They say that those that don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. In the Red Sox’s case, that may be truer than we realize. Over the course of the offseason, I’ve been noticing eerie similarities the current Red Sox have with their predecessors a decade ago.
In 2001, the Red Sox had long-time manager Jimy Williams enter the season with the hope that the team’s star acquisition, Manny Ramirez, would help lead Boston back to the playoffs after missing out in 2000. Prior to that, the Red Sox had been bounced in both the LDS (1998, Indians) and LCS (1999, Yankees), deferring their World Series hopes to yet another year.
However, the club crumbled as the team seemed to tune Williams out and the clubhouse was perhaps the most toxic in franchise history. The minor leagues were of no help, with a staggering lack of depth and talent leading to a preseason organizational ranking of 24 by Baseball America. Williams was fired on August 16, a date that needs no dredging up in my mind because it was my birthday and I was headed to the game. I found out about his firing en route to the game and showed up in shock, as Williams was highly-regarded by yours truly. On that day, I witnessed Joe Kerrigan’s managerial debut kick off with a victory against the Mariners. “El Guapo” Rich Garces earned the win in two innings of relief after David Cone, with Ugueth Urbina nailing down the save. Nomar Garciaparra, Jose Offerman and Dante Bichette all went deep in the 6-4 win, with Bichette’s three-run blast in the eighth inning off former Sox pitcher Aaron Sele clanking off the Coke bottles, a memory still prominent in my mind.
But it was all downhill after that, as the Sox collapsed under the weight of Kerrigan’s inability to manage and Carl Everett’s antics dominating the papers day after day. The Sox went 16-26 after that day, dropping from five games behind the Yankees to 13 1/2 to close out the season. The Red Sox were a decidedly average team placing eighth in the league in runs scored and runs allowed.
In the offseason, the current ownership of John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino arrived, ousting Kerrigan and GM Dan Duquette, installing Mike Port as interim GM and hiring Grady Little as skipper. It was a culture change, a scrubbing of the bad taste the previous season had left in the fans’ mouths, and they were eager for a team to root for.
It would take some time to find that team, though. The biggest move Boston made in the offseason was to import center fielder Johnny Damon, who found the clubhouse culture shocking upon his arrival, with even a Red Sox player going so far as to warn Damon that Boston was not a good place to play, as Damon recollects in his book, Idiot. Damon eventually was able to turn the culture around, although it took time and help (namely Kevin Millar).
The turnover wasn’t just limited to Damon. The Red Sox saw four new position players handle the bulk of time at their respective positions, excluding Nomar Garciaparra, who returned to duty in 2002 after missing most of 2001. In the rotation, the club converted Derek Lowe from closer to starter and brought in John Burkett to replace Hideo Nomo and revamped its bullpen with significant success.
Thanks to these moves, their offense leaped to second in runs scored and third in runs allowed, but they still missed out on the playoffs. They would end up returning to the October dance in 2003, and we all know what happened that year … and the year after.
Does reading the above make you experience any kind of deja vu? It should. Let’s take a look back at 2001 as well as the transition to 2002 and see what similarities arise between 2011 and 2012.
In 2011, the Red Sox also had a long-time manager come into the season with a big-ticket acquisition in Adrian Gonzalez (and Carl Crawford) expected to anchor the offense. Just like in 2001, the Red Sox had missed the playoffs in the year prior and before that being bounced in the LDS and LCS (although unlike 2001, they made it to the LCS first, in 2008, then the LDS in 2009). The clubhouse then crumbled as the season went on, their playoff hopes dashed in striking fashion with a horrid finish to the season and a farm system devoid of help in the upper minors and a BA ranking of 17.
The 2011-12 offseason saw an overturn of culture and expectations. While there wasn’t a new ownership group this time, there was a new manager (Bobby Valentine) and a new GM (Ben Cherington) taking over from longtime predecessors. The offense underwent a less drastic facelift than 2001-02, but still imported three new contributors to the starting lineup in Mike Aviles and the Ryan Sweeney/Cody Ross combo. Just like in 2002, the Red Sox replaced 2/5ths of its rotation. Instead of signing a grizzled veteran like Burkett, the 2012 Sox are starting off with Felix Doubront, although a Burkett comparison is waiting in Triple-A who goes by the name of Aaron Cook. And 2012′s version of Derek Lowe is found in Daniel Bard. The team’s biggest off-season acquisition is on par with Damon a decade ago, only this time it was closer Andrew Bailey.
But just like Damon and others came into a team with a toxic clubhouse and set about fixing it, so do we see some players beginning that process in 2012 with Nick Punto and Cody Ross seemingly leading the way. Of course, it will be difficult for the Red Sox to experience a quantum leap forward in 2012′s record as compared to 2011. While the 2002 Red Sox added 11 games to its win total to finish at 93 victories, the 2011 Sox won 90 and 101 wins is all but a pipe dream.
Unlike 2001, the 2011 squad had a vaunted offense — but its pitching was similarly decidedly average. The ’12 version of the Red Sox should have no difficulty matching the offense of the ’02 Red Sox, but it remains to be seen if the team can experience a similar leap forward in pitching quality that the ’02 team experienced. Just like a decade ago, the Red Sox are coming into 2012 with a revamped bullpen but this one has lots of question marks attached to it and enough competition in the AL that the team may miss the playoffs, just as it did in 2002 when the Angels took the wild card with 99 wins and went on to win the World Series.
One thing that may help this iteration of the Red Sox is the farm system, which ranked 28th in 2002 — but is ninth in 2012. And of course, there’s now a second wild card affording Boston a better chance at the playoffs.
Of course, there’s a lot of confirmation bias inherent in an analysis such as this, and several of the points made in how similar the seasons are nothing but mere coincidence. There probably isn’t any concrete lessons to take from these similarities, but the fact that the organization took similar steps after 2001 as it did in 2011 is notable. Forget all the noise and controversies that have embroiled the Red Sox since September 2011. This is a quality team with a quality farm system, and just like there was plenty of optimism in 2002 and beyond, so there is plenty of optimism for 2012 and beyond.