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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.

There’s No “I” In This Team

At least it’s not as bad as last year when, from day one following a disappointing end in 2003, all the talk focused on the numerous potential free agents on the Red Sox roster and who, if any, the organization would sign to new contracts at the end of the 2004 campaign. Whether it centered on the disgruntled Nomar Garciaparra, the egomaniacal Pedro Martinez, or the temperamental Derek Lowe, the media had its hands full trying to juggle these questions along with Boston’s magical run to a post-season championship for the first time since the end of World War I. Instead of focusing on the field, as most fans were, they were too busy fiddling with some magical decoder rings that are apparently issued with press passes these days, trying to decipher the language from both sides of the issue, the players and the organization, and second-guessing the motives of each party. Surely, they thought, one of these three would be back, or the team would be hard-pressed to remain competitive with the Yankees, who threatened to break the $200 million payroll threshold.

Fast-forward to the present and, with none of these aforementioned players still wearing a Red Sox uniform, Boston sits at 41-30, one win better than the club’s record at this time last season. The loss of these key players have been, for the most part, offset by smart management decisions made by Theo Epstein, who spent his third off-season putting his spin on this organization’s building legacy. With free agents like Edgar Renteria and Matt Clement plugging some of the gaps and seasoned Red Sox players like Jason Varitek still tasting champagne on their lips, it’s been another up-and-down first half but Boston remains hungry to repeat the success of 2004, even with the final outcome still lingering high in the air.

So, of course, with nothing else to interest them as mid-season approaches, it must be time to start talking about free agent possibilities again. This year, the Red Sox again have more than a few guaranteed contracts coming to a conclusion at season’s end, perhaps none bigger than that of center field Johnny Damon, who was a key member of last season’s championship squad and has continued to dominate at the plate over the first half of the season. He might even have the opportunity, if he is not voted in by the fans, to make the American League All-Star roster representing Boston for the second time in his four seasons here.

With his deal, signed by Dan Duquette just before the former general manager got the boot by the new ownership, drawing to a close, the 32-year-old Damon and his agent, the notorious Scott Boras, a “bulldog” as described by one of his other clients, Varitek, are looking for a five-to-six year guaranteed contract. Although no dollar figures have been give, it is likely that he will command considerably more per season on the free-agent market than the $8.25 million he is due to collect by the end of the season.

It is possible that Damon will remain in Boston if he is willing to take the “hometown” discount and accept a contract with shorter terms and only a moderate increase in salary with club options for later years. On the other hand, he also represents the Red Sox through the Major League Baseball Players Association, which endorses the free market system for its players and therefore does not encourage members to negotiate contracts in this manner. Having been elevated to celebrity status since showcasing his talents during last year’s playoff run, he knows that he should be able to command top dollar, even if legions of loyal Red Sox followers want to see him finish out the remainder of his career in Boston, and it will be difficult for him to pass up lucrative opportunities.

As head coach Bill Belichick and vice-president of player personnel Scott Pioli have proven with the New England Patriots over the last five seasons, it is not the value of the individual but rather the collective whole that determines the success of its team, evident by the three Super Bowl victories over than span. Great players like Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy whose demands would have been met less the organization feared a backlash by its fan base have, without much fanfare, been shown the door. Egos are checked outside the clubhouse and players have seen the benefit of putting the team before the individual, knowing that the collective contributions of each member are proof positive of continued success.

I have no other objective this season as a Red Sox fan except to continue to bask in the glow of Boston’s championship for as long as it lasts and see if Boston can win back-to-back titles, even with the knowledge that a few team members may be wearing another uniform next season. As is the nature of sports in the 21st century, the days of a player remaining with one organization for an entire career are fading, for better or worse. It’s a harsh reality for those who remember the days of placing a name to the face of an organization, like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, or Cal Ripken, players who never knew the feeling of changing loyalty to a club.

I’ve followed the Red Sox faithfully for more than twenty years; even if they never win another championship, they will always have my unwavering support. That’s not to say that I have no respect for those who wear the Boston uniform; I cheer as loudly as everyone else in the Red Sox family when one of our players makes a diving catch, helps turn two to end an inning, or drives home the game winning run in the ninth. However, as represented by the fact that home uniforms for my beloved team do not have the names of each player sewn above the number on the back, my loyalty will always be to the name on the front of the jersey.

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.

2005 Season Preview

It’s almost with sad reserve that we open the 2005 season after Red Sox fans enjoyed the fruits of a successful 2004 campaign. Yes, Boston will often be referred to as the defending World Series champions this season but, for all intent and purpose, last season’s amazing accomplishment doesn’t count for anything in this year’s standings. Still, with renewed enthusiasm, this team is looking to realize something even more astounding: repeating as champions for the first time since the Red Sox won back-to-back titles in 1915 and 1916. The team returns looking pretty much the same as last season’s squad, even with a few additions and subtractions, so how will this season compare to last? Hopefully we answer some of those questions here.

How much with the loss of Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez hurt?

Both guys played key roles in the 2004 post-season; Lowe was the winning pitcher in all three series-clinching games and Martinez dazzled in his only World Series appearance. They also combined to win 30 games during the regular season and both stayed healthy for the entire season. Only time will tell if Matt Clement, Wade Miller, and David Wells will be able to combine their efforts to repeat, but we have to remember that the Sox also have one of the best lineups at the plate. While the win totals were impressive, both Lowe and Martinez had their earned-run averages jump considerably, combining for a 4.59 ERA. Lowe’s 5.42 ERA was almost three runs higher than his stellar 2002 campaign numbers, and Martinez’s 3.90 ERA was almost double his Red Sox career average. The point is that, barring an unlikely drop-off in production at the plate, the Sox will continue to win, even with these two wearing different uniforms this season.

Should we be concerned with Curt Schilling missing the opener?

If you believe Schilling, the only reason that he is heading to the DL to start the season is because he needs another week or so to work on his mechanics. His infamous ankle, which was surgically repaired last November nearly a week after the World Series ended, is not the problem; it has fully healed and trainers gave him the green light early enough in spring training that he would otherwise be in the Bronx next Sunday night to open the season for Boston. Luckily, the Sox have enough off days during the first two weeks of the season to go with a four-man rotation and Schilling should be available before the schedule becomes more demanding.

Has Edgar Renteria stabilized the shortstop position?

Renteria should cement himself in that position for many years to come, especially given that the Sox signed him to a four-year contract at $10 million per season. He is a year younger than fellow Colombian Orlando Cabrera, whom he replaces in the Red Sox lineup and a couple years younger than Nomar Garciaparra, who seemed to be a permanent fixture in Boston until last year. Like Cabrera, he is a Gold Glove winner and has flashed the leather many times this spring, already winning over the hearts of Red Sox fans. He also adds more punch in the lineup, with a lifetime batting average of .289 and 10 or more home runs each season over the last six years. Prospect Hanley Ramirez, who impressed coaches and the front office this spring, waits in the wings in Portland but don’t be surprised if he’s never seen in Boston, so long as Renteria performs as expected.

What more can we expect from David Ortiz this season?

There is just so much beauty in that man’s swing, it almost brings a tear to my eye. Looking at his statistics from last season through the regular season and into the playoffs, it’s just amazing what he has done since the Sox picked him off waivers from Minnesota. Last year, “Big Papi” amassed 41 home runs and 139 RBI, spending more than three-quarters of the time in the DH role, and his post-season heroics earned him MVP honors in the American League Championship Series. This spring, it’s evident that his powerful stroke has not diminished, even if he’s taken off a few pounds during the off-season. Terry Francona expects to use him as the everyday DH, so there’s no reason that he can’t continue to compile the numbers that make jaws drop everywhere.

Who will be the surprise of the season?

Jay Payton grabbed headlines when he was traded to Boston in December for Dave Roberts, but perhaps overlooked in that deal was the acquisition of infielder Ramon Vazquez. The four-year veteran from Puerto Rico, who has averaged 78 games in that time, plays all four infield positions and sports a .979 fielding percentage. Remember how valuable Pokey Reese was for Boston last season? Perhaps he might not get as many opportunities as Pokey, who took advantage of Nomar’s absence for the first half of the season, but he should prove valuable as a late-inning defensive replacement. Plus, when one of the veterans needs an off-day to recover from aches and pains, Vazquez should prove adequate with a .262 lifetime average.

Will Adam Stern remain with Boston for the entire season?

Being a Rule V pick-up, Stern would be shipped back to the Atlanta Braves if the Sox are unable to find a permanent place for him on the major league roster. Unfortunately, there are five Red Sox outfielders in front of him: Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, Payton, and Kevin Millar. Adam Hyzdu has already been sent packing this spring for that very reason. Barring an injury to one of the fore mentioned players, Boston will not jump through hoops to retain his services, so expect him back with Atlanta by mid-summer.

Isn’t Francona deserving of an extension now?

Francona managed in his first year at the Red Sox helm to win a World Series championship, something that no Boston manager had done since Ed Barrow, also in his first season as manager, in 1918. To some, that would seem like reason enough to sign him to a new contract right now; however, the Red Sox front office is not going to rush to get him guaranteed for anything past the current length of their agreement with him, at least through this season. Should his fortunes continue, then it’s possible that he would be granted an extension after that, as well as a statue right next to Ted Williams‘s, but both Francona and the Sox are content to let sleeping dogs lie for now.

Will they or won’t they?

It bears repeating that all roads to the championship will lead through New York and the Yankees spent the winter reloading the arsenal as usual. However, the Red Sox are just as strong themselves and should be able to rise to the challenge once more. Winning the division has become inconsequential thanks to the Wild Card draw; Boston should do well enough again to earn at least that prize and make the playoffs. As long as they play to their potential and Francona continues to make smart coaching decisions, the Red Sox should get another chance to meet a National League opponent in late October for all the marbles.