Red Sox Ink Jarrod Saltalamacchia to One-Year, $2.5 Million Deal

How the newly re-signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia handles Jon Lester and the other top Red Sox pitchers will determine his success as the new everyday catcher. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Jason Varitek is gone. Now it’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s turn.

The Red Sox signed Saltalamacchia to a one-year, $2.5 million contract Sunday, the Boston Globe reported, avoiding arbitration and giving Saltalamacchia a $1.75 million bump over his 2011 salary.

Saltalamacchia’s Giant Offensive Step Forward

Though he may never be the biggest offensive contributor on the team, Saltalamacchia proved last year he’s a legitimate power threat from the bottom-third of the lineup. He set many personal bests in 2011, including hits (84), doubles (23), triples (three), home runs (16) and RBIs (56). Saltalamacchia’s 2011 season ranks ahead of all of Varitek’s post-2007 seasons in most offensive categories, including batting average (.235 for Saltalamacchia in 2011).

The Red Sox have plenty of hitters in the middle of the lineup, but the deeper they can maintain their power, the better. If Saltalamacchia can continue to improve offensively – especially reducing his fifth-among-catchers 119 strikeouts – the hitters in front of him will enjoy more-hittable pitches.

Defensively Sound, Saltalamacchia Must Improve Game-Management

Not only did Saltalamacchia drive in runs, he likely saved quite a few as well. Saltalmacchia threw out 37 runners in 2011, ranking fourth in the majors. Varitek has never thrown out more than 31.

Defense isn’t the problem for Saltalamacchia. But finally given the starting job, Saltalamacchia needs to take control of the pitching staff.

Red Sox pitchers allowed over a run more per game with Saltalamacchia behind the plate than with Varitek. Saltalamacchia posted a 4.63 CERA (catcher’s ERA) to Varitek’s 3.56. Varitek hasn’t posted a CERA that high since 2006.

Of course, the pitchers Varitek and Saltalamacchia worked with played a big role in the differences between their numbers last season. Varitek has long been the designated catcher for Josh Beckett and Jon Lester – Boston’s two best pitchers. Saltalamacchia, meanwhile, has had to work with high-ERA guys like John Lackey and Tim Wakefield.

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Boston Sports Review, 2011 Edition

Tim Thomas hoisting the Stanley Cup in triumph was easily the highlight of 2011 for Boston sports. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Humankind has always felt a deep need to chart the passage of time.

I’m a human.

That’s as much of a transition as you’re getting into my third annual review of the previous year in Boston sports, which in 2011 saw three teams win their division and one win it all.

Boston Bruins

• 2010-11 Final record: 46-25-11, Northeast Division Champions; defeated Vancouver Canucks in 2011 Stanley Cup, 4-3

The Bruins ended a 39-year championship drought on the back of Tim Thomas, who submitted perhaps the greatest single season in NHL goalie history. He set an NHL record for best save percentage, then won his second Vezina Trophy (top goaltender in the league), the Conn Smythe Trophy (MVP of the playoffs) and, oh yeah, the Stanley Cap.

Before they could win the Stanley Cup, the Bruins would submit three spectacularly entertaining playoff series. They beat the Canadiens in seven games in the quarterfinals, overcoming an 0-2 deficit and winning three games in single or double overtime. They next swept the Flyers, flushing the bitter taste of the previous season’s blown three-game lead against them. Finally, the Bruins played a hard-fought, evenly matched series with the Lightning that culminated in a penalty-free, 1-0 victory in Game 7 at the TD Garden.

The Bruins’ blue-collar hockey succeeding against the much flashier Canucks validated Boston’s long-suffering Bruins fans. The 2011 NHL playoffs so entertained me that I can finally count myself among them.

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Bobby Valentine Hiring Process Yet Another Misstep By Management

Because management lied to the Red Sox about hiring a disciplinarian like Bobby Valentine, the new manager will arrive with two strikes against him. (AP)

WEEI Red Sox reporter Alex Speier reported Wednesday that Bobby Valentine’s hiring as the new manager flies in the face of an administrative promise made earlier in the off-season that the team would not go after a disciplinarian. While the report did not state who made the promise or to which player, a similar report by ESPNBoston.com’s Joe McDonald suggests Speier is (as usual) right on the money.

If that’s the case, management’s decision to go with Valentine is yet another botched play from Ben Cherington and this suddenly bumbling ownership group.

Which Front-Office Staffer’s Nose is Growing?

GMs and owners shouldn’t have to consult with players on the majority of baseball operations. In many cases, what front-office guys do is either too complicated or too unrelated to be worth bothering players with.

But on the other hand, management should never straight-up lie to players, either. And that’s exactly what appears to have happened: Management told at least one player Valentine specifically would not be the next Red Sox manager, then they went ahead and hired him anyway.

