This is an easy place to start, and an even easier place to ignore and move on. We are all witnesses to what happened and, in all honesty, I'm over it and ready for next season.
[Note: This all became moot Friday afternoon when it was announced that Francona was not returning as manager of the Boston Red Sox. But I decided to post it in its entirety anyhow.]
I was going to write this as a separate post entitled Defending Francona, although that may sound more like a 1980s courtroom drama starring Al Pacino and Melanie Griffith than a short defense of Manager Terry (Tito) Francona. Let's face it, Francona is more likely to be portrayed by Mike Myers in Dr. Evil garb (or a chubby Ben Kingsley) than Pacino, although recently he's been portrayed by many as the villain or the scapegoat in the epic Red Sox collapse of September 2011. Fret not; I'm not here to call for the man's head. I am here to rally support for the man who guided my beloved team to two World Series championships in the past eight years.
Though I am not above calling for a manager's head (I am a Dolphins fan clamoring for the removal of Tony Sparano), I am not quick to do so and must find ample evidence in order to do so. In Sparano's case, there are consecutive losing seasons, his below-.500 managerial record, an 0-4 start to the current season, the 10-14 home record during his tenure, constant red-zone failure, poor play-calling on offense, general poor play on defense and special teams, poor conditioning, and leaked news from within the locker room (never a good sign during the season!) stating that players are either unhappy or uninspired. In football, that falls on the coach, and he needs to be the first to go. The coach (and his staff) regulates practice and off-season conditioning, infuses new players into their roles, calls offensive plays, selects defensive packages, and controls the workload of his players. Basketball and hockey coaches have a very similar job - offensive plays, defensive packages, training through practice, etc. Football, basketball, and hockey coaches put their players in specific positions and then tell them which plays to run in order to better succeed. The players are, in many ways, the conduit to the coach's beliefs and game plans. The coach is the mastermind, the players his puppets.
Baseball is a different beast. The manager controls the set-up of things (lineups, pitching staff, bullpen use, etc), but he has little in-game control, especially over how players perform, and he has very few subs on whom to call on. Baseball managers only do so much coaching. A baseball manager can pinch run a guy, bring in a new pitcher or defensive substitution, but he rarely, if ever, calls plays, orchestrates elaborate packages, or specifically trains his players. In many ways the sport is an individual sport. Yes, it is the team that wins or loses, but each at-bat is one batter versus one pitcher, while in other sports it is 5-on-5 or 11-on-11. The manager simply puts his players in a position to perform and they either do or don't. So much of what occurs in baseball occurs due to the individual actions of the players. Therefore, I hold football, basketball, and hockey coaches to a higher stander when it comes to team failure.
I believe Francona institutes the right attitude in the clubhouse and, for the most part, plays the guys he has to play. There is little he can do when Crawford or Pedroia or Gonzalez slumps. He has to stick with the guys given to him by upper management. It's true that Francona has some of the best guys available in the sport, and some would say he's under-achieved (record-wise) during the regular season, but he's been dealing with injuries, streaky players, and season-long slumps, and there is little he can do. I, as most of you do, sometimes question his in-game decisions - pinch-running for a player or sending a specific reliever to the mound, keeping Bard in one pitch too many - but most of those end up being 20/20 hindsight calls. In real-game time, his options are limited. In the hours since the conclusion of the collapse, Francona has admitted to his mistakes - batting order, pitching choices, etc. - but I still don't entirely hold it against him. Who else was he supposed to pitch in the 8th and 9th innings? Who else was supposed to start? Who else was supposed to play LF? When it comes down to it, he had the guys he had in the dugout, and those guys weren't performing. That failure cannot be held against him.
