The Red Sox And Showtime’s “The Franchise” – A Match Made In Heaven

A major image crisis has emerged for the Boston Red Sox over the last 12 months.  Pretty much everyone from John Henry down to the clubhouse guys, with the exception of a few players, now seem to have a negative reputation in Boston.  The fans of Red Sox Nation are quickly becoming disenchanted.  They desperately need to do something to repair their image and it may take more than just becoming a winning team again.

Showtime could have a winner with “A Season with the Red Sox”

The people at Showtime developed a winning concept a few years ago when they created “The Franchise”, a show that piggy-backed off of HBO’s “Hard Knocks”, but instead of following an NFL team through just training camp it follows an MLB team throughout the entire season.  It is a great concept and it makes for really good TV.  Their problem is that in the first two seasons they followed two teams, the San Fransisco Giants and the Miami Marlins, that were out of the playoff hunt by the all-star break.  The most exciting thing about following these two teams in the last two months of the season was the trade deadline.  Now granted the Red Sox were pretty much out of the playoff race by the break as well but I’m guessing they could have kept us entertained quite a bit after the All-Star break.

If it seems like a risky proposition to put these Red Sox players behind a camera in the clubhouse and beyond it’s because it is.  God forbid things get even worse next year it will be embarrassing for the Red Sox but, hey, at least it will make for some compelling TV.  But it’s easy to see that the potential reward far outweighs the risk.  The Red Sox need an image clean-up and while there is a lot of work to do behind the scenes between now and opening day there may not be a better way to introduce the new Red Sox to Red Sox Nation than by putting them on “The Franchise”.  What better way to introduce a new manager to the Red Sox faithful, particularly if he is a young less well-known up-and-comer?  What better way for the fan base to feel more comfortable about it’s own players by actually seeing who they are off the field?  Too many times do you hear a fan or a media-type talk about a player like they know them personally.  None of us truly know any of these guys personally but at least if we got a peak of how they carried themselves behind the scenes then we might feel more comfortable about making a judgment on them.

Superstars like Jose Reyes showed their human side on “The Franchise”

Many new players have not been fully embraced by Red Sox Nation in past years, particularly ones with larger contracts.  I can’t help but think that maybe Red Sox Nation would have embraced Adrian Gonzalez a bit more if they knew a little more about him.  There will be a new generation of Red Sox players coming up next sure.  Guys like Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Lavarnway and Felix Doubront will all have prominent roles with the team.  The Sox will have to go out and bring in some role players to fill in their roster as they retool it.  They’ll also have to bring in veteran pitching.  And of course there is the manager.  The question of Bobby Valentine’s impending exit from Boston is becoming more of a “when” rather than an “if” which means that the Red Sox will likely have their 3rd different manager in 3 years.  Every time that these Red Sox owners have made a managerial change they have gone for the polar opposite of the guy they are replacing.  Look for a young less-known up-and-comer to replace Valentine.  It could be a tough place to break in for a guy like that in a market where a winner is expected year in and year out.  Getting to know the guy behind the scenes might make Red Sox Nation more comfortable with him early on.

If you watched this season of “The Franchise” you know a lot about rookie closer Steve Cishek, an unknown when the season began.  You might have a better view of highly-paid superstar Jose Reyes after watching the show and seeing him lead the Marlins with his jovial, laid back attitude.  You would have gotten to know role players like Justin Ruggiano and Greg Dobbs.  And of course you would have laughed at Ozzie being Ozzie.  At this point, with the exception of a few guys, I feel like I know the Marlins players more than I know the Red Sox guys from watching this season of The Franchise.

As I said before it’s a risky proposition for the Red Sox organization.  As a Red Sox fan it seems like a win/win.  If they are good and you love the team you will likely love them even more by going behind the scenes and watching how they turn the franchise around.  The love affair between the Red Sox and their fans that has been fractured over the past few seasons could be re-ignited.  On the flip side if the Red Sox have another disaster behind the scenes like they have had during the past two seasons then at least we will can still be entertained by the club.  For Showtime it’s a no-brainer.  Getting the Red Sox or the Yankees on “The Franchise” would be akin to obtaining the holy grail for Showtime.  The Yankees have no reason to do it but the Sox have plenty.  So why not?

