The Red Sox looked like a beaten-down and broken-down team as they walked through the tunnel way of Tropicana Field to the team bus last Sunday night. The Red Sox had lost Game Seven of the ALCS about an hour earlier to the Rays, their chance to stake a claim as the team of the decade with a third World Series title in five years delayed, missing their opportunity to become baseball’s first repeat champions since the Yankees won three World Series in a row from 1998-2000. “Our guys gave everything they could possible give,” exhausted Red Sox manager Terry Francona said as the last of his players filed out of the visiting clubhouse. “I really don’t think they had anything else left in the tank. I’m as proud of this team as any of the five teams I’ve managed since coming to the Red Sox, and that includes two teams that won World Series. These last couple of months was the most fun I’ve ever had here. It was tremendous.”
Francona did not specifically say why the latter portion of this season had been such a joy, but then he didn’t have to. Francona’s life became much easier once left fielder Manny Ramirez was traded to the Dodgers in a three-way deal that netted the Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay from the Pirates. The merits of swapping Ramirez for Bay can be discussed into infinity, and the numbers will say that the Dodgers came out ahead every time. Ramirez hit .396/.489/.743 with a .404 EqA and 47.6 VORP after the trade, while Bay batted .293/.370/.527 with a .302 EqA and 15.2 VORP. Those numbers aside, and though no one on the Red Sox was willing to say so publicly, it was very clear that their clubhouse became a happier place once Ramirez left, despite his status as a lock for the Hall of Fame and one of the most dangerous hitters of his generation. There was talk that Ramirez had threatened to sit out the rest of the season with a purported knee injury if he wasn’t traded; there was certainly no guarantee that he would hit for the Red Sox in the last two months as he did as a Dodger.
While Francona is in many ways a new-age manager with his ability to relate to his players and use statistical analysis to formulate lineups and game plans, he is also an old-school guy, having grown up around the game with his father, Tito, a major league outfielder for 15 seasons. So while Francona felt that he had to hide it publicly, it bothered him immensely to have to coddle Ramirez, and he was happy to be able plug the low-maintenance Bay into the lineup in his place. By all accounts, and with the notable exception of designated hitter David Ortiz, the Red Sox players were also glad to be rid of Ramirez, and felt that the atmosphere became more relaxed following his exit.
Though they finished second in the AL East to the Rays and had to settle for the wild card, the Red Sox still rang up 95 regular-season wins and knocked off the Angels in the ALDS. Yet while the Red Sox’ frame of mind was good at year’s end, they were a battered club by the time the ALCS ended. Third baseman Mike Lowell was in New York awaiting hip surgery that was performed Monday. Ortiz’s wrist was so sore that it made every swing painful, and rookie shortstop Jed Lowrie also was suffering from wrist pain. Right-hander Josh Beckett had so much discomfort in his strained oblique muscle that it hurt to breathe when he pitched, and closer Jonathan Papelbon‘s shoulder was tender enough that he wasn’t able to pitch in Game Seven.
While a winter of rest is expected to heal those injuries, it should still be an interesting offseason for the Red Sox. General manager Theo Epstein’s first big decision will be what to do with Varitek, who is 36 and eligible for free agency after a season in which his EqA was .237. On the surface, cutting ties with Varitek seems like a no-brainer, but he is the team captain and the Red Sox do not have a replacement catcher ready to take his place. The free-agent market will offer little help in the way of a number-one catcher, and Varitek will be the only one available who has logged 400 plate appearances this season. “There’s not a lot of elite catching out there,” Epstein said. “At the same time, that changes the standards from what you’re looking for. The state of catching shifts the target a little bit. What’s league average?” Most likely, Varitek will return on a two-year deal in the $16 million range, with the Red Sox actively shopping for a young catcher who could take over as the starter in 2011. The Red Sox have a total of nine potential free agents, but most are fringe players; their other significant decision will be whether to renew knuckleballer Tim Wakefield‘s $4 million rollover option, and they will likely do so after he ranked fourth on the pitching staff with 4.2 SNLVAR.
