Never Too Early to Panic at Fenway

published April 22, 2010

The boos echoed ‘round Fenway Park on Monday as the Red Sox played their traditional morning game on Patriots Day.  Tampa Bay was up 8-0, putting the finishing touches on a four-game sweep.  The loss dropped Boston to 4-9, their worst start in fourteen years, and the early hour and sunshine did nothing to lighten the mood of the crowd.

It’s been a good decade for the Fenway faithful.  With two World Series wins after an infamous drought, the Sox have assured generations of New Englanders a life without the fear their twentieth-century forebears knew all too well.  Still, like Depression-era babies who can’t get used to prosperity, long-time Sox fans keep the feeling of the bad times close to the skin, where it can break out at the drop of a popup.  And the bandwagon newbies haven’t faced real adversity yet, so they don’t know how to handle it.

The biggest task facing general manager Theo Epstein as the ‘00s progressed was to find potential replacements for the two big bats in the middle of the order, DH David Ortiz and LF Manny Ramirez who played his position as though he thought he was DH’ing.  Epstein retooled the pitching staff on the fly, letting Pedro Martinez go and bringing in Josh Beckett to take his place, developing Jon Lester into a potential ace, adding Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima from Japan and Jonathan Papelbon from the minors to give the rotation depth and rebuild the bullpen.  He signed J.D. Drew, handed first base to Kevin Youkilis, got surprising production from Mike Lowell (the supposed poison pill included in the Beckett trade), and promoted Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia.

This beautifully balanced squad won the 2007 Series with effective hitting all throughout the lineup, but still required Manny and Big Papi to maintain the proper level of fear in the opposition.

In 2008, with Manny Being Intolerable, the Sox maneuvered a three-team trade that brought them Jason Bay, who gave them thirty-plus home runs and fit into the team’s patient, pitch-eating profile.  Bay hit free agency after the 2009 season, and Epstein chose – rationally – to let another team overpay him in his thirties.  Epstein had added Victor Martinez at the trade deadline, upgrading the catcher position from the ghost of Jason Varitek.

Left field was now open, a big hitter’s position with no big hitter in sight.  At DH, the Sox in ’09 were treated to a preview of coming attractions from Ortiz: on the first day of summer, his OPS stood at a woeful .661, with five home runs and 28 RBIs.  (Over the rest of the season, he rebounded with 23 homers and an .890 OPS.)  What was a team to do, with the Yankees flush and resurgent and the Rays still young and dangerous and increasingly smart?

With few good options in the free agent or trade market, Boston chose to take the suddenly-chic Seattle route, improving its defense to support its pitching riches, hoping for enough offense to make it all work.  John Lackey, the best starting pitcher available, was added to the rotation.  Epstein signed CF Mike Cameron, SS Marco Scutaro, and 3B Adrian Beltre as free agents; the Cameron signing shifted Ellsbury to left, where his curious routes to balls in play would at least be shorter than when he was in center.

It was a plan.  It worked in Seattle, which improved by twenty-four wins in 2009.  But that’s in the American League West, where mere competence can make you a contender.  The eighty-five wins that Seattle posted represented a return to the B-minus level, which can leave you in fourth place in the gifted and talented program that is the AL East.

The early returns from Boston are not encouraging.  Too Big Papi is making his second-half effort last year look like what Wall Streeters call a dead cat bounce.  J.D. Drew, age 34, entered last night’s game with a strikeout rate (.422) approaching his OPS (.472).  The 37-year-old Mike Cameron is on the DL; Beltre (31) and Scutaro (34) are doing little for the offense, and any improvement in run-prevention has not shown up in the pitchers’ performance.  Lackey and Lester have ERAs of 5.63 and 8.44 respectively; April has been their worst month throughout their careers, but not to this extent.  Beckett couldn’t hold a 7-3 lead against Texas last night, though the Red Sox won the game in twelve innings for their second straight walkoff win against the Rangers.

Boston has a team of excellent complimentary pieces, but is it enough to win in the AL East?  They stand now at 6-9, five games behind the Rays and five and a half behind New York.  If it seems too early to panic, consider this: The Elias Sports Bureau, in its Baseball Analyst books, studied how far you have to go in a season before your record in the new season is a better predictor of how you’ll do than your performance last season would be.  The answer is, twenty games.

With a .400 record after fifteen games, it’s not quite time to panic in Boston.  But it’s awfully close.

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