Can Speier Save the Globe?

A week ago, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with baseball, I switched browsers, dropping Chrome and making the jump to Safari. I don’t switch browsers all that often, and this experience was a good reminder why. Export your bookmarks. Import your bookmarks. Realize how many browser extensions you use without thinking about it. Try to find equivalents. And last but not least, set up your browser homepage.

At the time in my life when I started using a browser regularly, I was a Boston sports fan. Which I still am, of course, even if the Red Sox and an increasing scarcity of free time eventually transitioned me to mere casual fan of the Bruins and Celtics. Anyway, this is why my browser homepage has always been boston.com/sports. From Netscape to Internet Explorer to Firefox to Chrome, one of the first things I’d do with a new browser as I moved in and got settled was resetting the homepage over to the familiar, comfortable Boston Globe Sports page.

When I moved over to Safari, I thought about it briefly but decided, not without sadness and regret, that I was done with the Globe. After all these years.

There was no final straw, no last disappointment. And in truth, if I hadn’t switched over to Safari, I probably wouldn’t have made the change. This is more like an old couple that wakes up one day and discovers that they no longer have anything in common. The Globe and I have just drifted apart over the years.

The sport of baseball, as is well understood by now, is in the midst of its own Age of Enlightenment. Fueled by massive net new sources of data, more intellectually rigorous executives and easily the best technical capabilities of any modern professional sport, the game is being remade and refashioned at a pace we’ve never seen before. As in the original Age of Reason, however, there are those open to new ideas and approaches, and those who are not.

Once upon a time, the Boston Globe had one of, if not the best, sports desks ever. From Bud Collins to Will McDonough to Leigh Montville to Larry Whiteside to Bob Ryan to Peter Gammons – the biggest reason that I am a baseball fan, the Globe was the epicenter of sports journalism. Today, it’s a shadow of what it was, and – with one notable exception I’ll come back to – populated by anti-enlightenment types.

Ryan’s career demands respect, but pieces like this are the equivalent of shit your grandparents say.

tumblr_m78jf0jpv71qzht5bo1_1280

Massarotti, Shaughnessy and Wilbur, meanwhile, are essentially just Screamin A Smith and Skip Bayless from an earlier, bygone era. Extreme opinions result in extreme reactions, which is their only priority. Substance and credibility are frivolous luxuries, apparently, in a post-truth era.
Senior baseball writer Nick Cafardo, meanwhile, is everything the BBWAA looks for, which is to say someone who thinks of himself as a traditionalist but whom the game has, in fact, passed by. Intent on defending the way things were from heretical new ideas they do not, and choose not to, understand, the BBWAA’s ideal member believes that the earth is flat, that the sun revolves around the earth and that Curt Schilling is a genius.

And while Cafardo’s presumed heir apparent Peter Abraham unquestionably brings a more modern style to the table and is at least willing to entertain the modern perspectives of the game his colleagues ignore, he is prickly and in questionable command of his facts. Case in point the following exchange.

To recap: on October 21st in game 1 of the World Series, the Royals erstwhile ace Shields threw a clunker. He coughed up three runs in the first and was gone by the third. Madison Bumgarner was sublime, on the other hand, holding the Royals to three hits over seven, striking out five and walking one. San Francisco would go on to win the opener 7-1, in large part due to their respective starting pitchers.

Abraham chose this occasion to make three points: first, that aces are important, second that Lester is an ace and third, that the Sox should have signed Jon Lester back in March. The ace-required narrative is debatable by itself; the Giants essentially won the World Series because of theirs, but the Tigers threw three former Cy Young winners and were swept by Baltimore. Also, there’s Kershaw who you’ll see referenced in just a moment. But the odd thing about Abraham’s example of needing aces like Lester for these big games is that Lester had actually just pitched in one. And was a big reason his team was no longer playing.

The good news for Lester was that he got through the seventh. The bad news was that he coughed up a run in the first, two more in the third and would be charged for all three runs in the eighth when two singles and a walk sent him to the showers. Dan Otero would eventually get tagged with the loss, but Lester’s six runs compute to a 7.36 ERA. This was September 30, less than a month from Shields’ implosion. Which is why I thought it odd that Abraham used him as an example.

Abraham, predictably, disagreed.

Just as predictably, so did I.

And then things really went downhill:

As Ron Burgundy might put it:

The question is why? It seemed like a reasonable enough question to ask. If you’re arguing that the Red Sox needed a particular pitcher for a big game, it’d be helpful if said pitcher hadn’t given up six runs and lost a big game less than a month prior. But pushback and discussion aren’t hallmarks of the Globe today any more than an understanding of advanced metrics is.

It’s not all bad at the Globe, however. Chad Finn’s unique blend of rationalism and sentimentality neatly transcends fan demographics, appealing to metrics and BBWAA-types alike. He’s the only must read on the staff at this point, and unlike his colleagues, he’s also perfectly willing to debate. This tweet, for example:

Elicits this reponse:

Finn’s one of the good guys, then, but here’s the problem: Finn’s just one man. Or at least he was.

Fittingly enough, Finn was the one to welcome current WEEI writer Alex Speier to the Boston Globe. For any serious Red Sox fan, Speier has been easily the best writer covering the team for several years now. He is deeply versed in statistics and modern metrics, well connected with both local sources as well as prominent national writers such as ESPN’s Keith Law, and creative in his approach. Where other writers might mention budget limits, Speier breaks down the budget down to the last dollar, including projected arbitration costs, and provides it with full historical context. He’s one of the best baseball writers in the country, and the market is lucky to have him. The Globe is luckier still, because a sports desk that was looking to be in permanent decline has added an asset well above replacement level, a legitimate superstar. And much like with the Red Sox / Yankees rivalry, the addition here is doubly beneficial since Speier’s subtraction from WEEI substantially weakens a direct competitor.

