There is no need to be upset over this posting. I'm not upset writing it. I've been coming to terms with these thoughts over the past few weeks. It's finally been forced out of me by the 9-2 stomping the apparently offensively-challenged Rays just put on the Sox in Fenway. Not to mention a rotation consisting of dependable but human Lester, recovering Beckett, injured Bedard, not-what-they-once-were Lackey and Wakefield, and not-ready-for-primetime Miller and Weiland. Not to also mention that the team chasing us down has the best staff in the AL, bar none. It doesn't always need 9 runs, most of the time 3 suffice. 12 games left. 3 game lead. But that's not the end game here, admit it. This Sox team was built for the World Series victory, not for the Wild Card and a first-round bounce. Even with injuries, anything short of a World Series appearance must be considered a disappointment.
Here's the truth: This is not the Sox's year. That is to say, even if the Sox back into the playoffs they're getting bounced in the first round by either the Rangers/Angels or Tigers. And if it's the Rangers, the Sox might be demoralizingly destroyed.
This is a feeling I've had for a few months now, dating back to when the Sox were in first place in the AL East, with the Yankees nipping at their heels. This team has always felt incomplete to me, even before injuries began decimating the pitching staff. For a while, I was baffled by how the Yanks kept hanging around within 2 games even though the Sox were rolling offensively and had a near-full staff. Even with Beckett, Lester, and Buchholz, the team could not pull away. Even when Lackey went through his "upswing" summer, winning 7 of 8 starts, the team could not maintain an advantage in the AL East. And, all of this with the Yanks starting CC and a bunch of over-the-hills or young-ens (not to mention they played better with ARod and Jeter out). Even with three presumptive AL MVP candidates (Gonzalez, Ellsbury, Pedroia) and Ortiz having a fantastic season, this team could not pull away. Credit the Yanks for hanging around despite only one player batting over .300 and their second-best pitcher needing stem cell surgery to be able to throw a baseball. But it's more than that. This Sox team was built to win games, so why aren't they. Why these swoons? Why these late-inning losses? Why this late-season collapse? I have a few thoughts.
I won't bombard you all with stats in this post. We have all been witnesses to the season, including the near-mind-boggling slide over the past few weeks. The team seems disoriented. Fans seem disemboweled. Gordon Edes wrote last night that for the first time in his memory Sweet Caroline was sung with hardly any accompaniment because the stadium was emptying out by the middle of the 8th. Due to misty rain? Perhaps. More likely it was due to the dispirited play by the team on the field, and the fact that Francona began subbing in AAA players during the middle innings. Boston fans scare easy, and they're currently very scared.
Does it bother anyone else that despite having a prolific offense the Sox are so often held to two runs or six scattered hits; which doesn't cut it when our staff has the worst ERA in baseball over the past few weeks. It bothers me, and it is what first got me thinking about all this. I noticed that when the Sox roll offensively (you know, those 14-5 wins), they seem to gather steam (i.e. confidence) as a team, destroying an opponent with a 6-run inning here or an 8-run inning there. But when the Sox are off, and they cannot build momentum to that 6-or-8-run inning (which, admittedly, is difficult), they're often kept completely in check by opposing pitchers, spraying a few singles around the field while going 0-15 with RISP. Meanwhile, the Yanks seemingly score 5 or 6 runs every game, yet over the season average fewer runs/hits per game than the Sox. In the past 14 games, we've left 8 or more guys on base 7 times. The Yanks, 3 out of their past 14. The Rays, 4 out of their past 14. And both the Yanks and Rays are out-pitching the Sox over the past few weeks, resulting in better records. I realize it's the entire season that counts, but here we find ourselves struggling to maintain what was once a 9-game cushion, only to go 3-11 over our past 14 games. [I'm done bombarding you with stats. Whoops.]
Somehow, despite winning two World Series in the past seven years, the Sox have almost forced their fans to revert back to pre-2004 levels of anxiety and disbelief. It seems that every other day the Sox are putting a pitcher on the mound that has no business pitching in the MLB, not to mention during a pennant race in mid-September. Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland may develop into steady MLB pitchers, but this is not the time nor place to see their ERAs balloon into the 5.00+ range. I love Wakefield, but he should be long relief at this point. Same with Lackey (though I don't love him). I blame management for this, as you can see below in the bullet points. Many fans, even on this site, seem to be hedging their bets before each game. Oh, Miller's on the mound. The Sox will give this one away, but then they got Beckett and Lester going, so that's two wins. [I wasn't expecting a victory last night, but I also wasn't expecting a demoralizing 9-2 thrashing.] Heck, the headline on this very site prior to this current 4-game series with the Rays was calling for a split. Not a sweep, not 3 out of 4, but a wishful split. If that's not cautioned pessimism, I don't know what is.
Reasons for why this is not the Sox's year:
1. The team is leaderless. Bold statement, I know, and I hate to say this, but remember back in the 70s (before my day, but I've been told and read stories) when the Sox were referred to as "25 guys in 25 cabs." That's the Sox now. That magic they had a few years ago, when guys were smiling, joking around, having fun... they don't have that anymore. They've become a professional services division of a company, one that is under-performing and knows it (especially Crawford, who seems nervous about losing his job despite his guaranteed contract). Kevin Millar is dearly missed, even if his butt was parked on the bench as an Ass't Coach. Johnny Damon, and I hate to say it, is dearly missed. Mike Lowell is missed. Curt Schilling is missed. Heck, John Farrell is missed. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia should be the leaders of this team, but Ortiz, despite his fantastic year at the plate, actually seems slightly disjointed from management due to his contract status, and Pedroia seems to be just a bit off, spending half the season struggling to get his own game back on track; plus, he's more an instigator than a true leader. Unfortunately, the two $150+ million starters brought in during the off-season do not exhibit leadership characteristics. Gonzalez sort of leads, in a quiet, assembly-line sort of way. He shows up and plays every day, but does he get up and inspire the men around him? No, he seems more low-key, which is possibly why he loved San Diego so much. Crawford is not at all a leader, and has suffered through an uncharacteristic dismal season, which seems to have sapped him of all his happy energy. Ellsbury, a possible MVP candidate, has never been labeled the leader-type, and after last season's struggles with the team and the fans, I'm not surprised. Who's left, the pitching staff? Paps gets fired up, but he's way down in the bullpen all game long. Beckett is intense, but just ask Varitek, he's not the gregarious type. Lester? Another quiet, assembly-line type. This leaves Varitek, the Captain. It's difficult to lead when you spend 3/4 of the games sitting on the steps of the dugout. He leads by example, but he's not the "rah rah" type, and this team needs a "rah rah" sort of guy. The '04 club had 25 of those guys (after the Nomar trade). The '07 club, maybe 10. This team has 0. This team is tight, nervous, emotionless. No wonder Papi said it was time to panic.
2. Lack of Karma. If the broken-bat RBI single through Scutaro's legs last night didn't pronounce this to the Heavens, then I don't know what will. This team has a disturbing lack of karma. I believe karma is 50% you, 50% the world around you, and, therefore, I believe that you play a role in crafting your own karma. Well, whatever the Sox have done, it must be horrible, because their karma is awful. Injury after injury, setback after setback, disappointing loss after disappointing loss. This team has 3 full-fledged MVP candidates in the same lineup, yet is struggling to maintain their Wild Card position. This team began the season with three full-fledged Cy Young hopefuls, yet hasn't been able to keep any of the three completely healthy. We've lost games on bunts, picked-off runners, fluke hits, and so on. Some seasons your team has it, others you don't. This season is simply not the Sox's season. And, a sickening realization I've been creeping closer to lately is that this Sox team reminds me an awful lot of the mid-2000s Yankees. You know, that soulless corporate entity that goes out and plays like a machine, wins most of its games, but never seems cohesive and never truly threatens for the World Series. Those Yanks teams had MVP and Cy Young candidates out the wazoo, but they lacked heart and they lacked balance. They had a depleted farm system from pawning off too many young guys for over-priced veterans. They're front office had the mercenary mentality. They over-valued big-money pitcher after big-money pitcher. They made the playoffs, but they weren't the team of the late-90s/early-00s. It's almost as if the baseball Gods were making them pay for years of ballooning payroll and mercenary instincts. That is the Sox this year.
