Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Hearts and Minds

Question. If you 'run' the Red Sox as a business, what is your first off-season priority?

Answer. Restore credibility in the franchise, which didn't just underachieve, but embarrassed itself taking some lickings at the hands of Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and their ilk.

Question. How do you accomplish that?

Answer. The American League has become the league of both pitching and OFFENSE. Statistically, the Sox had two superior players (David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez) and one productive player (Youkilis), and the remainder of the lineup chipped in here and there, but no baseball afficionado would consider the rest of the lineup offensive dynamos.

Question. Where do you start?

Answer. Short of getting back Hanley Ramirez (not happening), the Sox need to rebuild the offense, starting with another power hitter, hoping that a healthy Coco Crisp can get the job done in center field. Is Carlos Lee or Alfonso Soriano a possibility? Where will Youkilis hit?. He strikes out a lot to be in the two slot, but on the other hand, the Sox aren't going to become a running team either.

Question? Do you want another quality starter or a closer?

Answer. That's like asking do you walk to school or take the bus? It doesn't matter how you get there, you need to get there. Presuming the current rotation is Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield, and Jonathan Papelbon, with two aging veterans, if you're going to get pitching you can't get another Matt Clement. Yes, Jason Schmidt is available, but does he want the East Coast cauldron, or just the dollars?

Tomo Ohka is better than some appreciate and of course, Sox killer Ted Lilly would look good NOT pitching against the Sox.

Question. Who's your middle infield?

Answer. I could live with Alex Cora at shortstop (if you get what you need offensively elsewhere), but I've expressed my concerns about Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia hit better when he stopped overswinging, but his ability to 1) go to his right and 2) make plays off the BACKHAND really bothered me. If the Sox are paying attention, they saw Pedroia repeatedly come off the bag at second, often because he refused to play balls with his backhand.

When Papelbon first came up, he was tipping his pitches. I won't say what he was doing, but suffice it to say that he corrected it, and the rest is history. Only time and a full spring will tell whether Pedroia can make the adjustments. Adam Kennedy is available in Free Agency as is Julio Lugo, after whom the Sox inexplicably lust.

Everyone waits for everyone else to 'set' the market, but sometimes the best answer is to 'strike while the iron is hot'. Oh to be a fly on the wall at Fenway...at least Theo Epstein doesn't have to fetch coffee for the Business Side anymore.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Hot Stove League Begins

The Red Sox announced that about 81 percent of existing ticket prices would remain unchanged for the 2007 season. I'm sure that relieves many of our anxieties that tickets could actually get expensive.

"America's Most Beloved Ballpark" already had the highest price tag for a family outing of four, currently only requiring a second mortgage, a downgrade to regular from high test, turning the heat down to 60 at night, and buying only generic turkey hot dogs for weeks.

If I can find my Game 1 ticket stub from the bleachers in 1975, I think it will show $4.75 for attending a World Series opener. Now that's almost the price for a bottle of water. Well, water is the commodity of the 21st Century, and I'm sure that Mr. Henry will confirm that, although a lot of other commodities haven't treated him so well in the recent past.

Of course, that also means that 19 percent of ticket prices will rise. I guess I'd like to sit in the Monster Seats someday, and that'll probably only cost me about an arm and a leg as they say. As for sitting in the newer roof boxes or a luxury box, that would be great, but not at the cost of getting a chance to sit atop the 37 foot wall.

Now that the World Series is over (thank goodness), we can talk baseball again. The 1968 Series had more intriguing characters with Gibson, McLain, Lolich, and so on, and I don't remember it raining all the time. Of course, that was quite awhile ago, when they played World Series games during the day. Do the Sox try to get younger and more athletic (excepting Ortiz and Ramirez), or do they bring in overaged, overpaid, over-the-hill veterans looking to pay up to the luxury tax.

