Saturday, January 2, 2016

Fifteen From '15

The Boston Red Sox just seem to be one of those pro sports franchises that creates major headlines.  Even from the ashes of another season with poor results (and let's not sugarcoat it finishing last in the AL East for the third time in four seasons is unacceptable), the Red Sox had so many headlines and highlights.  It was actually difficult to prune the list to fifteen.  But here are fifteen players or events that will either influence the immediate seasons to come or will be long remembered by Red Sox Nation.

1. Pedro Martinez joins the Baseball Hall of Fame.  This story began on January 6, 2015 when the vote was announced for 2015 and it included four new members to be, Randy Johnson, Pedro, John Smoltz, and Astros star, Craig Biggio.  Pedro finished second to Johnson in the voting with 91.9%

The formal induction was held in Cooperstown on July 26, 2015.  Pedro became just the second Dominican inducted after, his idol, Juan Marichal (who pitched very briefly for Boston near the end of his career). Pedro's acceptance speech, as expected, stole the show.

Two days later at Fenway Park, the Red Sox held ceremonies in which Pedro's 45 was retired and joined the other retired number on the facade at Fenway. 1(Bobby Doerr), 4 (Joe Cronin), 6 (Johnny Pesky), 8 (Yaz), 9 (Ted) 14 (Jim Rice), 27 (Carlton Fisk) along with Jackie Robinson's 42 retired throughout baseball.

Pedro will have a new number joining him and the others up on the facade next year, as in December the Red Sox announced the 26 of Wade Boggs will be retired.

2. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts.  The Sox had not just one but two offensive stars in 2015 who were both just 22 years old.  Betts had a few bumps in the early months of the season, but largely both kids excelled all year long.  The duo finished 2015 with the following stats:

Betts: 18-77-.291-.341 adding in 21 stolen bases, 42 doubles, and 8 triples.

Bogaerts: 7-81-.320-.355 with 10 steals, 35 doubles and 3 triples.

Throughout the season both Betts and Bogaerts continually accomplished offensive feats that had not been matched by 22 year old Red Sox hitters since Tony Conigliaro or in some cases Ted Williams. With Betts hitting leadoff nearly all year, and Bogaerts ascending to the third hole as 2015 went on, the pair combined for 113 extra base hits.

But they also excelled in the field.  Betts in his first full campaign as an outfielder made a number of circus catches.  And after a 2014 in which Bogaerts was moved for a time to third base and doubts surfaced as to whether he could shortstop in the big leagues, Xander blossomed at short and finished the year as a finalist for the Gold Glove for American League shortstops.

Throughout this off season both of the kids were repeatedly asked for in trade talks for pitching. But they are not only untouchable, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are the cornerstone of this team for years to come.

3. David Ortiz defies Father Time.  What could the Red Sox expect from a 39 year old David Ortiz? Well what they got was a typical Big Papi season.  As a matter of fact Papi put up his best home run and RBI numbers since 2007: 37-108-.273-.360 with 37 doubles.

Among the results of such an outstanding season was David Ortiz reaching a milestone most expected him to shoot for in 2016.  On September 12th at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Big Papi smote two home runs.  They were numbers 499 and 500 of his illustrious career.  When he hit number 500 off Rays lefty Matt Moore, Ortiz became the 27th member of the 500 home run club.

4, Blake Swihart's Unexpected Arrival.  After spending a large portion of 2014 in Portland with a late season promotion to AAA, Swihart was expected to spend nearly all of 2015 honing his catching skills at Pawtucket. But as so often happens circumstances intervened.  First the fellow rookie catcher who was expected to be the Sox starter in 2015, Christian Vazquez was injured and required season ending Tommy John surgery. Veteran Ryan Hanigan, acquired that off season in a trade for Will Middlebrooks, became the starting catcher and Boston picked up light hitting Sandy Leon as a back up.  The guessing game on Swihart was would he play well enough (or would the parent club need him for a pennant push) to be recalled in by the All Star break or would it be in August or September.  But then Hanigan broke his hand, and the Sox decided Leon did not hit enough to play regularly.  So on May 2, Swihart was recalled and made his major league debut.

