Lucchino still confident in Red Sox
CHICAGO -- For Red Sox majority owner John W. Henry, he was like a son. For CEO Larry Lucchino, a protégé. For chairman Tom Werner, a friend as much as an employee.
On Friday afternoon, more than a decade after they invested an extraordinary amount of faith in a 28-year-old to oversee their $700 million investment, the Gang of Three convened in Wrigley Field to watch The Team That Theo Built play The Team That Theo Is Building, the Cubs winning the opener of the Theo Games, 3-0.
And while Theo Epstein -- former Red Sox general manager, current Cubs president of baseball operations -- spoke this week about the "monster" he helped create in Boston, one that could not be sated regardless of how much the Red Sox won, Lucchino continued to express confidence that the current Sox possess the makings of a playoff contender.
As for the "monster," Lucchino wasn't eager to say much, although he made it clear he was not inclined to cast it in such melodramatic terms. Nor was he about to parse out responsibility for the signings of big-ticket free agents Carl Crawford and John Lackey. Although in both instances, evidence abounds that the brains in the baseball operations department were as eager as, if not more so than, anyone on the business side to make those signings.
Ben Cherington, after he succeeded Epstein as general manager, revealed that he lobbied vigorously for the Sox to sign Crawford, and Epstein made a late-night phone call to Henry in Liverpool, England, asking for the owner to sign off on the $142 million required to get the deal done.
"It's a double-edged sword," Lucchino said Friday morning, before the Sox were shut out by Ryan Dempster and two relievers to fall two games below .500. "Boston is a special market. We love the passion, the enthusiasm, the excitement. With it comes a high level of expectations. We understand that. This is the business we chose. This is the franchise we chose. We all bought into a mission statement that required us to work hard to build a perennially competitive team."
Lucchino maintained the Sox could still qualify for the playoffs, although his remarks came before manager Bobby Valentine announced that Sox starter Josh Beckett will miss his next start with what Valentine called inflammation in his right shoulder.
"I think when we are playing on all cylinders with the varsity coming back from the disabled list, yes, I think we can," Lucchino said. "It's a very fluid division with a lot of parity.
"There's opportunity for the team to get hot. Remember there are three positions available for the postseason -- the division winner plus two wild cards."
Lucchino did not mention him by name, but he clearly believes Jacoby Ellsbury could be a catalyst to a postseason push when he returns from a partially dislocated shoulder, the club now projecting him to return sometime next month. And while Lucchino would not discuss it, ownership expects soon some resolution at third base, which will result in either the trade of Kevin Youkilis or the return of impressive-looking rookie Will Middlebrooks to the minors. The status quo is untenable.
But even before Beckett's injury, Lucchino identified pitching as the team's foremost concern heading toward the July 31 trading deadline.
"I think it's always the same," Lucchino said. "I hate to sound repetitious, but it's always about the strength and depth of pitching and are we keeping up to the grind of the season. We are absolutely looking to improve the depth of our staff."
While the Sox spent only a fraction of what they spent in previous seasons in free agency this past winter, the club has a greater payroll than in 2011, and Lucchino said it expects to be assessed a luxury tax again. Even so, he said, the team is open to spending at the trading deadline.
"There is always some sense of proportionality and value," he said. "We're not going to go crazy just for the sake of acting. I know we have good people in place to exercise good judgment."
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Lucchino, who visited in the clubhouse with Beckett before the game (it appeared to be merely chit-chat and not a discussion of the pitcher's shoulder woes), said that contrary to the perception of the owner being distracted by his Liverpool soccer venture, Henry remains fully engaged with the Red Sox.
"I expect him to be there [in Boston] for virtually every game going forward," Lucchino said. "He was in Miami; he's here. I talk to him almost daily; we'll have plenty of time to talk this weekend. You can't be more engaged than that."
Lucchino could hardly have used more glowing terms in describing the composition of a club vilified in the wake of September's debacle.
"This is a good team, a good bunch of guys, a good bunch of teammates," he said. "I think they've had to sort of form their own identity through the adversity and hangover from last year, the adversity of injuries in the early part of the year.
"There's an appealability, likeability and attractiveness with this team. That's certainly the way we see it internally. I hear it all the time, that this is a great group of guys, a great group to work with. These guys are really coming together. Let's hope it continues."
Lucchino, who played a decisive role in the hiring of Valentine as manager, offered a qualified answer to whether this team trusts Valentine.
"I haven't seen players show anything other than a willingness to play hard," he said. "I'm not going to make a detailed comment. He's got our trust, I can tell you that."
Referring to the effect Valentine has had on the club, Lucchino said: "I hope we're wise enough to realize when you have all the transition we have had in the last six or eight months, there was going to be some transition effects. We've gotten through some of those."
Valentine has admitted to making mistakes along the way.
"So have I," Lucchino countered. "So have you. We've all made mistakes. That's especially true when you're dealing with significant transition periods. But you ask me about the character and personality of the team, I think it's an admirable one."