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A rapid Red Sox recovery won't be easy

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  October 15, 2012 03:02 PM

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It's kind of amazing how a prolonged stretch of staggering, unforeseen misery -- last September straight on through this one, really -- alters a Red Sox fan's perspective. In 2010, the Red Sox won 89 games, would have won the second wild card by a game over the Chicago White Sox had Bud Selig's novelty existed then, and gave us such daily joys as watching Adrian Beltre swing for the fences from one knee, play a spectacular third base, and damn near kill Victor Martinez every time he was within striking distance of a head-rub.

That wasn't a championship team -- the title that year went to an affable dude named Cody Ross and the Giants -- but in retrospect and by current standards, it was a really fun team, and one that may have been able to do some damage in October had Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Kevin Youkilis not been limited to a combined 195 games.

Yet as that season wound to its conclusion, there was one often misconstrued and misinterpreted phrase with which it was often associated, usually by someone caterwauling on the radio:

Bridge year.

While then-general manager Theo Epstein said it in reference to the gap before the arrival of the next group of core prospects, it was twisted into almost a concession or confession that that particular team wasn't constructed with the intent of winning a championship. It became a punchline. That wasn't fair or right, though in retrospect the bridge year didn't exactly end up being what Epstein intended, either, with two of those prospects -- Casey Kelly and Anthony Rizzo -- getting dealt for the established Adrian Gonzalez, lottery tickets cashed in for a perceived sure thing.

I bring all of this up not only because I'll take any excuse I can to write about Beltre, even briefly, but because a true bridge year, and perhaps another beyond 2013, is ahead for the Red Sox. For those who don't know what the term really means, you're about to find out.

Ben Cherington, provided he is allowed to do his job with minimum interference from Branch Rickey Lucchino, has an extraordinarily complex and busy offseason ahead, and the importance of what's to come between now and the February day when pitchers and catchers report to Ft. Myers cannot be overstated.

He must find a manager, and upgrading there is an absolute certainty provided he doesn't accidentally hire a guy who hunts hobos for sport or something. He needs to fill out a roster that has far less star power than we are used to around here, and he needs to do it in an offseason in which the two most talented free agents -- Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke -- have red flags that strongly suggest this may not be the best destination for them. He needs to make a difficult decision on David Ortiz, try to entice Cody Ross to stay without overpaying him, and hit the jackpot in mid-level free agency just has the Sox did nearly a decade ago with Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Mike Timlin, Todd Walker and more.

And he must make sure that bridge is stable when the next generation of Red Sox core players -- starting with Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., two extraordinarily likable but still developing young players -- arrive on Yawkey Way, perhaps late next season and then for good in 2014.

beaneronwash1016.JPGTo paraphrase the Ron Washington character in "Moneyball," it's going to be incredibly hard. There can be no mulligans for Cherington this offseason, but it's at least encouraging that the process -- I believe he would call it "multifactorial'' -- is off to a good start. Bobby Valentine, who was the worst managerial match for a particular roster and situation that I can recall save for Joe Kerrigan '01 -- has ridden his Huffy off into the sunset, and the early stages of the search for their third manager in three years suggest this hire could be as good as the last one was bad.

John Farrell's excellent track record in Boston and Cleveland, not to mention his familiarity with the Red Sox' on-field and front-office personnel, makes him a very appealing choice if the compensation is right. (I say give 'em Chris Carpenter and call it a Farrell-for-Theo Epstein swap.) Yes, he's had hiccups in Toronto, but he's bright enough to learn from those mistakes, just as a certain Red Sox manager did during his four-year apprenticeship in Philadelphia in which he never won more than 77 games. Farrell left only because it looked like Terry Francona would be here as long as he wished. He was the presumed successor. Here's hoping he's now the successor, one horrible year removed.

If compensation can't be agreed upon with Toronto, it appears the Red Sox have other appealing options. Brad Ausmus has been touted as a future manager pretty much since he broke in with the Yankees, and Francona's friend and former Expos teammate Tim Wallach also strikes you as someone who will do well with a team of his own someday. The notion that there are no game-changers in this batch of candidates is incorrect; we just don't know who the next great manager is yet. Who would have known that Joe Maddon would be all that he is when he was the runner-up to Francona here after the 2003 season?


As important as it is to find the right manager -- hell, just a competent manager -- this time around, roster-building is where the general manager will and should be judged. It's imperative this offseason that Cherington has both luck and a high batting average on trades, because he had neither in his first season as general manager.

I'm not ready to announce a verdict on the Josh Reddick/Andrew Bailey deal with Oakland -- Reddick hit .215 in the second half, and the first three years of Bailey's career were very similar to Jonathan Papelbon's -- but the Jed Lowrie/Mark Melancon swap with Houston is a flop, and that's with the knowledge that Lowrie is made of fine porcelain. Ross was a tremendous signing, and Cherington must replicate it many times over this offseason, whether he's targeting Mike Napoli, B.J. Upton, rising-stock Anibal Sanchez, disgraced Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, Jake Peavy, or even a couple of replacement-level, Quadruple A, Brian Daubach-types whom the scouting department recognizes as potential keepers if given a chance.

headleychase1015.JPGThis is a big-market rebuild that the Red Sox are undergoing, and they have the resources to make significant deals if Cherington can find the right ones. The Dodgers trade left the Red Sox with appealing depth in the farm system, and that coupled with their ability to take on salary makes it a real possibility that megadeal could occur, whether it's for Arizona's Justin Upton, the Padres' Chase Headley (c'mon, don't be gun-shy about those San Diego sluggers), or yes, even something for Seattle ace Felix Hernandez. The Mariners have said repeatedly he's unavailable, but with 1,600 innings on his arm at a young age, two years and $39.5 million left on his deal, and not a whole lot surrounding him on that roster, maybe he shouldn't be. They'd be foolish not to look around and see whether someone is willing to pay the price for a true ace. The Sox should not part with both Bogaerts and Bradley for him, but if Will Middlebrooks is the centerpiece, it would at least be worth discussing, wouldn't it?

Perhaps more than anything else, the Red Sox need their proven star-quality players to return to their pre-2012 form. Jacoby Ellsbury was the best offensive player in the American League two years ago and finished second in the MVP voting then, seven spots ahead of teammate Dustin Pedroia. While Ellsbury will surely be shopped this offseason, I'd prefer retaining him with the hopes that he has a huge contract year rather than trading a dollar for three quarters. He did have a legitimate injury this season, and Pedroia took his lumps on the field and off as well. They need to be among the league's elite again, as does Jon Lester, who went from having the highest winning percentage among active pitchers to winning six fewer games than Barry Zito. And while Clay Buchholz had his moments of dominance, the health and consistency of his great 2010 season eluded him.

Hey, last season, pretty much everything eluded the Red Sox -- luck, health, timely hitting, quality starting pitching, and on and on. They're due for a few breaks next season, and should Cherington hit a few home runs himself this offseason, perhaps the bridge will lead them to contention before we expect it, just as it did for the Orioles and A's this year. I'm not saying I'm expecting it. I'm just looking forward to the day, whenever it arrives, when the bridge's end is on the horizon and the regular season is finally more fun and interesting again than the offseason.


About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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