at no cost to resurrect a team who always had the fans, but couldn't muster the resources ($$).

Now, if you ask a Sox fan what they think of the ownership group, they will sing a much different tune. No more are their names heralded in the same regard as other ownership tycoons like Tom Yawkey or Bob Kraft. Fans will tell you that they have become out of touch with what the fans want in their team/organization. That they have become more concerned with their newest child in the Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool. Or, they will liken them to money-grubby capitalists looking to pry every dollar they can until they decide to sell the team (to put this into perspective, the team was bought by the John Henry-led group in 2002 for $660 million, and last year, a investing group led by Magic Johnson bought the Dodgers for $2 billion...needless to say the profit margin for if/when Henry does decide to sell the team will be massive).

So what is there to be done about this situation? First, what needed to be done on the part of the ownership group, especially by its head baseball official Larry Lucchino, was to trust the people that they put into their respective positions to do their respective jobs, and while reserving the right to have the last say on matters dealing with the team, they would allow their baseball people to do their jobs without any interference. Clearly this was not the case on arguably the biggest and worst decision that was made by giving Bobby Valentine, someone Lucchino anointed because of his lack of trust in the post-Theo Epstein regime that was led by rookie GM Ben Cherington (he was co-GM with Jed Hoyer in December of '08, but that only lasted until January of '06).

Cherington had been groomed to become the GM before he was a co-GM and in the six years leading up to Theo Epstein becoming the president of the Cubs. If he couldn't be trusted to find a manager, then why was he put in charge as the general manager? That question still remains a mystery, but if anyone was a winner after last season, it was Cherington, who watched as Lucchino's guy deep-sixed any chance of the Sox contending, and also masterminded a deal with the free-spending Dodgers to rid themselves of close to a quarter of a billion dollars in future contract dollars.

As this off-season continues to make its way into 2013, not all of the pieces of the puzzle have been put into place, but after the few moves they have made, one common denominator seems to be a constant: Character.

The so-called "toxic" clubhouse that first reared its head to the general public at the end of the 2011 collapse went into full gear under Valentine's watch, leading to him eventually not caring about his position or what people thought of the job he was doing altogether. The first step in this process was the aforementioned Dodgers trade, ridding themselves not only of money, but also Josh Beckett, one of the patriarchs of the "chicken and beer" scandal, and someone who many believe were steering their two young franchise pitchers (Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz) towards the dark side, i.e. the chicken eating, beer-drinking side. While Beckett was integral in not only his first World Series title with the Marlins in '03, and as a dominant ace in the Sox' 2007 crown, his legacy has forever been tainted by this controversy, and while it's not steroids, this, and his demeanor en general, was plenty to get him run out of town.

The Sox cast their first stone in their re-building process by hiring manager John Farrell. Farrell of course was the pitching coach for the Sox up until 2011, when he was hired by Toronto to become their manager. Boston, and most notably, Cherington, have been trying to get him for the past two seasons. Farrell was reluctant to join up last year (probably citing how horrible the 2011 season ended and how bad it looked like 2012 was going to be), but the Sox finally got their man (although it cost them Mike Aviles, which continues the seemingly never-ending revolving door at shortstop). Farrell is a player's manager...not a 1980s player, but a 2013 player, and that's extremely important. What became apparent almost from the start was that Bobby V was over his head in terms of responsibility and in terms of how to handle the current and future major leaguers. He was simply out of touch and couldn't find, or didn't want to find, a way to right that ship. Farrell should be a breath of fresh air given his aforementioned compatibility with players in the clubhouse, and also for his knowledge of how things not only run behind the scenes in Boston, but also on the back pages of papers and on sports radio, an underrated tool that has shipped many a player and manager alike out of town. Once they found a manager, the Sox then went out to re-tool

What the Sox set themselves up to do this winter was to try and recoup similar talent at the positions left by the three big names they traded (first base, outfield, #3 pitcher). Their first signing was Jonny Gomes from Oakland for two years/$10 million. While Gomes is a serviceable player who has been more known as a platoon player in recent history, what seems to be a unanimous view about Gomes is this: He's got character, he's great in the clubhouse, he's not going to cause any problems...this seemed to be the theme of the off-season.

The length of contract also seemed to be a driving point this year when it came to free agents, as no player signed has received over a three year pact. After signing David Ross to both be a backup catcher, and to make it plausible to move either Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavarnway via trade, the Sox made their first real "splashes" by signing Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino within a week of each other to three year deals worth almost identical money (Napoli was 3 years/$39 million, Victorino: 3 years/$38 million).

Update (2/14): Because of a hip injury that doesn't seem to be completely healed, the Napoli deal went from 3 years and $39 million to 1 year and $5 million...quite the fall-off) 

Napoli was supposed to be a major get for the Sox. A right-sided hitter with a proclivity to pull the ball, almost a must for any righty playing 81 games at Fenway. Napoli also is a catcher in addition to being a first baseman, further solidifying the depth at that position. As of right now though, Napoli hasn't been officially introduced yet due to a lingering hip issue that was brought up during his physical. While this continues to linger, the Sox have been linked to Adam LaRoche in case Napoli doesn't end up working out. LaRoche would not be a bad consolation prize at all, coming off of a season where he had a career high 34 homers and his second career 100 RBI season and won a gold glove at first. What the Sox are likely to do is to offer the three year contract Napoli is supposed to get to LaRoche, who has made it clear that while he wants to stay in Washington where he has played the last two seasons, but he also is seeking three years, something the Nationals have seemed to be unwilling to do thus far.

Perhaps an even better example of paying for character was the signing of Victorino. The "Flyin' Hawaiian's" deal was almost laughed at by baseball executives, saying that after one of the worst offensive seasons of his career, he would have been able to command maybe $7-8 million a year at best, but almost $13 million? What were they thinking? Well, it's called paying for character. The Sox needed to woo Victorino by throwing a little more money at him than other teams could or would be willing to. Sure, it's a Yankee philosophy to throw money at a problem, but I feel like because $13 million is not as giant of a piece of the payroll pie as it would be to a team like, say, Oakland, and because the Sox are at least attempting to patch together a team that was engulfed in dissension within the ranks and bring some energy to a club that sorely needs it, fans will not be as quick to complain about Victorino as they were to Carl Crawford, who, while never really getting a chance to settle into left field in Boston, made $40 million over the last two years, and while showing flashes of the brilliance we saw in Tampa, was generally sub-par by Crawford's standards, and mostly injury-plagued.

With the signing of Ryan Dempster, the Sox may have put the last touches on their free agency bonanza. Yet another high character guy, the Sox needed to add an additional $1.5 million to their original $25 million, two year deal in order to get him away from the Royals (yes, we're having to outbid the Royals now...these are crazy times). Dempster stabilizes the middle of the rotation so the Sox will have at least a presentable 1-2-3. John Lackey was deemed to be that #3 that they are currently receiving in Dempster, but his first tenure with the Sox has been nothing short of a train wreck.

Last week, the Sox traded for Joel Hanrahan (and likely fleeced Pittsburgh in the process), and from day one, he will be the closer despite having a healthy (or at least as healthy as he's going to be) Andrew Bailey. Hanrahan is known for his high 90s fastball and has effective in the closer role for the Pirates, with 76 saves combined in the two seasons he served as the 9th inning man. Once again, low ego wins the race. One could argue that Alfredo Aceves should have had a chance to compete for the closer role if he didn't talk and complain so much. Do your job and shut up about it...that could be the team motto of the 2013 Red Sox (and probably should be every year really).

Are the Sox going to win the AL East and make the World Series? Probably not (although that would be an incredible story), but you will see and hear about less drama going on with this team, which plagued this team for a season and a month. What Sox fans need to just hope is that our collective fate with this team is determined on the field and not off of it, and really, then we can just get back to enjoying baseball, and not concern ourselves with all the other crap that has been unearthed about this team.

Go Sox! Peace.