Manager Joe Torre used to say that the most discouraging part about managing the Yankees was that the season was considered a failure if they did not win the World Series. While the Red Sox have qualified for the playoffs in five of the past six seasons, the expectations may not yet have reached those heights. There was still a sense of pride for the Red Sox in being the AL runner-up, particularly after rallying from a 7-0 deficit in the seventh inning of an elimination situation in Game Five of the ALCS to add two more games to their season before finally succumbing to the Rays. “It’s bittersweet because we fell a couple runs short at the end,” Epstein said. “What happened in Game Five, and to be able to get within a few runs of the World Series and salvage the series, to me, that changed the tone of our season. It doesn’t change what we are, where we need to improve, and how we stack up against our competition. It does change the tone, and that will maybe help how we sleep at night this winter.”
Francona, though, may have some sleepless nights, as he is scheduled to have back surgery in the near future. A ruptured disc in his back caused such weakness that he was barely able to hold his pen to make out a lineup card during the latter stages of the season. The stress of managing the Red Sox, along with a myriad of physical problems, has caused Francona to wonder how much longer he wants to continue, though he qualifies that by saying he is always tired at the end of every season. “If there comes a time when I don’t feel like I can do my job appropriately, I won’t do it,” Francona said. “This job, sometimes it almost sucks the life out of you. I try real hard every winter to make sure when I come to spring training I can do my job. I owe that to the players and the organization. Because it does take it out of you, this place more than any place I’ve ever seen. And I do have health issues, there’s no getting around that. If there is ever a day where I don’t feel like I can do my job, I wouldn’t do it.”
Chuck LaMar, in his first season as the Phillies‘ pro scouting director, is certainly one of the more interested observers at this year’s World Series. He was also the Rays’ first general manager, overseeing their start as one of the last two expansion teams in 1998 before being fired after the 2005 season when Stuart Sternberg purchased the club from Vince Naimoli and installed Andrew Friedman to oversee baseball operations.
LaMar has no ill feelings about being let go by the Rays, and is thrilled they are the Phillies’ opponent in their first-ever World Series. “I’m happy for the people in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, and for the Rays, because there are a lot of very good people in their organization who have worked hard for a very long time for this to happen,” LaMar said. “When you work in baseball, it’s a huge thrill just to play some kind of part in a team that to gets to a World Series. To know that I also played a small part in two teams making the World Series makes this very special.”
Among the Rays who were drafted during LaMar’s tenure are right-handers James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine, left fielder Carl Crawford, center fielder B.J. Upton, and right fielder Rocco Baldelli. LaMar also acquired Scott Kazmir, who started the World Series opener, from the Mets in a 2004 trade for Victor Zambrano when the young left-hander was still pitching at Double-A.
LaMar isn’t the least bit surprised that the Rays are experiencing success after so many years of failure. “This is what we always planned to happen. Unfortunately it just didn’t come as soon as we all hoped when we started as an expansion team,” LaMar said. “I felt we had a good base of young talent when I left the organization, and Andrew Friedman has done an outstanding job of adding to it and making it a championship club. The best part for me is to see how the fans have really taken to the team and are starting to go to the games. It’s a great sports area, but there are a lot of entertainment options in the Tampa-St. Pete market because of the great weather-golfing, fishing, boating. You’ve got to give people a reason to come to the ballpark, and the Rays are giving people a reason now. They have a fun team to watch.”
While LaMar had his share of detractors during his stint with the Rays, he already owns one World Series ring: he was the Braves‘ player development director in 1995 when they won their lone World Series title since moving to Atlanta in 1966.
People around the Phillies believe that second baseman Chase Utley should get consideration for a National League Gold Glove this season. “He’s got as much range as any second baseman in the league and he makes all the plays,” said Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes, who played 1,418 games in the major leagues as a second baseman. “He just does a great job day in and day out.” Utley’s FRAA ranked ninth in the NL, far behind leader Brandon Phillips, but Utley scored a plus-47 in John Dewan’s Plus/Minus fielding ratings, tops among all major league players at any position.