As currently constituted, we can't say the Sox can't compete for a championship, because we don't really know what team will be on the field next season. The Sox tried to go pitching and defense last year, and ended up with solid infield defense, bad pitching (stats don't lie), and anemic offense. Meatloaf never wrote a song "One out of Three Ain't Bad", because frankly, that doesn't work.

Schilling and Wakefield are old. Wily veterans or accidents about to happen? Beckett has to adjust to the Hitters' League, Papelbon (we hope) should be fine, and Sox fans everywhere wish Jon Lester well, but can't expect him to play next season. The Sox now have no reliable closer, unless Keith Foulke is habituating Golds' Gym or Lourdes, and as for Mike Timlin, see Schilling and Wakefield. Delcarmen, Hansen, Edgar Martinez, Breslow, and the rest could work out, or not. Jamie Moyer could get over 10 million dollars from Philly (as long as he doesn't belong to AARP), so any pitching won't come cheap.

Offensively, the Sox don't compete with the Yankees, Indians, White Sox, and some of the better AL offenses. Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis were barely adequate for corner infielders offensively. Coco Crisp gets a pass for playing hurt, and we don't know about Wily Mo. The Yankees have apparently signed Sheffield, so he's not the answer, and forget about Barry Bonds. Carlos Lee?

The Sox front office must have moved past its dysfunctional self from last winter, so we can anticipate a more coordinated approach. As they say, "money can't play", but the charge for the Baseball Ops side is to find guys who can, and money's just a tool.

Farewell to Trot Nixon, who played hard and sometimes hurt. The bases clearing double in the World Series will be his signature Red Sox moment.

This offseason determines the future direction for the Red Sox, who have to get better on both sides of the ball, get younger, and ultimately more productive from the farm. But don't cry for the business side, because they're raking it in.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Strategic Initiatives

Let's pretend that we're the 'collective' GM for the Boston Red Sox. How would we approach the retooling of the franchise for the upcoming season? Some issues for consideration including pitching, defense, offense, reorganization of the minor leagues (development versus free agency), budgeting, coaching staff changes, and the role of sabermetrics (quantitative player analysis).

I don't see any tectonic organizational shift away from 'Moneyball', particularly because 1) John Henry believes in trends and 2) it worked well enough prior to this season.

Coaching staff changes grab some headlines, but don't promise transcendental performance shifts. Ron Jackson and Dave Wallace departures don't translate into major win-loss shifts.

You can reorganize the minor leagues, but like commodity infrastructure (planning oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico) doesn't change the end product for years to come. The Sox minor leagues seem to underproduce major league players relative to the Clevelands and Minnesotas of the world, or at least it seems that way.

Will the Red Sox open up their checkbooks for free agents? Who's out there? What's the competition bidding? Do their needs mesh with the Red Sox? Obviously a lot depends on the Sox approach to Manny Ramirez. Do they end up paying Manny's salary fractionally for someone else, only to end up paying Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee? This doesn't sound that attractive to me.

From an offensive standpoint, the Sox didn't have an inferiority compley, they were inferior. If you accept the outfield of Ramirez, Coco Crisp (obviously played hurt), and Wily Mo Pena, then how do you fix the infield production? Kevin Youkilis nullifies the salary of Mike Lowell, and the pair produced more than the Sox could have expected, with Lowell making a solid comeback. If you picked up Soriano to play second, you sacrifice defense for offense, a trade most Sox fans would do. At best, the jury is out on Dustin Pedroia, who had holes both in the field and at the bat.

Defense might win championships in football, but arguably the best defense in the AL (statistics aren't perfect here) didn't come close for Boston. Jason Varitek's injury exposed the Sox lack of catching depth, and the Javy Lopez acquisition compounded it. Lopez lacked either the skills or the interest to get the job done.

Which brings us naturally back to pitching, with issues at both the front end (the age of Schilling and Wakefield, the health of Papelbon and Lester, the mental framework of Beckett), and the back end. With Papelbon into the rotation, the Sox have openings throughout the bullpen. Getting another premium starter might free Wakefield to assume a more versatile role, and where Timlin (free agent), Foulke, Breslow, Delcarmen, and Hansen fit in remains to be seen.

