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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ups and Downs with Tito, Pedro, and More

Tito autographs a book for his former ace.

What a roller-coaster week for Red Sox fans -- enough to make you reach for the Rolaids.

First came the early excerpts from former manager Terry Francona's book, revealing that during the 2010 offseason, Sox ownership took the advice of a media consultant to boost its sagging TV ratings by loading the team with "sexy" stars like Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. For those who looked forward to hearing Francona's memories of the 2004 and 2007 World Series runs, this mudslinging was just another reminder of how dreadful life has been on Yawkey Way the last 15 months.

Then there were the reports that contract negotiations with free agent first baseman Mike Napoli had finally been settled -- and that the early rumors of his injuries were even worse than expected. Napoli was found to have a more serious hip problem than originally thought, a development that whittled down Boston's original three-year, $39 million offer to one year at $5 million plus a ballbag full of incentives.
Napoli's next Fenway appearance will be in white.

Whereas Napoli was once touted to fans as a 25-homer guy who would solidify the right side of the infield, his drop in value has been so swift that the faithful has to be wondering whether Jeremy Giambi will show up in his place come spring training.

News was even dreary on the historical front, as two iconic Bosox opponents passed away on the same day. Earl Weaver was the type of fiery manager who seemed to break the hearts of Red Sox Nation every September while he was simultaneously making them laugh with his tirades. Stan Musial was the National League's answer to Ted Williams, a brilliant batsman who may not have been a war hero like The Kid but was someone to look up to in every other capacity.
Earl and an ump -- always fun.

Dreary days indeed.

Then, just as temperatures began dipping to levels consistent with the mood, some sun began peaking through. Rewarding one of the few performers who exceeded expectations in 2012, Boston gave lefty reliever Craig Breslow a two-year contract with an option for a third year. Middle relief was a bright spot in a mostly dismal '12 season, and fans hope Breslow can continue to be one of the key men bridging the gap from the sixth to eighth innings.
After 63 games in '12, Breslow should be busy again.

The brightest ray of all came as the mercury neared zero. On the eve of the annual Boston Baseball Writer's Dinner, general manager Ben Cherington announced that Pedro Martinez -- as brilliant and popular a pitcher as any to suit up in home whites at Fenway Park -- was returning to the organization as a special assistant to the GM.

Like the signing of former catching star and team captain Jason Varitek to a similar position a few months back, Pedro's hiring was a strong public relations move that could also prove very smart tactically. The Red Sox have been making great inroads in their pursuit of talented young Latin American players, and Dominican native Martinez is revered almost to the level of a Roberto Clemente among his countrymen.

A visit from Pedro might be just the edge the Sox need to win over a prospect and his parents, and there is plenty a guy with a .687 lifetime winning percentage can teach young pitchers of any background once they are signed. Just seeing Martinez's smile at Fenway South in Lee County, Florida should liven up spring training as new manager John Farrell starts rallying his troops to rise from the depths of last place.

"My heart will always live in Boston," Martinez said after the appointment was made official. After last year's team drew a nearly dead pulse, the return of Pedro and fellow 2004 hero Varitek may go a long way in helping get things pumping again.
Can Tek and Pedro bring that old 2004 magic back?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Clay and Jon Had Better Be On

Jon Lester has a lot to prove in 2013.

The fate of the 2013 Red Sox may very well lay in two sets of statistics:

Jon Lester: 33-15, 1.19, 3.17
Clay Buchholz: 23-10, 1.233, 2.70

Lester: 9-14, 1.383, 4.82
Buchholz: 11-8, 1.326, 4.56

The first numbers cover the period from April 2010 through August 2011, when Lester and Buchholz were two of the best starting pitchers in the American League. "WHIP" -- walks plus hits per innings pitched -- has become a popular measuring stick for effectiveness.
Buchholz -- like Lester -- has a no-hitter for Boston.

Below those are what the duo has done since, as they and their team have come crashing to earth. Both were key factors in the 7-20 free-fall of September '11 that cost manager Terry Francona his job -- Buchholz through injury, Lester by ineffectiveness. It was hoped new man Bobby Valentine could spark a turnaround in the pair, but their travails continued on the dismal last-place club that finished 69-93  in Valentine's lone Boston summer of 2012.

Which Lester and Buchholz will we see this year atop the Red Sox rotation? Therein lies the key to new manager John Farrell's staff.

