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2005 Mid-Season Review

If defending a World Series championship were easy, we’d already be planning the October parade route through Boston, but winning a title for the first time since Woodrow Wilson was president means that there are 29 other teams looking to knock you off your perch. It’s been another interesting first half for the club and, for the first time in a decade, the Red Sox sit in sole possession of first place in the American League East at the All-Star break and would like to stay there for the rest of the 2005 season. With this being the traditional half-way mark of the baseball season, it’s time to take stock in how this team has done to this point and hand out some type-written hardware.

Team MVP: Matt Clement
First runner-up: Johnny Damon

The loss of Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe in the Red Sox rotation looked even worse on paper when free agent and former Boston prospect Carl Pavano decided to take an offer to play with the Yankees. Clement was the only other viable option available on the free agent market but seemed like a risky option. However, with Curt Schilling out of action for most of the first half, the eight-year veteran has filled in nicely as the club’s substitute ace, earning ten wins in 18 starts and posting a 3.85 ERA, which leads the team in both categories; in contrast, Pavano is 4-6 with a 4.77 ERA in 17 starts and currently sits on the disabled list. Even though he was added at the last moment, the first-time All-Star selection for Clement was well-deserved; through the first half of the season, he has by far been one of the better pitchers in the American League.

Team Goat: Keith Foulke
First runner-up: Mark Bellhorn

Foulke solidified the closer role last season and throughout the playoffs; however, for as good as he was last season, he has been almost as bad this season. Although he is on track to match his save total from last season, his other numbers are cause for alarm; his walk total already equals last seasons total and he has given up seven more earned runs this season (27) than he did all last season (20). His WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) average is 1.56, better than 50% higher than last season’s average, and the opposition is hitting .289 against him compared to just .208 last season. Fans no longer feel confident when he enters a game; four blown saves and recent arthroscopic surgery have deepened those concerns.

Biggest Surprise: Jason Varitek
First runner-up: Mike Timlin

People in Boston already knew that they had an All-Star catcher behind the plate before this season; being part of last season’s championship team made it evident to the rest of baseball. Varitek will make the first of what will hopefully be a few starts for the American League before he calls it a career and he is more than deserving of that recognition after the first half he enjoyed, especially at the plate. Though he has struggled somewhat in the past couple of weeks, his .301 average is nearly 30 point better than his career average; in fact, Varitek was batting .328 and better as recently as a month ago and his numbers will likely climb again. He has also hit 17 doubles and 13 home runs, which has him on pace to match or exceed career highs. Maybe the Sox should have given him that “C” sooner to wear on his chest.

Biggest Disappointment: Ramon Vazquez
First runner-up: Alan Embree

Boston envisioned that Vazquez would serve as this year’s version of Pokey Reese but that never materialized. Although the opportunities came few and far between, with only 27 appearances and just two starts since the start of June, Vazquez was just awful at the plate, batting just .197 before getting optioned to the minors nearly a week ago and then getting traded to Cleveland. As expected, he showed promise with the glove but, without the bat, he made it difficult for the Red Sox to keep a spot reserved for him on the bench.

Second Half Outlook
Keep your eyes forward

Boston enters the break at 49-38, two games ahead of Baltimore and 2-1/2 games better than New York. At the same time last season, they were 48-38 and seven games behind the Yankees for first place in the East. Last season, it seemed like a hopeless cause; this season, it feels more like guarded optimism. Exhilaration has gone hand-in-hand with the usual scattered struggles or setbacks and it is still unclear whether this year’s crusade will match the success of last season’s campaign.

One advantage for the Red Sox in the second half this season is that, after spending what seemed like an eternity on the road in the first half, playing 49 of the first 87 games this season away from home, Boston will get to play 43 of its remaining 75 games at friendly Fenway Park, where they enjoy the best winning percentage in baseball at home since 2003. Right after the All-Star break, they get to start at home with seven games against New York and Tampa Bay, and then follow a week-long road trip with four series out of the next five at home; that means home-field advantage in 19 out of the first 29 contests to begin the second half. Without being overlooked, Boston also gets help from the schedule makers in the second half with 12 games against Tampa Bay, six against Kansas City, and six against Detroit.

