At The Ballyard ... with Steve Weissman

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Like the Mounties, Red Sox Get Their Man (Again)

– Gonzalez Signing Imminent, Fills Last Important Hole –

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are famous for always getting their man … and so, it would seem, are the Boston Red Sox! Just days after plugging its notorious gap in center field by trading for the Indian’s Coco Crisp, the club apparently has acquired the final piece of its roster puzzle by striking a deal to bring slick-fielding free-agent shortstop Alex Gonzalez to town.

The addition of Gonzalez, Crisp, and second baseman Mark Loretta gives the Sox a defensive strength up the middle they haven’t had since, well, October 2004, when Orlando Cabrera worked his magic at short and combined with center fielder Johnny Damon and second baseman Mark Bellhorn to deliver the World Series championship trophy to Fenway Park. The fact that Gonzalez is a banjo hitter at best should not be a problem as long as the eight guys batting in front of him do their jobs – and if they don’t, then what Gonzalez does won’t matter much anyway.

Having now filled its last important hole, the Red Sox roster appears to be largely set. If anything, look for the team to move infielder Tony Graffanino, who now is a man without a position, and a pitcher or two (including David Wells) before breaking camp. But until then, enjoy the fact that there actually will be nine quality players on the field – something many observers may have doubted just several days ago, when the Sox men seemed about to get away.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Sox Roster Overhaul a Masterstroke of Long-Range Planning

Remember when the Coca Cola Co. first introduced “New” Coke and then took it off the market claiming slow sales? The argument still rages as to whether this was a huge mistake or a masterstroke of long-range planning, for while the product no longer exists, the company’s mind- and market share both went up and stayed up.

The same question might be asked of the Red Sox, whose roster has been overhauled during the past few months. Franchise mainstays hit the road (e.g., Mueller, Damon) and were replaced by people whose health (e.g., Beckett) and viability (e.g., Lowell) may raise more questions than they answer.

But was all this a mistake, as some folks believe, a byproduct of the front-office disarray that drove GM wunderkind Theo Epstein to take his short-lived, well-publicized sabbatical? Or did it result from a remarkable ability to anticipate other teams’ needs and desires?

I don’t pretend to know what Epstein and his colleagues know. But I do find it interesting that the same logic that led them to jettison Edgar Renteria after one down season distinctly didn’t apply to the acquisition of Mike Lowell, who also had his struggles last year. I understand that taking Lowell’s contract off the Marlins’ hands was the cost of obtaining Josh Beckett. But on the face of it, the explanations seemed to be that Lowell would bounce back and Renteria wouldn’t, and that just doesn’t jive with the intelligent, careful reasoning that has characterized this Sox regime since it took control.

What does make sense is that the Red Sox knew they wouldn’t be able to re-sign Damon for the money they were prepared to pay; that they knew they wanted Coco Crisp to replace him; and that they knew the Indians wanted Andy Marte. So when Rafael Furcal bolted Atlanta for Los Angeles, the stage was set for the dominoes to fall as they did, even if the fine-tuning took a few days to work out.

“Chance,” Louis Pasteur once said, “favors the prepared mind.” In baseball terms, there have been few minds as well prepared as those on Yawkey Way this winter, and for this, the Sox are to be commended – even if half the club is new come opening day.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Forget the Controversy, the Red Sox Have it Right

– Recent Front-Office Upset Will be Worth the Pain –

I know I wondered yesterday whether there is really more to be said about Theo Epstein’s return as Red Sox GM, but the team’s grand tour of the media yesterday did bring to light two very important positives that are worth pausing over for a moment:

1) One of Epstein’s most-quoted comments was his observation that his leaving the team was “an imperfect but necessary catalyst to get us to this point.” Though many do not understand how this can be, any business manager worth his salt (or any parent, for that matter) knows that the greatest growth experiences often are the most painful. In the long run, therefore, I believe the events of the past few weeks will prove to have been worth the distractions they caused, for they forced the brain trust of Epstein, Larry Lucchino, and John Henry first to formally articulate, and then to formally commit to, a shared organizational vision. And while it is currently popular to make fun of them for their public handling of the affair, my respect for them has only been enhanced, for they exhibited a very special kind of fortitude when they decided to pursue that vision together and developed a plan to do so.

2) That plan appears to embody my favorite philosophies for building a consistent championship contender. As reported in today’s Boston Globe, the Red Sox have decided to operate “with a clear basis of beliefs centered upon balancing immediate and long-term goals, with an emphasis on player development, pitching, defense, and avoiding cumbersome contracts.” Astute readers will notice that “slugging” is nowhere on this list, and while no one is suggesting that the Sox become the Go-Go White Sox of 1959 or the L.A. Dodgers of the early 1960s – neither of which could bash their way out of a paper bag – it is refreshing to hear a franchise so long dedicated to the long ball essentially cite run-prevention as a priority. After all, a team can make the playoffs on the strength of its bats, but – as the 2004 Red Sox themselves illustrated perfectly – getting to and then winning the World Series requires stopping the other team from scoring as well.

So contrary popular belief, there’s much good to have come from the recent Fenway Fracas: the front office is dedicated to a single shared philosophy as few ever have had to be, and they’re dedicated to flipping decades of conventional Sox wisdom to chase regular championships. Who could ask for anything more?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Baseball Trades Get Physical

– Medical Exams Now Key to Closing Deals –

While the rest of Red Sox Nation celebrates and analyzes Theo Epstein’s return to his General Manager’s desk – is there really that much more to be said about it? – I’m struck by the prominent role physical examinations suddenly seem to have taken in team’s ability to finalize trades. Nearly every statement announcing a deal today includes the phrase “contingent upon passing a physical,” and while such a contingency makes the same kind of sense a home inspection does when buying a house, I don’t recall it being any sort of an issue in years past.

I mention this, of course, because of this morning’s reports that Guillermo Mota may have failed his physical with the Cleveland Indians, and thus may require the Tribe and the Sox to revisit their pending six-player swap (Mota, Marte, and Shoppach for Crisp, Riske, and Bard).

In the “old” days, a player might well report to his new team with an (intentionally or otherwise) undisclosed ailment, in which case the two teams would snarl at each other for a while and then negotiate additional compensation, usually in the form of a replacement player or cold, hard, cash. (This was believed to be part of the reason for the Red Sox/Pirates dos-si-dos in 2003, when Brandon Lyon went from Boston to Pittsburgh and back again.) For most of baseball history, it appeared that acquiring clubs had as much of a responsibility to be aware of possible injuries as their trading partners did to play it straight – and if something got lost in translation, well, then, shame on them.

I’m not saying that this is how it should have been, but the current emphasis on physical exams does eliminate one aspect of back-room gamesmanship that once gave baseball a certain mystique. (Anyone who’s ever read Bill Veeck’s Veeck as in Wreck will know precisely what I mean.) And in some small way, maybe this is a shame, and just further evidence of the inevitable corporatization of the game.

Monday, January 23, 2006

And Then There Were Nine

– Apparent Addition of Crisp, Gonzalez Rounds Out Red Sox –

Red Sox Nation is breathing a collective sigh of relief this morning in the wake of published reports that the club is about to land Cleveland outfielder Coco Crisp and free-agent shortstop Alex Gonzalez It’s not that anyone really thought the Sox would field only seven players come Opening Day, but it’s still nice to know just who will be wearing the home-team laundry when the curtain goes up.

It’s unclear at this point precisely whom the Sox will give up to get Crisp, but based on today’s stories, the candidates appear to be new acquirees Guillermo Mota and Andy Marte, and catcher-on-the-rise Kelly Shoppach. Reliever David Riske and catcher Josh Bard are expected to accompany Crisp to Boston and thus complete the transaction.

Assuming the deal happens this way, Red Sox fans should be fairly satisfied. Besides having one of the all-time great names in baseball, Crisp brings some speed and batsmanship to the top of the order and should alleviate much of the sting caused by Johnny Damon’s defection to New York. Gonzalez, meanwhile, is an excellent fielder, and with any luck, he’ll evoke memories of Orlando Cabrera before his year is through. Riske is a proven performer and can handle both left- and right-handed hitters. And Bard not only fills the organizational hole left by Shoppach’s departure, but could well contend for the major league backup spot vacated by Doug Mirabelli (as will veterans John Flaherty and Ken Huckaby).

The potential fly in this ointment is the Indians’ need to obtain an outfielder to replace Crisp before they’ll be able to trade him. By most accounts, a move is in the works that would bring the Phillies’ Jason Michaels to Cleveland in return for either Arthur Rhodes or Rafael Betancourt, proven relievers both. And, of course, all players will have to pass a physical exam before any deal can be closed. So it will be a couple of days before we know for sure that the Sox lineup card finally has been filled. But if it contains the names it’s expected to, then the outlook in Boston suddenly looks a lot more promising than it did just a couple of days ago.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Theo Returns in a Role to be Named Later

– No Details, But No Matter: He’s Clearly the Man to See –

Well, it’s official: Theo Epstein is rejoining the Red Sox. OK; so maybe it isn’t official. But reports this morning are that principal owner John Henry emailed the media last night to alert them to the fact that Epstein would be returning to the team. The post he will hold, however, apparently has not yet been determined, and from a managerial/organizational perspective, it will be both interesting and irrelevant to see who is designated as the man to see when there are issues to see the Sox about.

Wanna make a trade or negotiate a contract? Then who do you call: Cherington, Hoyer, or Epstein? Never mind what it will say on their respective business cards – if I’m an opposing GM or a player agent, I call Theo, and no Sox pronouncements or press releases are likely to change my approach. We’re talking about someone who went from being Golden Boy to The Man in just three years, and it’s folly to think the baseball world will forget about this just because they're told to.

So welcome back, Theo, and get ready to rumble: you ain't seen nothin' yet!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

WBC Rosters Runneth Over: Let the Sulking Begin?

The teams participating in the upcoming World Baseball Classic have now all weighed in with their up-to-60-man rosters, and since the final squads will consist of only 30, deciding who ultimately makes the team promises to be quite difficult indeed. But even more difficult will be letting the others know they didn’t make the cut, and doing so in a way that doesn’t foster resentment and potentially ruin the start of their regular season.

The Puerto Rico team, for instance, features four headline catchers (Javy Lopez, Benjie and Yadier Molina, and Ivan Rodriguez), two of whom are brothers (the Molinas). Even if the team decides to carry three of them, someone is going to be told that he can’t play for his country, and will be left with the bitter taste of disappointment in his mouth. Now, they’re all adults, of course, and professionals, but they’re human as well, and after performing at such a high level for so long, it will be only natural for the odd man out to feel angry or mistreated as a result.

The U.S. team faces much the same situation on the left side of its infield, where it lists three high-caliber third basemen (Eric Chavez, Chipper Jones, and Alex Rodriguez) and two premier shortstops (Derek Jeter and Jimmy Rollins) – or, if you prefer, move A-Rod to short and simply reverse the numbers! Either way, only four of these five at most will find themselves in the tournament, and it will be interesting to see how the fifth handles the decision. I only hope the start of play isn’t accompanied by the sound of whining, and the start of the regular season by an outbreak of sulking-induced slumps. But if history is any guide, it’ll be look out, below, at least for a little while.

Friday, January 13, 2006

World Baseball Classic: A Good Idea Being Cheapened

Am I the only one who is worried that the World Baseball Classic is being cheapened by all the teeth-gnashing over which players will appear in the World Baseball Classic, and for which team they’ll play? After a very strong philosophical start, the event now is missing some of its greatest attractions – though for reasons not entirely of its own doing – and may be teetering on the verge of becoming more of an international exhibition than the global challenge it first was intended to be.