Ownership is hoping that the return of Farrell to Boston -- where, under his tutelage as pitching coach, the left-handed Lester (19-9) and right-handed Buchholz (17-7) flourished as All-Stars in 2010 -- will coincide with a return to form by these hurlers. Both are still in their prime, and if they can regain their co-ace status the Red Sox can take a huge step back toward respectability in the AL East. In Buchholz's case, this also means bouncing back from back problems that sidelined him during last year's second half.
John Farrell believes he'll get both aces on track.

"We feel they are some very tangible adjustments Jon Lester can incorporate to back on track. Clay Buchholz same way," Farrell told the crowd at a Hot Stove event on Cape Cod earlier this month. The new skipper isn't saying what those alterations are, but you can bet it's not a new chicken wing recipe.

Beyond these two, the rotation is even less predictable -- and potentially hazardous.

New No. 3 man Ryan Dempster pitched worse than Lester and Buchholz in the second half of 2012, compiling a 5.09 ERA and 1.453 WHIP for the Rangers after a terrific first half (2.25/1.038) with the Cubs. Dempster had several decent years in the National League with the Cubs and Marlins, but the offensive firepower he'll regularly face in the AL East will test his mettle.

Dempster's past doings against the division -- mostly in inter-league games -- are not encouraging. The 35-year-old has a lifetime ERA of 5.27 versus Toronto and 7.62 (with an 0-4 record) against the Yankees. If that trend continues the Green Monster at Fenway could have quite a few more dents by summer's end.
Can Doubront do it for a full season?

Felix Doubront was one of the few positive stories on the 2012 Red Sox, He went 11-10 in his first full season, and for much of the year was the team's most reliable starter. He slipped badly (1-5, 6.04 ERA) in August-September, but is still just 24. He had an excellent strikeout-to-innings pitched ratio of 9.3, and management hopes another year of experience will bring increased consistency and durability.

The hopes for Jon Lackey -- well, that's another story. His travails since signing a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Red Sox after the 2009 season are well-documented, as his deceivingly decent 26-23 record in 2010-11 was accompanied by some of the worst ERA/WHIP numbers for a 150-inning starter -- 6.41/1.619 in '11 alone! -- in MLB history.

Lackey missed last year after having Tommy John surgery, but insists he now feels better than ever. Snce his pre-Red Sox resume included a 19-9 season and several big postseason wins for the Angels, one could be encouraged by such talk. Of course feeling good and pitching well don't always go hand-in-hand, and Lackey is not being counted on for much.
Rain or shine, Morales was solid for the Sox.

Middle relief was busy on last year's club, when no Boston starter had more than 11 wins. Franklin Morales, Craig Breslow, and Junichi Tazawa, all standouts in 2012, are slated to return. Morales, a left-hander, can also start.

The experiment to turn excellent set-up man Daniel Bard into a starter in '12 was a disaster, and the hope is that Bard can shake off memories of last summer's minor league demotion and regain some of his old form in the bullpen. Oft-injured Andrew Bailey was likewise a major disappointment as last year's closer, and this forced Valentine to turn to Alfredo Aceves at the end of games. Aceves did nothing to make fans forget departed stopper Jonathan Papelbon.

Now management hopes the recently-acquired Joel Hanrahan can do so. Hanrahan was an All-Star the last two summers with the Pirates, notching a combined 76 saves, 2.24 ERA, and 128 strikeouts over 128 innings. Bailey will be counted on to fill Bard's old eighth-inning spot, and if Hanrahan falters as closer perhaps Bailey can assume the role he once handled very effectively with Oakland.
Joel Hanrahan: The answer at the end?  

Of course for the closer to even matter, Boston has to be in position to win far more games that last year -- and that all starts with Lester and Buchholz.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jason solves the riddle of the Fenway Double Rainbow

One of several different shots of the Fenway "Double Rainbow"

By Guest Blogger Jason Alpert-Wisnia

In 2000, my dad Saul got an email from a friend with an amazing photo of a double rainbow the friend had taken during a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. My dad was at the game too, and many fans who were there took photos similar to the one he received. Soon the internet was filled with them.

(If you don’t understand or know what a “Double Rainbow” is, here is a link to the original YouTube video that started the trend.It's by Hungrybear9562.) Make sure you play the audio.
The original viral video of "A Double Rainbow"

Now, 13 years later, my father still had the photo and was using it as desktop wallpaper on his computer. He had forgotten, however, when it was taken, who was playing the Red Sox, who was batting, and all the other information about this amazing photograph. On the old JumboTron scoreboard at Fenway you can see the number 20 (or maybe 10) faintly, and the other words and numbers are fuzzy too. Also, it’s hard to tell who’s batting (the Red Sox or the visiting team) because all the uniforms seem the same shade of white.

We thought it would be fun to figure out this mystery. 

We Googled “Double Rainbow over Fenway Park Photo." One of the first links was to a company selling the photo: The ad stated that the picture was taken during “July 2000” when the Red Sox were playing the Atlanta Braves, both facts which my dad had forgotten. But there was one downfall; it did not state the exact date.

So we went to, and looked up the 2000 Red Sox. We then went into the season schedule for the month of July. We looked over the games for any dates when they played the Braves at Fenway; they met the Braves on July 8th and 9th. We then looked over the Red Sox’s lineup for those games, because we were pretty sure they were the team batting in the picture. 

We were wrong! None of the players on the Red Sox roster that year wore the number 20.

We then looked over the Braves lineup for the same two games. None of them had the number 20 either. So we decided that maybe it was number 10. The only player on either team's roster for those two games 
who wore the number 10 was Chipper Jones.
The view from dad's desk.

Mystery solved? Not so fast. 

In the original photo, the first name of the player on the scoreboard looked too short to be "Chipper," but when we enlarged the picture we realized the player actually had on a Red Sox cap .

How could this be?

We went back over the season schedule, and noticed we had missed a game against the Braves on July 7th!

Looking at the Red Sox lineup for THIS game, I found the perfect match. The starting catcher on July 7th was Scott Hatteberg, and he wore number 10 on the Red Sox for all of 2000.

Now that we knew the batter, we decided to go deeper into the mystery. We wanted to know what inning he was batting in, and against what pitcher.

Scott Hatteberg -- he's our man.

I looked up the pitchers who played for the Braves in that game, and they were Tom Glavine, John Rocker, and Kerry Ligtenberg. Going over the inning-by-inning linescore, we saw that Hatteberg batted in the bottom of the 2nd, as the third batter, and struck out against Glavine. He also came up in the bottom of the 5th, and hit a ground ball out off Glavine.

In the photo you can see that there is a player on first base. I looked closer at the bottom of the 2nd to see if someone had reached first. The first batter, Ed Sprauge, walked. Then the next batter before Hatteberg, Manny Alexander, had hit a fly ball out to right field. So Hatteberg's first time at bat, there was indeed someone on first base. His second time up he led off the inning, so that would not work.

So, in my dad's screensaver photo and the many other double rainbow shots matching it, Scott Hatteberg is batting against Tom Glavine and the Atlanta Braves on July 7th, during the bottom of the 2nd inning.

Mystery solved!

Did the double rainbow's luck come four years later?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Roger Clemens: A cardboard God comes into focus

The picture stands today as the symbol of an era -- and innocence -- lost.

In it, Roger Clemens and Ted Williams share confident, youthful smiles. Williams is, quite literally, a bronzed God, staring out at the photographer in his tanned, All-American glory. Clemens, wearing a fresh, clean Red Sox uniform, also has the look of a man who knows exactly what he wants out of life.

Williams yearned to be the world's greatest hitter; Clemens the top pitcher. At the time of the picture, in 1988, both had reached their goal.

I took the photo in Cooperstown, after driving from Boston to baseball's Mayberry with three buddies for my first look at the game's red-bricked shrine. When we entered the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery, just off the museum's lobby, I instinctively knew which of the immortals I wanted to visit first. Walking through the years to the 1966 induction class, I found him on the wall right alongside Casey Stengel: 

BOSTON RED SOX A.L. 1939 - 1960

Reaching into my pocket, I grabbed the '87 Topps Roger Clemens card I had taken on my journey. Quickly placing it atop the upper-right corner of Ted's plaque, I jwhipped out my camera, took a single shot, and then pulled the card down before I could be caught and thrown out for legend-tampering.
Ted the bronze God

There was no digital screen on my little Kodak to tell me whether I had muffed the picture, but I wasn't going to take a chance at a second one. I just hoped for the best and went on my way.

Clemens was coming off back-to-back Cy Young seasons for the Red Sox, and appeared poised to become the Tom Seaver of his generation. Williams was the real John Wayne, the last man to hit .400 and a war hero whose #9 I always looked for first in the right-field corner upon entering Fenway Park. Both had iconic nicknames that suited them and stuck; Ted was "The Kid" and the "Splendid Splinter," Clemens the "Rocket."

When I bought this scorebook, Clemens was 14-0.

I had only seen Williams hit live in an Old-Timer's Game, but I had been watching Clemens up close since his rookie year. He was 25, I was 20, and I looked forward to many more Rocket sightings in my Fenway future.

As an aspiring sportswriter, I even had visions of seeing some of them from the press box. Then, when Clemens made the Hall of Fame, I'd show him the old picture I'd taken way back when and we'd share a laugh. Maybe I'd have him sign it for my kid.

Things didn't turn out quite as expected. By 1996 Clemens had amassed a list of achievements for the Red Sox that had him comfortably headed for his own Cooperstown plaque, but had slumped in recent years.

He still had the gas and skill to strike out 20 (with no walks) at Tiger Stadium that September, however, and few weeks later I saw him pitch another strong game at home against the Yankees. Rumors were he would be ditching the Sox as a free agent that winter, and I  joined in a long standing ovation when he left the game and tipped his cap.
My ticket from Clemens' last game with Boston.

We knew it might be the last time he pitched for the Red Sox, and it was -- Clemens heading to Toronto to prove Sox GM Dan Duquette he was not past his prime at 34. He accomplished the task with back-to-back Cy Young, Triple Crown seasons, and when the first whispers of steroids started I tried to shut them out. Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire could be juicers, sure, but the Rocket? He had always seemed like the real deal, a throwback to another era.

Later, when I traded in my sportswriter's cap for a writing job at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, I learned Clemens had even made a ritual of jogging over to the Institute's pediatric Jimmy Fund Clinic in uniform to visit sick kids. It was something that would have made Ted Williams -- the king of Jimmy Fund heroes -- happy as all hell. 

How could Clemens risk a chance to join the Splendid Splinter among Boston's greatest all-time icons?

They still never proved anything in court, of course, but Clemens now sits right alongside Bonds as the poster boys for the steroid era. The fact the Rocket denied any juicing doesn't seem to make a difference; the damning testimony of his former trainer in the perjury trial brought against Clemens has made him guilty in the court of public opinion -- and the minds of many Hall of Fame voters.
Without a glove and ball, Clemens looks lost.

The man whose 354 wins and record seven Cy Young Awards places him statistically in the pantheon of Seaver, Walter Johnson, and the other greatest pitchers in baseball history received just 36.2 percent of the vote in his first crack at Cooperstown. Although 75 percent is needed for admission, the general consensus is that Clemens will eventually make it. Still, he'll forever be tainted by the evidence and the era.

Certainly I've come around to accepting his probable guilt, tempered only by the likelihood that he first started juicing after he left Boston -- meaning those games I saw him pitch from '84 to '96 were the result of nasty stuff and not needles.

As for the picture, I did flub it after all. In my frenzy to capture the moment it had turned out blurry and a bit over-exposed. You could still tell who Clemens and Williams were, you could still see their smiles, but everything was out of focus. I didn't realize when I opened the envelope from CVS and saw the fuzzy photo just how prophetic it would be. 

My search for the picture proved futile.

Wednesday, after the Hall of Fame voting became public, I went looking for it in a shoe box of old high school and college-era pictures. I found a bunch from my second Cooperstown visit, but none from the first -- including the Williams-Clemens shot. It was just as well.

By now, everything was in clear view. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Projected Red Sox lineup: too many questions for comfort?

Will Victorino help point the way out of the cellar?

It has become trendy in recent weeks for experts to declare the Red Sox not only big players during the recent flurry of off-season transactions, but also big winners.

This may be wishful thinking, however, since it's hard to imagine another season as dreadful as the 69-93 last-place debacle of 2012. It's true Boston picked up strong character guys in Shane Victorino and Johnny Gomes, along with a few streaky power-hitter types in Stephen Drew and Mike Napoli. But the revamped Boston lineup still has plenty of uncertainties with spring training a little over a month away.

Let's take a look around the diamond as things currently stand (projected starters in bold):

At first base the newcomer Napoli, who can also catch, will likely get the nod provided Boston and his agent come to terms over his contract. Health may be an issue; while Napoli hit 24 homers last year and 30 in 2011, he's played more than 114 games just once in seven MLB seasons (140 in 2010). Current backup Mauro Gomez was the International League MVP at Pawtucket last summer, but in 102 at-bats with Boston posted only 2 homers. Mark Hamilton has shown bursts of power in the minors but has hit .197 in two call-ups with St. Louis.
Will dirt-dog Pedroia play himself out of a long career?

