Red Sox-Phils: Prelude to October?

191542.jpg

Red Sox-Phils: Prelude to October?

By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's difficult to assign too much significance to spring training games, with their casual atmosphere, patchwork lineups and wholesale mid-game substitutions.

But that didn't stop some from viewing Thursday's Phillies-Red Sox Grapefruit League meeting as a potential sneak preview of the 2011 World Series.

Those people, apparently, didn't get the memo to Terry Francona.

"Who are we playing today?'' Francona asked reporters gathered for his morning media briefing.

It could be that Francona was having some fun with the hype. Or his ignorance could have been genuine.

Either way, it didn't take away from the pregame talk. The Phillies were good enough to get to the NLCS and though they fell shy of reaching their third straight World Series (they won in 2008, and lost to the Yankees in 2009), adding lefty ace Cliff Lee in the off-season has made them the prohibitive favorites in the National League.

Similarly, the Red Sox' offseason acquisition spree has positioned them as the American League team to beat.

As might be expected for a team traveling 2 12 hours on a bus, the Phils didn't field their 'A' team against the Red Sox. In fact, of the players who made the trek, only outfielders Ben Francisco and Shane Victorino will be in Philadelphia's Opening Day lineup.

Still, this wasn't about March. This was about thinking ahead to October and what could be. And while neither team was silly enough to proclaim itself likely pennant winners, the Sox and Phils weren't shy about praising one another.

"We might see this matchup in the World Series," agreed Phils manager Charlie Manuel. "But at the same time, it's like anything else: you've got to go out there and play. Expectations are high and I'm sure that's good. I look at it as good.

"I like to think that, after the last four or five years, expectations on our guys are kind of what they put on themselves. The World Series is where we want to go. I know Terry Francona - I was his hitting coach at one time. And I know that's where he wants to go. Basically, I imagine our thinking is kind of alike.

"It's actually what the players think and what they expect of each other and the team. High expectations from the media and the fans is absolutely great. But you still have to go out there and play and you've got to play the best baseball."

Phils general manager Ruben Amaro went a step further.

"Boston is the best club in baseball I think,'' he said. "Their combination of speed, power, pitching and bullpen -- they're a hell of a ballclub. They don't have a lot of holes."

In adding Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, the Red Sox might have given themselves the best lineup in either league. Meanwhile, the Phils added Lee to a rotation which already boasted Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, forming the game's most talented collection of starters.

Francona was ecstatic when Lee chose the Phillies over other suitors. Then again, he had his own team's interest in mind.

"I was glad, but I think everybody kind of thought it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to go to the Yankees,'' Francona said. "And if he didn't go to the Yankees, he was going to Texas. They're both in our league and one's in our division, so I was really glad. Facing Cliff once in interleague's a lot better than facing him four or five times a season."

The Sox and Phils have met in interleague play every year but one since 2003 and will play a three-game set this season in Philadelphia in the final week of June.

That meeting itself is almost four months away. But on a beautiful March morning, if you tried hard, you could almost see all the way to October.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

MLB players' union agrees to pitchless intentional walks

MLB players' union agrees to pitchless intentional walks

NEW YORK - There won't be any wild pitches on intentional walks this season.

The players' association has agreed to Major League Baseball's proposal to have intentional walks without pitches this year.

"It doesn't seem like that big of a deal. I know they're trying to cut out some of the fat. I'm OK with that," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said.

While the union has resisted many of MLB's proposed innovations, such as raising the bottom of the strike zone, installing pitch clocks and limiting trips to the mound, players are willing to accept the intentional walk change.

"As part of a broader discussion with other moving pieces, the answer is yes," union head Tony Clark wrote Wednesday in an email to The Associated Press. "There are details, as part of that discussion, that are still being worked through, however."

The union's decision was first reported by ESPN .

"I'm OK with it. You signal. I don't think that's a big deal," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "For the most part, it's not changing the strategy, it's just kind of speeding things up. I'm good with it."

There were 932 intentional walks last year, including 600 in the National League, where batters are walked to bring the pitcher's slot to the plate.