Boston also gets what will be like a mid-season acquisition when Schilling rejoins the team after the break. The team may start the second half with the 38-year-old ace, whose ankle should now be fully healed, coming in from the bullpen but, by the end of the month, he will likely be moved to the starting rotation. Should he come back and pitch like he did in 2004 for the Red Sox, it will definitely pick up a few extra wins for the patchwork rotation which did admirably in the first half.

For the Red Sox, winning the East for the first time since 1995 may be the only ticket to the post-season dance this year; the wild card race at this point is packed pretty tight, with five teams within two games of the leader in that battle and nearly equal competition from the Central division. That should equal an interesting September, as the Sox will play home-and-home series against the Orioles and the Yankees, which includes a showdown at Fenway against New York over the final weekend of the season. The Red Sox seem to match up well with the Yankees, winning five-of-nine thus far with two series already played in New York, but they need to play better in the second half against Baltimore and Toronto, who sport a combined 14-8 record against Boston. Do so and Boston will reach the playoffs for a third straight season, something they have never accomplished as an organization.

Start Me Up!

When the news broke that Red Sox pitchers Curt Schilling and David Wells, considered the number one and three starters in the rotation, respectively, would miss weeks due to injury, Boston had lost four-of-five and was falling far behind Baltimore and Toronto in the East. Never mind the fact that the Yankees who, with a rotation spearheaded by Randy Johnson that looked so good on paper to begin the season, had slipped nearly into last place alongside Tampa Bay; suddenly the Sox were scrambling to replace these two players and held hope that free agent acquisition Wade Miller, still a week away from joining the rotation after rotator cuff surgery last season, would be ready to immediately jump into the fire. With the odds stacked against them, would it be possible to stay afloat near the top of the standings, or would the Sox slowly sink down into the depths with New York while the division turned upside-down?

As they did last fall when the team was down to its last outs in the American League Championship Series in October, it was the unlikely of heroes who turned around the fortunes of the team. Kevin Millar, Dave Roberts, and Bill Mueller have morphed into Tim Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo, and Matt Clement with support from relative unknown Geremi Gonzalez, journeyman John Halama, and Miller. Since losing in Texas on 29 April to start a seven-game road tripe, the team has won ten-of-twelve, including five-of-six at home in the last week, and gone from an even .500 to a record of 23-15; on top of that, the rotation has won eight starts in that same span.

Wakefield, the longest-tenured member of the club, won two starts, including number 118 with the Sox on Monday; that put him in sole possession of fifth-place all time for wins in a Red Sox uniform. He allowed just three runs in each of his two starts and lasted better than six innings in both games; that improved his record to 4-1 while giving Boston enough opportunity to better Detroit and Oakland.

Arroyo, who many thought would be forced back to the bullpen once Miller joined the staff, was even better and is making a case to keep the number five spot. In three starts, he allowed just five runs, four earned, on 11 hits and six walks while striking out 17 in 21-2/3 innings of work. His record on the season is a perfect 4-0 and those three starts dropped his ERA more than a run to 2.91; even more impressive, Boston has not lost in his last 16 starts going back to last 15 August.

Clement, the new kid on the block, is looking like another gamble by general manager Theo Epstein that’s paid off in dividends. He’s won two of his last three starts and would have earned his fifth win on Wednesday to lead the staff in that department were it not for a ninth-inning meltdown by closer Keith Foulke. In 20 innings, Clement’s efforts have been nearly identical to Arroyo’s; he’s allowed five runs, four earned, on 14 hits and six walks while striking out 14. With a record of 4-0, his ERA has also dropped a run in that span to 3.06.

