ANAHEIM, Calif. — As they limped through July, the question began blaring like a siren. Could the Red Sox offense be fixed?
By late July, general manager Theo Epstein used the word “horrific” to describe the shape of his team’s underperforming lineup. The problems appeared far-reaching and complex.
Jason Bay, after an MVP-caliber start to the season, in July had stopped hitting for average (.192) or power (1 homer). J.D. Drew hit .217 with a .677 OPS during the month. David Ortiz was showing signs of life at the plate, but while his power stroke had returned, he was performing like a boom-or-bust slugger, with a low average and OBP. And those were simply the issues related to suspect performance.
Catcher Jason Varitek, after a good start to the season, was dealing with injuries and had sunk into a funk reminiscent of his poor 2008 season. Though third baseman Mike Lowell was performing well after returning from the disabled list at the start of the second half, his surgically repaired hip made his ability to stay in the lineup an open question.
The Sox averaged 4.8 runs per game in July, seventh in the American League. The team’s .248 average was second-worst in the AL, and its .328 OBP was seventh. Faced with a wealth of formidable competitors — foremost, the Yankees, Rays and Rangers — there was no denying the need to improve.
There was a chance that the offense could return to its early season form, when it was one of the best in the majors. But that was a mere possibility, rather than a certainty.
“When you’re in a semi-desperate position, which we were in given the quality of the Yankees, the Rays and the Rangers, you have to do what you have to do,” Epstein said on Wednesday. “The overriding factor was that you can’t acquire quality players after the fact. If you wait to find out what goes wrong and don’t anticipate, you’re [in trouble], a la 2006.”
But who to acquire?
There was some uncertainty about where the team’s greatest need may lie. The health and performance concerns at both third (Lowell’s position) and catcher (Varitek’s) were real.
The positional flexibility of Kevin Youkilis meant that the club could seek either a first or third baseman to provide a fallback option should Lowell prove limited. Even so, that would leave the club exposed if Varitek continued his woeful offensive performance.
The team could acquire a catcher, but that could leave the team vulnerable if Lowell was unavailable and Adam LaRoche proved an inadequate middle-of-the-order substitute.
It was unclear whether the team’s need would be greater for a right-handed bat (should the production of Lowell or Bay be limited) or a left-handed one if Ortiz regressed to his form of the first months of the season and Drew continued to struggle.
And so, the job description of the ideal player who could cure the team’s ailments read along the lines of the following:
Seeking player in his prime under contractual control beyond 2009 — preferably at a bargain salary — who catches and plays first, with ability to hit both right-handed and left-handed pitchers. Switch-hitting a plus. Strong clubhouse presence and postseason experience preferred.
A PERFECT — YET AWKWARD — FIT
The Sox dealt pitchers Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price for Martinez. The cost of acquiring him was considered steep but fair, particularly since the Sox were able to keep intact their top four or five pitching prospects. Moreover, the cost became easy to justify based on the attributes of the player who helped to reshape the Red Sox season as soon as he arrived.
It would be difficult to imagine a player who more precisely fit the needs of what the Red Sox sought than Victor Martinez, aside, perhaps, from Joe Mauer. Martinez offered a switch-hitter who was almost impossible to remove from the lineup thanks to his willingness to split time between catcher and first.
Though he struggled badly in July (.175 average, .530 OPS), the month leading to the trade deadline, Martinez was one of the top run-producers in the game over a five-year span (especially if one dismissed his poor 2008 season as lost to the knifing pain from loose bone chips in his right elbow), and a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter. In his lone taste of the postseason in 2007, he hit .318 with an .888 OPS.
Martinez fit to a 'T' the Sox’ potential offensive needs. Of course, that did not necessarily mean that his acquisition would be seamless. Though the Sox subtracted LaRoche on July 31, the same day on which they acquired Martinez, the player’s arrival still gave the team something of a surplus of starting players.
The Sox brought Martinez to Boston to hit in the middle of the lineup. His arrival would mean a reduction in playing time for some of the incumbents, potentially for Ortiz, certainly for Varitek and Lowell.
That would present the Sox with some potential personnel issues, but all things considered, the risk seemed worth it. The Sox understood that there might be some issues to manage, but they believed that those could be handled without derailing the club’s goals.
“We just felt like if everyone stayed healthy, we’d rather have too many players than not enough,” Epstein said. “We felt like we had to act proactively and get solutions for problems that hadn’t started to arise yet, maybe would only manifest in the future.
“You can't do that if you have a manager who’s unwilling to be a little uncomfortable for a while. … Adding players without subtracting sometimes can lead to problems but I think it was something we had to do because of health and performance and [manager Terry Francona] probably endured a lot this year as far as that goes but he deserves a ton of credit for ultimately making it work.”
The responsibility and credit for Martinez’ integration into the Sox extended beyond the manager. The affected players also ensured that the arrival of the catcher would not sabotage the team’s goals.
Admittedly, there was a period of uncertainty. When Martinez arrived and was dropped into the No. 3 spot in the lineup in his first game with the Sox on Aug. 1, players wondered what his presence might mean for those who had been there all year.
“We knew it was going to work out, but it was going to take time,” Youkilis said. “Guys needed to get acclimated.”
“I think everyone knew that there was going to be an odd man out, or two,” Bay added. “When you get a guy like Victor, you realize that he’s going to have to play every day, and that’s going to come at the expense of some people. I think it did, but at the end of the day, if you’re winning ball games and he’s doing what he’s doing, I don’t think people are going to give it a second thought.
“For the greater good of the team, it worked out well. That has a lot to do with the guys who are here. In a lot of situations, guys might not have taken too kindly to losing playing time. Ultimately, you realize that’s the way it’s going to be. Rather than being a distraction, you help.”
A PRODUCER, ON AND OFF THE FIELD
Martinez, of course, also helped his own cause by making his potential impact clear from the day of his arrival.
He collected five hits and drove in four in his second game with the Sox, against the Orioles on Aug. 2. The following weekend in Yankee Stadium, he delivered an eighth-inning, two-run homer that snapped the Sox’ 31-inning scoreless streak and gave Boston a brief lead (though the Yankees came back to win the game in the bottom of the eighth). The next weekend, he delivered a huge two-run double in the ninth inning to lead the Sox to a huge come-from-behind win over the Rangers.
The hits kept coming, typically at pivotal moments. Martinez killed the ball, both as a right-handed and left-handed hitter. The team came to appreciate his constant ability to square the ball in an effort to produce runs.
“All of us have confidence in him whether he’s up there right-handed or left-handed. He’s one of those guys you always like to see up there with ducks on the pond,” hitting coach Dave Magadan said. “He’s always going to give you a good at-bat, not try to do too much. He’s going to do what it takes to drive in a run. That’s why he drives in 100 every year.”
His ability to produce was evident, and came as advertised. But there was more to his presence.
Martinez’ personality won over his new clubhouse within days of his arrival. He was sheepish for only a couple of days before he started greeting everyone upon his arrival in the clubhouse, and before he started making his presence felt in the dugout during games with an ear-splitting whistle and a blue streak of chants of support for his teammates.
“People don’t just feed off the fact that he can hit .300, drive in 100 and hit 25 home runs,” said pitcher Paul Byrd, who worked with Martinez in Cleveland before reconnecting with him in Boston. “They feed off the fact the energy that he has in the dugout, the little sayings that he has, how he makes it a little more fun to be in the dugout. You need guys like that, who have character, personality and keep everybody loose.
“He is the epitome of being a superstar and yet being unselfish. That rubs off on people. … If everybody had the same attitude of being on a team and was as unselfish as him, we’d win the World Series every year. He is that type of guy. I think that’s rare.”
Rather than dwell on the fact that Martinez’ job responsibilities were coming at the expense of his own, Varitek formed an immediate connection with a catcher he had respected from afar for some years. The personalities of the two clicked, making a potentially awkward situation an almost natural period of transition.
“He’s just been very much a joy to be around,” Varitek said. “He’s a good teammate and he’s a really good player on top of that. I think it’s great. Vic and I communicate just about every single day. I can learn things from him and vice versa.”
The Sox had limped into — and out of — the deadline in one of their worst stretches of the season. The team went 8-14 from the start of the second half through a four-game sweep at Yankee Stadium in early August.
But the steady production of Martinez was a critical factor in the team’s emergence from that stretch. He delivered tremendous results at the plate, hitting .336/.405/.507 with eight homers and 41 RBI in 56 games for the Sox.
“We were at a point where our offense wasn’t clicking, and I think he was a very consistent bat that came in,” Lowell said. “I don’t think that could be anything but helpful.”
Martinez forged a 25-game hitting streak, and every day that he was in the lineup, particularly as a catcher, he seemingly improved the team’s likelihood of winning. The Sox went 20-11 with Martinez catching, compared to 15-14 when he wasn’t behind the dish.
He became an integral part of the team’s push for the postseason, someone who altered the dynamic of the lineup in every way that the Sox could have hoped. He made the team better against right-handers and left-handers. By jumping into the middle of the order, he allowed other hitters to slide down and make the lineup deeper. He carried a run-producing load and eased the burden on his teammates.
In the process, Martinez — who initially greeted his exit from Cleveland, the only organization for which he had ever played, with great sadness — came to feel a part of his team’s success, and rightly so. His acquisition helped to transform the Sox.
The Sox may have made the playoffs without Martinez, but it is hard to imagine them having been as successful without him as they became with him. He was, in many ways, precisely what the club needed at the time of the trade deadline, something that even Martinez can sense.
“I really feel part of this run. I've just got two months here with this team. It's fun. It's special the way all my teammates have been,” Martinez said. “There was [an adjustment period]. I think things started turning around, and I saw myself on this team, being a part of this team and part of the winning ways that this organization has.”
Now, as the Sox prepare to embark upon their sixth postseason run in seven years, the reason for Martinez’ conviction is apparent.