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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The End Could Very Well Be a New Beginning for the Boston Red Sox

At 68-88, and firmly entrenched in last place in the American League East, the Boston Red Sox are close to wrapping up a pretty painful 2014 season. The sting is particularly acute because of last year’s World Series win. However, some of the signs that the team is flashing over the last few weeks of the lost campaign could very well mark a new beginning for the franchise.

Having dealt ace pitcher Jon Lester earlier this season, and stalwarts David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia aging, it’s clear the Red Sox need an infusion of young talent to help solidify a new identity. Fortunately, the team is flush with prospects, and has had a whopping 15 players aged 25 or younger appear in at least one game this season. The results have been mixed but some of these players have given signs about what their future in Boston may be.

21-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts has hit just .237 with 12 home runs and 20 errors this year. However, having hung in at such a young age and finishing strong down the stretch has done nothing to sway the belief that he is a long-term impact player. In his last 21 games, the right-handed hitter has batted .317 with four home runs and 13 RBI, showing that he is still adjusting and developing—exactly what you want to see from someone his age.

Infielder/outfielder Mookie Betts made his major league debut earlier in the season. After initial ho-hum production, he has emerged as perhaps the team’s most valuable player down the stretch—hitting .285 with five home runs, 15 RBI and six stolen bases in 46 games. Including his time in the minors, the diminutive 21-year-old has hit a combined .329 with 16 homers, 80 RBI and 38 steals. His ability to play multiple positions makes him a strong candidate for a big role with the 2015 team.

Since being a 2011 fifth-round draft pick, Betts has simply gotten better and better with each passing year. In four professional seasons, he has played at seven total levels, and at each stop has done the near impossible of adapting and developing his game almost immediately. It’s difficult to ascertain what his major league future will be, but at this point he appears to be at the very least a solid contributor for years to come—with the potential to be much more.

One youngster whose play has increasingly negatively impacted his Boston future is third baseman Will Middlebrooks. The 25-year-old right-handed hitter battled injuries earlier in the year, the third time in as many seasons to start his career. Unfortunately, when he has been on the field, he has not been able to get on track and come close to matching the high expectations he earned during his rookie season in 2012 when he hit .288 with 15 home runs in just 75 games.

To the contrary, the only consistency Middlebrooks has shown has been an inability to get anything going. In his last 51 games, he has hit a disappointing .181 with no home runs and just 14 RBIs—while striking out 63 times. He has been given a chance to get his once promising career on track but it seems increasingly more likely his time in Boston may be coming to an end.

Finally, although they are too old for the prospect group, the Red Sox are seeing positive returns from two mid-season outfield acquisitions in Yoenis Cespedes and Rusney Castillo. Both natives of Cuba, the two appear to be linchpins of the team beyond the end of the disappointing 2014 campaign.

The 29-year-old Cespedes was the key piece obtained in the Lester trade, as his right-handed power was a commodity sorely lacking in the Boston lineup. He has shown that he may have been worth the steep price of the veteran lefty, as he has hit .262 with five home runs and 30 RBIs in 45 games since switching teams. In addition, his powerful throwing arm, as evidenced by his 15 2014 outfield assists, will be a lethal weapon in the short left field in Fenway Park.

Having not played organized baseball since 2012 because of political reasons in his native Cuba, the 27-year-old Castillo was signed to a seven year contract worth over $70 million last month. Despite an arsenal of raw skills that include great speed and defensive prowess, there is still not enough known about the right-handed hitter to be able to gauge his true ceiling. However, he has been thrown into the fire from the get-go, playing briefly at several minor league stops during their playoff seasons, and now getting a chance at the big league level over the final few weeks.

Castillo has four singles in 16 at-bats with Boston thus far—hardly earth-shattering numbers. The real key has been his ability to look like he belongs after such a long layoff, which is very encouraging for his future. He is a lottery ticket in the truest sense of the term, and 2015 appears to be when he will receive an extended look to see if will pay off or a wasted chance.

The 2014 season may be very disappointing on paper for the Red Sox but there are positives to be gleaned out of the wreckage. Although the impending end of the season is a merciful relief in some ways, it is also marking the beginning of a new dawn for the team and its fans.

Statistics via BaseballReference.com.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ecstasy & Agony of Being a Red Sox Fan: A Review

Being a fan of the Boston Red Sox can be much more than just following the statistics and the standings. Some adherents see their moods and even their very outlooks on life impacted by the baseball team from Beantown. It’s a rite of passage and a birthright for many, and Stanley Harris has outlined his relationship of seven decades with the team in his fan memoir, The Ecstasy & Agony of Being a Red Sox Fan (Critical Choices).

