Red Sox Trade Deadline 2012: Blow It Up!

July 31st has been an important day several times in the history of the John Henry era Red Sox. Nomar Garciaparra was traded in 2004, leading of course to the magical World Series run. The following year, Jonathan Papelbon made his debut while Manny Ramirez failed to start, although he pinch hit after the deadline had come and gone, signaling that he had reached the first of many accords with the Red Sox. Manny would find himself the focus of the trading deadline in 2008 when he journeyed to the West Coast and Jason Bay took over left field duties. Victor Martinez would be the 2009 acquisition, signaling the beginning of the end for Jason Varitek, whose role would continue to diminish over the following two seasons.

The takeaway: the Red Sox have been buyers and sellers – at the same time – when the trade deadline rolls around, looking to make a deal that give each side something of value, not simply dumping salary or taking on a bad contract from another club. With the four o’clock deadline rushing towards us, Ben Charington’s club is at the bottom of the AL East, the back of the pack for the Wild Card spots. Fans are disappointed that the club has missed the playoffs the past two years, but they understand that 2012 is most likely a lost year. The Sox GM can take this time to make the Red Sox his team, not Theo Epstein’s, rebuild, and plan for 2013 without substantially hurting what are already long odds of a postseason berth two months from now.

The Keepers

Despite rumors about Carl Crawford and the Marlins last week, the troubled left fielder isn’t going anywhere. Ditto Adrian Gonzalez. [Man, the Dodgers blew that logic out of the water} Moving either player would require the Red Sox eating a lot of cash or taking on another big contract. Despite the frustrations each player has had during the past season and a half, both are likely better bets to perform well over their remaining tenure than most of the bad contracts out there. David Ortiz won’t be going anywhere either, although if he were not on the DL, he would be an interesting piece to move. Dustin Pedroia is probably as safe as any player.

The Parts

Should the Red Sox explore buying and selling in the remaining hours, Cody Ross and Mike Aviles are obvious names to move. Ross is having a great year while hitting .260/.331/.523 with 16 home runs, but as a free agent at the end of the year, and a crowded Red Sox outfield, his future with the team is limited. Ross might be able to bring back another piece, maybe a back end starter who is also approaching free agency and could shore up the rotation, or simply a prospect along the lines of Clayton Mortenson, who has lost some luster but might be able to right the ship.

Aviles has struggled since a fast start to the season; he’s hit just .241/.259/.354 since May 1st. While the shortstop has 11 home runs on the season, eight of those came in April and May. With Pedro Ciriaco, Nick Punto (also tradable), and Jose Iglesias, the Sox could probably get by with a more defense-oriented player since Aviles hasn’t been hitting well for a few months. Again, the return wouldn’t be great, but another team might have a need and could take a flyer on the former Royal. After all, in his transition to the Red Sox, Aviles thrived, maybe a change of scenery once in awhile is all he needs to get things working again.

The bullpen is full of extra pieces that could be desirable to other teams: Andrew Miller, Matt Albers, and Vicente Padilla could be replaced by the Sox with Mortenson, Andrew Bailey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka (or Aaron Cook).

Kelly Shoppach is another extra piece. The catcher is having a fine season in limited at bats, .261/.346/.504, but could be an upgrade for another team. If the front office considers Ryan Lavarneway capable of stepping in to handle backup catching duties, trading Shoppach could be a nice favor to the player (who doesn’t want to end up on a contender?), let the Sox get a long look at a guy on the farm, and not risk a large drop off is production.

These are minor moves that could let the Red Sox turn over a good portion of the roster, cut some payroll by promoting minor leaguers, and generally shake up the team. With the ground they need to make up, Matt Albers is not the answer. The problem has been and remains the starting rotation.

The Crazy Possibilities

Josh Beckett. Jon Lester. Jacoby Ellsbury. All three have become the subject of trade rumors, especially Beckett. While Gordon Edes is reporting that Beckett is not on the move, until 4 PM nothing is certain.

Reports have linked Beckett to the Rangers, Dodgers, and Braves, but so far nothing has come together. While there were rumors of a deal with the Rangers this afternoon, the idea died off quickly. Given the nearly $40 million remaining on Beckett’s contract, the Sox would likely have to eat a significant amount of salary to move their Texan this summer. Should Beckett finish strong, maybe a deal could be worked out in the winter. Because Beckett has 10/5 rights, he can’t be traded without his permission, although if he wants out as much as the fans would like to see him gone, getting that permission may not be an issue. Like the Manny Ramirez situation, the Red Sox may not have a trading partner for Beckett until the waning minutes of the three o’clock hour.

