Once the season entered its final month it started to become increasingly more evident that the Boston Red Sox organization’s primary focus this offseason would center on a plan to revamp their entire talent evaluation system and they’ve wasted little time in doing so. What most hope, however, is that this is just the first step in a complicated process that will result in a winning team once again.
It all started in early September, when word first came out that the team planned on permitting Bill James to take on more responsibility within his Special Advisor role to GM Ben Cherington. Placing more emphasis on James’ role within the team’s front office may prove to be an impactful part of this complicated puzzle and it could prove to be a good place to start. After all, James is widely viewed as the inventor for most of the modern day ways in which players are evaluated by baseball teams, scouts, writers, and fans so there is certainly some value in what he recommends. Despite having been a part of the organization since his hire in 2003, it would seem James had fallen out of favor over the past two years, according to comments principal owner John Henry made to the Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman (as reported by Dan Shaughnessy on boston.com) on September 6th:
One of the biggest issues we’ve had is that Bill James was a great resource for us but fell out of favor over the last few years for reasons I don’t really understand. We’ve gotten him more involved recently in the central process and that will help greatly.
Connecting James’ apparent absence to the team’s on-field failures over the past two seasons would be the easy way to justify this decision, but the team’s struggles are not solely the fault of a strained relationship that has since been fixed. But having James more involved in the team’s plans can only prove to be a benefit for the organization moving forward and it is a move that simply makes sense for everyone involved. Cherington has long been a big believer in James’ principles and reportedly has welcomed the change with open arms. The initial cause of the problems between the two sides is unclear, but there are plenty of directions one could speculate. During the first year of his tenure there was tension between management and the team’s front office, as Grady Little was never was satisfied with his bullpen and used players in roles that differed from what the front office envisioned (I’ll avoid rehashing what took place at the end of that season.) James was largely credited with some of the adjustments made that following offseason which resulted in winning the World Series in 2004. But things shifted course somewhere thereafter, perhaps James simply stood back while Theo Epstein ran the team towards a second championship season despite not having the full backing of ownership (another tidbit Henry revealed in that September interview, specifically that he was not on board with all of Epstein’s decisions), taking things up until the present.
Perhaps the single biggest James-influenced signing during his tenure was also one of the first moves made by the team, just weeks after his hiring. David Ortiz, then 26, was coming off a six year stretch in Minnesota during which he hit a combined .266/.348/.461 over 1,691 plate appearances (455 games), adding 58 HR, 238 RBI, and 186 walks. Over the ten years since he’s made 5,956 plate appearances (1,377 games) for the Red Sox, batting .290/.389/.573 with 343 HR and 1,088 RBI. Add in eight All Star Game appearances, five Silver Slugger Awards, multiple Top 5 finishes in the MVP race, and a decade’s worth of positive good will towards the fan base and it would seem pretty clear that James was right on this one.
He’s also made no secret of the fact that he disagreed with the organization’s decisions to sign Carl Crawford and John Lackey prior to the 2011 and 2010 seasons respectively. Neither signing – in terms of dollars or years – made sense from his perspective. The team was able to rid themselves of the Crawford mess in late August, rendering that argument a moot point, but they still find themselves on the hook for an additional $45.75 Million over the next three seasons for Lackey, a guy who’ll turn 34 in late October and didn’t throw a single pitch in the Major Leagues during the 2012 season. The general opinion on that situation is well known so there’s likely no need to discuss it further.
There’s no guarantee that taking more stock in James’ suggestions in the coming months will suddenly be the ticket to turn around the organization. Where this will have the biggest impact will ultimately be in the long term ramifications of their decisions, which could suggest that some of the bigger name free agents likely will not be on Boston’s radar this winter. In the process of jettisoning Crawford off the team’s financial ledger (and others, of course), the team shed somewhere in the vicinity of $262.5 Million in future commitments. Speculation immediately pointed to the team going on a spending spree this winter, but the more realistic approach suggested a likelihood that they’d be conservative in their spending, at best. Given the deficiencies facing the current free agent market and the team’s needs, there really aren’t any likely many options worthy of consideration for a long term, big dollar deal. It’s a strategy that likely works in the team’s favor in the long run.
