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Red Sox must win from within

Special to

July 6

The bottom came in the person of Izzy Alcantara. For a franchise that sold Babe Ruth, blew a 14-game lead to the Yankees in 1978, experienced Coup LeRoux and watched the ball go through Bill Buckner's legs, players and fans alike had to watch Izzy loaf on two defensive plays and get picked off second base in his sixth major-league game after nine seasons in the bushes. This was the journey to the center of earth for the Boston Red Sox, the lowest point in the fall for a team that was 25-13 on May 19 and dropped to 38-39 by July 2.

Alcantara's date with infamy on July 1 came at the end of a month the Red Sox had started off in first place. In June, they scored the fewest runs in the American League and their starters' ERA, the best in baseball for the first two months, rose to 5.27. One game they started an outfield of Jeff Frye in right, Curtis Pride in center and Brian Daubach in left, and by the time they left Chicago on July 2 they'd lost eight out of nine, were a game under .500 and had Pedro Martinez on the disabled list.

Nomar Garciaparra
Aside from Nomar Garciaparra and Carl Everett, Boston's offense has struggled.

"That Alcantara thing was an embarrassment to everyone in this uniform," said one veteran player. "But most of all, it was an embarressment to (Dan) Duquette," a reflection that players and coaches think manager Jimy Williams has no imput in personnel decisions.

But the Red Sox woke up in Minneapolis on the Fourth of July and were still alive. "As bad as it's been, we're still only a couple of games out," said Nomar Garciaparra. "So it's time to get things straightened out."

"No one else has run away from us, so we need to attend to our own business," said Williams. Indeed. Toronto blew three straight to the Orioles. The Yankees pitching collapsed, as their starters compiled the worst ERA (6.73) of any staff in baseball in June and hadn't put together three straight quality starts since May 14-17. What was the J. Pierpont Morgan Division is now the Mike Morgan Division.

So, like Jeff Bridges in "Fearless," the Sox crawled from the wreckage and walked away from the crash. The question is whether or not this team can make it into October, and while Duquette has shopped for bats, he has decided to take the patchwork approach for now . He never was serious about Sammy Sosa before, although if Sosa or a name bat became available he'd explore. But while they died for a month, winning isn't predicated just on home runs, it's predicated on pitching and scoring runs. Morgan Burkhart, Bernard Gilkey, Ed Sprague and whomever The Duke finds on the floor of Buzzard's Bay will have to do.

Run production was a problem for the Red Sox for the first half. But understand:

  • 1. They had two homers and 21 RBI out of third base before Manny Alexander homered on July 4. Hence, the acquisition of Sprague. But don't blame the lack of production on John Valentin's injury, because he's knocked in 80 runs once in his career and just 87 total the past two seasons, both of which saw the Red Sox make the playoffs.

  • 2. Jason Varitek has had serious hand injuries and hasn't hit for power, with just five home runs in 217 at-bats.

  • 3. Jose Offerman hasn't been getting on base at his usual .390 clip.

  • 4. Troy O'Leary's problems left them with 7-24-.205 numbers out of left field going into the Minnesota series. When you consider that until O'Leary homered Monday the Red Sox had a combined total of 19 homers out of the production positions of first base, third base and left field, it's easy to understand how they averaged that league-low 4.4 runs per game from June 1 through July 2.

    The Red Sox are an entirely different team when Offerman is slashing and getting on base. If he has what for him is an average half-season -- he should hit .310 with 17 doubles, 55 runs and 35 RBI the rest of the way. Then, if some combination of Daubach, Burkhart, Gilkey and Mike Stanley produce more than the .249 with 22 homers they got out of first base and DH combined through July 2, that's an improvement and Trot Nixon can go back into the two-hole as Izzy goes back into another hole. If O'Leary has his average half-season, that's another 12-14 homers. Sprague is theoretically an offensive upgrade.

    Not that they were ever in the Sosa bidding, but unloading what's left of the farm system never was the answer. The answer for Boston to beat the Yankees and Blue Jays or edge into the wild card is pitching, starting with Pedro Martinez's health. Pitching on this team has been a thin equation after Martinez. They have Martinez, sometimes they have Paxton Crawford or Brian Rose, and otherwise they have received a lot out of the four veteran starters (Ramon Martinez, Pete Schourek, Jeff Fassero, Tim Wakefield), all of whom were released at some point in their careers.

    In fact, while it's hard to use any roster numbers because it changes like metro traffic, either seven or eight members of the pitching staff were released at some point, and the roster usually has 10-12 former released players, a minor league free agent (Daubach), an independent league veteran (Burkhart) and Frye, who was effectively waived in Triple-A so he could go to Boston and the big leagues where he belonged. In contrast, Garciaparra, Scott Hatteberg, Nixon and Crawford are the only products of their farm system.

    One of the failings of the Boston organization and disappointments of the seven-year Duquette reign has been failure to develop young pitchers. An executive with a team recently trying to deal with Boston, after scouring their organization, asked, "Where are their positional prospects and arms? They are very thin." An executive from another club scouting the Boston organization rated it "a C-minus, although it was a C before they traded some guys this winter. They have a few arms, but very few compared to many teams. We like (Brad) Baker and (Jerome) Gamble. That's about it." The Indians got a list of eight pitchers from the Yankees, which didn't even include all the best prospects; they couldn't get a list of eight from the Red Sox.

    Duquette's stated goal when he took over in 1994 was to develop young pitching, both to fight the inflationary market cost of pitching (if Brad Radke were .500 for his career, imagine what he'd be worth!) and to build a northern version of the Braves. Carl Pavano worked, because he got them Martinez.

    Otherwise? Going into Crawford's Thursday start in Minneapolis, the Red Sox had three wins from pitchers they drafted, signed and developed, and those three wins were part of Brian Rose's 3-6 resumè. Of the pitchers signed from the Duquette era, the only one with as many as four wins this season is Pavano, who is 8-4 but now slowed by an elbow problem. Otherwise the combined record of the rest -- Rose, Crawford, Peter Munro, Rob Ramsay -- is 5-9. The last pitcher signed and developed by the Red Sox that won 10 games is Aaron Sele, now a dependable innings-eater and 15-18 game winner with Seattle.

    In the last few years, Duquette has become bored with U.S. players and the draft, so they do not play for a difficult sign like Ryan Anderson or Rick Ankiel or sometimes even sign half their higher picks. Their top pick in '95 was a pitcher, Andy Yount, now gone from the scene. Their No. 1 in '96 was a pitcher, Josh Garrett, a non-prospect. Their No. 1 in '97 was a pitcher, John Curtice, and he's won one game in two years in Class A. Of all their top 5-6 round pitcher picks in that period, only Matt Kinney, traded to the Twins for Greg Swindell and now in Triple-A, and '96 sandwich pick Chris Reitsma, who is pitching well in Trenton on his way back from a broken arm, are legitimate prospects.

    All of which makes one wonder why the Red Sox don't spend $150,000-200,000 on a guy who can evaluate pitching on every level. But it also makes one realize that they cannot even think about trading Crawford, Sun-Woo Kim or Tomokazu Ohka. "They're all pretty good prospects, especially Crawford," says one Red Sox official. "Maybe they can help. Unless someone unforeseen comes available, they're probably better than anything we can get in a trade."

    The names on the market -- Ismael Valdes, Hideo Nomo, Andy Ashby, Steve Trachsel, Pat Hentgen -- are the same names considered by at least 10 other contenders, which only drives up the price. Scott Erickson was a great idea, but absurdly expensive in terms of prospects demanded. The Red Sox would love to go after Kirk Rueter of the Giants, but after winning six straight against the Dodgers and Rockies, the Giants may be the favorites in the NL West. The Reds will move Denny Neagle, Pete Harnisch, Steve Parris, Scott Williamson and almost anyone after dropping 10 games behind St. Louis and 7½ behind the wild card.

    If the Red Sox are going to pitch well enough to beat the Yankees and Blue Jays, they have to get something out of their own organization. Last year, they went 15-0 in one stretch in games involving Pawtucket recalls, and they need that type of production again. There have been stretches when one asks, "Is this what we get on a $78 million payroll?"

    Duquette's intentions were to build this organization from within. In his seventh season, it may be that organization that decides whether or not the Red Sox play on into October.

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