Sox Fans Should Be Pleased

The other day, I cautioned Red Sox fans against getting too hysterical over the early season success.  But they shouldn’t get too cautious either.  So far so good.  Despite tonight’s loss things look just fine.

Solid starting pitching.  Right now, Schilling and Beckett are one of the best one-two punches in the game.

Some great plays in the field.  Tuesday, Red Sox players made ESPN’s number one and two "web jems."  Is that a first?  Probably.

An offense that has been good-enough.  Yes, Manny has yet to get rolling and losing Coco Crisp and Trot Nixon is troubling.  But I refuse right now to believe that this team is going to struggle offensively for any extended period of time.

There have been some big moves this week.  Crisp’s new contract is right out of the old Indians mold.  Sign a guy well before free agency to a long term deal, at good but not crazy money, and keep him off the market an extra season.  Both sides walk away with security, and the club avoids those messy, unpleasant salary arbitration proceedings.

David Ortiz’s signing is good news for fans also.  Is it me, or is the guy starting to look like the Latin American Babe Ruth?  The big body; the funny trot; the mammoth shots; the larger-than-life presence – even the face bears a resemblance.  He is a special player.  Will he break down physically?  Possibly, but for now he’s pretty good and he shows no sign of slowing down.

Terry Francona is growing on me.  He seems very comfortable in the manager’s job.  I have been waiting all my life for the Red Sox to keep a manager in the job longer than a season of the Soprano’s, and Tito just might be the guy.  For one, he’s proven that he can lead the team to a title.  Two, you rarely hear players speak ill of him, even after they leave.  Three, he seems to go along with most of the stuff required of a modern manager – focusing on trends, platoons, situational changes and the like.  And he is gutsy when he has to be.  How many past managers would have said "Foulke is my closer" and kept bringing him out there in the ninth, even after he showed he was not back to his former, stellar form?  I’ll tell you – most of them.  Yet Francona didn’t, and we should tip our $25 opening day caps to him.

So keep smiling Sox fans, things look fine.  And fine is good enough.

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Classic Boston Fan Reaction To Early Season Happenings

As a Red Sox fan, I am as happy as the next guy that the team is off to a great start.  Five wins, all on the road.  You cannot ask for more.

But enough with the hysteria.  Especially the celebrating over the Yankees’ pitiful showing out west, where they posted a 2-4 record.

The fact is, things that happen early in the season are always grossly overrated.  Even the worst teams in baseball will win five of six games many times during the course of the season.  Winning five of six out of the gate means about as much as it would mean if the club did it in July.   

But – and this is a large "but" – this is not to say that there have not been some really positive signs.  The starting pitching has been mostly solid.  Two good starts by Schilling, one by Beckett and one by Wakefield.  Clement allowed four runs in his start, but he kept the Orioles scoreless through six innings.  Five of six good starts.  The Sox will take that level of performance any time.

Defensively, the club has made several big plays.  Ramirez, Crisp and others have made the highlight film on more than one occasion.  Spectacular catches don’t necessarily evidence a great defensive team, but they don’t hurt.  And when there are a lot of them at minimum you can give the club props for being entertaining.

The offense – with Ramirez, Ortiz and Varitek in the middle of the order – has been, and should continue to be, just fine.  The big thing with the offense is health – so long as Manny, Big Papi and the other key starters are available and unimpaired there is no rational reason to expect them not to put solid numbers.

Its almost a baseball cliche but the fact is, like any modern team, the big question with the Sox remains the bullpen.  Timlin has looked pretty good in the set up role, and Papelbon has been almost unhittable as the closer.  I think closers are vastly overrated, but I also think Oswald acted alone, and I haven’t had anymore luck convincing people of that either.  The team wants to have someone in the closer role, and right now Foulke is a few great appearances away from showing he can reclaim the job.

One negative has been middle relief, where Seanez and company have failed to impress.  Here’s my feeling about that.  For the last few years, the bullpen has changed dramatically from April to mid-season.  It won’t surprise me at all if some of the guys they have there now are answers to trivia questions by July 1, if not sooner.  I expect them to hang around a while, but if they are not effective there is almost no chance they will remain with the club.  In other words, the risk of them doing long term damage to the Sox’ prospects is low.

Now let’s turn to the Yankees for a minute.  Does anybody really expect them to stumble around and play .500 ball?  People forget – they did this last year, when they were baseball’s streakiest team by a wide margin.  Win 9 of 11; lose 4 of 5; win 20 of 25; lose 8 of 12; that sort of thing.  Eventually, the good streaks outweighed the bad and there they were, atop the division leaderboard come late September.

