Thursday, November 03, 2005

Now What?: A Red Sox Post-Mortem

The departure of Theo Epstein brings to an end what has been, at least for this Red Sox fan, a profoundly disappointing season. Furthermore, this announcement, coupled with the departure of Assistant GM (and logical successor) Josh Byrnes for Arizona last week doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence heading into the off-season. And if David Wells and Manny Ramirez get what they want, they’ll soon be following Theo and Josh out of town.

So how did we get here? Let’s examine the major changes between the team that was on the field for Game 4 of the World Series, and the one that took the field this past April:

Shortstop: Energetic, defensively sound Orlando Cabrera is replaced by Edgar Renteria, who disappointed offensively, and committed an egregious 30 errors.

Outfield/Bench: Reserves Gabe Kapler and Dave Roberts, good for speed and defense off the bench, are replaced by Jay Payton, who once competed with Benny Agbayani and Timo Perez for at-bats while on the Mets, and was profoundly miserable in the role of 4th Outfielder for the Red Sox from Day 1. First baseman (and defensive wizard) Doug Mientkiewicz is also shipped out of town for a bag of baseballs (to replace the one from Game 4 of the World Series that he refused to return) and a stiff corpse to warm the bench in Pawtucket. Middle infielder Pokey Reese, a superb defender, also leaves via free agency.

Rotation: Pedro and Derek Lowe walk as free agents, replaced by Matt Clement (a power-pitcher who’s yet to fulfill his potential), 42-year old David Wells, and reclamation project Wade Miller.

Despite Clement’s potential, only Renteria seemed to be a possible upgrade. That, of course, doesn’t happen.

Keep in mind that Curt Schilling starts the season on the DL too. When he comes back, he gets shelled in a few appearances, and then heads back to the DL. Somehow the Sox stay in contention, largely because the Yankees have a terrible start, and the Orioles cool off in a hurry after a hot April and May.

Joining Schilling on the DL is closer Keith Foulke and off-season acquisition Wade Miller, while many of the stalwarts of the past few years (Millar, Bellhorn, Embree) are seriously struggling. The following key moves are made in-season:

In: 2B Tony Graffanino (acquired from KC), OF Gabe Kapler (summoned from Japan), RP Jon Papelbon (called up from the minor leagues), RP Mike Stanton (acquired from Washington)

Out: 2B Mark Bellhorn (released), RP Alan Embree (released). Both end up with the Yankees, funny enough.

Things looked good through the summer, as the Sox held a steady lead in the AL East. Even as the Yankees began to rally in August, there wasn’t much to worry about, since Schilling and Foulke were expected to round into form any day. Well, that never happened. Schilling struggled in the closer role, then struggled some more after being returned to the rotation. Foulke self-imploded, forcing Mike Timlin into the closer role. Meanwhile, Jon Papelbon was the only reliever who was remotely dependable at this point, and games (and the division lead) started slipping away. The Yanks finally took over first in the final two weeks, and the Sox seemed content to wander ahead and try and secure a wild card berth. Which they did, on the final day of the season, after New York clinched the division at Fenway, and the Cleveland Indians self-destructed in the final week of the season. It was a predictable collapse, in hindsight. The bullpen was shaky, and they weren’t getting much production from the lineup – outside of Manny and Papi. In many ways, it’s a surprise they were even in contention at that point of the season. As has been pointed out by the likes of Simmons, they were a .500 team if not for the efforts of Papi Ortiz. And he’s right. It’s rare in a sport like baseball where one player can almost single-handedly lift a team. You see it in basketball all the time (in fact, Allen Iverson’s entire career in Philly is the perfect example), since a star player will play 40 out of 48 minutes, and can conceivably touch the ball on every offensive possession; but in baseball, where your star hitter will bat 4-5 times a game, it’s much more difficult. This makes it all the more impressive when a player like Ortiz (or Barry Bonds, the other example that springs to mind) can pull it off.

That brings us to the playoffs. While some will point to Graffanino’s error in Game 2 as a catalyst for the Boston collapse, the fact is they were outplayed by a better team. They got hammered in Game 1, as Matt Clement (who struggled all second half) brought nothing to the table. They had plenty of chances to come back in Game 2, and couldn’t do it. The final innings of Game 3 was one of the most frustrating things for me to see. Aside from Papi and Manny, it didn’t seem like the Sox cared that they were mere outs away from elimination. They were going through the motions. It wasn’t a surprise that they went out in three straight. Frankly, there’s a good argument to be made that they overachieved to get to the playoffs in the first place. This is what bothered me the most. If the players didn’t seem to care, why should I? Yet I couldn’t help it. I was in a legitimate funk after the sweep.

Anyway, the off-season got off to a rough start too; Manny Ramirez once again demanded a trade, while Assistant GM Josh Byrnes left for Arizona. Now Theo. Just hours before his contract ran out, he announced he was leaving. So mere days before free agency begins, the Sox ownership are left holding the bag with no GM or Assistant GM in place, the future of the rest of their front office staff in question, and players upset with Theo’s departure. While searching for a GM, negotiations with free agents like Johnny Damon are on hold (which might not be a bad thing), and the organization seems directionless while it sorts out if 2006 is going to be a rebuilding, reloading, or contending year, and who’s going to be steering the ship.

Back to Theo for a second. There’s no doubt that he’s a talented GM, and made some great moves to build the 2004 championship team. It’s been said before, but bears repeating: he also lucked out a lot with the moves that fell through. He deserves full marks for acquiring the likes of Schilling and Cabrera, but if the de facto Manny/Nomar for ARod/Ordonez swap goes through in the winter of 2003, they don’t win the series. Not with Magglio’s knees giving out, and ARod playing the post-season with his hands wrapped around his neck. They certainly don’t acquire Cabrera’s energy and defense, and maybe not even Mientkiewicz’ glove at the deadline. So while we don’t want to take away anything he did, it bears mention that he was $15 million away from pulling the trigger on a trade that never allows him to make the crucial deadline deal. He also deserves scrutiny for the off-season moves after the championship year. With the possible upgrade from Lowe to Wells, you can’t really defend any of them. Renteria’s a liability, Clement bombed after a spectacular first half, Jay Payton pouted his way out of town, with the Sox getting nothing in return, and I don’t think Theo himself even remembers who they acquired for Mientkiewicz. Somehow, he’s completely escaped the wrath of fans and the media for making these moves. Maybe it’s because of the post-championship honeymoon period, but I don’t see any reason these moves should escape scrutiny.

Is Theo a good GM? I think so. I liked a lot of his moves, and while some didn’t work out (Kim, Jeremy Giambi, etc.) he was certainly willing to gamble and take risks, while also avoiding the urge to constantly tinker. That’s a rare trait amongst GMs. There are some good prospects coming through the system, but none are true blue-chippers. So while I think Theo was valuable, he’s certainly not irreplaceable.

So why am I worried? Two reasons:

• His departure alienated a number of players, who have all spoken out in the past few days. From rookies like Papelbon to clubhouse leaders Schilling and Varitek, nobody seems happy, and all the blame is being directed towards the owners.

• I’m not confident that the Sox will hire someone effective to replace him.

The second point isn’t completely warranted; though the Sox history is littered with failed GMs like Lou Gorman and Dan Duquette, these owners seem different. They’ve made a lot of bold; good moves that previous owners wouldn’t have had the foresight to make. Still, it’s a hunch. With Byrnes gone, there’s no heir apparent within the organization. They could promote internally (like they did with Theo), go for an established GM (Kevin Towers being the leading candidate), or hire a first time GM from outside the organization. There’s a lot of uncertainty regardless of the decision they make, and with the impending roster overhaul, that just compounds things. Theo would have provided stability in one area of the organization, now that’s gone too.

So where should the Sox go from here? First, they need to accept that they’re not going to win the 2006 World Series - in fact, right now I'd place their chances behind those of Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto, New York, Oakland and Los Angeles. (And Minnesota's a couple of roster moves away from leapfrogging them too). And that's just in the American League.

They should be building their team with an eye towards 2007 and 2008, when their prospects should begin making an impact. There also aren’t enough impact free agents to fix the pitching staff. If I were to hired as GM tomorrow, here’s what I would do:

Manny Ramirez
Don’t jump into a trade. If you get a package containing at least one blue chip prospect (such as Lastings Milledge of the Mets or Conor Jackson of the D-Backs), then listen. Don’t take on older players. The rumored Sox-Backs-Angels trade that would net Boston Darin Erstad and Troy Glaus would set the organization back. Not only do those players not replace Manny’s production, but they’re on the downside of their careers, meaning it’s likely they never will. Additionally, since Glaus would likely play first (so Youk can play third), where does Erstad fit in? Can he still play Centerfield? Effectively?

