Friday, February 27, 2015

Looking Back at 2014's Storylines and What They Mean for 2015

I was looking through some old blog notes this afternoon and found a “Red Sox Storylines for 2014” entry. Here’s what I wrote just about a year ago:

Red Sox Storylines for 2014
  • Is Xander the Rookie of the Year?
  • Is Spring Training Sizemore the Real Deal?
  • Is this the year Willie Middle puts it together?
  • Victorino's health and leadoff hitting, who is our leadoff hitter?
  • Can Gomes, Nava, and Carp duplicate their contributions from 2013?
  • Can Felix Doubront fulfill his potential? 
  • Will Buchholz be back to early 2013 levels?
Yikes. No wonder Boston staggered to a last place finish in 2014. Every single one of those key storylines broke in the negative direction for the Sox. Looking back on it, it’s pretty amazing really that the Sox went 0 for 7 on this list. The karmic swings for this franchise from 2012 to 2013 to 2014 is like a craps table that gamblers flee from in horror. Let’s take a look back through the storylines with the advantage of hindsight and see what went wrong and what the implications are for 2015.

#1. Is Xander the Rookie of the Year?
What Happened: Stephen F*&^*% Drew happened. (Side Note: is there a weirder relationship in sports than the Drew family and Red Sox Nation? One the one hand, the Drew brothers are widely disliked for being baseball automatons and the antithesis of the Cowboy Up! and Bearded Idiots! teams. On the other hand, this happened and so did this) Well, first Will Middlebrooks started off badly and then got hurt (again).  The Sox, already having misgivings about Willie Middle after a demotion to AAA in 2013, panicked. The touted Red Sox farm system seemed to have no internal answers to the hole at 3B (remember the articles on Garin Cecchini at the time: “DO NOT LET THIS GUY PLAY IN THE FIELD! ABORT! ABORT!”), and so they pulled the trigger on free agent Stephen. At the time it seemed reasonable: run back the left side of the infield that won you the World Series just the year before. Instead, the signing bumped Xander Bogaerts to 3B and rattled the youngster, who had just started to blossom into something truly special. Meanwhile, Brock the Slap Weasel Holt came up and outperformed anything Drew did for the rest of 2014, meaning they could have just kept the X Man at short all along. Xander’s season never recovered, and neither did the Red Sox’.

Implications for the Future: The Red Sox realized their mistake and shipped Drew off to the Yankees (with every passing year, Hal Steinbrenner resembles this guy more and more), re-inserting Xander into the shortstop role, hopefully for the next decade. Xander is young. He has said all the right things this spring about starting fresh and finding his confidence/mojo again. There’s no reason to believe he can’t bounce back and fulfill his immense potential. Also, the Slap Weasel should be able to fill in capably at any position on the diamond outside the battery.

#2. Is Spring Training Sizemore the Real Deal?
What Happened: We all wanted Sizemore to succeed in Boston. Everybody loves a comeback story. He was so impressive in the Grapefruit League it was easy to envision him rolling that success over to Fenway Park. Unfortunately, Grady left his bat in Florida when the team traveled north, and the Sizemore experiment fell on its face.

Of course, the related storyline is why the center field job was available for Sizemore to win in the first place: Here's some footage of Bradley's 2013 spring training:


If Bradley could have hit anything, Sizemore never would have been counted on as anything other than a fourth outfielder, and his struggles wouldn’t have contributed to Boston’s early season slide.

Implications for the Future: The Red Sox’ CF job is still in flux, although there are certainly some promising candidates in Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr getting another look. For the second straight year the Sox enter the spring with a center field competition to replace Jacoby Ellsbury (Jacoby’s less-than-stellar season in New York overshadowed how much the Sox missed his presence at the top of their batting order in 2013). Although they will have no choice but to make their decision based on spring training results, hopefully they will remember the lesson of Spring Training Sizemore.

#3. Is this the year Willie Middle puts it all together?
What Happened: .191/.256/.265 slash lines with 70 strikeouts in 215 AB’s for a 32.5% strikeout rate happened. Egads. The slugging percentage was especially perplexing given his .509 and .425 marks in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Some of that was nagging injuries and some was…Jenny Dell? 

Implications for the Future: Welcome to Boston, Panda! Is Sandoval the fattest Red Sox player since Rich Garces? Yes! Is he a guy you want to give a five year contract to? Probably not. Is he a $19 million-a-year player? Probably not. Am I ecstatic to watch the Fat Panda era in Boston with his combination of fat guy ballet at the hot corner, decent pop at the plate, and outsized personality in the dugout? ABSOLUTELY! Sign me up!
Oh, and Willie Middle is now employed in San Diego.

