Since early September, joy has been minimal in Red Sox Nation.
First, there was the 7-20 slide that cost the team an AL East title and then a wild card berth.
Then, the fingerpointing started, Terry Francona lost his job, stories emerged about dissension in the Red Sox clubhouse and today it was announced that Theo Epstein made the expected decision to join the Chicago Cubs front office.
Seemingly, a new story arises every day about how dysfunctional the Red Sox clubhouse was in 2011. Perhaps the most fairly written article about the turmoil was authored by Mike Giardi of Comcast SportsNet New England.
The details of his article, plus the details that have already emerged, will shape what the Red Sox do in the off-season under a new general manager and manager.
Carl Crawford undoubtedly posted disappointing numbers in his first season with the Red Sox. Yet Giardi’s article casts light on way the speedy left fielder might have struggled so much in 2011.
Carl Crawford kept more and more to himself as the season progressed, largely because the clubhouse culture here was unlike any he’d experienced during his decade with Tampa Bay. A consummate pro, Crawford had once grabbed Pat Burrell and thrown him up against a wall, angrily telling Burrell that his unprofessional ways were not accepted in the Rays’ clubhouse. Tampa Bay management had their speedy outfielder’s back, trading Burrell a short time later. That’s the kind of cache Crawford had in that room, and with that organization.
But in Boston, Crawford apparently felt he couldn’t exert his influence because he wasn’t one of the veterans who understood what the Sox organization considered acceptable and what had led them to victory. Finally, late in the season but before the team entered its death spiral, Crawford had had enough. He launched into an impassioned speech, imploring teammates to get it together. It fell on deaf ears.
Adrian Gonzalez – who is a true professional and had a strong first season with the Red Sox, though he did not deliver timely hits in September – was also alarmed about the clubhouse culture, according to Giardi.
Adrian Gonzalez, was dumbfounded by the lack of professionalism that surrounded him, and couldn’t believe it was allowed to continue. And while he struggled with a variety of injuries that sapped him of his power, Gonzalez still showed up, still worked, still competed. The same couldn’t be said of some of his new teammates.
That starting pitchers drank beer, ordered fried chicken and played video games in the clubhouse during the game on night when they weren’t on the mound is troubling enough. The reported attitude of Kevin Youkilis, who allegedly created dissension in the clubhouse when he became increasingly testy during his injury-plagued year, is also alarming.
Other issues – like David Ortiz interrupting Terry Francona’s press conference because he was furious about an official scorer’s decision that took away an RBI and Red Sox players angrily responding to the team’s decision to play a day-night doubleheader on a Saturday instead of single games on Saturday and Sunday as Hurricane Irene approached – add to the embarrassing picture of the 2011 Red Sox on and off the field.
Based on what we know about the 2011 Red Sox in the clubhouse and on the field, here is what could happen in the off-season:
- Jonathan Papelbon will be brought back. Though he can seem arrogant and is boisterous, the closer represents the Dirt Dawg-style Red Sox player that Boston appreciates and respects. Aside from the blown save in the season finale at Baltimore, Papelbon was reliable and effective. Heath Bell is an option if another team, like the Phillies, offers Papelbon more years and/or annual salary than the Red Sox prefer, but Papelbon is a proven performer in a tough market, and he provides the spunk this team desperately needs.
- Kevin Youkilis could be traded. The third baseman will be 33 next March, so he is still in his prime, but he has just one year remaining on his deal and will get $12 million in 2012 with a club option for $13 million in 2013. Youkilis caused tension last season when he criticized Jacoby Ellsbury for not remaining with the team during the center fielder’s rehab from a rib injury. This season, Youkilis reportedly poked his head into teammates’ business while he was on the disabled list with right hip bursitis and a sports hernia. Likely, even if Youkilis returns next season, the Sox might not pick up his 2013 option since top overall prospect Will Middlebrooks is about major league ready. Perhaps Youkilis will be accountable for off-the-field issues and return next season as a model teammate. Or, maybe the new general manager will determine that it is best to deal Youkilis, who does have high trade value with his relatively affordable 2012 salary and 2013 option.
- David Ortiz might not be signed to a new contract. The affable DH will be 36 in November, and he generated appealing numbers (.309, 29 home runs, 96 RBI). Yet he also barged into Francona’s press conference and publicly questioned his manager’s use of valuable relief pitcher Alfredo Aceves (stating that he should be moved into the starting rotation). The new general manager might want more flexibility in the DH spot, using it to give occasional rest for Gonzalez, Pedroia, Youkilis and Crawford. The Sox could decide to part ways with Ortiz, move Youkilis to the DH spot and give Youkilis occasional time at third base with Jed Lowrie and the versatile Mike Aviles. Just as it would not surprise me if Youkilis is traded in the off-season, it would not be shocking of the team opts not to bring back Ortiz.
