Wait, what? But I've already got two strikes... OK, you're the boss. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
As the kids say nowadays, welp.
Yesterday, while many of us were screaming at the Patriots and their bizarrely lethargic offense, the Red Sox lost to the Blue Jays. Wins by New York and Baltimore later in the day made official what we've all known was coming for several months: Boston will be watching the playoffs from home. With 81 losses now in the books, their streak of fourteen winning seasons will also come to an end.
So with that bit of painful record-keeping out of the way, I figured we'd get the winding down started. There's going to be quite a bit written about what got the Red Sox into such a bad situation over the next few weeks. I've little doubt we'll get another breathless expose of clubhouse decadence sometime in mid-October. We'll certainly be doing our best around here to dissect the battered remains of this season. But before we get to the shouting and finger-pointing and petitions to fire the manager, I thought it would be refreshing to look at some of the stuff that went well this year. Specifically players who've done well despite the losing, and could play a big role in redeeming the team's fortunes next year. And where better to start than...
When the Red Sox signed Cody Ross, it was a bit of a head-scratcher. We all knew Boston was dealing with serious payroll constraints, constraints vividly displayed by the trade of Marco Scutaro to the Colorado Rockies for Clayton Mortensen. (Brief digression: if you haven't been following Scutaro since he was traded a second time to San Francisco, he's been tearing it up: .346/.365/.447 since the trade. He's also third in the NL in hits. Thanks, 2012.) The widespread assumption was that the money freed up by Scutaro's departure would be put toward a starter, someone along the lines of Hiroki Kuroda, Roy Oswalt, or Edwin Jackson. And instead they picked up an outfielder coming off a rough season in Florida, when they already had Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava, and Ryan Sweeney on the roster. Oswalt went back to his duck blind, Jackson took a one-year deal with the (now-league-leading) Nationals, and Kuroda signed with the Yankees, turning in a better season than anyone on the Red Sox staff.
And Ross? He's well on his way to setting all manner of career highs. His 21 home runs are three short of his high with 15 games to go. His line of .277/.341/.506 would all be career bests for a full season (he hit .335/.411/.653 in 66 games for Florida in 2007). He's second on the team in total bases behind Dustin Pedroia, and second in OPS behind the now-injured David Ortiz. His late-inning home runs and vigorous bat-flipping have won him the instant affection of the local fanbase and the hatred of our division rivals. Could that $3 million have better served the team if put toward a deal with Kuroda or Jackson? It's entirely possible, although given how swiftly Boston's outfield depth went *poof* this year, who knows.
Boston writers love to toss around the "can't play in Boston" pejorative. Mostly it winds up meaning someone who doesn't quite meet the hype, or our expectations given their contract, or someone who doesn't smile through their nightly interrogations. There does seem, though, to be a certain type of player who really thrives in an environment like Boston, who lives for that constant air of playoff intensity. Adrian Beltre was one of those guys, and the Sox let him walk. Hopefully they've learned from that, and will do what it takes to keep Ross around for a few more years.
Andrew Miller and Junichi Tazawa
Boston's bullpen going in to 2012 was something of a question mark. There were certainly plenty of arms stockpiled, but it was unclear how any of them would perform. Some of them worked out (Vicente Padilla), some of them didn't (Mark Melancon), and some of them were such complete jerks that they put us all in the awkward position of defending Bobby V (Alfredo Aceves).
But as the season winds down, two really promising younger relievers have emerged. Andrew Miller was once a first-round draft pick, a former college teammate of Daniel Bard, another high-upside lefty lottery ticket. It turned out he just couldn't find the strike zone. Boston took a flier on him last year, and got middling results. This year, though, it appears he's finally found his role. Miller's striking out 11 batters per nine,and only walking 3.8. He's only allowed 5 of 42 inherited runners to score. All of a sudden, Miller's a reliable, occasionally dominant lefty reliever.
Junichi Tazawa's been arguably more impressive this year. A promising minor-league starter in 2009, Tazawa missed all of 2010 and most of 2011 due to ligament damage and ultimately Tommy John surgery. He came up briefly in April, and did pretty well. Since getting called up again in July, he's been perhaps the best reliever on the team. In 36.1 innings this season, he's struck out 39 and walked only 5. Both Miller and Tazawa are relatively young, cost-controlled, and have shown the ability to provide shutdown innings. I'm not saying we've suddenly got the return of Timlin and Embree, but that I can even consider the comp is nice heading into next year.
If you can remember your way past the smoking wreckage of the last six months to spring training, you'll recall that Ciriaco had himself one hell of a month. So good, in fact, that not a few writers advocated leaving him on the big-league roster for the season's opening. As it turns out, that probably wouldn't have helped much. It might have led to less Nick Punto, but that's about it. Ciriaco, it turns out, is what he appeared to be in Pittsburgh. Moderately talented at multiple infield positions, and possessed of all of Vladimir Guerrero's plate discipline with none of his power.
But against the Yankees... Oh, against the Yankees. In 44 plate appearances over 11 games against New York this year, Ciriaco's hit .429/.444/.595. Seven of his 18 RBI have come against New York. And judging by the cursing on my Twitter feed every time Boston and New York play, he's become an almost Andinoesque figure of hatred among Yanks fans. Ciriaco's proven he's worth a look next year due to his versatility, but honestly the Sox should keep him around just for the trolling.
Fifteen games to go. It's been a rough season all over, but these guys at least were fun to watch. With a little luck, and some clever offseason wrangling, the whole team could wind up similarly fun.