I didn’t intend for this to become a three-part series when I started, but I just had so much dang fun writing about all these guys! I mentioned this in the lead-up, but some of my favorite guys to reminisce about are fringe players. My memories about Vicente Padilla throwing his eephus, or Ryan Sweeney showing signs of finally tapping into the power his 6’4 frame should provide just ring a little warmer than others. With that being said, my enjoyment revolves around superstars. I don’t tune in to the show to watch the prelims. I want to watch the main event. The reason I’m a Red Sox fan isn’t because of Julio Lugo or Bryan Corey. It’s because of all-stars like Manny Ramirez, Kevin Youkilis, and Josh Beckett. Let’s get to the business end of the list…
10. Jackie Bradley Jr.
This surprised me, and not because of any disdain I have for Bradley. When the center fielder’s name has been brought up over the last year and a half it’s mostly been as a result of trade rumors, frustrations with his hitting, or most recently a potential non-tender. He’s been a divisive player for most of his tenure, fighting an uphill battle to gain respect from fans and Major League pitchers.
Bradley debuted on opening day of 2013 as the starting left fielder after scorching spring training with a .419/.507/.613 line and an OppQual of 8.7. Don’t remember OppQual? Well, astute reader, as I’m sure you have inferred, it’s short for “opponent quality”. It’s an attempt to quantify the quality of opponent faced based on the level the opponent played in the prior year. It does a fine job of that. The problem is using that information as anything more than a fun fact. The team took his spring performance to mean that he was Major League ready after wrecking cold pitchers getting work in and 271 plate appearances above high-A. Expectations were high and he crashed and burned. His first impression on the league was a triple slash of .097/.263/.129 with a 31.6 strikeout rate in 38 miserable plate appearances. A still-developing Bradley was demoted on April 18th to make room for a returning David Ortiz. Bradley had a couple of cups of coffee and a September call-up over the remainder of the season but was left off the postseason roster, not quite ready for primetime.
More pressure was put on Bradley in 2014 when he was pressed into action after Shane Victorino started the season on the disabled list. On a positive note, Jackie established himself as an elite-level defensive center fielder. I will go to my grave believing that he was robbed of a Gold Glove. But for as good as his defense was, his bat struggled. He would finish the season with a putrid .531 OPS, effectively wiping out any value he had added on defense. Part of the reason the organization felt comfortable moving on from Jacoby Ellsbury was that they believed they had a Major League ready replacement for him. Sure, he was supposed to begin the season in Pawtucket, but to perform this badly without showing any signs of improvement was worrisome.
2015 finally saw Jackie get the time he needed in the minors to refine his offensive game. His defense would be missed sorely in Boston with Hanley Ramirez dodging land mines in left field, but the time in the minors paid dividends. Bradley returned to the big club on July 29th and hit .267/.352/.539 down the stretch. 2016 saw him build upon that success with a 29 game hitting streak where he hit over .400 with 8 home runs, leading the team to a 21-8 stretch. He’s been a presence on the field ever since. His year-end stat lines never tell the full story of his season, typically marred with long, arduous slumps bookended by brief runs of dominance. You might remember that Jackie went on one of those runs during the 2018 ALCS, earning him MVP honors. But no matter how low his bat has sunk, the amazing defense was always there. He has the reputation of being a Brendan Ryan type, but that hasn’t been true since 2014. He’s been a joy to watch for a better part of six years and it would’ve been sad to see him released like a geek this offseason. He’s earned his keep and is worth his salary on his defense alone. Watching him captain Fenway’s center field will put a smile on my face in 2020.
9. Jason Varitek
The twilight of Jason Varitek’s career was not pretty. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Most catchers don’t get pretty ends to their careers. 2009 saw him split time with Victor Martinez, who was acquired at the deadline and 2010 saw him relegated to backup duty for the first time in his career. Varitek hit shockingly well for a 38-year-old catcher, even if it was in a part-time role, but a fracture in his right foot would sideline him for two months. Varitek would split time in 2011 with Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Varitek’s final moment as a Red Sox was an RBI single off Iván Nova. He had been hit by a pitch in his previous at-bat but gutted it out as he had throughout his entire career. Varitek currently works in the Red Sox front office as a special assistant to the general manager. It’s been a while since I looked back at Varitek’s career. I’m glad I did because I did not have fond memories of his final years, but he produced with the bat. The bat speed was gone at the end, but put up good numbers despite it. It’s good to keep your memory in check.
Not all of my Jason Varitek memories are bad, though! I saw his only three home run game live at Kaufmann Stadium when I was seven years old. For years afterward, I thought Varitek was a monster. The Sox beat the Royals 10-3 and my mom had to try and keep me entertained in between Varitek at-bats by making fun of Trot Nixon’s name.
8. Jon Lester
Jon Lester is my favorite Red Sox pitcher of all-time. When Pedro was breaking the game, I was in Kansas City, occasionally watching Jeff Suppan get shelled. I didn’t fall in love with this team until I moved to South Burlington, Vermont in the winter of 2006. My baseball fandom was for sale and we got NESN on the hotel TV, so I became a Red Sox fan. I got to watch his entire career unfold from his return from beating cancer to becoming the staff ace. To an entire generation of Red Sox fans, Jon Lester is the Red Sox. For as good as he was during the regular season, he was even better in October. There are too many dominant postseason starts to remember, but the end result was a 2.11 postseason ERA and two World Series.
Acquiring Yoenis Céspedes was exciting in part because we knew there was a chance the Sox would re-sign Lester that offseason. When news broke that the Sox lowballed Lester with a contract offer spat out by their proprietary database Carmine, fans were pissed and rightfully so. Even if giving him that contract wasn’t the “smart” thing to do (it actually would’ve been the smart thing to do and he’s been great with Chicago), all of us wanted him back because he was one of the faces of a franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that. Not every decision a fan makes needs to be put through a cost/benefit analysis. Sometimes it’s as simple as “I love that player and I want him on my team.”
7. Brock Holt
Brock Holt is the beloved cult hero of Boston and the epitome of a Gruden Grinder. I assume Holt has been dripping with grit his entire life, but who could’ve foreseen his 2014? He played every position on the diamond, made every type of absurd catch imaginable, smacked the ball all around the diamond, and was the saving grace for a team that didn’t have much going for it. His legend was entrenched on June 17, 2014, when he careened diving at nothing in center field, making a spectacular catch. He scored both runs in a 2-1 victory. Fittingly, he’s hit for the cycle twice, including one against the Yankees in the 2018 ALDS. Apart from the period of time he was battling vertigo, Holt has been a valuable swiss-army knife. It seems that the team has moved on from him, but Brock and his fabulous locks won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
6. Chris Sale
I’m glad that y’all remembered how awesome Sale was. His surface-level numbers indicate a down year, but advanced pitching metric DRA- had him as a top ten pitcher in the game. The fastball velocity was down from last year but hovered around where it was in 2016. He was a victim of the juiced dinger ball. The contract they gave him is good and I’d sign that a hundred times over even if John Henry wouldn’t.
And why wouldn’t you? Chris Sale is one of the most fun pitchers of the century. There hasn’t been a pitcher like him since Randy Johnson, arguably the most fun pitcher in the history of baseball. He’s had a large chunk of the team’s best pitching performances of the decade, was a better August away from winning a Cy Young in 2017, and was the Cy Young front-runner for the first half of 2018.
Sale, better than anyone else, represents Dombrowski’s vision. He traded a haul for him to do one thing: put the rotation over the top, and he did just that. Maybe his past is behind him. He turns 30 in late March. But his remarkable 2017, his pitching through a shoulder injury during the 2018 playoffs, and closing out the clinching game of the World Series has embedded himself in the history of the franchise forever and represents a victory for Dombrowski’s plan.
Check back tomorrow as we count down numbers five through one!