Buster Olney: Boston Red Sox

"Sunday Night Baseball" felt like a screenplay that would've been rejected because of implausibility, with all its elements and characters and plot twists crammed into one evening, in one of the most interesting regular-season games you will ever see.

Before the first pitch, a future Hall of Famer was held out of the lineup for the second straight day, and then word broke that Dustin Pedroia, who played almost the entire 2013 with a torn thumb ligament, has a bad left wrist that will be tested in Boston today.

After the first pitch, there was all of the incredible defensive play by superlative outfielders, with Jackie Bradley Jr. throwing out Jacoby Ellsbury to Brett Gardner throwing out Bradley to Daniel Nava's catch to Ichiro Suzuki's Spider-Man impersonation.

Because Francisco Cervelli got hurt, Carlos Beltran had to play first base for the first time in his career, and because Pedroia is hurt, Mike Carp had his first-ever game action at third. John Farrell became the first-ever manager ejected while challenging replay, after a call was overturned (more below).

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Matt WilliamsChuck Myers/MCT/Getty ImagesSaturday's game was not the first time Matt Williams was upset with a call this season.
As managers discussed instant replay prior to the season, they were generally circumspect, understated in their public comments. You got some eye rolls, and privately, some expressed concern, particularly with the challenge system.

But less than two weeks into the start of the regular season, frustration with the system is beginning to boil over, as it did with Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams on Saturday.

Williams challenged an out call of Nate McLouth on a throw to first base, and the replay on the Nats’ broadcast appeared to indicate that the ball wasn’t quite in Freddie Freeman's glove when McLouth’s foot hit the base; in other words, McLouth appeared to be safe. You can see it here, over and over, because the challenge decision lasted four minutes. And McLouth was called out.

Williams was befuddled, as James Wagner of the Washington Post reported. From his story:

“I’m extremely frustrated by the process at this point,” Williams said. “Because if they’re seeing the same feed that we’re seeing, I don’t know how he’s out. I don’t know how Nate is out if they have the same feed that we have, so that’s frustrating because I thought he was safe. We’ve looked at it 100 times since then, and we believe he was safe. And if that is a safe call, then we maintain our challenge. … Again, I’m frustrated by the first one, though, because I see him as safe. And we have the same technology and the same video. I don’t know about that one. That frustrates me.”


Earlier in the day, in New York, the Red Sox challenged a call on Dean Anna, and while Boston appeared to be right, the Sox's challenge was rejected. MLB acknowledged later that the call was wrong.

Boston manager John Farrell was perplexed. “We had probably five angles that confirmed his foot was off the base, and when the safe call came back, it certainly raises questions on if they're getting the same feeds we are, the consistency of the system," Farrell said. "Yeah, it makes you scratch your head a little bit on why he was called safe."

What the managers want, above all else, is reliability, some degree of predictability. They don’t want to feel as though there is a roll of the dice when they’re issuing a challenge, and that they have no idea what the replay officials are looking at. They want to know that each challenge will be treated in the same way, with an expected outcome.

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John FarrellAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJohn Farrell didn't make any issue of questions about a substance on Michael Pineda's hand.

The Red Sox have been there and done that with the accusations of pitchers using foreign substances, from Clay Buchholz's shiny forearm and game-day wet look to the green stuff seemingly wedged into the leather of Jon Lester's glove last October. They were probably disinclined to cast any stones at Michael Pineda Thursday night, as Pineda pitched the first innings with his right palm covered by something that looked an awful lot like leftovers from George Brett's bat three decades ago.

Pineda wasn’t alone in substance scrutiny Thursday: An Astros pitcher sprayed his arms before his start Thursday, as Evan Drellich writes. At the very least, pitchers should and probably do know that they are being watched in high definition in the way that golfers are being scrutinized for rules violations. This is a pitchers' version of jaywalking in 2014, and while a whole lot of folks may cross the line, they might want to strive for subtlety.

But another reason the Red Sox may have not said much is

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DodgersStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesHanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig serve as spark plugs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
LOS ANGELES -- Hanley Ramirez attends the meetings that the Dodgers hold for the hitters at the outset of every series to go over scouting reports, but he does this to be respectful and polite of the process and not because he actually gleans information. He does not study video, either.

