Monday, January 23, 2006

Nine innings: 01.23.06

Playing nine innings while waiting for Manny to take the For Sale sign off his Ritz pad . . .

1) So this is how it's all going to play out, huh? Johnny Damon and Edgar Renteria out, Coco Crisp and Alex Gonzalez in? I suppose an optimist could spin it that the Sox have actually upgraded at center field and shortstop, though I'm reluctant to agree with such bright-eyed positivity at the moment. On the plus side, Crisp had a fairly similar '05 season to Damon and, being six years younger, is seemingly still approaching his peak while the Yankees' newest overpriced ornament is due to decline. And while Gonzalez (who also replaced Renteria in Florida, coincidentally) doesn't have the offensive pedigree of his predecessor, he's a rangy, flashy, and reliable defender - in other words, a guaranteed defensive improvement over Rent-A-Wreck, E6gar, or any other cruel nickname of your choosing. So why our lingering skepticism? Three reasons, really. Let's go to the bullet points!

• Crisp is similar to Damon . . . but he isn't quite Damon, and what the Sox gain in youth and payroll flexibility, they lose in experience and the known and invaluable ability to thrive in the Boston pressure cooker. This ain't Cleveland, Coco.

• When he has a bat in his hands, Gonzalez is a guy you want on other team. Yeah, he whacked 23 homers in '04, and he already has a World Series notch in his belt against the Yankees. But he's the type of hitter - and we use that term loosely - the recent Sox have avoided at all costs. To put it another way: His .319 on-base percentage in '05 was a career high. (Somewhere, Bill James just had a grand mal seizure.) I can't help but think his signing is an act of slight desperation.

• We're a little bummed that hotshot third base prospect Andy Marte - who arrived from Atlanta for Renteria, was named Boston's top prospect by Baseball America, and will depart for Cleveland in exchange for Crisp - is destined to become a footnote in Sox history. Would one at-bat in a Sox uniform have been too much to ask? Again, we realize Crisp is a fine player, but the Indians also realize that the Sox are growing more desperate for a center fielder with each passing day; they'd be fools not to demand a steep ransom. I believe Marte qualifies as such, and when I hear Gammons's story about a Braves scout bursting into tears when discussing the decision to trade him, I worry that his name might someday be linked with Jeff Bagwell's atop the list of the Big Ones Who Got Away.

2) I know, I promised a full Theo column after the Sox announced he was coming back. But after three days of battling the bird flu and listening to convoluted talk-radio rhetoric that oh-so-shrilly focused on front-office politics, the so-called disarray of the Red Sox, whether Theo answers to Larry, whether Larry answers to Theo, whether John Henry has a spine or is merely a really pale jellyfish, whether Jed and Ben were hand puppets or marionettes, and whether Theo wears the gorilla suit even in his most private moments, I realized the whole tired episode boils down to a very simple point that everyone somehow seems to be missing: No matter who wields the true clout, the Boston Red Sox are far better off with Theo Epstein working for them then they are without him. It's that simple. I'm thrilled and relieved he's back. And unless you are someone who lost a power struggle to him or are a Yankees fan, you should be, too.

3) I hope the Sox do right by Bronson Arroyo and keep him where he wants to be. He's fearless, rubber armed, selfless, and while he's no ace, he's as productive as more hyped pitchers for half the price. (I was thinking of Matt Clement on that last part.) Besides, in a time when a folk hero like Damon has no qualms about defecting to your greatest rival simply for a few extra digits on a paycheck, it's refreshing to see a player take a discount to stay in a place where he's content. Arroyo's been loyal to the Red Sox. The Red Sox, for at least the next season or two, should be loyal to him as well.

4) One positive and overlooked aspect of the Red Sox's Extreme Roster Makeover: Assuming the Crisp and Gonzalez deals go through, they suddenly are an excellent defensive team. Sure, Manny remains an adventure in left - assuming he remains, period - and Trot Nixon's range in right seems to have decreased in inverse proportion to his waist size. But both are at least adequate in the outfield, and the often sensational Crisp will cover more ground in center than did Damon, who seemed to lose a step last season. Jason Varitek is the rock behind home plate, a statement that needs no further explanation. And the infield . . . well, their gloves are real, and they're spectacular, especially when six-time Gold Glove winner J.T. Snow starts at first base instead of novice Kevin Youkilis. Mike Lowell won the NL Gold Glove at third base last year, Gonzalez could have staked a claim to it at short, and Mark Loretta is better than steady at second base. The Sox may not mash like they have the past few seasons, but their vastly upgraded defense may make their style of play more palatable to the baseball purist.

5) After having seen Roger Clemens struggle to navigate his nine-iron around his increasingly ample gut during that pro-am golf tournament this weekend, I think it's safe to say that he has officially reached the twilight of his career. The Rocket looks like he's been following the John Daly diet plan of bacon with a side order of bacon for five meals a day.

6) Brief NFL interlude: I'm not guaranteeing the Patriots would have beaten Pittsburgh this past Sunday in Foxboro; the Steelers have a certain, familiar "team of destiny" vibe about them, their likeable young quarterback shines brighter with each performance, and for once they might just have enough pure talent and desire to overcome their strategically challenged, mandible-endowed coach. But 10 days after the Patriots' two-year reign met an abrupt end in Denver, it's still hard to comprehend that they so uncharacteristically muffed the chance. Arrogant though it may seem, I guess I kind of forgot the season would go on without them.

7) Brief NBA interlude: Zzzzz. Wake me when Mark Blount's gone, then we'll talk.

8) Finally, a warning for the next TV goof who sends me lunging for my remote with a cringe-inducing play on Crisp's name . . . well, I don't know what your punishment will be yet, but let's just say I'm thinking of taking up smoking just so I can burn you with my cigarette. Ssssss! (Aw, who am I kidding. I'll use the same worn-out puns in a headline the first chance I get. Damn it, I'm such an inept bully.)

9) As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Because sometimes, it really is random.