5:58 PM CDT, August 31, 2013
On the off chance Cubs fans need some good news right about now, here's a projection that might provide comfort: If President Theo Epstein succeeds in building the "player development machine'' that is his goal, and it later falls apart, he — or his successor — can put it together again quickly.
Just look at the Red Sox.
After a run of three years not in the playoffs and two really messy seasons, they're one month away from entering the playoffs with one of the five best records in the majors.
Larry Lucchino, the team president who stayed after manager Terry Francona and general manager Epstein packed and moved, and second-year GM Ben Cherington have succeeded in an ambitious undertaking — bouncing back immediately from the 93-loss disaster they experienced under manager Bobby Valentine last year.
Spoiled by the World Series championships in 2004 and '07, Red Sox Nation wasn't looking forward to a long rebuild. Lucchino set the goal as contending this season, and Cherington has made it happen, thanks to prying manager John Farrell away from the Blue Jays and offloading almost $260 million in salary in the shocking trade last August that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.
Other general managers have done good work this season, including Ned Colletti (Dodgers), Chris Antonetti (Indians), Billy Beane (A's) and Neal Huntington (Pirates). But if Cherington isn't named Executive of the Year in November, they should stop giving out the award.
I'll admit it. I thought Lucchino was delusional when he gave Cherington his marching orders after sacking Valentine.
There was a widely held belief about the American League East entering this season — that all five teams could finish first or last. I thought that was true with the following exception — there's no way that the Blue Jays could finish last after adding Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Melky Cabrera, among others, and there's no way the Red Sox can finish first.
I couldn't have been more wrong on either end of the standings.
Let me count five ways that the Red Sox are doing it:
•Cherington used the payroll flexibility from the mega-deal with the Dodgers to add dependable veterans with strong track records in Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew and Ryan Dempster. They're major players in the clubhouse, but it is their contributions on the field that count the most.
•Negative factors the last two seasons, John Lackey and Jacoby Ellsbury (the first Red Sox player ever with three 50-steal seasons) have bounced back to deliver the way Epstein always imagined they would. Lackey is as mentally tough as Ellsbury's Ferrari-chassis is vulnerable to injury, and both are experiencing renaissances.
•Dustin Pedroia is as driven as he was when Epstein brought him to the big leagues after only 270 games in the minors. He's the same tough-minded guy who homered off Jeff Francis as the Red Sox's leadoff man in Game 1 of the '07 World Series, starting them rolling toward their sweep.
•Farrell has done a terrific job managing in the organization where he had served as Francona's pitching coach. He and Cherington made a strong hire when they pulled Juan Nieves away from the White Sox to serve as pitching coach.
Epstein left the cupboard loaded. From Daniel Nava, signed out of independent ball in 2009, to international signee Xander Bogaerts and fifth-round draft pick Will Middlebrooks, the Red Sox's system has supplied pieces to help offset the departures of veterans like Kevin Youkilis, Gonzalez and Crawford. After running their payroll to $175 million in 2012, this year's team checked in on opening day at a little below $155 million.
Hidden candidate: If not for Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis, we could be talking about the Rangers' Adrian Beltre as a front-runner for the AL MVP. While playing his usual Gold Glove-level defense, he has been such a force at the plate that he was walked intentionally six times in a 19-game span recently.
"I'd do the same thing,'' said Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who usually hits behind Beltre. "He has been hot for a long time.''
Beltre entered the weekend hitting .329 with 28 homers, 81 RBIs and a .928 OPS. He had hit .364 with a .993 OPS since the All-Star break, carrying a lineup that no longer has its familiar mashers.
Beltre doesn't mind the intentional walks, especially since the Rangers have scored 18 runs in the last four innings in which he has been put on base to get to Pierzynski.
"It's a situation I understand," Beltre said. "I was A.J. last year. People kept walking Josh (Hamilton) to get to me. I love the challenge and I want to hit, but we're trying to win ballgames and it doesn't matter how we do it. If they walk me, we still can score runs."
Crowded house: With Yasiel Puig in the minors until June and Matt Kemp and Crawford in and out of the Dodgers' lineup, manager Don Mattingly mostly has prepared for an awkward situation that hasn't presented itself. But Kemp is due back from his latest rehab assignment this week, which means that heading toward October he finally may have to find a way to juggle Puig, Kemp, Crawford and Andre Ethier in the outfield.
"Somebody's going to be mad,'' Mattingly said. "We've already talked about it (when Crawford and Kemp returned from hamstring injuries in early July). I expect somebody to be mad. If they weren't mad, then I'd probably be worried. I want our guys to want to play, and they all think they can play."
Puig was called to Mattingly's office after not hustling in Wednesday's game, a recurring issue for the electrifying rookie from Cuba. He may be in and out of the lineup some, but the guy who would seem to have to prove himself is Kemp, who finished second to Ryan Braun in the 2011 MVP race. He has played 62 games this year, hitting .263 with only five home runs.
"I don't know why people keep asking me about my role," Kemp told reporters. "I'm a center fielder. That's my role — to play center field every day. … I don't like to sit out games. I like to play. I like to give my team a chance to win every day, and I feel like I can do that."
As for Puig, he did a number of things to draw attention to himself in Wednesday's game against the Cubs, but the last straw for Mattingly was when he slammed his bat into the ground repeatedly after a strikeout and then walked very slowly to his position in right field, leaving Ethier without anyone to warm up with. Mattingly pulled him from the game, saying he thought Skip Schumaker "gave us a better chance to win.''
"He's young. He's going to have to learn," Dodgers pitcher Ricky Nolasco said. "There are a lot of veterans on the team, and we know there are going to be some growing pains. As long as he learns from them, that's the most important thing because he's going to help the team a ton more than he's going to do things like (he did Wednesday).''
On a mission: For Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, manager Jim Leyland and most of the Tigers' veterans, the mandate is to win a World Series. But two of the team's most experienced players, 38-year-old Torii Hunter and 34-year-old Victor Martinez, know it would be special just to reach that stage. Neither of them has played in one.
"We talk to each other about it every day," Hunter told the Detroit Free Press. "When we do our pregame handshake with each other, we say, 'Let's get that ring.' "
Hunter has played on six teams that went to the playoffs — four with the Twins and two after signing a free-agent deal with the Angels. He has hit .305 with an .858 OPS in 34 playoff games, but his teams have won only two of eight postseason series, with the 2002 Twins losing to the Angels in a five-game ALCS and the '09 Angels losing to the Yankees in a six-game ALCS.
"I wake up in the middle of the night and think about it,'' Hunter said of his World Series void. "I wake up in the morning — think about it. I drive down the street — think about it. Every phone call I have — talk about it. It's in my heart and in my soul. … I've been so close … but never been to the World Series — how is that possible? So it's imperative that I do that."
Martinez was with the Indians in 2007 when they took a 3-1 lead over the Red Sox in the ALCS but then failed to finish the job. He got close again with the 2011 Indians, who lost to the Rangers in six games in the ALCS, and was injured when they did get to the World Series last year.
He said the thought of winning the World Series motivated him immensely as he spent all of last season recovering from knee surgery.
"I was telling my wife and brother that I hope God will give me another chance to make it to the World Series," Martinez said. "I don't want to retire without having a World Series ring. That's the bottom line. It's not just getting to the World Series. It's winning it."
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC