First Pitch: Red Sox turnaround could come sooner than you think

First Pitch: Red Sox turnaround could come sooner than you think
September 13, 2012, 2:49 pm
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It was a year and two weeks ago that the Red Sox sat above the American League East, owners of the best record in the American League.

Since then, of course, the bottom has dropped out on the franchise. They fired a manager, lost a general manager and began a precipitous drop from the top of standings to near the bottom.

The speed of the fall has been alarming. One September, the Sox were plotting their post-season pitching rotation; the next, they're facing another managerial change, unloaded more than a quarter billion in salary and are doomed to record their first losing season since 1997.

Lately, conventional wisdom has suggested that the Sox face a long, daunting rebuild to return to contender status. After experiencing buyer's remorse on long-term deals for underachievers such as Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, the team has vowed to act more disciplined in its spending, emphasizing that it won't fall prey to the lure and quick
fix of the free agent market.

That, too, suggests a painfully slow rebuilding process, one that depends on the development of the team's farm system. Since most of the team's best prospects -- Jackie Bradley Jr.; Matt Barnes; Xander Bogaerts -- aren't expected to contribute until 2014, it would seem Red Sox fans are in for a wait before the team is ready to contend again.

But that's not necessarily the case. And here's why:

1) Turnarounds are quicker in baseball.

Last year, the Oakland A's won 74 games and finished a distant third in the American League West. They then traded 40 percent of their starting rotation and their closer and most expected that they would battle to stay out of the West cellar.

Instead, the A's are leading the A.L. wild card chase and are nipping at the heels of the division-leading Texas Rangers, who own the best record in the league.

The Baltimore Orioles are another example of what a difference a year can make. A year ago, the Orioles won just 69 games and finished last in the East. Today, they're tied with the New York Yankees for first place and are in position to return to the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

More evidence? The Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds, who each won 79 games last year, lead their respective divisions with less than three weeks remaining in the 2012 regular season.

The NFL loves to boast of its parity, where teams can go from losers to Super Bowl contenders in the span of a single season and teams aren't consigned to years of futility. But baseball's path from bottom to top is every bit as quick at times.

2) A representative nucleus is in place.

Even after dumping Beckett, Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez, the Sox have a solid core of players in their prime around which to build: Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Andrew Bailey represent a solid foundation of players from 28-30, all in their prime.

Add in Will Middlebrooks and retain David Ortiz and suddenly, the picture isn't nearly as bleak.

And remember: no one is suggesting that the Sox will win 95 games and be the favorites to reach the World Series. But in baseball's new world order, featuring a second wild card spot in each league, winning in the neighborhood of 85-88 games is tantamount to being in contention for the post-season.

3) The other teams in the East have their own issues.

The Tampa Bay Rays stand to lose B.J. Upton to free agency, further diminishing an already weak lineup. There are questions whether the Rays can afford to retain James Shields -- who has a 12 million option for 2014. Such a contract would represent almost 20 percent of the team's current entire payroll.

The Orioles, as surprising as they've been, aren't likely to sustain this success. They stand to become the first team ever to win more than 90 games and still be outscored by their opponents. That suggests that they're playing considerably over their heads this season and aren't nearly as good as their record suggests.

One baseball executive recently pointed to the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks as precedent. The Diamondbacks managed to go 90-72 that season while winning the N.L. West, despite being outscored by 20 runs over the course of the season. The following year, the Diamondbacks returned to earth with an 82-80 mark, and the yer after than, they were 22 games under .500.

Even the Yankees may be susceptible. The same team which worries about the dropoff shown this year by CC Sabathia and crosses its fingers that 40-year-old Andy Pettitte will be a part of its post-season rotation has significant pitching concerns going forward. Nick Swisher is headed for free agency, they don't have an everyday catcher under control past this fall. Next season, they'll have to find a way to extend both Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson -- both eligible for free agency after 2013 -- and still stay under the luxury tax threshold.

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The Red Sox, of course, can't expect to back themselves into contention. They'll need to make some smart, cost-efficient decisions this winter and hope that some of this season's underperformers -- led by Lester and Buchholz -- rebound. And perhaps crucially, the organization must fix its own internal issues and given a second chance, hire the right manager for the job.

But it can be done. A bounce-back won't require miracles or, even, multiple years.