So here is the deal – be happy the Red Sox are winning.  Be happy the Yankees are losing.  But don’t focus on the big picture just yet, its way to early to count anybody in, or out.

SOX OPENER JUST AS THEY PLANNED IT – AND WILL THE ROCKET RETURN?

Yesterday’s opener was right out of the off-season play book.  A great performance by the starter – Curt Schilling.  Production up and down the order – a big double by Jason Varitek, and home runs by David Ortiz and Mike Lowell, of all people.  Spectacular outfield play from Coco Crisp.  A nice inning of work from reliever Jonathan Papelbon.  JT Snow and Adam Stern in late as defensive replacements.  Everything except Keith Foulke’s hideous inning of work in the ninth went according to form.

I still think this is a club built more than anything else to score runs.  So it was good to see that discussions with Roger Clemens continue.  Its obvious that there is some serious courting going on here, and the Rocket is doing everything he can not to upset the positive atmosphere.  In his surprisingly lengthy quotes from yesterday, he spoke glowingly of the Sox, and his time with the club all those years ago.  There were no references to Dan Duquette; no references to his "entering the twilight of his career;" no references to fans booing him mercilessly in his many returns wearing opponent’s uniforms.  True, he could just be keeping his options open, but Beantown makes a lot of sense.  The guy loves money, so it will have to be there, but he also is a student of history, and he knows that a return to his original club will be a story unlike any other.

We’ll keep our eye out for any word on how this proceeds.  Stay tuned.

SOX LINEUP WILL BE BETTER

The "story" this preseason for the Red Sox has been the rather large turnover in the starting lineup.  Four changes – three new infielders and a new center-fielder.

I think this angle has been slightly overblown.  The core of the Red Sox the last several seasons has been Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, Bill Mueller and Johnny Damon.  Four of those six players return in 2006.

The other positions, first base, second base and shortstop, have been revolving doors in recent years.  First base has belonged at various times to Kevin Millar, John Olerud and others.  Second base has been manned by Todd Walker, Pokey Reese, Mark Bellhorn and Tony Graffanino.  Shortstop – since Nomar left, has been a trip also.  Orlando Cabrera, followed by the late, great Edgar Renteria.

Still, since there have been some changes its always fun to compare year to year and see whether we think there’s been an upgrade.

Coco Crisp (CF) – I love this guy.  His numbers, and age (26), tell me that he’s going to make people forget Johnny Damon in no time.  He is not Rickey Henderson – that is, he will not get on base over forty percent of the time, but he’ll be plenty good enough with speed and a little power.  Damon, on the other hand, is due for a decline.  (SLIGHT UPGRADE)

Mark Loretta (2B) – The Sox must see second base as a spot where you can put an aging guy who can provide some offense at relatively low cost, because that’s what they’ve been doing there since Walker arrived a few years back.  Loretta fits that mold nicely.  If he is over his recent health problems, he should be an upgrade offensively.  One more thing – when is someone going to mention the classic Beantown punk classic from the 70’s, "Talk To Loretta" by the Nervous Eaters?  I still have the single in my juke box.  (SLIGHT UPGRADE)

David Ortiz (DH) – Doesn’t he remind you more and more of the Bambino?  He is a phenomenal offensive player, showing no signs of slowing down.  My only concern – most Red Sox stars eventually turn sour.  Its an iron law – think of Williams, Yaz, Rice, Boggs, Roger, Nomar, Mo, Pedro.  The media get to them, and they get grumpy.  This guy’s greatest contribution to the team could be overcoming that trend and setting a great example for the others.  (NO CHANGE)

Manny Ramirez (LF) – They just can’t get rid of this guy.  Oh well, I guess we are just going to have to suffer through another season of 40 home runs, 120 RBI and a high OBP.  Yes, there were times last year when he went to sleep for a while – but by the end the numbers were there.  If he’s around in 2007, we will have to start worrying about his age – but I say he’s got one more historic year in him.  (NO CHANGE)

Trot Nixon (RF) – When I penned a column for Masslive a few years back, I loved this guy and promoted him every chance I got.  I’m done.  Staying healthy is part of the deal – whether its his fault or not is beside the point.  Yes, there are certain situations when I still want to see him up there (Yankee Stadium against a righty comes to mind), but most of the time he’s just a gimpy guy with modest power.  A nice what-might-have-been kind of player, but that’s all.  (SLIGHT DECLINE)

Jason Varitek (C) – Eventually, a catcher breaks down.  True, Varitek is a tough guy, but at times last year his bat seemed slow and its inevitable that we will eventually see a decline in production.  With my April, rose-colored glasses firmly in place, I say he’s fine.  For now.  (NO CHANGE)

