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Standing pat with the Red Sox

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... 2014 was a lousy year to be a Red Sox fan. They went from a record of 97-65 and a World Series championship in 2013 to a 71-91 record and into the cellar of the American League East the next year. Nobody had much fun.

Dick
Flavin

The Red Sox, in poker parlance, are standing pat this year. Who can blame them? They're going with the same hand they were dealt last year, the one that raked in all the chips.

They have not been, and will not be, in the market for any blue chip free agents. I'll bet it seems like forever since Dave Dombrowski has heard the words, "Mr. Boras is on line one." Mr. Boras is not calling because he has nothing to sell that Mr. Dombrowski either wants or needs. They both know that the Red Sox had the best team in baseball last year and that they'll open the 2019 season as favorites to win it all again. Oh sure, there are a few spots in the bullpen to be filled. Joe Kelly, he with the unlimited potential and just occasional fulfillment of it, has gone with the Angels. Craig Kimbrel, also a free agent, may, as of this writing, end up back with the Red Sox. Then again, maybe not. Other than that, the phone has not been ringing off the hook in the Baseball Ops Department. The Red Sox are sticking with a pat hand.

Or, as they say in Mixed-Metaphor-land, "Ya gotta dance with them what brung ya."

And yet, things change. They always do, you know?

The last time the Red Sox won it all, they decided to go into the next season with essentially the same team -- and it didn't exactly work out. There were some changes that had to be made; for one thing, they lost their center fielder to free agency. Jacoby Ellsbury signed a seven-year, $153 million pact with the Yankees. The Sox liked him but not that much. Ellsbury hit just .271 in his first year with New York, a disappointment to many; but it's the highest he has ever hit for them. Always injury-prone, he missed the entire year in 2018 with a bad hip. And the Yankees will be paying him north of $20 million a year through the 2020. There are no sure things in life, but this is as sure as it ever gets; the Yankees will not be picking up Jacoby's option for 2021. More to the point, though, the Red Sox chosen replacement in center field proved not yet ready for prime-time. Jackie Bradley, Jr. was, and is, a wonder defensively, but in 2014 he was not ready to face big league pitching. He ended up below the Mendoza line for the season with an average of .198; he hit only one home run and had just 30 runs batted in. In retrospect, he would have benefited greatly from a full year at Pawtucket.

Catching was another position in which the Sox had to make a change after the '13 season. Jarrod Saltalamacchia declared for free agency and Boston did not even bother to make a qualifying offer. They signed 37 year-old A.J. Pierzynski to replace him. Not a brilliant move; the Sox released Pierzynski in July. At least he did better than Saltalamacchia did with his new team, the Marlins. They had signed him to a three-year deal but released him barely a month into the season.

Other than those changes, the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox went into the 2014 season with essentially the same team that had won it all in 2013. And they stunk. Then, things got worse. Jon Lester, an elite pitcher and a fan favorite who was coming up on free agency, was tendered what he considered to be an insultingly low offer by the team. It poisoned the atmosphere and at the trading deadline he was shipped off to Oakland along with the team's spiritual leader, Jonny Gomes. As right as the Red Sox were in their assessments of Ellsbury and Saltalamacchia, they were dead wrong in estimating Lester's value. And that's without even taking into account the public relations disaster the team brought on itself. Lester had come up to the Red Sox as a baby; he had won the clinching game of the 2007 World Series; he had gone through and won a serious battle with cancer; he had been a huge factor in the 2013 championship season. He was one of us. And then he got cast aside. When he reached free agency that fall, the Red Sox, realizing their blunder, tried to get back in the hunt for him, but it was too late. He signed with the Cubs as one of the highest paid pitchers in baseball, and he has proven to be worth every penny of what they are paying him.

The year of 2014 was a lousy year to be a Red Sox fan. They went from a record of 97-65 and a World Series championship in 2013 to a 71-91 record and into the cellar of the American League East the next year. Nobody had much fun.

So there are dangers in standing pat. But there is one difference between the 2013 Red Sox and the team that won it all last year. Last year's team was judged by acclamation to be the best team in baseball. Not so with the 2013 edition. They were the little engine that could. That's what made them so endearing. They kept coming up big just at the right moment. In the post season it's not necessarily the best team that wins, it's the team that's hot. The Detroit Tigers in '13 had the best team. Their pitching featured Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibel Sanchez, and a young right-hander named Rick Porcello. Miguel Cabrera was the best hitter in baseball, and Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder were not far behind. They had Torii Hunter in the outfield. But the Red Sox had the hot hand. End of story.

In 2018, the Red Sox had the best team and the hot hand. There was no stopping them.

Let the pretenders to the throne take their best shot; I'm fine with standing pat with the cards we've got and I'm fine with "dancing with them what brung ya." Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 13th. It can't come soon enough.

Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.

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