From what's been reported in the days since they played their final game of the season, it certainly seems like Francona tried time and again to get this team to gel and play good baseball, yet the team never responded, and that proverbial leader never stepped forward. It's interesting after all of our discussion on this site [Overthemonster.com] about leadership (or the lack thereof) on this team, it has become the focal point for all sportswriters and commentators when discussing the failures of this year's team. Curt Schilling had perhaps the most direct comments on this topic in a radio interview given on 9/30 - http://espn.go.com/blog/boston/red-sox/post/_/id/14744/schill-lack-of-player-discipline-not-on-tito. Here's a quote from Francona (9/29): "I'm not sure if anybody knew, because there were some things I was worried about. I think we were spending too much energy on things that weren't putting our best foot forward toward winning. We spent a few minutes in the clubhouse that day (9/6), talking about that. There were some things that did concern me. Teams normally, as the season progresses, there are events that make you care about each other, and this club, it didn't always happen as much as I wanted it to. And I was frustrated by that." Jackie MacMullan wrote a great article about all this on 9/30 - http://espn.go.com/boston/mlb/story/_/id/7036983/underachieving-boston-red-sox-flunked-chemistry. I am very perturbed by the stories leaking out over the past few days regarding players' constant complaining and the (unconfirmed) drinking of alcohol in the clubhouse [http://www.overthemonster.com/2011/9/30/2459465/francona-to-leave-the-red-sox]. If any of these stories are true, then something must be done (a full management sit-down with the entire roster of players), but I'll give Francona the benefit of the doubt and another season to see what he can do with this club. Many will disagree with me, stating that a lost clubhouse is the manager's fault. I can understand their viewpoint. However, Francona's job this season was obviously much more difficult than many of us ever knew. To me, it sounds like the team let Francona down, not the other way around.
Here are a few reasons to keep Francona:
- He's won 743 games with the Sox, at a .575 percentage, which would put him at 16th all-time for managerial winning percentage (his Phillies days actually drag down his career percentage).
- Eight seasons coached, only three of which fell below the 95-win threshold. In the AL East, that's impressive. 95 wins won't always get you the division crown, in fact it rarely will, but it's a necessary plateau.
- He's managed players with personalities as disparate as Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling, Johnny Damon, Dustin Pedroia, JD Drew, David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, John Lackey, and Dice-K. Not many managers deal with as many highly-talented and bizarrely-unique players. To keep winning despite their differences is impressive.
- The two World Series championships came with completely different pitching staffs - a rare feat for a modern-day manager. From Pedro, Schilling, Arroyo, Wake, Lowe, and Foulke to Beckett, Dice-K, Lester, Wake, Schilling, and Papelbon. The man knows how to handle a pitching staff when he's given players to work with... Let me repeat, when he's given the players to work with.
- The team's epic collapse this year was surreal, and little can be done in the face of the surreal. The collapse was not the failure of the manager. There are 25 guys in that clubhouse who have to look at themselves in the mirror and say, "I have to do better."
- Lastly, and this can be considered most-important or least-important, he's managed the Sox to two pennants and two World Series during his eight years in Boston. No decision should be made based entirely on history, but the two World Series in eight years means something.
After writing all of this, I can still understand why the organization and Francona parted ways. After what came out about the clubhouse relations it is nearly impossible to keep him on. The players, and it seems to be mostly the newer guys (and possibly Ortiz), caused a lot of problems that Francona had no solution for. Everything sort of collapsed around him, and he found himself a lone man struggling against the unforgiving tide of change. A parting of ways may be the best outcome for all parties involved.
Yet, now that they changed managers, it will be a "changing of the guard"-type moment for the Sox. The only manager in the past 93 years to bring two World Series to town has been shown the exit door. Some may believe that Francona lost the respect or ears of his players, but that's an unknown for anyone not within the clubhouse. As Curt Schilling said in that same radio interview on 9/30: "I would argue that with this group of players, with this group of players in this market, that Terry Francona is one of the few guys that can manage this team. If you're going to get rid of him I think you have to blow it all up." [This sentiment affects a few of my decisions below.] I agree with Schilling. I don't know how this team moves forward without Francona unless everything is blown up.
Due to Francona's departure, the Sox now need a manager to not only pick up the pieces of this broken season, but also handle the numerous personalities on this club (of whomever remains). I absolutely do not believe the next manager will come from within the organization, as the player discord that stained Francona also stained his entire staff. I'd be surprised if any of the coaches are brought back. I also do not believe that Joe Torre is a candidate in-the-running. He currently works in the League Office and it seems almost unfathomable that he would man the Sox bench for even a game; it was odd enough seeing him as the Dodgers coach. Since the Sox can afford anyone (even the magnificent Carl Crawford), any coach is in play, even those currently with other teams (as deals can always be brokered; e.g. Ozzie Guillen to the Marlins).
My Top-11 Managerial Candidates (who I'd go after and the likelihood the Sox sign them):
1. Joe Maddon - No, I'm not kidding. He'd be perfect. Unorthodox. Always optimistic. Gets amazing results from lesser players. He's probably not looking to leave, but it would be a major coup by the Sox to steal this guy somehow. He's signed through the end of next season. Likelihood: 5%.