Perhaps more than any other team in professional sports, the Red Sox are known for their polarization when it comes to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. They have provided fans with amazing moments and seasons, while sprinkling in more than a fair share of heart-breaking let-downs. Although the passion can sway dramatically from side to side, fans are generally in it up their necks, win, lose or draw. Accordingly, it only takes a year or a word or two to evoke the best and worst of these memories; 1946, 1967, 1986, 2004, Nomar, The Impossible Dream, The Curse, The Kid, Pedro… The list goes on and on.

Harris takes us through the earliest days of his fandom to the present, detailing how rooting for the team has impacted him. He starts with the 1946 team that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and picks his way through the years- both the lean and the fat. Iconic moments like Bill Buckner letting the ball roll through his legs at first base, and the Carlton Fisk home run in the 1975 World Series are recounted from the other side of the television and field.

The story is told through the lens of Harris’ life, from growing up outside of Boston, to raising a family and living in various parts of the country. Not a “super fan,” he has never had season tickets or shown up to games in face paint, but has maintained a connection to the team since the dawning of his earliest memories. Even when circumstances caused him to stray, he has always returned to the baseball squad that originally captured his loyalties.

An interesting aspect of Ecstasy and Agony is that it is not written from the perspective of a baseball “expert.” Rather, Harris tells his story from his own knowledge base, which comes from attending games, reading newspaper articles and keeping up with his fellow fans. His evaluations of players, front office staff and team results aren’t based on sabermetrics or other traditional methods. His appreciation or disdain comes from his own sensibilities, honed by years of following the Sox.

Although Harris provides statistics and personal memories of teams to help set up his narrative, there are some instances of inaccuracy in those details. However, keeping in mind that this is essentially the life diary of a man’s relationship with the team, if anything it lends to a sense of authenticity of his true fan identity, and separates him from the more encyclopedic analysis of the Red Sox in the past.

The beauty and the horrors of being a Red Sox fan lie in the extreme highs and lows the team can take you. It’s also astounding how entwined a person can get in their connection to 25 men playing a child’s game. These unique qualities of the team from Boston are put on full display by Harris, who has done a commendable job in summarizing what the Red Sox have contributed and taken from his life for so many years.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Rickey & Robinson: A Review

Announcer Vin Scully is the unquestioned dean of Los Angeles Dodgers baseball because of his work with the team for well over half a century. However, there is another person, just one other, who should be regarded in that same class, and that is writer Roger Kahn.

Best known for his work as a Dodgers’ beat writer and for penning such seminal works as The Boys of Summer, Kahn may be best described as baseball’ unofficial poet laureate. In addition to his journalistic endeavors, he has produced nearly two dozen books since he started his career in the 1950s, with his most recent title, Rickey & Robinson: TheTrue, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball (Rodale Books) continuing his legacy of excellence.

Rickey & Robinson details the journey taken by former Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey in integrating professional baseball with Jackie Robinson in the 1940s. The book is not a historical work per se but rather more of a collection of memories and anecdotes. Fortunately, when it comes to such things, there is probably no living person better equipped for this than Kahn, who was quite literally in the thick of things as the relationship between these two titans of baseball played out.

What makes this book stand out among others that have covered the topic in some way is the insider bird’s eye view provided by the author. The relationship between Rickey and Robinson is often portrayed in sweeping general terms. Here, a greater amount of detail truly expands the story.

Kahn isn’t shy about injecting his own thoughts and experiences. While Rickey may have been a kind and brilliant man, he was also a topflight businessman who was very keen on chasing profits. This came in various forms like having his teams play baseball on Sundays despite his personal objections to being at the ballpark on that day, to refusing to compensate Negro league and minor league teams for players that were signed off their rosters. Because of his work to integrate baseball, he is often seen through saint-tinged glasses. However, the reality was that he was much more pragmatic when it came to business decision.

It’s clear that Kahn has a tremendous amount of admiration for Robinson, but even that doesn’t prevent him from throwing the curtain back a bit more than what is seen in many other works on the subject. Most interesting are the descriptions of how the pioneering ballplayer became a master of using the media to advance his agenda, including a memorable bit towards the end of his career when he was unhappy about his salary increases.

Because of his former affiliation with the baseball beat writers, Kahn really enhances Rickey & Robinson by utilizing personal stories about, and clips of old articles of his former colleagues. The integration of baseball was something that was deeply impacted by what was written (or in many cases not written). At times it was made easier by scribes like Red Smith who wrote with open minds and hopeful pens. On the other hand, there were an abundance of writers and editors who were more interested in their own agendas or the status quo. How both sides of this coin played out are utterly intriguing, and are luckily discussed in detail.

Kahn’s relationship with those who were on the field provides the reader with yet another view. Perhaps the most memorable was the path of former outfielder Dixie Walker, a born and bred southerner, who went from trying to launch a petition to prevent Robinson or other blacks from playing major league baseball to having deep regrets later in his life for those beliefs and actions.

Much of what is in life and history is rarely just black and white, and that is very true of the story of Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball. Kahn’s ability to catalogue and fill in the gaps in the “gray area” of this baseball genesis story is proof positive of why he remains one of baseball’s treasures.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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Monday, September 1, 2014

Nick Travieso: Cincinnati Reds' Fast Tracked Pitching Prospect

The Cincinnati Reds have had good fortune developing their own starting pitching in recent years, churning out the likes of Mike Leake, Tony Cingrani, Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto. There is another hurler emerging who appears to be on that same track, and his name is Nick Travieso.

The right-hander attended Archbishop McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, Florida. Poised to attend the University of Miami, his designation as the 14th overall selection in the first round of the 2012 draft by the Reds was enough to make him change his mind and start his professional career.

Like many players fresh out of high school, Travieso started slowing going 0-2 with a 4.71 ERA in eight 2012 starts in the Arizona Rookie League. He won seven games the following years but has truly blossomed in 2014.

Playing for the Single-A Dayton Dragons, the 20-year-old is 14-5 with a 3.03 ERA in 26 starts. He has struck out 114 in 142.2 innings while permitting just 123 hits and 44 walks. He has been particularly fiery hot of late, as evidenced by his 7-0 record and 1.22 ERA in his last nine starts. More information on his statistics can be found here and here.

This past offseason, Travieso was gracious enough to answer some questions. Keep reading on for more on this prospect who seems to be on the fast track for the Cincinnati starting rotation.

Nick Travieso Interview:

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: Growing up I idolized Roger Clemens. I loved how he went after every hitter regardless of who was at the plate. He always had fire in him, even when he knew his career was coming to an end.

What went into your decision to go pro opposed to attending the University of Miami?: Throughout high school I had all intentions of attending the University of Miami. I knew I wanted to play college ball there since I started playing coach pitch at the age of seven. The "U" was part of my home, and therefore a part of me. It wasn't until I got drafted that things got a little tricky. As much as I wanted to attend Miami, playing baseball was where my heart was. My family and I sat down and talked about it, and I decided that I wanted to make a living doing what I love. That’s when I decided I would play professionally for the Reds.

Can you describe the kind of attentions you got from teams leading up to the draft?: Everything was sort of in the air. It wasn't like I was getting more attention from one team than the others. I had heard that some liked me and some didn't. I wasn't sure where or even if I would get drafted. I always just tried to go out and play my game and not worry about the scouts or the draft.

What pitches do you throw and which do you think you need to work on the most?: I'm a fastball, slider and changeup guy. My changeup is definitely the pitch I need to work on most mainly because I hardly ever threw it before pro ball. In high school all you need is two pitches. But when you move to the next level you need to be able to have a feel for a third pitch, and I'm in the process of that now.

Who has been the most influential coach or manager you have had, and why?: In pro ball so far the most influential coach I've had is the Dayton pitching coach Tony Fossas. He pitched in the big leagues for 12 years but what a lot of people don't know is that he spent just as long in the minors. I think it's great to have a coach like that who knows what you are going through because he was there one day. He's had the biggest impact on my professional career on and off the field.

Do you follow the major league transactions? If so, do you a lot of thinking of how they might impact you?: I like to keep up with it a little over social media, but not extensively. I wouldn't say that I think about how they would impact my career but I guess sometimes you have to. When your organization is making moves up top, it's kind of exciting to know that one day possibly you could be getting moved up to fill a spot.

What has been your proudest moment as a professional player?: My proudest moment thus far would probably be when my parents came out to watch my first game in Dayton. I didn't get the win, but I pitched well and it just made it a whole lot better seeing them out in the stands like they have since day one back in tee ball.

What are some things you like to do away from baseball?: I consider myself a professional fisherman in the offseason—haha. I usually go out almost every morning and go fishing whether it be in a lake or even in the ocean. It's always a fun and enjoyable experience every time I go even if I don't catch anything. I just like to go out and relax and not have to worry about anything else. It's kind of my escape from baseball.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew