When the Orioles sent Trey Mancini to the Astros in a three-way deal at the trade deadline, it looked like general manager Mike Elias pushed the plunger on the season despite the team rising back from the dead. No less than Baseball Prospectus described the popular Mancini as “the heart and soul of a franchise long depleted of either.”
Well, Mancini’s now guaranteed a trip to the postseason with the Astros having clinched a postseason berth at minimum (wrapping up the American League West is just a formality waiting to happen for them) . . . and the Orioles remain within sight of a wild card entry, a mere four games back of the Mariners for the league’s fourth wild card.
Nobody really wanted to see Mancini leave Baltimore, not even Elias despite his word-salad explanation of the deal. Not in the Oriole clubhouse, not in the Camden Yards stands. But candor requires us to own up and admit the Mancini deal wasn’t popular but neither did it prove disastrous. It’s been how long since the Orioles finished seasons with winning records?
The Orioles may end up falling short, but they put on a show of self-revival that portends well for their 2023 and shows what teams can do despite losing well loved members to the business’s actualities. There are teams who would do very well to pay attention, listen, and learn.
The team in Boston, for example.
It sent the Red Sox clubhouse into a wrench when backup catcher Kevin Plawecki was designated for assignment late last Friday night and released officially Monday. On Sunday, after the mostly moribund Red Sox ironed up and smothered the Royals 13-3, the players bathed the joint with Plawecki’s walk-up song, “Dancing on My Own.” That’d send the message, right?
What message? The message that it’s not nice to send a popular clubhouse guy packing? The message that it’s not nice to cut a guy loose who kept the club loose amid disaster and started the laundry-cart dugout ride for home runs with them even if he didn’t get to take the ride himself too often? The message that the front office just doesn’t get it?
How about whether the Red Sox didn’t need to be sending but receiving messages? Such messages as yes, the front office Lucys got some splainin’ to do but so do the players. They got some splainin’ to do about what NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase calls “this undercurrent of victimization and grievance that has left the clubhouse feeling like it plays no part in the results on the field.”
We saw it in the mopey reaction to the trade of catcher Christian Vazquez, whose replacement, Reese McGuire, has significantly outperformed him, it must be noted. We saw it a year earlier when trade deadline reinforcements didn’t arrive quickly enough, even though Kyle Schwarber ended up keying a run to the American League Championship Series. And we’re seeing it now with Plawecki, a fine backup and veteran presence who isn’t the issue here.
The issue is the reaction of players who seem unwilling to accept responsibility for their role in this disappointing campaign. When right-hander Nathan Eovaldi tells WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford the clubhouse misses presences like Schwarber, Plawecki, and Hunter Renfroe, it comes off as a direct dig at Bloom’s priorities. But how about Eovaldi fills that gap? We’re still talking about a veteran-laden roster, after all. From Xander Bogaerts to J.D. Martinez to Rafael Devers to Kiké Hernández to Nick Pivetta to the dearly departed Vazquez, the Red Sox did not lack for experienced, winning players.
So where were they when the season started going south in July? They never stanched the bleeding, even though within their very own division, the Rays survived the loss of burgeoning superstar Wander Franco, Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, All-Star catcher Mike Zunino, ace relievers Andrew Kittredge and J.P. Feyereisen, and potential future ace Shane Baz, among others. They currently trail the Blue Jays by only half a game for the first wild card.
The Rays didn’t give up when injuries hit, but the Red Sox did, rendering the final eight weeks of the season meaningless.
It might now seem an Eighth Amendment violation to remind the Olde Towne Team now. It wasn’t that long ago when their age-old rivals from the south Bronx went to back-to-back postseasons despite being hit with injury bugs so pronounced you’d have thought their games were episodes of Bones, Grey’s Anatomy, and House, and that The New England Journal of Medicine was really the Yankee yearbook.
I get it. Plawecki wasn’t a world beater at the plate or behind it; his usual role seemed to have been as the catcher of choice for starting pitchers Eovaldi and Michael Wacha, their two best starters when they’re not injured. Above and beyond that, Plawecki was one of the cast of Show characters who play roles unseen on the field.
“The Plaweckis of the world,” writes the Boston Globe‘s Jon Couture, “get teams through the grind, help rookies adjust, and are beloved for their conscientiousness and camaraderie. They’re needed. Thus, the pointed reaction for an end-of-the-roster guy.” (Thus, too, the likeliest reason the Rangers are interested in the now-free Plawecki and might even sign him today.)
Tomase gets it, too, but only to a particular valid extent. “Recognizing the temperature of the locker room is a necessary management skill,” he writes, “and at times the Red Sox could do a better job of communicating decisions to the rank and file.”
But we often go too far in castigating this move or that as harmful to the delicate clubhouse ecosystem.
Sometimes the players just need to man up and admit that management doesn’t owe them anything, because they did not honor their half of the bargain. Sometimes their performance leaves the boss no choice but to cut their buddy because he’s not part of the future. Sometimes next year matters more than this one.
Castigate Bloom as you wish for this unmade move or that unmade move or the other move that backfired. Fair enough. But when Tomase says the Red Sox players left Bloom little enough choice this year but to play wait-till-next-year, too (or wait-till-last-year, considering their reinforced run to the ALCS), he’s not just writing through his chapeau.
Lucky for the Red Sox they’ve got more 21st Century World Series rings than anyone else in the Show so far. Before that, a season such as this would have been written off as just another entry in the long log of rotten Red Sox malfortune. Who would have thought that the Orioles of all people would end up better off and with more respect approaching the finish line?