When talking about a team's prospects of winning a World Series, offense, pitching and defense are the primary concerns. However, as the Red Sox have demonstrated so aptly this past decade, there is one other key component: chemistry.
In 2001, despite center fielder Carl Everett's headbutting of an umpire, his explosive tantrums and his insistence that dinosaurs never existed, the team was headed toward a 90-win season until manager Jimy Williams was fired on Aug. 16. Everett headlined Boston's fall from grace under new manager Joe Kerrigan, as the team went 17-26 the rest of the way.
Once new ownership was brought in and Theo Epstein was named general manager, team chemistry took on its appropriate priority.
Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar banded together to create the 2003 Red Sox of "Cowboy Up!" fame. A year later, when the Curse of the Babe was finally vanquished, they did so under the crown of being "idiots."
From 2007 on, the club has revolved around the chemistry brought by players like Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Lowell. While not as rough-and-tumble as the 2003-04 version, chemistry was still a strong component of the Red Sox' 2007 title run and their 2008-09 successes. Chemistry became more about acting professionally both on and off the field, only allowing catharsis when the promised land was reached.
One unifying aspect throughout the ascent of Boston to baseball's elite has been harmonious chemistry.
Which brings us to the latter day. Could a lack of chemistry derail Boston's season?
Frankly, the answer won't be known until the final pitch of the 2010 season is thrown. Until then, here are several possible red flags to watch out for:
The Rotation Crunch
Tim Wakefield recently came out and said he fully expects to be a member of the Red Sox rotation and feels he has done nothing to deserve being relegated to the bullpen. The Red Sox have skirted the issue of a possible rotation crunch by officially adopting a "wait-and-see" approach. Epstein and manager Terry Francona are adamant — at least, to the players and media — that they will make no decisions until a few weeks into spring training. That's certainly the proper approach. It's only delaying the inevitable, however. A few weeks will eventually come, and a decision eventually will have to be made.
The Boston Globe's Peter Abraham can't see the situation being anything but awkward. "The Sox have to find a way to keep Wakefield happy," he writes.
Daisuke Matsuzaka's history of clashing with Red Sox management has been well-documented. Whether their opinions differ on proper off-day conditioning, the length of bullpen sessions, injury rehabilitation or hiding injuries, something's always going on. It has been a constant distraction in the past. One spot of good news: Boston and the Japanese right-hander have been working toward establishing better communication.
"I think there’s better communication now," Epstein told The Boston Globe on Tuesday. "Any inference that he and the club are battling one another … that’s just not true. His attitude is great. It’s just a matter of doing it on the field."
Jacoby Ellsbury spent most of 2009 as the leadoff man and swiped 70 bags, setting a Red Sox record. His reward? Being kicked out of center field to roam left field in favor of Mike Cameron. No athlete worth his salt would view such a move positively. However, Ellsbury's agent, Scott Boras, commented on the position switch, saying that "Jacoby's a teammate, and he said, 'I understand that.'"
And what about poor Mike Lowell? He signed a club-friendly contract with Boston after the 2007 season, taking three years to stay in town as opposed to jetting off to Philadelphia (and possibly the Yankees) for four years. (Bronson Arroyo signed a similar club-friendly contract following the 2005 season only to be immediately shipped to Cincinatti for bust Wily Mo Pena.)
Lowell's been rewarded by being dangled in trade talks for two straight seasons and losing his job to Adrian Beltre. Lowell admits there are feelings of hurt, but has remained professional about the situation. As Abraham writes, "Lowell has been a regular for a long time now and, injured or not, isn't going to like coming to camp without a place to play. He's a proud guy with a solid record of performance. Now he's in a weird limbo of coming back from an injury to a team that tried to trade him."
The Providence Journal's Joe McDonald also weighed in on the situation earlier this winter, recalling that Lowell was unhappy about his playing time following the trade for Victor Martinez. “I understand the situation isn’t easy for [Francona], and I’m not laying blame or anything," Lowell told the Journal in September. "But I can’t hide the fact that I want to be out there playing.”
An unnamed Red Sox player called Lowell the "greatest teammate in baseball." McDonald went on to note that the Lowell situation as a whole is bothering teammates.
Hurt feelings can manifest themselves in small ways. Perhaps these deep-down feelings will boil over at precisely the wrong time. No one's saying this will happen, but would anyone be surprised if it did?
Jonathan Papelbon has made no secret of the fact he fully intends to maximize his salary. Many Red Sox fans have already conceded that he'll be Mariano Rivera's successor in New York. Think that goes over well with Pedroia? Kevin Youkilis? Jon Lester? Papelbon is free to do what he wants, but constantly harping about setting the financial bar for closers and signing on the dotted line for megabucks doesn't exactly endear a player to teammates or fans. Papelbon, however, did say Tuesday that Boston is where he wants to stay.
Josh Beckett is also one to watch. He stood by as his team handed John Lackey a five-year deal, something he's unlikely to get from the Red Sox. They've been talking extension off and on, but nothing's come to fruition, and Boston's track record in retaining stars through free agency is not pretty. They've had contentious departures for years: Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Damon, Jason Bay. Is Beckett next?
New Players in the Clubhouse
One piece of clubhouse chemistry comes from familiarity. And this year's Red Sox are going to be as unfamiliar with each other as they've been in a great while. The aforementioned Cameron, Beltre and Lackey are new to town, as are Bill Hall, Jeremy Hermida, Marco Scutaro and whoever wins the open spots in the bullpen. It will take everyone time to adjust — to everyone's routines, their ways of communicating and their personalities. What everyone fears most is the unknown, and there are plenty of unknowns to go around.
One particular person to watch is Hermida. The former first-round pick in 2002 has started for the Florida Marlins for the last three and a half years. Now, he's a backup outfielder. The 26-year-old is certainly being paid a pretty penny — $3.345 million — for his services, but some players can't handle the transition to the bench. (Jay Payton, anyone?)
David Ortiz's Production
David Ortiz hasn't been the "Big Papi" of old for two seasons now and suffered through a devastating first-half slump in 2009. To make matters worse, The New York Times reported that Ortiz was part of the 2003 list of players that tested positive for performance-enhancing substances.
Throughout all this, the affable slugger has become more and more disenchanted. When he was moved down to sixth in the order, he was visibly upset and said, "I'm just an employee." While true that no one is happy when performance isn't up to par, it still puts a strain on team chemistry.
No one's saying this club is built for failure. No one's saying 2001 is about to repeat itself. The 2010 club could end up being the most lovable bunch of rapscallions the Red Sox have ever fielded. There are, however, questions.
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