By Jeff Louderback
When crafting my columns for BoSox Banter, I incorporate my background as a professional journalist, a feverish Red Sox fan and a student of the game. Translated, though sometimes I share the frustration of a fan, I tend to write from an even-keeled perspective and use my baseball knowledge cultivated from my lifelong passion for our nation’s pastime.
When warranted, my posts about the Red Sox are critical. And, when warranted, they are positive and offer praise. Unlike a majority of the Boston sports media, I do not write columns just for the sake of evoking a reaction. I have a well-informed opinion, and I am not hesitant to express what I think. I form my own opinion without listening to what the Boston media, the national media, the blogosphere or fans believe. Nor should I. After all, the reason the readership of BoSox Banter and the plethora of other intriguing Red Sox blogs continues to grow is that each one offers a varied look at the team.
I open this column with the aforementioned disclaimer because, based on the negative coverage Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington has received this offseason from most media members – and the moaning and groaning from many Red Sox fans about who the club has signed and who it hasn’t brought in – I am one of the few writers and fans who embraces Cherington’s strategy for building the roster for 2013 and beyond.
I am rather amused and somewhat surprised that many media members and Red Sox fans believe the team is destined for the American League East basement in 2013. “All Cherington has done is signed a bunch of mediocre players who are past their prime,” I have heard some people exclaim. “Why didn’t they sign Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton?” some fans wonder.
Apparently, these same fans have forgotten about what the Red Sox did before the 2011 season when they traded a load of promising prospects for Adrian Gonzalez and signed Carl Crawford and John Lackey to excessive contracts. Not to mention the Bobby Jenks debacle.
After making a wise commitment to develop a strong farm system when he arrived – which significantly contributed to the team’s World Series title in 2007 and the American League Championship Series visit in 2008 – Theo Epstein was overtaken by a hungry desire to mimic the New York Yankees and fill positions with high-profile players instead of constructing a true team. He neglected what made the Red Sox an envied franchise because of its success and opened the vault just because that vault was stuffed with an abundance of money.
Then September 2011 arrived, and soon after Epstein darted out the door leaving a roster dotted with cumbersome contracts. The arrogance and ignorance of Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino, who ignored Cherington’s recommendation of Dale Sveum and hired Bobby Valentine, significantly contributed to last season’s forgettable last place finish. A rash of injuries to key players, a lack of effective starting pitching and then the blockbuster trade last August were also reasons why Boston ended 2012 with a 69-93 record.
Expectations for the Red Sox in 2013 are deservedly tempered, especially after the 2012 campaign that was preceded by the monumental collapse in September 2011 (when, at the time, they had the best record in baseball). As Boston learned in 2011 and the Miami Marlins discovered last season, World Series titles and even playoff berths are not determined because of the way a roster looks on paper on opening day. For some reason, though, even the most well-known baseball pundits seem to ignore this and do not learn from experience.
On paper, the Toronto Blue Jays appear to have a formidable club with the additions of Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera. There is doubt they will be improved over last season, especially with Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero also in the rotation. Yet the regular season must be played before the playoffs return to Canada.
In 2013, the American League East is wide open. The Blue Jays have an improved roster, but they have injury-prone core players and must navigate the 162-game schedule. The Tampa Bay Rays have pitching depth, but it will be tested with the loss of James Shields and Wade Davis, and a lineup that is still lackluster. The New York Yankees are aging, and their rotation has question marks beyond CC Sabathia. Baltimore was a feel-good story in 2012, but the Orioles have done little to improve their roster and it is justifiable to call their success last season a fluke because of their negative run differential and their astonishing ability to win one-run games. It will be difficult for them to replicate that. Not impossible, but difficult.
This leaves the Red Sox with an opportunity to contend.
Many Red Sox fans are unhappy with the free agent signings of outfielders Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes, shortstop Stephen Drew, starting pitcher Ryan Dempster, reliever Koji Uehara and catcher David Ross. A plethors of these same fans would like to see the deal for first baseman/catcher Mike Napoli fall through. And a majority of Red Sox fans do not seem to like the acquisition of closer Joel Hanrahan from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
I have an alternative view because, if I held the general manager’s chair in Boston, I would mirror Cherington’s strategy. The Red Sox have a group of talented core players that includes Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, David Ortiz, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and a deep bullpen.