They knew the Red Sox feared the arrival of a disciplinarian like Valentine after seven years of “player’s manager” Terry Francona. But instead of listening to the players and working with them to assuage their concerns, Cherington’s staff decided the best course of action was to ignore the players and sell them a line, then let Cherington unilaterally do whatever he wanted.

It was a cowardly, dishonest decision that does nothing to fix the widely held belief by fans that this new era is nothing but a pale shadow of the Francona-Theo Epstein era.

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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.

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Kinsler and Hamilton Each Drive in Three as Rangers Crush Red Sox

Adrian Beltre connects on a single, the 2,000th hit of his career, during the Rangers' seven-run sixth inning of Sunday's game at Fenway. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

If the Red Sox and Rangers face each other in the playoffs, the scorekeepers had best prepare: there will be runs, and lots of them. Sunday afternoon at Fenway was no exception.

The Rangers banged out 15 hits and 11 runs against John Lackey and the Red Sox bullpen Sunday, winning the game and the series, 11-4.

The Red Sox fell to 1.5 games behind the Yankees, who beat the Blue Jays 9-3 Sunday, in the AL East. They still lead the Rays in the wild card race by eight.

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Sabathia, Yankees Bullpen Strand 16 Red Sox Base Runners

Darnell McDonald throws his bat after striking out with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning as Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli pumps his fist during Tuesday's game at Fenway. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

All good things must come to an end, including CC Sabathia‘s winless streak against the Red Sox this season and Boston’s explosive offense. Sabathia allowed just two earned runs in six innings Tuesday night at Fenway, and the Red Sox left 16 men on base, losing to the Yankees, 5-2. Boston now leads New York by just a half-game in the AL East.

Sabathia Keeps Runs Just Out of Reach

Sabathia lived on the outside corner Tuesday night. Lefty, righty, it didn’t matter: Sabathia pitched just about every batter away. While this generated a lot of base runners – 11 in six innings – it also meant few opportunities for that one big run-scoring hit. Adrian Gonzalez struggled most with this strategy, striking out swinging against Sabathia three times on breaking balls down and away. Gonzalez finished the game 0-5, the only Red Sox starter without a hit.

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Overpaying Always Better in Baseball

Sabermetrics can help, but if you can't afford relievers who don't allow multiple grand slams, you're rarely going to win. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The Oakland A’s missed out on a three-game sweep against the Yankees Thursday because their bullpen allowed 16 earned runs in 3 2/3 innings. I followed the game during the final chunk of my drive home from the Midwest with my new car. With me was my mom, and she asked me if this blowout loss was because there just aren’t enough good pitchers to combat all the great hitters in the MLB. A decent question, but a better one is, “Why do teams like the A’s perpetually fall short against the Yankees?” The answer: money, plain and simple.

Skyrocketing free-agent contracts and negotiations have created a situation where every free agent is overvalued. It doesn’t matter how good you are– your contract will to at least some extent be overblown. The reasons for this lies in the current baseball trend of signing young talent to long-term deals before they reach free agency. The assumption underlying it: once a player reaches free agency, he will always take the highest salary available, perpetually favoring big-money teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets, who can afford to overpay for talent.

This strategy may keep young players in the system, but it indirectly creates free-agent classes with fewer players competing for more jobs. This favors the players immensely: If there are only four first basemen available in the off-season, and at least four teams need a first baseman for the following season, then each player only really competes against three other players for that big paycheck. Teams feel they need to solve their problems immediately, so they overpay for those who can immediately fit their needs. The MLB has become short-sighted, always favoring the immediate solution over the long-term.

A perfect example of this is John Lackey, whom the Red Sox signed following the 2009 season. They were still pissed over the Yankees swiping Mark Teixeira the previous off-season, a move that seemed too similar to the Alex Rodriguez fiasco five years prior. The Red Sox wanted to show they could make big, splashy signings as well as the Yankees, so they went after Lackey, who was the best free-agent starting pitcher available.

It didn’t matter that Lackey’s 2009 season wasn’t actually all that good. His 11 wins were the fewest since his sophomore season in 2003. His 3.83 ERA was the highest it had been since 2004. His 176 1/3 innings were the second-fewest since his rookie season. His strikeout-walk ratio had dropped each of the last two seasons. Who cares? The Red Sox wanted the best pitcher available, and they paid $82.5 million to get him. Excluding his recent winning ways (a product of Boston’s lethal offense, not his pitching prowess), how’s that working out?

