Red Sox Slump

Terrible start to the year. Everything has gone wrong: pitching, defense, and offense as well as health (Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron). With Cameron heading to the DL, this is what I’d like to see:

  • Keep Jeremy Hermida in left and put Josh Reddick in center
  • When Ellsbury returns, he takes over left field and Hermida slides into the DH role.

This lets the Red Sox take their time with Ortiz/Lowell DH “platoon” and gives Reddick an extended look in the majors.  Maybe he boosts his trade value or, if Cameron can’t make it back quickly, he forces himself into the lineup and lets the Sox part with Ortiz/Lowell without worrying about losing what could be dead money.

The pitching will improve.  The defense hasn’t been that bad outside of the running game (23 of 24 base stealers have succeeded) and the offense could take care of itself if Hermida can live up to his potential.

Dice-K, Wakefield, Clemens

The Boston Red Sox have the chance to break one of baseball’s long held traditions: the five-man rotation. Headed by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey and backed up by Clay Buchholtz, Tim Wakefield, and when he returns from the disabled list, Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Sox have possibly the deepest pitching staff in the game. While similar speculation existed last year, that rotation would have counted on rebounds by both John Smoltz and Brad Penny. This year the Sox have three legitimate aces and a young pitcher with a no-hitter on his resume. Those top four guys are almost guaranteed to have good seasons (as far as pitchers can be a guaranteed to do anything).

When the Red Sox entertained signing Roger Clemens in 2007 they looked at offering him a Sunday pitching schedule where Clemens could have the week to work out and prepare for that start each week. If the Red Sox implement a six-man rotation this year I think they would look at a similar strategy with either Daisuke or Wakefield taking the Sunday (or whatever day they choose) start every week and the rest of the rotation working on regular rest around them.

Wakefield’s back would surely benefit from a little bit of extra rest and by starting once a week he would still be on a schedule. Matsuzaka has pitched once a week in Japan and enjoyed success there so he would also be a logical choice for the specialized sixth man.

What To Do With Jason Varitek

Over at Sports of Boston I took a look at Jason Varitek and the idea put out there by Gary Tuck that Varitek could catch into his 40s. While it would be a great personal achievement for him, it just doesn’t look too likely that a team will be interested in the catcher at this stage of his career. His best days are clearly behind him, but he can still be a useful backup for a team, like the Red Sox this year, with a great primary catcher.

Red Sox Bullpen Preview

I took a look at the Red Sox bullpen for the upcoming 2010 season over at Sports of Boston.

With two weeks remaining until the the official start of the season, the Red Sox added old friend Alan Embree, signing the lefty to a minor league deal. While Embree can opt out after April 15th if he has not been added to the major league roster, he may be the new second lefty for Francona.

The Present and Future of Red Sox Catching

Over the past week, the Red Sox have moved forward with their plans for 2010 and beyond. Just before the deadline, the Red Sox picked up their option on Victor Martinez and declined their option on long-time catcher and team captain Jason Varitek. However, Varitek responded and exercised his player option to stay with the Red Sox, presumably understanding he will be the backup catcher. Last year’s backup catcher, George Kottaras, was released on Wednesday.

The Catch-33

The last two seasons have been the worst of Jason Varitek’s career. His batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage have reach or neared career lows including a dreadful .157/.250/.239 line over the second half of 2009. By comparison, David Ortiz’s May was still a little more productive than Varitek’s August/September/October.

Month Jason Varitek David Ortiz
April .250/.348/.533/.881 .230/.290/.333/.623
May .231/.311/.513/.824 .143/.278/.242/.520
June .234/.359/.391/.750 .320/.409/.653/1.062
July .231/.367/.369/.736 .247/.306/.539/.845
August .135/.233/.250/.483 .222/.330/.495/.825
September/October* .133/.204/.178/.382 .280/.381/.530/.911

*Regular season only

Varitek had clubbed ten home runs by the end of May but hit just four over the rest of the season. Unfortunately, as the power surge ended, The Captain’s season began to fall off as well. If the grueling life of a catcher has caught up to Varitek, a backup job, if he is amenable to it, could allow the Red Sox to take advantage of what he has left.

As a right handed hitter facing left handed pitchers, Varitek still hit .231/.336/.471/.807. Limiting Varitek to fewer at-bats and only playing to his platoon advantage might allow Jason to end his career with the Red Sox on a better note than he ended the 2009 season. David Ortiz hit just .213/.315/.388/.703 against left handed pitchers this year so an arrangement where Varitek sees his time against lefties could get the most out of the lineup. Francona usually prefers not to have both of his catchers in the game, but a lineup including Martinez at first, Youkilis at third, Varitek catching and Lowell as DH could provide enough punch and rest to keep everyone effective.

Home on the Rangers?

At this time last year, aside from Mark Teixeira talk, the buzz in Boston was all about the Texas Rangers’ surplus of catchers.  Gerald Liard, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, and Max Ramirez were all available. Buchholtz and/or Bowden were rumored as pieces to be moved in acquiring the heir to Jason Varitek.

Instead, Varitek was re-signed and Victor Martinez was acquired at the trading deadline. While both Martinez and the Red Sox have mentioned their interest in a long-term deal, Martinez is only under contract through the 2010 season.

Down on the Farm?

Entering 2009, Baseball America called Luis Exposito as the 15th best prospect in the Red Sox farm system, and the most likely internal replacement for Varitek.  Fellow backstop Mark Wagner was ranked 30th.

Luis Exposito ‘09 .287/.339/.439/.788
Mark Wagner ‘09 .257/.343/.414/.756

 

Exposito spent his 2009 between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland while Wagner spent his season split between Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket. Wagner is considered the better defensive catcher, with a very strong arm, and Exposito has developed better than expected offensively.  Although neither is ready to take over in the majors, one of them could get a look this year should a need arise.

Mauer Power

In 2009 Joe Mauer lead the American League in batting average (.365), on base percentage (.444) and slugging percentage (.587) with a 1.031 OPS. He is the likely American League MVP. Mauer took home his third batting title, just the third catcher in history to win the award three times.

As a free agent after the 2010 season, Mauer is expected to sign a record-setting deal. While he is open to staying with the Twins, it remains to be seen if the Minnesota can convince him to take a lesser deal to win with his home team. Would the Red Sox get involved if he reaches free agency? Maybe.

In six seasons, Mauer has a career .327 batting average. Mauer will make $12.5 million in 2010, the final year of his back-loaded four-year $33 million contract. FanGraphs valued his 2009 season at $36.8 million and while these player salary calculations are not an exact science, the point remains: Mauer is very good and he will be very expensive. The Red Sox were ready to break their rules and give a long deal to Teixeira last winter and they were prepared to take on A-Rod in 2003. It all depends on if the Red Sox view Mauer as a long-term player to build a franchise around.

Missing Nomar: The Red Sox Shortstop Search Continues

Fourteen players have started at shortstop since the beginning of the 2004 season: Nomar Garciaparra, Pokey Reese, Cesar Crespo, Ricky Gutierrez, Mark Bellhorn, Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Royce Clayton, Alex Cora, Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Dustin Pedroia, Jed Lowrie and Nick Green. Only Gonzalez, Cora, Lugo and Renteria made more than 100 starts at the position in a Red Sox uniform.Derek Jeter started 907 of 972 games for the New York Yankees over this time period.

In his six years before the trade, Nomar started 871 of 972 games with the Red Sox. See the problem here?

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Red Sox three most prominent shortstop acquisitions over the last six seasons were hailed with great expectations: Orlando Cabrera, the Expos player Theo had been coveting; Edgar Renteria, the apparent best free agent shortstop in 2004; and Julio Lugo, the Tampa Bay Devil Ray who fell apart with the Dodgers.

  Total With Boston Home Away
Orlando Cabrera .294/.320/.465/.785 .266/.298/.376/.674 .319/.341/.546/.887
Edgar Renteria .276/.327/.385/.721 .266/.325/.382/.707 .285/.345/.389/.733
Julio Lugo .251/.319/.346/.664 .286/.350/.395/.745 .190/.241/.306/.547

During his time with the Red Sox, Cabrera was a machine away from Fenway Park. He hit that amazing ball off the top of the scoreboard and played the best defense the Red Sox had seen in years, but didn’t have what the Red Sox were looking for as (at that time) the bridge to Hanley Ramirez.

Looking back at the numbers, it is almost puzzling how quickly “Rent-a-Wreck” was moved out of town. However, Edgar did have his problems defensively and was promptly moved back to the National League.  For all the grief he received, Renteria could have played much worse before he deserved all of it.

Julio Lugo’s home and away splits above are from the 2007 season, his only full season as the starting shortstop. In 2008, his splits are similar to 2007 but in 2009, in limited at bats with the Red Sox, the numbers were reversed; struggling at home (.205/.225/.2359/.584) while thriving on the road (.329/.415/.371/.786). Overall, being acquired as an offense-first shortstop who had twice clubbed 15 home runs and had not posted an on-base percentage lower than .322 or slugging less than .372 in any full season, Lugo was a bust.

Bargain Basement Find

When the Red Sox signed Alex Gonzalez in 2006, both the team and the player were desperate. In a fantastic deal for the Sox, Gonzalez dazzled Red Sox Nation with his defense. And more amazingly, he didn’t stack up that poorly to the high-profile guys. While 2009 was certainly a limited sample size, just 44 games, the Red Sox seem to have found another player who can succeed in Fenway Park, under the Boston media microscope, or some combination of the two.

