NEW YORK -- A stat pack sat on the desk in front of Bobby Valentine as he tried to process his team’s latest defeat. The Red Sox manager peeled at the corners of the pages like a flipbook, punctuating statement after statement with a small ripping noise of protest.
“The home runs,” rip . . . rip . . . “That’s the way they live and they had a bunch of them tonight.” Rip . . . Rip . . . “Other than the home runs, he had pretty good stuff . . . He wasn’t that bad,” rip . . . “He just wasn’t good enough.” Rip . . . Rip . . .
His words were measured but his tic -- repeated roughly 100 times in a three-minute conversation -- betrayed his frustrations. After the Sox’ 6-4 loss to the Yankees, he wasn’t alone.
Carl Crawford was asked how challenging it had become to show up at the park.
“What other option do we have? We've got to bounce back and be ready to play tomorrow,” he said.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, when presented with a similar inquiry, nearly turned purple.
“That's a stupid question,” he scolded. “Next.”
But there was nothing else to ask. And so, the catcher waited in silence for the reporters to disperse from his locker before getting up and leaving.
Dustin Pedroia celebrated his 29th birthday by blasting a three-run homer to left and then nearly going deep to left-center on a shot that died at the wall just to the left of center field. When Curtis Granderson glided under the ball at the fence, approximately 400 feet from the plate, Pedroia jumped and did a 360 while howling in frustration.
That was all he had to say on the subject. The birthday boy slid silently past a group of reporters waiting to talk with him after the game.
However, he had a spokesperson at Yankee Stadium who acknowledged that the current culture around the team -- both the oppressive weight of losing and the controversies surrounding the team over the past week, including the idea that Pedroia was at the center of a player insurrection against Valentine -- have taken a toll on the second baseman.
"The other day, Pedroia was playing baseball out there [ticked] off and not focused on what he wants to do, because that report came out saying he was against the manager," DH David Ortiz told a small group of reporters that included MLB.com. "How do you think he's going to feel out there? This game is 75 percent mental and the rest physical -- or 50-50 probably -- but your mind has a lot to do with your performance, and when you see somebody trying to put you against your manager, it will be a distraction.
"And knowing the Pedroia that I know, that kid, he wants to do nothing but play baseball no matter who his manager is, no matter who's the umpire, who's the fan -- he don't care. He wants to go out there and beat the crap out of whoever he's playing against that day. I was really mad, because I've been able to watch him play the game the way we are used to watching him play -- especially in the situation we are, it's kind of [messed up]."
There is, of course, plenty that is [messed up] about the Red Sox, who now must live in an incredibly uncomfortable atmosphere engendered by their struggles and the perception of a fractured organization. Put simply, the team faces a dreadful workplace environment, one in which -- as Ortiz suggested -- it has become increasingly difficult for players to enjoy their jobs and to perform them effectively.
The Sox are now 5-11 in an August that has been an exercise in circling the drain. And so, it is worth asking whether there is any way out of the team’s current predicament.
There is at least one possibility that could help to alter the negative dynamic around the team: Play the kids. At a time when the air weighs heavy with the subject of the team’s agonized march off a cliff, increased playing time for Ryan Lavarnway (who has puzzlingly started just six of 17 games since his call up) and, perhaps, a call-up of Jose Iglesias might help the Sox to alter the narrative.
At a time when the team is surrounded by negativity, the injection of prospect energy could help to alleviate some of the building pressure around the team. In this instance, increased playing time for prospects would represent not merely a future consideration but also might help to improve the team’s immediate plight.
Lavarnway, of course, has struggled in his limited playing time in the majors, going 3-for-24 with a double and two walks this year. But his minor league track record suggests that he has the potential to be a more impactful contributor if given more regular plate appearances.
Moreover, the Sox are in a position where they need to get a more definite sense of what kind of catching workload he will be ready to assume at the major league level in 2012. Familiarity he gains with the pitching staff now will help to clarify the team’s offseason catching situation, foremost, to make a determination about whether to keep Jarrod Saltalamacchia or to trade him at a time when he will be due a considerable bump from his $2.5 million salary through arbitration.
Saltalamacchia is widely respected in the clubhouse, and his emergence as one of the most productive everyday catchers in the majors was a terrific story for the Sox through June. But his numbers have gone into the tank since the beginning of July, a stretch during which he’s hitting .174/.244/.321/.565 with 48 strikeouts in 119 plate appearances. The team is desperate for players capable of getting on base; that’s one of Lavarnway’s foremost traits, and one of Saltalamacchia’s most notable limitations.
Iglesias wouldn’t necessarily help the team’s on-base percentage -- though it is worth noting that, after going 2-for-4 with a walk on Friday, he now has a compelling .317/.394/.397/.791 line for the month of August. But his ability to make a highlight reel play a night would generate excitement and energy for a team lacking in both right now.
It is worth noting that increased playing time for Iglesias would come at the expense of one of the team’s better performers this month, as Mike Aviles has bounced back from his pain-relieving injection in his toe to hit .279/.347/.372/.719 this month. Moreover, he made a spectacular diving play on a ball up the middle on Friday, continuing a year in which he’s been one of the best defensive shortstops in the game.
Still, the situation is very similar to the one that the Sox face at catcher, where the team a) needs to make a determination about the degree to which Iglesias factors into its plans for next year and b) can benefit from having a unique defender capable of making a bunch of unbelievable plays that will become conversation topics. Aviles can continue to get regular playing time through a mix of games at short, third and perhaps even in the outfield, exploring his value as the utility player that the Sox acquired him to be at last year's trade deadline.
Right now, based both on the team’s performance to date and on the smothering atmosphere surrounding the team, it’s virtually impossible to imagine the Red Sox making any sort of run to make up the 6 ½ games between them and the Orioles, Rays and Tigers in the wild card (not to mention the six games between them and the A’s or the four games between them and the Angels).
Given that reality, changes are in order, and the manager isn’t going anywhere, at least for the rest of the 2012 season. The idea of blowing up the roster in the middle of the season is absurd.
But small tweaks to either the roster or the playing time could help to give the team something fresh in an atmosphere that has grown pungently stale. The team has an opportunity to get a better handle on its future in a fashion that also could help in the more immediate term. It might not be enough to vault the Sox into contention -- frankly, what is? -- but at a time when the team is enduring its worst stretch of the year, players like Lavarnway and Iglesias offer the team its best chance of moving forward.