Of course, the efforts of the other starters cannot be overlooked, either. Gonzalez, who was plucked from the minors after Schilling went down, has pitched no less than five innings in two starts, allowed just six runs on ten hits and three walks while striking out 13 batters, and has one win to his credit. Halama, in his one start, allowed just two runs on four hits in five innings of work while striking out two for the win. Miller, who started Sunday against Seattle in the second game of a double-header, allowed just two runs on three hits and one walk while striking out six in a no-decision.

Look at it another way: in those twelve games, the starters have pitched 70-1/3 innings, an average of just under six innings of work, and allowed just 23 earned runs for a 2.94 ERA. When you count just Wakefield, Arroyo, and Clement, the averaged just under seven innings of work and 2.30 runs in each start. Without looking through the numbers, I’m sure that there are several teams in both leagues that would love to have three starters in their rotation matching those figures.

That’s not to say that the Red Sox aren’t looking forward to when Schilling and Wells both return from the disabled list. Schilling, who was brought to Boston before last season to make good on the promise to bring a long-awaited championship to this club, is the anchor of the staff and should be a key ingredient to another run. Wells, who may return sooner than expected from his sprained right ankle, has proven already that he still has what it takes to win ball games. It’s hard to imagine that this run of quality starts by Red Sox pitchers would carry through the season without these two returning to the rotation. Still, if Boston is to return to post-season play, fans will look back on the season and remember this key stretch at a time when the odds seemed out-of-favor for the Red Sox.

Happy New Year, Finally!

About a week ago, I was suddenly regretting the thought that 2004 was coming to an end; after all, that was the year for long-suffering Boston Red Sox fans and perhaps I was reluctant to let go so soon after enjoying everything that went the excitement of a World Series championship. From the first day of spring training right, through the trials and tribulations of the regular season and an even wilder post-season, and culminating with the awakening of my 18-month-old son to have him in front of the television when Foulke softly tossed the ball to Mientkiewicz at first, it was almost too difficult to detach myself from the emotions that I felt.

2004 will be a year that no one who was a fan of the Red Sox will soon forget. 2004 was the year that a prodigal son returned to the fold and joined the ace-in-residence to provide a one-two punch that few teams could match. 2004 was the year when Jason Varitek and his teammates collectively shoved their mitts in the face of the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on a warm July afternoon and sent a message that the season would not end that day. 2004 was the year that a young general manager took the biggest gamble of his brief career and traded the Franchise. 2004 was the year that it wasn’t over until Big Papi took one last cut. 2004 was the year that a bloody sock characterized what this “team of idiots” was willing to do to end the years of frustration. 2004 was the year that it was someone else’s turn to choke at the worst possible moment. 2004 was the year that, finally, was the year.

However, perhaps there is much to look forward to with the dawn of 2005. For the first time in our lives as Red Sox fans (making the assumption that none of you reading this truly remember the last time it happened), we will watch our team play a season as defending world champions. For the first time, we won’t be wondering if this will finally be the year but if our team can repeat the feat. For the first time, perennial doubt has been replaced with renewed excitement and we can walk around with our chests held out a little further and our heads held up a little higher.

Am I aware that the other teams in the league will now approach their games against us with the intent of knocking us down from our lofty perch? Am I worried that Pedro Martinez has flown the coop after seven seasons in Boston to nest in the confines of the Mets organization next season? Do I dread the knowledge that Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano will be wearing pinstripes next season, as might Carlos Beltran, and that the Yankees will be looking to administer some payback for what happened in the American League Championship Series? My only response to these and other questions like those is that, if these are the dilemmas that come with being crowned as world champions, it’s good to be the king!