The old joke in baseball circles has long been that a player has to have a good offensive season in order to be noticed by the managers and coaches who vote on the Gold Glove awards, but Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins believes that Utley’s defense is overlooked because he is such an outstanding hitter. “I think a lot of people look at him as strictly an offensive second baseman, and that’s not correct,” Rollins said. “He’s a very good defensive player, in my opinion, the best defensive second baseman in the league. I remember when he came up to the major leagues that there was an assumption Chase was a bad fielder because he was a good hitter. When he first came up, I thought it was going to be ping, ping, ping, because balls would be clanking off his iron glove. That wasn’t the case, and he’s worked very hard on his defense to become outstanding.”
The Mariners have tabbed highly regarded Brewers scouting director Jack Zduriencik as their new GM, and his task will be to turn around a franchise that suffered the dubious distinction this season of being the first team in history to lose at least 100 games with a payroll of at least $100 million. The Mariners went 61-101 despite having a season-opening payroll of $117 million.
Zduriencik is not afraid of a challenge however, as his shrewd drafting skills helped the Brewers make the playoffs this season for the first time since 1982. He was also a scouting director with the Pirates and Mets. “I’m a 24/7 guy,” Zduriencik said. “I’m a little no-nonsense. I like to get right down to it, and there’s a job to be done here, so let’s not waste each other’s time. I like decisions.”
It was that attitude that swayed the Mariners to hire the 57-year-old Zduriencik over an impressive field of younger candidates that included Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava, Dodgers assistant GM Kim Ng, and Diamondbacks player personnel director Jerry DiPoto. “This is a tough, seasoned executive,” Mariners chairman Howard Lincoln said. “He’s been around the game a long time. I have tremendous confidence in him.”
While the Mariners won 27 fewer games this season than last, Zduriencik believes he can quickly get the organization back up on its feet. His philosophy of what it takes to put together a winning team is simple, which is fitting; he grew up the son of a steel worker in the blue-collar town of New Castle, Pennsylvania. “Talent,” Zduriencik said. “Talent, in a nutshell, always works. I’d love to have guys with good makeup and good character, committed to the city and the ballclub. But when all is said and done, talent wins.”
Zduriencik’s first order of business is to find a new manager. Ned Yost, fired by the Brewers as their manager on September 15, is considered the current favorite. “I’m looking for someone who has a short-term and a long-term picture,” Zduriencik said. “Someone with energy, vast baseball experience, someone who’s a leader, can run our team with confidence, and be good in the community as well.”
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Brewers have narrowed their managerial search down to three former major league skippers: Bob Brenly, Ken Macha, and Willie Randolph. One interesting related factoid is that Brewers GM Doug Melvin, Macha, and Randolph were all teammates in the Pirates’ farm system at Double-A Thetford Mines in 1974. … The Rockies have interest in hiring Randolph as bench coach if he doesn’t land the Brewers’ job, and former Dodgers and Pirates manager Jim Tracy is also in the running to be Clint Hurdle‘s top aide. … The Cubs are expected to target Yankees right fielder Bobby Abreu on the free-agent market. … The Mets have decided against pursuing Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez as a free agent, and will instead target Rockies left-hander Brian Fuentes on the open market to be their closer, along with Dodgers right-hander Derek Lowe to solidify their rotation. The Red Sox are also expected to make a big pitch for Lowe. … The Padres are cutting payroll, but plan to take some low-risk gambles on rehabbing free-agent pitchers like left-hander Mark Mulder and right-handers Matt Clement and Mark Prior.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Red Sox are considering trading Lowell, who could be difficult to deal coming off of hip surgery, and either signing Angels first baseman Mark Teixeira as a free agent and moving Kevin Youkilis permanently back to third, or trading for Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins. … The Yankees are expected to make a bid to sign center fielder Mike Cameron if the Brewers do not exercise their $10 million club option and allow him to become a free agent. … Blue Jays interim president Paul Beeston has made keeping A.J. Burnett, who can opt out of his contract and become a free agent after the World Series, his top priority, and all indications are that the right-hander wants to stay. … The Blue Jays also plan to go with career utility infielder Marco Scutaro as their shortstop next season. … The Rangers plan to exercise the $6.2 million option on third baseman Hank Blalock for next season.