Thursday, September 22, 2005

Pen Not Mightier

Terry Francona is killing this team. Those who have followed the Ninth know that I am not a big manager critic. Very rarely are they presented with decisions that have clear right or wrong options. You can look at different numbers in any situation and defend a variety of choices, so I try not to attack any one move. But right now, Francona is making a big mistake. Wakefield should have been removed last night, he got that one right. He'd gone into the 8th inning in each of his last five starts, two of which he went complete, and even with a low pitch count was starting to look tired. So Terry went to his closer, asking for a reasonable four outs. Problem was, as every Boston fan muttered in their sleep last night, Timlin has allowed 18 of 32 inherited baserunners to score, and he entered with a runner on first. A reasonable person might've said "You know, Mike is good at everything except this one situation I'm about to put him, so maybe I'll do something else". But even there we give Terry a pass. Timlin has had a bad season with inherited runners, but a perfectly good career, so his luck may change, and truly, he's Boston's best reliever. You need a win, go with your number one guy. He was rested, he threw beautifully on Saturday, he was ready to go. Already we are being more gracious than 95% of Red Sox Nation, but as we said, there's a logic to most managerial decisions, as long as you know where to look. The true problem here is, Francona doesn't have anyone else. It's Timlin and some guys he hasn't figured out how to use. If you want to find the logic in that, look for bald the guy in the red fleece, maybe he can explain it.

Boston has three relievers that could help in the late innings: Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen and Jon Papelbon. Each have electric fastballs, resilient arms, and, especially in the cases of Hansen and Papelbon, great composure. Jonathan has seen the most work in set-up, but the other two could make contributions as well. I say could, because we really have no idea. Tito won't touch 'em. Not young guys with delicate psyches, no way. Give him the right situation, a big lead, other guys warming up, and yeah, maybe he'll give 'em a spin, but this a playoff race boys. Do you have any idea what could happen? Actually, we do Terry, and I think we saw it last night. The ship's going down here buddy, so how about a little laugh along the way? Do you realize, loyal reader, that Papelbon has been in the Boston bullpen for a full month now? A month. Now, loyal reader, tell me if he's a reliable set-up man? What, no answer? Oh, you're chewing. Ok, I'll answer for you: no idea. We don't know. How could we possibly? He's only pitched 9 times, and half of those were in blowouts. How has he been allowed to sit on the roster for four weeks without Francona ever really figuring out what he can do? Don't you think last night would've been a good time to have that information? Wouldn't it have been better to bring in Paps, get a strikeout, then use Timlin to start the ninth? And if the Red Sox find their way into the playoffs, isn't it going to be really super keen to know then? Because as much as Terry Francona wants to rely on one reliever, one 39 year-old reliever with 76 appearances, it's not going to work. There will be a time where a big out is needed the sixth or seventh, Timlin won't be available, and Francona is going to have to decide whether to risk bringing in one of the kids, or using Bradford, who he knows can't get the job done. And because he's managed his bullpen so short-sightedly, he'll have no idea what to do. That's unacceptable. How much time do you think is left here, Terry? There is no next-week, ease-him-into-it, wait-for-a-blowout time. We've got ten games, and right now, we're on the outside looking in.

Now is the time to take a risk. And yes, it absolutely is a risk. Looked at Cla Meredith's stats lately? After he got shelled in Boston he went back to AAA and got shelled there for a few months. You have to be careful with young guns, and they're not the most reliable performers. But for a team that just fell out of first place, it might be time to get creative. If they've decided that the future well being of Delcarmen, Hansen, and Papelbon is more important than making the playoffs, fine. If it's more important than letting them get their feet wet, more important than trying to win with this strong nucleus, then let's ease off. But anyone who saw Craig Hansen pitch on Monday knows he's the best arm Boston has, so if the Sox want to go anywhere, Francona has to take the risk. Do you think Mike Scioscia eased K-Rod into work when he came up? If you do, you're wrong. Francisco Rodriguez pitched his first game on Sept 18, 2002, and pitched in five of the next nine contests (7.2 IP, 0 ER). Then he threw in 11 of the 16 playoff games Anaheim played, pitching 18.2 innings in 26 days, and was most certainly the reason they won the World Series. It was a risky move by Scioscia, relying so much on a kid, but he was the Manager of the Year that season and it was probably the smartest thing he's ever done as a coach. Imagine what he would've done with three K-Rods? Now look, is it likely that any of these kids will pitch at that level? No. But what bothers me, and what should really bother Francona's bosses, is that they don't really know. This is a bullpen with three men in it. Mike Timlin and, I guess, two situational relievers. If the playoffs started tomorrow Francona would have nothing but question marks (and a lot of free time, as Boston wouldn't be in). Honestly, I don't even know how he'd make out the roster. Who goes and who stays? Beats me. How can Francona sit there, with possible solutions staring him in the face, and not try them out? By not pitching the kids now, he's robbing himself of the ability to evaluate his team, and them of the experience they'll need to succeed when they are inevitably forced into action. This temerity and fear of failure is costing Boston the season, and if they're lucky enough to get in, it will cost them the playoffs as well. The Red Sox are a team with a great offense, a solid staff, and a terrible bullpen. Why Terry Francona is doing nothing to change that, I have no idea.
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