Josh Hamilton’s name has continued to be thrown out as a possibility, but despite his obvious upside there just simply are too many risks to be concerned about when it comes to handing him a guaranteed contract in excess of $100 Million. His past addiction concerns are one story, but over recent years he’s been plagued by a number of nagging injuries and more than a few public issues that the Rangers have been forced to address. He’s also going to be 32 next May and is a prime candidate to not age well over the life of what could be a six year contract. Boston’s need for an outfielder will also hinge on whether or not Cody Ross is resigned, as there is likely only room for one addition to the outfield unless someone is moved.
The team’s primary need is naturally in the starting rotation, but even there the biggest name on the free agent market would appear to be an unlikely fit regardless of James’ suggestions. Zack Greinke has long shyed away from pitching in the larger markets, at least before approving this past July’s trade that send him from Milwaukee to Los Angeles in exchange for a trio of minor leaguers. The right-hander will turn 29 in late October and has a proven track record in both leagues. There are other options on the open market that could fit Boston’s needs in a more efficient manner.
The team didn’t stop with re-affirming James’ role within the front office, even though that move will result in a series of smarter spending decisions, as they continued to add a team of advisors to properly support Cherington.
There was never much of a secret that former Captain Jason Varitek would end up working within the organization in some capacity in the futre when he announced his retirement a year ago. Most never expected that role to begin quite so soon, however. Thursday evening, just a day after hinting at a pending agreement between himself and the team, Varitek was officially announced as a Special Assistant to the GM. According to reports, he’ll take part in personnel decisions and evaluations while taking on a mentoring role with the organization’s younger players. No specifics were released whether or not any conversations have taken place regarding a future managerial position.
Varitek may not have the formal experience working in a team’s front office, but he breeds instant credibility, a high degree of respect, and a certain comfort level with the current roster that should help facilitate communication efforts between the two sides. His presence is a win/win for everyone involved.
Deciding that wasn’t enough, news came out Saturday evening thanks to Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston that the team was on the verge of hiring Eddie Bane as a Special Assignment Scout who’ll help oversee both amateur and professional scouting. Bane has served as a pro scout for the Detroit Tigers for the past two seasons before landing this job with the Sox, after losing his job in Los Angeles over a disagreement in philosophy with then Angels GM Tony Reagins during the 2010 season. He had been the Angels’ Scouting Director the six previous years, responsible for drafting a number of the team’s current Major Leaguers.
Bane’s first official draft selection was Jered Weaver, the team’s current ace and one of the premier pitchers in the American League. Bane also was responsible for the international free agent signing of Kendrys Morales (2005) and the drafting of Peter Bourjos (2005), Mark Trumbo (2004), and perhaps most prominently, Mike Trout (2009) who’s had such a phenomenal 2012 season that he may become only the third player in Major League Baseball history to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP Awards in the same season (joining Boston’s Fred Lynn and Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki). Bane also directed the team’s drafting of Brian Matusz (2005), Matt Harvey (2007), and Buster Posey (2005) out of high school, though none of the three would sign and would later be drafted by other organizations.
A former pitcher who spent parts of three seasons with the Minnesota Twins in the mid-1970s, Bane has been scouting and evaluating players across baseball for over 30 years and spent an extensive amount of time within the Dodgers organization before a stint with the Tampa Bay Rays that ended with him taking the Angels job. While Boston has made some drastic improvements to the talent level of their minor league system, if there is going to be long term success bred from an influx of homegrown talent then the organization will need to continue to draft well. An evaluator with Bane’s experience should be able to offer some quality insight in order to maintain the team’s flow of future talent.
There’s been some disent within Red Sox Nation for the way in which the organization has been run over the past few years. Epstein was seemingly given too much freedom to make the moves that he wanted to, ultimately resulting in much of the fiscal mess he left behind when he left for Chicago. In his stead, the blame mostly fell on team chairman Larry Lucchino, who’s worst decision may have been his biggest in the hiring of Bobby Valentine. What’s most telling in all of this, however, is that Cherington is finally regaining control of the organization and he’s been given the tools he’ll need in order to make the right moves and decisions for the organization’s future. The team just got out from under a mountain of poor investments and it would be foolish for Cherington to blow a rare opportunity by simply throwing money at the biggest name free agents based solely on star power. The financial slate’s been wiped clean in Boston, at least to some partial degree, and he’s been given a second chance to rebuild and retool this roster. Add in a pair of highly respected and highly experienced minds to advise him and a well-respected and recent former player to help facilitate communication and it becomes obvious that he’s being handed everything he needs to succeed.