Good morning, everyone. Today, I’ve got something a little special for you. Over the weekend, I exchanged emails with Chip Buck from Fire Brand of the American League . After solving the mundane problems of world hunger and nuclear proliferation, we talked about the most pressing issue of all: baseball. Chip was kind enough to answer questions about the Sox’s collapse at the end of last year, this year’s Hot Stove Season, Bobby Valentine, and more Red Sox topics. Click through to read the whole thing. Click here for my half of the interview.
1. Clearly, the Sox had a disappointing end to 2011. After digesting that, what were your expectations going into the Hot Stove? Whatever they were, were they met and how would you grade the offseason and new GM Ben Cherington as a whole?
This might sound like load of BS, but the Red Sox are doing exactly what I thought and hoped they’d do this offseason. Over the past couple of years, they’ve spent an awful lot of money not only bringing in new players like Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and John Lackey, but also extending guys like Josh Beckett. While I supported most of these moves at the time (sorry John Lackey, but you weren’t one of them), I’m not convinced it was in their best interest long-term to do so. They’d moved away from the organizational philosophy of identifying free agent value and spending money on positive assets that helped them win two championships in four years. Instead, they’ve replaced it with an inefficient “quick fix” mentality of signing big money toxic assets, which has created a bloated, inflexible payroll and an aging roster.
The 2011-2012 offseason is nothing more than a “market correction” of sorts for the Red Sox. They’re primary focus seems to be re-establishing payroll flexibility, while making strides to get under the $178M luxury tax threshold in 2013. As part of the plan, they’re signing guys like Nick Punto, Kelly Shoppach, and Cody Ross to short-term, low-cost deals to fill specific roles and provide surplus marginal value. The trades for Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon fit the same mold as they were able to acquire low-cost players to fill overvalued roles, and all they had to give up were surplus prospects. At this point, the only thing missing is another starting pitcher. If Cherington can find a way to either convince either Roy Oswalt or Edwin Jackson to take a one year deal, or make a reasonable trade with the White Sox for Gavin Floyd; I’d be a pretty happy camper.
Ultimately, I’d give Cherington a solid B for his offseason with a chance to upgrade it if he lands a bonifide starting pitcher. The good news is that the Red Sox didn’t need too many upgrades this winter. They had a really good team to start with, and the front office avoided the seemingly inevitable knee jerk reaction move.
2. As we move closer towards Spring Training, and obviously the beginning of the season, what are the team’s biggest strengths and weaknesses? How are these strengths similar to or different from the team’s strengths heading into last year? Similarly, what do you think of the pitching makeover the team has undergone? Specifically, how confident are you in Daniel Bard‘s ability to convert to a starter, and do you think the combination of AnDrew Bailey and Mark Melancon can adequately replicate what Bard and Jonathan Papelbon did the last two years?
The biggest strength is clearly the lineup. Last season, they finished number one in runs scored, on-base percentage, and slugging. Making that feat even more impressive is that they did so while getting replacement level production out of right field. With a Ryan Sweeney/Cody Ross RF platoon in the mix for 2012, the expectation is that the Red Sox lineup will be as good if not better. Age and regression will certainly play a factor, especially with Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz, but I don’t see any reason why they won’t score 850 runs in 2012.
The biggest weakness is easily the back end of the rotation. It starts out well enough with Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz—all pitchers whom are capable of putting together stretches of dominance. After that, it gets a little fuzzy. Daniel Bard is moving into the rotation, and I really like him filling the number five slot. He has a great fastball, dominant slider, and a useful change-up that should allow him to be effective. OLIVER projects him to be a 4 WAR pitcher in 165 innings, which strikes me as a bit optimistic. The innings sound about right, but I see him closer to 2.5 WAR. The number four slot is a bit of a mystery. I really wanted Hiroki Kuroda badly, but you guys got him. I tend to favor a trade for Floyd at this point, but I’d be really happy with Oswalt as well.
I have to admit that I really like the Bailey/Melancon combination at the end of the game. Both are very talented pitchers with similar repertoires, but different strengths. They won’t be able to reproduce the 4.5 fWAR that Papelbon and Bard provided last season, but they should be able to match the 2.7 fWAR that same combo produced in 2010. Really, it all comes down to health for Bailey. He’s not an elite closer, but if he can avoid the injury bug; he should be incredibly effective closing out games.
3. Let’s go player-centric for a moment. Name one pitcher from the minors and one from the majors you’re excited for. And, of course, do the same for position players. On a lighter note, are you at all concerned that noted Yankee-destroyers Marco Scutaro, Josh Reddick, and Jed Lowrie are no longer Red Sox?
In terms of prospects, the every day player I’m most excited about are Xander Bogearts. At age 18, Bogearts showed some tremendous power in low-A ball last season hitting 16 home runs and 14 doubles in 296 plate appearances. While he still needs to work on his plate discipline and will probably outgrow shortstop, he has the potential to be a middle-of-the-order impact bat. In my Red Sox prospect interview with Jim Callis, he called him “the Red Sox’s best Latin American prospect since Hanley Ramirez.” I consider that to be pretty high praise.