- The ownership group will eat John Lackey’s remaining contract. Not only did Lackey log a ghastly ERA and littered the bases with runners during his starts, but he also showed up teammates on the field, shot nasty glares at Francona when the pitcher was removed from games after serving up five or more runs and made excuse after excuse in post-game press conferences. He is fat, lazy, out of shape and has zero accountability. Though he is owed $48.5 million over three more years, it is highly unlikely that Lackey will throw another pitch for the Red Sox. John Henry and Tom Werner will be focused on improving the culture and the image of this ballclub, and Lackey is the cover boy for everything that was wrong about the 2011 Red Sox.
- It will finally be the end of the respective eras of Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek. Both players will always be beloved by the Red Sox for their significant contributions, but both men are no longer productive major leaguers. Wakefield raised eyebrows when he told the media that Red Sox fans deserve to watch him pursue the team’s all-time wins record in 2012. Um, no thanks, Tim.
- Marco Scutaro’s $6 million team option for 2012 should be picked up. The versatile Scutaro is probably best suited as a super utility man, but when his shoulder felt better he was proficient as the everyday shortstop. Scutaro has a Dirt Dawg-style of play, and his presence in the clubhouse and on the field is needed. Top prospect Jose Iglesias needs another year to develop his bat at Triple-A Pawtucket, and Jed Lowrie has yet to prove he can remain healthy for an entire season. It will be extremely surprising if Scutaro is not back with the Red Sox in 2012.
- The Red Sox should implement the culture of the Tampa Bay Rays. Joe Maddon’s 9=8 slogan is a bit cheesy, but it is relevant. Nine men playing fundamental baseball as a team equals one of eight playoff spots. A change in clubhouse culture will apparently help Crawford, who has six years remaining on his contract. And the Red Sox would benefit from playing strong, fundamental baseball – which they lacked in 2011. This is why Dave Martinez, a former major leaguer who has served as Maddon’s bench coach the last four seasons, is one of the top candidates for the Red Sox managerial vacancy.
Right now, the Red Sox are surrounded by negativity. The Boston media is embracing every moment of this opportunity, thus the reason the negativity will likely continue well into the off-season. Instead of dwelling on the dreadful press coverage, it is more productive to focus on the positives.
The Red Sox should not forget about 2011. Not at all. The front office should use it to help them determine who returns and who is let go. Hopefully, the players are embarrassed about what transpired in September and what happened in the clubhouse, show accountability and report to spring training is prime physical and mental condition.
The new general manager – who will likely be 37-year-old Ben Cherington, a longtime Red Sox front office figure who is well-respected in the game – should build this team around guys like Dustin Pedroia, Papelbon, Gonzalez, Crawford and Daniel Bard. These are players who are highly respected and are professional.
Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz should be part of the plans, too, since they are among the top starting pitchers in baseball when they are healthy. However, the reputations of both players have taken a hit – and rightly so – for the news about the drinking, lack of discipline and lack of conditioning among the starting pitchers. They have a lot to prove for 2012.
The Sox have a nice group of role players who they can build around as well, like Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Aceves. Scutaro is 36, but he is a valuable teammate. Aviles is 30, under team control at an affordable rate and is the versatile player that every ballclub needs.
Though it has been widely written that the Red Sox do not have many starting pitching prospects at the upper levels of the minors, there are arms that can help in 2012. The team will reportedly stretch out 23-year-old left-hander Felix Doubront as a starter in spring training. He either projects as a No. 4 or No. 5, or as a late-inning reliever, in the majors. Kyle Weiland, Junichi Tazawa and Alex Wilson (who was named the 2011 Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Year) can work as a starter or a reliever, so they provide added depth.
With Ryan Lavarnway slated to take over the backup catcher’s role, Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish likely to battle for the starting right field job and Iglesias (shortstop) and Middlebrooks almost ready for make the leap to the majors, the Red Sox will be infused with new, homegrown talent in 2012 and 2013.
It is unlikely that the Red Sox will pursue high-dollar free agents this off-season. Instead, based on the core players they will build around and considering the clubhouse turmoil from 2011, the team will probably acquire a starting pitcher and perhaps a right fielder and/or third baseman/DH via trade. Think Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar and David Ortiz type deals when they arrived in Boston.
The 25-man opening day roster in 2012 will look much different than the ballclub that occupied the clubhouse in late September this season. Obviously, the time has arrived when that needs to happen.
Change is good, and in the case of the Red Sox, it is necessary. So don’t be surprised if high-profile players under contract not named Pedroia, Ellsbury, Crawford, Gonzalez, Lester, Buchholz and Bard are traded, and don’t be stunned if Ortiz is not brought back.