2. Ron Gardenhire - Up until the debacle of this season, he has kept the Twins in every playoff race for the past ten years, often beating up on teams with larger payrolls and more all-stars. His career record is over .500 and I think he'd be a good fit for Boston. He's currently signed through 2013, but with the mess the Twins are currently in, with all their injuries, they may be willing to let him go in hopes of rebuilding with a new skipper. Likelihood: 35%.
3. Kirk Gibson - One surprising season does not make a great manager, but what he did this year with the Diamondbacks does show his potential as a game-changing manager. Once again, he gets everything out of his players. He's probably not looking to leave, however, as he has the chance to build something nice around a young core. He's signed through the end of next season, with a club option for 2013. Likelihood: 15%.
4. Cito Gaston - Currently retired, he spent his entire career managing in the AL East, winning two World Series with the Blue Jays. He's a respected veteran able to handle big personalities. Likelihood: 25%.
5. Mike Scioscia - He's a good manager, but it's not as if he does a lot with a little. The Angels' 2011 payroll was $140+ million, only $20 million less than the Sox. He'd probably work well for the Sox, and is a great "player's manager," like Francona. He's signed through 2018, with an opt-out after 2015. Likelihood: 10%.
6. Clint Hurdle - Currently manning the Pirates' ever-sinking ship, it'd be a god-send for him for the Sox to come calling. He's a veteran manager with a below-.500 record, but that's the exact manager Francona was when the club came calling back in 2004. He's signed through 2013, but come on, this is the Pirates and the Sox could have their manager for a crate of Schlitz. Likelihood: 25%.
7. Eric Wedge - He did alright with the Indians, but not that well with the Mariners this season. He actually played a few Major League games with the Sox way back when, so there's a connection, though miniscule. He's a hard-nosed guy, and that's one direction the Sox could go. Likelihood: 25%.
8. Willie Randolph - Currently the bench coach for those damn Baltimore Orioles. He's used to the pressure of coaching in a big-time sports city and he doesn't seem to be the kind of guy to take crap for his players. Likelihood: 25%.
9. Dave Sveum - Former Ass't Coach on the Sox, and a part-time Manager of the Brewers, maybe he'd be a guy they bring in for a shot. Likelihood: 15%.
10. Dave Martinez - Currently bench coach for the Rays, he's due a shot at a head coaching gig. I don't think the Sox will be the team to give him that chance, but his hat will be in the ring. Likelihood: 5%.
11. Bobby Valentine - He's certainly an off-the-wall choice, and the media's darling when it comes to every big-time managerial opening. I'm not sure the Sox would go down this road, but there are worse choices than Bobby V. Likelihood: 15%.
In the end, I have no idea who they'll select, and if Theo will even be around for the press conference. It's all a crap-shoot right now.
It's the team that failed in September 2011. Individuals faltered and failed at their respective jobs, but it is the team that is held responsible. You win as a team and lose as a team. So, with that clearly being my belief, in which direction do I see this team going? Are they a World Series contender or are they a poorly-constructed albatross around the neck of this city? They certainly have enough individual talent to win the AL East and contend for a World Series, but they need a catalyzing event to set them on their path together. A wandering group of talented strangers will not succeed. A team will.
PROJECTED 25-MAN ROSTER:
Definites: These guys are signed for next season and I don't believe they'll be cut or traded.
- Adrian Gonzalez - He'll be at first base through 2018.
- Dustin Pedroia - Staple at second base.
- Marco Scutaro - The team has a club option on him, which I think they'll pick up, so I'm placing him here. Lowrie isn't ready for a full season and there is no point in bringing in a new SS, considering Lowrie and Iglesias are in the system. I like Scutaro quite a bit.
- Kevin Youkilis - Plagued by injuries, he's still the starting third baseman when healthy.
- Carl Crawford - He'll turn it around. I have full faith in him not being as god-awful as he was this season. Even if he doesn't turn it around, he's impossible to trade with that contract.
- Jon Lester - The #1 starter.
- Josh Beckett - The #2 starter.
- Clay Buchholz - The #3 starter. And let's hope his back holds up.
- John Lackey - There's no getting rid of his contract. If the team signs another good starter, then perhaps he starts the year in the ‘pen. For now, he's a starter.
