VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – Awhile back, Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino famously referred to the arch rival New York Yankees as “The Evil Empire.”
The imagery was clear.
The comment referenced the filthy-rich Bronx Bombers’ then-penchant for buying up the best baseball talent available in order to win championships — like they were some unscrupulous money-spending monster species dropped on the baseball world from a far-off galaxy.
The inference was that, because of the Yanks’ bottomless pockets modus operandi, residents of the big league universe were now in mortal danger.
The Red Sox prez vowed that his team would continue to battle the aliens by fighting the good baseball fight.
The Sawx would win THEIR titles the old school way: by developing talent from within while sprinkling in a trade here and there and only occasionally signing a key free agent at a reasonable price.
Fast forward to the present and, my, how things have changed.
The two ball clubs have essentially traded places.
These days the Yankees are no longer the drunken sailor free agent spenders they once were and are becoming more dependent on homegrown talent.
Not coincidentally, the Yanks are battling for the American League East lead after struggling the past few seasons.
It is the Red Sox who are now the Evil Empire, overpaying free agents because they can.
They are also a mess.
The BoSox are presently last by a bunch in the AL East. If they stay there, it will be the second straight season they’ve finished in the cellar and third time in the last four years.
Geez, where’s Bobby Valentine when you need a scapegoat?
You can trace Boston’s current travails to an ill-advised reconstruction last campaign.
After going from first to last in 2013, the BoSox decided to go all-in with youth.
They sometimes started four rookies at once and expected them to win right away.
Alas, most of the rooks floundered — including infielder Xander Bogaerts (.240 batting average) this after he had sparkled in ’13 as a late-season callup when Boston won the World Series.
“I felt the pressure of everyone expecting my World Series performance to carry over into the next regular season,” Bogaerts explained to MAS, “and at first it did, but then I struggled.
“It was really tough because before that I had never failed in my career.”
Then this season, Boston reversed course and went on an unprecedented spending spree, restocking much of its offense and almost its entire starting pitching rotation with veteran outsiders.
Marginal talent was paid top dollar.
Manager John Farrell, though, doesn’t see last offseason’s activity as a 180 in philosophical approach, telling MAS: “Young players are always going to be a part of the Red Sox.
“There’s always going to be a blend of youngsters with veterans. I think we’ve strived to achieve that again with this year’s roster.”
Farrell traced the BoSox struggles this season to what could be called individual awareness, or lack thereof.
“To me, first and foremost, it’s always all about the player knowing himself,” Farrell explained.
“Being aware of the attack plan used against him, either at the plate or on the mound.
“And then being better equipped to minimize the effect of that attack.”
With the exception of productive outfielder Hanley Ramirez (.283 avg., team-high 15 HRs and 38 RBIs) most of the pricey new additions have yielded minimum bang for the megabucks spent on them.
The three hurlers acquired to bolster the starting rotation have been, to put it mildly, AWFUL.
Rick Porcello (5.54 ERA — $80 million, four-year contract), Justin Masterson (5.58 ERA) and Wade Miley (4.38) have each contributed greatly to an American League-worst team ERA of 4.38.
Meanwhile, Pablo Sandoval, the World Series wonder the Sox shelled out $95 million over five years for, has just seven homers and 26 RBIs.
Curiously, one of the moves that HAS panned out this season is the switch of Bogaerts from third base to shortstop.
He’s playing Gold Glove defense and, with a .294 average and 33 RBIs, Xander is now living up the offensive potential he flashed two postseasons ago.
“I feel more comfortable at shortstop, it’s my natural position,” Bogaerts, a polite 22-year-old Aruban, explained to MAS. “So, that definitely helps.
“I feel I adjusted over the last half of last season and came out of everything OK.”
With the influx of veteran players, many Red Sox minor leaguers found themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Deven Marrero figured this could be his year to compete for the starting shortstop position. But that was before the acquisition of Sandoval and shift of Bogaerts to short.
“That’s what the Boston Red Sox are all about,” Marrero, a former No. 1 draft pick, told MAS with a shrug. “They just want to win the World Series every year.”
“It’s Bogaerts’ job right now,” Deven continued. “I’m just trying to enjoy the process of working my way up and earning a spot.”
Marrero’s diligence paid off as he was just promoted to the big club — but only to help fill in for Dustin Pedroia, while the starting BoSox second sacker is on the 15-day disabled list.
Marrero’s best shot at becoming a big league regular appears to be as part of a “prospect package” that would be swapped by Boston for a much-needed, established starting pitcher.
Two hurlers who ARE performing well for the Red Sox, though, are the Japanese relief pair of closer Koji Uehara (17saves, 3.00 ERA) and setup man Junichi Tazawa, who has a team-best ERA of 2.62 and 12 holds (leads preserved for the closer).
When MAS asked Farrell if he was happy with the work of the nihonjin duo, John exclaimed, “HELL, YES! Got any more of ’em over there?”
So, where to now for this otherwise less-than-threatening new Evil Empire?
Well, the BoSox need look no further than their perennial nemesis, the Yankees.
The Bombers are divisional contenders thanks in large part to player development from within.
At the core of the Yankees’ success is a host of impressive flame-throwing young pitchers — mainly relievers at this point — most of whom came up through the Yank farm system.
Afield and at the plate, cost-effective additions like tradedfor third sacker Chase Headley and long-in-the-tooth free agents with some bite still remaining (Mark Teixeira, Jacoby Ellsbury and even Alex Rodriguez) are holding down Fort Bronx while reinforcements are groomed to take their place.
The Yankees are currently just a half game out of first place in the tightly contested AL East, where three teams are just ONE game or less behind division leader Baltimore.
Then there’s Boston, which is seven games out.
“It’s a long season,” reminds Farrell. “There’s still time for us to claw our way back into this thing.”
True, but if the BoSox aren’t able to do so, maybe they should try emulating the hated New York Yankees.
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