The 2016 Red Sox Roster

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With 2015 officially a lost cause, it’s time to start thinking about 2016. Not because it beats watching a bullpen with one reliable arm that’s been worked to the point of not being reliable anymore try to get nine or more outs every night. Or not just because of that. No, if 2015 has any utility at this point beyond the comfort of having baseball available as a soundtrack to our respective summers, it’s the ability to evaluate players and test them at positions in ways that are not possible for a team that actually needs to win games.

To leverage this time properly, however, it’s necessary to have hypotheses about the construction of the 2016 roster to test. We don’t need to allocate playing time to De Aza, for example, because it’s extremely unlikely he’ll be around next year. Seeing what we have at this point in time in Bradley Jr and Castillo, on the other hand, is enormously important to the planning for next year.

Here then is the roster I would assemble for next year. Playing time for the rest of this year would be dictated by this projection, with those in the plans receiving the playing time with everyone else getting spot starts here and there where rest is necessary.

To be clear, this is what I would do, not what I expect the front office to do. Or at least not entirely. Given the two consecutive last place finishes, the front office may not be able to take the chances necessary to commit to the roster below, and they’re required to cope with variables such as egos and contracts that those of us who do our planning on paper do not. Because the positional players will impact the pitching staff, we’ll start with them.

Infield

In general, the Red Sox have the potential for an above average infield offensively, with defense questionable at the corners but solid at worst up the middle. Much depends on whether the club decides to pull the ripcord on their largest recent free agent deals, but given the cost of moving either Ramirez or Sandoval with the dollars attached to both and the potential for a rebound in both cases, I would not. Onto the specifics.

Designated Hitter

Starter: Ortiz
Backup: Ramirez
Depth: Shaw (AAA)

Not much to debate here. Ortiz’ option for next year has been triggered, he cannot be traded without his consent and has stated he will not accept a trade, and has recovered from a very slow start to post a .263/.351/.506 line, good for a 130 OPS+. He’s still having problems with left-handed pitchers, but the problem is far less acute than it was at the start of the year.

Besides, how he has performed to date is relatively academic. Argument about whether Ortiz should or should not be the DH next year are irrelevant: he will be, by virtue of his contract and his stature with the club.

Catcher

Starter: Vazquez
Backup: Hanigan
Depth: Swihart (AAA)

It’s somewhat surprising in this trainwreck of a season given the periodically horrific struggles of the pitching staff – it cost Nieves his job, remember? – that more isn’t made of the loss of Christian Vazquez to injury. As well regarded as he is defensively, and he is very well regarded indeed with one AL West club apparently considering him the best defensive catcher in the league, it would be absurd to try and make the argument that the problem with our pitching has been the catching staff. The pitching staff, bullpen and rotation both, is short of talent.

But it’s just as nonsensical to lament the state of the pitching and not acknowledge the impact of the loss of Vazquez. Everyone remembers the obvious incidents such as Leon having Tazawa throw a 3-0 fastball right down the pipe to Alex Rodriguez, who promptly deposited the pitch over the fence. It’s harder to consider the impact of the loss of Vazquez’ pitch-framing skills.

Metrics vary, and debates over the precision of pitch-framing persist, but it’s safe to say that any borderline strikes a catcher can steal for his pitcher are a good thing. And Vazquez steals them about as well as anyone in the game.

Neither Hanigan nor Swihart is exceptionally bad at framing, exactly. Two seasons ago Hanigan was in the Top 10 in the league at the art, though he’s down to 51 by BP’s numbers this season. Swihart has fared a bit better this season, placing 19th in the number of total strikes stolen and well ahead of that on a rate basis.

Neither is in Vazquez’ league, however. According to BP, for example, in 3499 framing opportunities this season, Swihart has stolen just under 20 strikes. Last season, in 429 fewer chances Vazquez stole just under 95 strikes. It’s impossible to make the argument that this year’s pitching staff would not have benefitted from the 85 or so balls that Vazquez would have turned into strikes. It’s just difficult to know how much.

Given that even in a best case scenario, we’re not turning over the entire pitching staff then, I would want to maximize the performance of the pitching that I do have. Which means making Vazquez the primary catcher, assuming he’s recovered sufficiently from Tommy John surgery.

Because he’s far from established offensively, however – he put up an OPS+ of 75 in 2014 – you want his backup to be somewhat capable offensively. Hanigan’s no star with an OPS+ this season of 81, but he at least gets on base at a reasonable clip (.348 OBP this season). Swihart would doubtless be less than thrilled at being returned to AAA next season, but he’d get some seasoning and doubtless be up soon given the fact that Vazquez is coming off major surgery and Hanigan has played more than 100 games once in nine years.

In a perfect world, Swihart becomes at least a poor man’s Vazquez when it comes to framing. If this were to happen, you’d take the slight hit in defensive ability in return for Swihart’s far greater offensive upside, and use Vazquez as a potentially significant trade chip.

Until then, however, the pitching staff needs all the help it can get, which means Vazquez stays.

First Base

Starter: Ramirez
Backup: Holt
Depth: Shaw (AAA)

Chad Finn, as he so often does, already summed this up better than I can so just go read his piece. For those that want a summary, it’s pretty simple. Ramirez is a trainwreck in left. He might be a trainwreck at first, and you have to consider Butterfield’s comments about the underappreciated difficulty and impact of the position, but at least he has history playing the infield. Removing Ramirez from the outfield also allows you to roll out an entire outfield of above average defenders, but we’ll get to that. Worst case, you survive him at first for a season, hope Ortiz retires after next season 500 home runs in hand and you put him where he can’t do any harm on the field: DH.

There are other options, but none are particularly attractive. Free agency, from Chris Davis to a return of Mike Napoli, would require the club both pay a free agent premium and be willing to accept some boom or bust risk. As for in house candidates, Travis Shaw is a great story at the moment, and it’s to his credit that he’s making the most of his opportunity, but we’re still talking about a player with a .256/.319/.395 line in 158 games at AAA. If the Red Sox have some reason to suspect his current performance is sustainable, be it a swing change or similar, so be it. Otherwise, virtually nothing in his minor league track record suggests that he should be handed the starting job. Keeping him at AAA for depth reasons, and to prove that this second half performance is not a fluke, is the smart play.

In short, moving Ramirez to first base both addresses a potentially gaping roster hole for next year and allows the club to rectify its mistake in attempting to live with a compromised outfield defense. The Red Sox decision on this is particularly important, because while the club has stated it will not play Ramirez at the position in 2015, he should be playing it at least part time.

The Red Sox saw what happened when he attempted to learn a new position on the fly this season, and it helped cost them games. If it’s going to do the same at first base, it would be nice if the games lost to his training didn’t matter.

Second Base

Starter: Pedroia
Backup: Holt
Depth: Marrero (AAA)

As with DH, not much debate here. Barring some inconceivable trade, Pedroia will be the Red Sox second baseman in 2016. It will be an unusual offseason, however. For the past several seasons, there was a great deal of debate as to whether Pedroia’s depressed offensive numbers were a sign of inevitable decline or more attributable to two years of hand and wrist injuries. His 2015 campaign to date suggests it was more of the latter. His numbers certainly are not what they were during his MVP peak, but they’re solidly above average for the position.

But the aspects to his play we’re used to taking for granted in spite of the ups and downs of his offense, his defense and baserunning, have taken hits this season. Given his age, and the hamstring issue that has put him on the DL twice this year, then, the Red Sox will for the first time in years have cause to question what they’re going to get defensively out of second base.

Third Base

Starter: Sandoval
Backup: Holt
Depth: Shaw (AAA)

There is no getting around the fact that Sandoval’s first year with the Red Sox has been a disaster. By Fangraphs WAR metric, Sandoval has been worth -1.3 wins. For $17M this year, then, the Red Sox have gotten a player who’s below replacement level. Offensively, his strikeout rate is up, and his walk rate, average, on-base and slugging percentages are all down. Which is bad. His defense has been amongst the worst in the league at the position, which is worse. Virtually the only consolation is that the player he replaced – Will Middlebrooks – was even worse, with a .212/.241/.361 line that got him sent back to the minors again while just shy of being 27.

The Panda’s been bad, in other words. Really, really bad. The question is what to do? Some have suggested throwing in a sweetener and trading him for another bad contract such as James Shields. But the question here is whether you believe this is really his new level of ability. Whether Sandoval has, in a single season at the age of 29, eroded from a slightly above average offensive and defensive performer – albeit with a problematic trajectory – to a below replacement level player.

Personally, that seems less than likely, and coupled with the lack of a real alternative – unless you think Shaw is a starting third baseman for a first division team – I’d sent him to what used to be known as the Athlete’s Performance Institute this offseason and hope for a bounceback. Best case, you get the player you thought you were getting and don’t have to both plug the third base hole and eat another bad contract. Worst case, his performance level is similar and your bargaining position is slightly improved by the fact that there’s less money for a trading partner to take on.

Shortstop

Starter: Bogaerts
Backup: Holt
Depth: Marrero (AAA)

Perhaps the easiest decision on the field, Bogaerts is your shortstop for 2016 – much to the chagrin of sportswriters who enjoyed milking the “revolving door at shortstop” metaphor. Though his value at present is heavily batting average driven, count me among those who believe that his power will come. After a hot start last year, he fell into such a hole that some questioned whether he’d ever make enough contact to be a starting shortstop, let alone live up to the hype that accompanied him as a prospect. This season’s adjustments have seemingly answered those questions; my suspicion is that after another offseason, he’ll be in a better position to know when to look for pitches he can drive.

Even more impressive than his offensive improvement last season to this has been his play in the field. He’ll never be Iglesias or even, probably, Marrero, but the questions about whether Bogaerts can play the shortstop position at the major league level have essentially ended. He’s smoother, more confident and more intelligent on defense, and the total package he’s bringing to the table at present has him as the fourth most valuable shortstop by WAR in baseball.

Power and walk rate questions notwithstanding, that’s a starter.

Outfield

According to Peter Gammons, Cherington “has singled out defense as his primary focus on improving his team,” which means extended looks for Castillo and Bradley. As discussed above, the simplest mechanism for improving the outfield defense is removing Ramirez from it. Even if the Red Sox were to substitute a replacement-level talent, it would be a significant net win. The Red Sox, however, do not have to replace Ramirez with a replacement-level talent: they can legitimately field an outfield of three center-fielders. Here’s how I would deploy them.

Left Field

Starter: Castillo
Backup: TBD/Holt
Depth: Margot (AA)

Castillo is funny in a way. First the writers buried the front office for being patient and stashing him in AAA. Then the writers buried the front office for signing him to a $70+ million contract, having concluded after a hundred and fifty at bats or so that he was not a major league player. Then, having finally been granted regular at bats in the majors, he’s put up a .339/.369/.548 line in a very small sample of second half at bats and writers swung back the other way.

What Castillo is offensively remains to be seen, and will likely be scrutinized heavily over the last month and a half. Defensively, however, he’s an immediate and major upgrade over Ramirez in left, with the capability to shift to center or right as needs warrant. If you assume that some of his initial struggle is attributable to the adjustment from moving from Cuba to the US, and to his substantial layoff from live baseball, it’s certainly reasonable to assume Castillo is better offensively than the .282/.337/.385 he put up in AAA. So even if his second half surge is unsustainable, a midpoint between the two – say a .350ish OBP with .450 power – would make him enormously valuable.

Center Field

Starter: Bradley Jr
Backup: TBD/Holt
Depth: Margot (AA)

The case for Jackie Bradley Jr in center is that he is the best defensive centerfielder in the majors. The case against Jackie Bradley Jr in center is that even with his second half explosion he is the owner of a .204/.282/.312 line over 600+ plate appearances in the major leagues. Even with his transcendent defense, that won’t play. The question then is what’s more representative of his true offensive level: the 65 lifetime major league OPS+ or this year’s 126? The .593 OPS lifetime major league OPS or the .851 OPS over 1300 minor league plate appearances?

I’ve always been inclined towards the latter, in both cases. I was not in favor of his promotion out of spring training in 2013, his Ruth-like numbers notwithstanding. The premature promotion obviously isn’t solely to blame for his struggles since, but it certainly didn’t help. But with the rare exception, Bradley Jr always performed in the minors, so I’ve had faith.

It’s probably not reasonable to expect him to be throwing up multiple double and home run games regularly, but as Matthew Kory documents, there are mechanical reasons to expect that some aspect of his performance is not a simple small size artifact. If this is true, and the next month and a half should give us more evidence one way or another (although September’s data is less valuable due to callups), he’s my center fielder next season. Yes, over Mookie.

There is certainly precedent for young centerfielders prematurely exposed to the major leagues to struggle for several years before finding their footing – see Gomez, Carlos. Bradley Jr may not be likely to follow that path offensively, but he doesn’t have to. He just needs to hit enough to carry that glove.

Right Field

Starter: Betts
Backup: TBD/Holt
Depth: Margot (AA)

Larry Lucchino has traditionally been fond of saying that the Red Sox need two centerfielders given the dimensions of Fenway: one for center, and another for right. I’d keep Mookie playing centerfield, therefore, I’d simply have him do that from rightfield. And ideally, from now through the rest of the season.

