Saturday, July 30, 2005

Make No Mistake

keywords: trades, Red Sox, minor league development, Theo Epstein, John Henry, Manny Ramirez

Red Sox management faces some substantial challenges this weekend, as they try to balance winning, business, player development, public relations, and team chemistry. What must be going through the minds of ownership and GM Theo Epstein as they effect 'decision analysis' this weekend?

Winning. Coming off of a championship season, Sox fans keep high expectations, in addition to paying baseball's highest prices. Any deals have to consider the impact on winning now and long term. Posturing about a new stadium in our lifetime is over, as the Sox have committed to renovating Fenway to the best of their ability, while continually jacking up prices. Do Aubrey Huff (first base) and Mike Cameron (right field) compensate for the loss of Manny Ramirez' formidable bat and protection for David Ortiz? The impact on Ortiz has to be calculated.

Moving Ramirez doesn't help the pitching, which is currently the team's Achilles Heel.

Business. John Henry didn't get to be one of the richest men on the planet because he was stupid. Moving Ramirez provides considerable payroll flexibility for the future. Reportedly, Henry is adamant about not paying any of Ramirez salary if Manny is traded. Freeing up payroll could allow the Sox to acquire a power-hitting first baseman and allocate more resources to the pitching staff. Realistically, the minor league strength of the team is the pitching, and protecting those assets remains paramount.

Player Development. With Varitek and Mirabelli locked up through 2008 and 2006, the path for Kelly Shoppach is blocked and rumor has it he's headed for Colorado as part of the Bigbie trade. Theo Epstein has said that Jon Papelbon, Jon Lester, and Hanley Ramirez aren't going anywhere, and Craig Hansen probably isn't either, as the Sox must have some concerns about Keith Foulke's return to form. The Sox seem to have a number of solid prospects at the A and AA level. I have no idea how they view Abe Alvarez, either as the poor man's Mark Buehrle, or Bruce Chen.

The Sox seem very reluctant to move players up, probably for a variety of reasons- fear of failure by the young players, major league service time, forty-man roster shifts, or criticism about passing over 'established' choices. It's hard to imagine that Theo Epstein would fear for his job security.

Public Relations. After winning, what's more important than PR. Rumor has it the Sox had as much concerns about some of the players who are gone off the field as on it. One would imagine that Epstein would like to follow the Patriots model with more character guys for whom baseball is important. Varitek, Nixon, Renteria, and Mueller are clearly those kinds of players. However, how is Mueller's refusal to play second base so different than Ramirez' behavior?

Team Chemistry. I'm a believer that it's overrated. Performance is underrated. As long as players are playing hard and to their maximum performance, the team has the best chance of winning. Numerous dysfunctional teams (Oakland Raiders, Oakland Athletics in the past, late 70s Yankees teams and others) performed splendidly despite rivalries and jealousies. The GM who fills his clubhouse with chemistry guys who don't produce ends up being the guy looking for a job. Alan Embree supposedly is a great guy, but didn't get it done, and he's gone. Bill Mueller is a professional, former batting titlist, but hasn't had a great year, is a free agent, and has a potentially able backup in Kevin Youkillis.

Summary. Maybe Manny Ramirez is gone, but if he goes, I suspect that it will substantially effect the offense, particularly David Ortiz. Without a great or even solid pitching staff currently, diminished offense will produce fewer victories. As Earl Weaver said, "it's all about what happens on that little hump in the middle of the field."

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