Take a walk past Fenway Park these days and you can still smell the dried champagne hovering over the old ballpark.
OK, so I totally made that up, though the guessing here is that the carpet inside the home clubhouse has a stench that’ll still be in evidence by Opening Day 2014.
(Idea: Cut the rug up into little postcard-sized pieces and sell ‘em to grateful, celebratory Red Sox fans, with all proceeds going to the Jimmy Fund. Get me Larry Lucchino on the phone. Now.)
But you get the idea: Though it’s been less than three weeks since the bearded, lovable Red Sox rolled past the St. Louis Cardinals to secure their third World Series title in 10 seasons, nobody wants to turn out the lights and end the party. Yet there’s one way to move past the 2013 World Series without moving past the Red Sox: All you need to do is talk about next season.
And we are all agreed that for the first time in two or three offseasons there is genuine optimism for opening day? It wasn’t like that last year, with the Sox coming off that disaster of a 2012 season, and there were doubts two offseasons ago, what with the infamous September collapse, followed by the firing of Terry Francona, followed by all those stories about beer, chicken and pain-killers.
This is different. The defending World Series champs already look like the team to beat in 2014. Though we still don’t know what’s going to happen with Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli and (most importantly) Jacoby Ellsbury, there appears to be a Plan B, a Plan C and a Plan D.
Lose Drew? Slide the kid, Xander Bogaerts, into shortstop. Lose Ellsbury? Sign Carlos Beltran to play right for a couple of years and shift Shane Victorino to center. Lose Napoli? Trade a starting pitcher (you can’t have too much starting pitching, but the Sox are stacked) to the Angels for first baseman Mike Trumbo.
The best part of all this is that the Red Sox are set up in such a way that, if general manager Ben Cherington sticks with the game plan that worked so well last offseason, Fenway might be buzzing with postseason baseball for the next several seasons and beyond.
Former GM Theo Epstein blundered into a disastrous choice of words a few years back when he made a comment about a “bridge year,” the idea being that the Sox may have to get bad for a season or two before they get good again. But that was back when the Sox were still in the business of investing millions of dollars in long-term deals for Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. And it no longer matters whether Epstein truly wanted to go in that direction or whether he did so because the owners were obsessed with star players who would sell tickets.
These days, the Red Sox are more interested in players who fit into the lineup than players whose names fit onto the marquee out on Yawkey Way. So here’s what happened: Cherington hired players whose individual talents were exactly what the Red Sox needed. Instead of signing Crawford and then trying to wedge an uncomfortable Ellsbury into left field, the Sox brought in a Napoli and a Drew here, and a Victorino and a Jonny Gomes there, because they were exactly what were needed. Right now.
And it was done without emptying out the farm system. Yes, the Red Sox sacrificed rookie shortstop Jose Iglesias because the return (satisfied duck boat owner Jake Peavy) provided pitching depth, which, in July, with Clay Buchholz still on the DL and the minor league phenoms not yet ready to be big league phenoms, was the way to go. (Though it would have been awesome had Iglesias stayed around and then purchased a duck boat and sent it home to Cuba.)
If Cherington sticks with what has worked, and if the farm system keeps producing the next Jon Lester, the next Dustin Pedroia, the next Ellsbury, the next Bogaerts, it’ll be a long time before we see an October around here that is without baseball.
So no more bridge years. Don’t even bring in Bridgestone Tires as a corporate sponsor. Don’t send the Winter Caravan to Bridgton, Maine. No first-pitch invites to Jeff or Beau Bridges.
Just win. This year, every year. Feed the Monster, Ben Cherington. But feed it with nutritious, healthy, economical foods (a Drew here, a Gomes there), not fatty, overpriced free agents.
Sox fans aren’t asking for too much, Ben Cherington. They just want to win every year.
Distributed by MCT Information Services