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Random Red Sox Notes

A couple random Red Sox thoughts on a hot day in Boston…

  • Aaron Cook has been a find for Ben Cherington

    Theo Epstein seemed to make a million “low-risk, high-reward” pitcher signings when he was with the club and Ben Cherington followed suit before this season.  He may have found a diamond in the rough in Aaron Cook.  After gashing his leg in his first start and going on the disabled list Cook has come back and made 4 starts.  In those 4 starts he has given up 5 earned runs, struck out 2 and walked 1 batter.  He’s had 7 swings and misses.  Despite what the nerds over at sons of Sam Horn might tell you, Cook isn’t just lucky.  His sinker has been as good as I’ve seen since his return.  A good biting sinker will force balls into the ground off contact and balls hit like that generally find a glove in the infield.  He’s currently got a 3.38 ERA which is 2nd lowest among Sox starters who have made at least 5 starts behind only Franklin Morales.

  • Just when you thought that the Red Sox were finally going to be healthy David Ortiz pulled up lam while running around the bases after Adrian Gonzalez’ home run.  Hopefully Papi just needs a few days rest and will be back in the lineup soon.  The initial prognosis seems promising.
  • A-Gon seems to have his swing and his confidence back

    Adrian Gonzalez seems to have finally found his swing.  After hovering in the .260 range for the first three months of the season A-Gon now has his average up to .288.  He now has 50 RBI on the season.  A-Gon seems primed for a big offensive run here in the next few weeks.  Maybe that will quiet a few of his idiotic critics.

  • Carl Crawford made his season debut last night.  He did what they want him to do, getting on-base twice and scoring both times.  His lead-off walk in the 8th inning was the catalyst for the game-winning rally.  He’s never been a big walk guy, even in Tampa, but he had an OBP over .400 during his rehab stint.  Maybe he worked with the coaching staff to improve his plate discipline during his rehab.  Either way a productive Crawford will equal a lot more runs for the Red Sox so here’s hoping it continues.
  • Ryan Dempster?  No thanks Theo.
  • I hate to say this because Jarrod Saltalamacchia had a tremendous first half of the year but he just looks spent out there now.  If they can find a taker for Kelly Shoppach (and they probably can) then they should pull the trigger and bring Ryan Lavarnway up to work an even platoon with Salty.
  • Hopefully I’m not the only one who is sick of Kevin Youkilis.  He needs to GTFA.
  • If you’re going to the game tonight stay hydrated.

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Red Sox’ 2nd Half Begins Tomorrow Night

The second half of the MLB season begins tomorrow night in Tampa for the Sox with a big 3 game series vrs. the Rays.  As hard as it is to fathom the Sox could potentially pass the Rays in the standings with a sweep.  This weekend could very well determine the fate of the Red Sox’ 2012 season.  Here are 5 storylines to keep an eye on in the second half:

Ellsbury returns from injury Friday night

1. Can Jacoby Ellsbury boost the top of the Red Sox order?  Mike Aviles did a fine job earlier in the season at the lead-off spot and Daniel Nava held his own in the middle.  Neither guy is the pure lead-off threat that Ellsbury is.  Ellsbury will join the team Friday night in Tampa Bay for the first time since the home opener at Fenway back in April.  Ellsbury was an MVP candidate last season and don’t discount the fact that he now only has a year and a half to show that he can repeat the performance as he heads into free agency.  The Sox offense hasn’t been the problem but the lack of clutch hits and guys getting on base before the run producers in the Sox lineup has hurt them.  Ellsbury is the first step to recreating a top-to-bottom lineup that puts guys in the right spots.  Aviles and Nava will see better pitches in the lower part of the order and should be able to get on for the top of the lineup.  Of course he needs the shoulder to hold up first so we’ll see what this weekend brings.

Lester himself has expressed frustration in his sub par 1st half

2. What Lester and Beckett will show up in the 2nd half?  The numbers have been beaten to death over the All-Star break.  Combined they are 9-13 with an ERA over 4.50.  Beckett has been hampered with a shoulder problem for much of the year.  Lester himself just this week has expressed frustration in his own ability to get the job done.  The Sox need these guys to step up because there is nobody else to pick up the slack for them in the rotation unless a trade is made.  Lester in particular has been disappointing as he is only 28 years old and does not look close to the pitcher that he was in 2008-2010.  Pitchers generally don’t break down this early, especially big durable guys like Lester so you have to wonder what the problem is.  Is it the coaching?  A physical problem?  A mental one?  Whatever it is he’d better sort it out fast.

3. Can Carl Crawford contribute anything?  Crawford is staring down the possibility of Tommy John surgery on his arm in the off-season but word is he might have it sooner if he has too much discomfort.  Nevertheless Crawford is scheduled to play in Pawtucket tonight and is expected to join the big club on Monday for his season debut.  Again if Crawford is healthy he would lengthen the Sox lineup.  Then there is the issue of productivity.  Although he was productive at times last year Crawford couldn’t stay consistent.  Some though the pressures of the big market got to him.  Crawford is a hard worker and there’s been a lot of talk about how he’s been determined to make things work in Boston.  Obviously the injuries have not allowed him to prove anything.  At some point you wonder if the Sox just cut their losses and have him do the surgery now so he can be back for next year.  But at this point it looks like he is going to give it a go.

Gonzalez only managed to hit 6 home runs in the 1st half

4. Will Adrian Gonzalez’ power return?  The biggest mystery of the first half of the season is what happened to Gonzalez’ power.  Maybe it was the shoulder surgery, maybe another physical issue came up.  Maybe the pressure got to him.  Gonzalez was on a tear right before the All-Star break with an 18-game hitting streak that was snapped when he went 0-for-1 in 1 plate appearance last Sunday night.  I think Gonzalez was thinking too much about hitting the long ball.  Once he concentrated on simply getting hits they started to come in droves.  I think if he continues that approach during the 2nd half of the season then the home runs will start coming.  I expect a more productive 2nd half for Gonzalez and if Ellsbury is getting on in front of him it will create more RBI opportunities for him even if he is only hitting singles or doubles.

5. Will the Red Sox be buyers or sellers at the deadline?  We may know the answer to this question within the first week after the break.  If the Red Sox get off to a slow start they may be enticed to move a few pieces off for prospects.  Before we get into it they will not trade Lester, Pedroia, Ortiz, or any of the other big name players.  Guys like Mike Aviles, Kelly Shoppach, or Cody Ross could get moved.  There is already talk of trading Ryan Sweeney between now and tomorrow night to make the space for Ellsbury.  The Sox can trade off a few of their veteran bullpen arms and replace them with Clayton Mortensen and Junichi Tazawa.  Basically anyone who is blocking a young player with potential in the minors could get moved in order to get them some at-bats if the season is lost.

It will be an interesting few weeks between now and the trade deadline.  The Sox could be right back in the thick of things or you could be looking at guys like Jose Iglesias and Ryan Lavarnway getting time in the 2nd half of the season to groom them.  The biggest storyline of them all might be what will become of Bobby Valentine.  I don’t think he’s done the worst of jobs but if the Red Sox flop in the 2nd half you have to assume that his job will be on the line.  We’ll see starting tomorrow night how these guys will respond.

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Saltalamacchia Catching On With Red Sox

It’s not an easy thing to replace a captain of 7 years on a professional sports team.  A guy like Jason Varitek, a rock for the organization and team leader from 1997-2011, is hard to replicate.  In particular in this era in major league baseball versatile catchers who contain top notch leadership skills are hard to come by.  It almost mirrors the old adage in the NFL that franchise quarterbacks are nearly impossible to find and you should savior them while you have one.  Varitek’s career started to dwindle a few seasons ago and the Sox even brought in a big name, former Indians catcher Victor Martinez, to split time with him.  When Martinez was allowed to walk in free agency a year and a half after he was acquired it was back to the drawing board for the Red Sox.

Saltalamacchia is becoming the player the Sox hoped for when they traded for him

Enter Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  Salty was acquired at the trade deadline during the 2010 season for spare parts and was placed in Pawtucket for the remainder of the year.  Salty was a big prospect coming up with Atlanta but hit a wall in Texas after he was acquired in a trade that sent Mark Teixeira packing.  Saltalamacchia was stuck in the minors and couldn’t even throw the ball to second base accurately when the Sox picked him up.  At the end of the year when Martinez walked to Detroit the Red Sox gave Saltalamacchia the keys to the car to at least share with Varitek for a year.  Many thought that a year playing with Jason Varitek would be vital.  Although he wasn’t the same player physically that he once was he had not lost anything mentally and could be a wealth of knowledge for a young guy playing under him.  It seems that those thoughts are coming to fruition.

Salty had a decent enough line last season splitting with Varitek.  He tailed off at the end of the season but his .235/.288/.450 line wasn’t horrible for a part time catcher.  He added a career high 16 home runs and 56 RBI.  He had a 31% caught stealing rate which was excellent considering how poorly the Red Sox pitchers held runners on.  People worried that when Varitek retired Salty would have trouble progressing without him but Salty is proving early in the season that one season may have been enough with Varitek.  Saltalamacchia looks like a much more confident player out there on the field this year.  He seems to have taken on Varitek’s role of team leader particularly with the young pitchers that he works with.

Salty had a Varitek moment when he stood up to Luke Scott

His offense has improved so far this year.  His .274/.311/.573 line with 9 home runs and 22 RBI make him a prime candidate for the American League All-Star team.  Only J.P. Arencibia of the Blue Jays has as many home runs as Saltalamacchia out of all American League catchers (not counting Mike Napoli who plays 3 different positions).  Of catchers in the American League with at least 100 plate appearances only A.J. Pierzynski and Joe Mauer have a higher batting average.  The improved play is contributed by his heightened confidence.  He may well break down again before the end of the season but he should be more used to the long season after finally going through it for the first time in two seasons last year.

Saltalamacchia showed everyone how much of a leader he had become in a 10 day stretch that started a few weeks ago in Tampa.  He was hit in the ear with a foul ball and suffered a gash that required 12 stitches.  Salty convinced manager Bobby Valentine to start him the next day in Philly and proceeded to hit a home run in the game.  He hit another one that weekend in Philly that was the 3rd longest home run of the season.  The following weekend when Tampa Bay came to Boston a brawl nearly broke out in the 9th inning when Sox pitcher Franklin Morales hit Rays slugger/big mouth Luke Scott in the leg.  When Scott started walking towards the mound Salty rudely cut him off with a bump of his chest guard.  The next night Salty came in the to 9th inning as a pinch hitter with the Sox down a run and promptly hit a game-winning walk-off home run against Rays’ closer Fernando Rodney who had not blown a save all year long.  It was reminiscent of Jason Varitek’s stand up to Alex Rodriguez and the subsequent game winning home run by Bill Mueller except this time Salty handled it all himself.

It’s rather amusing that for years Theo Epstein seemed to be trying to find a catcher to replace Jason Varitek.  He finally did in a throwaway trade at the deadline in ’10.  He took a shot in the dark with Saltalamacchia and Salty is looking to pay back the favor by becoming the player that the Red Sox didn’t seem to have.  In a few years Saltalamacchia will likely be joined by prospect Ryan Lavarnway to create a formidable catching duo.  Salty will have to quickly turn around the knowledge bestowed on him by Varitek to teach Lavarnway how to become a player and a leader.  If the start of this year is any indication then Salty should have his Varitek impression down pat by then.

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2012 Red Sox Player Previews: The Prospects

The Red Sox have made a habit if trading or buying the core of their teams for the past 15-20 years.  Theo Epstein had one stretch towards the beginning of his tenure in which he stocked his minor league system with players like Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, and Jacoby Ellsbury who make up the current core of the team.  Theo seemed to have one last hurrah as the Sox system has been left with 4 position players that will likely start the year in Pawtucket and one or all of these players may see major league time before the year is up.  Here’s a look at the 4.

Shortstop Jose Iglesias

Red Sox SS Jose Iglesias

Here’s a look at Iglesias’ 2011 season in Pawtucket:

Games: 101
Average: .235
On-Base Percentage: .285
Slugging Percentage: .269
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .554
Home Runs: 1
Runs Batted In: 31
Runs: 35
Doubles: 9
Walks: 21

As most all Sox fans know by now Iglesias is quite the defensive whiz.  The Sox brass knew as soon as they signed him after he defected from Cuba that he had superior defensive skill and hoped they could groom him into a more complete player in their system.  After incumbent starting shortstop Marco Scutaro was traded in the off-season it created an immediate opportunity for Iglesias to compete for the starting job.  Iglesias impressed fans and manager Bobby Valentine in Fort Myers with his defensive skills and gave fans a glimpse of the future double play duo of Iglesias and Pedroia.  In the end it was decided that Iglesias had not developed the offensive part of his game enough to keep him with the big club for the beginning of the season.  In particular Iglesias had developed a habit of swinging early in counts to avoid getting behind into breaking ball counts.  The organization will continue to work with him to break this habit and further develop the rest of his offensive game while Mike Aviles gets his crack at the starting shortstop job.  Make no mistake though, Iglesias IS the shortstop of the future.  I am not exaggerating when I say that Iglesias will be competing for a Gold Glove within his first few seasons in the league.  Once Iglesias entrenches himself at short for the Red Sox expect him to be there for a very long time.

