The May 30 game against the Tampa Bays Rays was the 54th of the 2014 MLB season, which was exactly one-third of the way through the 162-game schedule. The campaign has had its share of highs, lows, and head-scratchers so far. The BSI team looks back on the first two months by evaluating the team’s performance, position by position.
Only a few months removed from their third World Series championship in 10 years, the Boston Red Sox’ 2014 season has looked like the miserable 2012 campaign at times ― undoubtedly more often than fans prefer. The team may be characterized this season by inconsistent play and sorely lacking in the passion or resolve that prevented it from losing more than three consecutive games a year ago.
Admittedly, the Red Sox are in a market and subject to both an ownership and fan base where fielding a competitive – postseason-caliber – team is expected every year. Crafting and guiding such a team is not a small task when your chief rival and divisional opponent, the New York Yankees, have a “win now” mantra every season, and the money to stockpile a roster of All Stars. The Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles have moved decidedly toward the “all in” approach, as their present success has shown.
So, how should General Manager Ben Cherington and Manager John Farrell be judged based on the team’s 25-29 performance at the season’s one-third point?
The Red Sox have the good fortune of having a well-stocked farm system as well as the financial wherewithal to attract top-quality outside talent. To be sure, there is a tension created by this dynamic. Knowing when to promote young talent and to fill lineups needs versus acquiring players through trade or free agency is an inexact science.
One thing is clear about the GM’s philosophy: he likes deep rosters. At the dawn of the draft earlier this week, Cherington told reporters:
“Our goal is to be a team that’s capable of playing in October every year. And in order to do that year in and year out, you have to have reservoir of talent, as much talent — depth of talent — as possible, at the upper and lower end of the system.”
Unfortunately, as we have seen this season, it’s not just the number of available players that determines success, it’s the capable players. Winning is more about the combination of talent than the quantity. Cherington has, without question, amassed a pool of 2014 talent. The players have not performed, though. Outside of the recent seven-game win streak, the Red Sox have been unable to post more than two consecutive victories.
Could Cherington have retained Jacoby Ellsbury? That’s an open question, but the GM surely could have sweetened his offer. There’s a real cost associated with every free agent negotiation. There’s a monetary cost for signing him, but there’s a performance cost for losing him. The Grady Sizemore experiment failed to produce the lightening in a bottle hoped for. The result has been the team has lost a reliable leadoff batter with 30-30 potential.
Was Jarrod Saltalamacchia completely undeserving of another contract? The Red Sox have some emerging talent at the catcher position in the minor leagues, but a young, switch-hitting receiver with power and familiarity with the pitching staff was – even if a streaky player – certainly worthy of more love than he received.
Not that the Red Sox have a history of sentimentality. The team has frequently traded away top performers, or allowed them to walk away when the belief is that there is little left in the tank.
That was not the case with 39-year-old David Ortiz, who, after claiming 2013 World Series MVP honors, shamed the club into extending him. It may be the case with Jon Lester though. The team’s opening contract renewal offer was borderline disrespectful and there has been no report of further negotiations.
Then there’s the case of Stephen Drew. I sense this is probably an incidence where Cherington and Farrell have different preferences. The qualifying offer was perhaps Cherington’s overture to appease Farrell who has been outspoken in support of Drew’s presence on the roster. When a player of Drew’s caliber and status turns down $14 million for 162 days of work though, it’s hard to return to the bargaining table.
Cherington can’t be faulted for letting him walk. He guessed, accurately, that Drew wouldn’t receive a better offer. Returning him to the fold actually bring the Red Sox to the cusp of the 2014 luxury tax in salary costs, so they’ll likely be creative with any future roster acquisition this season.
Besides these long-term challenges, Cherington is at crossroads this season. The deep roster he has assembled is not producing wins now. His team is rapidly falling from contention and few of his counterparts on other teams are ready to make trades to serve the Red Sox at this stage of the season. He needs infuse life into the clubhouse, which the Drew signing obviously hasn’t accomplished. Time for action, if the season is to be saved, is short.
The Red Sox manager certainly has had to deal with his daily lineup in a much different manner than last season. The chemistry and resolve of the 2013 team produced a winning formula despite the personnel or setting. A year later, Farrell must feel more things in common with his time in Toronto than at the helm of last year’s Red Sox team.
A manager and his coaching staff have one basic responsibility: to prepare and field the best talent available daily during the season. They are measured not by statistics though, but by numbers in the win column.
Producing victories – or staving off losses – on a nightly basis for a six-month period (or longer if postseason play is achieved) is a demanding task but, as last year proved, victory is a product of a team’s skill as well as its character. The 2013 edition of the Red Sox were not supremely talented, but had a winning combination.
Sufficient team character can mask deficient team talent, to an extent. Deficient team character has the reverse effect though. It magnifies roster deficiencies … a la the 2014 Red Sox. No manager is expected to be a psychologist, but each one needs to realize that guiding his team’s psyche will be an important task … and maintaining a positive psyche is easier than reversing poor psyche.
Farrell’s World Series success least season showed he is very capable of the former – even if that means simply staying out of one’s own way. Refocusing a team mired in losing ways has not proved a strength, though. The seven-game winning streak was preceded, if not precipitated, by the confrontations with the Tampa Bay Rays. It was a definite reversal of fortunes, but a tenuous one. The Indians tested the Red Sox’ mettle. They couldn’t respond.
No one question the quality of the coaching staff – Torey Lovullo, Greg Colbrunn, Victor Rodriguez, Juan Nieves, Arnie Beyeler, Brian Butterfield and Dana LeVangie – or the team’s game preparedness. Nor is there evidence of a chicken-and-beer type rebellion in the clubhouse.
Farrell is a diplomat to be sure. His tact with both media and team has avoided the Bobby Valentine drama that contributed to the performance plummet of 2012. He handled the feuds with the Rays well, backing his team and even risking fines in his outspoken opposition to the manner in which officials handled the circumstances.
Conversely, his “subtle and stable” mantra is not resulting in the type of output the team requires to contend in the AL East. Time is not on his side either if the Red Sox still want to be playing baseball in October.