The Red Sox 2013 Plan

Fork in the road

Having reset the roster in late August, the Red Sox effectively had two paths open to them for 2013. The first path, best described as Win Now, would have entailed bidding heavily on free agents like Greinke, Hamilton or Sanchez, and in all three cases offering contracts of five or more years. This was never likely, given that it was not even six months ago that the Red Sox pulled the ripcord with a first-time-in-major-league-history $250M trade in an attempt to dig us out from just these sorts of contracts. But you’d never know it from the baseball writers, who are disappointed in the Red Sox for not pursuing one big ticket item or another.

The second option available to the club – “Compete Now, Win Later” – was probably the only realistic one given John Henry’s feelings on free agency risk. The basic idea is to overpay in the short term for middle tier free agents – smaller contracts that individually represent fractional risks – in an effort to buy time for the farm system. While Keith Law among others had the Red Sox organization in the bottom half of minor league talent entering 2012, it was a good year for many players in the system. From Barnes to Bogaerts to Bradley Jr, several Red Sox prospects took steps forward last season – some quite significant. Add to that two legitimate, high ceiling arms in De La Rosa and Webster, acquired via the Dodgers trade, and the Red Sox farm system looks better than it has in recent memory, particularly at the upper levels of the system.

The club cannot hope for much help in 2013, however. The roster will see contributions from a variety of prospects next season, of course, but the bulk of the real pitching and positional talent is at least a season away. Lavarnway is probably major league ready now, at least offensively, but Bogaerts, Bradley Jr, Brentz, Iglesias, Shaw, et al need consistent at bats. Both for the player to grow and for the club to assess whether they’re pieces for the roster or pieces with which to acquire talent for the roster. Likewise, our potential crop of starting pitchers is either young and inexperienced (Barnes, Owens), coming off of injury (De La Rosa) or both. It’s probably realistic for the club to hope that of Barnes, De La Rosa, Webster and possibly Owens, Workman and Ranaudo, they’ll find a young starter or two.

Just not this year.

If we assume that the Big Ticket Free Agent plan was never an option, both because the club’s been burned by it recently and because this year’s crop of free agents all came with question marks, Cherington’s course was clear. After last year’s implosion, bottoming out in 2013 by betting everything on the likes of Kalish, Iglesias and Lavarnway wasn’t in the cards. Which meant plugging holes with pieces like Dempster, Napoli, Victorino and Stephen Drew. None are superstars, but neither are any of them being paid like it. Thirteen million might seem like a lot to you, and it sure as hell sounds like a lot to me, but in today’s game that’s the going rate for a mid tier free agent – just ask 37 year old Torii Hunter.

Rather than place all of their financial eggs in one or two baskets, then, the Red Sox front office has obtained bona fide major league candidates for left field, right field, first base (assuming Napoli is finalized), shortstop, catcher, set up man and the fourth spot in our rotation. The aggregate cost has us back within hailing distance of the luxury tax threshold, but it seems inevitable that a few bodies will yet be moved along (my bets would be Salty and at least one reliever). For around $13M less than what Greinke will cost the Dodgers, then, the Red Sox added Dempster, Drew, Gomes, Napoli, Ross, Uehara and Victorino. While I might quibble with some of the individual signings, or their terms, it’s difficult to build the case that Cherington’s dollars would have been better invested in Greinke given the number of holes he had to fill. You pay the cost for a Greinke or a Hamilton or a Dickey if you’re a win or two away from contention; you don’t if you gutted your roster coming off of a 69 win season.

It remains to be seen what the “Compete Now, Win Later” strategy yields in 2013, but Cherington’s approach to the roster is as logical as it has been unexciting. Worst case, they’re improved from last season, best case they’re the 2012 Baltimore Orioles and challenge for a Wild Card spot. Either way, they’re better in 2014 than if the Red Sox had spent like drunken sailors – in dollars or prospects – seeking a quick fix to a long term problem.

It may not be popular, and it will mean the end of the sellout streak, but it’s the sensible approach.

I Said One Year, Ben, Not Three

Center Fielder, Shane Victorino

If Ben Cherington’s been reading this blog, it’s not too closely. While Victorino was a suggested target, the recommended contract length was one year, not three. But instead the Red Sox have bought themselves a new right fielder for almost the exact contract that Mike Napoli got.

The early reactions to the deal are, to put it kindly, not positive.

