Red Sox GM figures to stick with winning formula from last offseason
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com
It’s appropriate that both the general managers meetings that open Monday in Orlando and the winter meetings that commence in the same locale about a month later are within jogging distance of Fantasyland.
Thirty teams are dreaming big, although it remains to be seen whether the model adopted by the Boston Red Sox last winter — eschewing the biggest prizes on the market for lesser, complementary pieces — will be embraced by other clubs seeking to emulate the extraordinary strides made by the Sox in one dizzying worst-to-first leap.
Of more interest to Red Sox fans, of course, is whether GM Ben Cherington will remain faithful this winter to the philosophy of modest moves that worked wonders for him last year (it was a year ago Sunday that the Sox came to terms with the first piece of their puzzle, catcher David Ross, followed 11 days later by the signing of outfielder Jonny Gomes, the first moves in the rebuilding) or will succumb to the budget-be-damned impulse the Sox have followed in past years.
What makes that discussion especially relevant in the coming weeks is that some of the players so vital to the Sox’s success this season — most notably Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Napoli — are among the free agents expected to reap some of this winter’s greatest financial rewards.
By this point, it should be widely understood that Ellsbury is not coming back to Boston unless the Sox make an exception and sign him for top-of-the-market years and dollars. Agent Scott Boras will make the most of market precedents the Sox themselves helped to establish when they gave Carl Crawford a seven-year, $142 million deal three years ago. Someone will give Ellsbury that kind of money; it’s very doubtful it will be Boston. (Let him walk. He’s already proven injury prone and is obviously on the wrong side of 30. The Sox can more easily find a stop-gap to platoon with Shane Victorino if they feel Jackie Bradley Jr. needs more time.)
Napoli, however, would seem to be a candidate to fall within the kind of parameters the Sox set last winter, when they showed a willingness to overpay in terms of dollars in exchange for shorter years. The Sox struck such a deal with Napoli on the first day of the winter meetings in 2012, coming to terms on a three-year, $39 million deal, which subsequently blew up when Napoli failed his physical because of a degenerative hip condition.
Napoli’s performance this season, when the hip condition did not surface as an issue, would seem to put him in line for, at minimum, a similar deal this winter. It should also work in Boston’s favor that he appears so eager to return.
(Personally, I’d rather see the Sox sign Nap to a 2 year deal with roughly $26 million plus incentives and fulfill the original 3 year proposed deal than sign him to additional years based off a performance year already in the books.)
Napoli and Ellsbury both received qualifying offers of $14.1 million from the Red Sox, which places Boston in line to receive a first-round draft pick as compensation if they sign elsewhere. Shortstop Stephen Drew received a similar offer; all three players have until 5 o’clock Monday to accept a qualifying offer, which would make them a signed player for 2014.
None is expected to do so, as all three players figure to have other suitors. Teams interested in Ellsbury will not be stalled by the loss of a compensatory first-rounder; that also figures to be the case with Napoli, one of the few power bats on the market. Drew could prove to be a more interesting case, although he should benefit from a soft free-agent market at his position.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, also a free agent, did not get a qualifying offer, for the simple reason the Sox didn’t want to risk him accepting it, placing him at a salary level they have little interest in paying him. That should not be interpreted, however, as the Sox deciding against bringing Saltalamacchia back.
The most attractive free-agent catching option is Brian McCann, late of the Atlanta Braves, but he will come at a much higher price than Saltalamacchia would and will require more years. The Sox are looking for a bridge to take them to their catcher of the future — Blake Swihart, perhaps in some combination with Christian Vazquez — so signing McCann for four or more years, while also having to surrender a first-round draft pick, would seem to be a questionable proposition.
Saltalamacchia had 54 extra-base hits last season, including 40 doubles (a club record for catchers), and an .804 OPS. On the defensive side, he made noticeable strides, even though John Farrell opted for his better defender, Ross, in the World Series, a decision made easier by Saltalamacchia’s October slump. His return, while not assured, is eminently plausible.