The Globe has issues remaining, clearly, and it will be interesting to see if the Speier hire leads to other changes. The paper already has a national notes-style writer and a beat reporter, leading to obvious speculation about whether there’s another shoe about to drop. But whatever his ultimate role, the combination of Speier and Finn is enough to get at least one former Globe fan back on board.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to reset my browser homepage.

2014: The Indictment and Validation of the Red Sox Minor League System

Xander Bogaerts

In his first 25 games last season, Xander Bogaerts got on base at a .387 clip. He didn’t show much pop, hitting one home run and slugging a mere .378, but that was good enough for a 119 OPS+. He was twenty percent better than the average player at the position offensively, in other words. Over the next 28 games he played in May, he was even better. The OBP climbed, the power made an appearance and all of a sudden he wasn’t 19% better, he was 52% better than the average shortstop. Given that we all know what happened after that, there’s no need to document his implosion. And I’ll leave the post-mortem to the better qualified; there are many looking to deconstruct his slide with an eye at determining his current value.

The more interesting question to me at the moment is what if it had never happened?

It’s obviously not reasonable to assume that he’d keep putting up a 152 OPS+, but what if Bogaerts had put up a line closer to his first month? What changes this offseason? Are Ramirez and Sandoval still acquired?

To make that question harder to understand, as long as we’re talking hypotheticals, what about Jackie Bradley Jr? The best centerfielder I’ve ever seen in person set new records for futility at the plate, and if Bogaerts’ slump was an implosion JBJ’s season at the plate was a post-apocalyptical nuclear wasteland. Over 127 games and 423 plate appearances, Bradley put up a 53 OPS+, making him almost 50% worse than the average regular. His defense is sublime, but nothing can make that up.

And then there’s Middlebrooks. I’ve never been much of a believer: the power is clearly there – or was, until last season – but I’m unconvinced he’ll ever make enough contact or have the plate discipline to get to it. ZIPS was not optimistic, forecasting a .255/.292/.434 line for the third baseman. The result? He didn’t come close. Even granting that injuries played a part, his .191/.256/.265 (48 OPS+) was not only completely unacceptable but a serious regression even from his miserable prior season (87 OPS+).

Middlebrooks was a risk, obviously, based on his erratic track record. But the odd thing about Bogaerts and Bradley’s performances is that they were difficult to see coming. Both players are young, true. And young players struggle – maybe now more than ever with all of the advances in scouting, the ubiquity of velocity, a larger strike zone and an unprecedented volume of defensive shifts. Certainly Bogaerts and Bradley weren’t the only highly touted rookies to struggle.

But last year’s roster didn’t include much in the way of safety nets, unless you count what’s left of Grady Sizemore. Bogaerts and Middlebrooks started out of the gate, and Bradley started 23 games the first month. Even after stumbling, they were run back out there day after day after day until Bradley was mercifully sent down, Middlebrooks got hurt and Bogaerts was concussed. Collectively they were worth a negative half win: Bogaerts was 0.4, Bradley -0.1 (which tells you just how good his defense was), Middlebrooks -0.8 (-0.5 total). Their respective ZIPS forecasts, meanwhile, were 0.9, 1.6, 1.8 (4.3 total).

Between them, then, you’re looking at effectively a five win swing. The bad news for the Red Sox is that as bad as the three were, they weren’t the only problem. They weren’t an 85 win team that finished just outside a 90 win playoff threshold; they were a 71 win team that even with the benefit of an additional five wins would be well under .500, and out of the playoffs.

Still, it’s difficult to see recent signings as anything other than indictments of players and roster alike. If Bradley Jr even came close to his forecast, do the Red Sox hand $72M to a 28 year old Cuban who runs well but like his countryman Cespedes, may or may not get on base? Seems unlikely. Likewise with Sandoval. Even if you buy fully into the “insensitivity to the opposition theory” theory about this signing – and it’s not clear how his swing-first-and-ask-questions-later approach will age – if the team believed Middlebrooks was or would become what some once thought he might, again, that’s probably money the club deploys elsewhere. As for Ramirez, well, we’re looking at a club whose outfield collectively hit 26 home runs last year. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Whatever the explanations, then, whatever the cause, the Red Sox offseason to date is in effect one long indictment of our ability to produce major league caliber offensive players. The kids failed, so we dropped $255M on two outfielders and a third baseman. So much for being a draft and development-oriented organization that eschewed major free agent spending.

The funny thing, however, is that the Red Sox 2014 offseason is at the same time a validation of the Red Sox minor league system.

The same $255M figure that serves as a stark reminder of the difficulty of transitioning players from the minors to the majors ensures that the club will be heavily reliant moving forward on young, cost effective players. In other words, to use the much beleaguered turn of phrase, this can be seen essentially as a bridge year. The club cannot bear the risk it did last year, coming off a title, of relying too heavily on its prospects, so by investing in Castillo/Ramirez/Sandoval, it hopes to both provide them with the cover they need to develop, or in the case of players like Bradley, Cechinni or Middlebrooks, rebuild their value such that they can be converted into talent at areas of need.

As Cherington said today on MLB Radio, the team does have a budget, and even if they were somehow able to plug the gaping hole in their rotation cost effectively via trade rather than dropping big dollars on Lester, the premium attached to free agents makes it an unsustainable long term strategy. You can plug holes with the likes of Ramirez or Sandoval, but you certainly can’t field one at every position. The only way the money works is if Bogaerts and now Betts are able to assume positions of importance while making a relative pittance. It may not be comfortable to be paying Sandoval $19M a year, but you feel better if the combination of he and Bogaerts costs you $20M.

In a perfect world, of course, none of the above is necessary, and Middlebrooks would be looking at another three years of hitting bombs and we could all look forward to watching Bradley Jr teleport himself to the precise spot a sinking liner lands. But it’s not a perfect world, and the 2014 Red Sox offseason seems to be trying to make the best of the minor league system’s failures while counting on its successes moving forward.

Trading Deadline 2014, Or What the Hell Just Happened?

Jon Lester

In a season of unexpected twists and turns, most of which ended up being blind alleys where the Sox got hit in the head with a pipe, last week’s trading deadline was easily the strangest. With almost a third of the roster exiting over a period of weeks, culminating in Thursday’s bloodletting, there’s a lot for Red Sox fans to process. As Chad Finn notes, the prevailing opinion isn’t as much anger or despair as confusion. Part of that is because the moves by themselves were so unanticipated, but it’s also because they suggest that they were just the beginning. To recap what just happened and reflect upon what might happen next, let’s ask and answer a few questions.

Q: The first and most obvious question is: literally, what the hell just happened?
A: Setting aside the DFA of Pierzynski, which was not particularly surprising, the Red Sox made the following moves:

  • (July 26) Jake Peavy traded to the San Francisco Giants for Edwin Escobar (Giants #2 pitching prospect) and Heath Hembree
  • Felix Doubront traded to the Chicago Cubs for a PTBNL
  • Stephen Drew traded to the New York Yankees for Kelly Johnson
  • Andrew Miller traded to the Baltimore Orioles for Eduardo Rodriguez (Orioles’ #3 pitching prospect)
  • John Lackey traded to the St Louis Cardinals for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly
  • Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes traded to the Oakland A’s for Yoenis Cespedes and the A’s competitive balance draft pick

Q: All of which means what?
A: Most obviously, that the Red Sox have officially thrown in the towel on the 2014 season – as they should have. The math says it isn’t technically impossible – yet – but also that it’s practically impossible. Which means that correct course of action was to use this year as a means to reload for future years.

The interesting thing, however, is that unlike traditional deadline trades, the centerpieces weren’t prospects. Every year the rumored trades are not the actual trades, but it’s usually because the names are wrong. This year, not only were the names wrong the entire type of player was different.

The Red Sox did acquire prospects in the Miller/Peavy deals, it’s true, but their most valuable assets in Lackey and Lester respectively were not used for the likes of the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson or the Pirates’ Josh Bell, but rather for current major league players. The $64,000 question is why.

Q: Is it because the Red Sox are playing for 2015?
A: That’s the most common narrative at this point, and there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that’s the case. Clearly the Red Sox aren’t going to commit to a full tear down and rebuild, nor should they with the roster of young, controllable talent they have assembled. And virtually every statement from Cherington, Farrell, Hazen or anyone else associated with the team has focused on the importance of 2015.

That being said, the Red Sox are both intelligent and intensely focused on value. It seems unlikely that if a a Top 30 or 40 MLB prospect was made available to them – with the six years of control attached to it – in return for Lackey or Lester the Red Sox would prefer wild cards like the deeply slumping Craig or the big time power but limited on base skills of a Cespedes. Maybe this year with all of the associated growing pains of Bogaerts, Bradley and so on has left them a little gun shy about prospects, but that seems improbable.

Which implies that the Red Sox simply were not offered that type of elite talent. Faced with a list of sub-Addison Russel type prospects who would be years away from helping in a best case scenario, the front office changed their tactics to focus on major league players, in particular what they believe to be a scarce market resource: offense.

Q: Why is offense down?
A: There are many potential explanations, and probably all of them play some role. From better drug testing to defensive shifts to an explosion of high velocity arms, offenses around the league are depressed. Not as much as in Boston, obviously, but there is no question that pitching is currently ascendant.

More problematically for the Red Sox, potential solutions aren’t exactly plentiful on the free agent market. There are decent hitters available, but nearly all come with question marks. Victor Martinez and Hanley Ramirez are old, Melky Cabrera comes with PED questions and so on. There are no true superstar hitters available.

There is, however, a lot of pitching.

Q: What kinds of pitching?
A: All kinds. Excellent starters in Lester, Scherzer and Shields. Pitchers with a few more question marks in De La Rosa, Kuroda, Masterson and McCarthy. Others with options like Anderson, Burnett, Chen (both Bruce and Wei-Yen), Cueto, Gallardo, Happ, Haren and Morrow. And so on.

Q: So the Red Sox appear to be betting that it will be easier to remedy their pitching than their hitting via free agency?
A: Or trade. Apart from Bogaerts and potentially Betts, the Red Sox lack elite talent. Owens is good, but not in the class of the Oriole’s Gausman and pitching prospects go. Swihart and Devers, meanwhile, are potentially elite but not widely regarded as being in that class yet.

All of that being said, in the wake of this week’s trades the system is now absurdly deep. Whether the Red Sox are able to package some of that quantity and return elite talent via trades remains open to question, but that’s certainly an avenue they’ll have to proceed.

Q: Why?
A: First because there are almost too many candidates. Consider the starting pitching candidates: De La Rosa, Escobar, Johnson, Owens, Ranaudo, Rodriguez, Webster, Workman and Wright. For the sake of argument, say two thirds of those fail: the Sox are still left with three potential starters.

That kind of depth is an asset, of course, but it also presents substantial roster construction challenges, as the Red Sox were reminded this year.

Q: What do you mean?
A: One of the inviolable rules of player development is that it is non-linear. Some players succeed immediately only to stumble later, others struggle for years before putting it all together. The best example of this currently playing is Mike Trout; the widely accepted best player in the game pancaked when first hitting the majors.

What this means for the Red Sox is that they’re probably not going to want to trust too high a percentage of their rotation or lineup to rookies. Youth will be an important, indispensable part of the Red Sox strategy now and moving forward, but you’re not likely to see them roll out a lineup of six rookies with four in the rotation next year.

Far more likely is that some of these assets are converted to talent with a more predictable major league performance track record.

Q: Such as?
Q: That’s the question, and it’s far too early to say. But let’s say that you offered a team a “Pick 5″ such as the club reportedly did with Seattle once upon a time:

  1. Cechinni
  2. Webster
  3. Marrero
  4. Vazquez
  5. Johnson
  6. Rodriguez
  7. Escobar
  8. Barnes
  9. De La Rosa
  10. Middlebrooks

A lower payroll team could miss on two of the five and still solve three roster spots with eighteen combined years of control attached. That’s a return everyone would have to at least think about.

Q: So how should Cherington be graded on his deadline moves?
A: It’s hard to assign anything but an incomplete. It was strange, for example, for a pitcher of Lester’s caliber – even granting the fact that he’s a rental, especially for a lower budget club like the A’s – moved for a player who A) doesn’t get on base particularly well and B) is only under contract for one more year.

But we don’t know what was available. And we certainly don’t know how Cherington plans to use the potential minor league surplus in the offseason.

At the very least, however, Cherington gets points for doing something.

Q: Meaning what?
A: Imagine being a Philadelphia fan, were Amaro Jr essentially stood pat with a club that is worse than the 2014 Red Sox, has far less prospect depth and two pitchers making north of $20M a year – one of whom may now be out for the season with an elbow injury.

While it was nice to see the brief bounce the Red Sox received coming out of the All Star break, the subsequent five game losing streak at least made the front office’s job simpler. Instead of sitting on the fence until the last minute, they were able to shift into sell mode with a week to spare. Cherington needed to take advantage of what will hopefully be a rare opportunity to sell, and he did.

How he fared is a subject we’ll likely be debating for years.

Q: What’s next?
Q: The rest of the season, obviously, will serve as an audition of sorts for Betts, Bradley, Middlebrooks, Webster et al. Bogaerts, his horrific midseason slump notwithstanding, isn’t going anywhere. But pretty much everyone else could be. Two months of at bats, particularly given that one of them will include September call ups, won’t make for a definitive evaluation, but it will at least give the major league coaching staff the chance to make their own assessments of players up close.

Entering the offseason, then, the Red Sox need to figure out what to do with their logjam of outfielders. Nava, Cespedes, Bradley, Betts, Victorino and Craig can’t all play at once. Who goes? Who stays?

The most important task, however, is figuring out the rotation. Given that it’s extremely unlikely that the Red Sox are going to roll out Clay Buchholz and four pitchers with an average of a year of service time per, where are the additional starters going to come from? Free agency? Trade? The return of Lester?

Q: Isn’t it “fanciful” that Lester returns to the Red Sox?
A: He probably doesn’t end up here, no. If they were going to retain him, wouldn’t they have already? Didn’t John Henry pretty explicitly say that the Red Sox weren’t signing big money deals for players over thirty? And when was the last time a player traded resigned with the team that traded him – apart from Cliff Lee, that is? Probably, yes, and I can’t remember.

But how many players would say, as they’re about to be traded away to another team, that they wouldn’t resign wherever they landed because their first preference would be to come back? Maybe it’s all just a clever public relations effort on the part of Lester’s agent, but the pitcher doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who’s going to read from a PR flack’s script. Which means that what he’s said before the season, during the season and after being traded might actually be true: he might really want to come back.

Which brings us to John Henry’s statement. Everyone seems to be assuming that if the Red Sox were unwilling to give him a hundred plus million dollars before the season, they’d be unwilling to do so after. In other words, they have a rule and that rule is never broken. What if, however, it’s more of a guideline than a rule. And what if one of the reasons they wanted to wait was to see if Lester got hurt or underperformed, or whether one of their minor league arms like De La Rosa or Webster took a big step forward? If that’s the case, then the variables in their equation have changed as Lester’s pitched brilliantly while the would be replacements have underwhelmed. And what if “The Monster” gets involved, as Lester’s PR importance and popularity increase his perceived value? And what if ownership looks at it not as Lester but Lester + Cespedes?

What if, what if, what if. That many in a row tells you everything you need to know about how likely it is that Lester returns. But the tea leaves say the chances aren’t zero, either, which in and of itself is remarkable.

Even if Lester were to miraculously return, however, Cherington has to replace Lackey as well. Which is why, even if the club is right and the pitching market is robust, he’ll have his work cut out for him.

In the meantime, I’ll sit back and see how he reassembles the pieces he’s acquired. Should be fun to watch.

5 Things I Would Do if the Red Sox Decide to Sell

As I write this before Sunday’s game has been played, the Red Sox are 10 games in back of the Blue Jays for the division. That’s bad. We’re also five back from a wild card berth, with all of the Royals, Twins, White Sox ahead of us in that race. That’s worse. If you’re looking for the bright side, well, we’re a game up on the Atros in the wild card race.

Which means that, yes, even the good news is bad.

All of that being said, it is, as I asserted to Chad Finn above, too early to write the 2014 Red Sox season off as a lost cause. Fangraphs, in fact, has the Sox’ odds of a playoff berth at 18.9%, which are actually better than they’re giving the Yankees (18.7%) who are a mere six games out. As much because the rest of the division has problems of their own as anything else – the Blue Jays are still the only team in the East with a positive run differential – the Red Sox are, improbably, not out of this thing. Which means that if you’re Cherington, you probably have to give them a few weeks yet to sink or swim.

But for the sake of argument, if they did decide to sell, how might they proceed? Finn tackled that question here, and his approach makes sense: don’t trade any real assets for duct tape and bailing wire, don’t trade John Lackey, and if you find a buyer who’s all in on Johnny Gomes’ intangibles, sell high. We differ on one important idea, but more on that shortly. Here are five things I would do if the Red Sox were to shift into sell mode.

Move Minor League Pitching

There isn’t much debate at this point, his walk rate notwithstanding, that Henry Owens is ready for Triple A. The problem is that there isn’t anywhere to put him, with that rotation to be fully stocked with Webster, Ranaudo, Barnes, maybe Wright – and soon enough, De La Rosa and Workman. Unless you think that a) all of those pitchers will end up in a major league rotation and b) you’re willing to live through their growing pains at the major league level simultaneously – much as the Braves once did, some of those arms should be moved. As to which ones, I would generally defer to the front office, but an arm like Workman would seem to have some value to other clubs, particularly in the National League. He throws strikes and has had major league success, which makes him potentially valuable. But he has never been particularly dominating, at least not in the way that Barnes, De La Rosa, Webster or, more recently, Owens have been at times. So while you can never have enough pitching, it might be time to begin converting that surplus into usable parts. The first team I’d call up, by the way, would be the Cubs. They’ve got positional prospects, but they’re light on higher end pitching talent. And Cherington does happen to know their President and General Manager.

Trade Jon Lester

This is where I break with Chad, and I do so with one big caveat. If the Red Sox are ultimately willing to extend themselves sufficiently to retain Lester – let’s say in the $120 million range, conservatively – they should do so now. If, on the other hand, their reported $70 million borderline slap-in-the-face initial offer is within hailing distance of their threshold, then they shouldn’t waste any time and find him a new home as soon as possible. The fact that he’s a pending free agent limits his value, of course, but I’d be surprised if a contending club didn’t offer value above the single pick that the Red Sox would receive in return for his departure. In short, if the club decides that a) they’re not going anywhere this season and b) that they are not in a position to sign him (regardless of whether we think they should), then the only logical outcome to me is c) trade him.

Trade a Reliever (or Two)

Of all of the asset classes that get moved at the trading deadline, none is so disproportionately valued as relievers. Clubs that feel that they’re a mere piece or two away will and do overpay for relievers who might be worth 30 innings down the stretch. Given that the bullpen, with the odd exception here or there, has been an area of strength for the club this year, this is a logical place to deal from. Add in the fact that, as discussed above, the Red Sox have something of a surplus of arms near the majors, moving a bullpen piece like Badenhop, Breslow or Miller for an outsized return while simultaneously creating an opportunity for one of the young arms to work their way into the majors seems like a no brainer.

Do Not Trade John Lackey

John Lackey has had his ups and downs over his career with the Red Sox, and as Jackie MacMullan intimated in an interview earlier this season, his personality hasn’t changed with his performance: even pitching well, he’s still prickly and ornery. But that’s not the important part. The important part is the “pitching well” bit. Fresh off his remarkable 2013 comeback campaign, Lackey has looked much like he did with the Angels: not a true ace, but durable, occasionally brilliant, and capable of delivering quality innings. Also? He’s scheduled to make $500,000 next year. To trade him, then, you’d have to receive not only the value for the type of pitcher he is at present, which is a very good one, but also for the savings he will represent next season – which is easily into the eight figures. Young stars are rarely moved these days because they represent such a unique combination of ability and a low price tag; that’s Lackey next season. So unless you get absolutely blown away, which is unlikely given his age, you’re not going to get comparable value for him. Trading Lackey, therefore, would be foolish. And that’s without even getting into the wider context, which is that – assuming Lester is not retained – a trade of Lackey would leave Buchholz and Doubront as your only major league starters under contract for next year.

Trade Stephen Drew

Somewhere Finn is shaking his fists at this notion, but I am no Drew hater. I would have him playing third instead Bogaerts, but I applauded the signing when it was announced. It’s no secret that I’ve never been much of a believer in Middlebrooks, and Drew does two things well that this team needed (and still needs): he’s solid on defense and he can hit right-handed pitching. Adding him was, in that respect, a no brainer. But he is also gone after this season, as the left side of our infield is getting crowded with potential candidates, from Bogaerts and Middlebrooks who we’ve seen to Cecchini and Marrero who we have not (or in the former’s case, seen little of). Which means that, again assuming the season comes to be regarded as a lost cause, you might as well maximize your return on assets while you’re able. What kind of package might the Tigers put together, for example, to extract both a high leverage bullpen arm and a tier one starting shortstop from us, for example? Such a move would address their two most glaring weaknesses, and could propel them to the title their owner is so desperate to achieve he’s signing Monopoly-money contracts. If you’re in the hunt, I agree that you don’t want to strengthen a rival, but if you’re not you’d hope they’ll extract every bit of value they can. Which means moving Drew.

Why Did the Red Sox Sign A.J. Pierzynski? Power

A.J. Pierzynski

It’s been an interesting day. I count four trades, two signings and one rumored signing. While I was writing this, in fact, the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury away for $150 million and change, which I need some time to process. And the night’s still young. Of those transactions, two concern the Red Sox. First, chronologically speaking, Boston has signed the most hated player in baseball, who also happens to catch, to a one year deal worth $8.25M. Several hours later, it seems that the last place Marlins have poached the World Series-winning catcher, who became a starter with us after Texas gave up on him.

The question of how all of this came to be is one that Red Sox fans are beginning to ask themselves in earnest, particularly those that were fans of Saltalamacchia’s. To answer this, let’s examine it in two parts. First, Part I: how – and when – did the Red Sox fall out of love with Salty?

Part 1

For Buster Olney, it was during the World Series:

And it’s certainly possible that he’s correct. Salty had a miserable postseason in general, putting up a .188/.257/.219 line over three series, but his 0-8 in the first two games plus a few game losing defensive gaffes put him on the bench for the duration. Which we’re told he was upset about, as if a starter angry about getting benched in the World Series counts as news. It seems exceptionally unlikely, however, that a club as progressive as the Red Sox would base any contract decisions off of a sample size of two games played. Regardless of how poorly he played. Or reacted.

One other possibility is that there is something in Salty’s medicals, as Olney had previously speculated – and his agent angrily denied. That seems at least plausible in light of the fact that the reported deal of 3/$21M is well south of the 4/$45M Fangraphs crowd-prediction, which are often surprisingly close.

In the end, however, the decision on Saltalamacchia – not to mention the hard pursuit of Ruiz – is best understood as a vote of confidence in their minor league talent. In an interview with WEEI in November, Assistant GM Mike Hazen discussed the possibility of going the minor league route as soon as this year should they not reach terms with a free agent catcher or trade for one:

I think we have three guys at the upper levels (Ryan Lavarnway, Dan Butler, Christian Vazquez) we feel pretty strongly about. To what degree they’re ready I think is more of a question. All three have options, which certainly provides you flexibility where if one guy gets off to a pretty good start or has a pretty good spring training, you go with that guy. He starts to tail off a little, league starts to catch up with him a little bit and he’s struggling for whatever reason, and another guy is doing well in Pawtucket, you can get that guy while he’s hot.

What this tells you is that the Red Sox feel that between Butler, Vazquez, Swihart – and to a lesser extent, Lavarnway, given the way he languished on the bench – they will have a major league catcher in the next two years. The $8M+ Pierzynski signing, meanwhile, indicates that they’re just not willing to bet on the internal route in year one. How all of this plays out will obviously be determined by the performances of the four catchers this year and moving forward, but it’s easy to understand why the club would prefer to have a minor leaguer with six years of control at low dollars to a multi-year free agent contract.

What it also tells you is that they feel that not only will they find a major league catcher, they’re betting that he’ll be better than Salty. There has been much confusion about how the Red Sox could show so little interest in a catcher with 20+ home run pop, but the bet here is that the Red Sox are valuing the player based on less obvious metrics. Salty doesn’t get on base, for example, but neither does virtually every other catcher in the league. No, I suspect the Red Sox have quantified issues with his defensive performance that limit their interest. If you’re skeptical, remember that the Yankees lived with a starting catcher who put up a .566 OPS last year in part because of his pitch framing skills.

Faith in their minor leaguers coupled with a lack of same in Saltalamacchia, then, can produce but one outcome. By all accounts Salty was a good teammate and I wish him well, but I won’t lose sleep over his departure. Which brings us to Part 2.

Part 2

If we accept for the sake of argument that the Red Sox are valuing Salty properly and that their refusal to seriously engage or guarantee a third year is appropriate, the next logical question is what’s next? While that question has been hanging over the club since Uehara punched out Carpenter, we finally have our answer: A.J. Pierzynski is your new starting catcher.

The con’s to this deal are many. He’ll start next season at 37. Never a patient hitter, he appears to be getting even less disciplined as he ages. Here are the percentage of pitches out of the strike zone he’s swung at the last five seasons: 2009 (38.1), 2010 (41.7), 2011 (42.5), 2012 (43.5), 2013 (49.6). Is he cheating because his bat’s slowing down? Who knows. In any event, it’s not good. His OBP last year was an abysmal .297, and he walked unintentionally nine times last season. Nine times.

Then there’s the mileage: while many are listing his durability as a plus, with 12 straight seasons of 120+ games caught, it’s worth asking whether what’s left in the tank for a 37 year old.

So what gives? Was there simply nothing else on the market? As it happens there was. Ryan Hanigan of the Cincinatti Reds was traded to the Rays in a three team deal, as part of which Tampa inked the catcher to a 3 year, $10.75M deal. Hanigan is coming off of a miserable 2013 campaign in which he put up a .198/.306/.261 line, so why all the fuss? It’s called buying low.

Hanigan’s no Buster Posey, but he is gifted at one thing offensively: getting on base. Lifetime, he’s at .262/.359/.343. So while he’s relatively punchless at the plate, he does have a reasonable eye. Some argue this is simply an artifact of his batting in the eight spot in National League lineups, but his lifetime .382 OBP in the minor leagues suggests otherwise. Defensively, he’s the ninth best catcher in the major leagues at pitch framing according to Baseball Prospectus, and he even outlined his techniques for Grantland this past spring.

In short then, Hanigan is five years younger than Pierzynski, has 30 points of on base advantage lifetime and is better defensively. How did we end up with Pierzynski, then?

My bet is power. While Hanigan does many things well, hitting for power doesn’t happen to be one of those things. He’s giving up almost a hundred points of slugging percentage to Pierzynski, and sixty some odd points of Isolated Power (ISO). All things being equal, you’d probably still take Hanigan’s defense and on base skills, but all things aren’t equal. First, there’s the prospect cost. The named player, lefty Justin Choate doesn’t look like much with a 7.7 K/9 in low A as a 22 year old reliever. But Kevin Towers is also getting the Proverbial Player to be Named Later, which sounds more interesting than the typical PTBNL:

“Someone we value a lot as a prospect,” Towers said. “That’s not to take anything away from Mr. Choate, but I would say that probably is the key player in the deal.”

Even if the player cost ends up being neglible, however, my bet is that the Red Sox are concerned about the power up and down their roster. Ellsbury, as mentioned, is leaving for New York. ZIPS sees him slugging .425 next season. His likely replacement, Jackie Bradley Jr? He’s only forecast to put up a .375 SLG. And while Stephen Drew and his .443 number SLG may yet return given tweets like this, the Sox can’t bet on that. Instead they have to consider Xander Bogaerts their shortstop, who has considerable raw power but will also be taking his lumps as a 22 year old. ZIPS sees him putting up a .429, and that seems optimistic – though not as optimistic as his top comp, Troy Tulowitzki. Should Mike Napoli take Seattle’s money, meanwhile, or Miami’s, he and his ZIPS forecast .466 mark are most likely to be replaced by some combination of Daniel Nava (.384) and Mike Carp (.442). Even the players who are staying are expected to see some regression: Ortiz (.564 down to .552), Victorino (.451 to .420) and so on.

True, Pedroia’s expected to rebound from .415 to a more characteristic .425, but up and down the lineup the Red Sox can be expected to display less power. He’s no Ortiz, but the average major league catcher slugged .388 last year; Pierzynski has bettered that mark in 15 of 18 major league seasons, and owns a .428 mark for his career. Power isn’t everything, but with projected deficits from multiple spots versus last year’s roster, it has to be made up somewhere.
Throw in the fact that Pierzynski is left handed, and thus a better complement to the right handed Ross than right handed Hanigan, and you have a new starting catcher.

Is it the right move? Tough to say, but after last year I’m willing to go on a little faith here.

Best Red Sox (Regular) Season Ever?

IMG_20130630_120058-PANO

After a prolonged absence, this all that I likely need to say: this has been the most enjoyable Red Sox regular season of my lifetime. The regular season conditional is necessary, of course, because of those four days in October and what came after. But as has been covered to death, coming off the last month of 2011 and every month of 2012, from The Collapse to the Valentine Nightmare, expectations entering 2013 were at an all time low. As the end of the sell out streak, and the continuing lack of bodies in seats, indicates.

But while the Red Sox may feel compelled to give seats away for $1 in their questionable Get Beard promotions, the reality is that every Red Sox fan I know feels the same way I do. Fans have loved this season, and this team. Freed of the burden of expectations – whether they’re budget, performance or otherwise driven – it’s been enough to simply enjoy the games. Even the losses, at times. Observers of the Yankees noted for years that the regular season had become in many ways a joyless pursuit. By signing virtually every big ticket free agent, the club not only implied to its fans that the postseason was its manifest destiny, but that it was the World Series or bust. Which is an impossible expectation for any team, given that if the postseason has taught us anything, it’s that it’s a crapshoot. Any given team on any given day and so on.

By 2011, the Red Sox season was as joyless as the Yankees’, thanks to what Theo Epstein has referred to as “The Monster.”

As it turns out, however, winning when you do not expect to win is sweet indeed. And virtually no on expected the Red Sox to win. Better than three dozen ESPN analysts projected the final season standings. None picked the Red Sox to win the AL East. For my part, as the record shows, my absolute best case scenario for the Red Sox this year was a wild card berth – a chance to play a single winner take all game at the end of the 162 game regular season. Worst case, that we would lose less than 93 games. And while I will probably never be happier to be wrong, I wasn’t the only one to undersell this year’s team. The front office, in fact, had it pegged for an 86 win season – borderline wild card contender, in other words. According to their projections, the probability that the Red Sox would win 90 plus games was roughly 30%. So of course the standings show 94 wins and counting.

How did we get here? Considerable luck, not unlike the Baltimore Orioles of last year – that part, at least, I got right. It’s not every season, after all, that you come from behind 30 times and win 20 games in your last at bat. If we don’t win half of those 20 games, after all, we’d be having a very different conversation today. But the games were won, and thus was the division won.

It wasn’t all luck, however. When Ben Cherington wasn’t trading for more relievers to blow up in his face, he was actually doing pretty well – Amherst grad or no. Rejecting the comically bad ideas from local media to replicate the Carl Crawford debacle after just having escaped from it by signing Josh Hamilton, the second year Red Sox GM instead pursued a strategy similar, again, to those moneyballing A’s. Rather than concentrating your assets – and your risk – in a few star players, Cherington used the money that some would have had us deploy towards Hamilton to instead acquire Dempster, Gomes, Napoli, Victorino and, later, Peavy. Unless you’re a fan of $123M players with four years left on the contract who put up a .245/.301/.431 line, you’re probably going to argue that Cherington did the right thing. And given the standings, the other AL East teams are likely to back you up.

What does all of the above mean as we head into the postseason? Absolutely nothing, of course. In the second season, everybody’s win count is reset to zero and, more importantly, anything can happen. Just as they over-react to failure, many in the media are over-rotating on our divisional success. Which is a mistake, because it’s far from clear that the Red Sox are, in fact, built for postseason success. For all that their depth served them well for the long regular season, it’s equally possible that their lack of star power on offense could be exposed when facing high end pitching in the playoffs. For example: the Red Sox have tied or losing records versus seven teams this year: five are potential playoff opponents (BAL, DET, KCR, OAK, TEX). And even against the teams they beat more often than not, the numbers point to challenges. Of the 19 games against Tampa this year, we won 12 of them. That’s good. The fact that we hit .208/.280/.333 in doing so, on the other hand, is less good.

But there’s time to worry about all of that later, and besides, the playoffs are a crapshoot. Right now, all that we have to do is enjoy the last days of the best regular we’ve seen these many years past. Because it’ll be over before you know it.

The Five Claims of the #KeepJBJ Reporters

Russia_2244 - Rasputin

One of the more interesting aspects to the #KeepJBJ campaign is the degree to which reporters – ostensibly impartial observers – have been sucked up in the frenzy to start the 23 year old in the major leagues. Or at least wish to give that appearance; Pete Abraham, for example, who gives every appearance now of being fully on the bandwagon, earlier implied it was something of an act:

Maybe they’re just trying to sell papers by siding with the masses, maybe they’re legitimately convinced it’s the right thing to do. It’s difficult to say with any certainty, which in my opinion is a failure on the part of the reporter, but that’s a subject for another day.

Should Jackie Bradley Jr end up making the club tomorrow – as is widely expected – it would not be, as Marc Normandin put it, the end of the world. It would, however, be a mistake.

The #KeepJBJ subset of media covering the Red Sox are building their case using a few different claims that are worth examining in more detail.

Claim #1: “This isn’t about Spring Training statistics”

See, for example, Rob Bradford’s denial here:

While it’s true that in the piece mentioned, not to mention all of the other pieces written in favor of keeping Bradley on the roster, Spring Training statistics are rarely if ever mentioned, there’s one important question none of the reporters (to date, anyhow) have cared to answer: if Bradley was hitting, say, .215, would we be having this conversation?

The answer, of course, is no. It’s difficult if not impossible to imagine a grassroots #KeepJBJ campaign if the outfielder wasn’t putting up numbers reminiscent of Bonds in his prime. The glove is great, undoubtedly, but so was Che-Hsuan Lin’s.

As Curt Schilling (of all people) outlines here, however, these numbers are utterly meaningless. Unfortunately, as Keith Law observes, it is very difficult for some to accept the fact that Spring Training statistics are useless.

While none of the reporters in question will admit it, then, the fact remains that each and every one of them is basing their belief that Bradley should remain with the team on his spring numbers. Even if they say they are not.

Claim #2: “Service time shouldn’t be an issue”

Rob Bradford argues this explicitly here, and Pete Abraham (among others) has made the same argument on Twitter.

In this, at least, the #KeepJBJ party is technically correct. Assuming that Bradley Jr is kept, he could be sent down for 20 days later in the season to gain the additional year of service time.

There are a few problems here, however:

  1. Injuries could make it impossible for him to be sent down. If there’s any team that should know this, it’s the Red Sox. Know how many games Ellsbury played in 2010, March through May? Nine. Say he gets hurt again (he’s already jammed an ankle). Or Victorino. If you leave Bradley in the minors for nine games, this is not an issue. If you’ve started him in the majors, on the other hand, it’s extremely unlikely he would be sent down for the required 20 games, and thus you lose a year of Bradley in his prime.
  2. What if his performance prohibits you from demoting him, either because his agent (Boras, remember) would file a grievance as Rob Neyer suggests or because he’s playing well enough he can’t be sent down. If you’re Pete Abraham, you say, essentially, so what? Personally, I think we need to be smarter than that.

Claim #3: “The Red Sox can’t afford to start slow”

This is easy to address: the Red Sox can, in fact, afford to start slow. Even after their horrific start in 2011, it took a historically unprecedented collapse to keep them on the outside looking in. In a perfect world, of course, they get off to a hot start. If they don’t, however, baseball is, as they say, a marathon, not a sprint. This is basically an opinion masquerading as a fact that reporters are using to justify another opinion. So we can toss it.

Claim #4: “We need to have the best team on the field”

If we assume for the sake of argument that the Red Sox need to have their best nine players on the field for the first nine games, the question is whether Bradley’s part of that best nine. To argue that he is the “best choice” for the roster spot, you have to assume that he’ll hit – which is certainly possible. It’s equally plausible, however, that he doesn’t. Everyone cites Mike Trout, for example, as justification for starting Bradley in the majors. Know what he did in his first 40 games at the major league level? .220/.281/.390. Pedroia’s another common comparison. In 2006, he hit .305/.384/.426 at Pawtucket. The 31 games after his promotion to the majors? .191/.258/.303.

The single most consistent truth of player development is that it is rarely linear. This particular claim assumes – with essentially no evidence but his spring training numbers – that Bradley will be an offensive asset to the major league roster rather than a liability. While it’s certainly possible that that’s the case, taking it as a given – as the reporters are – is a mistake.

Claim #5: “The Red Sox need Bradley to put people in the seats”

Let’s say that the Red Sox send Bradley to Pawtucket for the requisite nine games. Know how many home games he’d miss? Three. The Sox’ first two series are on the road. They can probably expect to sell out their home opener, so even if they keep Bradley down we’re effectively talking about the gate for two games. It seems a little silly to justify a year of service time for two gates, particularly so early.

The Net

Viewed dispassionately, this is a simple decision. Even if Bradley was the second coming of Mike Trout, the Red Sox could survive without him for nine games. More to the point, if they can’t, the season is lost anyway and there’s even less incentive to start him in the majors. Even Trout couldn’t make that big a difference in a mere nine games.

Trading nine games from a 23 year old Bradley for one hundred and sixty two from a Bradley in his peak years is nothing less than folly. It pains me to make the case against Bradley, because even setting the talent aside he seems like a personable, poised kid who gets it. But his performance this spring – which is to his credit, to be clear – has seemingly cast a spell over everyone in Florida. My hope is that Cherington has maintained his distance, and sees the risks associated with an immediate promotion clearly. It’s one thing for reporters to get swept up in the performance and cavalierly dismiss the financial implications; it would be quite another for the man who’s charged with balancing the short and long term health of the organization.

Years from now, no one’s likely to remember the names of the reporters who agitated on behalf of starting Bradley in the majors. The General Manager who made that decision, however, and cost the club a year of service time in exchange for nine games, well, he’s likely to be raked over the coals by the same media personalities that are campaigning for his promotion.