Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes

2013 Preview: Boston Red Sox

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Boston Red Sox.

The Big Question: will the offseason spending spree prove worth it?

Coming off a disastrous season in which they lost 90 games for the first time since 1966, the Red Sox were among the winter’s biggest spenders, signing five of the game’s top 25 or so free agents:

DH David Ortiz – two years, $26 million-$30 million
OF Shane Victorino – three years, $39 million
1B Mike Napoli – three years, $39 million (revised to one year, $5 million + incentives)
SP Ryan Dempster – two years, $26.5 million
SS Stephen Drew – one year, $9.5 million

They didn’t stop there, either:

OF Jonny Gomes – two years, $10 million
RP Koji Uehara – one year, $4.25 million
C David Ross – two years, $6.2 million

That they limited themselves to rather short-term deals was a form of restraint. Not sure whether the Dodgers would be willing to bail them out again, the Red Sox wanted to leave themselves the ability to retool on the fly should their latest plan fail as spectacularly as the previous one did.

That strategy prevented the Red Sox from competing for the best of the best (Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and others). And because the Red Sox wanted to protect their second-round draft pick (and, more importantly, the draft slot money that came with it), they limited themselves to pursuing free agents who failed to receive qualifying offers. Which makes one wonder if they really got the players they wanted or if there were compromises involved.

Because, really, it’s not hard to see how the Red Sox could have gotten more bang for their buck:

  • Victorino is coming off a down season in which he struggled to hit righties. He might be in decline at age 32. Upton, on the other hand, could still have his best days ahead of him.
  • Making his AL debut after being traded by the Cubs, Dempster posted a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts for Texas last year. Anibal Sanchez was better after his trade to the Tigers, and he’s far younger.
  • Napoli ended up receiving a much smaller deal after his physical revealed a hip condition. The Red Sox could have moved on from him and signed Adam LaRoche for three years instead, but he would have cost a pick.

For all of their signings, the Red Sox core remains unchanged since the Adrian Gonzalez megadeal: the team is centered around Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury and maybe Clay Buchholz. It also has an emerging regular at third in Will Middlebrooks and a very good prospect trio in shortstop Xander Bogaerts, right-hander Matt Barnes and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.

What we’ll find out over the next six months was whether the Red Sox were right to add $60 million in non-superstars to that group. If the team contends and keeps fans interested to the point at which soon-to-be-snapped Fenway Park sellout streak proves to be nothing more than a minor dip, GM Ben Cherington will be praised. But this looks to be more of an 80-85 win team as presently constructed, and if that holds up, the Red Sox will kick themselves for thinking more about 2013 than 2014-15.

What else is going on?

  • Lester and Buchholz currently rank 1st and 2nd, respectively, in the Grapefruit League in ERA. It might be worth writing off under normal circumstances, but perhaps the return of ex-pitching coach John Farrell as Boston’s new manager shouldn’t be underestimated here. Farrell was instrumental in the development of both pitchers during his first stint with the Red Sox, and at least half of the reason the Red Sox wanted him back this winter was for his ability to work with the team’s pitchers.
  • Bradley has been the shining star of camp, hitting .444/.523/.667 with two homers, 11 RBI and as many walks (eight) as strikeouts in 54 at-bats. Ortiz’s Achilles’ tendon setback has opened the door for the 22-year-old to make the team as a left fielder, with Gomes moving to DH.
  • Since Bradley is a natural center fielder, Ellsbury’s status as a free agent to be will be a frequent topic of discussion all year. Regardless of whether he returns to his near-MVP form of 2012, Ellsbury might be too expensive to keep next year, particularly since he’d likely be facing a move to left field. He’ll be a candidate to be traded this summer.
  • New closer Joel Hanrahan appears to be finding his footing now after struggling mightily the first half of camp. The Red Sox also have Andrew Bailey throwing well after an injury-ruined campaign, giving them a fallback in case Hanrahan struggles and potential trade bait come June or July.

Prediction: Fourth place, American League East.

Murray Chass rightfully nails Major League Baseball on minority hiring

Rob Manfred
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When Murray Chass lays off his vendettas against the people he feels have wronged him, he’s still capable of making some sharp points. Particularly when he’s working in his old bailiwick of the business of baseball.

On Sunday he wrote a blog post about minority hiring in baseball. As in, the nearly complete lack of it, at least in front offices:

Manfred has talked a better job on minority hiring than he has performed. He has created a pipeline program through which members of minorities are supposed to be able to advance into major league front office positions. However, no role models seem to exist as inspiration for younger employees.

In Manfred’s 20 months as commissioner, clubs have hired or promoted 19 high-ranking executives. Eighteen of the 19 are white males. The lone minority is Al Avila, the Tigers’ general manager.

Chass reports that Rob Manfred and, in the past, Bud Selig have leaned on clubs to hire friends or trusted lieutenants but claim they have no power to tell clubs who to hire when it comes to minorities. It’s pretty dang good point.

Moving beyond Chass’ points, it’s worth observing that one way baseball could better populate the executive ranks would be to hire more minorities in entry-level positions. What a better way to become a friend and crony than to have, you know, been there a long time? The game has had a horrible track record in doing this, however, for one simple reason: it pays crap wages for all but the highest of executive positions, pushing away candidates for whom money is, in fact, an object to pursuing a dream in baseball which, by demographic necessity, favors the rich and thus favors whites. Earlier this year MLB launched a pipeline program aimed at getting more minority candidates into entry level MLB jobs. That’s a good start to addressing the problem, but it’s going to take years for that to bear fruit, assuming it ever does.

Back in June Kate Morrison and Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus wrote a four-part series regarding this very issue, and it’s well worth your time. Among the points made is one that, given his vendettas, Chass surprisingly didn’t make himself: sabermetrics is partially to blame! Go read Kate and Russell’s work on that, but the short version: front offices want MBA/STEM types now, not people with athletic backgrounds. People with those degrees have expensive educations and, in turn, cannot afford to take pennies to work in baseball when they can make far more in other industries, thereby continuing to favor the rich and the white.

I don’t think Rob Manfred or Bud Selig before him or the people who run major league baseball teams are bigots. I don’t think that baseball, as a whole, wants to keep minorities out of top jobs. Chass doesn’t make such a claim either and he, like I, noted the pipeline program.

But baseball is a business rife with cronyism and nepotism which leads those in power to hire friends and relatives, thereby keeping the executive class overwhelmingly male and white. Baseball has shown that, when it wants to, it can lean on teams to make certain hiring choices. Will it do the same to push for greater minority representation in management ranks? Or will it continue to throw up its hands up and say “hey, that’s on the clubs?”

Tim Tebow hits a homer in his first instructional league at bat

PORT ST. LUCIE, FL - SEPTEMBER 20: Tim Tebow #15 of the New York Mets hits a home run at an instructional league day at Tradition Field on September 20, 2016 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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Because of course he did.

It wasn’t just his first at bat, but it was his first pitch. It came off of John Kilichowski, an 11th round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals out of Vanderbilt.  The ball went out to left center, off the bat of the lefty Tebow.

Next time, meat, throw him a breaking ball.