The Red Sox have the money to sign players to contracts above and beyond what the players are worth, which is good, because every free agents gets paid this way these days. The A’s however, have always been a team with no money, a team that tries to win cheap. The central premise of “Moneyball” was that Billy Beane found a way to win more games over three years than any team ever had before by using sabermetrics to find valuable players who slipped beneath other teams’ notice. Beane used a sort of “baseball calculus” to determine how valuable each player was to his team, and whether that player was worth what the agent was asking.

Thursday’s game showed the downside of this strategy. Statistically, individual relievers contribute the least to a team’s success across the season. While it’s important to have one “bullpen ace” (not necessarily the closer), it’s far more important to have a lineup that can get on base and at least two (or even three) high-quality starters. Given a super-limited budget like the A’s, the bullpen is often crippled to divert resources to more valuable parts.

That crippling puts extra pressure on the Oakland starters. If they can’t go deep, the team suddenly has to entrust its win to its weakest part. Against a team that can afford to overpay for multiple relievers who are just above average (like the Yankees), the A’s usually fall.

Sabermetrics may have initially provided a means for low-budget teams to compete with big boys, but that time is over. In this free-market atmosphere, it’s the teams with the big budgets who usually win.

Price Silences Red Sox as Rays Take Rubber Match

David Price scattered three hits and three strikeouts over eight scoreless innings to beat the Red Sox Wednesday and win his 11th game of the season. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

One shudders to think how good the Tampa Bay Rays might be if they ever built an offense as good as their starting pitching. The Red Sox got a taste of that scenario Wednesday afternoon at Fenway.

David Price pitched eight innings of three-hit baseball, and the Rays homered twice off John Lackey to beat the Red Sox, 4-0, and win the series.

The Red Sox have now lost consecutive series for the first time since losing three straight series to the Padres, Pirates and Phillies in late June. The Red Sox also fell to a full game behind the Yankees in the AL East.

Rays Play Smallball Early, Long-ball Late

Lackey struck out left fielder Desmond Jennings to start the game, and for a moment it looked like Lackey had the stuff to win his seventh consecutive decision. An error changed all that.

Johnny Damon bloop-singled to right, but Darnell McDonald over-ran it, allowing Damon to reach second. Damon took third on a wild pitch, then scored on a slow roller to second by second baseman Ben Zobrist to make 1-0 Rays.

Price so dominated the Red Sox that the game was over right then and there, but Lackey continued on, always pitching well enough to stay in the game but rarely dominating. He pitched only 1-2-3 inning – the fifth – and allowed solo home runs to B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria in the fourth and fifth, both on middle-in pitches hit into the signs above the Green Monster.

Lackey ran into trouble again in the seventh, hitting catcher Kelly Shoppach for the second time to lead off the inning. A sacrifice moved Shoppach to second, but Lackey struck out Damon for the second out before walking Longoria on five pitches. Zobrist followed Longoria with double off the Green Monster to score Shoppach and make it 4-0 Rays.

Zobrist’s double chased Lackey, who gave up four runs (three earned) in 6 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and three walks while hitting two and striking out seven. His record fell to 11-9, but his ERA dropped to 6.02.

Alfredo Aceves got a grounder to first to end the seventh, then gave up a double before striking out the side in the eighth. Dan Wheeler pitched a perfect ninth.

Price Shuts Down Red Sox

Price made very few errors against the Red Sox Wednesday, and he always re-asserted control of the game after making one. The Red Sox as a result had very few scoring opportunities, none of which produced any runs.

Dustin Pedroia singled to left in the bottom of the first, and Adrian Gonzalez worked a full-count walk off Price to put two men on with one out. Price responded by getting the slow-footed Kevin Youkilis to ground into a double play to end the threat.

After going 1-2-3 in the second, Jacoby Ellsbury worked a two-out walk in the third and stole second on the first pitch he saw. He advanced no farther.

The Red Sox went 1-2-3 again in the fifth, but Ellsbury led off the sixth with a triple to deep center field. Again Price clamped down, striking out Pedroia on a borderline pitch over the outside corner.

Gonzalez then grounded back to the mound, and Ellsbury incorrectly broke for home. Ellsbury stayed in the run-down long enough to get Gonzalez to second, but Youkilis grounded out to first on one pitch to end the inning.

The Red Sox managed single runners in the seventh and eighth, but neither even made it to second base. Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth retired the Red Sox 1-2-3 in the ninth to end the game and get Price his 11th win of the season after pitching eight shutout innings, scattering three hits, three walks and a hit batter while striking out six. A road warrior this season, Price has now won seven games away from Tropicana Field.

The Red Sox’s vaunted offense was held completely at bay by the Rays’ excellent starting pitchers, who for the first time ever held the Red Sox to three hits in three consecutive games. Boston’s fifth through ninth hitters went a combined 0-for-16 Wednesday, with only McDonald reaching on a hit-by-pitch  in the seventh. Gonzalez went 0-for-9 with a walk in the series.