The live-and-die-with-every-pitch mentality that surrounded the Sox for the final decades of their 86-year World Series drought is gone for most Red Sox fans. In its place is a detached sense of privilege, something that’s best seen in the drama of the past two weeks. While the Red Sox were racking up a 10-game losing streak, sports radio had a field day but the actual streak of futility seemed to be a bit of a footnote to the day for many Bostonians, rather than something that might elicit a “Red Alert” front-page headline at The Boston Herald. If the Sox finish dead last in the division one year, it’s written off with little alarm—they just might win the whole damn thing the year after. It’s a boom-or-bust view of things in which the “bust” scenario plays out with little passion from fans, and there’s less pressure (aside from the effort to keep up TV ratings and attendance) to have the “boom” years. This was an inevitable effect from breaking an 86-year drought, and an effect that was further hammered home when the Sox won two more World Series titles in the next 10 years. Most fans can die knowing they saw the Sox win a World Series, something that was a mere dream in the middle of October 2004.As the Red Sox honored Curtis Leskanic and friends last night for their 2004 World Series championship, it was a reminder about how much things have changed in the decade since that October miracle, not simply for Red Sox fans but for the front office as well.
On the heels of the Sox winning the World Series in 2013, the front office seems to have taken this tranquil outlook rather than adopting the previous urgency.
“Let the kids play,” has been a common mantra from Red Sox management. And that has meant a few things that were good, and a few that were bad for this 2014 team. The Sox put their faith in a highly rated prospect such as Xander Bogaerts who was an on-base machine in the minors, and he has a .383 OBP in the first two months of his rookie season. The areas where the Sox were most lax about upgrading or finding replacements, however, were third base, catcher and backup center fielder. This is where the “let the kids play” or a PR pitch about the future got the best of the team in the offseason.
Jackie Bradley Jr., much like Bogaerts, was skilled at getting on base in the minors, but despite starting the season showing plate discipline, he hasn’t drawn a walk since May 7. Luckily for Bradley, his superb defense has been enough to keep him in the lineup every day. Well, that and not having a competent backup. While Chris Young has struggled for the Mets, he fit the profile of a player the Sox should’ve pursued harder in the offseason. He’s a platoon center fielder who could face lefties while Bradley gets a respite. Instead, the Sox rolled the dice with Grady Sizemore, a far riskier proposition, and a guy who is a liability in center field.
In addition to needing to find a more dependable reserve center fielder, the Sox also dropped the ball on a better third-base solution. Will Middlebrooks has been given a chance to play every day in the majors for three seasons now and has put together two impressive months, and far more months that would make even Mario Mendoza cringe. He was never going to be the answer at third base, especially with highly rated prospect Garin Cecchini breathing down his neck in Pawtucket. What Middlebrooks should have been was a trade chip to get a veteran third baseman in the final year of his contract. Think Chase Headley or Aramis Ramirez. Those teams get Middlebrooks and another prospect, while the Sox get the better player for this season and future draft pick compensation when the veteran leaves as a free agent after 2014. This was more of a move the Sox might’ve pulled after the 2012 season to shore up every position on their roster, but after 2013, it was a missed opportunity.
The final misstep from the front office came in the form of letting Jarrod Saltalamacchia walk away for a 3-year, $21 million contract, while the Sox brought in A.J. Pierzynski and spouted lines about the great minor-league depth at catcher. That depth is certainly real, but let’s play out the best-case scenario, knowing that catchers (unlike other prospects) almost always move up only one minor-league level per season. By bringing in Pierzynski, the Sox showed they have no faith in one-time prospect Ryan Lavarnway, so let’s leave him out of the equation. They were banking on Christian Vazquez being ready for 2015 and Blake Swihart being ready for 2016. And that’s fine, but you still needed one catcher for 2014 and will need a catcher to platoon with Vazquez in 2015 before letting Vazquez and Swihart team up in 2016. A two-year, $20 million deal for Saltalamacchia certainly was a commitment the Sox could’ve made. They didn’t, and they paid for it with Pierzynski’s six-week struggle to start the season.
That’s three positions in which the Sox opted for a cheaper solution, with more of a wait-and-see approach. It’s a far cry from before the 2004 season when the Sox were trying to upgrade every position, bringing in Keith Foulke and Curt Schilling, trying to trade for Alex Rodriguez, and eventually trading Nomar Garciaparra in midseason. Those were all bold moves from an organization that was desperate to win. The Sox had a similar mindset before 2013 when the front office tried to fill every need on the team. That was not the case for the 2014 season, and it’s an approach that former Sox All-Star Johnny Damon knows all too well. On hand for the 2004 celebration last night, Damon drew parallels between this year’s approach and the post-2004 approach in an interview with WEEI.
“Whenever a team wins the World Series, it’s very easy to let the fans know you’re looking to the future. So it’s a difficult thing [to keep a team together].”
The post-2004 “let the kids play” approach led to the 2007 championship, so here’s hoping the long-term plan from this season yields the same results. But in the meantime, the up-and-down seasons make it hard to build momentum with a fan base that’s already gotten more than it could’ve hoped for.