There is no promise that this season will be anything like last season; it would be next to impossible to recapture the essence of that run a year ago. Nevertheless, I look forward to another exciting season of Red Sox baseball as I have every spring since I can remember. Varitek will be back behind the plate as captain of the team and no one will need to see a “C” sewn on his jersey to understand that. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez will be back with their bats to provide that awesome one-two punch at the plate. Curt Schilling will be back on the mound every fifth day to expend every ounce of energy available to keep opposing teams frustrated at the plate. Johnny Damon will be back leading the charge in center field and in the lead-off spot. Terry Francona will be back in the dugout and Theo Epstein will be back in the front office, doing everything they can to assemble and develop another championship team.

Best of all, on the second Monday of April, just a little before three in the afternoon, no matter what happens the rest of this season, a championship banner will be raised high above Fenway Park for everyone to see. The fact that the rival New York Yankees, no matter how many guns have been hired, will get a front-row seat to the festivities only makes it that much sweeter. With no more talk of curses, 1918, the Bambino, or any other ghosts of the past 86 years that always seemed to stand by, waiting for the most inopportune moment, it’s truly going to be a happy new year.

2004 World Series Preview

Well, so far I’m six-for-six in calling these match-ups, but then you won’t see me jetting off to Vegas anytime soon to test my abilities in the World Series of Poker. Instead, I’ll concentrate on the original World Series of baseball where each team needed all seven games of their respective championship series to win the pennants of the American and National Leagues. Now before us, to the excitement of baseball buffs everywhere, are two teams who have met twice before in the battle for the title, once in 1946 and once in 1967. In both instances, St. Louis and Boston went to a deciding Game 7 and the Cardinals won over the Red Sox each time. While the days of Enos Slaughter, Ted Williams, Bob Gibson, and Carl Yastrzemski are long gone, there is no doubt that we have the makings of another Fall Classic.

St. Louis (105-61) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: No games played

The Red Sox, facing the possibility of getting swept in the American League Championship Series by New York, were down to their last three outs when they rallied to tie the game. From there, they went on to win the final four games, including the last two in front of a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd, to clinch the AL pennant for the first time in 18 years. Meanwhile, the Cardinals returned from Houston down 3-2 in the National League Championship Series with the Astros and needed to win both games; they did just that, winning with a walk-off home run by Jim Edmonds in Game 6 and coming back late in Game 7 against Roger Clemens to clinch their first NL pennant in 17 years. On paper, these two teams look evenly matched, so who has the advantage over whom?

For Boston, they have a stronger starting rotation, even with Curt Schilling and his tender tendon that was held in place by two stitches so that he could pitch the Sox to victory in Game 6. The other pitcher of the moment for Boston is Derek Lowe, who pitched brilliantly in the deciding seventh game and, even with a seven-run cushion, allowed just one run on one hit in six innings of work. Of course, there is the arm of Pedro Martinez, who was strong in his two starts as well. Opposing them will be a strong rotation in itself, with Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Woody Williams looking to stifle the Sox. Suppan delivered a clutch performance in the deciding game of the NLCS, out-dueling Clemens and a hungry Astros lineup. Williams is expect to start the first game and has great command, having earned a win in his first start of that series and going seven innings in his second start, allowing just one hit and no runs. Marquis and Morris both won 15 games this season on a staff that, like Boston, had five pitchers win ten or more starts but have struggled slightly in the post-season.

The bullpen match-up is also interesting; Boston has Keith Foulke as its closer, who appeared five times in the ALCS and earned a save in Game 6. His best work came in Game 4 when, with just one out in the seventh and Boston down by a run, he was asked to try and keep New York off the board; he responded by walking just two batters while not allowing a single hit in 2-2/3 innings to set up the late-inning dramatics for the Red Sox. St. Louis counters with Jason Isringhausen, who led the NL in saves with 47; he pitched six times in the NLCS and earned three saves. While he did blow a save, it was when he was asked to get the final nine outs of the ball game but only managed to get the first eight. He also had one loss, but that was on the road in extra frames with the score knotted at zero. The rest of the bullpen is evenly matched and both were key in helping get to this point of the season.

On offense, the Red Sox boasts a strong infield that committed just one error in the ALCS. Bill Mueller gobbles up balls hit anywhere close to him at third base, as does former Gold Glove winner Orlando Cabrera at short. Late in the game, Boston brings Pokey Reese in at second and Doug Mientkiewicz in at first, giving them three Gold Glove winners in the infield to back up Foulke and the rest of the bullpen. In the outfield, Johnny Damon patrols center field and, while his arm is a little weak, he gets to the ball fast. For the Cardinals, the human highlight reel in center field, Edmonds, who has made enough impressive catches in his career that would make fishermen jealous, leads them on offense. They also have Edgar Renteria playing short and Scott Rolen at third; together, they allowed just 24 errors in the regular season, making it unlikely that a mistake will come from the left side of the infield.

The lineup on either side of the field boasts some heavy hitters. Boston has the dynamic duo of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Ramirez did not drive in a single run in the ALCS but scored three runs and batted .300; Ortiz, on the other hand, was the offense for Boston late in the series, batting .387 with 11 RBI and collecting game-winning hits in Games 4 and 5, good enough for series MVP honors. He also led off the deciding game with a two-run home run and Boston never trailed in that game. Jason Varitek was also money against the Yankees, collecting seven RBI while batting .321, and Damon awoke from his ALCS slumber in Game 7 to plate a record six runs. For St. Louis, they are led by Albert Pujols, the NLCS MVP, who stroked four home runs, drove in nine, and batted .500. They also have Edmonds, Rolen, and Larry Walker launching baseballs into the stratosphere; Edmonds stroked a walk-off home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 and Rolen stroked a long ball to finish a rally by the Cardinals late in Game 7.

If there is one X-factor to watch in this series, it will be what Boston will do with Ortiz, the everyday designated hitter, when they travel to St. Louis and must play by National League rules. Ortiz did start 31 games at first base this season, so it’s almost certain that he’ll be there for the middle three games at a minimum; his bat is so hot right now that to remove him might psychologically deflate the potent offense. That also means that Kevin Millar will likely sit on the bench and only appear late to pinch-hit for a pitcher, but Francona may give Trot Nixon a rest in one game and let the Millar adventure to right field. If Ortiz can shake the rust, then there shouldn’t be much of a letdown.

Again, this has all the makings of a classic; Boston fans feel strongly that their time has finally come after 86 years of failure. St. Louis fans, though not quite as rabid, are just as loyal and would love to see the Cardinals bring home a championship trophy for the first time in 22 years. It’s almost too close to call, but Boston gets the edge in my book for two reasons. At the moment, they have a stronger pitching staff that proved in the final four games of the ALCS that they are ready to do whatever is called upon them to accomplish; the Yankee lineup was no less strong than what the Cardinals will throw at them. Second, in contrast, Boston has the potential to light up any rotation and have shown the ability this post-season to rally late against an even stronger closer, Mariano Rivera, who blew two consecutive saves for the first time in his experienced post-season career. This series will more than likely go the full seven games but, in the end, New England fans will get a second chance this year to watch a championship parade wind through downtown Boston.

Give Credit Where It’s Due

The Anaheim Angels were still looking for the license plate of the bus that ran them over repeatedly for three straight days at Fenway Park, having been swept by the surging Boston Red Sox. The win gave Boston a 4-1/2 game cushion in the American League wild card race over the same Angels and a six-game lead over the Texas Rangers, who will pay a weekend visit to Boston starting tonight. The win also kept Boston just 3-1/2 games behind the New York Yankees, whose once seemingly insurmountable lead of 10-1/2 games had been whittled away in just over two weeks. Life is good for the legion of fanatical Red Sox fans that is suddenly savoring the possibilities of some exciting October baseball.

Looking back just over a month ago, this same legion was scratching its collective head as it tried to make sense of a team that seemed to be underachieving. Was this not practically the same team that just last year was five outs away from heading to a World Series for the first time in many years at the expense of the dreaded Yankees? Were they not that much better with the addition of Curt Schilling in an already strong rotation and Keith Foulke as the dominant closer?

Even more so was the question of the team’s leadership. Was manager Terry Francona, who has not much more experience than his predecessor, Grady Little, just not the dugout leader this team needed to motivate the club to win consistently? Had the young general manager, Theo Epstein, gone mad by trading one of the most popular players in Red Sox history, Nomar Garciaparra, in return for a one-time Gold Glove first baseman and an anonymous shortstop from a lame-duck Canadian team?

Much has been said about the roles of these two gentlemen on this team and not much of that has been positive. Francona, with just four years of head coaching experience at the major league level, did not carry with him the awesome respect of a Joe Torre or a Jim Leyland when he was brought in during the off-season to take over for the disgraced Little. Epstein, at age 30 years the youngest GM in MLB history, had been given leeway during his first year in 2003 and was applauded for his success, but some wondered if that aura was wearing thin.

While it would have been easy to make excuses in relation to the injuries and the clubhouse distractions, the two instead ignored these critics and did their parts; Francona continued to find a game plan that worked while Epstein continued to look for ways to improve the club. Now, the team has gelled at the right time and has left a path of destruction over the last month of baseball like a twister through a trailer park.

For that, you almost have to tip your cap to these two for staying poised and true to task. The two have also put the club on a road to future success; Francona has shown the flexibility to go with the flow of the game and Epstein, with Nomar in his rear view mirror, has set the club up to sign two of its key players that will become free agents at the end of the season, Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek.

True, at this point, even with 30 games that remain to be played, there are no guarantees. A team does not make the playoffs because the club is more deserving; to paraphrase former actor John Houseman, it must earn that shot. However, with a team an upstart general manager has assembled and a no-nonsense manager now leads, you must feel pretty good right about now. At least, you must feel better than the Angels.

2004 Season Preview

Now that another wild and crazy off-season is finally coming to an end, it’s time to dust off the binoculars and look over the field of players that will be putting on a uniform for the Boston nine this season. For you holdovers from last season, you won’t see many differences; the only significant loss being 2B Todd Walker, who left as a free agent and signed with the Chicago Cubs. Where the Sox have improved the most is with the pitching staff, having added starting pitcher Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke to give the Red Sox a solid staff on the mound. On paper, you have to like what you see, but this column would be relatively uninteresting if we didn’t take a closer look, let’s answer some self-imposed questions first.

1. Who will be the number one starter, Schilling or Pedro Martinez?

The truth is that there is no “number one” on this team, but Pedro will have the honor of opening the season against Baltimore on 04 April. While a definite rotation has not been set to my knowledge, there is a good chance that Schilling and Martinez will NOT pitch in back-to-back games this season. More likely, we will watch Tim Wakefield‘s knuckleball flutter between their starts. So does that make Schilling a number three starter? The good news for Red Sox nation is that Boston has one of its strongest rotations in years; when you toss in Derek Lowe, you have four proven starters that between them could easily collect 70 wins.

2. Will Bill Mueller have another career year?

It’s unlikely that Mueller and the rest of his team will repeat the offensive output that they had last season, when they out-slugged the 1927 New York Yankees and were first in runs scored in the majors. Still, it’s very likely that he can hit .300 again and continue to use the Wall to his advantage. He’s probably also good for another 10 to 15 home runs. Most importantly, he has proven himself at third base, one of the trickiest positions in baseball to play.

3. Is manager Terry Francona on the hot seat already?

Given the fact that there are several big contracts that expire at the end of this season, the pressure is on for the Red Sox to go all the way, if you ignore the fact that history and the other 29 teams are not on their side. Francona was not the first choice that the Red Sox had but, if consider that Grady Little, who had no major league coaching experience when he was named manager two years ago, won nearly 200 games in two years, you just need to have enough knowledge and personnel skills to repeat that success. As long as he is smart enough to pull a pitcher who is obviously fatigued late in a Game Seven, then he should do fine.

4. Who will see more time at first, David Ortiz or Kevin Millar?

Ortiz would like to spend more time covering the bag, but he will come second to Millar. However, when Ellis Burks is used as the DH, Ortiz will win over Millar on this battle. Ortiz just has better numbers at the plate and the Sox will not want to keep his bat out of the lineup too often.

5. What free-agent signing will have the highest impact?

Although Curt Schilling’s presence in the lineup will make the starting rotation an opponent’s nightmare, having Keith Foulke come in to shore up the closer role will mean the most to this club. Since Derek Lowe’s 2000 season in that role, the Sox have been very weak in this respect. Lowe faltered the following year, Ugueth Urbina was anything but solid in 2002, and the closer-by-committee experiment last season was, while a sound idea in theory, a complete failure in practice. Foulke collected 43 saves in his one year in Oakland and that means that the rest of the bullpen can be used better to set him up to close the door.

6. What bench player will have the highest impact?

My money is on Gabe Kapler, who enjoyed a solid spring and will actually start the season in right field as a replacement for the injured Trot Nixon. Once Nixon returns in May, Kapler will likely take a seat on the bench but will called out for service if Manny Ramirez is thrown into the DH role or is given a seat by Francona to rest for a day. He also makes a nice pinch hitter should the opponent throw out a left-handed reliever, having hit .326 last season against southpaws.

7. Will the Red Sox be able to hold off the Yankees and win the AL East?

As strong as the Red Sox have become with several key additions, you cannot ignore the Yankees, who have also made key additions for another chance at a World Series title. They certainly have a stronger lineup with the addition of Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. The only real question for the Yankees will be if Kevin Brown can have an injury-free season and if newcomer Javier Vazquez, recently of the Montreal Expos, will prove unflappable under the lights of Yankee fans and the front office. As Sox fans have seen for the last six years, you can never underestimate New York; every year, they remain tough. It helps when your owner is willing to shell out nearly $200 million to pay for the collective salary of this team.

8. Overall, is Boston good enough to… you know?

Anybody who has followed the Red Sox as long as I have knows enough NOT to start opening the champagne bottles prematurely. However, with all that happened during the off-season, good and bad, Boston has made significant strides to improve on a team that came very close to tasting a championship in 2003. It will be critical for Boston to play to this potential if they are to stay ahead of the Yankees. With the addition of Schilling, the starting rotation looks strong and, with the addition of Foulke, so does the bullpen. Although it will tough to match last season’s offensive output, there are plenty of bats available to score runs when needed and, defensively, the Red Sox are better than average at most positions and should keep the untimely errors to a minimum. In conclusion, the 2004 edition of the Boston nine is good enough, but let’s not say any more than that.

Moneyball, Part 1

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

Who could have imagined the collective surprise of New York Yankee fans and the horror of Red Sox Nation when we picked up our Sunday papers and read that Alex Rodriguez, recently named captain of the Texas Rangers, would accept a trade to the Yankees in exchange for Alfonso Soriano (my personal Yankee favorite) and a player to be named later. Only two months before, it seemed certain that Rodriguez was coming to the Red Sox in exchange for Manny Ramirez to help bolster Boston’s chances of winning a World Series title for the first time in 86 seasons. Suddenly, the Sox brass are left to wonder if it was worth squabbling over a $4 million gap in exchange for his services. Even worse, Sox fans now wonder if this will rival the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920.

While the fallout of this trade is yet to be determined, I am again saddened to think that this is yet another example of why Major League Baseball is heading down a slippery slope from which it may never recover. The Yankees’ payroll now top the majors at $190 million and the Red Sox sit in second place, a mere $65 million short of that mark. Unfortunately, official numbers are not at my disposal, but after you get past the top five, I’m willing to guess that payrolls for the rest of the teams are less than half of the Yankees’ and, past the top ten, less than half of the Red Sox’s.

Believe me, I want to see the Red Sox win a World Series title at least once before I die. 2004 may be the best chance since… well, last season… for them to do this, and, since the disappointing end to the 2003 season, the Sox have brought in players like Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke to help bolster the pitching staff, the one chink in the armor from last season. The Yankees, of course, want to win another title even more, and this trade demonstrates that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is less than satisfied with losing two of the last three World Series and will stop at nothing to stockpile his team with perennial All-Stars.

But, to paraphrase some of the Democratic candidates in this year’s election, there are the rich teams and then there are the other teams. While the Yankees, the Red Sox, and a handful of other teams continue to compete, the lesser teams fall by the wayside, having found themselves out of contention before the season begins. A team like Kansas City or Milwaukee may start the season on a hot streak, jumping ahead of the pack after a month or two, but by the time the All-Star game rolls around, these teams have been brought back down to earth and find themselves struggling to stay above .500 the rest of the way.

Just by ranking the payrolls of each team, it’s easy to see who are the haves and who are the have-nots. Teams with promising talent cannot retain them after initial contracts expire, so these players are snatched away by the big boys just to warm the bench, ready to step in when called. Other teams who find themselves with poor revenue and faced with offers of cash or other promising talent, unload what current stars they have at the trade deadline, hoping for some positive long term results that eventually fizzle.

It’s easy when you root for a big-market team like the Red Sox to underappreciate what you have. When a team can easily win 90 games or more per season, you overlook that fact and focus on the failures of the postseason. But, for what do the fans of these other teams cheer? Three-game winning streaks? All-Star selections not made to meet the quota of one-representative-per-team? Greg Vaughn bobblehead doll day? From the looks of half-empty stadiums all around baseball, it’s hard to see a reason to root, root, root for the home team.

From this, it’s easy to see why the National Football League, where parity is the flavor of the day, is swimming in the success of its popularity. True, on a cold Sunday afternoon in November, you’re more likely to be watching TV than holding a backyard barbecue or taking your boat out on the lake like you would on a summer afternoon. But, the balance in the NFL means that while your team may not make the playoffs one season, there is a good chance you will see them there next season. Thanks to a salary cap, it isn’t team spending that determines the top teams, it’s the ability to assess talent, like the New England Patriots have done, that helps to build champions.

If MLB wants to become America’s pasttime once more, I believe that it needs to do two things. To be fair, I’ve listed the most important change each side, players and owners, need to make.

1. Accept a payroll-equity solution

A luxury tax for teams over $150 million? Please! The only team that was forced to pay it after last season was… yes, the New York Yankees, and they don’t care because they have enough revenue to offset the cost. A salary cap that is within easy reach of all teams would force owners and management to start reassessing talent again and stop the big-market teams from tipping the scales. Not that a team could not afford more than a few superstars, but it’s hard to put together a quality team around these All-Stars with a weak supporting cast. The players union would, of course, be unhappy about this, but I scratch my head every time I see a second or third-tier player making $8 million or more per season; that makes no sense.

2. Hire a competent commissioner

Since Fay Vincent was forced out of office, the owners have ruined this game, no thanks in part to Bud Selig who, if not the most hated man in the baseball world, is in contention for that title. Whereas in the past, the commissioner has vetoed trades that were not felt to be in the best interest of baseball (Vida Blue, Red Sox fans?), Selig has allowed the owners to swap players with carefree glee, helping to escalate salaries and create the imbalance. Owners may be crying poverty, but when given control of the game, they were unable to agree on the best course and now they are in danger of running it aground. A stronger, independent-minded presence in this office is needed once again, as it was with Bowie Kuhn, Ford Frick, and Kenesaw Landis, to help steer baseball back on course.