Although the Sox have a lot of talent at the 'A' level, I dount that they expect much immediate help from the higher minors.

Yahoo has a list of the best baseball free agents available, including some possible Sox targets, like Jason Schmidt, Ted Lilly, Soriano, Adam Eaton, or Frank Catalanotto. Lilly and Catalanotto are Sox killers, and addition by subtraction from other rosters. And as for Nomar at 3 years for 35 million, I'd consider that stealing, by Nomar, whose productivity will almost certainly be limited by age and injuries if not declining skill.

We know that Theo and the Baseball Bunch are probably at work now trying to rebuild the franchise. We can only hope they get some luck, which always trumps skill.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Theo Epstein: Stewardship or Sewership

You don't have to know rocket science or the Theory of Relativity to understand the depth of concern that Red Sox fans have for the organizational direction. Not since 1966 has the franchise appeared so mediocre but not average as the Sox did during the final two months of 2006.

From 2003 to 2005, the Red Sox finished second in the AL East three times, advanced each year t to the American League playoffs, and won the World Series in 2004. To an extent, long-suffering Sox fans give the organization a mulligan for 2006, including a disastrous series of illness and injuries and trades that (as always) require longer samples to judge fully. By what metric can we baseball outsiders judge the performance of the front office, most notably, Brookline's Theo Epstein.
The GM stated, “We were a strong club. We took on so many holes because of injuries. With those gaps we got to a certain performance level . . .”

Last offseason the Sox wallowed in confusion, the Gang of Four at the Winter Meetings, key Sox front office figures defecting to other organizations, and a rumored bitter power struggle extant between Larry Lucchino and Epstein. Epstein apparently won, although we cannot know the terms of Lucchino's surrender. The Sox at least head into this offseason with a stable staff, although we must determine how we will evaluate Epstein going forward.

Obviously, Baseball Operations require 'bottom line' evaluation. Did the Sox win (enough), and if not, was the failure tactical or strategic? A strategic goal would include minor league development, to allow the Sox to compete for a championship annually, with a manageable payroll? Another strategic goal (including the business side) requires revenue growth to service debt, and improve the finances for capital expenditures on players. A third strategic goal includes defining the core of the team and securing its presence. As a corollary, extending David Ortiz's contract satisfies part of that goal of attracting and retaining talent. A fourth strategic choice is the use of Sabermetric evaluation versus 'traditional' player evaluation.

Epstein seems to have the people skills and communications ability to succeed.

Tactical skills might include roster management (trades, free agency, player acquisition), talent evaluation, contract negotiation, and interaction with other franchises. A trade might pay immediate dividends (Pedro Martinez last year) but prove inadvisable later (Pedro Martinez' 2006 campaign and pending shoulder surgery).

Even the most compulsive fans (include many of us here) have problems evaluating both the strategic and tactical plan. Theo Epstein has said,
“It's not time enough for a really adequate sample size, but we have to be patient." I sense a number of solid pitching prospects at the lower levels (Doubront, Bard, Johnson, Masterson, etc), some progress in the middle (Buchholz, Hottovy, Dobies), and question marks concerning the upper levels (including the development of Hansen, Lester's health, and so on). The business strategies have likely remained on track (Lucchino's doing), and the core of the team has become old (Schilling, Wakefield), frayed (Varitek), or declining (Nixon). Pedroia will get the chance to have a full spring training to show what kind of player he can be, given time to make considerable adjustments.

We will likely assess Epstein's value over the offseason, as he faces a housecleaning challenge worthy of Hrecules and the Augean stables. While 2006's failures can be attributed to bad luck and performance dropoff beyond statistical norms, even the most 'patient' fans won't endure another season on the fringe with equanimity. To quote Theo Epstein,
“It's not fair to attribute my decision to any one factor or any one person... there were many factors that went into the decision. I'm sure that all Sox fans agree with Epstein's sentiment, “We want to win 95 games next year and get back into the postseason. We want to try to do that every year.”