Mike Lowell (3B) – This is a pure guess.  He’s produced at high levels in the past, but last year was a bust.  He started poorly this spring, but came on with a vengeance late.  As one Globe columnist pointed out, Bill Mueller was a pretty good offensive player (about like Damon).  No superstar, but no liability either.  The rose-colored glasses come off for this one.  (SLIGHT DOWNGRADE)

Kevin Youkalis (IB) – This is likely to be a rough-platoon with J.T. Snow getting a fair amount of time, ala Olerud.  Youkalis – formerly known as the Greek God of Walks – will be expected to get on base and provide some spark at the bottom of the order.  Snow is a decent offensive player with a good glove.  (SLIGHT UPGRADE)

Alex Gonzalez (SS) – His history suggests that although he will not get on base with great regularity, he will hit for occasional power.  I like that.  It means from time to time he actually might hit a home run when they need it.  I have a theory, born of experience, that players acquired mostly for their defense lose their luster very quickly – fans and club officials lose patience with all the outs.  But overall, Gonzalez for Renteria is a good move.  (SLIGHT UPGRADE)

So there you have it – four slight upgrades, two slight downgrades and three positions where I see no change.  For an offense that already was among the best in the game, I think that’s pretty good.

STRANGE PARALLELS BETWEEN LOSS OF VINATIERI AND BOBBY ORR

There are some fun and interesting parallels between the Patriots loss of star kicker Adam Vinitieri and the Bruins’ loss of Bobby Orr, thirty years ago.

  1. Both players wore number 4.
  2. Orr came from the frigid, northern central region of Ontario.  Vinitieri hailed from the frigid, northern central state of South Dakota.
  3. Orr joined the Bruins in 1966, and left in 1976.  Vinitieri joined the Patriots in 1996, and left in 2006.
  4. Orr’s Bruins played in seventeen playoff series.  Vinitieri’s Patriots played in seventeen playoff games.
  5. Orr’s Bruins ended decades of fan frustration by winning two Stanley Cups.  Vinitieri’s Patriots ended decades of fan frustration by winning three Vince Lombardi trophies.
  6. Orr’s Bruins won the first of their championships on a game ending goal by Orr against St. Louis, in which he flew through the air.  Vinitieri’s Patriots won the first of their championships on a game ending field goal by Vinitieri against St. Louis, which sailed through the air.  Pictures of both plays are autographed and sold to this day.
  7. Orr is frequently touted as perhaps the greatest defenseman in NHL history.   Vinitieri is frequently touted as perhaps the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history.
  8. Orr was a handsome, popular local pitchman for area businesses such as BayBanks.  Vinitieri was a handsome, popular local pitchman for area businesses such as Papa Gino’s.
  9. Orr left the Bruins to join the Blackhawks, a perennial, star-studded contender that kept making the semi-finals and finals before falling short.  Vinitieri has left the Patriots to join the Colts.  Enough said.
  10. And last but not least, both players achieved their greatest glory on the ice and snow.

Let us hope, for Adam Vinitieri’s sake, that the parallels end here.  Orr was injured immediately after arriving in the Windy City, and he was never the same.

ARROYO TRADE SEEMS OUT OF EPSTEIN MOLD

It is no surprise that the Red Sox traded pitcher Bronson Arroyo.  One, he is at best a serviceable major league starting pitcher.  Two – although GM Theo Epstein denies there is such a thing – the Sox have excess pitching.  Three, the club was not enthused about Arroyo’s intense focus on his music career.  They’ll deny that too, but trust me – they thought he overdid it.

What is surprising is that the Red Sox traded Arroyo for a player – Reds outfielder Wily Mo Pena – that seems to stand for everything Bill James, Epstein and company loathe – a guy that looks the part, but does not produce.

Indeed, on WEEI yesterday Epstein sounded positively Dan Duquette-like, raving about Pena’s physique, power, potential and “tools.”  Anytime you hear talk about a player’s “tools” your alarm bells had better ring, because chances are the word is being employed to justify either acquiring, or hanging onto, a player that hasn’t put up numbers worth mentioning. 

One recalls the excess praise Duquette heaped upon the Adonis-like Wes Chamberlain when the club acquired him back in the ‘90’s.  Chamberlain looked like a guy that should have been a perennial All-Star.  Big, strong, Dave Winfield-like.  Problem was he couldn’t hit before he showed up in Fenway, and couldn’t hit once he got there.  He was out of baseball shortly thereafter.

Pena’s career numbers are as curious as they are unimpressive.  His on base percentage is just over .300 (.303), which is remarkably bad.  Certainly in the bottom five percent of outfielders.  And although his raw power produced 45 home runs in his last 647 at bats, he accumulated only 27 doubles during that time and struck out 224 times, or more than once every three at bats.  That sounds like a guy who rarely makes contact, but is strong enough to muscle one out when he does.  And it also looks like a major departure from the club’s philosophy of acquiring players that have good strike zone discipline – Bellhorn, Mueller, Loretta – regardless of their physical attributes.

So what does Pena have going for him?  Well, he’s big, strong and young – just 24. And as Epstein points out in his defense, Pena was drafted in his teens and has spent little time in the minors learning the game from the ground up.  The theory is there is still a lot of room for him to grow.

Nice try, Theo, but I am not sure how we solve that problem now.  After all, Pena supposedly is slated to make the big club and platoon with Trot Nixon, which means Pena will get maybe 200 or so at bats, all of them in the Fenway pressure cooker.  Hardly a minor league training experience.  And although his best years could be ahead of him (the whole late twenties thing), getting to those years may prove difficult if his production stays near the level it has reached to date.

David Ortiz recently played with Pena in winter ball, and he raves about his power and work ethic.  That’s good.  But I just can’t think of too many guys that significantly turned their games around like Pena needs to in order to succeed with the Red Sox.  The bottom line is this – I don’t think this is John Tudor for Mike Easler, but it could be one of those unnecessary gambles the Sox regret a year or two down the road. 

A SCHILLING COMEBACK IN 2006 WILL BE GOOD FOR SOX AND HIM

In the second of our series breaking down this year’s roster, we look at Josh Beckett’s new rotation mate, Curt Schilling.

For the Red Sox to contend in 2006, conventional wisdom dictates that the team needs Curt Schilling healthy and winning games.  Schilling was magnificent in 2004, posting a 21-6 record with an ERA of 3.26 in 226 innings.  And his exploits in the postseason are the stuff of legend – the bloody sock in game six of the ALCS, and the heroic win on a blustery night in game two of the World Series where he could barely walk.

Unfortunately, Schilling’s momentous achievement in 2004 contributed to an ankle problem that cost him almost the entire 2005 campaign.  The right-hander compiled just 93 innings pitched last year, mostly in relief, with limited effectiveness.  He recently claimed on sports radio that he seriously contemplated retirement.

After a difficult off season of non-stop rehabilitation, Schilling threw against the BC Eagles baseball team yesterday and looked good.  He struck out three and reported no serious problems.  That’s really good news for Sox fans, because the team needs – perhaps expects – that he will find a way to make it all work out despite the severity of his injury and the normal wear and tear that comes with age.

Schilling is an interesting player.  He is on the verge of 200 career wins, a serious achievement.  His numbers are good – he has appeared in close to 3000 innings, tenth among active pitchers behind first ballot Hall of Famers Roger Clemens, Greg Maddox and Randy Johnson and six others.  Another season or two and he will reach the top 100 all time for innings pitched.  His best stat is his strikeout to walk ratio, which is otherworldly.  For his career, Schilling has 2832 strikeouts and 660 walks, a ratio of 4.3 to 1, third in all of baseball history behind Ireland-born Tommy Bond and Pedro Martinez.  (This means in 2004, the Sox had the two, all-time greatest strikeout-to-walk pitchers in modern history.)

Schilling’s notoriety results from his having played in a lot of big games.  Unlike some stars, who go an entire career largely outside the spotlight, Schilling has found his way into four postseasons (he sat out the 2005 Division Series), and three World Series.  In those situations, he has delivered.  He has 7 postseason wins in 15 starts with an ERA of 2.06 (take away his disastrous start in game one of the 2004 ALCS and he’d be under 2.00).  And on the biggest stage of all, the World Series, Schilling has a record of 3-1 with an ERA of 2.11 in six starts.

Still, official, individual honors largely have eluded him.  He has appeared in six All Star games, and he was the 2001 World Series MVP with the Diamondbacks.  But he has never won a Cy Young Award, despite three twenty-win seasons.  In fact, in his entire career he has only gotten two first place votes.

I think Curt Schilling has had a career worthy of the Hall of Fame.  Unless he continues into his forties ala Roger Clemens and achieves great success in doing so, his win total – just over 200 – will put him on the low end of the spectrum.  This will only be highlighted by the fact that some guys with crazy win totals like Clemens (341), Maddox (318), Tom Glavine (275) and Johnson (263) will be up for a vote at about the same time and make his numbers look less stellar by comparison.  Still, one must take due note of Schilling’s incredible notoriety, his track record of postseason success, and his undeniable place in the recent history of the game.

If Schilling can deliver more goods in 2006, it will be great for the Red Sox and great for his place in history.