TSN Baseball Insider Steve Phillips answers three questions each week. This week, topics cover the World Series champion Red Sox, John Farrell and what to look forward to this off-season.
1. In the final analysis, how did the Red Sox do it? How did they become the best team in baseball?
The Red Sox have the amazing storybook-ending for which they were hoping. Worst to first. They won their third World Series Championship since 2004.
The Red Sox season this year can't be told without the September collapse of 2011 and the debacle that was the Bobby Valentine-led 2012 season. The Sox seemed poised to win the AL East in 2011 heading in to the month of September, but the team totally collapsed and they didn't even make the playoffs.
Then, stories surfaced about a lack of discipline and focus. Players were eating fried chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse during games. Beloved manager Terry Francona lost his job. Theo Epstein left the Sox to try and rebuild the Chicago Cubs. The grit and leadership that long was a trademark of this Red Sox franchise had been tarnished and he Sox decided a fiery personality was needed to lead the team.
New GM Ben Cherington and president Larry Lucchino decided upon Bobby Valentine as the new manager. That hiring was a disaster for many reasons. Players had preconceived notions of Valentine base upon what they heard and things Bobby had said as a TV analyst. Valentine took on some of the veteran leaders on the team and that wasn't well received. The blame doesn't fully belong to Valentine, but he paid with his job.
Players aren't always disposable, but managers kind of are. Things were so bad that, not only did the Sox dispose of Valentine, but they made an amazing blockbuster deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. They sent disgruntled stars Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett (with Nick Punto, too) out west. They got very little talent in return, but they got a GM's dream come true: significant financial flexibility. They sent $270M in future salary to LA.
This decision did not help the 2012 Red Sox win more games, but it opened the door to a quick and dramatic remaking of the team. Financial flexibility is great, but you need to spend your money wisely once you get it. The Red Sox certainly did that.
The Red Sox signed gritty "baseball players." They signed tough, hard-nosed veterans who weren't necessarily the most athletic group, but they play with passion. Shane Victorino brought spunk and quickness. Jonny Gomes brought quirkiness and power. David Ross brought stability to the pitching staff and leadership. Stephen Drew stabilized the shortstop position. Mike Napoli, after resolving contract issues stemming from a failed physical, brought patience, run production and humor. The list goes on and on. The Koji Uehara signing didn't come with much hoopla or fanfare, but was as critical a signing as they made. When Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan were lost to injury, Uehara didn't only assume the role of closer. He dominated that role.
The biggest off-season acquisition for the Sox and, arguably, in all of baseball was the trade with the Blue Jays for John Farrell. Farrell was the closest way to bring back Terry Francona without the Francona baggage (from his firing.) Farrell already knew many of the players. He understood the market. He under understood ownership and had a pre-existing relationship with Ben Cherington.
The Red Sox scored the most runs in the AL. They went back to the Moneyball philosophy of offense. Their hitters worked the count and they made the opposing staff work and throw a ton of pitches. They found themselves in more hitter's counts (2-0, 3-1, and 3-2) and drove the ball out of the ballpark. The Red Sox led the AL in OPS. They outscored the next closest team by 57 runs.
The Sox pitching was among the top five teams in most categories. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz bounced back from down 2012 seasons. The bullpen gave consistent support to the starting staff despite a number of injuries to key guys.
It is unclear how much additional inspiration the Sox needed to win the Series, but they got it anyways. The horrific tragedy at the Boston Marathon in April gave this team a cause for which to play. They wanted to support the victims, the rescuers, the police, the city, the United States and its liberty. "Boston Strong" became the rally cry for Red Sox Nation.
And strong they were. They had the perfect recipe: Good pitching, good hitting, good defense, good leadership and a dash of inspiration. Mix that all together and you get the 2013 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.
2. Blue Jays fans want to know - what are your thoughts on the way John Farrell handled the Red Sox this year, and particularly in the post-season?
I have said it before and I will say it again: John Farrell was the biggest and best off-season acquisition in baseball last year.
The Farrell-for-Mike Aviles trade between the Sox and Blue Jays had far more of an impact on the Red Sox, for sure. Farrell was the perfect fit for the Sox. He was the closest thing to Terry Francona without bringing Francona back.
One of the main keys for the Red Sox this year was getting Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz back on track. Farrell knows them as well as anyone. He knew their physical delivery as well as their aptitude and make-up. He knew the right buttons to push to challenge them and coax them back to reaching their potential.
One of the other keys for Farrell was that he wasn't Bobby Valentine. Because things were so tense with Valentine and players felt disrespected, relationships became very important. Farrell's pre-existing connection to many of the players on the team aided a quick and easy transition.
Players respected Farrell right away and it was the key players who felt that way: David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. When the stars sign off on a manager, everyone else follows. Farrell comes across as an adult. He is mature and knowledgeable. His time in Toronto served him well, as he was focused and confident in Boston. He learned from his faux pas in Toronto. He knew he needed stability with his pitching staff and he learned when and where to pick his battles.
The Red Sox did not hit well in the playoffs, so they needed to outpitch their opposition. Farrell managed his staff well. He put them in positions to succeed. He took starters out when he needed to and he worked his bullpen well.
He wasn't perfect by any means. Craig Breslow cost Farrell in two games with his inability to get out lefties. Farrell also acknowledged that he should have double switched the 8th inning of Game 3. It was move that allowed a relief pitcher, Brandon Workman, to take an at bat against Cardinalss closer Trevor Rosenthal. A double switch would have also inserted veteran catcher David Ross in the game for Jarrod Saltilamacchia. That was important since Saltilamacchia ended up throwing a ball into left field, which led to the game-ending obstruction call and Cards' win.
It was Farrell's easy-going demeanor however that helped his team stay calm when they fell behind two games-to-one in St. Louis. This quiet confidence rubbed off on his team and they came back to win three straight games and the Series.
3. Looking forward - what is the biggest story this off-season? What is the one thing you can't wait to see unfold in 2014?
The biggest story this off-season will be the New York Yankees. It is the best thing for the Red Sox that they won the Series for obvious reasons, but it is also the worst. The Yankees hate it when they don't win the Series, but they hate it even more when the Red Sox do.
The Yanks have said they are committed to lowering payroll to $189 mill., but I will have to see it to believe it. It sounded like a good plan, but the Yanks can't afford to cheap out on players this off-season. Ownership and fans alike are saying, "If the Sox went from worst to first, then why can't we?"
The Yanks have less distance to travel in the standing than the Sox had a year ago, but they are going to have some major losses from their roster even before they get started. They have only six players signed to guaranteed contracts for next year: pitcher CC Sabathia, infielders Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and outfielders Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells.
They also have some big questions that need to be answered: No more Mariano Rivera, so who will be their closer? How long will ARod's suspension be? Can they sign Robbie Cano and will it take $300M to do so? Will Derek Jeter be healthy in 2014? Can he still play shortstop? Who is the catcher?One thing is certain: we will see a hungry and aggressive Yankee's front office this off-season.
The one thing I can't wait to see unfold is how the Biogenesis players are treated in the market place. Jhonny Peralta (Detroit) and Nelson Cruz (Texas) are free agents. They served their suspension and got at bats down the stretch for their teams in big games. Peralta thrived in the post-season with Detroit.
Will that answer any questions that prospective suitors may have? We saw Melky Cabrera get a two-year, $16 mill. contract from the Jays after his suspension for PEDs last season. Bartolo Colon found a home back with the A's after his positive results last year, too. They sound interested in his pitching there again in 2014.
The biggest name in the Biogenesis scandal is Alex Rodriguez. I am honestly sick of hearing about the A-Rod trial and lawsuit against teh MLB and Bud Selig, but I am dying to see the verdict.
Will A-Rod make a deal before the arbitrator rules? Will his suspension be reduced? What will the Yankees do while he is out? Will A-Rod play for the Yanks ever again? It is reality TV and a soap opera coming together. I am sitting on the edge of my seat for the result. It just doesn't feel like it is going to end well for anyone.
Fair or Foul
What a year in baseball with so many amazing stories. We had surprise teams and disappointing teams. We had a team make the playoffs for the first time in 20-plus years. We had a team go from worst to first. We had clutch performances and drama. It was what we expected and more.
Baseball has an amazing crop of young talent coming up right now. We have dominating young pitchers with flaming fastballs and bowel-locking curve balls. There are close to a dozen young pitchers than can touch 100 miles per hour. We have speed and power among the position players. We have tough, gritty guys and flamboyant, big personalities. There is something for everyone right now. The game is as diverse as it has ever been. There is talent from all over the world and the game has more talent than ever.
Despite the fact that TV ratings were up 17 per cent this year for the World Series, I can't help but feel like the game that I love is sliding back in relevancy. The average age of a World Series viewer is 52 years of age. Our fan base is getting older.
I am 50 years old, so I am on the young side of the fans. That's a problem. So, here is what I challenge you to do: Whether you are over or under the average age of a baseball viewer, we need your help. If you are reading this, it must mean that you like baseball more than a little bit. We need to share our love and understanding of the game to the next generation.
Take this off-season and talk hot stove with kids. Do a countdown to spring training with the kids, so they know it's starting. Talk about what Spring Training is like. Watch a game and explain how teams prepare for the season. Get a new fan excited for Opening Day. Have them skip school on Opening Day and watch the game on TV or, even better get, tickets. I have found that sometimes kids can learn more by a special day with a mentor away from school than they can if they go.
I learned to love baseball because my father loves it. I grew up in Detroit and rooted for the Tigers. I listened to the game on a transistor radio that I would put under my pillow at night. Ernie Harwell, the Hall of Fame announcer, taught me more about the game. I played on Little League teams where my dad and other dadd taught me to play the game and appreciate the nuances of it. I played with my brothers and friends down the street. We played pick-up games at the local park. Two captains would toss a bat and then alternate gripping the bat, hand on-top-of hand until they reached the top to see who would get first pick among the kids. If we didn't have enough players, we would play tha,t if you hit the ball to right field, you were out. If the ball got to the pitcher's hand before you touched first base you were out. Bottom line is, we played the game. We talked about the game. We learned to love it.
Many people complain about the pace of the game. It moves too slowly. Kids can get bored if there isn't a ton of action. What I have found is that the beauty of baseball is that there is no clock. The game gives us ample opportunity to teach and explain. It gives us a chance to consider what is happening and what might happen next. The game gifts us the opportunity to connect with a kid while the game is going on.
I remember walking up the tunnel at the old Tiger Stadium. I remember the way the sun would shine in the Stadium. I remember being amazed by the cut of the grass on the field. I remember the sounds and smells like they were yesterday. I remember the announcer's voice as it crackled over the PA system. The world moves so quickly today. Let's slow it down a bit. Let's all commit to sharing our love of the game with a new generation of baseball fan next year. Our game needs it.