Identity Fraud: Rebuilding the Red Sox

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This is Boston. We know who we are. We’ll drink you under the table and beat the crap out of you in a back alley just to say we did. Oh, and we win games. We do that too. We know who we are.

But rarely does a franchise as historic and esteemed as the Boston Red Sox experience an identity crisis like the one we’ve had the [dis]pleasure of witnessing over the past couple of seasons. We saw a team that was a favorite to win their third World Series in eight years IMPLODE, for lack of a better word, and the proverbial ball of yarn has been slowly (and often times rapidly) unraveling ever since. The 2011 September collapse was one for the record books, accompanied not only by a 7-20 record to close out a season that once held so much promise, but also by rumors swirling around the media that the team lost focus due to an insatiable appetite for fried chicken and Bud Light.

Out with the old, and in with the new. Terry Francona, the manager who led the Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years, was gone. He was replaced by Bobby Valentine, to mixed emotions. Bobby hadn’t coached in the U.S. in over a decade, but his reputation still preceded him: he was difficult to get along with, not a player’s coach, only cared about what he looked like under the microscope of the media and not about winning ball games. Reputation aside, however, he came to Boston accompanied by a great deal of hype. Into the open arms of a fan base that was dying to erase the painful memories of a September that no one seemed to want to forget and who needed something better to look forward to.

Getting off to a 4-10 start wasn’t what had been expected, but then again, the 2011 team started just as poorly and rebounded to have the best record in baseball for the majority of the year. So there was still hope. But Bobby had already committed a cardinal sin, especially in a clubhouse that was so closely knit and supportive of one another. He called out Kevin Youkilis for, of all things, not being fully invested in the game of baseball. Big mistake. From that point forward it was clear that Bobby had some work to do to gain the trust and confidence of this clubhouse, and that’s what made this 4-10 start feel just a little bit different. The Red Sox struggled through injuries over the course of the 2012 season, as well as the ever-growing chasm in the locker room between the players and Bobby Valentine. A trade of Kevin Youkilis at the July trade deadline was inevitable, and left a diehard Red Sox fanbase, myself included, applauding Youk when he hit a home run upon his return to Fenway Park with the Chicago White Sox, clearly in spite of Bobby and all the chaos he had created. The Red Sox spiraled to a 69-93 record in 2012, prompting the almost immediate firing of Bobby V, and leaving most Red Sox fans with the feeling of “OK, well, what now?”

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Here’s your answer.

In steps John Farrell, long-time Red Sox bench coach and pitching coach. Finally, we rejoiced, the right man for the job. So where do the Red Sox find themselves today? Amidst an offseason where the free agent pool is so scarce that teams are trading big-time prospects in order to sign whatever big names there are. Not something you might have witnessed a decade ago, but the landscape of the game has changed. The Red Sox vowed as an organization to steer clear of expensive long-term deals this offseason to avoid another Carl Crawford or John Lackey-type contract. They’ve instead chosen to go with shorter-term deals for considerably more cash per year. Shane Victorino is getting paid $13 million a year for the next three, and Mike Napoli is getting the same. Ryan Dempster is averaging the same over the course of two years, and Stephen Drew, still trying to bounce back from a horrific ankle injury, is getting $9.5 million over one year. Fiscally responsible? Sure. No denying that. But what message does it send to the Red Sox fan base?

Look, the truth of the matter is that every long-term deal isn’t a bad one. Adrian Gonzalez would have given the Sox five more solid years (likely MVP-caliber years), but they had to get rid of him in order to get out from under the Crawford and Beckett contracts. And even the Beckett contract wouldn’t have been a terrible one if his attitude had been a little better. The point is that an organization shouldn’t let one or two bad long-term deals dictate their inclination to spend in the future. If a player is right for your system, then you should be willing to dish out long-term deals. It’s part of the game. Highly touted free agents are going to be looking for that big pay day, and sometimes it’s just what needs to be done. But by saying that you won’t commit to any long-term deal out of fear that it might not work out, now that’s just ridiculous.

The Red Sox desperately need starting pitching help, and the drop-off from the top of the free agent pool to the next tier in terms of pitchers was an extremely steep one. Not to say that Ryan Dempster won’t be a good addition to the rotation, because he will be. But the Red Sox should have been right there in the bidding for Zack Greinke. 5-year deal, 6-year deal, god forbid a 7-year deal, whatever it takes. He’s only 29. A guy like that immediately makes your pitching staff, and therefore your team, exponentially better.

The Red Sox ownership group of John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner has taken a lot of heat over the past couple of seasons for continuing to promote the longest-standing joke of a sellout streak the world has ever seen. The number of consecutive sold out games keeps rising, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park where every seat was filled.  It sure as hell wasn’t this past season. You couldn’t give tickets away for free. Yet the streak continues. It’s an ownership group that has shown more interest in gaining revenue than in winning baseball games, and maybe that has something to do with the cautious spending this offseason. Maybe it’s a mindset of:

Let’s become an 85-win ball club. That should satisfy Red Sox fans, right? In a division that’s clearly the best in baseball with what the Blue Jays and Orioles have been able to do, 85 wins isn’t bad, right? People will start going to games again, cheering for a winning team, and even though we might not get into the playoffs, at least we’ll fill the seats with our butts and our stomachs with five-dollar hot dogs. We can’t expect to make the playoffs every year, so let’s just be good enough to not lose the fans.

And no. 85 wins isn’t bad. It’s a winning season. 85-77 would make a lot of people happy. But look at the team we are currently prepared to assemble. Three of the top (and I use that term loosely) free agents we’ve signed this offseason have an average age of almost 33. Three guys who, like it or not, have begun a steady descent in terms of their abilities. There’s no telling what a change of scenery can do for a guy in terms of rejuvenation, but that remains to be seen. So assuming the Sox win 85 games this season, is there much more of an upside? It would be different if it were an 85-win team consisting of mostly young prospects, guys you can build a team around. And make no mistake; the Sox have some of those types of guys (Middlebrooks, Iglesias, Kalish in the majors and Bogaerts and Barnes in the minors). But the guys that this ownership group has acquired to help bridge the gap aren’t guys that will help us win in the next one or two years. And Red Sox fans are sick of losing. It’s not impossible to compete and win now, but signing second- and third-tier free agents to low-risk, low-reward contracts isn’t the way to get it done. It’s just that simple, and it’s something that Henry, Lucchino and Werner, and even Ben Cherington, don’t seem to understand.

News flash, fellas: until we start competing, until we start making a run at more World Series, until we feel like we have an organization that values the simple concept of winning and winning now, Red Sox fans won’t be satisfied. Maybe if we felt like our organization valued competing and winning, 85 wins would be enough. It would at least be something to build on. But if you’re going to shove crap down our throats about the fact that you want to win when all you really care about is making sure you walk home with your share, I suggest you hop on the T and get the hell out of dodge.

This is Boston, remember?

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