“None,” he said Saturday as he waited his turn in batting practice.

He does not care to know the identity of the opponent's starting pitcher, Ramirez said, until he is preparing for his first at-bat -- and even then, as he watches the pitcher throw to the first batters of the game, what Ramirez only wants to know is how hard the pitcher is throwing, and how much his fastball moves.

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Jackie Bradley Jr.Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty ImagesJackie Bradley Jr. has had Grady Sizemore breathing down his neck all spring.
Compared with the choices of desperation being made in the camps of the Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves, the Red Sox's outfield quandary is like picking between Hawaii and the Bahamas for a vacation spot. Texas would love to have Boston's troubles.

But Boston's decision about what to do with Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr. has been complicated, presenting competing sets of priorities.

Sizemore has looked great this spring, after having just 435 plate appearances over the last five years. If the question was only about who is Boston's best center fielder today, Sizemore would be the choice, given the way he has looked this spring. It appears that may be the way the Red Sox are leaning, based on what manager John Farrell said Tuesday.

But Bradley, who turns 24 next month, is clearly the center fielder of the future for the Red Sox, having demonstrated his superlative defensive skills in the minors, having shown his knack for getting on base year after year (career .404 OBP in the minors). If the decision was only about the long-term plans for the Red Sox, Bradley would be the center fielder.

So Red Sox evaluators have been weighing the various options they have at their disposal.

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MiddlebrooksScott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsWill Middlebrooks got contact lenses this winter, and he hopes that will solve some problems.
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Time to empty the notebook from our Thursday broadcast prep for the game between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

1. Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks has had a good spring training, hitting the ball from line to line -- and it'll be interesting to see if he gets even better in the days ahead, given a change he just made. He related to John Kruk that last spring, he got a call from an eye doctor but never followed up.

This spring, he did ... and as it turned out, he told Kruk, he needed an eye prescription. He wore contacts for the first time during a game in Boston's exhibition two days ago.

2. The area on top of Shane Victorino's right thumb would often sting when he hit the ball, because the bat -- pressed hard against his hand -- would deliver a jolt. Victorino had surgery during the offseason, and there hasn't been a lot of difference in the discomfort he feels.

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Toughest lineup quandaries in MLB 

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Xander BogaertsRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesBoth Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia could see time leading off for the Red Sox in 2014.
When Joe Torre managed, he jotted down lineups in his time away from the park, mulling over various possibilities, internally debating certain combinations.

In other words: He was like a lot of baseball fans and reporters, who like to think through different lineup quandaries, especially in the cold of winter.

Around baseball, there are interesting lineup quandaries.

For the defending champion Red Sox: Who hits leadoff?

Boston’s leadoff hitters ranked first in on-base percentage last season and third in runs scored, but the guy primarily responsible for that is gone. So now John Farrell has to decide who will replace Jacoby Ellsbury in the No. 1 spot in his batting order.

He’s got a few imperfect candidates such as Dustin Pedroia, who actually has done some of his worst work when he’s hit leadoff, or Jackie Bradley, who doesn’t have a lot of experience, or maybe Xander Bogaerts, who may ultimately be needed to hit in the middle of the Boston order.

But the Red Sox are likely to open the year with Bradley at or near the bottom of their lineup to help ease his transition into the big leagues.

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The Yankees invested a $20 million posting fee and $155 million in salary in Masahiro Tanaka, and that total of $175 million represents the highest amount of dollars spent on any free-agent pitcher ever -- more than $161 million spent on CC Sabathia, or the $147 million doled out for Zack Greinke. Without that commitment, the Yankees wouldn’t have landed Tanaka.

But Tanaka has a reputation for being exceedingly competitive, and beyond the Woodrow Wilsons -- the many $100,000 bills -- the notion of being desperately needed by a historic franchise must’ve appealed to a pitcher who wants responsibility, who wants to be "the man," who wants to win. Yankees officials sensed that in him when they met him two weeks ago.

If Tanaka had signed with the Cubs, he probably would've had to wait two or three years before seeing that franchise turn the corner. If he had signed with the Dodgers, he would’ve been slotted in behind Clayton Kershaw and Greinke; he never would have been "the man."

But now he has a chance to be the Yankees' superhero in New York, for a staff

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Top 10 teams in the majors 

December, 31, 2013
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Miguel CabreraMark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWith Miguel Cabrera no longer out of position, the Tigers should be even better in 2014.
As 2013 becomes 2014, here's a look at the top 10 teams in MLB.

1. Detroit Tigers

Some of the teams that employ advanced metrics determined at the end of the last regular season that the Tigers were the best team in the American League -- by far. This, in spite of a bullpen that repeatedly went through changes at closer, and in spite of what was widely regarded as the worst defense in the majors. The Tigers won the AL Central for the third straight year, and again they couldn't win the World Series, losing to Boston in the ALCS. And since the end of the season, Detroit GM David Dombrowski has gone about the business of plugging the holes.

He allowed Jhonny Peralta to depart, cementing Jose Iglesias' spot at shortstop.

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Many teams capable of a big move 

December, 15, 2013
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Shin-Soo ChooJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesShin-Soo Choo is one of the big names still available in free agency, and he has a number of potential suitors.
The Mariners have spent about $250 million this offseason, and the Yankees more than $300 million. Most of the best free agents have come off the board, and as general managers rushed out of the building with the dolphin on the top to catch flights out of Florida on Thursday, a lot of the winter work was done.

But some teams still have room for a big move before the offseason is over:

1. Texas Rangers: GM Jon Daniels says he does not expect any more major moves for the Rangers this winter. But Texas remains in an excellent position in its negotiations with Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz, because it appears the Rangers are one of the last teams -- maybe the last team -- prepared to spend big money on an outfielder.

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Red Sox have options besides Napoli 

November, 15, 2013
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Mike NapoliJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesMike Napoli played a huge role for Boston in 2013. But it could be someone else in 2014.
Ben Cherington was honored as baseball’s executive of the year the other day, an award that pleased his peers, as well as his friends in the front office. Even throughout the trying 2012 season, Cherington was never caught up in privately placing blame on others. Rather, Cherington always seemed to be focused on what he felt he could do better, to help the Red Sox.

“He never looked for an excuse,” a friend of Cherington said. “He did everything he could to make it work.”

What the Red Sox were able to do quickly, under Cherington’s leadership, was to structure a pliable roster filled with value, while fostering an improving farm system. Boston won the World Series, but the payoffs for the team’s choices will continue into this offseason.

Mike Napoli is a free agent and the Red Sox would like to retain him. But Napoli, who turned 32 at the end of October, redefined the perception of him within the industry with his adept transition to first base, built on the many days and hours he worked with Red Sox coach Brian Butterfield, and through the work that he did with Dustin Pedroia on positioning.

A year ago, he was regarded as a beaten-down catcher with a chronically bad hip. Now he is seen as an above-average first baseman, coming off a season in which he had a .360 on-base percentage, generated 63 extra-base hits and helped propel to the Red Sox to a championship.

He is drawing interest from other teams, and some executives are convinced that Boston’s greatest competition for Napoli

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10 biggest holes on contenders 

November, 13, 2013
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A year ago, Marlon Byrd was coming off a season in which he had been suspended for the use of performance-enhancing drugs and was limited to just 47 games, and he eventually settled for a make-good minor league deal with the New York Mets.

Now he's 36 years old and getting a $16 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, which speaks to the level of desperation in play for teams wanting to get better, needing to get better.

As baseball executives meet in Orlando this week for the GM meetings, these are the 10 biggest holes that have to be filled among would-be contenders:

1. Texas Rangers: middle-of-the-order bats

Josh Hamilton walked away a year ago, Nelson Cruz is prepared to walk away now, and the Rangers -- who have historically posted top-notch, productive lineups in the way Duke has had good basketball teams -- have a problem. With Cruz, they clubbed 176 homers last season, and without him, they will lack thump.

This is why Brian McCann could make sense for them, or Carlos Beltran, or both. This is why they could be the best match for the Dodgers for an outfielder trade. This is why rival executives believe that if and when Giancarlo Stanton is traded, the Rangers will be at the front of the line and sticking their elbows out.

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Boston being unfair to Torey Lovullo 

November, 6, 2013
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Epstein, Lovullo, HenryGetty ImagesTorey Lovullo appears to be caught between Theo Epstein and Red Sox owner John Henry.
The Yankees haven't issued uniform No. 6 since Joe Torre left after the 2007 season, because the folks at the top of that organization recognize that there will be a day -- possibly next summer -- when Torre will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Torre was an excellent player, with 2,342 hits, nine All-Star appearances and an MVP Award, but his 12 seasons as manager of the Yankees push his candidacy over the top: He was the on-field leader of baseball's last dynasty, with the Yankees accumulating four championships and five World Series appearances in the span of six years. He was the perfect personality to manage a near-perfect roster, and the success of those teams, in the post-free-agency era that began in 1976, is unparalleled.

Torre is an important part of the Yankees' history, which is why the time will come, after he is celebrated in Cooperstown, that No. 6 will be retired in Torre's honor, with all of the attending pomp and circumstance.

Because it's the right thing to do, no matter the strain that occurred as Torre left the organization. There are personal relationships that were damaged along the way, and most or all will never be repaired because of what was done and said when he departed and because of what is contained within the pages of Torre's book. The split was ugly, unquestionably.

But like two divorced parents who do right by their children, the Yankees and Torre have chosen to set their differences aside when it comes to the treatment of their shared history. Torre has not boycotted Yankee Stadium, nor turned his back on the Yankees' organization; the Yankees never exiled Torre.

When the Yankees honored Mariano Rivera at the end of the season, Torre was part of the ceremony, and introduced in the same way that Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada and others were introduced. There was no hint of bitterness.

Which was the right thing to do. Because they all understand that what they accomplished together belongs to the ages, to fans, and should never be overshadowed by lingering personal feuds and disputes.

The Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 1918 and did not win another for the next 85 years. But finally, in 2004, they won again, with a memorable group of players that Johnny Damon dubbed as the "Idiots." The general manager of that team was Theo Epstein, and three years later, with Epstein serving as GM, they won again. Two championships in four years, transformative success for the Red Sox -- success shared by John Henry, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino, Epstein, Terry Francona, the staff and the players.

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'Victims' of the qualifying offer 

November, 5, 2013
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Nelson CruzThomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsNelson Cruz's power is rare in today's game, but the qualifying offer could scare clubs off.
There are always unexpected consequences with each labor agreement, and the most notable shift under the current deal is the draft-pick compensation drag: So many teams have become fully invested in drafting and developing that they shy away from some of the free agents who cost a team a high draft pick.

Kyle Lohse got caught in the draft-pick vise last year, and so did Michael Bourn and Rafael Soriano. For some free agents, getting a qualifying offer from their current teams, along with the reality of the draft-pick compensation, is similar to an NFL player getting a franchise tag because it undercuts the player's ability to have a free market.

Thirteen players got qualifying offers Monday, and the potential draft-pick drag won't hurt some of them because they are elite free agents, the best of the best -- Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann.

Some free agents may be impacted somewhat because some teams are philosophically opposed to giving up draft picks and won't consider the likes of Shin-Soo Choo, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, but those players are expected to make out just fine. (A couple of executives estimated Monday that Choo will wind up with a five-year deal in the range of $15 million per year).

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Major changes ahead for Red Sox 

October, 31, 2013
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BOSTON -- Dustin Pedroia spoke after Game 6, and before, about how much the Red Sox players cared about each other, and after Matt Carpenter's series-ending swing, the hugs were strong, heartfelt.

Today, instead of working out, they will sleep in, and there will be a parade Saturday. Then they will start to say their goodbyes for the start of 2013, and except for future reunion events, this particular group -- the players, the staff -- will never be together again.

Jacoby Ellsbury will likely be one of those on his way out, given Boston's (failed) efforts to sign him to a long-term deal.

According to sources: After the 2011 season, for which Ellsbury finished second in the American League MVP race, the Red Sox offered him a deal that fell slightly short of $100 million. The counter-offer from agent Scott Boras, according to sources, was for a deal of about $130 million. The gap in the negotiations was too large to bridge at that time.

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