If you don’t get any blue-chippers, hold out. Let this drag out into the spring if necessary. You can’t afford to dump a player of Ramirez’ talent without getting something (potentially) comparable in return.

David Wells
Give him his wish, and try to get a serviceable pitcher or decent prospect from the Padres. He has maybe a year left, and his back's a liability to go out at any time.

Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar
They’re as good as gone, anyway.

Johnny Damon
Let him walk. He’s going to get a 4-5 year deal somewhere, and likely won’t be worth the money anymore by year 3 at the latest. Save the money and sign a stopgap like Dave Roberts. Of course, with Theo gone the odds have jumped through the roof that the owners will sign him for whatever he wants, simply to avoid more bad PR.

Stay away from BJ Ryan. Craig Hansen will be ready to close in a year’s time anyway. Move Papelbon to the rotation (Clement, Schilling, Wakefield, Arroyo, Papelbon) would be respectable, and search out players you can sign at a good value to solidify the bullpen.

So what do I think will actually happen? My money says that Damon resigns, Ramirez holds out into the new year and is eventually shipped out on the eve of spring training, and nothing much happens with the pitching staff (save a Wells trade to the west coast) and whoever they hire a first-timer for GM (meaning no Kevin Towers).

We’ll see how things shake out over the next few weeks. All I know is that after the past season – few weeks especially – this Sox fan needs some good news for a change.


At 5:58 PM, Blogger Kevin Kimmis said...

I know you're going to threaten my life for saying this, but:

Who cares?

I'm not saying I don't, if only because it would be nice to see Theo land in Washington in the hopes some of his luck/acumen helps my favourite team. (And wouldn't Johnny Cromagnon look great patrolling centre field in the Nat's new ballpark?)

But really, the BoSox have the same problem that the Yankees have: A bloated payroll filled primarily with a combination of overpaid superstars (or if you prefer, chokers) and veterans for whom the expiry date was sometime last century; a starting rotation that spent more time on the DL than on the mound, just started collecting Social Security, or both; and a bullpen that is beginning to thin out at the same time its closer is failing. About the only thing the Sox have going for them is that they didn't trade away every conceivable prospect to sign pitchers whose backs are as fragile as my self-esteem.

Comparatively, the rest of the league appears in better shape because they haven't been fuelled by the markets these two teams play in, their fans and the media that cover them, all of whom seem to be competing in a race to the bottom to see who's more obessively compulsive. (I'm surprised no one's gone through Theo's garbage in order to discern, through a literal reading of tea leaves, why he really decided to leave.)

The only good thing that can come from all this next season is that teams with payrolls at or below the luxury tax beat Boston and New York out for the playoff spots their payrolls have cemented for them the last few years.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the best way to achieve the fever pitch (no pun intended) of last year's playoffs is to let them both rot for awhile in penance for the excess and hubris of the last three years, allow the embers to cool, and then let them come back reborn as teams that don't vaguely resemble their current bloated Jabba-esque forms. That way, when the rivalry is rekindled, maybe people who aren't invested in it the way I am can root for Boston without feeling like I'm siding with a slighly smaller, less evil version of the Yankees. (Yankee-Light, anyone?)

At 6:04 PM, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

We are in complete agreement, except for one thing: BJ Ryan. Sure, it depends on what money he wants. But he's been gold as a reliever the past two years.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Kimmis, you really need to get over your anger with the Red Sox. It isn't The Nation's fault that the East St. Louis Cardinals are becoming the new Atlanta Braves, or that you can't seem to come to grips with the fact that the "Boston Sports Guy" likes to write about, um, Boston.

The Red Sox should do what Oakland is doing. Dump players for prospects, and then, unlike Oakland, pay to keep them when they hit their prime.

At 6:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are all you guys Boston transplants? Good analysis, nice blog. I listened to John Henry on EEI at 5pm tonight and he is a very likable guy. The frustration for me stems from the Sox finally getting it right and setting a plan and executing it. That is what the Patriots have done and it pays dividends; that is what the Sox did until egos got in the way.

At 7:05 PM, Blogger Kevin Kimmis said...

Oh anonymous comment poster, if you only knew this was a bunch of boys from Edmonton -- two of whom (Andy and Alex) are rabid Sox fans and one of whom (Avi) is one of the most knowledgable baseball person I've ever met.

