I’m a particularly big fan of Fire Brand’s own end-of-season award, Fire Brand of the Year. There’s a subtle difference between the Fire Brand award and others in that it’s not a simple MVP award, but something meant to highlight those whose contributions might have gone unnoticed, but were nonetheless essential to the team’s success.
Evan Brunell summarized our 2014 winner, Daniel Nava, here, and personally, I found that a hard pick to argue with. With the 2013 season in our rear-view, however, the question becomes: who could potential take home the award next season?
As a refresher, here are the criteria for the award:
The Fire Brand of the American League is a Red Sox player who exhibits character under pressure, an unassuming man who leaves the spotlight for other people but makes his indelible mark on the past season’s Boston Red Sox. A piece most people take for granted, but whom we would have missed dearly. The award is based on the prior season’s work. Thus, the first recipient of the award in 2004, Tim Wakefield, was based on his 2003 season.
We’re looking for guys who could be productive and yet fly under the radar this season (apologies to Dustin Pedroia), so let’s start with the obvious.
Could Daniel Nava be Fire Brand’s first ever two-time winner? It’s distinctly possible. For the time being, Nava holds the same role he did last year – barring any roster moves (none of which would likely involve him), Nava will again platoon with Jonny Gomes in left field, hitting against righties, with the added utility of being available at first base, if needed.
Nava has improved in every major league season, and it’s conceivable he could continue to do so. Even if he doesn’t, though, this is a player who finished 15th in all of baseball in OBP, yet doesn’t seem to get any attention outside of his home fans. He’s a mentor to younger players and an all-around nice guy, and would seem like a strong contender to repeat as Fire Brand of the Year.
This one is a bit of a darkhorse, but there’s some potential here. Middlebrooks suffered through a terrible first half last year that saw him demoted back to the minor leagues, and since then, he’s been somewhat disregarded as a factor in the Red Sox lineup. I still believe in Wake and Rake, however, and there are some things to be optimistic about, such as a .344 second-half wOBA for the former top prospect.
There’s still work to be done, as his strikeout rate is still astronomical and his plate discipline is inconsistent, but I think the potential is there for Middlebrooks to surprise some this season. I would not be shocked to see something in the range of .250/.300/.480 from him, which would likely land him in the MLB’s top-20 at third base.
I’d like nothing more than to see Middlebrooks, also perhaps the team’s most entertaining social media personality, put 2013 behind him and get back on the Boston radar. It would be more than enough to make him my Fire Brand of the Year.
The Red Sox have largely kept quiet this offseason, but one of their notable adds came in form of journeyman reliever Edward Mujica. Mujica certainly sits behind Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, and Craig Breslow in the bullpen pecking order, but he’s a talented righty who saved 37 games for the Cardinals last year and – similar to Koji – has a reputation for avoiding walks like the plague (he walked only 0.70 batters per nine innings last season).
Nobody will expect much from Mujica given the Red Sox depth in the bullpen, but it’s always worth remembering that Koji Uehara was the team’s third closer going into last season. A lot can happen in 162 games, and Mujica could prove to be a valuable weapon for the Red Sox going forward.
Ryan Dempster is now the odd man out among Boston’s starting pitchers. Signed last year in free agency, he posted a 4.57 ERA across 32 appearances and found himself made irrelevant after the Jake Peavy trade, resigned to only three innings of work out of the bullpen in the playoffs. Dempster is now clearly the sixth-best starter on the active roster, and will more than likely find himself back in the bullpen to open this season.
But being the sixth starter in a five-man rotation doesn’t make Dempster worthless. This Fangraphs piece by Jeff Sullivan discusses the importance of depth in a team’s starting pitching, and the main point is this: more than likely, we’re going to need Ryan Dempster. Ideally, it would be wonderful if our primary rotation could make all of their starts, but history suggests that simply won’t be the case.
We’re going to see plenty of Ryan Dempster in 2014 and, having done no prior research whatsoever, I believe he is one of the best sixth starters in the league, and that kind of depth can be a very valuable thing.
(It’s worth noting that, should Dempster perform poorly, it could be Brandon Workman in this same long relief/spot starter role, and the same argument could be made for him in that case as well.
So those are my early favorites for Fire Brand of the Year. My own money would be on Nava, personally, but the Red Sox have so many players that could contribute (especially including minor league depth) that at the end of the year, we could be looking at an entirely different list.
That’s the great thing about baseball: greatness can come from some of the most unlikely places.