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Regrouping Red Sox can focus on development

The last time the Boston Red Sox were this poor, Lyndon Johnson was president and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were still alive.

That was then, this is now: The Red Sox came back last week from a 1-8 trip to the West Coast that included a 20-2 loss to the Oakland Athletics, and Bobby Valentine went on his NESN show and said, "We played to our ability."

Valentine may have been trying to be funny after several minutes of criticizing the local media for "incompetence" and for having an "agenda" against him. He also rightly was pointing out that without David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks and after the Dodgers trade that exiled Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett, the manager was filling out a lineup card that usually included three players who were Spring Training non-roster invitees and at the time had scored two or fewer runs in six of seven games.

Some of the players didn't see it that way. It was just another moment in a season in which the connection between manager and players has sometimes been that of the cell service between Presque Isle, Maine, and Alice Springs, Australia. And while Valentine marches out daily to address the media before and after every game, he did so knowing the area was rife with speculation about the next manager -- John Farrell, Sandy Alomar, Brad Ausmus, et al -- while he was trying to guide the SS Bosox out of The Perfect Storm and come back for 2013 knowing what he didn't know when he arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., for Spring Training. "Miserable" was his description of the 2012 experience.

When Omar Vizquel culminated his final game at Fenway Park with a game-winning sacrifice fly on Sunday -- he played his last 60 games at Fenway from 1994-2012 without making an error -- it completed a three-game sweep by the Blue Jays that left the Sox in last place, where they haven't finished since 1992, when Butch Hobson was manager (their previous last-place finish was 1932). They seem to be headed for 90 losses, which they haven't experienced since the 1966 season under Billy Herman, who when giving a speech to the troops in Spring Training had golf balls fall out of his pocket.

In 1966, the Red Sox expected to be comically -- or tragically -- poor. The previous season they drew 652,201 fans to what is now called "America's Most Beloved Ballpark." In 2012, after dismissing Terry Francona and seeing Theo Epstein flee for Chicago, it was expected that there would be a pennant race and a season-long celebration of 100 years of Fenway Park, only to see the season turn into a sinkhole in which finger-pointing became the regional pastime -- at ownership, at Epstein, at Valentine, at the coaches, at the media, with players daily saying "no one wants to play here anymore" to opposing players going to their clubhouses with tales from Boston players detailing the mutiny amidst the bounty.

"I guess it's not a very good season when in September the big thing that gets talked about is the big trade that unloaded three players and a lot of money," says one Red Sox player. Well, ownership does like to point out that the $260 million the Dodgers took off their hands does create flexibility for the future, shifts some of the blame onto Epstein while keeping the highlights of 2004 through Aug. 31, 2011, and create light at the end of their fiscal tunnel.

The positive spin forward is that the Jacoby Ellsbury, Ortiz and Middlebrooks injuries crippled the offense. When Ortiz went down with his Achilles tendon problem in July, they were above .500; since, the team's on-base percentage, which was a mediocre .330, became a pitiable .304. Ellsbury is still trying to recapture the swing that could well have won him the 2011 American League MVP Award. The Red Sox figure they can now afford a couple of more bats, rebuild the batting order and be offensively dangerous again.

But whatever one believes about the respect, trust and people-person elements of Valentine's first season managing in the Major Leagues in a decade, the fact remains that he did not have the pitching to compete. And while Ben Cherington's deals to replace Jonathan Papelbon with Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon haven't worked out and the Alfredo Aceves-Daniel Bard innings turned into periods of hide-and-seek, it begins with the starting pitching. Which goes back to September 2011 and the collapse that now the Boston Redevelopment Authority can begin to restore.

Boston's starters are 46-60 with a 5.12 ERA, the fourth-worst starters' ERA in the AL. They have made 63 quality starts, more than only the Royals and Twins.

Rewind to Sept. 1, 2011. As the Red Sox have gone 70-98, their starting pitchers have been 50-73 with a 5.38 ERA, with 67 quality starts in those 168 games.

"We know very well that we have to address pitching," says Cherington, the first-year general manager who, incidentally, has been the most accountable Red Sox person the entire season, as trying as it has been. The past month has been encouraging for their two best veteran starters, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, who they believe will come back to what they were two years ago. Felix Doubront has hit a wall now that he's up over 130 innings, but his stuff (9.09 strikeouts per nine) and poise have shown flashes of being good enough for him to be at least a mid-rotation starter.