I'll also agree with you that the ownership group is another edge Boston has over the Yankees; unlike the Yankees, they seem to know what they're doing. But the man with the plan, as you say, has flown the coop -- so what is their plan now? Abboud's advice certainly seems as sound a plan as any I've heard.

Avi, I thought the Billy Beane approach to closers was to let them go once they develop a good rep because they're too expensive to keep and another one will undoubtedly come along. If so, why do you think B.J. Ryan is worth a look (assuming the price is right)?

As for your two cents, Grabia ... well, that's about what they're worth. By that I don't mean the advice in the second paragraph, which I see echoing much of what Abboud said in his post, but rather the first paragraph.

For one, I'm not in love with the Cards as much as you think. In fact, the only team I'm totally irrational about these days is the Pittsburgh Steelers -- although if the Nats ever make the playoffs, all bets are off.

I also think you're right about your Atlanta comparison, in the sense that they are becoming victims of their success in a relatively weak division. The only real difference is the length of their futility -- if the Cards win 14 division titles in a row and only one WS, I'm picking the Brewers over the Cards as my second-favourite baseball team.

You just don't like my comparing the Yankees to the Sox because you're a die-hard Boston fan. Too bad, because the similarities are there for anyone willing to see them.

And what I'm more tired of is the hype of the rivallry -- which is why I hope it cools off for a long enough time so that I and the rest of the baseball fans who don't root for either Boston or the Yankees can enjoy it again when it reappears.

As for Simmons: Well, you know I'm mad at you Bill, but I can't stay mad at you.

The Patriots, on the other hand....

At 7:23 PM, Blogger Alex said...

Thanks to our anonymous comment poster for the kudos, it's much appreciated. We hope you keep coming back.

You're bang on about the Sox needed a plan. One of Theo's strengths, I thought, was that while he started with a plan (which largely consisted of collecting hitters with a high on-base percentage) and assembling a bullpen-by-committee, he was smart enough to recognize where he needed to deviate from the plan to improve the team - by acquiring Kim then Foulke to fill the closer role, and shoring up the defense in 2004 with Cabrera and Mientkiewicz. I think he got in trouble with players like Renteria and Payton who didn't quite fit the mold.

Whoever the new GM is, his most important task will be to decide what sort of ballclub they want to build, and find the right players to fit the system. One reason why I think the Pats have been successful is because Belichek is such a dominant personality in that organization. You're right, egos will get in the way and prevent that from happening in Boston, but if they can get a GM with a clear idea of what he wants, and can get the ownership to back him up, they'll be on solid footing.

For newer readers (especially Sox fans), here's a quick post I made early last month about my time in Boston during the final weekend of the regular season.

At 8:30 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

I am sure Avi will back me up on this, but the only approach and goal of "Moneyballers"--or more properly defined, "Sabermetricians"-- like Beane, DePodesta, Epstein and others is to establish proper metrics to eliminate biased and erroneous conclusions. That is it. It just so happens that in the book "Moneyball" Beane and DePodesta are:

-focused on OBP
-not overly concerned with relievers
-able to exploit the market as a consequence of others not using proper metrics
-unable to validly determine the value of defence

But that BOOK is old. By the time people read it, it is likely that Beane and Depodesta had moved on to greener pastures. Pete Gammons notes as much in an article that is over a year old, and talks about the advances in understanding the value of a defensive player.

Sabermetrics isn't about getting players on the cheap (although that always helps), focusing only on one statistic, or in ignoring the value of certain positions. It is in determing the "true value" of a player. I can't speak to Ryan's true value, but Avi can. I have heard it, and it is glorious. But I chafe at arguments that people can't be Sabermetricians and have a large payroll at the same time. That is confusing a budget with a on-field strategy. Beane went to sabermetrics because it allowed him to find good players for a great price. He had no choice. But I am sure that, if he could, he would have Barry Bonds, David Ortiz and Albert Pujols on his team. They are the few players whose salaries actually match their value on the field.

Epstein had the perfect job, in a sense, because he had an owner who not only supported his on-field strategy, but a team that could support the cost of bringing in almost all of the players needed to make that strategy a reality. Whether he succeeded in that is another story. He did win a World Series ring, but his regular season numbers weren't that much better than the A's, who consistently reach 90 wins on the cheap. John Henry thought that the extra money was worth it, if they could win the World Series. Lewis Wolff, in Oakland, working with a much different market, does not.


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