3. Poor Scouting/Judgement. Which impact players have the Sox brought in, either through their system or via free agency, since 2008? Adrian Gonzalez, hell yes (though they gave up their top pitching and positional prospects). Daniel Bard, yeah. Scutaro, he's solid. Reddick/Kalish, perhaps. Saltalamacchi, better than expected. Beltre/VMart, yeah, though their years did not go smoothly (playoff debacle and missed playoffs) and we didn't re-sign either. That may be enough for an also-ran or a small-market club, but not the Sox. Now, who are the busts (so far)? Lackey, Crawford, Wheeler, Fat Albers, Jenks, Reyes, Doubront, Atchison, McDonald, Lars, Ramon R., Boof, Matt Fox, Schoeneweis, Delcarmen, Smoltz, Alex Gonzalez, Bay, Penny... In 2007, it seemed the team had a solid future starting rotation consisting of Beckett, Lester, Buchholz, and fill in two vets or rooks. But in three years, the Sox haven't been able to fill in two decent vets or rooks, or keep their big-3 healthy for full seasons. The lineup is stacked almost across the board, yet offense alone cannot win a World Series (because good pitching always beats good offense). Lackey, Crawford, and Drew are numbers 2,3,4 on the Red Sox payroll for this season. Next season, Crawford and Lackey will be numbers 2,4 respectively. Is that money well spent? Hindsight is always 20/20, but after watching the team cycle through shortstops over the past eight years and fail to add to their arsenal of Beckett/Lester/Buchholz since '08 and overpay a lead-off hitter with CF range who doesn't want to bat lead-off and doesn't play CF, it's obvious that there is a misguided eye toward talent in this front office. Do they make a few great decisions? Yeah, because they have the money to fail. But don't they fail more often than they should. They have the 3rd-highest payroll in baseball and cannot field a complete starting rotation or a group of middle relievers worth a damn. And it's not all injuries. Lackey was a mistake. Dice-K was a mistake. Wakefield should be a spot starter working out of the pen. Miller and Weiland shouldn't even be in the Majors. There isn't a pitcher in the farm system anywhere near the Majors, and the upcoming free agent class of pitchers is underwhelming. The only question is: How much will the Sox overpay for CJ Wilson?
4. Injuries. I will not place injuries in the top-3 because excuses don't matter in professional sports. The Packers won a Super Bowl last year with a number of starters lost for the season. The Yanks are winning another AL East title despite pitching Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, AJ Burnett, and whomever four out of every five days, and losing ARod, Jeter, Martin, and Soriano for stretches of time. The point is, depth is key in any sport. Not just bodies to fill out a roster. Depth with talent. Have you seen how Eric Chavez, Francisco Cervelli, and Jesus Montero have stepped up time and again with a key hit or homer? You should have, because they've done it to the Sox a few times this season. Have you watched as the Rays young guys have blossomed over the season? You should, because the Sox cannot seem to beat them. How have our guys fared? Aviles , McDonald, Lowrie haven't produced much, if at all. The only pitcher brought in via free agency or our farm system that has pitched worth a damn is Aceves. The Sox lack depth at almost every position, and our farm system is not what it was six years ago. The Sox have leveraged a lot to bring in Type-A free agents and stars like Gonzalez, and the lack of quality depth in our system is beginning to show. I used to be psyched for the future class of Red Sox rookies, now I'm fearful. You know, the Yanks were always hated for simply "buying players." Well, what have the Sox done over the past three seasons.
Some of you on this site may (still) think I'm a bad fan, but I don't believe I am. Being realistic doesn't make someone a bad fan. And fans believing in their team doesn't matter unless the team believes in itself. Back in '04, I was measured with realistic expectations going into Game 4 of the ALCS, expecting the team to put up a fight but not much else. But, hell, if that Sox team wasn't fired up and full of optimism. They believed in themselves. They knew they were going to win. "Don't let us win this one today. Then we got Pedey tomorrow, and we got Schill in Game 6. And in Game 7, anything can happen. Don't let the Sox win this game." Millar declared that prior to the start of Game 4. The team believed it could win. I don't get that feeling, that outward optimism or inward faith with this team. No one's stirring the pot from within. They seem like a limp, dead fish in the water, barely struggling to avoid being eaten by the hard-charging Rays.
By all means, continue to be optimistic. Though I'm not exactly optimistic, I still check the scores every night, watching on ESPN or the MLB Network whenever the team is televised in NYC. I would love for the Sox to rip off a 10-2 end to their season, storming through the Rangers/Angels/Tigers and into the ALCS for a match-up with the hated Yanks. I think they can beat the Yanks in a 7-game series. And in the World Series, anything can happen. I want this team to win, but I'm not fearful of missing the playoffs and re-tooling a bit. I think the team, the organization, the management may need a wake-up call, and missing the playoffs in an almost surreal way would definitely be a wake-up call.