The Island of Misfit Teams: The Elimination of the Boston Red Sox

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It’s September, and that means the playoff races are heating up in Major League Baseball. However, not everyone makes it to the promised land. Tom Wright tells us what went right and what went wrong in the elimination of the Boston Red Sox.

In 2003, following the much-celebrated (and overdue) dismissal of Grady Little, the Red Sox ran one of the most impressive managerial searches in recent years. The eventual first choice, Terry Francona, would go on to win two World Series titles and preside over one of the greatest periods of success in Red Sox history. The runner-up was Joe Maddon, a manager who has gone on to be considered one of the best in the game. Even longshot interviewees like DeMarlo Hale and Glenn Hoffman were strong candidates who will hopefully end up with managerial jobs at some point in their careers.                          

The next two searches haven’t gone quite as well. In 2011, the Sox search for a Francona replacement yielded eventual manager Bobby Valentine, a retread who hadn’t been in the big leagues in 10 years and had managed to get fired by teams on two continents because of his outsized ego. Runner-up was Gene Lamont, who would have been a great hire for the 1991 Red Sox but may have been an ill-advised choice for the 2011 incarnation. Then-GM Ben Cherington’s first choice was Dale Sveum, who may have been a good manager and may still be (his Cubs tenure was ended by events out of his control), but Cherington was overruled by the Red Sox upper management, who clearly wanted a disciplinarian after Tito lost the clubhouse in 2011. Frankly, the Red Sox could not have chosen any worse, as Valentine delivered a season that was not only the worst since the 1960’s but also the one that ended the Fenway sellout streak, killed NESN’s ratings, and likely moved the Red Sox out of the number one spot in New England.

After Bobby V’s inevitable ouster, the next search appears to have gone only somewhat better. John Farrell, a former pitching coach for the Red Sox under Tito, was obviously highly regarded throughout the organization. However, what might have worried some people was the fact that he was not well-regarded in the Blue Jays organization, his erstwhile employer. It’s worth noting that during Farrell’s Toronto tenure, his teams never had a winning record, appeared to get worse every season, and eventually had a fractious clubhouse that would later cause former players to make publicly derisive comments about Farrell’s leadership. However, the Red Sox had found their man and they were determined to sign him at any cost.

Farrell certainly started off well, winning a World Series and helping a grieving city work through the pain of an unspeakable tragedy. Now, let’s be clear — if that’s his only major accomplishment as Boston’s manager, he deserves all manner of accolades, statues, and whatever laurels that Bostonians choose to give.

Unfortunately, Farrell managed two more seasons, and those didn’t work out quite like the first. Farrell was clearly a great leader of men in times of great adversity, but he didn’t do so well in times where the adversity was caused by the team itself. He looked overmatched last year when a clearly talented team capable of running off large winning streaks (like the seven-game win streak early in the season) also proved itself capable of running off long losing streaks (like the ten-gamer immediately before the aforementioned seven-game winning streak). For a bad team with a sometimes vitriolic press corps, there was a surprising lack of bad blood and acrimony last year, which may have been due to Farrell’s handling of the team (or possibly the World Series hangover), but the team itself seemed to never reach anything close to what they could have accomplished.

This year the hangover wore off and the team just looked bad. Many people questioned Cherington’s decision to go without a #1 starter (although the Royals and Orioles had success with a similar setup last year — James Shields was at best a #2), but no one predicted that all of the starters would turn into #5’s. Jackie Bradley Jr. tore through the minor leagues and spring training of 2014, then came to the bigs and promptly forgot how to hit; he spent the better part of the season struggling to regain his form. Mike Napoli needed a hitting intervention by Dustin Pedroia to help him remember how to hold his hands in the batter’s box because the coaching staff was unable to help, and even that merely granted a temporary reprieve. Wade Miley argued openly with Farrell in the dugout; Ortiz slumped through the first half of the year; the bullpen couldn’t do anything right. All in all, the Sox looked absolutely lost.

The season went from disappointing to downright tragic in mid-August when Farrell was discovered to have lymphoma. One can only imagine what his friends and family are going through, and much as we like to make fun of people in this column, we can only hope that good things happen to a good person like Farrell.

Anyway, since Torey Lovullo took over the reins, the Red Sox fortunes have changed dramatically for the better. Had they played with this type of fire earlier in the season, the Sox would be in the hunt in the rather pathetic race for the second AL Wild Card. As it is, the Sox have still made a case that the talent is there; Bradley found his stroke, Ortiz turned into a monster, the rotation started pitching like they’re supposed to, and the young players on the Sox are looking like the players that Sox fans all hoped they would become. In the last month, the Sox have been the bad team that no one wants to play, which, one hopes, is a sign of good things for the team in the future.

The late season surge makes one wonder what Ben Cherington’s legacy will be. It’s fair to question why Cherington signed two high-priced third basemen this season unless he was planning to install an infield at Fenway that had another third base on it or why he paid a premium to sign guys like Mike Napoli (despite injury risks) after the World Series win, or why relievers (like Mark “The Shark” Melancon) did so much better outside of Boston than in it. At the time of Ben’s ouster, it seemed a bit disconcerting that the greatest move of the Cheringon Era involved trading away an All-Star first baseman and an All-Star right fielder, especially since the trades that were supposed to bring in talent hadn’t gone so well. Now, though, the Red Sox look like the team that Cherington likely imagined when he put the roster together, and that team is a pretty darn good one. In a couple of years, we may look at Ben as the anti-Dan Duquette: the guy who could spot and develop fantastic young talent but probably shouldn’t have been allowed an open checkbook.

A new management team has taken over with Dave Dombrowski at the helm. Dombrowski has an interesting record with the Tigers; he certainly did a great job building the Tigers from a joke in 2003 to contenders in 2006, and he did another good job in getting the Tigers back into the playoffs from 2011-2014, but this year’s team was an absolute disaster. Regardless, there’s little doubt that Dombrowski is a different person from Theo or Theo’s successor, and it seems likely that the Red Sox will be headed in a new direction for the first time since Grady Little was ousted almost twelve years ago…

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Next: Chicago White Sox

*Click here for the entire Island of Misfit Teams collection.

Tom Wright has also written about the James Shield trade and Bud Selig.

Follow us on Twitter @SoSHBaseball.

Check out Brandon Magee’s Salem Red Sox pitching reviewIan York’s look at Henry Owens’ changeup and our This Week In Baseball Writing.

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