Ever since the Red Sox won the World Series — and really, for weeks and months before that — sportswriters have praised the way the team rebuilt itself last winter. The conversation then moves to how other teams can replicate this model for their own turnaround successes.
The Yankees in particular could use an off-season like the Red Sox had last year. With CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, plus perhaps Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano, eating up huge chunks of payroll, a bargain or two is just what the Yankees need this winter. But don’t expect them to approach their issues the same way the Red Sox did last winter.
Joel Sherman addressed this issue yesterday in the New York Post, and while he’s on the right track, he does miss a number of reasons why the Red Sox were able to turn around in a single off-season. Rather than rehash his arguments, I’d rather tackle the issue from the start.
The Red Sox were not a true-talent 69-win team in 2012. They had a number of talented players who either underperformed or were hurt. Perhaps having Bobby Valentine at the helm did cause further underperformance due to chemistry issues. Subtract the players that went to the Dodgers in August, and it’s easier to see why they finished so poorly.
When they started to reload in the off-season, they still had a quality core of players, especially on offense. In Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz they had the leadoff plus three and four hitters in the lineup. They retained a decent offensive option behind the plate in Jarrod Saltalamacchia, giving them starters at three of four up-the-middle positions. Combined with a superstar slugger, the Sox needed only to fill in the gaps with free agency. There were many, but they were at easier positions to fill.
In filling those positions, the Red Sox took a number of gambles. Mike Napoli was coming off a good year, but one not as impressive as his breakout 2011 season. Hip problems factored into that, which increased the risk for the Sox. Stephen Drew was coming off a major ankle injury. Shane Victorino dropped off a bit in 2012, and really started struggling from the left-handed batter’s box. The Sox bet on recovery from each, and won. There’s certainly a level of luck involved there.
Luck also came in the form of Mike Carp, who exceeded expectations by a mile in his nearly 250 PA, producing a 140 OPS+. (Skill came into play here as well, as the Sox limited him to just 28 PA against LHP.) Daniel Nava came through in an even bigger way, producing a 128 OPS+ in 536 PA. Add in quality platoon production from Jonny Gomes, and you have the makings of a quality team on offense. In fact, this highlights one major point of the 2013 Boston Red Sox:
They were bad at only one position.
At third base they had Will Middlebrooks, who did get sent to the minors mid-season for poor performance. His replacements weren’t much better. But at every other position the Sox had a player with an OPS+ of 110 or better. Even their bench guys performed well: only three players, including Middlebrooks, got more than 100 PA with an OPS+ under 100. The Red Sox carried very few bad players on their roster throughout the 2013 season.
The 2013 Yankees, as we all know painfully well, employed many bad players. Injuries did play a role in this, so it’s not completely the fault of shoddy roster construction (though that is a prominent culprit). But like the Red Sox, the Yankees do have a few core players that will play a significant role in the 2014 team.
The Yankees don’t quite have a core, but they do have a number of quality players who could be back for 2014. Mark Teixeira is, hopefully, free of injury and ready to return to something between his 2009 and 2010 levels of production. Robinson Cano can be among the best in baseball. Curtis Granderson provides power, if nothing else. Maybe Derek Jeter has something left in the tank, especially after a winter in which he can work out his legs. They might be weak at basically every other position, but the Yanks do have a few players who should produce next year.
Unfortunately, the free agent class looks particularly weak, especially where the Yankees need help. They need someone to man third base, even if Alex Rodriguez faces only a 50-game suspension; if he can’t stay healthy through 44 games, how is he going to play even 90 next year? They need a backstop who can hit even a little. And they need some pop from right field. If they can address one of these through trade and one through free agency, perhaps they have a shot to turn things around.
(They also need a backup plan at SS, but we all know that plan will be Eduardo Nunez for better or for worse.)
On the pitching side of the ball, the Sox saw similar results. While their staff lacked a real standout starter (Clay Buchholz was brilliant when healthy but barely cleared the 100-inning mark), no who got more than 10 starts was particularly bad, either. Put together, this no-horrible-starters scheme led to the fourth-best starters ERA in the AL.
The Sox bullpen was highly praised, and down the stretch it was unhittable. But during the course of the season it ranked just 10th in ERA, and actually behind the Yankees. There’s not much sense in comparing here, since bullpens form and grow largely in reaction to conditions. Injuries happen, guys hit walls, and other guys miraculously perform as they never have before. The Yankees seem to have a sound bullpen construction strategy, which is all you can ask for.
Can the Yankees pull off a 2013 Red Sox coup this off-season? It’s possible, but it’s not at all probable. They have their own set of conditions, their own existing players, and a completely different market, both trade and free agency, in which to play. No, the Yankees shouldn’t seek to replicate what the Red Sox did. But they can achieve similar results in their own ways.