They say that you shouldn't judge a cake before it's baked. Don't bet that Sox fans believe that too strongly. GMs have to adapt, just as players do. Fans won't adapt to losing.

This offseason will determine both the direction of the Sox and their GM. No matter what Epstein does, wins and losses will determine his legacy.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Schadenfreude: Tigers Win! Tigers Win!

The Red Sox and the Yankees share a cosmic connection, one often affirming the Universal Law of the Conservation of Happiness - boon for the Red Sox is anathema for the Yankees. And the Curse of He Who Must Never Be Named lives on.

I traveled to a conference in August and met a former Yankee employee at the most unlikely of places, the Lazy J Ranch not far from Vail. He explained how the Yankees would not win the World Series this year, just as they had failed the past five seasons. George Steinbrenner had fired him not long before the 2001 World Series. He didn't sulk, whine, or complain. His wife cursed the Yankees.

We all realize the futility in curse belief, especially in a game where dollars, not sense rules team composition. The Benjamins flow freely in their beloved Bronx, to the point that acquiring more than 20 million dollars in payroll in late July becomes not the norm but the expectation. The Connecticut Yankee Carl Pavano has turned out to be the biggest bust of the Tampa connection, and in the definition of irony, former Yankee Kenny Rogers did in the Bombers last night, and Jeremy Bonderman, another component in a Yankee trade finished the job tonight.

Yankee fans rightly ask, what joy do Red Sox fans derive from the Tigers victory tonight? Sox fans understand that our team not only underachieved but collapsed down the stretch, and had no claim on the brass ring. But many had proclaimed this the Yankees' year, one in which the stars aligned, and the 'greatest lineup of modern times' would carry the legendary franchise to Nirvana.

Yankee fans might argue that the best team didn't win. Baseball purists surely respond that the better lineup didn't win, but the superior team did. Jim Leyland's career sub .500 managerial record doesn't seem to matter much when it comes to slaying the Yankee dragon. History didn't matter, or the frustrations of a city that has endured economic travails from declining industry and an abysmal housing market. For one day at least, Detroit basks in the sweet sunshine of victory and wallowing in the darkness of defeat, the mighty Yankees have struck out.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Walking to the Finish Line

Baseball's annual marathon ends today for the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Last night only reinforced the contradictions of 2006, with the Sox squandering a lead in the ninth inning. Absent Jonathan Papelbon in the closer role, Mike Timlin couldn't finish off the Birds, and Kevin Millar laced a hit off the wall to provide the coup de gras.

Manny Ramirez made a cameo appearance at DH, and homered. Revisionists still call for Manny's ouster (amidst his annual trade requests), ignoring his productivity. Yes, he is a troubled employee, but a useful one.

The Red Sox West (San Diego) gets into the playoffs behind David Wells, and lets not forget Dave Roberts, Cla Meredith, Josh Bard, and others.

Sox fans say 'farewell' (maybe) to Trot Nixon today, and I hope they reward his service with a lengthy standing ovation. Nixon may not have been a great player, but played hard and often hurt. I've asked my wife (who's going to the game with a friend) to do her part in saluting Nixon.
The Boston Globe interviews Theo Epstein today, getting his perspective on what went wrong. Events conspired against the Sox this season, but the team clearly didn't have championship material this year.

Does he or doesn't he? Only his trainer knows. Ross Grimsley may have implicated Roger Clemens in the 'performance-enhancing' substance user group. Innocent until proven guilty, until Congress passes a law revising that...Roger, remember the two most important words in Washington, this and every year, "plausibile deniability."

Book Reports.
Don't forget to get your copy of Little League, Big Dreams, the latest tour de force from Charles Euchner, author of The Last Nine Innings. You'll never view Williamsport quite the same.

And for those with a broader dimension than baseball, Louise Richardson has written the definitive, scholarly introduction to understanding terrorism, What Terrorists Want -the three R's of revenge, renown, and reaction.