Red Sox Erred in Firing Francona, Should Cut Epstein Loose

Theo Epstein's bad personnel decisions caused the Red Sox's historic collapse this season. If anyone should be fired, it's Epstein, not Terry Francona. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

It’s too late to undo firing Terry Francona, a rash decision born from the kind of rabid bloodlust that few fanbases besides Boston’s are capable of. But if John Henry wants to cut out the true cause of the Red Sox’s historic collapse, he needs to go one level higher and axe Theo Epstein.

Player misuse caused by bad lineups, rotation or bullpen order can certainly kill a team, and that’s the manager’s fault. But this Red Sox team had a faulty foundation, and that’s the responsibility of the general manager who built it.

The rotten core that killed this Red Sox team began five years ago, when Epstein signed J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka for big-time bucks. Drew’s pedestrian .264 average, 16 home runs and 57.2 RBIs per season have not been worth the cost, but that’s nothing compared with Matsuzaka. The Japanese so-called superstar was a dud in Boston, failing to contribute anything meaningful from 2009 until Tommy John surgery essentially ended his Boston tenure early this season. On top of that, he became one of the most frustrating, least entertaining pitchers in recent Red Sox history. Fans hated him, and that likely translated into less revenue from him than other pitchers. This is the exact opposite of what Epstein envisioned when he signed Matsuzaka.

Were these the only two bad contracts of the Epstein Era, he keeps his job. But these were just the beginning of a downward trend of spending big money on big games that could never hack it in Boston. For example: the 2010 John Lackey signing – a desperate, panicked attempt to prove to the fans a year after losing Mark Teixeira that Epstein could still attract major talent to as tough a media market as Boston. Lackey didn’t even have a particularly good 2009 (11 wins, fewest since 2003; 3.83 ERA, highest since 2004), but it didn’t matter: Epstein took him and his histrionics anyway. The result? A winning percentage barely above .500 and an ERA over 5.00.

Continue reading Red Sox Erred in Firing Francona, Should Cut Epstein Loose

Red Sox Bullpen Spoils Erik Bedard’s Debut

Carlos Santana hits a two-run home run in the sixth inning of Thursday's game at Fenway Park. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Red Sox bullpen folded Thursday night after two straight games without allowing a run to the Cleveland Indians.

Catcher Carlos Santana hit a two-run home run off Franklin Morales, and the Indians scored twice more off Andrew Miller to give the Indians a 7-3 victory and series split. Coupled with the Yankees’ 7-2 victory in Chicago, the Red Sox and Yankees are now tied for first in the AL East heading into their three-game series this weekend at Fenway.

Morales and Miller Can’t Lock it Down

Given a 3-3 tie in the top of the sixth, Morales struggled almost immediately. Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner (3-4, RBI, run) smashed a full-count pitch from Morales off the center field wall for a double, and Santana (3-4, 3 RBIs, 2 runs) crushed Morales’ very next pitch even farther, depositing it squarely over the wall for the 5-3 lead. Morales finally got a pop-up for the first out of the inning, then Alfredo Aceves gave up a double before striking out two to end the inning.

Miller struggled in his first relief appearance with Boston, pitching the final three innings and giving up two earned runs on four hits, two walks, four strikeouts and a hit batter. His command was especially off: Miller threw under 55 percent of his balls for strikes, getting called strikes only eight times. He also threw first pitch strikes to just seven of the 15 batters he faced.

Morales suffered his first loss of the season. The win went to Indians starter Justin Masterson (9-7), who beat the Red Sox for the third time in four career starts. He held the Red Sox to three earned runs on five hits, a walk and nine strikeouts (including four in the bottom of the second) in six innings.

Bedard Uneven in Red Sox Debut

Erik Bedard looked impressive in his first inning as Red Sox starter, striking out the first batter he faced and retiring the Indians 1-2-3 on 12 pitches. He looked just as strong in the fourth and fifth, not allowing a baserunner in either inning. He did not allow a leadoff Indian to reach base in any inning.

Bedard struggled in the second and third inning, however. Given a 2-0 lead to start the second, Bedard gave up a one-out single to Santana, who then tried for third on a single to right by right fielder Kosuke Fukudome. Santana was safe and Fukudome went to second when Josh Reddick‘s throw from right field hit Santana in the back.

On the next play, Bedard made a curious mental error. First baseman Matt LaPorta grounded to the right side of the infield, and both Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez went for the ball. Bedard forgot to cover first base on the play, and LaPorta reached on the infield single, with Santana scoring and Fukudome moving to third with one out. Left fielder Austin Kearns then grounded out to first to tie the game 2-2. Had Bedard covered on LaPorta’s grounder, there would have been two outs and Bedard might have escaped the second inning with the lead.

In the third, Hafner’s two-out single put runners on the corners, and Santana blooped one over the infield for the RBI single.

