Monday, August 28, 2006

Fantasy Baseball

To paraphrase the very doubtable Tom Cruise in Risky Business, "talent, there is no substitute." Yes, the Red Sox are showing up, but the JV Sox can't compete. Our boys have gone from among the top ten in the majors this year to the bottom ten. What happened?

Chaos in the front office. Are lasting scars a part of the Lansdowne Landscape? It wasn't about the money, but autonomy, and the end result has been mediocrity.

Balance becomes imbalance. For the first half of the season, the Sox led the league in defense, were in the top quarter in offense, and had enough pitching to compete. Yes, warning signs were out there, most notably the relatively narrow run differential. The Sox were able to win a lot of close games, thanks to defense and Jonathan Papelbon, but mean reversion caught up with both Papelbon and the Sox, coupled with other factors.

Injuries. There's no crying in baseball, but the Sox plummeted with a combination of the prolonged absence of Tim Wakefield, a greybeard who had mostly avoided prolonged DL time, and the ultimate catastrophe, the loss of their figurative and literal backstop, Jason Varitek. Yes, their competitors had injuries, too, but Varitek's loss crippled the pitching staff, as the replacements lacked the game management skills so finely cultivated by Varitek. Trot Nixon's absence brought about an excess of right-handedness.

Trending becomes trading. The Sox on the upswing, notably Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell, came back to earth in the second half. Coco Crisp has never seemed to become untracked, and the stellar work of Mike Timlin over the past few seasons has evaporated in the August heat.

Growing pains. The Sox relied on Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Manny Delcarmen, and Craig Hansen, and other than Papelbon, the rest have lacked consistency, showing their inexperience and at times lack of command. It's tough enough to learn at the Major League level, but here again Varitek's absence proved costly.

"It's a soap opera every day." This is really overrated. Manny Ramirez's attitude and injuries really only came after adversity set in. When the time came to step up against the Yankees, Manny answered the call, but didn't have enough help. The excellence of David Ortiz both at the plate and in the clubhouse wasn't enough to carry this flawed team.

Trading places. I want to believe that the reason the Sox didn't pull off any major deadline deals was that they realized that one player or two players, with heavy financial commitments, weren't going to put them over the top. Having Bobby Abreu in right field doesn't solve the mound of troubles the Sox have shown lately.

Effortless? Effort isn't the problem. Terry Francona is doing what he can with what he has. Nobody envisioned a rotation including Kyle Snyder and Kason Gabbard in late August. Francona has tried small ball, but small ball is tough in the 'Three-Run Homer' circuit. Tonight the Sox have no major league stars in the lineup, and it's hard enough to win with your best, never mind something less.

Tonight the Sox have victimized themselves with walks and a balk. They haven't hit, but have made several remarkable defensive plays, one by Hinske in right, and two by Cora at short. They're hustling.

It's not the media. It's not the road trip. It's not the 24 hour bug, sunspots, or the economy. Winning has become fantasy. You don't win in professional sports without enough talent. The horses have left the barn. The only thing left is mucking out the stalls.

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