When John Lackey, now almost a year off Tommy John surgery, threw to hitters Saturday, he did so with little effort and greatly improved velocity, movement and breaking pitches. "He was out there the two years on pure guts," says Buchholz, who like all the other starters came out to stand behind the cage, watch and offer their support to Lackey, who while vilified in Boston remains one of the most respected pitchers among his peers.

"John's actually been throwing even better in his bullpen sessions," says pitching coach Randy Niemann. "He's going to come back and be that veteran who eats innings and solidifies the staff. It's very encouraging." Veteran innings have been lacking for nearly a year.

The Sox don't know whether Rubby De La Rosa, one of the two big arms in the Dodgers deal, is close. They believe that they are close to having Allen Webster, the other pitcher in the deal, as well as Brandon Workman and some other youngsters pitching in the high Minors next season and closing in on ETAs of late 2013 or early '14.

"I actually think our system is in the best shape it's been in many years," says Cherington. "It make take a little more time with the pitching, but there are some very interesting arms getting close."

Much ranting and raving has been done about the $30 million-plus spent on Lackey and Beckett, not to mention the $51 million up front and $10 million a year spent on Daisuke Matsuzaka. Fair enough. But that was necessitated by the fact that for all the great things in the two-Series-ring Epstein regime, the flaw was drafting and developing starting pitchers. That said, they did develop Justin Masterson and Casey Kelly in that time but felt they needed to trade them to get Victor Martinez and Gonzalez and feed the monster that has become "Red Sox Nation." Perhaps Webster and De La Rosa will be more than Masterson and Kelly.

But the fact remains that Boston produced four homegrown pitchers who started for the team this season: Lester, Buchholz, Doubront and Bard. Combined, they are 31-31 with a 4.91 ERA.

How Red Sox homegrown starting pitchers have fared in the past five seasons:
Year Pitchers Rec.
2012 Lester, Buchholz, Doubront, Bard 34-29
2011 Lester, Buchholz, Weiland 21-15
2010 Lester, Buchholz, Doubront 37-18
2009 Lester, Buchholz, Masterson, Tazawa, Bowden 26-17
2008 Lester, Bowden, Masterson, Buchholz 23-18

In contrast, there are the Rays. Yes, David Price was a No. 1 pick and Boston hasn't had a top-10 Draft pick since Trot Nixon in 1993, but all 60 of Tampa Bay's starters' wins have been from homegrown pitchers: Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, James Shields, Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann.

Now, there has been a clear focus on scouting and developing pitching in the past year. The Webster and De La Rosa acquisitions were significant, and the Red Sox took a shot on Zack Stewart, who two years ago was rated the best pitching prospect in the Eastern League. He hasn't thrown as he did in September 2010, but they are trying to figure out how to get back the missing 5-6 mph. In the June Draft, after picking shortstop Deven Marrero in the first round, Boston took eight pitchers in a row: Brian Johnson (Florida), Pat Light (Monmouth), Jamie Callahan (high school), Austin Maddox (Florida), Ty Buttrey (high school), Mike Augliera (Binghamton), Justin Haley (Fresno State) and Kyle Kraus (Portland).

Out of the 2010 Draft, second-round pick Workman could well be in Boston by the second half of next season. Anthony Ranaudo has stalled because of injuries and delivery issues. Out of the 2011 Draft, the Red Sox think they have two top prospects in Matt Barnes and Henry Owens.

As of now, Boston will have the eighth pick next June, and the club can continue the reconstruction. "In some ways, this is exciting," says Cherington. "We have the opportunity to build with scouting and development and flexibility." That's something Epstein did not have after 2007.

It will begin with the pitching, move on to ideas and creativity and away from the finger-pointing and divisiveness. Cherington remembers how bad it was in 2001 and how no one seemed to want to play for the Red Sox when the entire Carl Everett/Joe Kerrigan September became Little Shop of Horrors at Fenway, "and a couple of years later, we were in Game 7 of the ALCS; and a year later, [we] won the World Series."

Old-timers remember 1966 and those 90 losses, and they remember that in the winter, Dick Williams came up from Toronto to manage the Sox and "The Impossible Dream" was born.

Over the weekend, Dustin Pedroia spent hours working with and talking to Jose Iglesias about his work ethic, double-play feeds and all things professional, believing in the light and life after the deluge.