Shifting him to right has nothing to do with Mookie’s play. While he took some lumps early as expected, he’s putting up a .270/.320/.438 (104+ OPS) line as a 22 year old while playing well above average defensively. As measured by WAR, in fact, Betts has been a tick more valuable than Bogaerts, in spite of the latter’s much higher profile season. Playing Betts in right instead is about the value of Jackie Bradley Jr’s defense in center. If you have the best centerfielder in the majors, it doesn’t make much sense to keep playing him in right.

Not that it matters much in the bigger picture, as well, but Betts bat profiles better in right than does Bradley’s. The only argument for playing Bradley in right over Betts, in fact, is JBJ’s prodigious arm strength. That’s not enough for me, however, to forestall the change.

Think about the ground a Castillo/Bradley Jr/Betts outfield could cover. Too bad it won’t happen.

Rotation

As measured by xFIP, the Red Sox starters are 16th out of 30 clubs. WAR, 18th. K/9, 19th. BB/9, 24th. ERA, 28th. If you’ve watched the games this year, none of these numbers are likely to come as a surprise. The starters pitched so badly they got a coach fired, and fared poorly enough under the second that one got released and another came down with a very conveniently timed “injury.”

To be fair to the pitching, some of this isn’t their fault – note the big delta between their xFIP and ERA. With third base and left field defensive black holes, some regression from second base, the occasional learning mistake in centerfield, the season-long absence of a truly excellent defensive catcher and inconsistent play all over the diamond, it’s not surprising that the Red Sox starters struggled.

The defense notwithstanding, of course, the rotation entering the season was short on talent. Buchholz has the ability to pitch like one of the best pitchers in the league, and indeed was better than departed ace Lester on a rate basis, but his track record suggested he wouldn’t pitch like that for a season, which he did not. Porcello has massively struggled in his first year in Boston, to the point that he’s been hidden in the minors. Masterson is gone, and his career may be in jeopardy as his effectiveness without plus velocity is minimal. Miley’s first month or so was horrific, and while he’s righted the ship since he’s essentially a league average innings eater. As for Joe Kelly, well, there may be no bigger enigma in the game. It’s difficult to recall someone who throws that hard, that effortlessly, and yet gets hit that hard.

But that’s the 2015 rotation: what does 2016’s look like?

A lot like 2015’s, in all probability. You might plan for a Buchholz absence, but the combination of his risk-limiting options and his ability to give you elite innings make him a keeper. Porcello is likely immovable, and just as likely to bounce back to previous levels of ability, so he’s in the rotation. As is Rodriguez, after an offseason of stripping his delivery of tells. If you can get something useful for Miley, who has pitched better of late and is signed to a very reasonable deal, I’d consider it, but otherwise, he’s back as well. Which leaves us with a rotation, in no particular order, of:

  • Buchholz
  • Rodriguez
  • Porcello
  • Miley

What you do with the fifth spot and whether you’re more motivated to move Miley depends in part on what you see down the stretch from Owens. Given that the club will be coming off of two last place finishes in a row, predictability will be at a premium, so Miley sticks around for me.

Which leaves one opening in the rotation, with Owens/Johnson/Wright as depth starters. Unless, of course, one of them is traded to plug that hole in the rotation. While I’m less sold on the need for an ace than most writers, adding a high upside arm is something the Red Sox should pursue in the offseason. Importantly, this doesn’t mean handing Cueto or Price better than $200M on the open market: I’d go harder after the Carrascos of the world with a package built around pieces like Owens, Margot, Devers and so on. Rodriguez would be off limits, but every other starter in the system with the exception of Anderson Espinoza would not be.

If the 2016 rotation was:

  1. Carrasco (or similar)
  2. Buchholz
  3. Rodriguez
  4. Porcello
  5. Miley
  6. Johnson/Wright/etc

That plays for me. Particularly because you can always trade for more pitching in season if need be, in rental form or otherwise.

And before you ask, yes, Kelly’s omission is intentional.

Bullpen

People look at the bullpen today and think: what the hell happened? How did we get to the point that we have basically one reliable arm in Tazawa? Or had, before we leaned on him too heavily. The answer, to a degree not often acknowledged by the writers, is injury. If Workman, for example, isn’t lost to Tommy John, the bullpen looks very different. Same with Varvaro, whose ineffectiveness, it would appear, was related to the fact that he also required Tommy John. If those two aren’t lost more or less out of the gate, we might not see Ogando pitch so many meaningful innings and give up so many meaningless home runs.

Mujica, admittedly, was a total loss: after some initial, exasperating success, he’s been worse with Oakland than he was with Boston (71 ERA+ vs 93). Breslow has also been dead money, though it was interesting to see him come close to blaming his performance on Farrell’s usage to the Globe. It’s also true, as has been pointed out repeatedly, that the Red Sox have failed to draft and develop bullpen arms. Maybe Barnes and Light get there by next year, but there are significant questions at this point attached to both.

But the core of next year’s bullpen is likely already here.

  1. Uehara
  2. Tazawa
  3. Kelly
  4. Workman
  5. Varvaro
  6. Barnes
  7. Layne
  8. Machi
  9. Ross
  10. Cook

Some, or maybe most of those arms, will be hurt, ineffective or both. Which means that the Red Sox will need to spend the offseason acquiring other potential bullpen pieces, preferably ones that throw hard given the game’s direction. Whether that’s via trade, waiver pickups, the Rule 5 draft as with Baltimore or even potentially free agency is less important than the club getting to spring training next year with twice as many arms as they’ll need.

Unless you’re some sort of wizard, the most effective approach to building bullpens is via a shotgun.

What’s Worse Than the 2015 Red Sox Season?

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If anything is certain in this bizarre Red Sox season, it’s that everyone has lost their fucking minds. Yes, this season has been one shot to the groin after another. First the pitching was terrible. Then that got better, as the numbers suggested it might. Which is when the offense, initially buoyed by an unsustainable spike in unearned runs, disappeared. Every night, the Red Sox seem to find new ways to lose. Starter goes 8 and gives up 2 runs? Our offense comes up empty against a rookie starter with unimpressive stuff. Offense puts an eight spot on the board? Pitching staff implodes and gives that away in an inning. When we get decent pitching and score a few runs? Well, the defense is happy to do its part to throw away games. And on and on and on and on and on.

I still watch and listen to the games more or less daily, so I get that things are miserable – I’m living it. But here’s the thing: this is baseball. There is a reason that cantpredictball is a Twitter account with over 28,000 followers, and that reason is that you can’t predict baseball. Or maybe you expected that the Rays, Royals and Astros would be atop their respective divisions?

For all that analysts like Curt Schilling are currently quick to remind everyone of their skepticism of this winter’s signings of Ramirez and Sandoval, I’m not aware of anyone who predicted that by June the Red Sox would be nine games under .500 and have the third worst record in the American League. And when I say anyone, I mean anyone. Not everyone picked the Red Sox to win the American League East like Fangraphs’ projections, but no one expected them to be this bad.

But they are. Which is bad because the math now says that our chances of making the playoffs are less than one in five. Back on April 5th they were better than sixty percent. So the Red Sox are losing – frequently – in brutal fashion, and every day we wake up less likely to make the playoffs than yesterday. Can’t get any worse, right?

Wrong. As if it’s not bad enough to watch the on the field product at the moment, off the field the average fan is now besieged by angry fans and media who have completely gone off the rails. It’s one thing for the jaded Peter Abrahams of the world to claim that the team is “immensely screwed” for the long term, but as noted by the essential Red Sox Stats, when the normally fair Ken Rosenthal starts arguing that it’s time to jettison your largest offseason signings less than three hundred at bats into their first season with the club you know people aren’t thinking clearly anymore.

So let’s try and do that for a second. Let’s look at the big picture questions and take them apart rationally.

Q: Should the Red Sox really try to trade Ramirez and Sandoval so soon?
A: First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: they’ve both been terribly disappointing. Below replacement level for forty or so million collectively, in fact. The question, however, isn’t whether they’ve been bad, but whether they can be expected to perform closer to expectations.

Let’s take Sandoval first because his case is easier. His stupidly overblown Instagram infraction notwithstanding – the third baseman has been acceptable offensively. When a right-hander is throwing, at least. The average major league third baseman this season has put up a .260/.317/.412 line. Sandoval’s a tick above average, then, with his .274/.326/.416 numbers. And that looks even better when you realize that last season’s third baseman, Will Middlebrooks, is at .230/.260/.397. His issues against left handers are concerning, but lifetime he’s hit left handed pitching adequately, so that seems like something that should regress to the mean.

The bigger problem is his defense. Since 2008, Sandoval has four seasons in positive UZR/150 territory and three in red, with his worst clocking in at -6.3 by that metric. This season he’s at -26.6. There are two ways to look at the data. One, he has, as of this season, not only lost the ability to play the position,he’s now among the worst in the league there. Two, he’s having early season jitters because of the contract, the city or both. I know which seems more likely to me.

