Red Sox

Drellich: If the money's the same, will stars now avoid Boston's headaches?

Drellich: If the money's the same, will stars now avoid Boston's headaches?

BOSTON — The Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton seems to prefer a trade to a team in California, where he grew up. You can’t blame him for wanting to go home.

In addition, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic notes Stanton's preferences are something of a moving target. And NBC Sports Boston previously reported Stanton intends to have an open mind throughout the process.

Would he have felt that way 15 years ago, that so much choice existed?

There was a time when Boston was, for most, one of the two premier destinations in baseball. You had the Sox, the Yankees and everyone else — and everybody knew it. Those days are gone, because the majority of baseball, a collection of 30 teams, wanted them gone.

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Money was at the heart of the Sox’ allure and competitiveness then, and always will be. As a player under contract with a full no-trade clause, Stanton knows how much he’s going to be paid, so the choice is simply whom he prefers now pay him.
 
But the power of money has been lessened overall because the disparity in payrolls has tightened. Parity’s rise, by way of a de facto soft salary cap, has not only impacted the gravitas of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, it’s lessened Boston’s pull in general.
 
The Sox are not one of just one of just two teams that can pay up, that can win. The history of the organization and Ted Williams’ sweat beads are still strewn across center field. The brand name still rings loudly. But you don’t have to go to Boston to be relevant, to be on a perennial contender, to matter and compete. 
 
In part, that's because the idea of a perennial contender has been dismantled by the sport's bosses.
 
“I don’t think you can look at like that period [circa 2004], I don’t think you can look and say, ‘Oh, teams aren’t as good now,’” one general manager said. “The rules were so favorable to the big market teams back then, it was incredible.”
 
There’s an inevitability at play here. You can argue for the game’s survival, the rules had to change.
 
Now, the reward of winning in Boston, or New York another major market may be a bit sweeter than a smaller market. The celebrity status may be greater. But if coming to Boston also means the fishbowl headache, that cost-benefit analysis for players probably should not be what it once was. If dollars are near equal, maybe Boston is no longer the place you just have to be.
 
Some people will want to be in Boston for the pressure and passion, for the legacy, for the elements that have always been in place. The Red Sox still have an advantage compared to, say, the Brewers. 
 
But the imperative Alex Rodriguez faced in the offseason before 2004, when the Sox and Yanks both chased him, seems to be disappearing: you don’t have to come to the Sox, and you don’t have to go to New York. 
 
You probably do have to go to a big market to get paid the maximum amount of money as a free agent, but if the dollars aren’t too far apart, you can compete elsewhere. You can be on a good team with a lesser headache.

Do David Price and Carl Crawford set a precedent for others? Will Bryce Harper or Manny Machado — Machado, you’ll recall, has only the highest respect for the Red Sox organization — want to be paid just a bit extra to come to Boston when they're free agents?

Playing at home, as Stanton may find out, can at times be its own headache. Couple a homecoming with Hollywood, and Stanton may be asking for a different kind of nuisance than he’d find in Boston. 
 
But decent choices are wider now. Baseball wanted it that way.

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Drellich: What makes a playoff bullpen, in personnel and in usage?

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Drellich: What makes a playoff bullpen, in personnel and in usage?

The greatest impact Alex Cora and Dave Dombrowski can have from here on out lies in the same area: the bullpen.

“I think that’s the toughest part of the game,” Cora said. “The matchups and where to go. One thing for sure that we feel very strong about it, the whole platoon thing doesn’t matter, if you get people out, you get people out.”

Unless, perhaps, it’s October.

As successful as the Sox pen has been in a league of great disparity, Dombrowski and Cora have to consider how their relievers will look against their likely playoff opponents. No element of a baseball team's roster — the rotation, lineup, bullpen and bench — takes on a more disparate look in October than the relievers. A starter or two inevitably contribute in relief, and usage increases, and a regular-season reliever or two becomes a spectator.

“Somebody that was in the mix the whole time, he’s out of the roster,” Cora said. “And it’s very different in a sense. But you still need your guys, like here, little by little, we do feel very comfortable with the [progression in the] seventh, eighth, ninth.”

Relievers are already on the move, with Kelvin Herrera heading from the Royals to the Nats on Monday. But what should be sought in a quote-unquote playoff bullpen? What makes a good one, in both a GM's construction and a manager's usage?

“Players that have the heartbeat to handle the emotion of the game is one criteria that you look for,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “Obviously, elite stuff is always important. Execution when the game is on the line is key. But I think the slower heartbeats, in addition to the talent, is something that I noticed last season that we excelled at, and that other teams that have good bullpens [did as well].

