Monday, February 11, 2008

The Dangers of Pretty Things

One of the most bizarrely difficult issues for sports fans to agree about or reconcile comes in that grand issue of "clutch" - and, while I won't open that can of worms today, it is certainly part of a larger intangible issue that fascinates people in general: response to difficult circumstances. From US Magazine to The Hills to news reports about surviving attempted decapitation, people love to see others cope - even if the coping strategy results in dismal, bloody, excruciating failure. Shit, some would say especially when it ends in massive, bowel-clearing failure.

One of the best illustrations in recent memory came in Juno - while a well-done movie by almost any regard, one scene stands head and shoulders above the rest. After Jason Bateman's character completes the 90' turn into creepdom and Juno realizes the shit just hit the fan, she drives down the road, ultimately pulling the minivan over to break down and cry on the side of the road. Basically, the cut-and-dried, simple, perfect solution she crafted to escape her shitshow pregnancy has just disintegrated into disaster.

Really, this is a great point - we often become enamored with things that are easy or "perfect" solutions to existing problems. This can lead to sloth. Think of how many times you've seen someone select the least-horrible of a series of shitty options, only to work hard and find that the results far outpaced anyone's expectations. Now, think of how many times slam-dunk setups have failed miserably, only to result in black tar heroin and concomitant residency under bridges or in bus station men's rooms (or, like, just bad stuff happening).

After last week's revelation that Curt Schilling's biceps tendon looks like "three strands of spaghetti" there is a small chance that the Boston Red Sox have fallen for The Danger of Pretty Things - that solution that seems so easy that it's a no-brainer, although the fallout of its failure would be much more drastic than the solution's elegance would let on.

The Sox starting rotation would have set up beautifully - run out Beckett, Matsuzaka, Schilling, Lester and Wakefield, most of whom will need at least a few weeks on the DL. Keep Buchholz in Pawtucket, on a strict innings limit of 5IP/start, ready to fill gaps as needed. Get Buchholz ~120 IP in the majors, keeping him around his 180IP limit for the season (and, hopefully, keep him in AAA until mid-May, so his service clock gains another year before free agency).

Now, though, there's a problem - either Buchholz starts the year with the big club, which would give the team the best pitcher in the group but one with a strict innings limit because he is still right within the injury nexus, or you run out there with Julian Tavarez, who put up as heroic a season of 5.25 ERA ball as has ever come from a man in such dire need of plastic surgery. There are external options, but given there are about 5 days before pitchers and catchers report, that field is winnowed to the bloated corpse of Bartolo Colon (who reportedly couldn't hit 90 in winter ball, and was making the 6th inning look as impossible as scaling K2), the consistent mediocrity of Kyle Lohse (who is certainly no solid bet to perform better than Tavarez), or paying Billy Beane's mortgage for Joe Blanton, a 200IP workhorse who looks oddly like John Daly.

The rotation solution was so elegant that its downsides become almost stark in contrast - and while the "problems" are really pretty nice to have (the Sox still have one of, if not the best, rotations in baseball), the current scenario is simply way worse for the team. Interestingly, there are other places where this might even be more true - any injury to Lowell or Youkilis will give a couple hundred ABs to Sean Casey, who should be good for an OPS+ of about 92, and corner-outfield issues would immediately either force Bobby Kielty into the lineup, or require an unreal LF/CF combo of Ellsbury and Crisp, turning the Red Sox into some bizarre version of the '86 Cardinals. The bullpen isn't really set up for losing Papelbon for any amount of time, unless Manny Delcarmen continues to make strides - and I say this as someone who wholeheartedly rejects the myth of the closer.

Now, I don't mean this to be a doomsday-scenario, chicken-little'ing of the Sox this season. Indeed, the Red Sox are still the likely favorites to win the AL, and should be considered such by a fairly good margin. While Lowell will likely never repeat his BABIP/LD%-increase-fueled career year, and while Pedroia and Youkilis have likely shown near-peak capability already, a moderate rebound from Manny and Drew would more than offset this, and getting an .800 OPS from CF while staying within -5 of Crisp's defense would be a remarkable upgrade. It's an incredibly well-rounded squad, one which is built to survive through many different styles of baseball, and built to win both in the regular season (with power bats and lineup depth) and post season (the "secret sauce", run prevention, very strong front-end starters).

No, let's not lament or cry for the Sox just yet - while losing a legit hero in Schilling, his PECOTA projection was for 125IP at 4.18 ERA, which passes the smell test - but it seemed worth noting that the ultimate failure of the Schilling scenario, at least to this point, really indicated a "Pretty Things" problem to the best possible effect. Interestingly, if Schilling's rehab actually works (and Dr. Morgan obviously thinks that will not be the case), he can come back after the All-Star Break and contribute important innings down the stretch, resting all of the pitchers for a few weeks. This, my friends, is pretty much the definition of the tantalizing idea that might just be too seductive for its own good. Once again, I've fallen for the Danger.

No comments: