McCoy ’14: Red Sox can pick the right way to be awful
As any literary scholar will tell you, spring is the time of rebirth — frost gives way to green, buds give life to the trees and the lingering rays of the evening sun shed a feeling of hope over everyone emerging from their winter malaise. For optimists, this axiom rings true in the realm of baseball: Spring training means a fresh start. There are new faces in new uniforms. Players are well rested and excited to be back. Everyone is undefeated.
But I’m not an optimist — I’m a Red Sox fan.
For the Red Sox, this spring is not a season of regeneration, but rather, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow 100 times over and condemned Boston to another year of decaying and depressing winter. I’m usually an irritating Boston fanboy (I still think the Rondo-less Celtics have a shot at a title this year), but even I cannot fathom a single way to feel hopeful about a team with a post-Tommy John, 34-year-old John Lackey slotted for the starting rotation.
The recent demise of the Red Sox has been well documented. From 2011’s beer-and-fried-chicken media storm and epic September collapse to 2012’s Bobby “Inventor of the Wrap Sandwich” Valentine debacle, the Sox pulled an incredible turn around from World Series favorites to the laughing stock of professional sports (no easy task, might I add). The team’s front office made a bold and smart move forward at last season’s trade deadline in dumping the salaries and bad attitudes of Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford onto the Dodgers. The blockbuster move freed up over $250 million through 2018 and seemed to mark a new beginning for the club, but so far, signs of brighter days for 2013 are few and far between.
The great salary dump was designed to set General Manager Ben Cherington and the team’s front office on a new path of financial responsibility free from the massive, long-term Theo Epstein contracts of Lackey (five years, $82 million), Crawford (seven years, $142 million) and — shudder — J.D. Drew (five years, $70 million). So far, this ethos has meant passing up on Josh Hamilton because of the horror of locking him up for five years, and instead signing a core of adequate 30-somethings for generous paydays that are hard to believe were driven by the free agent market.
So instead of Hamilton, the Sox boast the likes of Shane Victorino (three years, $39 million), Ryan Dempster (two years, $26 million), Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew (double the Drew family fun!). For the one signing worth getting jazzed about, Mike Napoli, a physical revealed a bum hip, and he comes into the campaign with questions surrounding whether he can even last an entire season. These guys are all perfectly capable, proven Major League players, but they are not the kinds of catalysts that will turn a team from basement dwellers to contenders in baseball’s toughest division. Even the biggest homer cannot possibly get excited about these names coming to town.
Couple this off-season activity with a team that has lacked inspiration and passion for the past two seasons, a rotation without a real number-one starter and a 37-year-old David Ortiz still nursing an Achilles he injured last July, you have the makings of a team that is old, injury-plagued and uninspiring. But I still think there is room for a silver lining somewhere out there.
The 2013 Red Sox are going to be bad — but they can do it the fun way. If the club gets off to the kind of start my doom-and-gloom clairvoyant self is forecasting (I hope I’m wrong — I’m not entirely a self-loathing Sox fan), Cherington and manager John Farrell should not hesitate to scrap the blueprint for the season and commit to young farm-system talent that is ready to break through in the majors. A youth movement may not yield any better results in the win column, but a team featuring fresh faces and exciting new talent is what the organization and its fans need to fully cleanse itself of whatever corrosive illness has infected Fenway Park since August 2011.
But who are these young talents? The cream of the crop is outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., an electrifying speedster in the field and on the basepaths who has blazed his way through the minor league system and is turning heads in camp. The heir-apparent to Scott Boras client Jacoby Ellsbury (in the final year of his contract), Bradley, at 23 years old, is ready to play now and the Sox brass should not coddle him. He may not hit .300 in the majors this year, but he’s the type of playmaker who is going to make fans pay attention and inspire hope for the franchise’s future. But who would want that when there could be a .260-hitting 32-year-old Jonny Gomes ambling around left field?
In the starting rotation, 24-year-old Rubby de la Rosa, acquired in the L.A. blockbuster, has routinely been hitting 100 mph on the gun in spring training and is showing signs that his arm is healthy after Tommy John surgery in 2011. A flame-throwing, strikeout starter will provide a welcome breath of fresh air after putting up with the likes of Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka in seasons past.
And at shortstop, the team signed Drew, a career .265 hitter with nagging injuries his entire career who has been called out by his previous owners for a lack of desire to play. Doesn’t it just get your heart racing for opening day? Waiting in the wings, though, the Sox have two exceptional talents — defensive wizard Jose Iglesias (thought by some to be the next Ozzie Smith) and 20-year-old Xander Bogaerts, a top-20 prospect in all of baseball. There will be growing pains, especially at the plate, but either would inject youth, speed and optimism into a ballclub that is in desperate need of it.
The 2013 Red Sox are a team caught between contending and rebuilding, reflecting an ownership and management unable to accept that the good times of 2004 and 2007 are a thing of the past and that a total organizational overhaul is needed.
But if things this season get bad — and get bad fast — it’s not too late. The organization is ripe with young talent, and as has been shown through revelations like Evan Longoria, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, teams should not hesitate to allow their best prospects a crack at the Majors. Players like Bradley, De La Rosa and Bogaerts won’t turn the Sox into World Series favorites overnight, but they are the types of players that a baseball city mired in mediocrity needs most: guys who will play hard, turn heads and restore hope in a franchise that is too content to rest on the laurels of its past and ignore the realties at hand.