FORT MYERS, Fla. — As the Boston Red Sox stepped out into the sun Monday for their first full-squad workout of spring training, owner John Henry maintained that he’s more concerned about W’s and L’s than the team’s Q rating.
“We really don’t need to be popular,” Henry said. “We need to win.”
But despite winning 93 games and the American League East title for a second straight season in 2017, questions were raised about the Red Sox’s likability. Although attendance at Fenway Park remained almost unchanged, regional television ratings were down 15 percent on New England Sports Network, according to Nielsen Media data, while sports-talk airwaves were filled with the grievances of dissatisfied fans.
It wasn’t just the paying customers, either. Last week, star right fielder Mookie Betts and shortstop Xander Bogaerts arrived in camp and admitted the team didn’t have much fun last season. Betts alluded to clubhouse “tension,” particularly during losing streaks, and Bogaerts referred to “head-butts” and “disagreements.”
After the Red Sox were ousted in the ALDS for the second year in a row, ownership fired manager John Farrell and let go all but one member of his coaching staff (bullpen coach Dana LeVangie, whose contributions to the organization predated Farrell, was retained and promoted to pitching coach under new manager Alex Cora).
Other than that, though, the roster went nearly untouched, with the Red Sox re-signing first baseman Mitch Moreland and utility infielder Eduardo Nunez and not yet adding a player who wasn’t part of last year’s group. But both Henry and chairman Tom Werner insisted that, with Cora and his coaches setting a different tone, the Sox are talented enough to hold off the power-packed New York Yankees in the AL East.
“I think we have the right team,” Henry said. “People don’t like us apparently saying we won the division the last two years, but we had the best offense in the American League the year before last. We had significant pitching that was injured last year. I think we are very strong and people are highly underrating this team. If we have the right approach, I think we’ll be very successful.”
In particular, Henry highlighted what he believed was a passive approach at the plate under former hitting coach Chili Davis as the primary culprit for a 93-run drop-off in scoring from 2016 to 2017. But the Red Sox also never directly replaced retired slugger David Ortiz and witnessed injury- or performance-related drop-offs from several core players, including Betts, Bogaerts, Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia and Jackie Bradley Jr.
For months, the Sox have been viewed within the industry as the favorite to sign free-agent slugger J.D. Martinez. They made him a five-year offer reportedly worth about $100 million, but with spring training underway, Martinez is among more than 100 free agents who continue to hold out.
Henry dismissed any suggestions of collusion between the teams as “ridiculous.” He believes this winter’s inactivity was driven by several market forces and warned against expecting an annual “feeding frenzy” for free agents. Henry and Werner also suggested the Red Sox could wind up with the highest payroll in baseball this year, especially if they eventually land Martinez, as most insiders still expect they will.
“I really don’t want to talk about free agents — J.D. Martinez or anyone else,” Henry said. “We are very happy with our roster. I think we do have the highest payroll in baseball, and again, we’re defending American League East champions. I think we’ve done what we needed to do to improve this team.”
If anything, Werner said Ortiz’s absence likely contributed to the diminished TV ratings or other anecdotal signs that the Red Sox’s popularity might be waning. But Werner doesn’t expect the Ortiz hangover to drag into this year, too, especially if the Red Sox win the division again.
“Losing David Ortiz is losing someone who is charismatic and a great leader,” Werner said. “I know there have been some comments that I respect that we didn’t have the most popular team, but when I look at (Andrew) Benintendi and Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers and Bogaerts and Bradley, I see energized, young, exciting players.
“I don’t quite see it the way some of the fans see it. I respect their point of view, but I think we’ve got a fun team. And if it’s healthy, I think we’re going to be — we’ll bring the fans back.”
Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa admits he didn’t know extra-inning rule
Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa is under the microscope again.
Hendriks had double-switched into the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, taking the No. 5 spot in the batting order, which made the last out in the top of the frame. Per MLB rules, as extra innings begin, the spot in the order to make the last out in the previous inning becomes the baserunner at second base. However, if that spot is occupied by a pitcher, the team has the option to use the preceding player in the batting order as the runner. In this case, it would have been Jose Abreu.
“I didn’t know that,” La Russa said after the 1-0 loss. “We all thought Liam was going to be the runner. I wasn’t aware Abreu could have run. I thought it was the guy that made the last out or the spot in that order.”
Besides the obvious injury risk to a player who has run the bases once in his entire career, the choice to run Hendriks impacted the inning. While he was on third base with one out, Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart didn’t hesitate to throw to second base to nail Leury Garcia, who was trying to steal — despite the potential winning run at third. Barnhart knew Hendriks likely wasn’t going to go home on a double-steal attempt.
“[Garcia] can run,” La Russa said. “We wanted to be aggressive. They threw him out.”
Even in talking out the White Sox strategy, the team was concerned with Hendriks’ safety. La Russa said he was hoping for an easy sacrifice fly or another way for Hendriks to score that wasn’t stressful. It didn’t matter after Billy Hamilton struck out to end the inning.
“We were going to try and avoid any kind of contact at home plate,” La Russa said.
La Russa admitted he wasn’t aware of the rule until hearing it read by a reporter in the postgame Zoom session.
“I’m guessing you know the rules better,” he said. “Now I know.”
The White Sox named La Russa their manager in October.
Joey Votto of Cincinnati Reds suffers broken left thumb after being hit by pitch
Votto is not expected to need surgery but could miss up to a month.
Kyle Farmer is among the options at first.
“We’ll figure it out,” manager David Bell said.
Votto was hit by a Dallas Keuchel pitch in the fourth inning. He remained in the game, but in the sixth was replaced at first base by Farmer.
“I knew I was in pain,” Votto said after the game, according to MLB.com. “I thought I was being a baby. I just wanted to stay in the game, but I didn’t think I could grip the bat and I was having a hard time putting my glove on. I could run and I was moving well, and I thought, ‘Just give it some time, it should shake at some point. Maybe it’s just one of those [where] your thumb gets jammed in a door or something like that and it just goes away.’ It broke, what are you going to do?”
Keuchel expressed regret.
“It’s a joy to pitch against him,” Keuchel said. “You never want that to happen. I wish him well.”
Votto is hitting .226 with five home runs and 17 RBIs.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Longtime Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller dies at 76
“His legacy will forever be enshrined in our organization’s history, having guided some of the greatest Orioles pitchers,” the team said in a statement. “… We send our deepest condolences to his beloved family and his many fans throughout our great game.”
Miller served three stints as a coach with the Orioles, including two seasons as manager in 1998 and 1999, when he compiled a 157-167 record. He also served as manager of the Twins during parts of the 1985 and ’86 seasons, going 109-130.
The Orioles listed Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, Steve Stone and Mike Boddicker as just some of the pitchers Miller coached during his time with the team, which included the 1983 World Series title and the 1979 American League pennant.
He also served as pitching coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1987 to 1996.
“Ray Miller was a beloved member of the Pirates organization for 10 seasons whose passion and dedicated played an instrumental role in the team’s three straight postseason appearances from 1990-92,” the Pirates said in a statement. “He was respected not only as a pitching coach by players in the Pirates organization, but also throughout the entire game of baseball.”
He was enshrined in the Orioles Hall of Fame in 2010.
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