The Boston Red Sox should have a different clubhouse culture in 2013 than they did in 2011 or 2012. They have a new manager and an assortment of new players, and the organization has made establishing a strong clubhouse a primary directive.
Hence the reason the Red Sox should be keeping a very close eye on Alfredo Aceves. While they're at it, they need to keep him on a short leash.
If you're just now crawling out from under a rock that you've been living under for the last few days, Aceves caused quite the stir at Red Sox camp on Sunday during a live batting practice session. The story, according to Joe McDonald of ESPNBoston.com, goes that Aceves was lobbing balls to the plate. The drill typically involves pitchers throwing with their usual velocity and effort level. Aceves was showing off neither.
Aceves' lobs caught the attention of new manager John Farrell. He checked to see if Aceves was OK and eventually had new pitching coach Juan Nieves go and sort the right-hander out. After he and Nieves spoke on the mound, Aceves started throwing like an actual pitcher.
Farrell didn't have much to say afterwards.
"The one thing I'll say about that is, he didn't go through the drill as intended and we've addressed it," he said.
Aceves didn't have much to say either. He characterized the throwing session as "the usual," and he refused to get into what Farrell and Nieves said to him after it was over.
"That stays in the team," said Aceves.
With no official explanation in place, the door was open for the gallery of whisperers to fill in the blanks.
Sean McAdam of CSNNE.com spoke to a source who said Aceves was "absolutely" testing Farrell. Vague...but it certainly sounds like something Aceves would do. Strange things have been known to happen between his ears.
Boston's 2012 season saw one mutiny plot against former manager Bobby Valentine and consisted of bad vibes from beginning to end, but Aceves stood alone as the most rotten egg in Boston's basket by the end of the year. He got himself suspended for three games in August following a confrontation with Valentine, starting a feud with Bobby V that continueqd into September.
There's a new boss in Boston now, but Aceves is treating him like the old boss. If there was doubt before, that should tell the Red Sox that the feud between Bobby V and Aceves in 2012 is something that can't be chalked up solely to Valentine's incompetence. It was as much a product of Aceves' obvious issues with authority, if not completely a product of these issues.
Farrell's own authority was presumably what Aceves was testing during his odd BP session on Sunday. He may not have had it in mind to test whether Farrell had any authority at all, mind you. It's more likely that he was testing exactly how Boston's new manager prefers to put his authority into action when he needs to.
It's possible that Aceves' motivations were far less cunning. Maybe he was simply throwing a hissy fit because, as McDonald noted, John Lackey threw in Aceves' scheduled time slot on Sunday. Or he may be upset with Boston's plans to use him as a reliever this year rather than as a starter.
Either way, the Red Sox should be concerned.
The Red Sox are trying to build a strong clubhouse culture around Farrell. To do that, they're going to need everyone to buy into a team concept, which is something the club didn't do in 2011 because of indifferent players or in 2012 because of a lightning-rod manager. The Red Sox believe they've found the right manager in Farrell, and they took care to pick and choose the right players this winter.
It bodes well for Farrell that he already has relationships in place with core members of the Red Sox from his time as Boston's pitching coach from 2007 to 2010. Dustin Pedroia said that Farrell is the kind of guy who inspires "instant respect." David Ortiz referred to him as "my main man." Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey all know him well from having pitched under him.
If somebody was going to test Farrell's authority on behalf of the team, it would be one of these guys rather than Aceves. Given his past history with authority figures, it's more likely that he was testing Farrell on behalf of himself with his own interests in mind.
If so, then Aceves isn't exactly a team player buying into a team concept. Those are precisely the kinds of players the Red Sox don't want to have around as they attempt to wash away the memories of 2011 and 2012.
At the very least, Aceves is a threat to become an unwelcome distraction. At worst, he could become a disgruntled player who manages to generate sympathy among his peers, which would compromise Farrell's control over Boston's clubhouse.
If there's a bright side to this for the Red Sox, it's that Aceves will only be able to do these things if he is allowed to linger on the team. It's not a foregone conclusion that he will. It's not like the Red Sox really need him, after all.
Aceves is one of baseball's most versatile pitchers, but he's in no man's land in relation to the rest of Boston's pitching staff. The Red Sox have five quality starters lined up in Lester, Buchholz, Lackey, Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront, and Franklin Morales probably has a leg up on Aceves for the sixth starter spot after pitching well in nine starts in 2012.
Aceves doesn't have a primary role in Boston's bullpen either. Joel Hanrahan is going to be the team's closer, and the Red Sox have a solid collection of setup men consisting of right-handers Andrew Bailey, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa and left-handers Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller. If he returns to form, Daniel Bard will be yet another quality setup man for Farrell to turn to.
The best role for Aceves to occupy as things stand right now is that of a long reliever. That's probably just fine with the Red Sox, as they know that Aceves can handle a long relief role after he made 13 relief appearances of three innings or longer in 2011 and ultimately finished the year with a 2.61 ERA.
If Aceves doesn't want the job, the Red Sox don't have to give it to him. They could just have Morales serve as their long man until he's needed in the rotation. They could also hand the job over to hard-throwing youngster Rubby De La Rosa, who the Red Sox may want to stretch out in preparation for a future role as a starting pitcher.
With his status on the team somewhat up in the air, Aceves should have felt motivated to come into camp eager to prove himself rather than eager to earn a stink eye from his new manager. Perhaps he felt emboldened by the fact that the Red Sox chose to keep him around and tender him a contract rather than cut him loose after his clashes with Valentine.
If the Red Sox deem that decision to be a mistake, they don't have to live with it if they don't want to. Alex Speier of WEEI.com ran through Boston's options with Aceves, which include trading him, waiving him, optioning him to the minors or just cutting him.
That last option could involve paying Aceves to go away, as the New York Mets did with Jason Bay or the Seattle Mariners with Chone Figgins, but that wouldn't be a huge hurdle to cross seeing as how Aceves' $2.65 million salary is mere pennies for an organization as well off as the Red Sox.
Aceves would have a much better chance of remaining on the Red Sox if there was a disconnect between Farrell and general manager Ben Cherington, but such a disconnect doesn't exist. McAdam has reported that Cherington told Aceves' agent that further incidents will not be tolerated, which can be taken as a clear sign that he has Farrell's back more than he ever had Valentine's back (a report claimed there was a rift between the two as early as spring training).
The big picture is clear enough. The Red Sox aren't going to let Aceves ruin their budding clubhouse culture, and he really doesn't have the power to do so. If he's going to be part of the team, he's going to have to want to be part of the team.
If the Red Sox are looking for a motto for their team-building mission during spring training, they'd do well to borrow one from Ken Kesey: You're either on the bus or off the bus.
If Aceves doesn't want to be on the bus, then the Red Sox will make sure he's off of it.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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