"You don't want to get your pitcher out of a rhythm, and when you do the intentional walk, I think you can take a pitcher out of his rhythm," Girardi said. "I've often wondered why you don't bring in your shortstop and the pitcher stand at short. Let the shortstop walk him. They're used to playing catch more like that than a pitcher is."

Agreement with the union is required for playing rules changes unless MLB gives one year advance notice, in which case it can unilaterally make alterations. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed hope Tuesday that ongoing talks would lead to an agreement on other changes but also said clubs would reserve the right to act unilaterally, consistent with the rule-change provision of the sport's labor contract.

Some changes with video review can be made unilaterally, such as shortening the time to make a challenge.

"I know they were thinking about putting in a 30-second (limit) for managers to make a decision," Francona said. "I actually wish they would. I think it would hustle it up and if we can't tell in 30 seconds, maybe we shouldn't be doing it anyway."

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

As if there weren’t enough storylines with the 2017 Red Sox, there figures to be the lingering possibility that, at any point, one of the franchise’s greatest hitters will return to make a push for his fourth World Series title.

As Pedro Martinez keeps saying, he won’t believe David Ortiz is retired until season’s end.

And with that possibility comes a good ol’ fashioned sports debate: You’re maybe the biggest lunatic in the whole wide world if you’re hoping for the latter.

There are exactly two potential downsides to Ortiz coming back. One is that the team would be worse defensively if it puts Hanley Ramirez in the field, a tradeoff that seemingly anyone would take if it meant adding Ortiz’ offense to the middle of the order. The other is that we would probably have to see Kenan Thompson’s Ortiz impression again . . . which, come to think of it, would be the worst. Actually, I might kill myself if that happens.  

All the other drawbacks are varying degrees of noise. It basically boils down to the “what if he isn’t good?” fear. Which may be valid, but it shouldn’t be reason enough to not want him to attempt a comeback.

Ortiz is coming off a 38-homer, 127-RBI 2016 in which he hit .315 with a league-best 1.021 OPS. It's probably the best final season of any hitter over the last 50 years.

We also know Ortiz is 41 and dealt with ankle and heel injuries so vast in recent years that he was “playing on stumps,” according to Red Sox coordinator of sports medicine services Dan Dyrek. There is the possibility that he was almost literally on his last legs in 2016 and that he doesn’t have another great season in him.

Unless Ortiz is medically incapable and/or not interested in returning, what would the harm be in rolling the dice? Is it a money thing? It really depends on just how intent the Sox are on staying under the luxury-tax threshold, but it’s hard to imagine that holding them up given that they’ve bobbed over and under the line throughout the years.

The one unacceptable argument is the legacy stuff, which expresses concern that Ortiz would tarnish his overall body of work if he came back for one last season and was relatively ineffective.  

If you think that five years after Ortiz is done playing, a single person will say, “Yeah, he’s a Hall of Famer; it’s just a shame he came back that for one last season,” you’re absolutely crazy. The fact that one could dwell that much on a legacy shows how much they romanticize the player, meaning that in however many years it's the 40-homer seasons, and not the potentially underwhelming few months in 2017, that will stand the test of time.

But he’ll have thrown away having one of the best final seasons ever for a hitter.

Oh man. That’s a life-ruiner right there. A 10-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion totally becomes just another guy if you take that away.

Plus, the fact that he’s a DH limits how bad it could really be. You won’t get the sight of an over-the-hill Willie Mays misplaying fly balls in the 1973 World Series after hitting .211 in the regular season. Ortiz will either be able to hit or he won’t, and if it’s the latter they’ll chalk it up to age and injuries and sit him down. Any potential decision to put him on the field in a World Series would likely mean his bat was worth it enough to get them to that point.

The Red Sox, on paper at least, have a real shot at another title. Teams in such a position should always go for broke. Ortiz has absolutely nothing left to prove, but if he thinks he has anything left to give, nobody but the fans who dropped 30-something bucks on T-shirts commemorating his retirement should have a problem with that.