Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Of stolen bases and serendipity, or the lack thereof

That heartburn the Yankees are feeling has absolutely nothing to do with consuming too many tacos. Thanks to this site for the photo.

Eight decades of Yankees supremacy over the Red Sox began to unravel with a single stolen base in October 2004. So it was appropriate that it was another stolen base Sunday night that further confirmed just how dramatically the rivalry has turned upside down and just how wide a gap there is between the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Jacoby Ellsbury’s straight steal of home—the first by the Sox in 15 years—highlighted a 4-1 victory by the Sox that completed a three-game sweep of the Yankees and provided further proof that while the Sox may not own the best record in baseball, there’s little doubt they are the game’s preeminent franchise.

Ellsbury, running so fast he almost stumbled over home plate, symbolizes the new Sox—young, exciting, prepared and tough. Rebuilding the farm and allowing the Red Sox to annually replenish from within—instead of relying solely on expensive and risky forays into the free agent market—has been Theo Epstein’s mantra since day one. He’s done a lot more than pay the idea lip service, investing fully and remaining committed even when it didn’t pay immediate dividends and didn’t look like a good idea in the short term.

After a 2006 season in which Sox prospects had mixed results in translating their minor league success to the major leagues and in which the front office made its own missteps in player evaluation, Epstein spoke of how the Sox had to reevaluate what they were doing in order “…to create an environment where not just pitchers but players can come here and get better, players can come here and thrive…that encompasses myriad factors, but we have to take a hard look at each and every one of them and get better.”

That included Epstein himself, who expressed regret at the end of 2006 in trading a pair of 20-somethings (Josh Bard and Cla Meredith) who had struggled in brief stints in Boston in order to re-acquire Doug Mirabelli and momentarily solve the dilemma of who would catch knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Bard and Meredith went on to become key cogs for the NL West-winning Padres while Mirabelli was an expensive caddy for a pitcher who ended up missing most of the final two months.

The Sox had to be more patient and recognize that not everyone will succeed immediately like Jonathan Papelbon. And sometimes it doesn’t work out (hello, Craig Hansen) and sometimes there’s just no room for a David Murphy or a Brandon Moss. In addition, we learned this spring that it just wasn’t meant to be for Bard in Boston.

But Pedroia began his career with 150 or so pretty ugly at-bats…and is now the third player in history to win the Rookie of the Year and the MVP in his first two seasons. Manny Delcarmen had a 4.76 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP in his first 62 1/3 big league innings and a 2.55 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 130 1/3 innings since. Even Ellsbury followed his brilliant late-season cameo in 2007 by struggling through the middle of last season (he hit .246 from June 1 through July 31). And hey, look who is catching Wakefield, who ranks fourth in the AL in both ERA and WHIP and leads the big leagues with a .154 batting average against: Rookie George Kottaras.

The Sox have unearthed as many everyday players from their farm system since 2006 (Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Ellsbury) as the Yankees have since the dynasty ended in 2001 (Robinson Cano, Nick Johnson and Melky Cabrera). In the pipeline for the Sox are outfielders Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick, either of whom could eventually replace Jason Bay or J.D. Drew, as well as first baseman Lars Anderson, who will push Youkilis across the diamond when Mike Lowell’s contact expires, if not sooner (and that’s why I’m convinced the Sox’ “interest” in Mark Teixeira last winter was a clever ruse intended to force the Yankees to pay more for him, but that’s a blog for another time).

On the mound, homegrown pitchers recorded the first 24 outs for the Sox Sunday. With the bullpen compromised by the unavailability of Papelbon, Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez, Terry Francona called on a pair of guys each making their second appearance in the big leagues—and watched as Hunter Jones and Michael Bowden retired all eight batters they faced in bridging the gap from starter Justin Masterson to temporary closer Takashi Saito.

Jones and Bowden further represent the preparedness that makes the Sox really dangerous: Not only is Epstein’s staff able to nail the early rounds of the draft—Bowden was a second-round pick in the epic draft of ’05—but it is willing and able to mine the cutout bins searching for overlooked or undervalued talent. Jones was signed out of the Cape Cod League as an undrafted free agent in 2005 after his career at Florida State was cut short by a broken arm he suffered during his sophomore season.

That preparedness manifests itself in the short term as well. To see Ellsbury steal home was to be reminded of Jonathan Papelbon picking off Matt Holliday to end the eighth inning of Game Two of the 2007 World Series. The Sox ponder every possibility, no matter how remote, just in case the opportunity presents itself. How many teams would entrust their closer with picking a runner off first in a one-run World Series game? How many teams would try to steal home with two outs and the bases loaded in a one-run game?

It’s probably just a coincidence, but the ESPN cameras that lingered on a shocked-looking Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Joe Girardi following Ellsbury’s steal of home also managed to symbolize the Yankees, who are stumbling as well, but not nearly as gracefully as Ellsbury.

Pettitte and Posada are deep into their 30s and being paid premium prices fueled by nostalgia. Pettitte was paid $16 million in each of the last two seasons, or roughly what it cost the Sox last year to employ Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Posada turned 36 during the 2007 season, but the Yankees re-signed him that winter to a four-year deal worth $52.4 million and got just 168 at-bats out of him last season before he underwent right shoulder surgery.

And while Francona put the game in the hands of the neophytes Jones and Bowden, Girardi continues to ignore rookie reliever Steven Jackson even though the tattered Yankees bullpen—which threw 22 innings in the first six games with Jackson on the roster—can use anyone with a pulse.

To be fair to Girardi and the Yankees, hyped prospect Mark Melancon made his big league debut Sunday and threw two scoreless innings. And perhaps the Yankees will see their own youth movement begin to pay off tonight, when Phil Hughes—one of the players whom Brian Cashman would not part with in a Johan Santana trade—makes his 2009 debut. Then again, given the Yankees responded to the 0-fers put up last year by Hughes and Ian Kennedy by spending more than $250 million on CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, maybe not.

Nor will there be a tangible youth movement anytime soon among the everyday lineup. Like the Sox, the Yankees’ optimal lineup features six starters 30 or older. Unlike the Sox, the Yankees look their age—Peter Abraham, the Yankees beat reporter for The Journal News, wondered last night if there’s a more un-athletic team in baseball than the Yankees—and they don’t seem to have much impact positional talent down on the farm.

Ironically, in that it’s not ironic at all, the trio of Pettitte, Posada and Girardi were the symbol a decade ago of the dynastic Yankees. The 1996-2000 Yankees had nowhere near the sizzle of recent Yankees squads and will likely produce only two Hall of Famers (Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera), but the likes of Pettitte, Girardi (who split time with Posada behind the plate), Scott Brosius, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson infused those teams with an institutional toughness that lent them an unbeatable air, especially in the late innings of big games.

To watch the Sox—with no likely Hall of Famers at the moment, though championship-era lynchpins such as Manny Ramirez and Curt Schilling are probably bound for Cooperstown—come back Friday and Saturday was to be reminded of those dynasty-era Yankees, who came back from a deficit in the sixth inning or later twice apiece in their World Series sweeps in 1998 and 1999 and three times in the 2000 ALCS. Overall, they were an impressive 13-13 when trailing after six innings in the postseason from 1998 through 2001.

The demise of the Yankees has, in New York at least, lent an additional air of romanticism to the dynasty teams, as if the struggles of the recent squads prove the 1996-2001 mix was serendipitous and impossible to recreate. But what if the Sox are proving that it’s not?

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

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