For years, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have been the evil empires of baseball. They put together the best teams by outspending their competition, they get featured on national TV on a bi-weekly basis despite playing four hour snooze fests and the majority of their marquee players have been steroid users. I think we can universally agree that watching a team like the San Fransisco Giants win two of the past three World Series is much easier on the soul than watching the Yankees or Red Sox pile up the pennants.
But last year things started to change. There was a massive shift in the American League East, with the Red Sox and Yankees trending downwards and the Orioles, Rays and even Blue Jays moving in the right direction thanks to things like building a farm system, excellent scouting and smart managing. You know, only the total opposite way of building a franchise compared to how the Red Sox and Yankees succeeded.
The Red Sox took it harder than the Yankees, with the hiring of Bobby Valentine and the whole beer and chicken fiasco combining to create enough chaos that it forced Theo Epstein to want to work for the Cubs, Kevin Youkilis to want to work for the Yankees and left the team barren of talented players outside of guys like Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury (who are both coming off of down years).
For the first time in over a decade, the Blue Jays, Orioles and Rays were all favored to finish better than the Red Sox and Yankees prior to the start of this season, as the evil empires of the American League were expected to go through a down year. It’s easy to see why this was the most common prognostication for the division. The Orioles were tremendous last season and have a cast of young stars, Tampa has been consistently competitive over the past handful of years and the Blue Jays had one of the best off-seasons in baseball by adding Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey, superstar Jose Reyes and useful regulars like Emilio Bonifacio and Melky Cabrera.
Meanwhile, the Yankees entered this season with a litany of injuries to their best players and the Red Sox were relying heavily on guys like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks. From a talent standpoint, all three of the AL East’s former underdogs have an advantage over Boston and New York.
But over the first week of the season, I found myself gravitating to the Red Sox for some reason. I had previously disliked the Red Sox because I tend to root for the underdog and they were always buying their way to success. But now the roles are reversed. Now it’s Boston that has all of the odds stacked against them with a cast of players looking to prove themselves and a division filled with tough opponents to overcome. And it’s always easier to fall for a team when they have someone like rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. there to pull you in.
Boston took a risk this season by deciding to keep Bradley with the big league club to start the year, and it paid off immediately when he burst onto the scene in Boston’s opening series against the Yankees. For a player that got all of two hits in that series, Bradley still made an impression on fans because he had a keen eye, a virtue that very few young players come into the league with. Bradley drew three walks on opening day and has five on the season so far, and he’s captivating the Red Sox fan base even though he’s not often making contact with the ball.
Bradley’s outfield mates – Ellsbury and off-season acquisition Shane Victorino – are also easy players to root for.
Ellsbury was legitimately in the conversation as one of the handful of best players in baseball a year ago before his season was derailed by injuries. We can only hope that Ellsbury is able to get back to his usual self at some point this season, because when all facets of his game are working – the great plate approach, the surprising power, the tremendous defense and the blazing speed – he’s one of the funnest players in the game to watch.
Victorino has always been a fun player to watch, too, because it’s clear he’s always giving it his all. He’s been a pretty consistent 3-4 WAR player since he became an everyday regular in Philly, with the one outlier being his 5.7 WAR campaign in 2011 when he slugged a career high .491 and posted a career high 133 wRC+ (weight runs created). Some have criticized Victorino’s defense in recent years, but his advanced metrics (UZR and UZR/150) have stayed above average and if he can get back to being a .280/.350/.450 hitter, he’ll likely give the Red Sox a 3-4 WAR return on their off-season investment.
Then there is Will Middlebrooks, the second year third baseman that lit up the Blue Jays on Sunday to the tune of three homeruns (and he hit a flyball to the warning track in his final at-bat). Middlebrooks showed flashes of being a solid everyday player last year – he had a .288/.325/.509 slash line with 15 homers and 1.9 WAR – and he’s looking like an even more dangerous hitter this season.
The pitching staff lacks that power arm or strikeout savant that is fun to watch take the hill every five days, but Jon Lester is at an important point in his career as he tries to bounce back from his disaster 2012 season, and he’s off to a good start (2-0, 1.50 ERA, 13 Ks) and I think the combination of Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan in the bullpen has the potential to be one of the better 8th-9th inning combos in the league. And we can only hope that Daniel Bard makes his way back to the big leagues with his confidence with him, because he’s was one of the game’s best relief pitchers before he began his transition to a starting role.
The Red Sox have started off the year 5-2 with series wins over the Yankees and Blue Jays and a 3-1 victory over the Orioles yesterday. After they finish their home series with Baltimore, Boston will travel to Tampa Bay for a four game series with the Rays. By the end of next week, the Red Sox will have one through a series with each and every one of their division opponents, and there is a good chance that they will emerge from their opening stretch with a winning record and potentially with a spot at the top of the division.
The tables have turned for the Red Sox this season. They’ve gone from cursed to a traditional power to a laughing stock during my lifetime and now they’ve entered a new phase as underdogs in the American League East. And now that the perception of them as favorites is gone, I find them an easy team to root for because of their talented and enjoyable personnel. I’m sure that once this lull in the franchise’s history is complete or the team is sold that Boston will be back to their bullying ways in the free agent market, but for now I will enjoy this scrappy bunch as they fight an uphill battle for a playoff spot.