Springtime Storylines: Will the Red Sox score enough runs?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Now the Red Sox: Good times never seemed so good.

The big question: Will the Red Sox score enough runs?

Just because it’s “the big question” — and it’s “big” because everyone in the Boston press corps and greater Red Sox Nation seems to want to ask it — doesn’t make it a great question. It’s worth asking simply because a team can never score too many runs, but what seems to be motivating the question this spring is not a concern about the Sox’ offense for its own sake, but a misguided belief that, simply because the team doubled down on defense this winter the offense will necessarily suffer. False dichotomies are fun and everything, but if I went through life asking myself whether I wanted chocolate or vanilla Frogurt I’d miss out on the fact that there’s a swirl option too.  Put more simply, a team can both improve run prevention and maintain a more than adequate offense, and I think the Red Sox have done that.

Projections are what they are, but the Red Sox project to have the second best lineup in the AL this year. More tangibly speaking, Jason Bay is gone, but Marco Sutaro and a full season of Victor Martinez represent significant improvements. Adrian Beltre is one of those gloves that was brought in, but with his health restored and a more friendly hitting environment I expect him to do quite well. Everyone hates on J.D. Drew, but he’s still an excellent hitter.  This team will score some runs. Not that anyone who wrote one of those hand-wringing “will the Sox score enough?” articles this spring will admit that they were grabbing for easy storylines instead of thinking about the Sox’ offense (query: is the fact that I used this as a “Springtime Storyline” hypocritical? Meta? A pun? I think it was a pun. Yes, that’s it.).

So what else is going on?

  • John Lackey was the big offseason pickup, of course, and with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester the Sox have a potent 1-2-3 in the rotation. If this team makes the playoffs, watch out, because those guys will be hard to beat;
  • The 4-5 is a bit less solid. After a rocky 2008 and a rocky beginning to his major league season last year, Clay Buchholz put up a nice run to close the season (just ignore the last two starts, please. Thanks). If he can maintain that, great, but he still has something to prove on the major league level. I think he will, but whether that comes after a few more speedbumps is up in the air. At this point Dice-K is a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a 3.5 hour game during which I fell asleep around the fourth inning. Tim Wakefield throws a knuckleball, though, and I remain convinced that one day a knuckleballer will go 35-0 with 400 strikeouts (and he’ll be limited to 35 starts only because The Man wants to keep knuckleballers down). Could be Wakefield this year. Then again, I could be letting my irrational love of the knuckleball get in the way. Hard to say;
  • I wonder about the bullpen. Papelbon is still good, but his playoff struggles worry me and overall he strikes me as a guy who could take a step back. Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez all fell off a bit last year. Maybe they all had uncharacteristic swoons, such as they were, and will roar back this year. Maybe it means that the bullpen will be a bigger problem than a lot of people think;
  • Overall run-scoring aside, David Ortiz is a big question mark. A lot of people will note that he picked things up nicely after his dismal start last year, but all 162 games count, and the Red Sox don’t need another swoon like they saw from Big Papi in 2009. If, as is totally possible, his bat just won’t play this year, the Red Sox will have a hole in the lineup that will nag.

So how are they gonna do?

Ultimately there aren’t as many questions about this team as there are about other teams because, let’s face it, every move the Red Sox make is analyzed to the nth degree.

Sometimes, however, that level of scrutiny can actually obscure the overall picture.  I can’t put my finger on it, but I just get this feeling that this team is somehow less than the sum of its parts. No, I’m not talking about chemistry or that kind of nonsense, just a feeling that a lot of guys could have less-than-stellar years. There’s less upside on this team than there is on the Rays. There’s less room of error here than there is in New York. If, say, Kevin Youkilis gets hurt and Josh Beckett stumbles, an otherwise excellent team could be merely good, and merely good isn’t going to cut it in the AL East.

Prediction: Third place in the AL East, just out of the postseason money.  This isn’t hate — The Sox will be good and I think it’s going to be a ridiculously close race all season long — but I just have less confidence in them and perhaps a touch too much confidence in the Rays. Buy hey, that’s why they play the games.

Jose Fernandez was in the middle of baseball’s culture war

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins and Brian McCann #16 of the Atlanta Braves have words after a solo home run by Fernandez in the sixth inning during a game  at Marlins Park on September 11, 2013 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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A lot has been written since news of Jose Fernandez’s death broke early Sunday morning. Fernandez will be remembered fondly for the way he seemed to never stop smiling and for the way he competed on the field. Having already won the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, it seemed inevitable that Fernandez would one day win a Cy Young Award. We were truly watching one of the best arms of this era and that was paired with a terrific personality. The combination is quite rare and the sport was made so much better in the four years during which Fernandez pitched.

Fernandez attempted to defect to the United States four times and was sent to prison after each of the first three unsuccessful attempts. On the fourth attempt, his mother was thrown overboard in choppy waters and Fernandez dove in to rescue her. Fernandez risked everything to come to the United States to play baseball and seek a better life for himself and his family. If anyone had a right to tell other players to “play the game the right way” or to “respect the game,” it would have been Fernandez. But he never did. He played every game like it was his first. He savored his time out on the baseball field.

When Fernandez somehow snagged a Troy Tulowitzki line drive, Tulo stopped in his tracks to ask him, “Did you catch that?” Fernandez, flashing his trademark smile, replied, “Yeah, I did.”

When Giancarlo Stanton hit a monster home run to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, Fernandez cheered like he had just won the lottery.

Most memorably, Fernandez took a moment to take in his first career home run, hit on September 12, 2013 against the Braves. He lifted a 1-0 Mike Minor change-up for a no-doubt home run just in front of the Clevelander sign beyond the left field fence at Marlins Mark. Fernandez took his time circling the bases and, as he passed third base, Chris Johnson chirped at him. Catcher Brian McCann confronted him at home plate and shortly thereafter, both benches emptied. Even during this tense moment, Fernandez was seen smiling. In the dugout, he had an expression on his face that seemed to say, “Really?”

Fernandez was not the most central figure in baseball’s culture war, but as one of baseball’s best and most well-known players, he was certainly in the middle with the likes of Yasiel Puig, Jose Bautista, and Carlos Gomez. The war was about baseball’s “unwritten rules” which were devised by a homogeneous group of players decades ago and still followed today, still a rather homogeneous group. Newer players, an increasingly diverse group, were expected to adhere to these rules despite the fact that many of them played the game in a culture where emotion and exuberance were a normal part of the game.

Fernandez’s death should be a reminder that, when all is said and done, baseball is just a game and we’re meant to have fun with it. He was the embodiment of fun on the baseball field. In his memory, players should admire their handiwork on the field. Flip a bat after hitting a foul ball, like Odubel Herrera. Bat flip a fly out, like Puig. Players should laugh and pump their fists and cheer as if they might never have a chance to do it again. Because they might not.

Jose Fernandez was remarkable on and off the field

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
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Jose Fernandez’s love for baseball was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was there, alongside childhood friend and St. Louis Cardinal Aledmys Diaz, that he devoted hours to makeshift games of baseball. Often alone, often without a teammate, a playing field, or even a baseball, Fernandez would spend hours lobbing baseball-sized rocks in the air, hitting them with sticks, and circling imaginary bases.

The dream was to play in the Cuban National Series, a 16-team league that formed when the original Cuban League disbanded in 1961. When Fernandez became a teenager, however, his stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, defected to the United States. It took Jimenez 13 attempts before he made a successful escape, and soon he sent for his wife and children. Whatever baseball aspirations Fernandez had took a backseat to his own treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida.

After two unsuccessful attempts and two months in a Cuban prison, 15-year-old Fernandez, his mother, and his stepsister tried again. The voyage was tumultuous; at one point, Fernandez’s mother fell overboard. Fernandez dove in after her and helped her swim 30 yards back to the boat. It took another month and change before Fernandez was settled in Florida with his family, and from there, his baseball career appeared to flourish overnight. He enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School and pitched during two championship runs with the Florida Class 6A state champions, working a 13-1 record and 2.85 ERA in his senior year with two no-hitters.

By 2011, several weeks before his 19th birthday, Fernandez was selected by the Miami Marlins in the first round of the MLB draft. His ascension through the minor leagues was even more remarkable. In his first season with Single-A Greensboro, Fernandez contributed six innings of a combined no-hitter, pitched to a combined 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts between Greensboro and Advanced-A Jupiter, and was distinguished as the preeminent Marlins minor league pitcher of the year.

If the transition from Miami’s minor league circuit to the big league stage was a rocky one, Fernandez hid it well. He debuted with the Marlins on April 17, 2013, holding the Mets to five innings of one-run ball and striking out eight of 19 batters. Only six major league pitchers under 21 years old had struck out at least eight batters during their major league debut; at 20 years old, Fernandez was the seventh.

The rest of his rookie season was no less groundbreaking. Fernandez worked a 2.19 ERA, second only to Clayton Kershaw’s 1.83 mark among qualified starting pitchers, appeared in his first All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Month in two consecutive months, and capped his year with a staggering 4.1 fWAR. The Marlins didn’t just find their next ace in Fernandez; they found one of the best starting pitchers of the decade.

This isn’t to say that Fernandez was perfect — no player is. Reports surfaced in November 2015 that the 23-year-old hurler was working under a strained relationship with the Marlins’ brass, refusing to adhere to dugout protocol and asking president of baseball operations Michael Hill when he would be traded. Per Andy Slater of slaterscoops.com, the higher-ups in the Marlins’ organization weren’t the only ones frustrated with their star pitcher. Casey McGehee reprimanded Fernandez for showing up late to the clubhouse, and unnamed players also expressed their hope that Fernandez would struggle on the mound in future starts as a consequence for his arrogant behavior.

Following the report, several players stepped forward in Fernandez’s defense. According to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the worst criticism levied at Fernandez was that he occasionally acted his age. (Brian McCann, who confronted Fernandez in a benches-clearing brawl after the rookie’s first career home run, might have agreed.) Others, like right-handers Dan Haren and Tom Koehler, vocalized their support for the pitcher despite any underlying tension surrounding his potential departure.

Whether or not the rumors had merit, Fernandez was spared the chopping block during his lengthy recovery process in 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. In 2016, he again proved his dominance on the mound. Through 186 ⅔ innings, the 24-year-old posted 16 wins, a staggering 12.49 K/9 rate, a 2.86 ERA and career-high 6.2 fWAR. It should have been just the second outstanding season of a lengthy career; instead, it was his last.

In the wake of today’s tragedy, it is difficult to dwell on Fernandez’s professional accomplishments. We know that he was more than the sum of his innings pitched in Miami, more than a feel-good story or a testament to the resilience of other players who defected from their home countries in pursuit of a better life. By all reports, he was a man of incredible courage, a cherished son and grandson, and a remarkable talent on the field. His life, as with any other, should be valued not for what he did or did not do, but simply because he existed.