Lester faces a different problem than Beckett: he has been really bad this year. While his start against the Yankees on Saturday was encouraging, the guy who was so good from 2008 to 2011 hasn’t been taking the mound this year. The lefty is owed $11,625,000 in 2013 but his contract includes a $13 million team option for 2014. Should the Red Sox trade Lester, the receiving team would only be on the hook for $13 million plus the remainder of what he is owed this season, minus whatever cash Boston sends along. If Lester remounds, that 2014 option looks like a pretty good deal.

Unsurprisingly, Edes also reported that the Sox have no plans to trade Jacoby Ellsbury, although there have been calls from other teams about his availability. Ellsbury is probably the most valuable major leaguer the Red Sox have to trade. The center fielder is coming off an MVP-caliber season, has looked healthy since since return, and is under team control for 2013 before hitting free agency. Unlike Beckett and Lester there is no large contract hanging like an albatross around his trade value.

While he is the least likely of the potential trade candidates, Ellsbury would also fetch the most in return. In a dream scenario, the Sox could extract a package similar to what the Braves paid for Mark Teixeira: a couple of top prospects. Like Teixeira, the receiving team would have a full year of control beyond this season rather than a rental. With B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn – both center fielders – hitting free agency this fall, Ellsbury could be a very attractive trade chip this winter as well.

(cross-posted from Sports of Boston)

The Marlins Become a Supervillain

This past winter the Marlins were the talk of the town. Rather than cutting salary and penny-pinching, the Fish were binging on “new stadium revenue” while signing Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell, and Jose Reyes.

One disappointing half-season later, the team is selling once again. It started yesterday when the team shipped Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante to the Detroit tigers for pitching prospect Justin Turner. 

Turner, forced into the Tigers rotation, had struggled in three starts this season, giving up 1 1 runs in 12.1 innings. In fourteen minor league starts this season, Turner threw 84.1 innings to a 3.16 ERA while striking out 57 and walking 31. Not dominating numbers, but in their 2012 annual, Baseball Prospectus said he could “become Rick Porcello with more punchouts. That’s even better than it sounds.” And he seems on track to do just that. Plus, facing the pitcher three times a game in the DH-less league never hurts either.

Of course, Sanchez is a pending free agent and with the reworked compensation picks for departing players, if a team doesn’t plan on making a large offer, it might be better served to take a lesser package of prospects than the potential draft pick.

Josh Johnson, Heath Bell, and Hanley Ramirez are not free agents at the end of this season, yet all three are rumored to be on the block. Ken Rosenthal reports that all three, plus Randy Choate and recent acquisition Carlos Lee are being made available. Rosenthal reports that the team would “absolutely try and try hard” to trade Bell months after signing him is concerning on several levels.

Bob Nightengale says that the Hanley Ramirez sweepstakes incudes the Athletics, Blue Jays, and Red Sox. 

Ramirez, of course, began his career as a Red Sox and was traded, along with Anibal Sanchez, for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. Unfortunately for Ramirez, since his career year in 2008, where he won the NL batting title, his power and speed have declined to levels not approaching his superstar talent. Still just 28, he’s the prefect “change of scenery” guy to acquire.

Oh yeah, the supervillain part, courtesty of Out of My Vulcan Mind: trade everything!

Don’t Blame the Game, Blame the Player(s)

The 2011 season is the low-point for the John Henry-owned Red Sox. Not since 2003 has Red Sox Nation faced such a tragedy. This year, however, there was no Aaron Boone moment to provide a quick death to Boston’s World Series ambitions. This was a death by a thousand paper cuts. Eight-year manager Terry Francona and the Red Sox have already parted ways, on somewhat mutual terms, and general manager Theo Epstein may be next to go. The training staff and pitching coach Curt Young may need to dust off their resumes as well.

Managers do have a limited shelf life (see Joe Torre’s tenure in New York) Tito should not be targeted as the bad guy here. Perhaps Epstein and Red Sox ownership wanted to bring in a different manager didn’t want to change horses in midstream. After all, why mess with success? Theo Epstein, while he shares some responsibility as GM, is likewise not the villain here. On the balance, his moves have been successful, and without injuries to key players, have built another strong core of talent in Boston. Ultimately, the blame for missing the playoffs lies with the players.

Hall Pass

Even among the 25 men who entered the season as the team to beat, there are a few players who get an immediate pass. Jacoby Ellsbury, Marco Scutaro, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon formed the core of a team that looked unstoppable for four months. At one point Ellsbury, Pedroia, Ortiz, and Gonzalez were all in contention for MVP honors, and at the end of the season Ellsbury packed his bags with a better than even shot of walking away with the award himself. We have to wait a few weeks to find out if he’s the MVP, but it’s safe to say his injury-plagued 2010 campaign is in the past for the franchise, the player, and the fans.

While he was on the mound for unlikely comebacks fueled by Orioles’ utility infielder Robert Andino, Jonathan Papelbon’s failing is a product of circumstance. The hard-throwing closer put up his best season since 2007 with rebounds in WHIP, strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout to walk ratio. Whatever the righty had been lacking the past few seasons seemed to have returned. Whether it was mental, physical, or free agent year magic, Papelbon was once again a force to be reckoned with. The truth about relief pitchers, closers especially, is that outside of Mariano Rivera there is no such thing as a guarantee. Even Rivera isn’t perfect, but he sets unrealistic expectations for every other pitcher. If Carl Crawford makes a play that one of the best outfielders in baseball is expected to make, Papelbon gets out of the inning. In the big picture, Papelbon may have been on the mound when the season ended, but he performed as a top tier closer this season.

Without question, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz are absolved from the collapse due to injury. Buchholz’s absence was probably the single largest factor in the Red Sox disappointing finish as his replacements, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, and Kyle Weiland, all failed to perform at his level, but the circumstances regarding his availability were out of his control. Thankfully his back should be fully healed and ready to go in spring training.

Rocks and Hard Places

While Carl Crawford was certainly the most disappointing player on the Red Sox in 2011 (2010: .307/.356/.495 with 19 HR and 46 SB, 2011: .255/.289/.405 with 11 HR and 18 SB), the Red Sox still lead the league in runs, hits, doubles, on-base percentage, and slugging while taking second place in walks and third place in home runs and triples. Don’t let sports radio fool you: this was one of the best teams ever and Carl Crawford’s down year was nothing compared to Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, or Vernon Wells. People are looking to blame beer, conditioning, computers, the manager, pitching coach, and more for the Red Sox bloated payroll and lack of playoff wins since the 2008 ALCS. Those people are wrong. The blame for missing the playoffs (aside from Clay Buchholz’s aforementioned back) rests solely on the pitching staff. Primarily on three men: Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and of course, John Lackey.

Don’t misunderstand, Lester and Beckett were valuable contributors this season. Lester made 31 starts, threw 191 innings and struck out almost a batter per nine innings. Beckett enjoyed a tremendous bounce-back season after a very disappointing 2010 and ended the year with an ERA under three for the first time in his career while cutting his walk rate by nearly one per nine innings. Both had terrific seasons.

The problem? Josh Beckett made four starts in September. In back-to-back outings against the Baltimore Orioles he allowed 6 runs. Beckett allowed more than three runs in a start just six times this season: three times against Baltimore and once each against the Yankees, Phillies, and Mariners.

Lester similarly hit a rough stretch at the end of the year. Fresh off a decent outing against the Yankees where he allowed one run over five innings on September 1st and a dominant 7-inning, 11 strikeout, 3 hit, zero run performance against the Blue Jays five days later, a series of bad starts came as a surprise. In his next two starts Lester faced off against the Tampa Bay Rays. He allowed four runs in four innings and four runs in seven innings in Tropicana Field and Fenway Park respectively. He also allowed as many walks as strikeouts (7) over the two losses. Lester would then face the Yankees in a 2.2 inning, 8 run disaster. The Sox lefty did recover somewhat in Game 162, allowing just two runs in six difficult innings, while pitching on three days rest. Although the bullpen would eventually cost Lester the win, this is not the type of game that brings down teams – a few such losses every season are impossible to prevent.

The bigger issue facing Terry Francona heading in to the season finale: with a seriously depleted back end of the the rotation, why couldn’t his aces come through with just one more win? Both starters entering slumps as the season drew to a close left Francona with little ability to right the ship. But two pitchers do not a rotation make. There was another veteran pitcher on the staff. A “bulldog” on the mound who took the ball every five days and liked to see every game through to the finish. A prized free agent acquisition. This was of course, John Lackey.

A New World of Trouble

When the John Lackey deal was first announced the biggest question it raised was “what does this mean for Josh Beckett?” Entering his last season before free agency, Beckett, somewhat replaced by Jon Lester for the title of staff ace since the 2007 season concluded, seemed sure to depart once Lackey was in the fold. Rumors about a bidding war with the Yankees were aleady swirling. The former Angel was no longer at his best, but with Lester ascending to the top of the rotation, Lackey surely could handle the duties of a number two or three starter with Clay Buchholz emerging and Daisuke Matsuzaka still attempting to harness the great stuff he showed in Japan where he was nothing short of dominant.

After the Red Sox extended Josh Beckett, expectations for the starting staff were nothing short of historic. The Red Sox entered the 2010 season with what some termed as one of the deepest, best starting rotations ever assembled (of course, this was before the four-headed monster in Philadelphia). By the end of the opening weekend in 2010, Lackey was not being asked to anchor the staff for years to come, merely to fill a role doing what he did best: eat innings with gusto and give his team a chance to win every time he took the mound. Today, he is possibly the worst pitcher in baseball.

After a disappointing first season in Boston which saw Lackey go 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA, a career worst 1.419 WHIP and the second lowest K/9 of his career it didn’t seem like things could get much worse. He dealt with some off-field issues during the season and was pitching in the AL East rather than the AL West for the first time in his career. A new team, new park, and a new division generate a good amount of slack for a struggling athlete. Lackey entered 2011 with muted expectations.

What happened this season cannot be described as less than disaster. Lackey, a competitor on the mound, had become a shell of himself. This much is not new. What is: after his final appearance of the season, Lackey was 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA. Yes, John Lackey was a .500 pitcher this season. Pitcher wins measure something, but more of them doesn’t necessarily indicate value.

For reference, a quality start consists of six innings of work in which the starting pitcher allows three runs or fewer. In other words, a pitcher who always turned in quality starts would have an ERA of 4.50 at the strictest definition. On June 5th, Lackey’s ERA stood at a whopping 8.01 before his start against the Oakland A’s. The remainder of his season would consist of violent swings – positive and negative outings – but his ERA did trend downwards through the end of August. Although four earned runs in seven innings is not exactly a stellar outing, even against the Yankees.

Again, Lackey is one of the veterans on the pitching staff. He has won a World Series. He has been to the playoffs. Before arriving in Boston, Lackey was in the top few tiers of starting pitchers. As we now know, the Red Sox needed just two more wins (or Tampa Bay losses) in September to have reached the playoffs, one to have forced a 163rd game against the Rays. Oddly enough Lackey would have been in line to pitch that game. In his first three September starts, Lackey faced Texas, Tampa, and Toronto. He allowed six, five, and two runs as the Red Sox lost all three matchups. Against Toronto, while he only allowed two earned runs, Lackey lasted just 5.1 innings.

His next start was against those increasingly pesky Baltimore Orioles. Four and a third innings and eight runs later Lackey was gone. The Orioles lost 93 games this year. Their fourth straight last place finish. The Red Sox offence picked up Lackey by scoring 18 runs that day. When the Red Sox talk about getting Lackey “back on track” they certainly mean fewer outings like that one. Between 2002 and 2009 Lackey allowed six or more earned runs 20 times. In his two years with the Red Sox he has “accomplished” the feat on 12 occasions.

Looking Back

The Red Sox assembled what, at the start of the season, could be called one of the best teams ever. A lost season by Carl Crawford didn’t help them, but didn’t hold back the most potent offense in baseball. While Daisuke Matsuzaka only rarely lived up to the hype surrounding his move to America, his solid contributions, if not spectacular, were a valuable asset out of the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation. As we saw this year, a pitcher who can go five or six innings and not get shelled every time he takes the mound is a valuable guy. Clay Buchholz’s back turned out to be the lead domino which, when time was running out, could not be help up by the veterans of the staff.

In any situation, when things get bad we turn to those who we most believe can save us. For the Red Sox, still possessing two of the better pitchers in the game, the playoffs were not out of reach. Two strong pitchers can carry a team through the Division Series when they are supported by a strong offense. Had Lackey pulled himself together and summoned even his 2009 era self, the collapse would have been sad, but tragedy avoided. The 2011 season was cut short because when the Red Sox needed a hero, the three guys they expected to count on all came up short.

Cross-posted at Sports of Boston