FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Red Sox chief executive Larry Lucchino threw it out there in his spring training introductory news conference -- the Red Sox as “scrappy underdogs” in the American League.
It’s been 20 years since Red Sox fans can remember their team with so little expectation coming into a season.
Back in the glory days of 2003-09, many Red Sox fans and executives would turn their nose up at the thought of emulating the Tampa Bay Rays. They would laugh you out of any conversation if you suggested following the lead of the Baltimore Orioles.
But a closer look at the men in charge of those teams on the field gives you reason -- if not genuine hope -- to think these Red Sox are capable of turning around a 69-win season and competing for the playoffs.
The Red Sox faced the Rays on Monday in Port Charlotte. That organization is led by the Zen master of baseball -- Joe Maddon -- and an enterprising general manager in Andrew Friedman who has done more with less better than anyone in baseball.
Maddon, much like Phil Jackson did but only with much less talent, gets his team to believe in the group concept of success.
“See all these drills we run?” Maddon asked me before Monday’s Grapefruit League game. “We do them so that we’re all on the same page and understand that, in the team concept, working together is really what matters. It’s what I learned a long time ago in the 1980s when I was in the Angels organization.
“Team teaching goes a long way.”
So does attitude.
Maddon unites his players -- not by taking them out on his wine-tasting jaunts around the globe -- but rather by enforcing the concept that working everything out in unison is what matters. Last week, he made headlines when he said that he thinks dress codes are “silly” and “irrelevant” to the success of his team on the field.
He’s right. It’s not uniformity off the field that counts but rather on it.
Ask Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings -- as I did -- what makes Tampa Bay so successful, and without hesitation they all point to the character players Friedman brings in to the organization, mostly through draft and player development. Once they get to the big league level, Maddon takes care of the rest.
“It’s really all about the attitude and approach that Andrew and Joe create in the organization. It starts with them. We’re all on the same page,” Zobrist told me.
Added Joyce: “We really don’t care what the Red Sox and Yankees are doing or if a team like Toronto goes out and remakes their roster in the offseason. Andrew and Joe set the example of hard work and fundamentals and it all comes down to a belief system. We all believe we’re doing things the right way here and we believe it will pay off in the end.”
Well, the last two seasons the Rays have made late-season pushes, coming up two games short last year to the Orioles and, of course, finishing off the most miraculous of comebacks in 2011, plunging the Red Sox into an 18-month abyss that they’re still trying to work they way out of.
The Rays had a 31-game turnaround from 2007 to 2008, winning 97 games in ’08 and making their first World Series.
The Rays have their structure. The Orioles have theirs.
And while the O’s have Dan Duquette calling the shots in the front office, their undeniable leader is their skipper -- Buck Showalter.
Like the ’12 Red Sox, the Orioles won 69 games in 2011 in Showalter’s first season. But Baltimore believed in its young players, including rookie third baseman Manny Machado, and shocked the baseball world by winning 93 games last season.
This is the most recent model that gives these Red Sox hope. Can the Red Sox do what the Orioles did last year? Well, it will start with winning one-run and extra-inning games. Baltimore set a major league record by winning 16 straight extra-inning games and went 74-0 when leading after seven innings.
"Very consistent,” John Farrell observed Wednesday before a spring game against Buck’s Birds. “Obviously, he did a great job with their bullpen last year, when you consider the number of one-run games they won. There were clearly roles established in that bullpen and they performed very well, probably much in part to knowing what their role was and when they're going to be called on late in the game.”
What’s really remarkable is that the Orioles scored just 712 runs in 162 games, allowing 705. Through Baseball Reference’s Pythagorean formula, that should’ve resulted in roughly an 82-80 record. The Orioles overshot that by 11 wins.
“It was clear that they gained a lot of momentum, a lot of confidence despite what everybody saw in the run differential. They defied that," Farrell said. "When you look at the last two years, the culture has certainly changed with the Orioles."
Confidence, momentum, established roles. All things that were in precious low supply in Boston last season. All things Farrell is trying to preach now to his team. But it’s a slow, methodical process, something Maddon learned in Tampa Bay.
“You teach guys the right way, they learn the right way, but it’s not overnight,” Maddon said.
The bullpen clearly was something the Red Sox addressed as a priority in the offseason and was a reason they brought in Joel Hanrahan from Pittsburgh and traded away Mark Melancon, who never found confidence, momentum or a defined role in Bobby Valentine’s bullpen. They brought in Koji Uehara to team with Andrew Bailey.
Re-establishing confidence has been the buzzword this spring surrounding Daniel Bard. That, and fixing his mechanics that have seen him lose 4-5 mph on his once-electric fastball.
It’s no secret that Ben Cherington believes John Farrell is just the right man to find the right roles for the bullpen and establish a good end-of-the-game vibe again.
“Anytime that you can have dependable production, consistent roles for guys, that's the ideal scenario to set guys up in," Farrell said.
"I think that's the key in any season, regardless of what's happened previously. I think when you have that lead late in the game and lock it down, that resonates through that clubhouse. Those games you're supposed to win, when you win them, that really allows guys to continue to believe in one another and believe in every guy that comes to the mound late in the game."
Can the Red Sox turn it all around in one season? Will it be enough to capture a playoff spot that has two wild cards now?
If the Red Sox follow the leads of the “scrappy” Rays and the Orioles, the answer is a definite maybe.
Don’t laugh. Both of those teams have been to the playoffs more recently and for much less payroll than the Red Sox.
Now for the Trags Bag and a potpourri of responses from Red Sox observers:
What will it take for these Red Sox to replicate the 2012 Orioles?
@matthewfjensen A Dominating Bullpen. Which is possible.
Now, the readers do the asking:
@dankelley617 Where do you think Victorino bats in the lineup when everyone's healthy?
Very good question. Shane Victorino has been slow out of the gate in the first week of spring games, but Farrell is on record as saying that he’d like to see him bat second against lefties since he is a .301/.881 OPS as a RHB. I think he winds up hitting seventh or eighth against right-handed pitching, if David Ortiz and Mike Napoli are healthy.
@GeofFromTheRose @Trags Does Tazawa have a chance to make us recall the days of (the good) Okajima?
Yes. Despite his first two somewhat rough spring outings, Junichi Tazawa has the support of Farrell and the organization, and they believe he can be a closer down the road. He will be slotted into the seventh/eighth-inning roles while Hanrahan closes. For Tazawa to bring back the days of the “good” Hideki Okajima, his splitter has to be very sharp, much like Oki’s was when he was on. If it is, Tazawa can be very effective against left-handed hitters.