Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 15, 2002
BASEBALL: 2002 Red Sox Preview
Originally posted on Projo.com
I'd give you a thorough appraisal of the current soap opera in Boston, except that (1) there are so many bizarre internal dynamics here that I can't hope to do justice to the situation from my perch in Queens and (2) this column takes some lead time to write, and at this writing, Lord only knows who else will be hired or fired by Friday. Let's do some basics:
1. Was it time for Duquette to go?
Of course it was. First of all, the new guys will usually want to bring in their own people. Second, the "golden parachute" contract given to the Duke is a sign that the outgoing management knew he'd be toast when the sale cleared. Third, I've stressed before that getting along with people isn't a major part of the GM's job -- was any management team more "cold" and "calculating" than George Weiss and the rest of the team that ran the Yankees in the Fifties? -- but in any organization, when the boss is generating open contempt by the employees and the media all at once, he's in trouble. In the age of free agency, that has an impact on the team's ability to attract and retain free agents (although it didn't get in the way of signing Manny and Damon). I don't know the true story of whether Pedro and Nomar really hated Duquette and wished they weren't playing for his organization, but if the new owners had a basis for thinking that the stars of the team might leave some day because of Duquette and the circus that grew up around him, or if they just wanted a fresh start, they were certainly justified.
2. Did Duquette do a good job?
I'd say yes, mostly; he took over a franchise that was nowhere near serious contention, quickly assembled a team that pulled out a surprise division title in 1995 largely out of spare parts, while the organization broke in the talent base for a more sustained run starting in 1998. That's really the definition of what you want in a GM. The fact that the Sox fell short and that Duquette contributed with a few misfires . . . well, not everyone can win the World Series, and it's not Duquette's fault that the Yankees had such a strong team from 1996 to 1999.
The criticism of Duquette basically focuses on the past two seasons, when the Sox had an incredible talent core, the Yanks were vulnerable, and they just couldn't get the job done. Part of the problem was Duquette's preference for risky players: Bill James once said that Gene Mauch took on too many projects and not enough good teams, and you could say the same here. Even if a lot of the Saberhagens and Nomos and Castillos were good ideas, collectively they left the Sox without the rotation stability they needed. Duquette generally made the right strategic decisions in Boston -- when to build, when to go for it. Where he failed was in bringing in a lot of useless or overpriced veterans to gear up for the 2000 run (I was harshly critical of the Bichette and Arrojo deals at the time, and they really did nothing to move the Sox closer to a title), and overpaying to keep expendable talents like O'Leary.
Duquette has some important skills that overwhelmingly argue in favor of another organization giving him a second chance. This is the man who pulled off the heist of the decade in Montreal (Delino Deshields for Pedro) and then went and got Pedro again in Boston. He fobbed off Heathcliff Slocumb for Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. He traded Andres Galarraga for Ken Hill, a steal of a deal at the time, although Galarraga later revived his career in Colorado and Hill wore down after a few seasons. He is a fine judge of free talent, bringing in people like Wakefield, O'Leary and Daubach who'd been trapped at AAA. One of his better such pickups in Boston was Matt Stairs, but he let Stairs go before he hit it big as a major leaguer. His genuinely big-ticket acquisitions -- Manny, Pedro, Damon -- have been wise ones. Jose Offerman is a bargain compared to Darren Dreifort, after all. The Duke got ripped for letting Mo and Clemens go, but in retrospect he deserves more criticism for offering Mo a gigantic contract than for letting him leave, and you can understand why Sox management felt that Clemens was a bad risk given how he had fallen off after getting his last big contract after the 1992 season.
3. Did Joe Kerrigan deserve the axe?
Kerrigan was even more the victim of the change in ownership than Duquette, in the sense that it's doubtful that he'd really had time to wear out his welcome of its own accord. Obviously you can't hold him responsible for the bad end to last season, but if the new team thought he wasn't up to the job, they were better off getting their own guy now. It's unfortunate, because Kerrigan seemed like a smart guy and talked like an innovative manager, even if he didn't manage like one last fall. When was the last time the Sox had a manager who thought a step ahead and who did things other managers would emulate - Dick Williams? Strong and decisive leadership is more important in a manager than pure brainpower, but after three decades of managers who came across as decidedly lowbrow (with the exception of Kevin Kennedy, who was more of a harebrained-scheme kind of manager), it would have been nice to see the Sox for once try a manager in the mold of a LaRussa or Bobby Cox, just for a change of pace. It's too soon to judge Grady Little, but from what I've heard he sounds more like a conventional Olde Towne Managere.
One thing that interested me about the coverage of Kerrigan was the sense that, as an ex-pitcher, he couldn't command the respect of the everyday players. This was a widespread theme in the demise of Larry Dierker in Houston as well, and to a lesser extent Ray Miller in Baltimore. What puzzled me about the new conventional wisdom is that it was something I had never heard until a few years ago. It was always thought around the game that pitchers could have trouble adjusting to the everyday responsibilities of the manager's chair. But maybe it's just me, but I don't recall anyone suggesting that Tommy Lasorda or Roger Craig or Bob Lemon or Dallas Green or Fred Hutchinson couldn't get the respect of the players because they had pitched, and nobody micromanaged his offense more than Roger Craig or rode his players harder than Green. If it's true now that an ex-pitcher can't command the players' respect, when did it change?
4. What about the new owners?
Maybe it's too soon to prejudge, but remember that the Henry-Werner team is a rogues' gallery of bad baseball owners cobbled together based mostly on their willingness to ask for taxpayer money. Tom Werner should have been banned from baseball for letting Roseanne Barr sing the national anthem, if you ask me. And Rob Neyer hit it on the head in the column last week suggesting that the Sox' decisionmaking process is already showing the hallmarks of an excessively bureaucratic management structure. On the positive side, Henry never did carry out his threat to hold a second fire sale in Florida, and Larry Lucchino had his moments in San Diego. I'd be worried about these guys if I were a Sox fan, but things could still work out OK.
I haven't had the time for a full Sox preview either, but here are some thoughts:
*Perhaps the Sox' biggest need, besides health, is to improve their defense over last season. The acquisition of Johnny Damon to replace the increasingly immobile Carl Everett and shift Trot Nixon back where he belongs should help that greatly, despite Damon's weak throwing arm. With Nomo gone and the likelihood that both Lowe and Burkett will be in the rotation, the Sox will badly need to convert balls in play into outs, and I would like to see Rey Sanchez in the field when those two are on the mound, even with his weak stick, whereas a more offensive-minded second baseman may be in order when Pedro pitches, especially since he usually faces the other team's ace.
*The second base mess. It goes without saying that Sanchez is only a viable option if the Sox don't have a decent two-way player to plug in. Veras would be the best option if he was 100%, but the early returns aren't encouraging. Carlos Baerga . . . don't get me started. We've seen that movie here in NY, and it does not have a happy ending. Offerman, to my mind, needs to either get the everyday job or a pink slip. The Sox have rid themselves of a whole raft of grumpy, overpaid veterans, the exceptions being Offerman, Arrojo and Wakefield. Arrojo and Wakefield are useful enough, but my sense is that Offerman is not, and if Grady Little doesn't have faith in him he should let him walk. He can let the new owners blame Harrington and Duquette and get the contract behind them. Media reports about "chemistry" can be overblown, but there's little doubt that the Red Sox need to fix the atmosphere around the team, and a younger, hungrier bench is a good first step. That's one good reason not to bring in Rickey, even if he is still useful as a platoon DH. Besides, there's nothing that helps a new manager set the tone better than just up and cutting a big-name veteran with a big contract in spring training.
*John Burkett and Dustin Hermanson. Burkett for several years was living proof that a guy with a good K/BB ratio could still get his clock cleaned. Was the new strike zone the difference last season -- or did he have a better defense behind him, or just better luck? The good news is that Burkett is a horse, and should chew up plenty of innings. I like him to go 14-9 with an ERA in the high threes this season. Hermanson I'm deeply suspicious of, a guy who's been losing ground to the league for years. He gave up 34 homers in 33 starts last season pitching in Busch Stadium. I know Busch ain't what it used to be, but if that's how he does in a big ballpark, how will he fare in Fenway? Stranger pitchers have found themselves in their thirties, but Hermanson could well have further to fall before he does.
*Is Trot Nixon already a star? Don't forget that run scoring was down 8.3% in the AL last year. Nixon's steps forward last season look that much more impressive when you account for that decline. He's still on the Paul O'Neill/Andy Van Slyke career path.
*Tony Clark was just a great pickup; he's better than Dante Bichette ever was, even in his prime. Yes, he brings a great big question mark to a team with too many of them. Yes, he's been known to have slumps that last half a season. But trust me: if this guy gets even 400 at bats this season, he will have a huge impact. He's just shy of his 30th birthday and hit .283, slugged .497 with a .366 OBP the past two seasons, even with back problems and even in spacious Comerica Park. The big question marks are guys where you say "if he's healthy maybe he can get back to where he was." But Clark never left: he's kept producing at a 30-homer 100-RBI pace, just missing time. Any time you can get a guy like that in his prime for nothing but a short-term salary commitment, you do it.
*Another acquisition I liked, even if he seems to be on the outside looking in at the moment, is Jeff Abbott, a guy who fits the mold of a Troy O'Leary a few years back, a 29-year-old guy stuck in AAA for years who could hit for a good average with line drive power and contribute off the bench.
It's just not spring training without Darryl Strawberry getting in trouble, promising he's finally grown up, or both. Man gets kicked out of rehab on his 40th birthday, it's time to admit he's never going to get it. When the Mets' current owners bought the team in 1980, they agonized over their first draft pick, and were ecstatic when they got both of their top two choices: Straw and Billy Beane. What different career paths for the two men took. Darryl came from a fatherless home in a bad neighborhood, but then his brother became an LA cop and by all accounts a level-headed guy, and Eric Davis came from the same part of town and has never been a serious troublemaker. God can give a player talent, and He gave Strawberry the same basic package that went to Reggie, and to Bobby and Barry Bonds, and Dave Winfield. Darryl's just got no sense, and never did.
Either Ruben Rivera is a complete idiot, or there is something else seriously wrong with him that causes the guy to make bad judgments and need cash in a bad way. Either one would go far to explaining why Rivera has made so little of his tremendous talents. The Irabu-Rivera deal, like the trade that sent Fernando Tatis to Montreal for Dustin Hermanson, looks increasingly like one of those trades where both sides came away with a lot less than they expected. Good to see Eldon Auker back in the news, though . . .
Since I was on the subject of economics lately, and since it ties in to the game on the field, I thought it would be useful to look once again at how recently each major league team has contended for a postseason berth. I'm using an arbitrary cutoff of finishing within 6 games of the postseason, and obviously a lot of teams finish within 6 games of a wild card without being serious challengers to win it all, but the Twins and Mets both finished 6 out last season and it's safe to say that both teams gave their fans some real excitement and meaningful games in September. It's a useful reminder of how few of baseball's franchises have truly been hopeless for an extended period of time; 17 teams have finished in or close to the postseason in the past two years, 24 teams in the past five years, and the six franchises that haven't been to the postseason since 1991 include a team that had the best record in baseball in 1994, a team that lost a 1-game playoff in 1995, and a team that was just started in 1998. Only the fans of the Royals, Brewers and Tigers can really say that their team has not been in the hunt in fairly recent memory; if you are talking economics (the subtext of almost any discussion of competition these days), the Tigers are in a big market with a new stadium and a deep-pockets owner, and the Brewers also have a new stadium. Not to dismiss the plight of the Expos or some of the recent travails in Pittsburgh and Florida, but by historical standards, the size of baseball's true have-nots is fairly small.
Team In Within 6 Games
Expos*** 1981 1996
Devil Rays***** Never Never
*Lost one game playoff for Wild Card in 1999
QUOTES: "Just look at my Rotisserie value. I'm a pretty cheap pick this