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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #11: The Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have been, as usual, one of the most active franchises of the offseason. Less than 24 hours after the official end of the season, Theo Epstein pulled off a somewhat surprising trade with the Florida Marlins that landed the Sox former "blue chip" prospect, Jeremy Hermida. Hermida has been a disappointment the past couple seasons (734 OPS), but is still only 26, perfectly capable of developing into a competent everyday player, though perhaps not the superstar scouts once imagined.

The same could be said of Boof Bonser, who Boston acquired last week for a player to be named later. Bonser missed the entirety of 2009 with a shoulder injury, but should be ready in time for 2010. Another former first-round pick, Boof never lived up to expectations in Minnesota, but he is only 28. Boston may see him as insurance for the rotation or as a potential reliever.

The Red Sox first free agent signing was Marco Scutaro, who inked a three-year deal (w/option) worth $14-17 Million. The framework of the deal suggests the Red Sox realize that by the end of his contract the 34-year-old infielder may be nothing more than a well-paid utilityman. Epstein hopes that Scutaro can equal what he did as Toronto's shortstop last season for at least one more year, while the front office monitors the health of Jed Lowrie and the maturation of Jose Iglesias.

Following Scutaro was a much more high profile prize, John Lackey, the best starting pitcher in the 2010 free agent class. Some, including myself, question whether Lackey is a true Ace, capable of leading the rotation of a contender, but in Boston he won't need to be. He will slot in behind Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, and alongside Daisuke Matsuzaka, giving Boston quite possibly the most intimidating front four in the American League. The addition of Lackey will take a little pressure off of a rehabilitating Dice-K and the youths who will likely compete for the final spot: Clay Buchholz (the front-runner after his fine conclusion to 2009), Bonser, and Michael Bowden.

On the same day the news of Lackey's signing broke, it was announced that the Red Sox were close to a deal with Mike Cameron, the veteran Gold Glove centerfielder. If his contract gets finalized, Cameron will become the Red Sox only right-handed outfielder. He should make an excellent, versatile platoon man. In all likelihood, he will even get a fair number of at-bats against righties, as he fills in during J. D. Drew's inevitable injuries and the equally inevitable cold streaks from the young and inconsistent tandem of Hermida and Jacoby Ellsbury. Cameron has been known throughout his career as a wonderful, charitable citizen and popular clubhouse presence, as well as a fine player, so he offers more than just production to a team that seemed to struggle with chemistry at time in 2009.

Finally, on the last day of the winter meetings Boston shocked the baseball world by announcing the trade of Mike Lowell (and $9 Million) to the Rangers for Max Ramirez, a prospect who is currently considered a catcher, but whose future with the Red Sox is likely as a first baseman or designated hitter. Lowell was one of the Red Sox most popular players and a clubhouse leader, but his value has been depressed by a hip surgery which limited him severely in 2009. Nonetheless, if the deal goes through (the deal has been delayed by Lowell's medical reports) Red Sox fans very well may regret it, especially this season, as they'll be paying three quarters of Lowell's salary so he can play for another team. This deal is probably more about coveting Max Ramirez than giving up on Lowell. Ramirez is only 25-years-old and has played only seventeen major league games, but has already been traded straight up for Bob Wickman (2006), Kenny Lofton (2007), and now Lowell. That's because, although Ramirez probably won't do much catching after 2010, he can rake. He is the kind of hitter who, if given an opportunity, could be very, very productive from the moment he enters the league (think Pablo Sandoval, Ryan Howard, etc.). The Ramirez trade and, indeed, all the work Theo Epstein has done so far this winter, anticipate major questions which the Red Sox will have to answer by this time next year.

Free Agents:

Rocco Baldelli (28) OF
Jason Bay (31) LF
Alex Gonzalez (33) SS [Signed with Toronto Blue Jays]
Billy Wagner (38) LHRP [Signed with Atlanta Braves]

Arbitration Eligible:

Brian Anderson (28) OF
Boof Bonser (28) RHSP
Manny Delcarmen (28) RHRP
Jeremy Hermida (26) OF
Casey Kotchman (27) 1B
Hideki Okajima (34) LHRP
Jonathan Papelbon (29) RHRP
Ramon Ramirez (28) RHRP

ETA 2010?:

Michael Bowden (23) RHSP
Max Ramirez (24) C/DH
Josh Reddick (23) OF
Junichi Tazawa (24) RHSP

What's the price of nostalgia?

Currently, only three players from the 2004 World Series roster are still wearing Red Sox uniforms: David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Tim Wakefield. Next winter Papi and 'Tek will be free agents (Wakefield has two years left on his contract), as will Josh Beckett and Victor Martinez. There are a number of sentimental reasons to resign all four players, but Theo has proven himself to be largely immune to sentimentality; the Lowell trade being only the most recent example. This is a man who unceremoniously traded Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez, and who allowed wildly popular players like Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, and Pedro Martinez to walk because he didn't think they would be fiscally responsible signings. It is hard to find a fault with his track record. It is probably a foregone conclusion that Varitek will retire at the end of the season, but the other three are much more difficult to evaluate. Much is riding on there performances in 2010.

Was last spring a fluke or the shape of things to come?

In the first two months of 2009, David Ortiz hit .185 with one lonely home run. The Slump got so bad that even Red Sox fanatics like Bill Simmons were declaring Big Papi "done." However, from June 1st to the end of the season, Ortiz hit 27 HR, had 81 RBI, and posted an OPS of 904. Over the same four month period MVP candidates like Mark Texeira (23 HR, 78 RBI, 931 OPS), Miguel Cabrera (24 HR, 66 RBI, 921 OPS), and Kendry Morales (26 HR, 78 RBI, 964 OPS) posted very similar numbers. (I hate to say I told you so, but, well, I did.) If Big Papi produces at the latter rate in 2010, he will probably get the opportunity to sign a contract that assures he ends his career in a Red Sox uniform. However, if he again shows signs of premature decline, even over the short term, he will probably be next winter's version of Vladimir Guerrero, a legendary slugger who's currently being treated like a third-tier free agent.

Who is the face of the franchise for the "20-teens"?

With Manny gone, Varitek's departure imminent, and Papi in moderate decline, the Red Sox suffered from an obvious leadership vacuum in 2009, especially prior to the arrival of Victor Martinez. The competitive intensity of Kevin Youkilis often rubbed teammates the wrong way. Jonathan Papelbon and Josh Beckett appear too often as arrogant, self-involved, or, in Paps case, just a little dumb. Dustin Pedroia, the 2008 AL MVP, is the obvious answer, as his reputation for fierceness on the field is equaled by his good-humored disposition off of it. However, like Ortiz, Pedroia's influence seemed to fade as his stats came back to earth a little in 2009. The Red Sox really gelled upon the arrival of V-Mart, who possessed a similarly strong cohesive presence in Cleveland. If this trend continues, Boston's front office will be even more inclined to resign him next winter, though probably as a first-baseman, not a catcher.

Can Tito juggle all these All-Stars?

In the latter part of 2009, Terry Francona was faced with the daunting task of rotating Martinez, Varitek, Youkilis, Lowell, and Ortiz in a wild C/1B/3B/DH platoon. 2010 won't be any easier.

C: Ramirez, Martinez, Varitek
1B: Youkilis, Martinez, Kotchman
2B: Pedroia, Scutaro, Lowrie
3B: Youkilis, Scutaro, Lowrie
SS: Scutaro, Lowrie
OF: Ellsbury, Drew, Cameron, Hermida
DH: Ortiz, Ramirez, Martinez

Francona has the luxury of depth at almost every position, which gives him defense against the injuries which often hamper veteran clubs. But it will be a challenge of finding ample opportunities for thirteen position players who are all accustomed to playing everyday. There is also the question of 22-year-old Lars Anderson, the Red Sox top hitting prospect. If he doesn't get traded, he could be ready to enter the 1B/DH mix as early as midseason. At some point, having too many big talents and big egos fighting over the same positions could become a source of distraction and dissent in the Red Sox clubhouse. Or, if everything gels, it could make them a powerhouse offense equal to or surpassing the Yankees.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster (Revised 1/24):

LF Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
2B Dustin Pedroia (R)
C Victor Martinez (S)
1B Kevin Youkilis (R)
DH David Ortiz (L)
RF J. D. Drew (L)
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
CF Mike Cameron (R)
SS Marco Scutaro (R)

SP Jon Lester (L)
SP Josh Beckett (R)
SP Daisuke Matsuzaka (R)
SP John Lackey (R)
SP Clay Buchholz (R)

CL Jonathan Papelbon (R)
SU Daniel Bard (R)
SU Hideki Okajima (L)
MR Ramon Ramirez (R)
MR Manny Delcarmen (R)
LOOGY Dustin Richardson (L)
SWING Tim Wakefield (R)

C Jason Varitek (S)
1B/3B Mike Lowell (R)
IF Jed Lowrie (S)
OF Jeremy Hermida (L)

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