Q: And what about Ramirez?
A: As for Ramirez, well, as I said, I’ve been watching the games. He is one of the worst defensive outfielders I have ever seen. I expected him to be better than this, and in fact I expect him to be better than this moving forward. But let’s assume he doesn’t get better, or not much better: can the Red Sox live with that? At least until Ortiz retires and you make him the DH?

To answer that question, let’s look at some numbers. From the start of the season through May 4th, Hanley Ramirez was rocking a .283/.340/.609 line with 10 home runs. To put that into context, if he’d kept up that pace, a .949 OPS would place him 8th in the league, just behind Mike Trout (.962) and Giancarlo Stanton (.951). On May 4th, however, he hit a wall. Again, literally. Since he took on Fenway Park and lost, he’s hit .260/.301/.377. Correlation doesn’t prove causation of course, and you can’t assume he’d keep up his original pace. But let’s assume he was somewhere in the .900 OPS range and the club was in contention for first place. Would the fever pitch for paying a lot of money for him to play somewhere, anywhere else be so high? Seems doubtful.

Shorter version of the above: trading either player right now would be idiotic. First, you’d be trading them at an absolute nadir in their value, which is bad, and you’d be dealing from a position of desperation, which is worse. Second, there are reasonable chances for improvement in both cases, in which case they’re both assets. And in Sandoval’s case in particular, you don’t have a viable alternative (no, Brock Holt is not a full time third baseman). The smart play here is to be patient, hope for rebounds for both players, either because it helps your team, because it boosts their trade value, or both. It’s also worth noting that Rosenthal has essentially no suggestions for who, if anybody, would take either player.

Q: Are the Red Sox really “immensely screwed” for the long term?
A: I’m not even sure where to start with this one. Let’s assume, conservatively, that you think the Red Sox winter trades/signings of Miley, Porcello, Ramirez and Sandoval are total losses at this point – that none of the above will be better than what they are right now. Collectively they’ll make $67 million dollars next year. If we were the Rays, then, we would indeed be existentially doomed. Per Cot’s Contracts, however, we entered this year with a payroll of $184 million. Next year’s obligations? $112 million. Even after accounting for the potential Ortiz option and raises via arbitration, the Red Sox are not the Bruins, with many needs but no room under the projected budget ceiling. Does anyone want to be spending money on replacement level players? Obviously not. But the Red Sox do have the ability to recover from financial mistakes.

Second, those crying that sky is falling usually fail to acknowledge that the Red Sox minor league system is relatively deep, even after the recent promotions – both planned and otherwise. Obviously the introduction of new players is not without risks as the club learned first with Jackie Bradley Jr followed by Xander Bogaerts and most recently with Mookie Betts. But most clubs would kill to have a collection of young, borderline-major league ready talent like Betts, Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Christian Vazquez and Eduardo Rodriguez, with Brian Johnson, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes and Pat Light waiting in the wings. Several of those players will fail, of course. But the Red Sox will very likely have several major league roster spots filled by young players, some of whom have All-Star potential, that will be making pennies on the dollar for the next three to six years.

Even if, however, you’re the type of fan or writer that is convinced that the Red Sox are uniquely unable to integrate young players, there are assets up and down the roster that can be converted into proven major leaguers. Further down the system, for example, any of Rafael Devers, Manuel Margot, Yoan Moncada or even potentially Michael Kopech could be the centerpiece in a major acquisition at some point.

At worst, then, the Red Sox may have some dead money on the roster for a few years. Existentially doomed, they are not.

Q: Should the Red Sox fire Ben Cherington, John Farrell or both?
A: For me, it’s no. And if you’re going to do it, there’s essentially no upside to doing it in season.

Of the two, the manager is easier because his role is theoretically more limited. Unlike football, the manager’s on the field tactical impact is relatively minimal over the course of a season. There are big picture concerns – is a given manager likely to Joe Torre-his favorite reliever into the ground, for example – but generally speaking baseball games are won by baseball players, not baseball managers. Which means that a manager’s primary contribution is outside the lines. How they manage to keep 25 very different competitive personalities from killing each other over the course of a season, for example. And in Boston, working with the media is a significant part of the job.

Asinine brushfires like the Sandoval-Instagram incident or Miley’s comically inappropriate blowup or no, Farrell seems to be managing both the clubhouse and the media about as well as can be expected given the circumstances. He’s no Tito – dismissing him was the worst move of this ownership’s tenure, in my opinion, other than replacing him with Valentine – but he seems to understand both stick and carrot.

The obvious caveat to the above is that we don’t really know what’s going on in the clubhouse. During the Valentine era we all try and pretend didn’t happen, for example, the local beat writers were eventually revealed as hopelessly compromised when the national writers came in and to a person diagnosed ours as “toxic.” So maybe it’s that bad right now and we just don’t know, in which case Farrell has to go. But I’d bet not.

As for Cherington, addressing his situation in full would require a post of its own, and maybe we’ll get there. But in general, two last place finishes going on three notwithstanding, it’s not clear that he’s the problem. He has made mistakes, certainly, and should probably not be allowed to trade for relievers anymore, but overall he’s navigated the complicated environment that is Boston as well as can be expected. Consider the problems facing him.

  • First, he has a rabid fanbase with very high expectations; the Astros’ strategy is simply not an option for the Red Sox general manager.
  • Second, ownership has seemingly prohibited him from doing some of the things the media wants him to do: sign an ace, for example – we’ll come back to that.
  • Third, he has to somehow ascertain remotely whether incoming players will be able to handle Boston, like Napoli or Victorino in 2013, or whether they’ll implode á la Crawford or Renteria. I believe the operative phrase there is good luck with that.
  • Lastly, he’s not great with the media and not much of a self promoter, so he’s not likely to find allies from the fourth estate. They run around asking Cherington to pay a 35 and 36 year old outfielder with a history of drug problems $30 million a year; instead he goes out and signs Koji, Napoli and Victorino with that money. When you win a World Series with that approach, reporters can’t say much. When you don’t, as with the non-signing of Lester, you leave yourself open to criticism. The more rational members of the media get this, and on detailed reviews of the track record build the case that Cherington’s not the problem. But there just aren’t that many rational members of the media. Alex Speier and Chad Finn from the Globe. Brian MacPherson and Tim Britton from the ProJo. Peter Gammons, always. There are a few others, but it’s a short list.

Q: Do the Red Sox need an ace?
A: I went on record prior to the season as saying no, and this trainwreck of a season has not altered that position. Would it be nice to have an ace-caliber starter? Of course. Would the season look much different if we had one? It’s hard to make that case. Unless we’re talking about someone like Ruth, who can hit a bit as well.

Q: So you don’t think they should have signed Lester, then?
A: If they had him here for the insulting $70 million they offered him last season, of course. Or if they could have gotten him on something closer to Porcello money, even, yes you want him on your staff. But consider that twice in his last four starts he’s given up at least five runs, and that his strikeout rate is down this year while his walk and home run rates are up. And that he’ll play next season as a 32 year old. Do I want that pitcher? Yes. Do I want to be on the hook to pay him over $150 million? No I do not.

One other interesting tidbit. Everyone talks about how the Red Sox need an ace, and how the club should have matched or outbid the cubs for Lester. Understandable, because he is sporting a 3.80 ERA and 3.57 FIP, good for almost a win and a half (1.4) by Fangraphs’ WAR. But how does that compare to Buchholz, who the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo is still trying to run out of town, all these years later? The pitcher every media member wants gone has a nearly equivalent ERA at 3.87 and is substantially besting his former rotation mate with a 2.81 FIP. This makes him worth better than two wins (2.1) by Fangraphs’ metric. In a league where there are no pitchers hitting.

Q: So the Red Sox shouldn’t trade Buchholz, then, as Cafardo recommends?
A: With the necessary caveat that everyone is available if the price is right, the idea is dumb enough it’s not even worth discussing.

Q: What about Rusney Castillo? Is he a $70-plus million dollar bust?
A: The media’s treatment of Castillo has been hilarious, when you think about it. First, they killed Cherington daily for having a “millionaire” playing the outfield in Pawtucket to see what they had, if anything, in Victorino. Now, Cherington’s taking fire for giving all that money to a player that everyone is convinced can’t play because he’s 28 and has a .551 OPS. You want to point out to writers like Silverman that the player has had less than 80 at bats this season, but, really, what’s the point? The it’s-way-too-early-to-make-judgements narrative isn’t going to generate the controversy the media lives off of. Anger sells. Patience, not so much.