  Total With Boston Home Away
Alex Gonzalez ‘06 .255/.299/.2397/.695 .279/.306/.419/.725 .234/.293/.378/.671
Alex Gonzalez ‘09 .284/.316/.453/.769 .306/.316/.453/.769 .263/.282/.342/.624

The Once King

The elephant in the room in any shortstop conversation is Hanley Ramirez.  His emergence as one of the game’s best players hasn’t quite taken people by surprise, but he certainly deserved the considerable hype surrounding him in the minors. Since arriving in Florida on the other end of the Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell trade, Ramirez has been nothing but terrific:

2006 .292/.353/.480/.833
2007 .332/.386/.562/.948
2008 .301/.400/.540/.940
2009 .342/.410/.543/.954

Costello: I said I don’t give a darn! Abbott: Oh, that’s our shortstop.

Without an everyday shortstop on the roster, Theo once again will need to be creative to fill out the roster. Jed Lowrie is the guy the front office would like to see there, but injury troubles have made him a question mark. The $6 million option on Alex Gonzalez was declined, though they could bring him back on a smaller deal as a free agent. A “Hanley Returns” blockbuster trade is unlikely; even if the Marlins wanted to trade him, as the cost in prospects would be monumental and probably higher than the Red Sox would consider.

Top prospect Casey Kelly, who spent half of 2009 at short and half as a pitcher, is likely going to work on the latter full time. That leaves Jose Iglesias as the heir apparent at SS. In very limited time in the Arizona Fall League, he has ten hits in 45 at bats over 12 games. Only 19, Iglesias is more upside than anything at this point, though soxprospects describes him as having “the makings of a gold glove shortstop” with “average to above average speed” similar to Orlando Cabrera.

Red Sox Hot Stove: Two Bags, A Plate, and a Designated Hitter

When Theo Epstein and company make their way to the General Manager and Winter Meetings, in addition to a reunion with new Padres GM Jed Hoyer, they will be pondering the Red Sox 2010 merry-go-round at first base, third base, catcher and designated hitter.

Boston heads into the off-season with Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell, Casey Kotchman, David Ortiz, George Kottaras, and likely Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek or both, to occupy four positions each game…and that is without a potential trade for Adrian Gonzalez. 

Who’s On First?

Since taking over as the Red Sox first baseman in 2006, Youkilis appeared in at least 125 games per year at first base through the 2008 season. In 2009, with the injury to Mike Lowell, acquisition of Victor Martinez, and his own short stint on the disabled list, Youkilis appeared at first base in just 78 games.

Martinez, who was coming off an injury plagued 2008 season, appeared at first base in 70 games in 2009 during his time with the Indians and Red Sox.

Casey Kotchman appeared at first base in 135 games in 2008 and 114 in 2009. He had been the starting first baseman for the Angels and Braves in the 2007 and 2008 season before arriving in Boston as a bench player.

Catch(er) Of The Day

Red Sox fans have grown accustomed to Jason Varitek suiting up nearly every day to go out and handle the pitching staff, but with the Victor Martinez acquisition, the front office signaled a changing of the guard. While he appeared at catcher in 108 games in 2009, Varitek donned the mask in 131 and 125 games in 2008 and 2007. By comparison, Martinez caught in 85 games in 2009, 55 in his injury-plagued 2008 campaign, 121 in 2007 and 133 back in 2006. Both the Red Sox and Indians limited Victor’s time behind the plate this year, using him frequently at first base. Martinez’s most likely partner is Sox backup catcher George Kottaras, who hit .237/.308/.387 – for a .696 OPS compared to Martinez’s .303/.381/.480 line for an .861 OPS.  Assuming the Red Sox handle Martinez the same way next year, Kottaras could see more playing time and become a target as the weak spot in the lineup.

Room For Thirds?

Mike Lowell was a stalwart at third base in 2006 and 2007, appearing in 153 and 154 games, respectively. However, those numbers dropped to 110 and 107 for 2008 and 2009. In addition to the Victor Martinez pickup, this reduced availability paved the way for Kevin Youkilis to set a career high in games played at third base (63), his natural position.

Jed Lowrie, a likely candidate for the shortstop job, appeared at third base in 45 games during the 2008 season and four games in his injury-shortened 2009. Lowell appeared in another eight games as the designated hitter though Ortiz dominated the playing time with 138 games as the DH.

Possibilities?

The Red Sox enter the offseason with at least five players who could start at four positions, with Youkilis and Martinez capable at two each. Should Varitek return, they would have six players, all accustomed to starting. An Adrian Gonzalez acquisition could increase this number to seven.  Gonzalez has been a rock at first base, appearing in at least 155 games per season the last four years.

Depending on how Ortiz fares in 2010, Martinez could see more of his non-catching games at DH rather than first.  When you also consider that Youkilis could fill in for Bay or his replacement in left and then move to third in 2011 when Lowell’s contract expires, things can get interesting.

