In many respects, this is baseball’s real silly season. Every club has “interest” in every potential free agent, but unlike at the trading deadline, clubs lack hard data on the strengths and weaknesses of their roster. And so the market is long on rumor and short on actual facts. Yesterday’s David Ross signing is actually a good example of this: admidst all of the media speculation on how the Red Sox would fill their holes in the rotation, outfield, first or short, the club signed a third catcher.
Projection, then, seems a pointless exercise. Instead the focus here is on acquisitions and signings that would fit the twin goals of making the roster more competitive and being disciplined in their approach to the market.
Here’s what I would do this offseason.
SS: Sign Stephen Drew to a 1 Year Deal
Two seasons ago, Stephen Drew was a 5 win player for the Diamondbacks. An excellent fielding shortstop that hit 15 home runs and got on base 35% of the time, he was the definition of an asset. In between then and now, he suffered a catastrophic injury, came back too slowly for Arizona and played like a shell of his former self – a .2 win player. Presumably, Drew would prefer to be paid like a 5 win player rather than a .2 win player. The way to do that is a so-called pillow contract: a one year, reasonable money deal that allows a player to rebuild his value and re-enter the market on his own terms. What he needs is a club that needs a major league shortstop, even one with some injury questions, for a single season. Which is the Red Sox.
One of the more baffling narratives this offseason has been whether or not Iglesias is ready to assume the starting shortstop role offensively. He is not. There is no evidence to suggest that Iglesias could be even below average for a shortstop in the major leagues at present. As much as everyone wants to watch him play the position defensively, the club cannot afford an automatic out in the lineup. And while we have other interesting shortstop prospects – Bogaerts, if he can stay at the position, Marrero, and so on – they are at least a season away.
Signing Drew would give the Red Sox another season’s worth of at bats for Iglesias, as well as additional time to see what they have in Bogaerts, Marrero. Not to mention a season’s worth of production from a player who is strongly incented to produce and another season removed from the original injury.
1B: Sign Mike Napoli to a 2 Year Deal
Napoli reportedly wants to remain at catcher, which is logical because his market value is higher if he can credibly claim to be an option at the position. But the question that the Red Sox should be asking his representatives is whether that assumption is in fact true. Napoli’s calling card is now and always has been his offense. As a catcher, his defensive ratings have ranged from barely average to very poor. And as a larger player on the wrong side of thirty, it’s almost certainly true that his continued work at catcher is depressing his offense.
If the Red Sox were to move Saltalamacchia, they could approach Napoli with the following: the opportunity to primarily man first base, but to periodically work in with Lavarnway and Ross to keep their innings manageable. And should Lavarnway fail to produce in his third major league trial, to catch even more. Averaging out his last four seasons, including 2012′s down year and 2011′s explosion, Napoli’s been worth $14.55M per season according to Fangraphs. If the Sox approached him with a two year deal at close to that annually – say a twin of Ortiz’ 2/$26M – he’d have to consider it. He might get a longer deal elsewhere, but he’s probably not going to get more per year.
Setting aside the question of what Napoli might ultimately require financially, there’s the question of whether it’s worth signing him in the first place. Napoli’s 2011 campaign – .320/.414/.631 – has been revealed to be an outlier, and he gave up ground in average, OBP and SLG last year at .227/.343/.469. But given that the average major league first baseman, let alone catcher, put up a .257/.330/.436, Napoli remained well above average offensively even in a down, injury marred year. And while it’s possible to go overboard with his splits, over the 73 at bats he’s had at Fenway, he’s put up a .306/.397/.710 line. I joked at one point that we should pay Napoli not just to play for us but to stop playing against us, and in truth I was only partially joking. Just for fun, too, it’s worth noting that Napoli’s even better at the new Yankee Stadium: .375/.531/.625.
Napoli comes with questions: age, injury and his willingness to fill the role we need. But I think the first two are overplayed, and the last is a solvable problem with the right offer.
SP: Sign Dan Haren to a 1 Year Deal
No player this offseason has lost more value than Dan Haren. When the Angels failed to complete the transaction with the Cubs for Marmol, the obvious if as yet unconfirmed conclusion was that Haren’s medicals blew up the trade. The Angels ended up dumping him for no return, and it’s not as if they have a rotation surplus. As Keith Law notes, Haren wouldn’t be the first pitcher to lose his career to back problems. It’s possible, of course, that Haren is done.
But if he’s damaged goods, it should on some level be apparent in his numbers. The logical manifestation of a chronic injury like a back would probably be decline; as the damage accumulates and the pain worsens, his numbers should suffer as a result. Except that’s not what we see. Here is his OPS allowed by month from April/March through September/October: .716, .672, 1.018, .855, .763, .697. His strikeout to walk ratio, same period: 6.0, 4.0, 2.11, 2.00, 3.2, 6.2. What those numbers seem to indicate here is a pitcher who was injured and then recovered to pitch effectively.
On a long deal, the risk here would be entirely unacceptable. But given the collapse in Haren’s market value in the wake of the failed Cubs transaction, it seems at least possible that he would be open to a higher dollar, single season pillow contract similar to the one Drew is undoubtedly seeking. And if he was signed and did break down in mid-season, it’s possible that De La Rosa or one of the other minor league arms would be ready to step in by that point.
OF: Sign Shane Victorino to a 1 Year Deal
This might be a stretch, as Victorino is likely to field at least one if not multiple multiple year offers. But the question he’ll have to ask himself: at what average annual value? Your 31st year is not the ideal time to post a career worst OPS, particularly if you’re seeking a new contract. But that’s exactly what Victorino did, seeing his OPS drop by nearly 150 points between 2011 and 2012. His track record will earn him multi-year offers, but they will presumably price in a discount based on the down year. It doesn’t seem impossible, therefore, that the Red Sox could offer Victorino a higher annual salary for a single season, offering him the chance to rebuild his value in a major market then seek one last big free agent contract next offseason.
He’d be worth having if he could be convinced. Even in a down year offensively, Victorino was nearly a three and a half win player thanks to his contributions in the outfield and on the bases. His ability to play center would be of value, thanks to Ellsbury’s difficulty in staying on the field the past few seasons.
The End Result
If the Red Sox could complete these moves, this is what the roster would look like come spring training next year.
C: Lavarnway / Ross
LF: Sands / Nava (Sands career OPS vs LHP is .904, Nava’s vs RHP is .768)
To my eyes, that is a respectable roster. And while it assumes that Saltalamacchia is moved, it does not factor in a return.
The offense has the potential to get on base and score runs, and the pitching – assuming a regression to the mean for Lester and Buchholz, at least – would keep the team in games more often than not with real upside to the first three spots in the rotation. The roster carries a not insubtantial amount of risk, principally in the form of the injury or underperformance potential of some of the players, but this is true of every club. Defensively, if Drew continued to recover from his injury, the club would feature average to above average defenders at second, short, third, center and right field, while catcher, first and left field would be problem areas.
Most importantly, all of the above could be accomplished while avoiding the kinds of long term deals that the club has had a mixed at best track record with. This is important not only because of the risk inherent to longer term deals, but also because the club does not want major commitments to block the next wave of prospects likely to arrive in Fenway Park. One outfield spot remains open in the event that Kalish returns to form or one of Jackie Bradley Jr and Bryce Brentz pulls a Middlebrooks. Three outfield spots open the following season, and shortstop will be available for the best performer out of Bogaerts, Iglesias or Marrero. As for the starting pitching candidates like Barnes, De La Rosa or Webster, injuries will create openings for the would be starters: they always do.
As none of the above is particularly likely to occur, however, it will be interesting to see what the actual plan of attack is from the front office.