Buster Olney: Boston Red Sox

videoSAN DIEGO -- In keeping with tradition, the Rule 5 draft was held on the final morning of baseball's winter meetings Thursday, and typically, executives pull roller bags into and out of that room, dying to get to the airport after four boring days of sitting around waiting for their phone to ring and picking through plates of stale room service nachos.

But that was not the feel this year. No, there were wry smiles all over the place as scouts and club officials chuckled over how this year's meetings turned into some kind of transaction stock car race. The Cubs and White Sox slammed against the news of each other; the Dodgers lapped the field in a Wednesday sprint that carried into Thursday morning; the Red Sox lost the Lester 500 but hit the checkered flag with three pitchers.

In the usual way, there were lots of winners and some losers -- the Giants, for example, who own October every other year but have gotten off to a slow start this winter, missing out on Pablo Sandoval and Lester. They want to make a deal sooner rather than later, assistant GM Bobby Evans says. But in light of the fact that these were not your typical winter meetings, we're going next level on the whole winners and losers thing

The Red Sox blew it with Jon Lester 

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
8:17
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SAN DIEGO -- When David Cone pitched for the Yankees, he had some savvy advice for young pitchers as they tried to cope with the frustration of talking with reporters after a terrible performance -- you know, one of those situations when every choice you make turns out badly, for eight runs in 2⅔ disastrous innings.

“Just tell them you stunk,” Cone would say. “Just tell them you were awful.”

Cone’s strategy wasn’t only about being honest. His feeling was that if you just admitted to mistakes, then you would appear contrite and accountable and, at the same time, once you said you blew it there really aren’t a lot of follow-up questions necessary, and you could move on.

Cone might find temporary work as a crisis manager this morning for the Red Sox, in the face of the avalanche of frustration, anger and shock of their fan base, now that Jon Lester has decided to wear the uniform of the Chicago Cubs rather than return to Boston.

John Henry is the principal owner of the Red Sox, and Larry Lucchino is the president and chief executive officer and most visible member of the club’s leadership. One or both of them should get on a conference call today and steal Cone’s words and simply say: "We blew it."

Because there really is no way to spin this

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Miss on Jon Lester? Here's Plan B 

December, 9, 2014
Dec 9
8:32
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James Shields, Francisco Liriano & Max ScherzerUSA TODAY SportsJames Shields, Francisco Liriano and Max Scherzer are all still out there.
SAN DIEGO -- A week ago, some folks within the Giants organization thought they had little or no shot at signing Jon Lester. In the past 72 hours, that changed. Now the hope is building for the Giants, backed by their own significant offer. The Cubs have hoped all along that they might be able to get Lester, and some within the Red Sox offices have believed that all things being equal, Lester would value the comfort of a known quantity, his former team.

The Dodgers have always had the ability to throw more money on the table, and while that doesn’t mean everything in these talks, it puts them in the conversation.

For Lester, the choices are distinct.

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Sandoval/RamirezUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoThe Red Sox signed two big hitters this offseason. Now, they need to make a splash on the mound.
SAN DIEGO -- As the winter meetings kick off, here are the most significant needs for 12 teams that view themselves as top contenders in 2015:

1. Boston Red Sox: A starting pitcher

Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval are unique in this winter’s market in that they each have the ability to hit good pitching, and so it’s possible that Boston’s offense will rebound in a big way next season. But it really won’t matter unless Boston finds a way to make up for the departures of Jon Lester and John Lackey -- maybe even by re-signing Lester.

As of this morning, the Red Sox rotation looks like this, according to their website:

1. Clay Buchholz
2. Joe Kelly
3. Rubby De La Rosa
4. Allen Webster
5. Anthony Ranaudo

As a reminder, Boston’s ranking in ERA after the All-Star break, when it mostly competed without Lester and Lackey:

30. Minnesota Twins, 4.99
29. Colorado Rockies, 4.51
28. Chicago White Sox, 4.47
27. Boston Red Sox, 4.27

If not Lester, then the Red Sox need James Shields; if not Shields, they need Jeff Samardzija, Doug Fister or one of the other high-end starters on the market.

As the Lester bidding nears a conclusion, John Henry flew to meet with Lester one-on-one, writes Rob Bradford and Alex Speier. The Red Sox should bolster their rotation by using trade chips rather than signing pitchers to long-term deals, writes Brian MacPherson.

Max Scherzer would also be available, writes Michael Silverman.

Here’s the problem with that for Boston:

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If the Dodgers really want Jon Lester and he doesn’t have any personal objections to playing in Los Angeles, a rival evaluator mused Thursday, then the Dodgers will get him. Plain and simple. Their pile of money is much larger than any team other than the Yankees -- who are not in the Lester bidding -- and if Lester’s decision comes down to the dollars alone, they will win.

But only the Dodgers and Lester’s agent, Seth Levinson, know exactly how

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Jon LesterBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsSome believe Jon Lester will fetch between $135 million and $150 million in his next contract.
Andrew Miller has a free-agent market all to himself, in a sense, as the only elite left-handed power reliever, and in the hours ahead he will choose his next team independent of anything else that happens with other players. There are a small handful of starting pitchers looking for one-year deals to rebuild value, like Brett Anderson. Theoretically, they could sign without being affected by other dominoes.

But many other pitchers -- including those who could be traded, like Oakland’s Jeff Samardzija -- may have to wait for Jon Lester to set the price. Almost everything in the pitching market seems to be on hold until Lester makes his choice among offers from the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants (and perhaps others). Once that happens, the price ceiling will be established. “Then everything else will fall in line after that,” said one agent.

Lester and Max Scherzer are regarded as the two best free-agent pitchers, but some club evaluators fully expect Scherzer’s contract talks to carry over for weeks, as agent Scott Boras works to make a big deal happen -- something significantly more than the six-year, $144 million deal that the Tigers offered to Scherzer in the spring. Boras’ negotiations often play out way past the winter meetings, and there is so little current buzz around Scherzer that some evaluators and agents theorize that one of two scenarios is developing with the former Cy Young Award winner:

1. He could be out on a limb, some evaluators believe, with his expected price undercut by the extraordinarily high volume of available pitching. “It’s not the best time to be looking for a big deal,” said one GM, noting the many pitching alternatives that can be found for less money.

2. He will be the target of a big, bold surprise strike by some team flush with cash, much in the way that the Washington Nationals jumped on Jayson Werth for $126 million in December 2010. Scherzer might be one among many options, but he is the best right-hander available right now with few strings attached, because he’s a free agent. (A team would have to surrender a top draft pick to sign him.) Sure, you can land Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto or Jordan Zimmermann, but any interested team would have to trade a major package of prospects in return.

So Lester is viewed as the bottleneck of the moment, and once he goes, an array of trades and signings will follow

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Michael Brantley and Hanley RamirezUSA TODAY SportsMichael Brantley tops the LF rankings, but where does left fielder-to-be Hanley Ramirez slide in?
Hanley Ramirez has joined the ranks of left fielders now, and although we have no idea how quickly he'll learn to play the caroms off the Green Monster, or how much range he'll have out there, or how quickly he can learn to throw like an outfielder instead of an infielder, his offensive prowess will immediately establish him as one of the best at his position.

With that, our top-10 series ranking the best at each position continues with a look at MLB left fielders:


1. Michael Brantley, Cleveland Indians

He was a working definition of consistency in 2014, with 200 hits (Jose Altuve was the only other player to reach that mark), 67 extra-base hits, 52 walks and 56 strikeouts, plus 23 stolen bases in 24 attempts. His OPS before the All-Star break was .901, and afterward it was .876. In September, when the Indians were making one last push for the postseason, he posted a 1.022 OPS. The only position players who scored higher in Fangraphs' WAR last season were Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen.

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Red Sox positioned for trades 

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
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Finding pitching these days is like going to a flush farmers’ market looking for corn on the cob: There’s lots and lots available, and really only a matter of what price you want to pay and who you want to buy from.
[+] EnlargeHanley Ramirez
Jayne Kamin/USA TODAY SportsWith Hanley Ramirez on board the Red Sox have a surplus of infielders from which to deal.

On the other hand, elite hitters are scarce, which is why the Red Sox

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Josh DonaldsonBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsIf a teardown of the A's happens, Josh Donaldson is likely to go.
PITTSBURGH -- When you hear Ralph Branca tell the story of Bobby Thomson’s historic home run, he offers a full appreciation of that moment, but the hurt is still there. Dennis Eckersley bears the same tone when speaking of Kirk Gibson’s home run, that small ache about a swing that changed lives.

This is what lies before the Oakland Athletics, whose wild-card game loss to the Kansas City Royals Tuesday night was a microcosm of their season -- the great start, the enormous lead right in the middle, the collapse, the late revival, and then a finish that will forever haunt them.

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A day in the life of a reliever 

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
9:34
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Burke BadenhopTommy Gilligan/USA TODAY SportsWhat's a day in the life of a reliever like? Ask Burke Badenhop.
Guest bloggers are stepping in for Buster Olney this week to write the lead item, while Buster still has his news and notes below that. Today's guest blogger is Boston Red Sox reliever Burke Badenhop.

“What time’s the national anthem?”

I always have to ask because I know I’m going to be late getting ready. Punctuality is something I’m working on. But missing the anthem is breaking a team rule and results in an earful from my teammate Craig Breslow. It's certainly not how I wish to start a game. After honoring America, a rookie grabs the candy bag and we head off to the pen.

At the onset of the game, every reliever hopes the starter is sharp, settles into the game and is economical with his pitch count. No one likes early phone calls down here. Short starts will wreak havoc on a pen. The wear and tear of today's game can easily haunt you for the better part of a week. On the other hand, a spectacular start or a complete game can put all the pieces back in place for a bullpen. So we all sit, sipping our energy drinks during the early innings, willing the starter to find his rhythm.

Somewhere between the third and fifth innings, the back end of the bullpen shows up. We seven pitchers assembled comprise the Red Sox's bullpen. The setup guys, the closer and other bullpen veterans greet everyone and find their places. These guys have earned their late arrival. They’re the ones the team leans on in the tight spots, when we need to get out of a jam, when tonight’s game is on the line. They get some extra time to prepare and relax in the clubhouse, knowing they won't be called upon in the early innings.

Although a team might have the same seven relievers from the night before, a manager's bullpen could be different every night depending on who's available. Some relievers might be “down,” meaning not available that night under any circumstance. A "down" guy could be nursing a sore arm or simply shouldn’t pitch because of his recent workload.

Others "could use a day" -- meaning they are available but hopefully won't be called upon. A day of rest would do them a world of good, but if the right situation occurs, they’ll pitch. Some guys are available for multiple innings because they’re fully rested, while others have enough gas in the tank for only a hitter or two. Every manager must take his relievers' availability into consideration and works with what they have that night.

There’s a saying that holds true for a reliever: "You’re pitching either too much or not enough." When you pitch, you tend to pitch a lot. When you don’t pitch, you tend to sit a lot. It’s these peaks and valleys that I believe lead to so much variability in reliever performances from year to year. The guys who can manage it the best are the ones who stay in this game the longest.

As the night progresses and our starter begins to tire and lose effectiveness, the phone calls start. Eventually bullpen phones are going to be the only land lines left in America. I usually have a pretty good idea who is going to be called on after assessing the situation on the field. Even if I don’t think my name is going to be called, I prepare like it will be. It’s best to always be prepared to pitch and be surprised when you don’t. The last thing I want is to be caught unprepared -- physically or mentally.

But it is my name that's called.

Whenever my name is called, I take a deep breath, blow it out and take a couple of seconds to “turn it on.” Turning it on is getting focused, getting a bit weird, getting my mind on the only thing that matters: making pitches.
Burke Badenhop
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsBadenhop has his own little ritual to "turn it on" when his name is called.

I take my jacket off and grab a baseball. Most baseball players are completely different people on the field than they are off it. If I have to be ready quickly, I frantically fire fastballs and hope to get a slider or two in before being called into the game. If I have time and am preparing for a certain hitter two or three batters away, I pace myself more. All the while I’m taking inventory of how I feel. Am I staying tall? Am I on top of my sinker? Is my slider worth throwing today? Am I locating my changeup? As I loosen, I also try to make adjustments to get the most out of what I have that day. Maybe I need to loosen my grip on my changeup.

I might have to really focus on keeping pressure with my middle finger for my slider. Maybe my sinker is running too much that day and I need to pick a different spot to aim when throwing it away to a lefty. When the umpire signals for me, I chuck one last sinker, low and away, hopefully, and blow through the bullpen door to the outfield grass and toward the mound.

If the phone rings and someone else is called upon, I will continue to stretch and try to stay out of the way while they warm up. I certainly don’t take my jacket off at this point. If my jacket is on, I’m anonymous. No one knows who I am if they can’t see my name or number on the back of my jersey. As soon as someone takes his coat off, the fans loitering around the pen reach for their phones. Google is awesome, but not when you're sitting in the bullpen. Fans quickly discover many things about a player -- all providing ammunition for the local heckler. We hear all sorts of taunts and jeers while someone's warming up.

Some unoriginal fan yells, “My grandma throws harder than you!”

“Does she have an agent?” I reply.

The phone will ring some more. Some guys will warm up and get into the game. Others might warm up two or three times and never be called upon. We will protect a lead or do our best to keep our team close for a late-inning comeback. A win will lead to a happy clubhouse after the game. Everyone who pitched this night lines up to high-five the players coming in from the dugout. I’ll take care of a few things postgame to help me prepare for tomorrow. That might involve an arm stretch, icing or jumping in the cold/hot tub. It won't be long before I'll be asking what time the anthem is. And I swear I won’t be late this time.




And now we return to Buster's regularly scheduled news and notes …

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A's-Sox deal works for both sides 

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
10:59
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In Jon Lester’s past 10 starts, he has a 1.54 ERA, with 66 strikeouts and 11 walks over 70 innings. He has been a completely different pitcher since last August, since Red Sox catcher David Ross convinced him to work to both sides of the plate. He was dominant down the stretch, dominant in the postseason and now he figures

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Jon LesterJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesJon Lester was scratched from his scheduled start Wednesday, indicating he could be traded soon.
Memo to John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino:
I hope you have a Plan B. In fact, make sure you have a Plan B.

Because if there is no Plan B to Jon Lester for next season, you could have a whole lot of angry fans and players by Opening Day, and the narrative won't be about your team's farm system and promise or past glories. Fairly or not, the narrative in New England will be about cheap ownership. Fairly or not, the narrative will be about you.

If there is no Plan B, 2015 might make everybody pine for the warm and fuzzy days of the Bobby Valentine era.

Lester was scratched from today's scheduled start in anticipation of a possible deal, and trading Lester today or Thursday makes sense considering where you and the Boston Red Sox stand with the left-hander. He doesn't want to talk about a contract extension until the season is over, which is a polite way of saying he's going to become a free agent to solicit the highest possible offers, which is happening because it seems as if your organization has taken a semi-rigid stand against giving really long-term deals to pitchers. Trading Lester now will get the organization more value than what you would get in a compensatory draft pick. Given that you are closer to having the No. 1 pick in next year's draft than to the teams at the top of the American League East, sure, trading Lester now is the logical move.

But there cannot be any doubt: An opportunity to sign Lester was missed.

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Mookie BettsRich Schultz/Getty ImagesMookie Betts may well be an essential part of Boston's lineup for the rest of the season.
NEW YORK -- One evaluator not paid by Boston offered this take on Mookie Betts, who will make his major league debut tonight, when the Red Sox try to take their three-game series against the Yankees on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN):

“Tremendous feel for the strike zone,” the evaluator wrote. “Handles bat and is not a slap type. There is strength in the swing. Strong running ability. Defense really strong at second base. Limited time in center field, but early indications are that he is really solid.”

Another evaluator said: “He belongs in the major leagues. He’s a good player.”

Betts has almost as many extra-base hits (88) as strikeouts (90) over the past season and a half in the minors, with 132 walks and 67 stolen bases. He is 21 years old and slender and does not hit a lot of homers, yet. But his promotion, and the entrenchment of Brock Holt as an every-day player, seems to signal a change in direction for the Red Sox front office, a shift in lineup building. This is the Summer of the Improv.

Boston has an incredible history of power hitting, from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Jim Rice to the 3-4 combination of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. In the midst of the 1977 season, the Red Sox slammed homers in 33 consecutive games. Home runs have always been the foundation of the Red Sox offense, including in 2013, when Boston clubbed 178 homers -- sixth-most in the majors -- on the way to winning the World Series.

The front office waited for the Red Sox to hit homers again in the first half, after signing A.J. Pierzynski to replace Jarrod Saltalamacchia and believing in Grady Sizemore enough to give him an every-day job.

But it just hasn’t happened; Boston is 24th in home runs, with 61, and incredibly, the Red Sox are 27th in runs. They have looked around for power hitters in the trade market, just like a lot of other teams, and have identified few options.

So now Boston is changing. Instead of waiting for bigger, slower hitters to start mashing homers, the working philosophy now seems to be: If you hit -- no matter how you hit -- you are going to play.

Holt opened the season in the minor leagues, and now he is Boston’s leadoff man, hitting .321. Along comes Betts, who could play right field or center, depending on the needs of the day. Pierzynski probably needs to show something soon or else he will be the next to go, to be replaced by Christian Vazquez, a strong defensive catcher who also doesn’t hit for a lot of power; he has three home runs in Triple-A this season, along with a .325 on-base percentage.

It’s possible that by the time Aug. 1 rolls around, the bulk of the Boston lineup might look like this:

1. Brock Holt
2. Mookie Betts
3. Dustin Pedroia
4. David Ortiz
5. Mike Napoli
6. Xander Bogaerts
9. Christian Vazquez

The rest of the lineup will be determined by who hits. Daniel Nava has improved his batting average from .130 to .216 since he was promoted; if he hits, he will play. Stephen Drew has one hit in 32 at-bats and quite simply looks terrible at the plate, completely off-balance. Bogaerts was moved from shortstop to third base and stopped hitting, but he will probably continue to play while he continues to develop.

The player who probably has the most to lose with the promotion of Betts is Jackie Bradley Jr., who knows Betts better than anyone, having roomed with him in instructional ball in the fall of 2011. Bradley’s defense has been exceptional, but at some point, the Red Sox will need better production from his spot; he is hitting .206 with a staggering 76 strikeouts and just 23 walks. The Red Sox could play Holt in center and Betts in right field, which is incredible, given that both were regarded as infielders just a month ago.

Whatever alignment evolves for the Red Sox, they won’t hit a lot of homers. But they should be pretty good defensively, they should put the ball in play more, and they will be more athletic, with almost half of their every-day lineup made up of players either in their first or second season.

They have waited for the old guard to hit, and it didn’t happen. Now the Red Sox will go with what they hope is basically a lineup of badgers -- not big, not powerful, but aggressive and relentless -- during a season in which the American League East is more mediocre than it has been in years and is there for the taking.

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Lackey's unique contract situation 

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
9:10
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John LackeyAP Photo/Steve NesiusRed Sox starter John Lackey is set to make only $500,000 next season.
Let’s be 100 percent clear about this: To date, the only noise about John Lackey’s very unusual contract situation is coming from the media, including me. I’ve never spoken to Lackey about this, and as far as I can tell, the pitcher hasn’t really expressed his views on a matter that isn’t close to being a front-burner issue. For all I know, he might view it as a nonissue.

But it’s a really interesting set of circumstances that will be resolved in the months ahead. Lackey’s $82.5 million deal with the Red Sox calls for him to make $500,000 next season, at a time when the 35-year-old right-hander is throwing as well as he has in any season in his career: a 3.18 ERA in 13 starts.

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There are 119 days remaining in the Major League Baseball season, and depending on whether the Boston Red Sox make the playoffs, perhaps 119 days until Jon Lester throws his last pitch of the year.

But the Red Sox may have much less time than that to negotiate a new long-term deal with Lester, who is the unquestioned anchor of the staff and is off to the best start of his career, with a 3.15 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP. Lester gave the Red Sox their seventh straight win Sunday with a 12-strikeout gem against the Rays, matching his season high for fastball velocity, at 92.6 mph with the pitch (according to ESPN Stats & Information). Rays hitters were 1-for-13 with six strikeouts and a walk against that pitch.

He is averaging almost seven innings per start, and has 22 walks and 95 strikeouts in 80 innings.

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