In the wake of the worst collapse in MLB history, the Boston Red Sox are trying their best to put on a brave face, pick up the pieces, and move on. One step toward doing so may be firing skipper Terry Francona; the two sides are scheduled to meet this week to discuss his fate. While GM Theo Epstein publicly stated that the team does not blame Francona for its failure to make the playoffs, he also kept silent on the matter of Tito’s 2012 contract option.
This implies that Francona’s tenure might be over. Whatever the club decides, Francona’s fate is hardly the only issue at hand. Epstein has said that a core mission will be fixing John Lackey. The team must choose wheter or not to re-sign free agents to be including David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon. There exists the potential for significant turnover, and that may be a good thing.
Clubhouse chemistry has been much discussed in the last few weeks, and it’s clear that something is awry with the team’s collective psyche. The 2011 season is convincing proof that it’s not enough to simply sign talent; that talent must work in concert to net a favorable outcome.
Here are some post-collapse thoughts that put a wrap on this wasted year and attempt to make some sense of the club’s future.
1. Firing Francona is not a solution in itself.
Terry Francona is a very good manager. He’s arguably been the best skipper in franchise history, and has certainly bested his recent predecessors. But he was also working with some very good teams. Having money, and therefore talent, at your disposal means that the pressure to excel increases.
Firing Francona will not, in and of itself, resolve much of anything. He didn’t lose these games. He didn’t torpedo the season. That blame rests more heavily on the front office and the players themselves. And in fact, letting him go and further disrupting the franchise’s continuity could make a bad situation even worse.
The ownership team should take its time in making this decision, though it probably won’t. We should all expect Tito to be handed his walking papers within the week. But if the braintrust is smart, it will wait for the dust to settle and look at the big picture with clearer eyes.
The team should pick up Francona’s option and let him have another season to work with this collection of stars.
2. Fixing Lackey is a fool’s errand.
One of the most maddening aspects of major league baseball is guaranteed contracts. Teams make decisions that they are forced to live with regardless of how the players perform. No other industry would tolerate that kind of structure, and it would behoove clubs to begin writing more protective language into every contract they sign.
John Lackey is a perfect example. He was a bad signing when the Red Sox inked him, but no one could have known the extent to which he would fail. Worse, Lackey has been downright awful in terms of his behavior. His childish outbursts and willingness to lay blame on his teammates has doubtlessly contributed to the chemistry problem that the team now faces.
Granted, few people know the man personally. I certainly don’t. But by all appearances he is, to be blunt, a jerk.
The club could probably live with that if he could pitch, but Lackey was a significant liability this year. Any replacement-level pitcher would have been a better option. By a mile. While the Red Sox did indeed lose as a team, no one player deserves a bigger share of the blame than does Lackey.
Yes, his private life is in a shambles, and that’s too bad. But none of us would get away with dragging our personal baggage into the office and allowing it to damage our performance. In any other industry, Lackey would be forced to take time off or risk being fired. And that’s exactly what should happen here as well.
The Red Sox should fire John Lackey. There is no fix. There is no silver lining. The team wasted $82.5 million on a player who, at best, might have been an average contributor. That seems impossible now.
Sure, he could come back and prove me wrong. But right here, right now, letting him go would be the smart move. It’s unthinkable that the club would rather excise Francona, allowing itself to be dictated to by its own wallet.
3. Fixing Carl Crawford is not.
Boston has to have a fully functional Crawford. Having dropped $142 million on this multi-tool outfielder, the Sox cannot stand idly by while he posts seasons so forgettable as to be entirely worthless. Crawford’s 2011 must be an aberration, and that means that the coaching staff has plenty of work to do.
Get him to a sports psychologist. Get him to a doctor. Get him in the batting cage. Whatever needs to be done, do it. Because this erstwhile star needs to return to form.
It’s not that the rest of the lineup can’t pick up whatever slack might exist. It’s that the weight of unfulfilled expectations will crush this team. We saw it happen as September progressed; each loss added to a looming feeling of futility that seemed to paralyze the entire team.
4. It’s time for some tough decisions on free agency.
If the Sox had made the playoffs and finished the season on some kind of positive note, both David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon would have probably been re-signed. But now things are far less settled. Because after a failure of this magnitude, it may be better to undertake a minor rebuild.
Is an aging Ortiz really going to be worth the $20 million plus that he’ll command? If the Sox were firing on all cylinders, or even most cylinders, the answer would have been yes. But if the team is already dysfunctional, then being loyal to Ortiz might not be the best investment. At the very least, the team must carefully weigh the pros and cons.
Big Papi is a fan favorite, and as a fan I’d like to see him return. But it’s difficult to say what is in the best interests of the team.
The same goes for Papelbon. His 2011 was, at times, spectacular, but it’s hard to overlook the way he finished up. Paps is still one of the game’s better relievers, but the market will be crowded with arms and his price is likely to be high. What looked to be a solid late-inning tandem now looks extremely shaky: are Bard and Papelbon really the answers for Boston’s bullpen?
There are plenty of reasons to believe that Bard will rebound from his disappointing season, which still wasn’t terrible. But what seemed like a sure thing hardly feels that way now, and it’s unclear whether bringing back Papelbon would be enough to solidify Boston’s relief. Or whether it would be even be the proper way to do so.
At least the team will recoup some funds when J.D. Drew and Marco Scutaro leave. And as painful as it will be, it’s probably time to bid farewell to franchise fixtures Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield. So regardless of what the team does with Papi and Paps, there will be a shakeup.
5. Pitching is the top priority this winter.
And no, that doesn’t mean overpaying for the overachieving C.J. Wilson. But Boston’s rotation is in a bad way. Assuming Buchholz returns to full health next year, which he should, the team will get back to its core of three good arms. Signing Erik Bedard didn’t help much this year, Lackey has been discussed ad nauseum, and Dice-K and Wakefield will be no more.
Where does that leave the Sox? In need of two new starters.
The minor league arms proved that they aren’t ready for prime-time action, with the possible exception of an injury-addled Felix Doubront.
But the market is terribly thin. Aside from Wilson, there is no clear-cut front-of-the-rotation arm. Someone will pay far too much for Wilson’s services, and the other teams in need will be forced to settle for temporary mediocrity.
This is a real problem for Boston in that both the Rays and Yankees have numerous high-end pitching prospects readying themselves for big league action, including Matt Moore, Dellin Betances, and Manny Banuelos.
Somehow, some way, Boston must find solutions on the mound.
It is an uncertain future for the Red Sox. But though they face myriad challenges, anything is preferable to the present. The club must move past the collapse and get back to the business of winning.