To me, the question of who plays where is a simple one: as a player, you first decide either that want to play or you don’t. And if you do, then you represent the country of your birth and earn your way onto the squad the way you do in such other contests as, say, the Olympics. Well, as far as I can tell, the rules of WBC eligibility are a lot looser than this, and it appears that saying you want to play is enough to get you on the team.

Take A-Rod, for instance. Eligible to play for either the Dominican Republic or the United States, first he says he’ll play for the Dominican, then he says he won’t play at all rather than “dishonor” either side – though how honor plays into this is beyond me – and recent reports say he now apparently is leaning toward playing for the U.S. after all. Or consider Hideki Matsui. After first indicating he is participating in the contest, Matsui later says he’s not coming because he doesn’t want to have to pursue two goals (winning the WBC for Japan and the World Series for the Yankees) – though why these twin objectives need to be mutually exclusive is beyond me as well.

My favorite example, however, is Mike Piazza, who is taking the field for Italy because it’s the birthplace of his grandmother. Now, that makes sense!

Adding to the fun is the Yankees’ refusal to allow Jorge Posada to suit up at all (think this has anything to do with Matsui’s change of heart?), the U.S. Treasury’s exclusion of Cuba from the event, and the International Baseball Association’s subsequent announcement it will not sanction the tournament if Cuba doesn’t play. Suddenly, what was a terrific idea for raising baseball’s profile as a legitimately international sport seems not so good anymore, and it would be a shame if it is unable to restore its original luster.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

BoSox Arms Buildup Prelude to Coming Trades?

– Tavarez Signing Brings Number of Worthy Moundsmen to 18 –

Devotee that I am of pitching and defense, I can’t say that it’s a bad thing. But having now apparently signed righthanded reliever Julian Tavarez to a two-year contract, the Boston Red Sox currently control 18 pitchers – not counting ‘untouchables’ Craig Hansen and Jon Lester – who are at or near the major league level (see chart below). This is the sort of depth we’re accustomed to seeing in Atlanta or Oakland, and it’s getting to seem like overkill even for an organization that historically is pitching-poor. My guess is that the club is using its deep pockets to stockpile the one talent everybody needs, and in the process position itself to trade for the shortstop and center fielder it currently craves. The next question is: who are we going to get? Stay tuned!

Pitchers on Parade

On the Big Stage:

SP Arroyo
SP Beckett
SP Clement
SP Papelbon
SP Schilling
SP Wakefield
SP Wells (LHP)
RP DiNardo (LHP)
RP Foulke
RP Mota
RP Seanez
RP Tavarez
RP Timlin
RP Vermilyea

In the Wings:

Alvarez (LHP)
Delcarmen (RHP)
Meredith (RHP)
Van Buren (RHP)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Westward Ho for Manny? No Go!

No Rice in this HoF Recipe

– Did Odd Vote-Getters Cost Sox Slugger Enshrinement? –

It’s a shame, really, that Red Sox lifer Jim Rice wasn’t voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame yesterday, but not for the reasons you might think. Statistically, I can see where some might believe he’s not worthy: after all, he didn’t hit 400 home runs, didn’t hit .300 for his career, didn’t win the World Series, etc. But there’s no question he was a – perhaps the – dominant force of his era, and I can only shake my head about the collective thinking that gave votes to Walt Weiss and Doug Jones, but left Rice a mere 53 short of enshrinement.

A quick review of the complete tally reveals what to my eye is some rather odd vote-casting. Two for Gregg Jefferies, who arrived on the scene as a candidate for “can’t miss” status and instead turned in a highly ordinary career? Three for Rick Aguilera, who certainly was solid but was no, well, Bruce Sutter? Seventeen for Dwight Gooden, who is the poster boy for how to take a sure-fire HoF career and run it off the rails?

What’s frustrating is that adding the votes spent on the bottom third of vote-getters to Rice’s total puts the Sox slugger in the Hall. I’m guessing – and can only hope! – that most of the writers who endorsed these last 10 also voted for Rice. But I still can’t fully rationalize how Gary Gaetti can get votes and Rice still can’t get in.

Oh well; perhaps it’s as Winston Churchill once described democracy: the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.