(Agreed. Salty would be a better choice for a two to three year pick-up, based off the lesser money and the fact he’ll still be fairly young should the Sox decide to trade him before the expiration of the contract. Between he and Ross there is a great tandem of experience to spell the big club till the youngsters are more seasoned. Though young and on the upswing, Jarrod has difficulty hitting outside of Fenway and that should limit his suitors.)
On the trading front, Cherington can expect to field inquiries about his starting pitchers, though teams likely will be far more inquisitive about some of the team’s young arms (Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, Henry Owens) than the pieces he probably would be more open to dealing, such as Ryan Dempster or Jake Peavy. The Sox value their young arms, which isn’t to say they wouldn’t move any of them, although Barnes, Ranaudo and Owens almost certainly are not going anywhere. There would seem to be little downside, from a depth perspective, to keeping Dempster and Peavy, neither of whom is signed past 2014.
What the Sox do in the coming weeks will be dictated in good measure by what happens with their own free agents; once they have clarity there, they will know what holes must be filled. In the meantime, the inquiries they reportedly are making about the likes of Carlos Beltran and Tim Hudson and Carlos Ruiz are nothing out of the ordinary; the Sox have a history of making contact with just about everyone on the market.
Coming decisions also will be shaped by their judgments on Jackie Bradley Jr.’s readiness to take over in center field (indications are a qualified yes) and their willingness to entrust the left side of the infield to rookie Xander Bogaerts at short and Will Middlebrooks at third. Middlebrooks’ name often is bandied about as trade material, but the Sox still project him as a useful corner piece with 25-home run power, not an easily found commodity.
With so many good young players who potentially could be included in a trade package, there has been speculation that the Sox would take a run at Marlins slugging outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, but one Marlins source reiterated Sunday he believed there was “no way” Miami would move him.
The duck boats have yet to be parked following Saturday’s celebratory parade, but some pressing business is already upon Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington and his baseball operations staff.
In the wake of their third World Series triumph in 10 years, Red Sox players have expressed deep admiration for one another. As much as any team in recent memory, this was a united crew. To a man, they would love to keep it together.
Yet to a man, they understand that business often comes first, and Boston will have a different look when it reconvenes in Fort Myers to begin the process of defending its crown. Red Sox president Larry Lucchino admitted as much Friday morning.
“I can’t give you a precise answer as to how many players will come and how many will go,” Lucchino said in an interview on Boston sports radio station WEEI. “We love the core of this team. We know the core of this team will be here and be with us. We know we have some new players who were signed for a couple of years, like Jonny Gomes and David Ross. So we do know that the core of this team will remain. But there’s absolutely no chance that the 25 guys who finished in the World Series will be the same 25 guys who will start Opening Day next year.”
Seven Red Sox players were among the 147 players who officially filed for free agency Thursday: catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, first baseman Mike Napoli, outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, shortstop Stephen Drew, relief pitcher Joel Hanrahan, infielder John McDonald, and pitcher Alfredo Aceves, who was exiled to the minors last season.
Free agents can begin to sign with new teams beginning at 12:01 a.m. ET Tuesday. Until that time, they are not eligible to negotiate contract terms with a new team, although they and their representatives are allowed to talk with any team about a potential match. Teams retain exclusive negotiating rights with their free agents until that time.
But in the interim, the Sox must also decide whether they will extend a qualifying offer to their free agents, which determines whether they will receive draft-pick compensation if a free agent leaves.
Qualifying offers must be extended by 5 p.m. Monday. The value of a qualifying offer has been calculated by formula to be a one-year guarantee of $14.1 million for 2014. Any player accepting a qualifying offer is considered to be a signed player. A free agent has until 5 p.m. on Nov. 11 to accept a qualifying offer. If he declines a qualifying offer and signs with another big league team, his former team receives an amateur draft choice as compensation, while the signing team forfeits its highest available draft pick and the accompanying bonus pool money in the draft.
What do you do with the left side of the infield? Shortstop Stephen Drew is a free agent and will be coveted in a market that features very little at the position. Because of that fact, he may be inclined to turn down any qualifying offer (one year, $14.1 million) the Red Sox give him and seek a long-term deal elsewhere. If that’s the case, Xander Bogaerts slides right on in, likely leaving Will Middlebrooks to man third base.