Pitching wise, it’s tougher to say. Matt Barnes, who was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, has a ton of potential, but he’s yet to throw a pitch professionally. Anthony Ranaudo had a ton of hype surrounding him when he was chosen in 2010. He still looks good, but his projected ceiling looks to be a lot closer to a number three starter than it does a number one or two. Both are interesting pitchers, but I don’t see anyone in the Papelbon, Lester, Buchholz, Bard, or Justin Masterson territory yet.
In terms of the Major League talent, I’d have to go with Carl Crawford and Daniel Bard. I’d really love to see Crawford bounce back, and shut up his critics. I don’t know if we’ll ever see the 7-win player we saw in 2010 again, but I don’t see any reason he won’t be a 4-5 win guy for the next few years. As for Bard, I’m very curious to see how he reacts after moving into the rotation. I think he’ll adjust pretty quickly, but it’ll be fun watching him develop.
Finally, I’m not really concerned with losing Scutaro, Reddick, and Lowrie. Scutaro is a nice player, but he lacks both range and arm strength to play shortstop. Lowrie and Reddick are nice players, but they didn’t really have a future in Boston. I’m just happy we were able to get some good pieces for both of them. Overall, I’m not concerned.
4. Much has been made over Bobby Valentine being hired as manager. What do you expect from him and how overblown was the “rift” between baseball operations and ownership on this move?
I was dead against Bobby V at the beginning of the process, but I chalk that up to me judging him based on the brutal anecdotes he shared on Sunday Night Baseball—and because I was being a bit of an idiot. Since about two weeks before he was hired, I’ve done a complete 180. I like his views on statistical analysis, lineup optimization, and bullpen use. I do have some concern about him being a little over-reliant on tactics like bunting, but really that’s a minor concern. Overall, I think he’ll make a fine manager. All of that said, I don’t buy into the idea that the Red Sox need Bobby V because they need a disciplinarian. The clubhouse environment was nothing more than a scapegoat, and it was created by a group of people that majored in “Irrational Studies” in college. Had the Red Sox made the playoffs and won the World Series, we’d all be talking about how fried chicken and beer proved the importance of good team chemistry.
As for the rift between ownership and baseball operations, I think it was largely overstated. Were there differences of opinion? Of course there were, but that happens with every franchise from time to time, doesn’t it? Brian Cashman has had a number of disputes with ownership over personnel moves and club direction, and it hasn’t caused any long-term issues between the two sides. I don’t think the Red Sox’s situation was any different. Sometimes, rational people disagree. In the end, Henry, Cherington, Werner, and Luchhino got together, and made a decision that everyone could buy into.
The media used the rift (if you can even call it that) to stir up panic, sell newspapers, and drive web traffic. Dan Shaughnessy, the master troll that he is, was truly the biggest offender as he did his best to make the franchise look like it was disarray. Ironically, it showed those of us who really pay attention, just how out of touch he really is with both the Red Sox and the game of baseball.
5. With the Red Sox taking home two championships in the last decade, how has the state of Red Sox fandom changed? Is the fatalism that accompanied the team previously gone completely, or does it still linger? Consequently, how has any change in overall “fandom” changed the approach Sox fans take towards the rivalry with the Yankees?
Personally, my fandom has changed greatly. No longer do I stress about every run allowed or every loss in the standings. In fact, I was one of the few Red Sox fans that didn’t panic during the September collapse. Maybe I so busy trying to keep everyone else calm that I didn’t have time to freak out. I don’t know. After game 162, I did have a little freakout session where I went a little crazy for about five minutes. Other than that, I’m fine. I still love the Red Sox, but the fatalistic tendencies have disappeared. Heck, even my intense hatred for the Yankees has disappeared. I still dislike them, don’t get me wrong. I just have a very different view about the Yankees than I had prior to 2007 and especially 2004.
In terms of everyone else, the fatalism still exists. You could see it manifest itself in early April when the Red Sox started the season 2-10, and then it made a reprisal during the September collapse. It was almost as if Red Sox Nation was doing a live action version of Chicken Little, and everyone was simultaneously screaming “The sky is falling!” It was kinda fascinating to watch, really.
Another thing that’s changed is the sense of entitlement I’ve seen across Red Sox Nation. We seem to have forgotten our heritage and lost perspective. Unlike the pre-2004 years when we desperately wanted to win a championship, we now feel as if we should win a championship every season. When we don’t, we get so angry that we lose sight of the fact we’ve won two championships in the last seven years after going 86 without one. We become enraged when our owners “only” want to spend $178M on payroll for the season. When they decided they won’t go beyond their pre-determined budget, we call them cheap—even though their payroll will be about four times larger than the San Diego Padres. Not everyone is like this, of course, but it seems to be much more prevalent these days; especially in the aftermath of the 2011 season and offseason.
Chip Buck is an HR analyst for the most hated agency in the federal government by day, and a baseball writer by night. He’s the lead writer and dark underlord for Fire Brand of the American League, and an occasional contributor to It’s About the Money Stupid. He loves baseball, sarcasm, going to the gym, fake retweet wars on Twitter, The League, and spreading the word about cake’s superiority to pie. You can follow his clever, yet insane musings at @Chip_Buck on Twitter.
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