Of Bedard’s 70 pitches – purposefully kept low while he continues to regain arm strength after a knee injury put him on the DL – 49 were for strikes. He threw 19 called strikes and 14 first-pitch strikes to 21 total batters. He also occasionally showed some power, blowing the fastball past hitters.

Boston Scores off Masterson, Can’t off Bullpen

Masterson entered the game with a 1.25 ERA against the Red Sox, but the Red Sox raised that in the first inning alone. Jacoby Ellsbury (2-3, walk, run) led off the bottom of the first with a single and moved up on a fielder’s choice by Pedroia. Gonzalez doubled an 0-2 pitch off the Green Monster, scoring Ellsbury giving Boston a 1-0 lead and extending Gonzalez’s hitting streak to 14 games. David Ortiz later singled in Gonzalez to make it 2-0.

Reddick’s fourth-inning solo shot tied the game 3-3.

The Red Sox almost erased Santana’s home run in the bottom of the sixth, when a walk and an error put men on first and second. Reddick lined out to right, however, and Jason Varitek struck out for the third time to end the scoring opportunity.

The sixth would be Boston’s last chance to get back in the game: Cleveland’s bullpen allowed just a walk over the final three innings of the game, retiring the Red Sox 1-2-3 in both the eighth and ninth.

Red Sox Risk Little With Bedard and Fields

Erik Bedard didn't cost the Red Sox much, so he doesn't have to do much to make the trade successful. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

The Red Sox didn’t make a big splash before the 2011 Trade Deadline. There was no Victor Martinez brought in, no Jason Bay. On the other hand, it’s unlikely the Red Sox traded for the next Eric Gagne, either.

The Red Sox traded for Seattle starter Erik Bedard and right-handed reliever Josh Fields. They in turn had to give up pitchers Juan Rodriguez (a Single-A Greenville pitcher about whom it’s too early to tell) and Stephen Fife (11-4, 3.66 ERA at Double-A Portland), and catcher Tim Federowicz (a .275 hitter with .397 slugging at Portland). Federowicz might have eventually made it to Fenway, but Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s development this year has solved some of Boston’s catching needs for the immediate future.

In exchange for three minor leaguers, the Red Sox get a decent but not spectacular pitcher in Bedard. Although Bedard is just 4-7, his record has as much to do with Seattle’s league-worst offense as it does Bedard’s pitching. Before injuries killed his last few seasons, Bedard was at least a B+ pitcher. He pitched from 2002 to 2007 with the Orioles, compiling a 40-34 record with a 3.83 ERA. Not bad numbers, especially in the AL East.

Against the AL East (excluding Boston), Bedard is 18-13, although that is helped out greatly by an 11-4 record and 3.41 ERA against the Rays. If Bedard can sustain that level of success, the Red Sox will most likely be satisfied with the trade. Ideally, Bedard provides a stop-gap measure through August that lets the Red Sox ease off Andrew Miller, then maybe takes Tim Wakefield‘s place once Clay Buchholz returns. Miller doesn’t have the consistency yet to be a starter (especially in the playoffs), and Wakefield suddenly has a Pedro Martinez-like pitch limit of about 85 pitches, after which he becomes almost completely useless. A healthy Buchholz and Bedard is the best possible combination of three-four (or three-five, depending on Bedard’s spot in the rotation) pitchers.

Fields was good in Double-A but has struggled in Triple-A. He’s probably not in the Red Sox’s long-term plans unless he dramatically improves. These weren’t the two biggest names out there, but the Red Sox this year brought in relatively cheap talent that shouldn’t hurt the team too badly and might pay dividends.

The Red Sox never did get a right-handed outfielder, and this might anger Red Sox fans. What fans don’t understand is that the Red Sox didn’t need a righty who can platoon in the outfield, starting every game against lefty pitchers. Boston’s starting outfield of Carl Crawford (a career .262 hitter against lefties), Jacoby Ellsbury (.261 this season) and Josh Reddick (.409 this season) can all hit lefties with at least enough success to justify their playing time.

No, what the Red Sox might have needed was a right-handed bench player – ideally one who can play in the outfield – that can pinch-hit against lefty-specialist relievers. So far, Darnell McDonald and his .173 average (.212 vs. lefties), .333 slugging (just three homers and four doubles) and poor base-running has not been that player.

The problem with a player like that is that it’s really easy to over-value him. The Red Sox wanted someone who might very well get just 40 at-bats the rest of the season (maybe even just 30), and there was no way they were going to over-pay for that production. Carlos Beltran, Hunter Pence, Cody Ross – these were all players too good for what Boston wanted, so they didn’t bother shredding the farm system to do so.

The Red Sox have the best record in the American League. They have the best offense of either league, and they play better on the road than any other team as well. This last attribute suggests that even if the Red Sox don’t win the AL East, they would still do very well in the playoffs. They didn’t need to add more bats to their lineup; all they really needed was some insurance pitching just in case.

For what the Red Sox had to give up, Bedard and Fields remain low-risk, low-reward trades. Boston didn’t need to add much to continue winning, so they simply didn’t.