The most devastating review is probably Keith Law’s, however. In a post entitled “Victorino’s Deal Doomed to Fail,” he writes in part:

Shane Victorino’s three-year, $39 million contract with the Boston Red Sox vaults to the top of the rankings of the worst contracts signed so far this offseason, giving him virtually the same total dollars that Angel Pagan — a superior player — will receive in a contract that’s a year longer.

The Sox have now squandered a substantial amount of the payroll flexibility they obtained over the summer when they traded Adrian Gonzalez to the Los Angeles Dodgers just to rid themselves of two awful contracts, yet they have little to show for their recent spending spree.

Victorino is a platoon outfielder at this point, and paying him $13 million a year, even with the rapid salary escalation we’re seeing this offseason, is mad as pants. His bat speed was noticeably slower in 2012, especially later in the season, and despite being a switch-hitter, he doesn’t really hit right-handed pitching

Well, why don’t you tell us what you really think, Keith. And while his concerns regarding the “squandered” financial flexibility are probably overblown – Alex Speier for one believes the club has “plenty” remaining – it’s difficult to argue the point that Victorino is, in fact, a platoon player at this point.

Career, he’s an .881 player against left handed pitchers, .727 versus right handers. The recent numbers are even worse: 2010-2012, Victorino put up a .701. And while it’s true that there are a lot of left handed starters in the American League East these days, that’s not a good number for an outfielder, and it’s downright poor for a right fielder. Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris writes that, adjusting for the positional switch, Victorino becomes a two and a half win player instead of a three and a half win player. Meaning he’d be worth about $27M over three years, which in turn implies that the Red Sox overpaid him by $12M. Which is one reason rumors are beginning to circulate that this is merely a prelude to a trade of Ellsbury: Victorino’s bat is slightly less of a liability in center than it is in right.

Still, I’m a bit surprised at the depth of some of the criticism. For one thing, a $12M overpay means the annual penalty for Victorino’s contract is $4M per year, which is absorbable for the Red Sox. It might not even be that much, in fact. Torii Hunter, who is admittedly a better player than Victorino but five years older, is making the same annual salary. The Cleveland Indians, meanwhile, were reportedly willing to go to four years, albeit at the slightly discounted rate of $11M. As Peter Abraham put it, the market is the market.

It’s also interesting that even statistically minded analysts like Law are so profoundly negative on the deal, given his value on the basepaths and in the field. Since Victorino became a regular in 2006, he’s been worth 3.88 wins a season per Fangraphs. More interesting, he’s been worth on average $16.7M per season by their math over that span, and apart from his rookie year has never been worth less than the $13M he’ll be getting for the next three years. In other words, Victorino has been a valuable player in spite of the platoon splits. Much of his value comes from his defense, where he grades generally as well above average, but he adds value on the bases as well. He’s stolen 34 or more bases four out of the last six years, with 39 coming last season. Even acknowledging that his move to right field and the fact that he’s entering his decline years are likely to negatively impact his value, characterizing this deal as “doomed” seems slightly hyperbolic.

The dollars involved in this deal are not ideal, clearly. But unlike Swisher, the Red Sox do not have to sacrifice a draft pick, and more importantly the $1M allocation for that pick, to sign Victorino. And while it seems like a clear overpay, the contract is a rounding error next to what we unloaded on the Dodgers. If we’re talking about platoon players and doomed contracts, then, compare the newly signed Victorino to the recently traded Crawford. Victorino’s R/L career splits, remember are .881/.727. Carl Crawford’s are .810/.688. Victorino’s going to get $39M over three years; Crawford’s owed $102.5M over the next five.

Crawford’s terrible contract doesn’t mean Victorino’s is good, of course. But it does provide some context: if both are mistakes, the choice between them is clear. Even if Victorino is in fact a platoon player, and of lower value in right field than center, he still has value in other areas of the game. He’s signed for high dollars, but not prohibitively high, and provides an insurance policy in the event that Ellsbury is hurt or traded, as well as a hedge in the event that Bradley’s not ready to take over when Ellsbury leaves.

It’s not a great contract, but neither is it the disaster it’s being made out to be.

A Tale of Two Players

J.J. Hardy, Will Middlebrooks

For obvious reasons, most of the offseason Red Sox chatter has focused on free agents. From Mike Napoli to Zach Greinke, the allure of the shiny baubles on the open market has proven too much to ignore. Which is expected, but misguided. As the front office has said on more than one occasion, the best improvement the 2013 club can make it by getting more out of their existing roster.

When Cherington says that, he is primarily talking about pitchers like Buchholz or Lester who substantially underperformed expectations last season. But it will be nearly as important to extract value from further down the roster; one of the real failings of the Red Sox front office the past few years has been in our depth, or lackthereof.

On that note, here’s a look at two players who are criminally underdiscussed this offseason. For better, and we hope not, for worse.

Rubby De La Rosa

Here’s Keith Law on Rubby de la Rosa following the Dodgers / Red Sox trade:

Rubby de la Rosa blew up as a prospect before blowing out entirely back in 2011, but he’s back from Tommy John surgery and, by 2013, should be able to pick up where he left off when his elbow snapped. He has touched 100 mph as a starter and sits comfortably in the mid-to-upper 90s, offsetting it with an above-average changeup with good fading action in the mid-80s, and, before the surgery, could throw both pitches for strikes. His slider is hard but really short, 82-86, but it doesn’t have a lot of tilt to it because he tends to get on top of the pitch, often coming out higher than he does on his fastball; his curveball, a pitch he seldom throws, is in the mid-70s, breaking down but without tight rotation.

Even an average slider would give him No. 1 or No. 2 starter potential, and I think he can get there if he can release it from a slightly lower spot, closer to where he releases the fastball. It’s a huge arm in any role, and, as long as he’s healthy, he should be able to start.

In spite of the glowing reviews, however, de la Rosa’s name is rarely if ever mentioned as a realistic rotation candidate this season. Career, de la Rosa’s struck out 8.8 per nine, a good if not overwhelming number, although he’s walked too many over that same span (4.84). In 2010 with the Dodgers Single A affiliate, he struck out 55 in 59.1 IP; in 2011 with the Dodgers, it was 60 in 60.2 IP. He’s not yet 24, he’s demonstrated the ability to miss bats, he shows no major platoon splits (< .100 OPS difference L vs R), he maintains his velocity, and with the player a full season removed from Tommy John surgery, de la Rosa should at least be in the conversation for a back end starting role, his control issues notwithstanding.

Will Middlebrooks

As much as it’s a surprise that de la Rosa’s abilities remain off the radar, the lack of concern about Middlebrooks’ plate discipline is even more perplexing. People seem to be taking it for granted, on the basis of a few hundred at bats, that Middlebrooks is a middle of the lineup fixture for years to come. The problem is that the data is much less conclusive on that subject.

Granted, he tore up the minors last year (.333/.380/.677), and his partial season line (.288/.325/.509) in the majors is respectable if light on on base percentage. But after a hot start Middlebrooks cooled off significantly before breaking his wrist. The wrist injury is itself enough cause enough for concern, as such injuries tend to depress power for a season or more. But his performance prior to the injury is also problematic. Here’s his OPS by month: May (.922), June (.836), July (.785) and August (.673). His numbers also benefitted from a slightly elevated BABIP (.335). Worse, his contact issues point to a real potential problem.

Looking at MLB third basemen with a minimum of 250 at bats last season, here’s how Middlebrooks fared in contact categories:

  • BB%: 40th of 45
  • K%: 6th of 45
  • BB/K: 44 of 45 (only Pedro Ciriaco was worse)
  • OBP: 23rd of 45

In general, plate discipline is regarded as being a good predictor of future performance, and indeed is core input to many projection systems. It should come as no surprise, then, that ZIPS’ preliminary projected numbers for Middlebrooks are not promising: .255/.292/.434. For context, the average third baseman last season put up a .267/.328/.426 line. ZIPS predicts, in other words, that Middlebrooks will be a below average third baseman next season.

Best case for the Red Sox is that Middlebrooks’ power and plate coverage buys him time to improve his pitch recognition skills, and that his above average slugging percentage offsets his on base percentage. But it’s worth noting that the players that Cherington has pursued this offseason, even while shopping in the bargain aisle, have had reasonable on base skills.

It’s an acknowledgement that OBP was, for the first time in years, a weakness for the Sox, one that needed to be remedied. It may also be an acknowledgment that while Middlebrooks will be the team’s third baseman next season, he may be more likely to be part of the problem in that regard than the solution.