#4. Victorino’s health and leadoff hitting. Who is our leadoff hitter?
What Happened: Victorino played in only 30 games in 2014, the fewest since 2005 when he was just breaking in with the Phillies. Injuries cost Shane a chance to follow up on a 2013 campaign that was vital to the Sox’ success. In those scant 30 games, Victornio had only a .685 OPS. 
Boston used five different leadoff hitters in their first twenty games of 2014, and never did settle on a regular table setter until Betts in September. Of course, there’s no guarantee Betts is on the Opening Day roster in 2015.

Implications for the Future: As mentioned in the Grady Sizemore question above, Boston is still trying to replace Jacoby Ellsbury atop the batting order. Rob Bradford declared Mookie Betts the leadoff hitter of the future in this piece from September, but there is no guarantee that Betts even makes the Opening Day roster in 2014. Let’s just say there is still a lot up in the air surrounding Victorino, the center field position, and the leadoff spot.

#5. Can Gomes, Nava, and Carp duplicate their contributions from 2013?
What Happened: 
Jonny Gomes, 2013: .247/.344/.426/.771, 13 HR, 52 RBI, 65 clutch hits/sacrifice flies/celebrations (approximate).
Jonny Gomes, 2014: .234/.329/.354/.683, 6 HR, 37 RBI, 0 clutch hits/sacrifice flies/celebrations (approximate.

Daniel Nava, 2013: .303/.385/.445/.831, 12 HR, 66 RBI, Boston Strong hero
Daniel Nava, 2014: .270/.346/.361/.706, 4 HR, 37 RBI, sent to Pawtucket

Mike Carp, 2013: .296/.362/.523/.885, 9 HR, 43 RBI, was on the Beard train early on
Mike Carp, 2014: .198/.320/.279/.599, 0 HR, 9 RBI, was on a train out of town

Observations: Well, those numbers speak for themselves. The answer to 2014 storyline #5 is a resounding no. Some numbers that stand out:
  • 12 dingers for Nava in ’13! The dude was locked in all season long. Heading into 2014, Nava had gone from 6 to 12 HR in his two big league seasons. It was reasonable to think maybe that number could climb to 15 or 16 in 2014. Instead, it plummeted to 4, and it’s hard not to think of 2013 as an aberration. 
  • It is hard to have numbers as bad as Mike Carp did and still earn 149 plate appearances at the big league level. I mean, those numbers are Punto-esque. Carp is in camp with the Nationals this spring, hoping to earn a pinch hitter role on a NL roster without a DH spot. This is the same Carp who always claimed to dislike pinch hitting in Boston.
  • Did all three of these guys make deals with the devil in 2013? Did they get a group rate?
Implications for the Future: Only Nava remains with the Red Sox, and he is going to have to rake in Ft. Myers to stay on the big league roster. He could certainly still earn some at-bats in Boston throughout the year as outfield/first base depth based on his veteran approach and know-how. But the next wave of Boston position players have supplanted the three cogs in the ’13 machine listed here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

2015 Red Sox Spring Training is Underway

All of the Red Sox players are in Fort Myers, dozens of them came into camp days and weeks early.  For a team coming off a last place AL East finish, there is very little uncertainty of the composition of the Opening Day 25 man roster.  Barring the trade of an outfielder ( likely to very likely) or the acquisition of another starting pitcher (ace??), the only open spots are the last job or two in the bullpen.  The other 25 man roster question to be answered is the outfield survivors.  Around the infield (including catcher) is just about set in stone, barring any unforeseen injury:

Catcher: Christian Vazquez, backed up by Ryan Hanigan.

1B  Mike Napoli
2B Dustin Pedroia
SS Xander Bogaerts
3b Pablo Sandoval

Utility Brock Holt

That is not to say there are not questions about this group, but you can bet these guys are the starters, and will have 7 of the 25 roster spots.

But as we move to the outfield, the list of candidates is long:

Hanley Ramirez
Shane Victorino
Rusney Castillo
Mookie Betts
Allen Craig
Daniel Nava
Jackie Bradley, Jr.
Bryce Brentz

In his utility role, Brock Holt may play out here as well, but I bet it is way, way less in the garden as opposed to '14.

