A High Holy Day of Baseball

Nine days ago was a huge night of baseball. To say the least, it was the craziest, most intense, and, in the end, most heartbreaking night of baseball I’ve ever survived. It was Game 162 for Major League Baseball and, for one quarter of a percent of the world, the eve of Rosh Hashanah. The Sox were ahead, Papelbon blew it, Dan Johnson hit a home run, and blah blah blah. You know the story. But on Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur, it is only fitting to re-visit that fateful day and the season that wasn’t for the Red Sox.

Back in April, I went out on a limb at picked the Red Sox to win the World Series. Their injury-riddled team just added one of the best first-basemen in the game along with a dynamic multi-time All-Star outfielder. They had Lester, Beckett, Papelbon, and a handful of young rising stars. What wasn’t to love? I even went as far as to say “This Red Sox team may not just be another great team; it could be an all-time great one. Their lineup is studded with All-Stars and their rotation is stocked full of quality arms.”

Now, I don’t regret taking the Sox this season. Looking back, I still would have taken them because of their overwhelming talent, along with the fact that no other team especially stood out to me. But what happened in September could never have been predicted.

All of this brings us to September 28th. Interestingly enough, as this day is starting, news is coming out about MLB potentially adding another wild card, which would have rendered this day useless. But in any case, the Red Sox were tossing Lester versus Baltimore, against whom he owned a 14-0 record with a 2.33 ERA in 17 starts. All they needed to do was win this one game, or hope the Yankees pull out a win against Tampa, and they’d live to survive another day.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t going to be able to watch the games. Thanks to 8:30 services at temple, I was nearly baseball blocked on only the biggest night of the year. But thanks to modern technology–specifically ESPN Mobile alerts–I was partially connected to the games.

Buzz Buzz Teixeira hit a homer? Yeah! Buzz Buzz Pedroia RBI single? C’mon! Buzz Buzz Texeira hit a GRAND SLAM? Leggo!

Never before have I been so angered by a Yankee double play, so pleased by Phil Hughes strikeout. And never before had I so feverishly checked my phone on the chance that the Yankees were working the count against David Price to force an early exit. But then it came time for services, and my phone the steady flow of baseball updates were silenced.

Fast forward two hours and as the final chorus of All the World sounded–click–my phone was turned on. After a mass of texts, I see that the Yankees are up an insurmountable 7 runs in the seventh inning while the Red Sox are up one in a rain delay. Great. The Rays are just 9 outs from their demise while Boston has the greatest closer in the game in to pitch–Mother Nature.

This face just says it all.

But we all know what happens next: New York’s C-Team bullpen gives up a pair homers, including a pinch-hit, 2-out, 2-strike blast to a man hitting .100 on the year, hitless since April. Papelbon has a signature wild outing and ends up giving up a bloop hit that pops out of Carl Crawford’s–of all people–glove. One Evan Longoria home run later, it was all over.

Suddenly, shockingly, unexpectedly, the Red Sox had just blown a 9-game wild card lead in 25 days. There was plenty of blame to go around: John Lackey and Carl Crawford for being far from competent at an exorbitant price, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester for being unable to come up with any sort of quality start over the last two weeks, and the team in general for being 2-18 to close the season when scoring less than 9 runs. But the blame game doesn’t help much, despite what the media might have you think.

Clearly, change is on the way in Boston. Tito Francona has already been shown the door, and Theo Epstein may be on his way out, too. David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Marco Scutaro, and J.D. Drew are all free agents, and staying still is clearly not an option. Lackey, Crawford, Dice-K, and Bobby Jenks are owed another combined $184 million, which will be harder to move than the last Big Mac at a vegan’s covention.

So with changes abound, let’s take a look at the four offensive free agents with their odds of returning to Fenway.

David Ortiz
Big Papi can take a bad rap because he was (potentially unjustly) tagged as a juicer while having 3 straight horribly slow starts. But if you really look at his numbers, he’s still getting on base at a high clip and mashing the ball. He has a huge presence in the locker room that just cannot be quantified. Unfortunately, he’s only getting older, and Kevin Youkilis won’t be able to stay third for much longer–and Adrian Gonzalez isn’t moving anywhere. Not only that, but Papi wants a two-year contract with a player option. To be blunt: that’s not happening. I firmly believe that Papi has at least one more good season left in him, so I’d offer him a one-year deal with an option or let him walk.
Chance of return: 75%

Jason Varitek
Towards the end of the season, it got pretty sad to watch the Captain. He can’t get around on fastballs anymore and only threw out 2 baserunners all year. What he has been able to do for young pitchers is phenominal, but in the end, he can’t produce on the field anymore. There’s no reason to bring him back as a player, especially with sweet-swinging Ryan Lavarnway on the up and up. Maybe he’ll become a coach.
Chance of return: 5%

