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Red Sox Collapse: Poor 2012 performance is the culmination of too many years of poor planning by ownership
Raise your hand if you thought the Red Sox would be in last place, 15.5 games out and have a worse record than Kansas City in the final three weeks of the season. Put your hand down; we all know you’re lying.
I did pick Boston to finish out of the playoff race, more because I thought the Angels and Rays would be the Wild Card teams and the Yankees would win the division than because I thought the Red Sox would be awful. I certainly didn’t think they’d have an epic fail. I thought they might win 90 games and just miss a post-season berth.
Only five teams worse than Sox in past 162 games
But the BoSox, even with their win against the Yankees last night, would need a miracle to finish at .500 (they’d have to win 17 of their final 20 games) and even winning 70 games is no sure bet. Over their last 162 games stretching back into last September, the Red Sox have a 69-93 mark, a.426 winning percentage (through games of Sept. 11, 2012) . The Royals, in their past 162, have a 77-85 mark (.475).
The only teams worse than Boston in their past 162 games are Cleveland (68-94), the Cubs (65-97), Minnesota (64-98), Colorado (64-98) and Houston (53-109).
Despite their horrendous finish in 2011, Boston won 90 games. In the previous four years they’d won 89, 95, 95 and 96 games. This season they’ll need to win over half their remaining contests (11 of their final 20) to win 75. The last time they failed to win at least 75 was in 1992 when they finished 73-89. The time before that was 1966 when they were 72-90. The last time they finished below .500 was in 1997 (78-84). In their past 45 seasons, Boston has won fewer than 81 games in a non-strike shortened season only five times.
What went wrong?
Obviously, this is a team that is used to winning baseball games. So what happened at the end of 2011 and the entire 2012 season?
Of course there were injuries, most notably to Jacoby Ellsbury and Andrew Bailey, but also occasional DL stints for Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. Their two ace pitchers, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, were awful. And then there was turmoil. Lots of turmoil.
Some people have blamed manager Bobby Valentine for the demise (even though it started last September before he took over). Others have blamed the injuries or the underperformance of key players. Others have said a lack of team discipline. Certainly all have played their part in their ill fortunes. I think the absence of the leadership of Jason Varitek is an overlooked factor as well.
The push to keep up with the Yankees
But I think the cause goes much deeper. At the core of their problems is the failure of the owners and general managers to develop a cohesive plan for building the organization.
In 1998 the Red Sox finished second in the AL East and made the post-season as the Wild Card team. The Yankees won their second World Series in three years and the first of what would be three straight championships. The Boston-New York rivalry, which had been more like a Cold War for several decades, suddenly heated up again.
In an effort to keep up with what they saw as the free-spending ways of the Yankees, the Red Sox also began wheeling and dealing, making blockbuster trades and offering huge contracts to free agents. That brought them big names like Carl Everett, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon. David Ortiz was a free agent signing as well, although that was considered a minor investment at the time.
After the Sox came oh-so-close to beating the Yankees in 2003, they narrowly lost out on a trade for Alex Rodriguez. Undeterred, they signed free agents like Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller and traded Nomar Garciaparra for Orlando Cabrera. Later they signed or traded for Gabe Kapler, David Wells, Pokey Reese, Edgar Renteria, Keith Foulke, Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Brad Penny, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Mike Lowell, Jason Bay, Adrian Beltre, J.D. Drew, John Lackey and Josh Beckett, finally culminating in Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.
The Yankees use a different strategy
The Yankees’ big-name free agent signings and trades during that time were for players such as Chuck Knoblauch, Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, David Cone, David Wells, Roger Clemens, David Justice, Mike Mussina, Denny Neagle, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Jose Contreras, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Curtis Granderson, Russell Martin and Rafael Soriano.
Overall, though, the Yankees have taken a far different approach in building their team. Always at the core was homegrown talent to built around. The most famous, of course, are Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada. But that list has also included Bernie Williams, Robinson Cano, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Brett Gardner, Ivan Nova and David Robertson. For a time, before trading them or losing them to free agency, the Yankees also had big plans for Alfonso Soriano, Ramiro Mendoza, Melky Cabrera, Nick Johnson and Ian Kennedy.
In the late ‘90s, General Manager Brian Cashman’s stated that a goal in signing free agents was that they had to fit into the Yankee chemistry, meaning the core players they were building around. He wouldn’t just pick up anybody because he had the money.
And not all of the players Cashman signed were in their prime. He also picked up many aging players to fill important roles for a year or two, people like Ruben Sierra, Darryl Strawberry, Chili Davis, Dwight Gooden, Tim Raines, Robin Ventura, Kenny Lofton, John Olerud and more recently, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones. Even Cone and Wells had question marks about their remaining ability when they were signed.
There’s even a difference in the types of free agents the teams have gone after. For the most part, the Yankees have sought players who come from winning programs – players who’ve had experience in winning big games. Even if they’re considered beyond their prime, players like Chavez, Jones and Garcia have all played for teams that were consistent winners. Before them were players like Cone, Wells, Gooden, Strawberry and Ventura.
Much of the money the Yankees spent in the past decade and a half has been in retaining their homegrown players, as well as others they’ve wanted to keep after trading for them (like Paul O’Neill, A-Rod and others.
Red Sox abandon homegrown talent
The Red Sox, in the meantime, had few homegrown players. Initially they had Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek. By the time they won the World Series in 2004, though, they were down to just Varitek (barely homegrown, having come to the Red Sox in a trade when he was a minor leaguer) and Nixon in a part-time role.
By 2007 their farm system had a bit more of an influence with the addition to the starting lineup of Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, with Jonathon Papelbon anchoring the bullpen. But their main stars continued to be the imports like Manny Being Manny, Ortiz, Drew, Lowell, Beckett, Dice-K and Schilling.
To see how big a difference homegrown talent makes, just look at the Red Sox shortstops since they parted with Garciaparra: Orlando Cabrera, Pokey Reese, Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, Alex Gonzalez, Nick Green, Marco Scutaro and Mike Aviles, plus a few other here and there. In that time the Yankees have had Derek Jeter.
Will Red Sox and fans have patience to develop a plan?
Boston has always seemed like a reactive team – they see what the Yankees are doing and try for one-upmanship without ever considering the Yankees’ strategy. Although the Yankees are the ones who are labeled as the best team that money can buy, they have been far more interested in developing homegrown talent than the Red Sox.
The Red Sox haven’t been in a post-season since 2008, and until this year continued to seek free agents to push them back on top. Finally, this season, they seem to have decided that constantly bringing in pieces without a plan of how they’ll fit isn’t working.
It will be interesting to see if the Red Sox fans are patient enough to let the team rebuild with some homegrown talent. They already have a core group in Pedroia, Lester, Ellsbury and Clay Buchholtz, with Ryan Lavarnway, Will Middlebrooks and Felix Doubront as strong possible candidates to join them.
But patience hasn’t been a virtue for Boston fans of late and they may not want to wait the two or three years it could take them to rejoin the mix of front runners in the AL East. If the ownership gives in to the fan pressure, they could find themselves going year to year with temporary fixes and missing the playoffs like they have for four years now. And if that happens, the packed bandwagon that’s followed the Red Sox since winning their first World Series in nearly a century may suddenly have a lot more elbow room.