Let's start with one certainty.  Hanley Ramirez is going to be the everyday left fielder, now by every day I mean 120-130 games, with another 20 or so at DH giving Big Papi a rest at age 39.  Speaking of David Ortiz, out of anyone on this team he is a mortal lock to hold his spot,  the DH and probably the number three hitter between Pedroia and Hanley. The question of course is how many more years can Big Papi produce.  He showed no sign of stopping in the otherwise miserable 2014 and the 500 home run mark is another carrot out there for David.  So give Hanley and David roster spots 8 and 9.

John Farrell has made two pronouncements regarding the outfield so far this spring.  First "IF HEALTHY" Shane Victorino is the right fielder and in a connected statement, Farrell said Castillo, Betts, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. are in a competition for center field.  More on these four gentlemen in a moment.

That leaves returnees Allen Craig and Daniel Nava, and rookie Bryce Brentz.  Brentz, despite a decent September call up debut, has almost no chance to make this team barring multiple injuries. Despite that you keep hearing whispers the Sox are really intrigued by his plentiful right handed power. He will go to AAA.  Nava and Craig, except for the fact Craig hits righty and Nava is best from the left, are for purposes of this roster the same player.  Unless one or both of them have fantastic springs, there seems to be no way they are both on this roster.  If they do have great springs (especially Craig, who has a three year history '11-'13 as one of the best NL hitters) there is a very slim chance Mike Napoli could traded for pitching and Craig and/or Nava could play first.

Either Nava or Craig are strong candidates to be traded, but even though Craig hit an abysmal .128 for Boston after being traded from St. Louis, I cannot shake the feeling this would be the classical sell-low deal and the Sox would lose out on Craig's comeback.  But I just do not see where he gets at bats here.

Back to the CF/RF puzzle.  I believe Farrell when he says Victorino if he can play is the starting right fielder.  I just do not buy he will be healthy.  Maybe on Opening Day but for how long?  I think by June 1 or earlier if Victorino can play he will be traded.  I am one of the few people left in Red Sox Nation who still thinks Jackie Bradley, Jr. will be a strong major league player.  But right now, he will need to go back to AAA, and put up two strong offensive months, and then see where he fits.

I have been on record all winter saying the "regular" Red Sox outfield in '15 will be Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, and Mookie Betts, and I am sticking with it.  All three will start at least 120 games in the Sox outfield. Now if the Sox start the year with Hanley and Vic on the corners, there still could be plenty of playing time for Rusney and Mookie.  As Peter Gammons pointed out the other day there are 486 games to be started in the outfield (162 x 3), if you divide that by four you get about 121 games apiece.

Let's give roster spots 10 through 13 to Victorino, Betts, Castillo, and one of Craig/Nava. With a real good chance by June, Jackie Bradley is the fourth outfielder to Ramirez-Castillo-Betts.

Let's change our focus to pitching and look at the rotation.  Here are the five names going into spring training ( and very likely the season).  And roster spots 14 through 18.

Clay Buchholz
Rick Porcello
Wade Miley
Justin Masterson
Joe Kelly

Sunday, February 1, 2015

My First Red Sox Game

Recently while pondering the calendar changing to 2015, I realized that I had gone to my first Red Sox game at Fenway Park ( my first big league game anywhere) in 1965.  This means that besides the fact I am getting damned old, that this year is the 50th anniversary of that game.

As the years have passed there are really only a handful of things I remember about the game.  It was around August 20th and the opponent was the the Detroit Tigers.  I recall the score being 13-10 Red Sox, with the offense being paced by home runs for Tony Horton, and my all time favorite payer, Tony Conigliaro.  I remember a very sparse crowd for the night game ( I do not recall the day of the week) and most of all I recall a very difficult time finding Fenway Park by my parents, my younger sister and I  as none of us had ever ventured into Boston.

After finally seeing the lights from a distance we found Fenway and walked up to the ticket window and purchased four seats just several rows behind the Red Sox dugout.  That was the pre Impossible Dream reality for attendance to Red Sox games.

So I have done some research to fill in some of the memory gaps.  The game was on a Saturday night, August 21, 1965.  The Tigers were indeed the visitors and most importantly I had the right score, 13-10 Sox, and I had correctly recalled the only Sox home runs were by Tony Horton and Tony C.

But for the first big league game for a ten year old kid in Maine, it was a delicious stew of characters and events.  Some memories that had faded in time, others perhaps beyond the grasp of a relatively new, young fan, and others that needed the hindsight of decades to shine a light on what I had seen.