 

Scenario: 1 2 3 4
First Base Youkilis/Martinez Martinez Kotchman Gonzalez
Third Base Lowell Youkilis Youkilis Lowell
Catcher Martinez/Backup Backup Martinez Martinez/Backup
DH Ortiz Ortiz/Lowell Ortiz/Lowell Ortiz/Martinez
Left Field Bay/Holliday Bay/Holliday Bay/Holliday Youkilis

The first two scenarios are the most likely. A lot depends on who the backup catcher is: Kottaras, Varitek or another player yet to enter the discussion.  How much playing time the backup receives could push Martinez back over the 100-game mark or give the Red Sox the flexibility to keep his bat fresh and his innings in a crouching position limited.  However they work it out, there are a lot of options to consider.

Is Papelbon Papelgone?

The hundred or so days between now and the day pitchers and catchers report will likely be the longest of Jonathan Papelbon’s 28 years. Consistently dominant since bursting onto the scene in 2005 and ascending to closer in 2006, including 27 scoreless innings in the postseason, Boston’s big-game pitcher came up small on an October Sunday;  blowing the save and ending the Red Sox 2009 season earlier than many had predicted and hoped. Is Red Sox Nation wrong calling for a trade of their All-Star closer or are they on to something?

Papelbon’s Value

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Papelbon has made $6.5 million dollars in 2009, pending final bonus tallies, and is again entering what will likely be a costly arbitration showdown with the front office. Given the Red Sox hesitancy in handing out long-term deals, especially to relief pitchers (notable exception Keith Foulke was signed to a 3 year deal after the 2003 season) Papelbon is likely headed out of Boston when he hits free agency.

For comparison, Foulke’s previous three years before signing with Boston:

  • 2001 –  2.33 ERA,  0.975 WHIP, 3.41 K/BB, 42 saves
  • 2002 –  2.90, ERA, 1.00 , 4.46 K/BB, 11 saves
  • 2003 –  2.08 ERA,  0.888 WHIP, 4.40 K/BB, 43 saves

And Jonathan Papelbon’s past three seasons:

  • 2007 – 1.85 ERA, 0.771 WHIP, 5.60 K/BB, 37 saves
  • 2008 – 2.34 ERA, 0.952 WHIP, 9.63 K/BB, 41 saves
  • 2009 – 1.85 ERA, 1.147 WHIP, 3.17 K/BB, 38 saves

Papelbon is certainly correct to value himself among the top relievers in baseball, though he has seen an increase in his WHIP and dramatic fluctuation in his strikeout to walk ratio. Foulke’s numbers were remarkably consistent over the three year period. Foulke stands out as the only reliever the Red Sox have signed to a long-term contract. Alan Embree, Hideki Okajima, John Halama, J.C. Romero, and even old standby Mike Timlin have been lesser pickups with upside (some more than others).

Future Team Needs

The Red Sox certainly do not have to trade their righty reliever, but they may explore it for reasons unrelated to fan outrage and a blown postseason save. Mike Lowell, David Ortiz, Josh Beckett, J.D. Drew, and Victor Martinez will all see their contracts expire over the next two years. And Tim Wakefield will be defying the rigors of age once again. And don’t forget about Jason Bay approaching free agency at the end of this postseason! This is partially good news; should those players leave for draft picks, the Red Sox could be in for another bumper crop of prospects just as they were after 2004 and 2005 which netted them Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia among others.

In the meantime, this team is still very talented but could use help at shortstop, third or first base, catcher and above all, a power bat – no matter what position that person plays. The issue here is to find a match. I would look into trading Papelbon if the return is right. Billy Wagner wants to close, and with Papelbon gone, he could be the bridge to the Daniel Bard closer era. Supported by Ramon Ramirez and Okajima, this is still one of the best bullpens in baseball.

Where Papelbon Could Go

But who needs a closer?  The Cubs are a big market team who disappointed on many levels, have at least a partial opening at closer with Carlos Marmol already in the fold as an elite setup man.  They also have the financial resources to lock up an ace long term.

Another target would be the Angels’ Scott Kazmir. A package centered around Papelbon and perhaps Josh Reddick or another young outfielder (Abreu and Vlad are both free agents) for Kazmir and Brandon Wood would give the Red Sox a young solution for the left side of the infield as well as a potentially dominant rotation. Kazmir has some injury history, which is why the Angels were able to pick him up on the cheap in August, but Papelbon would put all their Brian Fuentes worries behind them. With a $9 million dollar salary for 2010 and a vesting option for 2011, the Red Sox may have to take on Fuentes’ salary or provide some cash in the deal, but both teams could emerge from it stronger.

They don’t need to trade Papelbon, but it doesn’t hurt to look.