Swihart did not immediately shine at the plate or behind it.  But he held his own and steadily improved on defense.  Around the time Hanigan returned, Swihart served his own stint on the DL.  But when he off the list, the Sox cut Leon and went with Hanigan and Swihart.  Swihart's bat particularly came to life after the DL stint.  Blake hit .312 for August and September with 4 of his home runs.  His final 2015 line was:

5-31-.274.319

A very solid debut for the switch hitting catcher.  The big question going forward is how do the Red Sox solve the very pleasant problem of finding time for Swihart and Christian Vazquez?  The first step will be determining Vazquez' health and his ability to throw as he did before the TJ surgery. After that a number of options exist.  One of the kid catchers could be sent back to AAA temporarily ( Vazquez especially as he may need the playing time to recoup from his year away from the game), one could be traded (Swihart is coveted around the game and if Vazquez proved he can still throw like a laser, he would be as well), or move Swihart to first or third base and get both in the lineup.

This will be a hot topic in spring training 2016.

5. Eduardo Rodriguez Explodes on the Scene.  The 2015 Sox not only had 22 year old offensive stars, the also debuted a 22 year old left handed starting pitcher, who showed the signs of being a future #1. Rodriguez made his MLB debut on May 29th at Texas and pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings.  Over his first several starts, the combination of fewest hits and runs allowed combined with the number of batters he struck out had not been matched been any debuting MLB starter since 1914. Eduardo hit a few bumps after that but completed a very strong rookie campaign with a record 10-6 with a 3.85 ERA, while pitching 121 2/3 innings.

This off season the Yankees have been shopping their relief ace, Andrew Miller.  The reported asking price is a young pitcher with the stuff to be the front of the rotation starter ( for example the Yanks asked Houston for Lance McCullers for Miller).  But Boston had all ready beat them to the punch.  The Red Sox acquired Eduardo Rodriguez from divisional foe, Baltimore for the same Andrew Miler in July 2014.  Eduardo should be a mainstay near the top of the Red Sox rotation for the rest of this decade and maybe beyond.

6. All Star Brock Holt.  The Red Sox super sub again in 2015 played all over the field, everywhere except pitcher and catcher.  When it came time to name the American League All Star squad, the Sox were unlikely to have more than one representative due to their poor first half.  There were qualified candidates like Xander Bogaerts, but Royals manager Ned Yost choose Brock Holt as one of the AL subs.

Holt's performance has caused a division in Red Sox Nation . One group feels he should be in the lineup every day, maybe even at one set position.  The other faction (which I confess to be among) feels Holt's bat suffers when playing too many days in a row, is better off as a bench player.  But in 2015 Brock Holt was an All Star.

Brock got into the game as a pinch runner and scored a run, he then played left field and struck out in his only at bat in the 6-3 AL win in Cincinnati.

7. John Farrell has Cancer.  This bombshell announcement in early August rocked the Red Sox and their fans.  As important as baseball is to the hard core fans,  real life always trumps sport, and everyone prayed for John's recovery.

But from a strictly baseball point of view, Farrell's illness put the Red Sox in a very awkward situation.  For the last month or so, whispers of John Farrell being fired had amplified.  The Sox were heading to their second consecutive last place finish under Farrell.  but now, can anyone release a cancer patient from his job?  And would Farrell be healthy enough to continue in 2016?

Bench coach and Farrell confidante, Torey Lovullo took over on an interim basis.  And in many ways this just complicated the picture even more.  The team played much better under Torey, as the young players gelled.  Lovullo looked like a major league manager.

After the season ended the answer came down.  First and most importantly, John Farrell, who had described his cancer as very treatable, had been told by his doctors he was cancer free.  The Sox announced Farrell was their manager going forward and Torey Lovullo, despite a number of managerial openings around the game, had agreed to stay on as bench coach.

8. Dave Dombrowski is the New Sheriff in Town.  Long time baseball exec, Dave Dombrowski, who had built winning teams in Montreal, Miami, and Detroit was let go by the Tigers in early August, somewhat surprisingly.  About two weeks later, on August 18th, in the middle of a Red Sox game, the team announced Dombrowski had been named Red Sox President of Baseball Operations.  Dombrowski would have final say on all baseball decisions.  Current Sox GM, Ben Cherington who had masterminded the 2013 World Champs less than two full seasons ago was out.

Speculation immediately abounded that Dombrowski would completely dismantle the baseball ops department built by Cherington and before him Theo Epstein.  The conventional wisdom also pronounced Dombrowski as the type of exec who loved to trade kids for veterans, and the feeling was he was wipe out the top rated Sox farm system. With the awkward managerial situation added to the fire, an explosive next few months into and including the off season awaited.

But  Dombrowski fooled some of the critics or skeptics but not only keeping John Farrell as manager, but he kept nearly all of the baseball ops people intact, including promoting Ben Cherington's right hand man, Mike Hazen to General Manager.  We will examine his big on the field moves later in this post.

9. Don Orsillo Out at NESN.  The word of this move leaked out more than a month before NESN intended to announce it.  But when word did leak, the team officially announced it, and the word was no less of a bombshell as Farrell's illness or Dombrowski's hiring.

No good explanation for the move was ever offered, and NESN took big time criticism from all quarters.  Orsillo did finish out the season, and NESN did allow Don to say good bye near the end of his last game.

Fans threatened to stop watching the games on NESN among other grousing.  But NESN will likely salvage the day by hiring Red Sox radio voice, Dave O'Brien as the TV voice.  O'Brien with much ESPN TV baseball experience as well as nine years in the Red Sox radio booth is a top notch broadcaster, who will excel on NESN.  Jerry Remy will return as TV analyst, although in a reduced role.  Remy is expected to do about 100 games.  NESN studio hosts, Dennis Eckersley and Steve Lyons will do the remaining games, as well as some games with three men in the booth.

On the radio side, O'Brien's seat beside long time Sox announcer, Joe Castiglione, will be filled by Tim Neverett.  The Nashua, New Hampshire native has been doing Pirates TV/radio for a decade or so.  Sox fans have gotten a small sample of Neverett's work the last couple of spring trainings when NESN and the Pirates TV crew have done combined broadcasts.

Don Orsillo ended up signing a very lucrative deal to do San Diego Padres baseball beginning in 2016. In 2017 after the retirement of Dick Enberg, Orsillo will become the lead announcer for the Padres.

10. Hanley/Pablo signings a Bust in 2015.  An off season ago Ben Cherington and the Red Sox made a big splash by signing the two biggest names available in the free agent market for hitters: Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval.  Hanley was coming home to Boston where he began his career before being dealt to the Marlins after just two MLB at bats and Sandoval had been a post season hero for three Giants title teams in the last five years.

Both players were complete busts in 2015.  Offensively:

Pablo  10-47-.245-.292       Hanley  19-53-.249-.291

Ramirez was red hot in April with ten home runs and 22 RBI, but injured his shoulder running in a wall, and never seemed to recover.  Sandoval was so futile hitting right handed the switch hitter gave up and batted only from the left side.

And as bad as their offensive numbers were, the defense was worse.  Ramirez, a career shortstop, was moved to left field and it was a failure.  Sandoval, despite his girth, came with a sterling rep in the field, but he did not meet past performance and was poor in the field all year long.

Ramirez is under contract for three more years a roughy 22M per, and Sandoval four more seasons at around 19M per.  What does the future hold?  Well Sandoval is still in his 20's (will turn 30 in August), and the hope is with some additional commitment to conditioning, his contract can still be salvaged.  The stated plan for Ramirez is to shift to first base as Dave Dombrowski ended the left field experiment las September.

If either or both fail again, youngster Travis Shaw has apparently positioned himself to take over at one of the corner infield spots.  Shaw, unexpectedly came form AAA and hit 13-36-.274-.331 in just 226 at bats.  His 13 bombs tied Mike Napoli for fourth on the '15 Sox.

11. Dustin Pedroia's Health.  Injuries held Pedroia's 2015 to just 93 games, which was a disappointing end to a season that began with Pedroia's seeming to be healthier than he had been in a while.  Pedey is now 32 years old and he signed for six more seasons, through 2021.

This is the question concerning the de facto captain:  has he had some unlucky injuries in recent years or is his balls to wall, all out style of play breaking down his body?  Is Pedroia the type of player who can start at second base through age 38?

With young Cuban uber prospect, Yoan Moncada playing second base in the low minors, is Pedroia's future in Boston as secure as it seems?