Second base remains a strong suit with Dustin Pedroia returning, but while the three-time All-Star and former MVP is still Gold Glove-worthy in the field, his OPS and slugging numbers have dropped off each of the past two seasons. He's also been injury-prone and missed 21 games in 2012. Pedroia will turn 30 in August, an age where he may soon become more prone to breakdowns (think Kevin Youkilis) if he continues playing in his aggressive, dirt-dog style. 

When the Red Sox signed shortstop Stephen Drew to a one-year, $9.5 million contract this winter, it surprised a lot of people who thought all-glove, no-bat Jose Iglesias was going to get a crack at starting in 2013. Iglesias has hit above .235 just once at any level, and checked in at .118 in 68 at-bats for Boston last year. Now it's likely Drew, a veteran who has had some very strong offensive seasons, will get the nod, but he is no sure thing either after a .227 year in which he missed 80-plus games with a severe ankle injury.
Will Middlebrooks fill Youk's big shoes?

Third baseman Will Middlebrooks was perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2012 Red Sox season, as the rookie exploded on the MLB scene with a .331 average and 9 homers in his first 142 at-bats after taking over for injured-then-traded Kevin Youkilis. Middlebrooks eventually reached 15 homers and 54 RBI before being felled for the year by a broken wrist on Aug. 11, numbers that while very impressive marked a considerable drop-off from his torrid start. 

Most expect Middlebrooks to continue growing as a hitter and fielder in 2013, but a sophomore slump can't be ruled out given his .194 September. Fan favorite Pedro Ciriaco, another pleasant surprise in 2012 as Middlebrooks' end-of-year replacement, will be itching to jump in again if the need arises.

In right field Victorino gives the Red Sox Gold Glove-caliber defense, but his offensive numbers (including just 11 homers and 55 RBI last year) look very J.D. Drew-esque. Since J.D.'s  strong fielding was taken for granted and his hitting over-analyzed, it's not too hard to imagine Victorino will start hearing catcalls from Conig's Corner if he doesn't come out swinging strong.

Will Ellsbury rebound -- and stick around?

Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury was a 32-homer, 39-steal man and MVP runner-up in '11, but had almost no power (4 homers in 303 at-bats) upon returning in mid-2012 from a dislocated shoulder. By not (yet) adding Hamilton or another big-name outfielder to the roster this winter, Sox management appears to be gambling that Ellsbury will bounce back strong in his free agent year and become either blue-chip trade bait or a contract extension candidate late in the summer. His fate likely depends on Boston's place in the AL East and Wild Card races come July.

As a hitter, new left fielder Johny Gomes won't have anybody thinking of Ted, Yaz, Manny, or even Mike Greenwell, but on defense he may remind folks of butchers like Manny and Jose Canseco. Look for Daniel Nava to get the bulk of the reserve at-bats should Gomes or another outfielder falter, with Ryan Kalish, Drew Sutton, and Alex Hassan also in the mix. If Ellsbury is dealt, of course, another starting slot will open up.
Will Mike Napoli supplant/spell Salty as catcher?

At catcher there is a logjam. It's still unclear whether Jarrod Saltalamacchia can be a 140-game-a-year receiver; after setting a 30-homer, .280 pace in the first half of 2012, he was one of the easiest hitters in the AL to strike out down the stretch and finished at .222 with 25 dingers. Doubts about Salty's durability led the Red Sox to sign David Ross (a solid back-up for Atlanta) and likely Napoli (who caught 72 games for Texas last year).

Throw in last year's primary Boston back-up Kelly Shoppach and young Ryan Lavarnway (a standout in the minors who struggled after a second-half call-up), and it's clear this position is anything but set. The chances are at least one of these five catchers -- all of whom could likely start for a big-league team -- will be dealt before spring training.
Will Ortiz be looking up all season? 

Designated hitter David Ortiz provides another big question mark. Not because of the numbers he put up when playing in 2012 -- they were outstanding -- but because of the fact the seven-time All-Star missed 71 of the last 72 games with a Achilles injury and turned 37 in November. Even the svelter version of Big Papi we saw last year is a big-boned, Mo Vaughn/Boomer Scott body type who like these former Sox sluggers could lose his skills in a flash. Management showed its appreciation for Ortiz's place in club history with a new two-year contract; if he manages to keep hitting that long, he also needs to keep healthy.

The concerted effort by Boston GM Ben Cherington and his crew to pursue solid and steady pick-ups rather than A-List superstars like Josh Hamilton should help the Red Sox avoid long-term contract headaches like the Yankees now face with A-Rod. What Ben and Co. must hope is that they have not created a team without enough sure things.

Next week: A look at the pitching staff.