- Bobby Jenks - He won't last the season, but he'll be on the club come April.
- Dan Wheeler - The club has a $3 million option to retain him, and though I find that to be over-paying for his services, the only other option seems to be to over-pay for someone else's services, so I think they'll bring him back. Hopefully, he stays healthy next year.
Arbitration: These guys are arbitration-eligible and I believe they'll be kept through either arbitration or a contract extension.
- Jacoby Ellsbury - This is an absolute MUST. Bring this man back and hope that even in a post-contract year he puts up numbers that are 80% of what he did this season.
- Daniel Bard - The club will keep him. Keep grooming the guy for the closer's role. I'm interested to see how he bounces back from his disastrous late-season swoon. Pitchers can be mentally fragile, but something tells me Bard has it in him to bounce back in a masterful way.
- Alfredo Aceves - Here's the man! Re-sign him to a 2-or-3-year deal at all costs. He almost single-handedly carried the pitching corps into the post-season.
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia - Bring him back and throw him behind the plate for 110-120 games. But, please get the man a bigger glove with which to catch the knuckleball. I think he should get at least a 2-year deal.
- Franklin Morales - Bring him back for another year. He'll probably make the club coming out of spring training. If not, stash him in AAA until they need him.
- Josh Reddick - Bring him back as the opening day platoon starter in RF.
- Mike Aviles - Re-sign him to a 1-or-2-year deal and platoon him throughout the infield.
Inside Free Agents: These guys are free agents and I believe the Sox will re-sign them.
- David Ortiz - They must re-sign him. A two-year deal would be more than fair. He's still the best DH in baseball. Anyone else would be a step down. *I was much more confident about this prior to Francona getting the ax. A full-on house-cleaning may be coming, in which case Ortiz is gone.
- Jonathan Papelbon - You think the Sox are ready to hand over the closer's role to Bard after the display he put on in September? I think not. And, bringing in an outside guy is hit-or-miss. Stick with Pap. *I was much more confident about this prior to Francona getting the ax. A full-on house-cleaning may be coming, in which case Paps is gone.
- Jason Varitek - Here's my hope for the Cap: He re-signs with the team as Josh Beckett's personal catcher, while also taking on Ass't Coach duties of some kind. He'll make a capable manager some day, but can still be used once every five days to catch Beckett while learning his future trade in the dugout. He keeps the Captain's Badge, but an everyday player is named as Co-Captain (probably Pedroia). *I was much more confident about this prior to Francona getting the ax. A full-on house-cleaning may be coming, in which case Tek is gone.
- Tim Wakefield - One more year... Bring him back. He's still an innings-eater and not a season has gone by in the past 17 where the Sox didn't need to rely on him eating some innings. But will a new manager be as faithful to him as Francona was?
- Erik Bedard - I'm a big ‘Yes' for bringing Bedard back on a 2-year deal. He won't be healthy for a full season (I guarantee that), but he'll have 18-22 solid outings.
Outside Free Agents: These are the free agents I believe the Sox will sign. And here's where everything I write can be taken with a huge grain of salt. Nothing is certain and these are all hypothetical.
- Michael Cuddyer / Josh Willingham / Cody Ross - A right-hitting RF is needed to platoon with either Reddick or Kalish. These are all guys who could accept a two-year deal to come start opening day with the Sox.
- Hiroki Kuroda / Jon Garland / Brandon Webb / Livan Hernandez - A sixth starting pitcher is certainly needed after what we all witnessed this season. There aren't any truly game-changing pitchers available who aren't tied to a club option. Do the Sox really want to overpay for another 30-year-old pitcher, or do they want to stockpile young arms in their system and hope a few pan out? I see them signing either a veteran pitcher coming off a solid year or a guy recovering from injury who may be able to contribute more than expected. Either way, I see them going after a right-handed pitcher, as I have them keeping Lester and Bedard in the rotation.
Call-Ups: These are guys in the system who should be called up to make the 25-man squad in April.
Unfortunately, there is NO ONE in the system who should start the year with the team. Some guys may have the talent (Kalish, Iglesias, Weiland), but they need more time in the minors to either work themselves back post-injury or gain additional experience. Those are two things they will not be able to do while sitting on the bench in Fenway.
AAA: These guys will start the year in AAA (or lower), but are possible call-ups during the season. Some are free agents, some are signed. I think the Sox keep them all within the organization.