Marco Scutaro:
Scutaro hasn’t been great, but he’s been far from terrible. He plays above-average defense and makes contact at a remarkable 94.7%–second in the league only to Juan Pierre by two percentage points. The original plan was to have Scutaro around for two years until Jose Iglesias was ready to take over for good, but the two years are up and Igleasias is not ready to start every day yet. Jed Lowrie has been good, but he always seems to be hurt, and Mike Aviles is no longer cut out to play every day, either. For a modest $6 million, bringing back Scutaro is probably the right move.
Chance of return: 60%

J.D. Drew:
I don’t think anyone will miss J.D. Drew. For $70 million, he hit a key grand slam in the 2007 ALCS and quietly plugged away without smiling once. Not only would I be utterly shocked if he returned to the Red Sox, but I’d be stunned if he got another job offer. J.D.’s likely headed for retirement.
Chance of return: Less than 0%

Unfortunately, with a solid class of players leaving, there’s a thin crop of free agents on the market. The big fish, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, will not be headed to Boston, so the Red Sox will have to weed through a litany of 2nd- and 3rd-tier options. They’ll be on the search for a corner outfielder–Josh Willingham or Carlos Beltran perhaps–but the biggest addition to their offense should be Carl Crawford.

I’m not sure exactly who I saw manning left field this season, but it’s certainly not the spark plug of a player I’ve come to love over the past decade. Crawford was quite literally a replacement-level player last year with a 0.2 WAR, a far cry from his mean 5 WAR from 2004 to 2010. At just 30 years old, Crawford is fully redeemable once he is acclimated to the pressure cooker that is Boston sports.

The pitching, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. The top three starters (Beckett, Lester, and Buchholz) look great, but then things take a huge nosedive. With at least one rotation spot and a couple bullpen roles to fill, Boston has three main pitching free agents: Papelbon, Tim Wakefield, and Erik Bedard.

Jonathan Papelbon
Pap hasn’t been the most consistent closer. But he’s certainly one of the most dominant. He’s not most accurate. But he’s certainly the most intense. After the late collapse in Baltimore, Papelbon has become a popular fall-guy with Francona, Crawford, and new pitching coach Curt Young, but it’s unfair to pin the season on him. In the end, he’s a high-end reliever who will come at a high price–$15 million in all likelihood. But whether you’re talking about Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, or whichever closer comes to mind (I see you, Joe Borowski), there’s no way they’re work $15 million. With 15 big stacks, you can pay an entire bullpen of cheap, young arms plus a utility infielder or two. It’s been an… err… interesting seven years, but I think it’s in Boston’s best interest to not pursue a closer for this much and just collect their draft picks and move on.
Chance of return: 30%

Tim Wakefield
You can never have enough starting pitching, but at some point, enough is enough once you turn forty-five. I think that the nine-game quest to win game #200 was the final chapter of Wake’s Boston career. Maybe he’ll catch on somewhere else, but the gauge is near empty on this warrior.
Chance of return: 10%

Erik Bedard
I still don’t have a problem with the last-second deal this trade deadline, especially considering the upcoming 40-man roster crunch approaching. But I’m not so certain Bedard is a good fit in Boston. When healthy, he can be a very nice pitcher, but he can’t stay on the mound, and he lacks any form of confidence. If he runs out of options elsewhere (doubtful), we might see Bedard return to Boston, but it’s looking doubtful at the moment.
Chance of return: 25%

There are plenty of solid options for 4th/5th starters (Jon Garland, Rich Harden, and Edwin Jackson just to name a few), but I think overpaying for C.J. Wilson would be a bad idea. Boston doesn’t need a rotation overhaul, just tweaks and a better doctor. That and a taker for Lackey.

He may be a contract albatross and a 6.41 ERA pitcher, but there may be one taker, which is all you need. The Chicago Cubs are in such dire straights, that they may consider swapping Lackey for Carlos Zambrano. Clearly, both teams have had enough of their dynamic starters. Big Z’s time has ran out in Chi-Town, but they can’t move his contract. Lackey can’t return to Boston, but nobody wants him for $45 million. This trade would really help out both teams, assuming Theo and/or Tito doesn’t make the move to Wrigley.

The Red Sox fell apart, yes, but there are some positives to take away from the year. For one, they’ve found a solid right fielder for next year: Josh Reddick. Josh Beckett is also back to being Josh Beckett. But that’s really about it. This team lost it in the end because they had no better options than Kyle Weiland, Andrew Miller, Lackey, and Wakefield with the division on the line.

Next season, there will be new faces across the board, but we’re months away to seeing what that team will look like. For now, it’s time for Theo, Ben Cherington, and the rest of the Red Sox’s brass to take a long hard look at what went wrong and what needs to change.

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