The 2005 off-season started out with a bang for the Boston Red Sox. While the team made an early exit from the playoffs, their mid-November acquisition of Josh Beckett sent shockwaves throughout the AL East. However, a general manager conflict, an unhappy slugger, and a few lost free agents have many fans questioning the Sox’s ability to succeed in 2006.
At the end of November, it was hard to argue against the Red Sox chances. They had after all just landed Josh Beckett, a 25-year-old pitcher with a Yankee-killing reputation (albeit in just one game) and were sitting pretty among their American League East counterparts. But all was not well in Red Sox Nation.
Most notable for Boston during this winter of their discontent has been the GM soap opera. Theo Epstein, the darling of Boston, and Larry Lucchino, New England’s own Evil Emperor, suffered a meltdown in their relationship that led to Theo’s untimely departure from Boston and a scramble to find a replacement that would play itself out over the course of nearly a month.
The Red Sox headed into the Winter Meetings with a four-headed GM monster and made out well for themselves. They netted Josh Beckett, a league-average pitcher away from Pro Player Stadium, Guillermo Mota, and third baseman Mike Lowell in exchange for some highly touted prospects. They had seemingly found a starter who could take over for Curt Schilling as the ace of the team if the old Curt Schilling never returned, and they found a replacement for Bill Mueller, the incumbent third baseman who left the team through free agency. But the lustre of this deal would soon wear off.
While the Red Sox eventually named Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington co-general managers, it was too late to repair the damage to the front office. The Boston media had already turned on Lucchino, one of the architects of the team’s recent success, and constant rumors of Epstein’s imminent return may have undermined Hoyer and Cherington’s attempts at establishing their own authority over the club. John Henry, the team’s owner, has addressed numerous rumors that he was reducing Lucchino’s power by denying them, and the players seem skeptical of the team’s administration right now.
On top of the GM soap opera came the news that Manny Ramirez, the soon-to-be 34-year-old slugger due $57 million over the next three years, wants out of Boston. For whatever reason, Manny is unhappy with his situation where he claims to have little privacy and is unhappy with management. So far, the team has not moved on the Manny situation. And who can blame them? It makes little sense for the team to trade a slugger with a career .314/.409/.599 line when they may have to pay his whole salary and wouldn’t be able to replace his bat in the lineup.
Meanwhile, the Sox sent away one of their disappointing players from 2005. After inking Edgar Renteria to a four-year, $40 million deal last winter, the team traded him to the Atlanta Braves for third base prospect Andy Marte. The Sox will also be paying some of Renteria’s salary. While the move was welcomed by both parties, it has opened a hole in the infield that has yet to be filled by a desirable candidate. While Mark Loretta and Tony Graffinino remain viable candidates to play second and short, it’s hard to say these two are the boppers the Sox may need.
With Manny’s unhappiness dangling over the team, the last few days have been disappointing if not disastrous for the team. First, the Red Sox lost their leadoff hitter and one of the chief Idiots Johnny Damon to what their fans call the New York Effin’ Yankees. While one of the chief Red Sox blogs (and one of the best baseball blogs around) has tried to convince themselves that Damon will not be missed, the truth is that the Red Sox are worse without Damon and at a disadvantage now that Damon is still playing within the division for their biggest rival. The Sox may yet find a replacement for Damon, but the defection hurts.
Then, over the last two days, the Red Sox lost out on two prizes: Troy Glaus and Kevin Millwood. The Texas Rangers signed Millwood to a five-year deal with an opt-out option for the fifth year. According to the Boston Herald, the Sox needed Millwood so that they could trade Bronson Arroyo or Matt Clement for a center fielder. Even Evan Brunell, Fire Brand founder and optimistic Red Sox fan, is finding this latest loss a little tough to swallow. While the impact of Millwood’s decision is mitigated by the Sox’s arm-rich farm system, the team does not want to ship off more young pitchers in order to win now. How this will sit with their judgmental fan base in 2006 is yet to be determined.
While Millwood opted for Texas, the Diamondbacks found a trading partner in the Toronto Blue Jays. Once again, the Sox lost out on a key potential cog to another division rival. While Glaus could have given the Sox the flexibility to trade Manny for another slugger or Andy Marte for a short stop such as Julio Lugo as had been rumored, the third baseman will instead head to a revamped Blue Jays team that hopes to give Boston and New York a run for their money next year.
As the Red Sox and their fans look forward to the end of 2005, questions are swirling around this team for 2006. Right now, the Red Sox are full of holes. They have a 32-year-old third baseman coming off a season that saw his OBP drop to .298. They have no center fielder, no leadoff man, and no short stop. Their starting first baseman has a total of 9 games of Major League experience at the position. They do not know whether Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke will resemble their 2005 performances or their 2004 performances, and Matt Clement forever remains an enigma as well. Meanwhile, no one knows whether Manny Ramirez or David Wells will still be on the team come April.
On top of all of this drama, the Sox have dealt with a few significant backlashes from the Johnny Damon deal as well. One was the news from Damon that he decided to jump to New York because of the shaky management picture, and he did not think that Manny would be in Boston next season. He wanted out. Now, it seems as though the Sox cannot land the free agents they want and cannot get the guys they need through trades. Just a few weeks ago, baseball writers thought the Yankees were the team suffering from a lack of free agent interest. It’s funny how the shoe is now on the other foot in this Boston-New York rivalry.
To fill in some of their missing pieces, the Red Sox may have to weigh the options of trading away some of the upper echelons of their farm system. They have quite a few almost-Major-League-ready players who are highly desirable bargaining chips. Other teams such as the Devil Rays, Mariners, and Indians have no real compelling reason to trade away Julio Lugo, Jeremy Reed, and Coco Crisp, respectively, for players of lesser value. But the Sox may not want to trade away future stars right now.
With a few months left before pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, the Red Sox off-season is far from over. But the next few months will be key for the Sox hopes of capturing a fourth consecutive playoff berth in 2006.