But is that ideal for the Sox?
Middlebrooks’ up-and-down (but mostly down) 2013 campaign, coupled with a lackluster October, casts some doubt as to whether he is ready to be an everyday player in the majors. Meanwhile, Bogaerts looked like a 10-year veteran as the club’s third baseman in the World Series. Both he and the organization have said Bogaerts is a shortstop, but another year (at age 21) at the hot corner would not hinder his future at another position.
At the same age, Cal Ripken Jr. played the first half of his first full season at third base. Perhaps if the team finds a way to keep Drew, who doesn’t turn 31 until March, Bogaerts could do the same and Middlebrooks could be dealt or moved across the diamond to first base, if Mike Napoli moves on.
Will Salty return? Jarrod Saltalamacchia told ESPN prior to Game 6 that he had already wondered if he was spending his final few days as a Red Sox. David Ross, who is signed for next year, was John Farrell’s choice in the final three games of the World Series.
It seems as if we have been hearing his name forever, but Saltalamacchia is still just 28 and is coming off his best all-around offensive season (.273 average, 14 homers, .804 OPS). He fits in the clubhouse and with the pitching staff, and if the Sox see him continuing to improve defensively, a qualifying offer could be in the cards.
That could change if the organization feels that Ryan Lavarnway is ready enough to split time with Ross, or if it makes a push for someone like free agent Brian McCann. Prospect Blake Swihart could be knocking on the door in another year or so, and Christian Vazquez had a solid season at the plate and behind it at Double-A Portland, so more help is on the horizon.
What’s the long-term future of Jon Lester? Boston will exercise its option for Lester for next year, which carries with it a $13 million price tag. His value is at an all-time high after a brilliant October (4-1 with a 1.56 ERA in five starts), and discussions of a long-term deal may be forthcoming. The Sox gave Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz lengthy, pricy extensions in recent years. They also gave John Lackey a five-year, $82.5 million deal and Ryan Dempster a two-year, $26.5 million contract, then took on Jake Peavy’s $14.5 million salary for 2014. If there’s anything left over, locking up a durable, homegrown ace who is not yet 30 seems like a no-brainer.
What about David Ortiz? While similar to Lester in some ways, the Ortiz situation is a little murkier. Many observers felt as if the organization had lost its mind when it gave the slugger, at the time 36 and rehabbing from an Achilles injury, a two-year deal that will now total $30 million due to an achieved incentive this year. When that contract expires after the 2014 season, would Ortiz — who would then be approaching 39 — seek one more multiyear deal elsewhere? And do the Sox want to prevent one of the cornerstones of their franchise from leaving?
As crazy as it seemed to lock him up last offseason, it would be awkward to let the World Series MVP go too far into the final year of his deal with an uncertain future. An extension beyond 2014 could be in his future.
Bid adieu to Jacoby Ellsbury? There have been whispers for months that the two sides are far apart in negotiations. ESPN’s Buster Olney reported this week that a $30 million gap existed after Ellsbury’s phenomenal 2011 season and that the sides could not get together again after his down 2012. With Ellsbury a Scott Boras guy, the long-held assumption has been that the center fielder has been waiting to test the free-agent waters. Coming off a much better 2013 (.298 average, 52 steals) seems like a great time to do so.
Boston’s aggressiveness in this matter rests largely in its opinion of Jackie Bradley Jr. The youngster had a rough time in his first stint in the big leagues in April but looked a bit more comfortable in his Red Sox skin once he was called up again in September, even getting support from some to be included on the postseason roster.
Bradley will not disappoint in the field; he has range and a great arm. Enduring some growing pains at the plate would hurt much less than paying Ellsbury upward of $18 million when he is 36 and beginning to break down. Not saying that would necessarily happen, but it’s the risk you run with big-money long-term deals, and Bradley will come at a pittance as he approaches his prime.
Who’s on the bench? The 2013 Red Sox did not have many holes. However, there were times when it felt as if they needed one more utility guy in the infield. Brock Holt and Brandon Snyder did not impress in their brief stints, and once Jose Iglesias left, there was a relative lack of options some nights if one of the starters went down.