- Ryan Lavarnway - He's not ready to catch 60-70 games in the Majors next season, and he'll need the additional grooming and at-bats that he can only get in AAA. Sitting on the bench in the Majors won't help him. But he'll probably be up come July or August.
- Scott Atchison - I was going to treat him how I treated Franklin Morales, but I ran out of roster spots because another starting pitcher needed to be signed. Bring him up when he's needed.
- Andrew Miller - Bring him back on his club option and stick him in AAA until they have room for him to come up in the ‘pen. He can continue to work on his mechanics.
- Kyle Weiland - Needs to re-work his pitches and re-gain his confidence. He'll be a bullpen call-up at some time during the summer.
- Jose Iglesias - Still not-yet-ready-for-primetime. He'll be called up again late in the season for additional Major League grooming.
- Joey Gathright - I know he's 30 years-old, but the Sox need to fill out their system and he's a fine pinch-running call-up for September.
- Michael Bowden - Work on the delivery and getting some movement on the fastball, then maybe call him back up.
- Felix Doubront - Let him start in AAA and see how he does for a few months. Maybe call him up as a spot starter next summer.
- Ryan Kalish - Let him get his feet back under him in AAA before throwing him into the fire. If he out-performs Reddick during the season, then switch their roles and bring Kalish up as the platoon guy in RF.
- Luis Exposito - Keep grooming him as trade bait or the eventual starting catcher.
- Stolmy Pimentel - Keep grooming.
- Oscar Tejada - Keep grooming.
Bye-Bye: These are the guys currently on the team that I believe will be gone by next Spring.
- J.D. Drew - Sad, in some ways, that his time as a Sox has ended in such ignominious fashion. He should hang up his cleats, but I'm certain he'll catch on as a pinch hitter somewhere in baseball, at least to begin next season.
- Dice-K - They cut their losses and either have him recover from his injury all of next season, or waive him and let him return home to Japan. He will not end up with another team. He's damaged goods. But I bet you he heads back to Japan and pitches masterfully for a few more seasons.
- Conor Jackson - He wouldn't be a horrible guy to bring back, but I think he'll want more money than the Sox offer, and they need someone better to platoon in RF. He made $3+ million this past season.
- Trever Miller - Many of you are probably scratching your heads right now, but this man did suit up for a few games this season. He won't suit up next season.
- Junichi Tazawa - Another Japanese-import experiment gone wrong. He'll be brought back for spring training, but I don't see him making the squad.
- Matt Albers - Sorry, but the team should go younger here (Albers will be 29 years-old). There must be a 22/23-year-old that can give the club what Albers gave them this season (a 4.73 ERA and 31 walks), while also having room to grow and get better.
- Rich Hill - Who?
- Darnell McDonald - Bye, Darnell. Bye.
- Jed Lowrie - Here's one of the toughest calls on the team. It's all based on his arbitration cost and what they get if they give him up. I desperately wanted Lowrie to become an everyday player, but I think he's proven that he's not durable enough and perhaps not talented enough to ever earn a full-time position. If the team can pick up some draft picks by letting him walk, then do it. He was almost in direct competition with Mike Aviles, and I went with Aviles.
- Hideki Okajima - I like the guy, but I think his time has passed.
- Dennys Reyes - Never really had a chance, but probably wasn't going to show much anyhow. And who names their kid after a fast-food restaurant?
- Jacoby Ellsbury
- Dustin Pedroia
- Adrian Gonzalez
- Kevin Youkilis
- David Ortiz
- (right-hitting RF)
- Carl Crawford
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia
- Marco Scutaro
- Josh Reddick
- Mike Aviles
- Jason Varitek
- Jon Lester
- Josh Beckett
- Clay Buchholz
- Erik Bedard
- John Lackey
- A right-handed sixth starter
- Tim Wakefield
- Jonathan Papelbon
- Daniel Bard
- Alfredo Aceves
- Bobby Jenks
- Dan Wheeler
- Franklin Morales
We're likely to see neither a season's worth of the superb .700 ball from the summer of 2011 nor the abysmal .200 ball of the opening week/final month of 2011. 100 wins? No. But this looks like a team that can win the World Series... If everything falls into place health-wise and they play as a team. I project 96 wins and a wild card berth in the 2012 Playoffs.
Please share your thoughts and/or reactions.