The implosion of the 2011 Red Sox came as a surprise. It was an excruciating, agonizing surprise that played out over the course of a month, and left Boston fans at a loss for answers. The team that looked like it had an excellent chance at winning the World Series this year, went down in a fiery blaze, and left next season in doubt in terms of what to expect from the beleaguered squad.
Part of the reason that the season’s finish came as such a surprise turned out to be because of the team’s lack of chemistry. Even with non-stop coverage of the Red Sox, fans rarely get a true glimpse into the dynamics of a clubhouse. The signs were of discord were there all season long- from Crawford’s 162 game slump to Lackey’s inexcusable attitude- but while the team was winning, such things were explained away as temporary or aberrations. It turned out that Boston had a splintered clubhouse with little respect or regard for fellow players or coaches.
With their ability to field a team with a high payroll, the Red Sox should have access to the base of a winning team just about every year. I believe that while money can’t truly buy a championship, there are a number of moves the team can make in order to make 2012 more successful than this year’s disaster.
Hire the right manager: It will be difficult for the Red Sox to hire the right manager, but it is a task they must handle with the utmost precision. Terry Francona had a reputation as the ultimate player’s manager, and that may have contributed to the team’s downfall, as evidenced by the stories of slacking players and unchecked and inappropriate clubhouse behavior.
I don’t know enough about eligible managerial candidates to suggest a specific candidate, but I do know what qualities the Red Sox need to look for in their search. They need someone who can be a strong leader, but also someone who can handle a spectrum of personalities and demands that come with a high priced roster.
The perfect candidate would be someone who can be a task master, but not a tyrant. They need a manager who can relate to players, but not allow them to take advantage of him. With Boston sure to return many players next year, it would be unrealistic to think that they could smoothly transition from a player’s manager to a total disciplinarian. I am not too naïve to believe that this will be an easy process, but Boston has to do their best to find these qualities in their next manager, in order to move forward with a more successful 2012.
Implement a dry clubhouse and read the players the riot act: Various reports indicated that a number of Red Sox pitchers drank alcohol in the clubhouse during and/or before games in which they were not pitching. This is absolutely ludicrous. For the amount of money that even the lowest paid players receive, they should have the respect to be in the dugout or bullpen and watch their teammates compete and save the partying for after hours.
There is no reason why alcohol should be in the clubhouse before or during games. Heck, there are good reasons why it shouldn’t be there after games. The Red Sox must make sure that this behavior never occurs again. A good start would be to ban alcohol from the clubhouse, and individually address the players who were participating in the drinking this year. If they make it abundantly clear that this is unacceptable behavior, they will have options to deal with it if it ever occurs again.
Get back to basics: Another problem of the Red Sox was their lack of conditioning. Seemingly, this team of veterans felt they had enough experience to handle the rigors of the season without putting in all the required work. As the season went along, the production and stamina of a number of players declined noticeably. Going into 2012, regardless of how many high priced veterans are on the roster, they need to prepare as if they are rookies fighting to make the team.
There have also been whispers that a number of players sat out games with injuries, but could have played if pressed. While nobody should be required to play if they are endangering their well being or potentially aggravating an injury, part of baseball is playing at less than 100%. Players need to hold each other accountable and make sure that complacency does not envelop the team. Without preparedness and toughness, not team can reasonably expect to compete, especially in the tough American League East.
Trade John Lackey: This easier said than done, but I believe it is possible. Lackey is owed in excess of 50 million dollars for the next three years, so there won’t be many teams lining up to acquire him. What the Red Sox need to do is find another team with an equally undesirable player with a lot of money remaining on their contract.
Although the dollars may not quite match up, I think I have a couple of viable options. One would be for Boston to target Carlos Zambrano. It would be a classic swap for two head cases. I would much rather have Zambrano, whose boorish behavior is typically linked to his competitiveness, than Lackey, whose indiscretions are most often attributed to him being a jerk.
The second possibility would be sending Lackey to the White Sox for Alexis Rios. Chicago has been burdened by Rios’ cumbersome long term contract and less than anticipated production. Boston has a need for a strong defensive right fielder to replace J.D. Drew, and wouldn’t need that player to be a star of the team. Rios could potentially revive his career by starting off in the shadows of Fenway Park under less pressure than he would face in most places. He would likely hit in the bottom third of the order, and would keep fans happy by playing good defense and stealing some bases. Everything else would be gravy.
Throw a retirement party: I can’t say enough how much I have appreciated the contributions that Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek have made to the franchise over the past two decades, but it is time for them to retire. Varitek (15 years) and Wakefield (17 years) have been mainstays for Boston since the 1990’s, but baseball is a business, and it is clear that better replacements can be found.
Varitek hasn’t hit above .250 since 2007 and hasn’t thrown out more than 25% of base runners since 2003. Turning 40 years old next April, the Red Sox have enough depth at the catcher’s position to survive without him. Jarrod Saltalamacchia showed this year that he can produce at the level of at least an average starting major league catcher.
There is also the Ryan Lavarnway conundrum. Talent evaluators swear he cannot catch, but his minor league production shows that his bat is definitely there, and I would love to see him be given a chance to at least stick as the backup.
Wakefield has been lauded as an ageless wonder who has stepped into whatever void existed in the Red Sox pitching staff for years. Unfortunately time has finally caught up with the knuckleballer, and he is no longer a productive major league pitcher.
Over the past two seasons Wakefield has gone 11-18 with a 5.22 ERA, giving up 44 home runs in 294.2 innings. The Red Sox may have already found his future replacement as a swingman, with Alfredo Aceves and his seemingly rubber arm performing the task admirably all season long. Aceves is a remarkable 24-3 in his career, is 16 years younger, and throws 20 mph harder than Wakefield.
Aceves has proven he has the ability and durability to slide back and forth between relieving and starting, and it is time for Boston to make the switch. Aceves will be a free agent, and coming off a contract that paid him $675,000 in 2011, is due a big raise, but Boston should do what they can to keep their new Swiss Army knife.
Spend their money wisely: Coming off a 2010 off-season where they signed big ticket players in Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, it remains to be seen how much of a splash Boston wants to make in free agency this year. They have had both successes and failures with their big signings over the past few years, but will not let that prevent them from putting together the best team possible.
Boston will have some contracts coming off the books. J.D. Drew, Marco Scutaro, David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Aviles, Aceves, Varitek, and Wakefield are the notable players set to become free agents. There are players in that group that I hope Boston keeps, and also those that should be bade farewell without a second thought.
If I was running the Sox, I would do my best to re-sign Aviles and Aceves, as they are useful players who won’t demand huge contracts. I would re-sign Papelbon and Ortiz only if the money was right. High priced closers and aging designated hitters are typically free agents to avoid, and the Red Sox cannot let fan sentiment get in the way of negotiations. All the other pending Boston free agents should not be prevented from finding a new team or occupation for 2012.
With the current players they have returning, the Red Sox would be hard pressed to not win at least 85-88 games as things stand. The margin lies in the additional 12-15 games they could win by making the right moves this off-season. Those 12-15 games make all the difference in Boston between success and failure, and ultimately a possible championship.
The late season meltdown of the 2011 caught many fans off guard, as success has become the norm since 2004 in Red Sox Nation. Although this year left a major bitter taste in the mouths of many, the situation could be much worse. With a few deft moves, Boston should be able to be a prime contender once again in 2012. We must all now wait to see what they do.
You can follow me on Facebook by going to http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Baseball-Historian/138174109591660 or follow me on Twitter @RedSoxFanNum1