Risks are a part of baseball, and Cherington is depending on bounceback seasons by Lester and Buchholz, a revived and healthy John Lackey, and healthy and productive seasons from Ellsbury, Pedroia, Ortiz and Middlebrooks.
It is understandable why the Red Sox seemingly overpaid free agents like Gomes, Victorino, Drew and (if the deal is finalized, even at one or two years) Napoli. None of these players are perennial All-Stars, but each name is a useful complementary piece. They play the game the right way and they are good clubhouse guys. Importantly, they fill holes and are signed to short-term deals, so the Red Sox retain their long-term payroll flexibility and top prospects are not blocked.
Speaking of the top prospects, Cherington is taking a leap of faith that Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Matt Barnes, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Bryce Brentz and Blake Swihart among others will emerge as difference makers at the Major League level. They are worthwhile risks because of their ceilings – especially Bogaerts, Bradley, Barnes and De La Rosa.
The most ideal way to construct a team – even in a large market like Boston – is developing prospects to mix in with existing core players and trade acquisitions. Premium free agents who demand long-term deals and salaries that exceed $15 million and $20 million a year are rarely wise transactions.
The Red Sox won the 2007 World Series thanks to significant contributions from homegrown players. Bogaerts, Bradley, Barnes and others can serve as the next wave of prospects who return the Red Sox to perennial contender status. Though the three Bs are not likely to be Major League ready until the 2014 campaign, Cherington is smart to refrain from trading them because of their soaring high ceilings.
I firmly believe the 2013 Red Sox will be a contender, and at least earn a wild card berth, because they are a true team (a la 2003) stocked with hard-nosed players with a lot to prove. Ellsbury wants to have a monstrous season so he can receive a handsome pay day in free agency. Ortiz wants to demonstrate that he is still one of the game’s best sluggers. Pedroia wants to show that he can play the game with reckless abandon and stay off the disabled list. Lester and Buchholz have top of the rotation stuff and want to silence their critics. Middlebrooks wants to prove that he can generate impressive numbers for an entire season.
With the mix of free agents, the addition of Hanrahan, improved starting pitching depth (which includes Franklin Morales, Alfredo Aceves and names like De la Rosa, Webster and knuckleballer Steven Wright at Triple-A Pawtucket), a well-stocked bullpen and a lineup that is capable of being among the league leaders in most offensive categories, the Red Sox can contend in 2013.
The return of John Farrell and the arrival of his coaching staff (which includes respected baseball men like Torey Lovullo, Brian Butterfield, Arnie Beyeler, Greg Colbrunn, Juan Nieves and Victor Rodriguez) will make a positive difference, too, especially after last season’s dysfunction with Bobby Valentine and tension with his coaches and players.
The 40-man roster as it stands is not a finished product. Chances are, the Red Sox will trade Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Andrew Bailey because of depth at catcher and the acquisition of Hanrahan. If Napoli is not signed, Cherington could make a trade for a first baseman and/or sign a free agent.
When the 25-man roster is selected for opening day, there will be question marks. The rotation has a lot of potential, but its’ success will be determined by whether or not Lester and Buchholz can serve as reliable top of the rotation arms, Doubront can minimize his walks and top 180 innings, Dempster can pitch respectably in the American League and Lackey can excel like he did before he endured elbow problems. The Red Sox will also need solid and healthy years from Ellsbury, Pedroia, Ortiz and Middlebrooks. Hanrahan (or Bailey, if he is not traded) must consistently shut down opposing hitters in the ninth inning. And, unlike last season, core players will have to stay off the disabled list.
Of course, every AL East team has question marks, which is why the division race is winnable for the Red Sox. I embrace Cherington’s approach of surrounding returning core players with useful complementary pieces and keeping the door open for top prospects to contribute.
Many Red Sox fans are grumbling right now. I think they will have a different feeling during the regular season. Call me a “homer” if you like. Some people do, just as other readers believe I am too critical. I just know what I prefer regarding the strategy behind building a team, and I like what Cherington has done this offseason, and what I believe will be the result when October arrives.
Maybe the Red Sox won’t win the World Series in 2013 – or even get there – but they will be a legitimate post-season contender and have the foundation for a formidable team for subsequent seasons.