12. Jackie Bradley Jr.'s August.  JBJ began 2015 back at AAA after being surpassed by Mookie Betts in center field.  JBJ put together a very good AAA season and eventually made his way back to Boston.  After a couple of brief trials he got into the lineup on a daily basis and in August he had an ungodly hot streak at one point hitting 11 straight extra base hits and for the month hit:

5-23-.354-.429

But in September he cooled off ( which of course he had to some ) and he finished 2015 at:

10-43-.249-.335

The performances of JBJ and Rusney Castillo in late '15 lead the Sox to plan on going into 2016 with the three young fly chasers, including Mookie Betts.  But both JBJ and Castillo will need to prove they are capable, every day players.  Veteran free agent outfielder Chris Young was brought in as some right handed pop and insurance for Jackie and Rusney.  Brock Holt could also play into the outfield equation.

13. Red Sox Trade Top Ten Prospects for Criag Kimbrel.  Dave Dombrowski stated the bullpen was an area of concern and he acted in a big way.  The Sox traded for Craig Kimbrel from San Diego.  Kimbrel has led all of MLB in saves over the last five years, leading the NL in each of 2011 through 2014 while pitching for Atlanta.  He added 39 more saves in 2015.

Kimbrel is fireballer throwing around 97 mph.  He will not turn 28 until May 28th and is under contract for two more years plus a team option in 2018.  Kimbrel appears to be exactly the type of pitcher needed in Boston and his is in his prime and under control for three years.  What is not to like?

I can tell you a segment of Red Sox nation hated this trade, saying it illustrated Dombrowski's intent to rape the farm system because he traded four players all in the Top 30 Red Sox prospects, two in the top five or six:  outfielder Manuel Margot, shortstop Javier Guerra, pitcher Logan Allen, and infielder Carlos Asauje.  Margot and Guerra are the top kids, both highly regarded.  The complaint is the deal was too much to give up for just a reliever who pitches 60 innings a year.

We will see which side is correct, but I fall on the side of good trade.  Boston needed a closer and Margot is a center fielder with Betts and JBJ ahead of him and 2015 first rounder Andrew Benintendi coming fast up behind him.  Guerra is a shortstop blocked by Bogaerts.

This deal, as well as the later trade for Seattle's Carson Smith deepens the pen.  Kimbrel also makes Koji Uehara the 8th inning man, and has Junichi Tazawa for the 7th.

14. Red Sox Sign David Price.  If there was any hole bigger than closer for Boston it was the ace in front of the rotation.  After trading for Craig Kimbrel, Dave Dombrowski very candidly stated the ace was likely to come from free agency.  Boston shopped for younger aces around the game like Sonny Gray, Chris Sale, Matt Harvey, and others but the reported cost always included some combination Betts, Bogaerts, Swihart, and top prospects like Moncada, Rafael Devers, and others.  Boston was not going that route so it became imperative to grab a free agent ace.

And they grabbed the best in David Price for seven years, 217M on December 4th before the opening of the winter meetings.  Price, a long time Rays star, also excelled in Detroit and Toronto.  Part of Price's fit in Boston is the fact he is a known quantity in the AL East.

What makes the deal intriguing is Price has an opt out after the third year, after making 30m per year the first three.  If he opts out, and most stars with the opt out do, the Sox may have signed Price for 3 years 90M, and they could let him walk after 2018 eliminating the risk of big money to pitchers into the mid 30's.

For now Price is the alpha dog this team lacked as they promoted their "five aces" last spring.  With Price at the head of the pack, the hope is other hurlers like Rick Porcello, Joe Kelly, Clay Buchholz, and especially young Eduardo Rodriguez will feel less pressure and shine in the rotation slots.

15. 2016 will be the Swan Song for Big Papi.  On November 18th, his 40th birthday, David Ortiz announced via the Players Tribune, that he will retire after one more season.  With the outstanding numbers Ortiz amassed in 2015 is is heard to believe he would retire, but as Ortiz allowed at his age the preparation to play gets more and more difficult. So unless Papi has change of heart along the way, which is very doubtful, Red Sox Nation will enjoy just one more campaign from arguably the most impactful Red Sox player of all time.

Hopefully, Dave Dombrowski has put together a team that can contend to send Big Papi out with another ring.  But if not the three has has earned will be a big part of his legacy.  As will his smile, his diva-like qualities at times, his fierce competitiveness, clutch blasts, and power at the plate. Boston will always be his fuckin' city.











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