To illustrate the conundrum, Middlebrooks stood as Dustin Pedroia’s backup for a handful of games. Veteran John McDonald was brought in late to add an extra hand, and Bogaerts’ call-up gave the club another option, but the organization would do well to bring in an Alex Cora-type who can ably back up multiple spots. Someone with speed who can play center would help even more if Ellsbury leaves and Bradley needs a backup.
Lester-Buchholz-Lackey-Peavy-? Pencil in Lester, Buchholz, Lackey and Peavy as the top four starters. Who gets the No. 5 spot? Felix Doubront made strides in 2013 and figures to have earned it, but Dempster is on the books for $13.25 million. Also, waiting in the wings are a few young, intriguing arms who could make a push, including Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo.
Chances are Doubront gets a spot, Dempster serves as an expensive long man/spot starter, a la Tim Wakefield late in his career, or gets traded, and the youngsters are given more time to prepare for when somebody goes down.
And somebody will go down.
The Sox were actually quite fortunate to suffer only one long-term injury among starters, that being Buchholz’s three-month absence. There will be injuries, and having the depth to atone for them is as important as anything through the course of a long season.
That was Mike Napoli after the World Series triumph. Lines like that one are thrown around like empty beer cans during such celebrations, but it is clear that Napoli has been a nice fit in Boston.
Napoli’s agent told the Boston Globe that his client would not accept another one-year deal, and that the club would analyze the condition of Napoli’s hips to see if there has been any significant wear and tear since the last checkup. With a clean bill of health, perhaps something like the three-year, $39-million deal that the two sides reportedly agreed on last offseason — before the discovery of the hip condition altered things — could become a reality. Napoli agreed to a $5 million base salary for 2013 but earned the full $13 million with incentives.
The Sox will likely make a qualifying offer to Napoli and receive a draft pick if he elects to move on, but expect the man who ranked second on the team in home runs (23) and RBIs (92), and who surprised some with a quality showing at first base, to return.
The easy decisions on making qualifying offers include Ellsbury, who is expected to be one of the most highly sought free agents on the market, and Napoli, one of the few power bats available on the market. Neither is likely to accept a qualifying offer, given the certainty of receiving multi-year offers from multiple teams.
McDonald and Aceves, whose value falls far below the $14.1 million qualifying mark, will not receive qualifying offers. The Sox also will not tender a qualifying offer to Hanrahan, who said in October he had just begun throwing 60 feet and will not be ready for the start of the season after undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery in May.
That leaves two players, shortstop Drew and catcher Saltalamacchia. First, Saltalamacchia: At 28, he is the youngest catcher on the free-agent list, and unless the Sox decide to go all-in on free agent Brian McCann, a qualifying offer makes sense, which would buy some time while prospects like Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez develop, yet spare them from a long-term commitment. It also would assure them of draft-pick compensation if Salty leaves. Drew is also one of the better options in a light shortstop market, and while the Sox have his replacement in the wings in Xander Bogaerts, there would seem to be little downside to extending a qualifying offer.
Will the coaching staff remain intact? Those who toiled under Farrell received loads of credit this year, particularly Juan Nieves for his work in turning around the pitching staff, Brian Butterfield for his defensive genius and Torey Lovullo for his overall work in helping to create the most complete team in all of baseball.
Lovullo is being linked to the Chicago Cubs’ managerial vacancy. Cubs president Theo Epstein is obviously familiar with Lovullo, who has interviewed for jobs in the past. Farrell said earlier in the World Series that he expects Lovullo, and others, to get their shots.
Farrell and Butterfield worked together in Toronto, and Butterfield was brought over after Farrell got the managerial job in Boston. He has also interviewed for vacancies, but perhaps these two will establish something like the Terry Francona-Brad Mills partnership that survived many years in Boston and was rekindled this season in Cleveland.
On Nov. 11, the general managers’ meetings begin in Orlando, where talks about potential trades often percolate, with the winter meetings following a month later, also in Orlando.
Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino was not in the starting lineup for Monday night’s Game 5 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, marking the second straight game he’ll be sidelined with lower-back tightness, though manager John Farrell has since noted “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” will be should be available off the bench.
Jonny Gomes will again take his spot in the lineup playing left field, with Daniel Nava moving to Victorino’s place in right field.
The Red Sox also shuffled their lineup a bit, moving Dustin Pedroia from the third spot to second and David Ortiz from fourth to third. Game 4 hero Gomes will hit cleanup, followed by Nava.
David Ross will be behind the plate for the second straight game.
RED SOX LINEUP
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
3. David Ortiz, 1B
4. Jonny Gomes, LF
5. Daniel Nava, RF
6. Xander Bogaerts, 3B
7. Stephen Drew, SS
8. David Ross, C
9. Jon Lester, SP
• Starting pitchers: Adam Wainwright (19-9, 2.94 ERA) vs. Jon Lester (15-8, 3.75 ERA)
• Scouting report on Wainwright: Not much went right for Wainwright in Game 1 against the Red Sox. A seven-pitch walk to Jacoby Ellsbury in the first was only the start of the 32-year-old’s rough night as he allowed three runs in the opening inning, partly due to poor defensive play behind him. However, with the series tied 2-2, Wainwright has another crack at giving his team the advantage moving forward.
“It’s a pretty clean slate [from my last start],” Wainwright said Sunday in his news conference at Busch Stadium. “I honestly don’t know why my mechanics were as bad as they were [and] my delivery was off as much as it was. But I feel like I’ve put a lot of good reps in in front of the mirror and watching film and feeling my delivery again.”
“I feel like I’ve made a lot of good adjustments to be ready for this next game to throw some quality pitches.”
In his Game 1 start, Wainwright’s curveball was his best pitch. He used his curveball for 15 of his final 33 pitches, a span that saw him retire seven straight batters before allowing a David Ortiz single in the fifth inning that he was able to pitch around. Overall, Wainwright went five innings, allowing five runs (three earned) on six hits and striking out four.
“I learned that they hit mistakes,” Wainwright said of his first career start against Boston last Wednesday. “And I learned that if I make mistakes in the middle of the plate up in the zone, they’re going to hit them.”
Overall, Wainwright is 2-2 in his four postseason starts with a 2.25 ERA. The right-hander has allowed seven runs (five earned) in his past 12 innings after allowing only two runs in his first 16 innings pitched of the playoffs.
• Scouting report on Lester: Putting aside the speculation that he was in some way doctoring his pitches in Game 1, Lester pitched masterfully, shutting out the Cardinals’ potent offense for 7 2/3 innings and striking out eight batters. The start was yet another in a string of successful starts Lester has made in October, something he says he doesn’t know how to explain.
“I feel like I’ve pitched pretty [well] throughout most of my seasons, and it’s just carried over into the postseason,” Lester said Sunday. “I don’t know what it is. I like this stage. I like knowing that I’ve got to go out there and give everything I’ve got for my teammates, because tomorrow might be our last game. You don’t know; I guess that just gives you that little extra focus.”
Of Lester’s 10 career postseason starts, seven have been of the quality variety — at least six innings pitched and three runs or fewer allowed. The 29-year-old has gone 5-4 in 12 postseason appearances overall, posting a 2.22 ERA. Of his 69 postseason innings pitched, 13 1/3 have come in the World Series, where he has yet to allow a run.
“I think the one thing that we all recognize is that the power stuff wins in the postseason,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said Sunday. “He’s got it, he maintains it, and yet, in addition to his physical strengths, there’s a level of concentration that he’s capable of maintaining that gives him the ability to execute consistently over the time he’s on the mound. Those two things combined are what’s given [him] the career performance he’s had in the postseason.”
This will be the first time in his career that Lester has made five starts in a single postseason.
Three Cardinals players to watch
• Carlos Beltran, RF: Beltran was only given one shot at Lester in Game 1, striking out swinging on four pitches before being removed from the game due to a rib contusion. Beltran has three hits in 10 World Series at-bats so far, two of which have come in his two at-bats with runners in scoring position. Beltran was left with a bat in his hand at home plate in the ninth inning of Game 4 after Kolten Wong was picked off first base to end the game.
• David Freese, 3B: Since singling in the ninth inning of Game 1, Freese has been held hitless in his past eight at-bats, a streak that’s resulted in him being dropped to seventh in the order. Of the 13 runners he’s left on base the past four games, six have been left in scoring position.
• Pete Kozma, SS: In keeping with pattern, manager Mike Matheny has selected Kozma to start at short in Games 1 and 3 while going with Daniel Descalso in Games 2 and 4. The difference between the two has been a wash offensively, as Descalso is 0-for-6 while Kozma is 0-for-8 through the first four games of the series. However, Kozma was the only St. Louis Cardinals hitter to not strike out in Game 1, seeing 13 pitches in his three plate appearances.
Three Red Sox players to watch
• David Ortiz, 1B: A lot of the talk leading into the World Series was about how many games Ortiz would play at first base over Mike Napoli. But Ortiz has ended that conversation, with a gaudy .727 batting average, a result of eight hits in 11 at-bats. His eight hits have accounted for a third of the Red Sox’s total in the series (24). He also has two of Boston’s three homers and he leads the team in RBI (5) and runs (5). He has collected hits in his past four at-bats and is the only Boston starter to not strike out so far.
• Jonny Gomes, LF: With outfielder Shane Victorino’s status still unknown following his late scratch before Game 4, Gomes re-proved his worth in the lineup to Farrell by hitting what turned out to be the game-winning three-run home run for Boston in the sixth inning, ending his 0-for-9 skid to start the World Series. Gomes also worked a 10-pitch walk in the fifth and a six-pitch walk in the eighth inning of Sunday’s game, a step back on the right track for a player with whom Boston has won eight of nine postseason starts.
• Xander Bogaerts, 3B: Bogaerts started off the series going 0-for-6 with four strikeouts in Games 1 and 2 before turning it on in St. Louis to collect three hits in his past seven at-bats. The 21-year-old’s .231 average is third on the team behind Ortiz (.727) and Dustin Pedroia (.267).
Three key considerations:
• Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa has appeared in all four World Series games, the only pitcher on either team to do so. Farrell has used Tazawa to face just one batter in three of his four appearances, something the 27-year-old did in only two of his 71 appearances during the regular season.
• Sunday night’s win guaranteed that the series will shift back to Fenway Park for at least a Game 6. So far this postseason, Boston is 5-2 at home compared to 4-3 on the road.
• David Ross will be back behind the plate in Game 5, according to Farrell. Ross has caught all four of Lester’s starts this postseason, including Game 1 where he went 1-for-2 against Wainwright. It will be Ross’s second consecutive start since regular starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia made a throw that led to the obstruction call that ended Game 3.
This probably isn’t the World Series most baseball folks wanted, assuming you don’t root for the Red Sox or Cardinals. After all, both franchises have been to the World Series multiple times in the past decade and both have won twice. So maybe you wanted some new blood.
Instead you’ll get beards. Lots of them.
But you also get two great teams, with no shortage of reasons to watch. Here are 10:
1. Adam Wainwright. He was a rookie closer when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 but was injured when they won again in 2011. In a season where much of the attention for pitchers went to Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey and Mariano Rivera, Wainwright quietly went 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA while leading the majors in innings pitched. This is his chance to make his October mark in Cardinals history alongside the likes of Bob Gibson and his mentor Chris Carpenter, who won two games in the 2011 World Series. He has that big curveball — maybe the best since Bert Blyleven was spinning his own — that he’ll throw on any count but is especially deadly with two strikes, when opponents hit .118 with 130 strikeouts in 238 plate appearances.
2. David Ortiz versus Carlos Beltran. They’re not facing each other, but you sort of get the feeling they are. Few hitters have delivered in their playoff careers like these two, although Ortiz did go just 2-for-22 in the American League Championship Series. Beltran had six RBIs in each of the Cardinals’ first two series and now gets the opportunity to play in his first World Series … and perhaps make a Hall of Fame statement.
3. John Lackey’s redemption. Two years ago he was the most hated man in Boston after posting a 6.41 ERA in 28 starts and ordering lots of fried chicken between starts. Now, after beating Justin Verlander 1-0 in the ALCS, he’s going to start Game 2 of the World Series. Remember, he’s familiar with the pressures of a big game: As a rookie with the Angels in the 2002 World Series, he was the winning pitcher in Game 7.
