In 2012, the Boston Red Sox had a miserable season, losing 93 games and essentially quitting on manager Bobby Valentine, so much quit that Boston management fired him one year into a two-year deal that had options for 2014 and 2015.
Two days ago, the Red Sox, after a 97-win regular season under new manager John Farrell, won the World Series. The Cubs lost 96 games in 2013. Could they... nah, I said, I'm not even going to go there.
And then I came across this article by Dan Shaughnessy in the Boston Globe. The date on the article is February 24, 2013 -- just before the Red Sox embarked on this year's spring-training schedule.
NOTE: Before you start in on me regarding quoting the author of that article, yes, I am well aware of who Dan Shaughnessy is and what his reputation is. Nevertheless, his impressions of the Red Sox in this article were widely shared at the time the article was written. Read on.
The 2013 Red Sox have reinvented themselves. Surly, entitled ballplayers have been replaced by stand-up guys. Churl has yielded to character. Larry Lucchino actually said the $170 million Red Sox are a team of "scrappy underdogs." Swell, just swell. Hope springs eternal and all that. But here’s the reality, people: The 2013 Red Sox might be really bad. Worse, they might be really boring. Anybody talking about baseball in your neighborhood these days?
That's pretty much how most writers felt about the Red Sox this past spring. I picked them to finish last in the American League East. But don't just ask me -- look at this espn.com list of "expert" predictions for 2013. Out of 43 "experts" consulted, just four of them had Boston even sniffing the playoffs, and all four had the Red Sox as a wild card; not one forecast them winning the World Series.
If, in fact, things go perfectly, the Red Sox actually could contend for a playoff spot. This is 2013, and five out of 15 make it in each league and it’s almost impossible to play yourself out of contention before August. The moribund Houston Astros have joined the American League. In this spirit, an optimist can make a case for the Red Sox. I am going the other way this morning. Where is there any evidence that the Red Sox have improved their starting pitching? It’s the starters who have killed the last two campaigns (starting with September of 2011 and running through all of last season). [Jon] Lester is supposed to be the ace, but he is coming back from a 9-14 season in which he gave up more hits than he had innings pitched. Next up is Clay Buchholz, who always looks good but gets hurt a lot; he strained a hamstring in the very first workout of 2013. Local pariah John Lackey is the third starter and made it to the mound Saturday for the first time since the end of 2011 when he was, statistically, the worst Red Sox starting pitcher of the last half-century. Then comes veteran Ryan Dempster, who was cannon fodder when he moved to the American League last year. Finally, there is Felix Doubront, who is 25 years old and has managed to arrive in camp woefully out of shape in two of the last three seasons.
"Local pariah John Lackey." That's the same John Lackey who got a rousing standing ovation when he left the clinching Game 6 after shutting down the Cardinals' offense. Things can, and sometimes do, turn around quickly -- as they did for Lester, who had two dominant starts in the World Series after a solid year.
Look, I'm not suggesting the Cubs break the bank and gobble up expensive free agents, especially at the price that Robinson Cano, for example, is reported to be asking. (Though, given the recent re-signings of Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum by the Giants at what appear to be way over-market values, maybe the market is going to be that crazy.) What I am suggesting is that teams that have horrendous years like this aren't necessarily that far from contention. The Red Sox signed and traded for middling free agents -- at least that's the way they were perceived last winter:
The first base situation is alarming. Mike Napoli is an old 31, hit .227 last year, has played only 133 games at the position, and has a degenerative hip disease. Don’t be surprised to see Lyle Overbay as an alternative. We know the Sox are set at second base (Dustin Pedroia) and third base (Will Middlebrooks), but I worry that Middlebrooks will be asked to do too much to protect David Ortiz. It might be too much for a kid with only a half-year of big league at-bats. [Stephen] Drew is in his walk year and should be OK at short. But he hit .223 last year.
The 2012 Red Sox got half-years out of Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury due to injury, and their resurgence in 2013 helped. A lot. Napoli had a fine year and the Red Sox likely don't get to the World Series without him. Meanwhile, Overbay was released at the end of spring training and wound up with the Yankees. Stephen Drew had his best year since 2010.
Boston also lost two closers to injury this year -- anyone remember that Joel Hanrahan was supposed to close for them, and then Andrew Bailey? -- and pulled Koji Uehara out of a setup role (before this year, he'd had one save since 2010) to be pretty much unhittable as a closer through the stretch and the postseason.
The Cubs have a lot of holes. This, we know. Let's also stipulate that the 2012 Red Sox had a lot of better players than the 2013 Cubs did and were starting from a better base.
On the other hand, the 2013 Cubs' starting rotation was pretty decent for most of the season; their woes were primarily in the bullpen and an offense that really couldn't score runs at all -- only the awful Marlins scored fewer runs in the National League than the Cubs did.
I have been told by people who know Theo Epstein that he hates to lose. It had to frost Theo to see his protege Ben Cherington hoist a World Series trophy just two years after he left Boston for Chicago. I have no doubt that Theo wants to win. So why not try? He's spent two years doing a very good job of stocking the farm system, with more to come in future years. I'm not suggesting emptying the store, but if you could add Giancarlo Stanton to that offense, why wouldn't you? If Theo can figure out a way to get Masahiro Tanaka to the Cubs, why not? Maybe Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo get untracked under a new manager and coaching staff and have the years we hoped they'd have when they were signed to long-term deals. Maybe Javier Baez blows through spring training and makes the team and contends for Rookie of the Year. Maybe Pedro Strop turns into Koji Uehara. Or they find this year's undervalued free agents or non-tenders to fill the holes they have.
The Red Sox -- and the Indians, who won 92 games after a 94-loss season in 2012 -- figured out a way to do it without breaking the bank. Yes, the National League Central is a tough division to play in -- but then, so is the American League East, where the Red Sox dominated, going 44-32 within their division. This was the Cubs' biggest failure in 2013, not being able to beat the teams in their own division. The Cubs were 25-51 against N.L. Central teams in 2013; only the Astros were as bad within their own division. The Cubs went 41-45 outside the division (and 13-7 against the American League, the best record of any NL team in interleague play), hinting they could hold their own against most teams, if only they could shore up things that are obvious failures.
Again, I'm not suggesting a break-the-bank strategy, nor am I suggesting quitting the rebuild, which is the right thing to do. I am suggesting that carefully identifying undervalued assets, just as the Red Sox did, could at least lead to some winning on the North Side. That would be refreshing after the two worst back-to-back seasons in franchise history.
Here's what I don't want in your comments. Don't tell me that we have to watch another expansion-level team, or two, or three, "until the kids are ready." We don't. We shouldn't have to. It was clear to me when I watched Theo's news conference when he fired Dale Sveum that the last two years had chastened him, and that though he's surely staying the course with building a strong organization, he doesn't want to have years like the last two any more. Some of you have suggested the Cubs have payroll room after all the big contracts (except what's still due to Alfonso Soriano) are gone. Maybe they ought to actually spend some of that money.
All that said, I'm sure some of you have some ideas on how this might be done. Have at it. (Reminder: be civil, please.)