“You look at what the Dodgers bullpen did leading into the World Series. You look at what the really good teams in the past [were able to do], the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants: being able to handle the critical moments and apply your elite stuff at that time is really good."

There seems to be no limit to the number of power arms a team can, or perhaps must, amass. One established, elite reliever, i.e. Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen, doesn’t seem to be fearsome anymore without serious backup. 

In the era of swing-and-miss, the Yankees standalone with a pen averaging 12.02 strikeouts per nine innings. The Astros are second at 10.75 per nine, and the Sox fifth at 9.73. But, those figures include people who won’t be major postseason contributors and include competition that is not postseason caliber.

Power alone, though, is not enough. 

“You need kind of an answer to everything,” Hinch said. “You need someone that can match up with lefties, someone that can match up with righties. That doesn’t always mean handedness has to equal that.

“In a perfect world, there’s going to be swings that don’t handle depth breaking balls. There’s going to be swings that don’t handle hard, lateral breaking balls, whether it’s a guy with a changeup — if you have a diverse set of relievers that can be matched up appropriately, it can be a great advantage in the bullpen.”

Matchups matter, but not in the conventional way, and that's true in the regular season as well.

"The days of 4-for-10 against this guy, they’re gone," Cora said. "It’s too small.”

The Red Sox entered the day off Monday with the sixth-best bullpen ERA in the majors. They’ve been successful preventing runners they’re handed by others from scoring as well, with the 11th lowest percentage of inherited runners scored. 

Dombrowski had a difficult time building bullpens in his years in Detroit. But the Sox had the second-best bullpen ERA in the majors in 2017. Now, despite Carson Smith’s season-ending shoulder injury and the delay in Tyler Thornburg’s return, the team is thriving again in late innings. 

But Hinch’s general point about style is one to consider with the Sox. Over the winter, Dombrowski noted the difference in looks that Smith provided in contrast to his other right-handers. Kimbrel, Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly and Heath Hembree are all high-velocity pitchers with strong breaking balls. Smith relied on a sinker as well as a slider.

This group might be able to carry the Sox to a third consecutive division title without any help. Still, variety may be lacking.

Fortunately, the postseason process naturally provides some help. When Hinch was asked what makes a good playoff bullpen, he cracked a joke.

“Starters,” he said.

The strength of the Sox starters could be a boost to the Sox pen in a layered way. Eduardo Rodriguez’s changeup or Steven Wright’s knuckler can create a change of pace.

But the starter craze can also go too far. Cora thought it did last October.

Had the Sox come back to win the Division Series against the Astros, the turning point would have been remembered as the third inning of Game 4.

Houston starter Brad Peacock struck out the first two he faced in the frame at Fenway Park. Consecutive hits cut the Astros’ lead to 3-1. Hinch, with Cora as bench coach, played the traditional matchup with Rafael Devers. Peacock was out, southpaw Francisco Liriano was in, and he was immediately greeted by a go-ahead home run.

“We got caught up last year in certain games that probably...we talked about it, we pulled the trigger too quick on Brad in Game 3,” Cora said. “Because it was the playoffs and we went with Liriano, who was throwing the ball well, and he gives up the home run.”

It was pointed out to Cora that most of the time, Liriano probably gets the job done, that the move wasn't so bad. (Although Devers fared extraordinarily well against southpaw pitching in 2017.)

“But you know what I mean? Like, we felt that way,” Cora said. "Kind of like, we trust these guys throughout the season [to get out of a jam as starters]...We talk about it. But maybe we talk about it because he gave it up."

It's only June, but the time for the Sox to consider October pen plans is now, at least in terms of ideal personnel and a variety of looks.

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Rosenthal: Red Sox and Orioles 'do not match up' on Machado trade

Rosenthal: Red Sox and Orioles 'do not match up' on Machado trade

As quickly as Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic and FOX Sports' MLB telecasts heated up the Manny Machado-to-the Red Sox rumors last week, his latest reporting does a lot to dispel them.

In a notes column published Monday (subscription required), Rosenthal reports that the Red Sox have contacted the Orioles about the would-be-free-agent infielder, who is thought to be the prize of the July 31 trade deadline, but Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski thinks the teams "likely do not match up on a trade at this time," according to a source.

In other words, the Red Sox really don't have the top minor league prospects the O's would be looking for in a Machado deal. The Sox farm system is ranked 24th in MLB by Baseball America and top hitter Michael Chavis was just suspended for 80-games for PED usage and top pitcher Jay Groome just had Tommy John surgery.

As for including 21-year-old Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers in a Machado deal, as NBC Sports Boston Red Sox Insider Evan Drellich wrote last week, "sources with knowledge of the Red Sox thinking were dismissive of the idea the Sox would move Devers."


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