At The Ballyard ... with Steve Weissman

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Red Sox Seal the Deal: Welcome to Next Year!

OK, so the Yankees just embarrassed the Red Sox by sweeping five games at Fenway Park, and now stand 6½ games in front of the Olde Towne Team. But that’s all right, you console yourself; they’re only 4 games behind the White Sox for the wild card, and once NixWakeItek gets back, they’ll make up that little ground for sure. Heck, if they get really hot, they could even still pass the Yankees before it’s all over!

Well, not so fast. First, there’s a team standing between our Sox and theirs (the Twins, by name), and it’s far more difficult to pass two teams in the standings than just one since both have to sustain losing streaks if we’re to gain meaningful ground. Second, even if the Yankees play improbably poorly the rest of the way – say they go 20-19 over their remaining 39 games – the BoSox would have to play impossibly well over that same span – specifically, 26-12 – to have any chance at all of winning the division. (See the sixth point in Tom Verducci’s online column at Sports Illustrated today for the gory details.)

So root all you can, hope all you want, pray to whatever talismans you have handy, but the simple fact is that the Red Sox’s fate is probably now sealed. The recent rash of injuries forced the team’s youngsters into service at least a half-season earlier than planned, and their inexperience – coupled with some veterans’ surprising ineffectiveness – unfortunately proved costly. About the only thing keeping the club from falling as far as third place is the Blue Jays’ apparent penchant for clubhouse explosions – having already run Shea Hillenbrand out of town, manager John Gibbons yesterday took on challenger Ted Lilly and apparently lost – but with only 3½ games now separating the two teams, even this remains to be seen.

The trick now is for the Sox to get positioned for next season without appearing to have given up on this one. To his credit, GM Theo Epstein made it fairly clear in his remarks yesterday (see yesterday’s article on Boston.com) that this, in fact, is his plan, so he’s at least being up front with anyone who is actually listening. This being the case, it shouldn’t come as a shock to learn that David Wells was put on waivers; if anything, the surprise is that he cleared both leagues and now can be traded to anyone who wants him (see last night’s article on ESPN.com). Whether there’s actually a deal in the works or Theo is simply keeping his options open also remains to be seen. But don’t be stunned if a deal is done and the Sox receive prospects, not established players, in return.

Fans of the old Brooklyn Dodgers used to cry, “Wait ’til next year!’ after failing to knock off the rival Yankees. Today, let’s go them one better and announce “Welcome to next year!” What’s the worst that can happen?

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