So here is the story of my first Red Sox game.

PREGAME

The teams were managed by two baseball lifers.  The Red Sox manager was William Jennings Bryan    "Billy" Herman. His main attribute as manger seemed to be he was a drinking buddy of Tom Yawkey's ( as most of the mangers and execs hired by Yawkey seemed to be).  But as player in his day, Herman was an outstanding second sacker mostly for the Cubs, he actually played in three World Series with the Cubs (really the Cubs) in the 1930's.  Ten years later in 1975, the veterans committee voted Herman into the Hall of Fame.  Herman may or may not have been at Fenway that night.  On August 10, he underwent an emergency appendectomy, and was reported to have missed 11 days with the team.  So he either returned that night or the next day.

Charlie Dressen was the Tigers' skipper.  Dressen ( also known as Chuck) has some claims to fame himself.  He had been a pro football quarterback from 1920-1923 with first the Decatur Staleys( a forerunner of the Chicago Bears) and then in Racine, Wisconsin.  He gave up football for a baseball career, which led him to manage the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1951 to 1953.  1951 was the year of the famous collapse to the cross town Giants and Bobby Thomson's shot heard round the world.  But lead by players such as Jackie Robinson, Dressen lead the Bums to the World Series in 1952 and 1953.
After Dressen was fired and replaced by no name Walter Alston, the Dodgers only changed managers one more time until 1996. Alston and Tommy Lasorda  were the only Dodger managers for all those years.  Dressen also managed the Senators and Milwaukee Braves, before joining the Tigers in mid-64. Chuck had a heart attack in spring training of 1965 and re-joined the Tigers at the end of May.  The second of two more heart attacks in 1966 lead to his death on August 10, 1966, less than one year from this game night.

STARTING LINEUPS

Detroit

1. 3B  Don Wert
2. 2B  Jerry Lumpe
3. LF  Gates Brown
4. RF  Willie Horton
5. CF  Don Demeter
6. 1B  Norm Cash
7.  C   Bill Freehan
8. SS  Ray Oyler
9.   P  Hank Aguirre

Boston

1. SS  Rico Petrocelli
2. 3B  Frank Malzone
3. LF  Carl Yastrzemski
4. 2B  Felix Mantilla
5. RF Tony Conigliaro
6. 1B  Tony Horton
7. CF  Jim Gosger
8.  C  Bob Tillman
9.  P  Dave Morehead


Boston was 44-77, 33 games out of first in ninth place.  The Tigers were in third, nine games behind the eventual 1965 AL champs, the Minnesota Twins, with a record of 69-52.  The announced paid attendance was 7, 567.

FIRST INNING

The first major league hitter I ever saw stride to the plate was Don Wert, the Tiger third baseman.  Wert, who is the only player in major league history to have a last name that can be spelled out on any standard keyboard with four or more consecutive keys, left to right. ( Go ahead and try to find another). Wert was known as good fielding, light hitting player, but he was in the midst of his best two season stretch of his career offensively ( 64-65).  Wert struck out as did both of the next two Tigers, and in the first inning I ever saw pitched in the big leagues, Sox starter Dave Morehead had struck out the side.

The Red Sox began the first by getting the first two batters on base with a single and a walk.  The two hitters at the top of the Sox lineup were a rookie and faded vet near the end: Rico Petrocelli and Frank Malzone.  Rico Petrocelli, was the everyday Sox shortstop as a rookie in 1965 (although he made his MLB debut by playing one game and getting a double in 1963).  In '65 Rico hit 13-33-.232, but he became a Sox fixture through 1976, eventually moving to third base, playing in two World Series with Boston ('67 and '75).  He was a key member of the Impossible Dream Sox two years later.  Rico finished his career with 210 home runs, and the 40 home runs he hit in 1970 was a American League record for years.

Malzone, 35 years old at the time, was born and raised in the Bronx.  He first joined the Red Sox in 1955, full time at third base in 1957, a job he held through 1965.  He was a six time AL All Star and won three gold gloves for his stellar play at third.  By the time I saw him in '65 he was near the end, batting only 3-34-.239 and he was released that winter and played one final year for the Angels.

The Sox offense cashed in the two table setters.  A bunt and ground out plated the first run.  Then a two out double by Tony Conigliaro was followed by a two run home run by Tony Horton.

4-0 Boston after one.