I’m tempted to call this a train wreck. Bobby Valentine in his first 12 games as Red Sox manager was every bit a train wreck. But with the season only 7 percent complete, it’s a bit early to get overheated, even over Bobby V.
Valentine, 62, will be in trouble if he continues tangling with his players in the media. He will be in bigger trouble if he continues managing as if he doesn’t know his own team or the opponent.
But while some in the game think Valentine might not last the season, much less complete his two-year contract, I’m not ready to bet against him as the Red Sox prepare to face the Yankees this weekend (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 4:10 p.m. ET).
The hiring of Valentine, some rival executives say, was club president Larry Lucchino’s attempt to regain power in the organization. Lucchino is not going to admit defeat easily, if at all. Valentine, in turn, is not likely to quit one of the most prestigious jobs in the sport.
The Sox’s schedule, hellish for the first 2 1/2 weeks, will be considerably easier over the next three once the Yankees series is complete. Injured players such as left fielder Carl Crawford, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and closer Andrew Bailey eventually will return. And if the team struggles, a good amount of blame will fall on new general manager Ben Cherington, enabling Valentine to gain greater influence.
Of course, Valentine is not exactly Teflon Bobby — he already is getting booed at Fenway by Red Sox fans who don’t buy his act. Still, in several interviews this week, Valentine admitted the obvious — that he is still adjusting to his new managing job, his first in the majors since 2002.
Sitting in an ESPN booth or studio is not the same as sitting in a dugout. Managing the Red Sox, as second baseman Dustin Pedroia so bluntly pointed out, is different than managing in Japan. Valentine is dealing with new players, new forms of media. He deserves the benefit of the doubt.
To a degree.
Even those who dislike Bobby V admire his intellect, but strategically he both looks and sounds out of touch. Off the field? It’s the same old, same old, Bobby being Bobby.
Valentine’s remarks about Kevin Youkilis caused an immediate backlash in his own clubhouse, and it’s difficult to accept the manager’s contention that he meant no harm to the third baseman.
Youkilis is in decline. Valentine is a shrewd judge of talent. Maybe Valentine was laying the groundwork for the Sox to eventually trade Youkilis and promote their top prospect, third baseman Will Middlebrooks. Maybe Valentine doesn’t like Youkilis personally. But let’s not overthink this: When a manager says a player is not emotionally and physically invested, he’s attacking the player’s commitment.
Valentine, after serving two years as an analyst for ESPN — and managing six-plus years in New York with the Mets — should understand the power of his own words.
Yes, some fans and media revel in the comeuppance of players who earn millions. The Red Sox are an easy target after their fried-chicken-and-beer escapades last season. But the vast majority of managers, and virtually all of the good ones, never embarrass players publicly.
Because it rarely works.
When Pedroia said, “That’s not the way we go about our stuff around here,” he almost certainly meant that most of the Red Sox players disdain such motivational ploys. If Valentine hasn’t lost the clubhouse completely, he certainly has lost the trust of many. His public rebuke by Pedroia, perhaps the team’s most respected player, told you all you needed to know.
This did not just start with the Youkilis incident, either. The Red Sox, rival players say, started bristling under Valentine in spring training. One opponent says that the team does not seem as unified and cohesive as in the past. A rival executive noticed the team’s coaches sitting apart from Valentine on the bench, literally keeping their distance.
Valentine’s saving grace, in previous managerial stints, was his baseball acumen. But now, even his game management is in question. Twice in the past week, he stayed too long with a pitcher — right-handed starter Daniel Bard on Monday, left-handed reliever Franklin Morales on Wednesday. Both decisions were scream-at-the-television howlers, prompting first-guessing, not just second-guessing.
Bard, making only his second major league start, allowed two baserunners with two outs in the seventh inning of a scoreless game against the Rays. Valentine allowed him to face Carlos Pena, a left-handed hitter, and Pena walked to load the bases. Then, Valentine stuck with Bard against Evan Longoria, and Longoria walked to force home the game’s only run.
So much for Bard feeling good about his outing.
Morales entered his game in the eighth inning with the Red Sox trailing the Rangers 3-2. The Rangers loaded the bases against him with one out, but Valentine failed to lift Morales even after Rangers manager Ron Washington pinch-hit Craig Gentry for David Murphy, setting up a left-right matchup.
OK, Morales had opened the season with four scoreless outings, and Gentry isn’t one of the Rangers’ biggest threats. But Morales hit Gentry to force in a run, and Valentine still allowed Morales to face Mike Napoli, who had the fourth-highest OPS in the AL against left-handed pitching last season.
The result was predictable: A two-run double by Napoli, a 6-2 Rangers lead.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Valentine, in his postgame comments, referred to Gentry as a player “who hasn’t gotten a hit all year.” What series had Valentine been watching? Gentry had gone 3-for-6 against the Red Sox the night before.
You can blame Cherington for trading for Bailey and Mark Melancon, the projected setup man who required almost an immediate demotion to Triple A. You can blame ownership for failing to retain closer Jonathan Papelbon or address the back of the rotation. But ultimately, a manager must win with the pieces he is given, no matter how flawed.
Either Valentine starts doing that, or it’s all just a prelude to a train wreck.