The Red Sox are at a crossroads and they know it, though maybe even that is being too kind, too simplistic. Baseball itself has hit a wall. The Red Sox are in a rut. And so what is at stake for the Red Sox this offseason is, quite simply, their relevance.
And rest assured that the Red Sox know it.
Here’s a question for you: Under the ownership of John Henry, has there ever been a time where the Red Sox have been more irrelevant than they generally have been in the last three months? Without hesitation, the answer is no.
Within a year of their improbable 2013 World Series, the Red Sox plummeted to last place (for the second time in three years) and traded away the leader of their pitching staff, a drafted-and-developed left-hander who beat cancer and was the very first draft pick of this administration. Jon Lester was their first son. Most Red Sox fans feel he deserved better, and they believe they deserve better, too.
And so now, unlike the fall following their last-place finish in 2012, the Red Sox are taking a decidedly different approach. Instead of pursuing people like Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino – all of whom were signed to three-year contracts worth roughly the same value – they’re dabbling with big-money players like Lester and Pablo Sandoval. That is a very different approach. On the field, the Sox are in exactly the same position they were two years ago – last place – yet they now seem far more willing to mortgage away part of their longer-term future instead of pursuing replacements like Chase Headley and, say, Justin Masterson.
Why? Because they’re worried about their brand and their business, about the place in the market both locally and nationally.
And they should be.
Whether baseball is dying a slow death is certainly open to debate, but there are certain things we can state without much doubt. Unlike, say, the NFL or even the NBA, baseball needs big names and big powers in the big markets. The Kansas City Royals were a nice story in 2014, but they are nowhere near sexy enough to appeal to most of America. We need the Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants. Here, you can love the New York Yankees or hate them, but the game just isn’t the same when they are plodding along in mediocrity.
What the Yankees do for baseball is akin to what Tiger Woods does for golf.
Beyond that, the game is falling behind. Football is far more entertaining and demands far less of our time. The NHL moves far faster, and even then is tinkering with 3-on-3 play in overtime to further intensify the product. This past preseason, the NBA experimented with 11-minute quarters, for goodness sake, all because the world has become a faster, busier place in which everything has gone mobile.
Meanwhile, baseball is drifting along at a nightly pace of more than three hours with too much time in between pitches, not enough action when the ball actually is thrown and no seeming sense of urgency to address the issues.
Of course, none of that is the fault of Henry and his partners any more than it is the fault of the other major league owners and operators. But because Boston remains one of the more important baseball markets in the country, the success of the Red Sox can have a ripple effect throughout the game.
What we are interested in here, of course, is a competitive, entertaining and championship-caliber team. In 2014, the Red Sox were none of the above. As such, Henry and his partners may face a challenge like no other during their time in Boston, if for no other reason than that the entire landscape has changed. When Henry and Co. first bought the club, the Red Sox had not won a title since 1918. Now they have won three in 10 years, including one (2013) that not a single person was banking on. (This includes Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino.) The beast has been fed, so to speak, and there is no way to replicate such a quest for the Holy Grail.
Well, maybe there is. But do any of us really want to wait 85 more years?
Earlier this offseason, when asked about the bipolar existence of the Red Sox over the last few years, general manager Ben Cherington openly admitted that the Sox would like to break such a “cycle.” Indeed, we can say now that the second last-place finish did more harm than the 2013 championship did good. We all look at the 2013 title as a fluke now, and it’s not a stretch to say that confidence in current Red Sox and ownership is at an all-time low.
Think about it: in 2011, the Red Sox suffered a historic collapse, then fired their manager and smeared him on his way out the door. In 2012, they won just 69 games during the complete clown show that was the Bobby Valentine Experience, then overhauled their philosophy with a more stable “philosophy” built around new manager John Farrell and players like Napoli, Victorino and others. And while that philosophy worked wonders in the short, we are now right back to where we were at the end of the Valentine calamity, albeit without the nonsense.
In some ways, in fact, Valentine’s buffoonery might actually have been better.
The Red Sox stunk, but they were far more entertaining.
Could the return of Lester change that? Could the acquisition of Sandoval? Maybe yes, maybe no. Once again, the problems with baseball now go well beyond this market. But no matter what the Red Sox ultimately do this winter, be it bigger (Sandoval) or smaller (Headley), we should all agree on one thing.
If they are a boring and disappointing team again next season, they are in big, big trouble.