4. Yadier Molina. One of the memories of the 2011 World Series that stuck with me was the ovations Molina received from his home fans — louder than those given Albert Pujols. Perhaps Cardinals fans anticipated Pujols’ departure, or maybe they just appreciated everything Molina does for the team, from his hitting to his defense to the confidence he instills in his pitchers. Few players ever perfect their jobs on a baseball field, but you get the idea Molina has perfected playing catcher. Appreciate and enjoy. And then see if the Red Sox — who set the all-time record for stolen-base percentage (123 for 142) — attempt to run on him.
5. Power versus RISP. Each team led its league in runs scored, just the fourth time since 1976 that’s happened (1976, Reds-Yankees; 2004, Cardinals-Red Sox; 2009, Phillies-Yankees), but did so in different ways. The Red Sox, while not as powerful as some Red Sox teams of the past, hit 178 home runs (sixth in the majors), but also pounded out 363 doubles (first) and drew 581 walks (third). The Cardinals ranked 27th in the majors in home runs and don’t steal many bases (just 45), but they put the ball in play, an attribute that allowed them to hit .330 with runners in scoring position, the highest figure in the majors since that stat has been recorded beginning in 1961. The Red Sox beat the Tigers largely because of three key home runs — the grand slams from Ortiz and Shane Victorino plus Mike Napoli’s solo shot in the 1-0 victory in Game 3 — and while the Cardinals have hit just .210 in the postseason they’ve hit .286 with RISP.
6. Michael Wacha. In the span of 16 months he’s gone from Texas A&M to … well, almost unhittable. In his past four starts, going back to his final outing of the regular season, he’s allowed an .093 batting average — 9 for 97. In his three postseason starts, he’s allowed one run for a tidy 0.43 ERA. He has a chance to become just the sixth pitcher to have four starts in one postseason where he allowed one run or less, joining Blue Moon Odom (1972), Burt Hooton (1981), John Smoltz (1996), Ryan Vogelsong (2012) and Curt Schilling (2001, the only one with five). I can’t wait to see what the rookie does.
7. Xander Bogaerts. He just turned 21 and had just 18 games of big-league experience before the playoffs began. Now he may be starting at third base, like he did the final two games of the ALCS. He’s going to be a big star down the road so this is kind of like a sneak preview. He’s had 11 plate appearances in the playoffs and drawn five walks while going 3-for-6. How can a kid have such a mature approach at the plate?
8. Cardinals relievers. Speaking of kids, the Cardinals’ top four relievers right now — Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness — are all rookies. Teams have won before with rookie closers — Bobby Jenks of the White Sox in 2005, Wainwright in 2006 — and the Cardinals had some inexperienced relievers in 2011. But four rookie relievers in key roles? (Five if you include starter Shelby Miller working out of the bullpen.) How can you not be pumped watching Rosenthal and Martinez throwing 100 mph in the eighth and ninth innings?
9. Koji Uehara’s splitter. It’s the most dominant 81 mph pitch in baseball history, a force of nature that breaks the natural laws of baseball, a pitcher who turns skilled batsmen into helpless amateurs. Including the postseason, batters are hitting .134 off Uehara. Against the splitter, they’re hitting .096. Since the All-Star break, they’re hitting .074 against the splitter, just 6-for-81 with 37 strikeouts and no walks. He’s 38 years old and basically the opposite of the gas-throwing Rosenthal and Martinez. The contrast in styles should make for some exciting late-game drama. One more thing: In what other sport could a 38-year-old guy, who while a good pitcher was never to be confused with Mariano Rivera, suddenly have a year better than any season Rivera ever had?
10. The best against the best. For the time since 1999, the teams with the best records in the majors will face off in the World Series. For the time since 2004, the teams with the best run differentials will face off. The rejuvenated, bearded Red Sox against the youthful, talented Cardinals. Players trying to create postseason legacies, others trying to add to existing ones. Big stars and future stars on the rise. It’s a World Series that has the elements for a classic duel. I think we’re going to get one.