Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Boston’s sports franchises are doing interesting things. The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl, the Celtics are in first place in the Eastern Conference, and the Bruins are second in the NHL in points. For Boston fans that have come to expect consistent success, this year has been no disappointment.
For all those teams’ success, there’s a notable local organization lagging behind in terms of hype: the Red Sox. Few people seem to be talking about them right now. It’s been an unusually quiet offseason across the MLB, but perhaps the only Red Sox talking point of note right now is the extended stare-down with free agent J.D. Martinez. After that, it’s… Mitch Moreland’s two-year deal? Yikes.
I’m not used to feeling so unenthused about the Red Sox. They were the team that brought me into Boston sports, after all. In a manner of speaking, I suppose I’m sort of a bandwagon fan, but it wasn’t one of the championship teams that brought me here. No, it was the 2009 team that did that — if you remember, that’s the one that got swept by the Angels in the ALDS.
It was a simple decision: “Maybe I’ll give baseball a shot.” I was in high school, and football wasn’t quite cutting it for me, so I felt it was time to branch out. The Red Sox and Angels were on, and it didn’t take long for me to get hooked. I loved Dustin Pedroia’s fiery demeanor, David Ortiz’s easy confidence, and most of all, Kevin Youkilis’ completely absurd batting stance. Jon Lester’s triumph over lymphoma was incredibly cool, and Josh Beckett looked liable to beat up an opposing hitter at a moment’s notice, which was also pretty cool in its own way.
The season ended too soon after, but it was a busy offseason for me; I needed to learn more about these players, this franchise, this city. I knew about The Curse and the legendary 2004 team that finally ended it. I didn’t know about the comeback against the Yankees, or Kevin Millar’s endless quotability, or Manny’s tendency to always be Manny. I didn’t know they went back and did it again in 2007 with plenty of new faces, including the undefinable Pedroia, the Laser Show and the Muddy Chicken, who I did know was a man after my own heart as soon as I read about his “Ask Jeff Francis who the fuck I am,” quote.
I’m on my ninth year with the Boston Red Sox now, and I’ve seen my fair share of highs and lows, from fried chicken and beer to getting a chance to watch a Boston championship myself. I got to see David Ortiz’s famed postseason heroics live before my eyes, as he was engulfed in flames against the Cardinals and drove the team of beards and Koji Uehara high fives to their third title in ten years. Those 2013 Red Sox rebounded from the worst record in the AL East the year before, which in some ways encapsulates what its been like to follow this team over that time.
If the Red Sox built my Boston fandom, then the Celtics cemented it. My timing wasn’t any better with them — I started following just late enough to miss the dominant 2007-08 championship team. Still, over the next several seasons, I was hooked. The “Big Three” Celtics were a team of dominant personalities — Paul Pierce’s unshakable confidence, Kevin Garnett’s frenzied barking, Ray Allen’s unflappable consistency — and even as they all began to grow old, there was a pridefulness to them. The decrepit Celtics were an annoyance, the team that would give too much effort every night and use their veteran saavy to frustrate younger, more athletic teams. They took LeBron James and the eventual champion Miami Heat to seven games in the 2011-12 Eastern Conference Finals, and it was sort of a last hurrah for the group. LeBron might have buried them, but they went out swinging.
Since the Celtics’ loss to Miami and the Red Sox win over St. Louis the next year, the two franchises have seemed to trend in different directions. The Celtics hit rock bottom in 2013-14, going 25-57 and finishing 12th in the Eastern Conference. They’ve made the playoffs and improved their record in every season since. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have been, to some extent, treading water. They’ve posted two losing seasons since the championship, followed by consecutive 93-win campaigns where they never really felt like a legitimate contender.
It feels as though there’s just more of a plan behind the Celtics than the Red Sox. Danny Ainge has spent years meticulously compiling and flipping draft picks, capitalizing on undervalued players, and finding the right opportunities to spend. The two most significant free agent signings in franchise history — Al Horford and Gordon Hayward — came in the past two offseasons. Ainge avoids panic moves and trades from a position of strength as well as any GM in professional sports, to the point where he’s often teased for his reluctance to part with his assets. This past summer, the Celtics passed on a number of potential deals for superstars who changed teams. Paul George was available, but is also on the final year of his contract, likely to bolt for Los Angeles this coming summer. It was a bad bet for Ainge to pay up for a player he couldn’t guarantee he could keep, so he didn’t.
On the flip side, the Red Sox have seen three executives in charge of baseball operations since 2011, and few baseball executives are more different than one another in terms of philosophy than the latter two — Ben Cherington and Dave Dombrowski. Cherington, though he had his own faults, was more similar to Ainge — building up the farm system and avoiding bad contracts that would kill flexibility… right up until he signed two awful contracts that destroyed his flexibility in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez.
The Red Sox have seen three executives in charge of baseball operations since 2011, and few baseball executives are more different than one another in terms of philosophy than the latter two.
Enter Dombrowski, who, to a fault, loves the big splash. Dombrowski was hired in August of 2015, and by November, he’d already shelled out $217 million to David Price and shipped four prospects away in exchange for Craig Kimbrel. That’s not to say these deals were the wrong things to do at the time, but considering Dombrowski’s body of work, it’s a fair critique to say that he often opts to throw money and assets at problems until they go away.
Subsequently, this current offseason isn’t terribly surprising. Dombrowski is locked in a staring contest with J.D. Martinez, who is a player this lineup desperately needs. The Red Sox are starved for power, and previous deals have left the farm system depleted enough to make trades for top-end talent difficult. If Martinez ends up elsewhere, there may not be another move to be made right now.
And in some ways, that’s the point. Danny Ainge didn’t need Paul George. He was building on a team that made the conference finals the year before and months later is sitting in first place in the conference right now, all while sitting on a treasure hoard of draft picks and young talent. He’s a strong, independent GM who don’t need no blockbuster trade. There were dozens of pathways open to the Celtics this past summer, and all Ainge had to do was find the one he liked the best. The one he chose has the Celtics competitive right now without sacrificing virtually any long-term upside.
This kind of result is difficult to achieve without consistency, and, in essence, the Red Sox have been an organizational roller coaster. Cherington took charge and immediately had to address missteps by Theo Epstein, most notably the infamous Carl Crawford contract. Since his departure, Cherington’s carefully cultivated farm system has largely either graduated or been shipped off by Dombrowski. Conversely, Dombrowski has had to struggle with those albatross contracts for Sandoval and Ramirez, the latter of which is still owed $44 million over the next two years, assuming his option vests. They’ve been tying knots and challenging the next guy to unravel them. Is Dave Dombrowski the guy to lead a franchise to sustained, long-term success? Tigers fans of the past three seasons might have some thoughts on the matter.
This is all a long way of saying that, as a fan, the Red Sox don’t give me that feeling of utter confidence the way the Celtics do. Remember the feeling we all had when that large contract for Pablo Sandoval looked likely, even though the case against that signing was obvious? It’s certainly unrealistic to expect any team to operate as efficiently and with as high of a success rate as the Celtics have over the past 10+ years, but there’s an unavoidable aura of “I hope this doesn’t blow up in our faces” in place.
My point is not to predict doom and gloom with the current state of the Red Sox. Far from it. They’re more likely than not to win 90+ games again this season, and they have a collection of young stars like Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and Rafael Devers that will be anchoring the lineup for years to come. They have two Cy Young winners in their starting rotation, and those guys aren’t even as good as their ace. If you’re going to have problems with your baseball franchise, these are probably the ones to have — it certainly beats being the Derek Jeter-led Marlins.
But following the Red Sox transformed my sports fandom, and not long after that, the Celtics did it again. It’s impossible not to compare the two. I love watching Mookie Betts and Chris Sale, but on the macro level, something’s just fundamentally off with the Red Sox right now, and it’s never more apparent than when the Celtics are on TV. With as much as the team has going for it right now, it’s telling that they’re receiving so little buzz — and that’s without mentioning how the Yankees appear to be rising fast.
I can’t say for sure how good the Red Sox will be this season — too much depends on Martinez’s status, first and foremost. Players like Price, Ramirez, and Pedroia are aging, Chris Sale has two years remaining on his contract, and younger contributors like Betts and Bogaerts are into their arbitration seasons. Jason Groome and Michael Chavis are nice prospects, but even Groome is still a-ways off, and the system around them is thin. Major roster decisions are coming in the next few years, and it’s hard to divine the greater plan in place here — if in fact there is one.
I know the Celtics will be very good, though. They already are, and there isn’t much reason to think they won’t continue to be for years to come. Danny Ainge has put together a well-oiled machine that has missed the playoffs only three times since the 2003-04 season. For a Red Sox franchise in need of some year-to-year consistency and sustained success, looking to their sibling franchise for some ideas might not be the worst idea.
Photo by Greg M. Cooper — USA TODAY Sports