Soon, the 2012 Red Sox will be placed squarely in the hands of Robert John Valentine, the man affectionately known as Bobby V. In retrospect, the most significant offseason acquisition made the Red Sox this offseason was their first.
Maybe that is all by default, of course, because most of the roster maneuverings that took place inside Fenway Park this winter have been relatively minor. Jonathan Papelbon is gone. Daniel Bard is a starter. Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon now comprise the back end of the bullpen, and the starting rotation has been spackled with a nomadic cast of candidates ranging from Brandon Duckworth and Carlos Silva to John Maine and Vicente Padilla.
The starting lineup, meanwhile, remains largely unchanged, though the Red Sox at least temporarily possess even greater questions in right field and at shortstop, the latter from where Marco Scutaro recently was supplanted for, of all things, financial reasons.
Into this all now steps Bobby V., whose arrival in Boston this season may very well offer at least some answer to a question long debated in baseball circles: exactly how much of a difference can a manager make? Red Sox fans will be quick to point out that the Sox won the World Series the last time they changed skippers, when Terry Francona displaced Grady Little between the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Just the same, Francona had at least two things Little did not - Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke - each of whom proved critical in ending Boston’s 86-year drought without a World Series championship.
But Valentine? He is the headliner on the list of the Red Sox’ offseason acquisitions. How the Red Sox fare this season may very well depend on whether Valentine takes Boston’s talent (which is considerable) and mask its weaknesses (which are notable).
Valentine has been everything from polarizing to egomaniacal since the Red Sox hired him at the end of last year, so let’s get this out there now: the more time that passes, the better he sounds and looks. The more inquiries that are made about Valentine’s most recent managerial past with the Mets, the more it becomes clear that his supporters outweigh his critics. The latter just tend to be far more vocal, undoubtedly because Valentine, like Robert DeNiro in “Meet the Parents,” unceremoniously squeezed them from his circle of trust.
The same is likely to happen here, of course, because Boston is nothing if not political.
Even so, here is the one thing most everyone agrees on with regard to Valentine, love him or hate him: on the field, especially, he knows what he is doing. In the modern era, so much emphasis has been placed on a manager’s ability to handle his clubhouse (read: egos and personalities) that in-game management skills have been deemed almost meaningless. One cannot help but wonder now if that ratio has been thrown terribly out of whack, so much so that shrewd game management has been all but dismissed entirely.
Whether Valentine can have as much influence in the American League as he did in the National League remains to be seen, if only because there will be no double-switches, less run manufacturing. Still, how he manages his pitching staff, in particular, will bear watching. In the National League, Valentine was a master at late-game matchups and bullpen manipulation, and those skills will be critical for a Red Sox staff that faded badly at the end of last year.
Will Valentine rely on his starters more than Terry Francona did? Less? Will he use his closer for more than an inning with any regularity? How much is he beholden to the left-right matchups? For that matter, does he believe in the sacrifice bunt? How much does he like to run?
Valentine can answer all of those questions with whatever words he chooses. But we won’t know the real answers until he begins managing this team, in real games, in real situations.
With regard to the politics, Valentine’s challenges are obvious. At the end of 2011, the Red Sox were generally a collection of spoiled brats who had little respect for their talent, the game or their manager. If that doesn’t change, with or without Francona, the Sox aren’t going anywhere. Valentine can ask whatever he wants of his players, but if they operate with the same level of entitlement with which they did a year ago, this team will again end up on the outside looking in, even with the potential for a fifth playoff team.
Eight years ago, when Francona replaced Little as manager, the reasons for the change were obvious. While Little excelled in the clubhouse, Red Sox administrators felt he got in the way of the team’s success on the field, most notably in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. Beyond Schilling and Foulke, the Red Sox’ solution to that problem was a manager who could effectively replicate Little’s clubhouse skills and exceed them on the field, the latter generally by staying out of the way with a paint-by-numbers approach designed to maximize talent over the long haul. So they hired Francona.
Now, entering spring training of 2012, the Red Sox need a slightly different approach. Still blessed with talent, they also have holes. Any attempts to repair them during the winter were largely cosmetic. With regard to uniformed personnel, at least, the most significant change made by Sox officials came in the manager’s office, where they are asking Bobby V. to enact change, to get in the way.
Based on his record, Valentine is clearly able.
Now we just have to find out if his players are willing.