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One Night in September

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.

The words of former baseball commissioner, and lifelong Red Sox fan Bart Giamatti echo through my mind as I replay a 10 minute sequence that ended baseball’s regular season. Sure, a couple teams played on, but for all intents and purposes, the season came to a rare, dramatic climax late in the September evening along the Atlantic coast.

As Joe Posnanski wrote so eloquently yesterday, baseball largely revolves around anticlimax. More often than not, the predictable happens. Then sometimes, you get events like Wednesday night. Everything held to form for a while, but some time around 9:30 EST, when it starting raining in Baltimore, the script went out the window (ESPN has a timeline of the major events). About 3 hours later, the dust settled on one of the most unpredictable, memorable nights in baseball history.

I won’t go into detail recapping the events. St. Louis dominated Houston, capping a marvelous September run to the NL wild card. Atlanta’s worn out bullpen faltered when it needed to come through, the culmination of Atlanta’s own September dive, driven by a pitching staff beset by injuries and overwork. Tampa Bay, behind their ace David Price, fell behind 7-0 to a less than full strength Yankees club. With all but the scrubs out of the New York lineup, the Rays rallied, scoring 6 in the 8th, and hitting the game-tying homer with 2 outs and a 2 strike count in the 9th. Boston gripped to a 1 run lead from the 5th inning on as their closer, Jonathan Papelbon, took the mound in the 9th. After getting the first 2 men out, 3 straight doubles by Baltimore scored 2 runs to end the game. What felt like seconds later, Evan Longoria homered to win the game in Tampa Bay, ending Boston’s season. What had been a 10 1/2 game lead 4 weeks earlier was gone.

Night
The Red Sox’s season died on a Wednesday night in Baltimore.

The rationale side of me, the pure baseball fan, loved Wednesday’s drama. There were three memorable games with lots at stake. If I could show last night to everyone who wonders why I love baseball so much, they wouldn’t wonder anymore. The night ended with small market Tampa Bay, one of the best run organizations, winning on a walk-off from one of the game’s best players. Even a Red Sox fan wouldn’t begrudge the Rays.

But that’s the thing. I’m also a Red Sox fan. And being a fan of a specific club is inherently irrational. There is no reciprocity in this relationship. I don’t get input into who the club signs or trades, the club doesn’t know I exist, and I doubt it cares about me any more than any other data point in its market research. I’m okay with that. As I said, being a fan requires a suspension of rational thinking.

But the highs of being a baseball fan Wednesday were tempered by the lows of being a Red Sox fan. Given their state, had they advanced, the Sox were likely to go out in the first round. This doesn’t take away the success of 2004 and 2007. But, it is a low point I haven’t felt since Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS (which was much much worse). The Sox built a team to win in 2011, but they fell far short. They didn’t have the depth to recover when injuries cut into their pitching staff. One of their star acquisitions played like a league average outfielder. Many of their hitters went silent down the stretch.

What lingers is the feeling of lost opportunity, and the worry that the opportunites may not come again, or may be fewer and far between. They haven’t won a playoff game since 2008. They play in a division with the ever-powerful Yankees, the talented Rays, and the ascending Blue Jays. With aging players at key positions, success may be hard to come by for Boston these next few years.

Meanwhile, the games go on. Baseball fans, myself included, look forward to 4 weeks of playoff competition. Tonight, Detroit ace Justin Verlander tries to steal a win at Yankee Stadium. Saturday, Milwaukee – the smallest market in the game – kicks off their pennant run against young, surprising Arizona. It’s Milwaukee’s last chance to win before star slugger Prince Fielder, a free agent to be, likely leaves for greener pastures. Philadelphia, behind it’s stellar rotation, will try to win the championship – which would be the first for aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Texas aims for a repeat trip to the World Series, and St. Louis tries to squeeze another run out on aging core, one that could break up as soon as this off-season if Albert Pujols moves on. The next 4 weeks will surely produce more memorable moments; if any of them approach Wednesday night, baseball fans are in for something special.

And then next year in the spring, as Vin Scully says, “everything old is new again”. Hope and promise will return. Maybe the Red Sox will rebound, and this collapse will be an aberration, not a return to form. But in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy being a baseball fan these next 4 weeks.

Playoff Predictions:
Yankees, Rays, Phillies, Brewers.
Brewers over Yankees in the World Series.

Priority of Cheering in the Playoffs:
1. Brewers
2. Phillies (for Halladay to win a World Series)
3. Rays
4. Tigers
5. Rangers
6. Diamondbacks
7. Cardinals
8. None of the Above
9. Yankees

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Draft Picks Matter: Why Scutaro Makes No Sense for Boston

If reports are to be believed, the Boston Red Sox have agreed to a two-year deal (plus option) with free agent shortstop Marco Scutaro. Scutaro, a 34 year old journeyman coming off a career season, will be expected to hold down the SS position – one that has been a revolving door in Boston the past few years.

Despite the challenges the Sox have faced at SS, I’m not impressed with this deal. I don’t mind the cost at all. Even if he regresses to utility infielder quality, his salary shouldn’t affect Boston’s ability to acquire other players in order to improve the roster. Furthermore, I recognize that Scutaro is a top-tier defensive player, and that he’s excellent at working the count. Nonetheless, I don’t believe this is a good move for the Sox.

Scutaro is graded as a ‘Type A’ free agent, meaning that the team who signs him surrenders their first round pick in June’s amateur player draft (and if Boston signs another ‘Type A’, such as Matt Holliday, they will lose their second round pick as well). A comparable player could likely be had for less by other means – signing a free agent not graded ‘Type A’, giving up lesser prospects or considerations in a trade, or sticking with who they have internally. On that note, will Scutaro be that much better than Jed Lowrie over the next few years? PECOTA projections put the two players in the same territory, and being nine years younger, Lowrie is more likely to improve over this period. If they want an upgrade in the middle infield, why not pursue Orlando Hudson to play second and move Dustin Pedroia to short, as Peter Gammons infers that they considered doing? Hudson would cost them nothing beyond his salary, seeing as he was non-tendered as a free agent and has no compensation attached?

Coming back to the draft pick Boston will give up, teams are not allowed to trade picks. The only way they exchange hands is through compensation for free agent signings. The importance of hanging on to draft picks is increased in the current economic climate, where the Sox are one of a handful of teams that can bid on top-tier players such as Roy Halladay, Josh Johnson, Felix Hernandez, or Adrian Gonzales should their respective teams put them on the trade market. Having more assets to a) offer in a trade, and b) ensure there is still depth remaining in the farm system should you be successful in making a trade, is critical. I don’t think Scutaro justifies giving up a draft pick in this context. Even though that pick is at the bottom of the first round, Boston is likely to get a player ranked higher than their spot on the board since they are one of a few teams who generally pays players above the MLB slot recommendations for salary. This means that some teams will be scared off from the highest ranked players, letting them fall to the big spenders such as Boston, New York, and Detroit.

Even for a high payroll team like the Red Sox, good decisions and allocation of resources are critical. I don’t feel that Scutaro justifies what they are giving up; I hope it’s an outlier, not a trend, of how the club will be managed going forward.