Catcher Ryan Lavarnway

Red Sox C Ryan Lavarnway

Here’s a look at Lavarnway’s 2011 season in Portland and Pawtucket:

Games: 116
Average: .290
On-Base Percentage: .376
Slugging Percentage: .563
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .939
Home Runs: 32
Runs Batted In: 93
Runs: 75
Doubles: 23
Walks: 57

Lavarnway is probably the biggest surprise in the Red Sox organization. He was a virtual unknown at the beginning of last season but his 32 home runs between Portland and Pawtucket put him on the map. Lavarnway was called up to the big club twice last year and did not disappoint. He hit .231 with 2 home runs and 8 RBI in 17 games and gave the Red Sox some key at-bats at the end of last season in Baltimore. He is the opposite of Iglesias in that his hitting seems to be major league ready but his defense is suspect. Lavarnway was often times used as a DH in both Pawtucket and Boston to get him in the lineup and that may have stinted his development at catcher. To Lavarnway’s credit he seemed to spend a great deal of his own time in the off-season working on his defense and catching instructor Gary Tuck has raved about his improvements in spring training. Lavarnway also got himself into better shape during the off-season and that is something that helped fellow catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia improve his defense behind the plate. Still I think he could use a bit more defensive seasoning.  Just remember how atrocious the defense at catcher was at times for the Sox last season. One thing that is interesting is that Theo Epstein could not for the life of him develop someone at two positions during his tenure in Boston – shortstop and catcher – and two guys are on the cusps of the majors as he’s walking out the door.

Third Baseman Will Middlebrooks

Red Sox 3B Will Middlebrooks

Here’s a look at Middlebrooks’ 2011 season in Lowell, Portland, and Pawtucket:

Games: 116
Average: .285
On-Base Percentage: .328
Slugging Percentage: .508
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .834
Home Runs: 23
Runs Batted In: 94
Runs: 62
Doubles: 26
Walks: 26

Middlebrooks is the only guy on the list that has not yet played in the majors. He is only 23 and burst onto the scene last season by jumping all the way to Pawtucket after starting the season in Single A Lowell. All tolled he hit .285 with 23 home runs and 94 RBI between all three levels last season. He is also a plus defender, which is a premium for a third baseman. He is farther off than Iglesias and Lavarnway but if pressed could be a candidate to come up to the big club if things go horribly wrong in the Red Sox infield. Still he is not that far off and he could be ready after a full season in AAA. If you look at the tea leaves there are two possible ways to facilitate a spot for Middlebrooks next season. The first would be to let Youkilis walk and give Middlebrooks the third base spot. The second would be to let David Ortiz walk and shift Youk to DH to make way for him. Obvious neither veteran is about to give up their spot but you have to start thinking about how Youkilis’ hip will hold up on the hot corner. In any event Middlebrooks’ debut is on the horizon.

Outfielder Ryan Kalish

Red Sox OF Ryan Kalish

Here’s a look at Kalish’s 2011 season in Lowell and Pawtucket:

Games: 24
Average: .228
On-Base Percentage: .291
Slugging Percentage: .293
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .585
Home Runs: 0
Runs Batted In: 0
Runs: 11
Doubles: 6
Walks: 9

I would likely have been writing a standalone preview for Kalish as the starting right fielder had he not injured his shoulder trying to make a diving catch last season. Kalish has the most extensive major league time of anyone on the list.  Unfortunately he had to have surgery on his ailing shoulder in the off-season and he will not be able to play in games at the outset of the season. He hit .252 with 4 home runs and 24 RBI in 53 games with the big club in 2010. When he is fully healthy and in the Sox’ starting lineup he will probably be a comparable player J.D. Drew without all of the hate since he’ll only make a fraction of the salary. Kalish is a guy that you know will develop into a fan favorite a la Trot Nixon but he should focus on recovering from his injury so he can make the maximum impact upon his return. The presence of Cody Ross should lessen the need for Kalish to rush back to the big club.

It’s rare to have 4 guys who seem like can’t miss prospects that high in your system and particularly rare for a big market club.  A “can’t miss” guy in AAA is a lot more can’t miss than a “can’t miss” guy in low A ball obviously.  These guys will a play an important part in the future.  Maybe not all this season but at some point.

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