Around this time two years ago, I was just about the biggest Red Sox supporter on the planet. After falling behind 3-0 in the ALCS against the Yankees, Boston won four straight games, in what is arguably the greatest comeback in sports history. They had defeated the Yankees, the team I will eternally loathe, and done me the huge favor of sparing me from a miserable off-season.
At the time, it seemed very logical to jump on the Sox bandwagon. They had that unique ability to frustrate Yankee fans like no one else, and I could easily relate to their long history of failure. They were, in essence, the Mets of the American League.
But over the past two years, something changed — New England sports fans became absolutely intolerable. Apparently, if you win one World Series in 88 years you’re suddenly God’s gift to earth. Well, starting next Monday, the Red Sox won’t be playing any more games this year — and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Red Sox fans have become a little too arrogant. They’ve started acting like they deserve to be in the postseason every year; like if they aren’t in the playoffs, the rest of the sports world is at a loss. What these fans don’t seem to understand is that just because their team beats the Yankees once in what seems like eternity, it doesn’t mean the Red Sox earn instant equality with the Yankees. As much as it kills me to say it, the Yankees are one of a kind — the Red Sox will never reach that status. Nothing has changed. Boston fans are resigned to the same fate as the rest of us — nearly constant disappointment.
Yet, all of the Red Sox fans I have talked to seem to think that they will be back in the playoffs next year — that 2006 was just an aberration. Personally, I’d think again.
This season, David Ortiz had unquestionably the best offensive season in franchise history and yet, Boston still failed to make the playoffs, and may even finish behind Toronto for second place in the A.L. East.
This team looks old. Ortiz is still in his prime at 30, but the rest of the offense has seen better days. Manny Ramirez, who posted another solid season, is 34, and sooner or later his production will experience a decline. The captain, Jason Varitek, who will turn 35 next April, had the worst season of his career in 2006, battling injuries and hitting just .242 with 12 homers in 99 games through Monday’s action. Varitek still has two seasons left on the four-year, 40-million dollar contract he signed after 2004. Mike Lowell still has one-year left on his deal, but he is no longer a difference maker at this stage of his career.
With both Mark Loretta and Trot Nixon headed for free agency, the only young position players that will make an impact next season are Coco Crisp and Kevin Youkilis, certainly solid complementary players, but hardly the building blocks of a championship squad.
As for the pitching, it was absolutely horrendous this season, and it should improve somewhat in 2007. Nevertheless, it remains a serious question mark. Jonathan Papelbon, who emerged as one of baseball’s best closers this season, will move into the starting rotation. However, Red Sox fans remain overly optimistic that this transition will be without complication. Remember, it is far easier to be an effective closer and he will need to adjust to a 200-inning workload.
At age 22, Jon Lester showed flashes of dominance this season, however he was recently diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While the disease is very curable with chemotherapy, it will surely set back his development. Curt Schilling should return next season, but he’s nearly 40 years old and has had durability issues in the past. Tim Wakefield is already 40, and while he could seemingly pitch forever, he went 7-11 this season, making only 22 starts due to injury.
The wildcard in all this is Josh Beckett, who was acquired last off-season. Many expected Beckett to become the staff ace, however, despite making 30 starts for the first time in his career, he has been incredibly ineffective in his transition to the American League. While he still has excellent stuff, the command of his pitches seems to wane at times, making him inconsistent and unreliable.
It’s amazing how a team that won the World Series just two years ago has become so average. The truth lies in the decisions of the front office over the past two seasons. Instead of building from inside the organization with its deep farm system, the Red Sox traded many of its blue chip players for supposedly immediate rewards. Anibal Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez were shipped to the Marlins for Beckett and Andy Marte was sent to the Indians for Crisp. The three players that were moved all appear to be on the road to stardom, while Beckett and Crisp have been disappointments in their first season in Boston.
Even a team like the Red Sox, with almost unlimited financial resources, can’t turnover this roster in just one off-season. In fact, with many of its players locked up in 2007, the Red Sox have very few positions to fill. With a weak free agent class and very little talent in the upper levels of its farm system, the Red Sox may experience similar disappointment in 2007. It serves Red Sox Nation right — they were getting a little too comfortable with success.
Bryan Pepper is a Sun Senior Writer. Raising the Apple will appear every other Wednesday this semester.