Q: The farm system was talked about above very positively, but some believe our minor league talent is questionable, with Nick Cafardo quoting a scout as saying “Not as much there as you would think.” Should we be worried about the vaunted Red Sox farm system?
A: For a few Red Sox prospects, it hasn’t been a great year. Garin Cecchini, once viewed as a third base prospect with questionable defense who would at least hit for average and control the strike zone has done neither of those things with a .204 batting average and .278 OBP. He’s not hitting for any power, either, with a slugging percentage of .316. Henry Owens, meanwhile, who ranked ahead of current Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez on many prospect lists coming into the season has simply not performed. He hasn’t imploded to the degree that Cecchini has, as he’s still basically impossible to hit with a batting average against of .191, but his walk rate has soared and strikeout rate is down 10%. When a pitcher who’s never had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of less than 16% suddenly is in the low single digits, well, let’s just say he’s not on a fast track to the majors.

But looking beyond subpar performances like those, the future of the Red Sox system seems bright. Besides the graduated prospects currently maturing at the major league level and potentially helpful if not star caliber pieces at Pawtucket, the lower levels of the Red Sox system have a number of very interesting names – many referred to above.

Asked about the NL scout’s opinion about the Red Sox system, in fact, ESPN Prospect Analyst Keith Law said “he’d be wrong about that.”

Q: So if things aren’t all bad, why does it seem like they are?
A: Because when you’re not winning, at least in a town that cares about its team, this is what happens. Negative results breed negative sentiment which breeds negative stories which breed negative sentiment in a vicious cycle.

Q: But overall you’re positive on the Red Sox prospects?
A: Not for this season. I’m with the math; I think they miss the playoffs. They’re much better than they’ve played, but they’ve dug themselves too big a hole, in all probability. It’s very unlikely that a Wild Card will come out of the AL East, so they have to win the division. And while you never know how things will play out – injuries could hit any of the clubs, and none of them are exactly world beaters – even optimistic fans would have to acknowledge that the team is a long shot at this point.

But if we zoom out a bit and take a deep breath, I’m fine with where the Red Sox are at the moment. They have very talented positional prospects in Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley Jr and Swihart, they have young starters either with the club already (Rodriguez) or on the cusp (Johnson, Owens) and they even have a few of the highly coveted, hard throwing bullpen arms that the team has lacked in recent years on the way (Barnes/Light). After a precipitous dip last year, Pedroia’s power appears to be back. Buchholz has had his ups and downs, but is outproducing many so-called aces this season. Hell, even Allan Craig is hitting at Pawtucket – and his money is officially off the competitive balance books because he cleared outright waivers.

If you think then that each of Miley, Porcello, Ramirez and Sandoval are better than they’ve shown, and that some benefit of the doubt must be extended because of the new city/big contract factor, the roster looks that much better.

And even if they’re not, the club should have money available next year to improve. How much? Probably something close to what Houston’s paying their entire roster in 2015. Which is why we appear to be pretty far from “immensely screwed” looking beyond this year.

The 2013 ZIPS Red Sox Projections: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Will Middlebrooks

In the wake of the 2013 blizzard that dumped two plus feet of snow on most of New England at velocities upwards of 60 MPH, one could be forgiven for failing to notice that Fangraphs had finally released the entirety of Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections for the Boston Red Sox. But given that plenty of words have been written touting PECOTA’s 86 win, tied-for-second place in the AL East forecast for the club, it seems reasonable to assume more than the storm is at work. Specifically, Red Sox fans might be underreporting ZIPS because it forecasts a great deal of underperformance from our roster.

ZIPS is conservative by design, which is a useful counter to overly optimistic forecasts such as Bill James’ projections. Even so, the future ZIPS anticipates is not one kind to the Red Sox. If ZIPS projections for the starting rotation hold, in fact, it’s likely that the club will struggle to reach .500. It’s not all bad, but it’s definitely not good. Here then are the highlights and lowlights from the ZIPS 2013 numbers.

The Good

The good news from ZIPS is easy to summarize.

  • Pedroia will remain an effective, star-caliber player, putting up a .289/.357/.456 line from second base. That plus his defense makes him the only 5 win player on the roster.
  • Ortiz will remain an elite offensive force at .294/.288/.558, although the optimism here is tempered by ZIPS belief that Ortiz will be limited to 418 at bats. In spite of his DH status, ZIPS expects Ortiz to be the second most valuable position player at 3.4 wins. Which is a compliment to Ortiz and a criticism of our roster at the same time.
  • Napoli, though not projected to rebound to his 2011 levels of performance, will easily best the .275/.325/.425 line our first basemen put up last year at .248/.347/.488. Even so, the combination of his defense and limited playing time – presumably due to injury – leaves him just shy of a two win player (for context, Adrian Gonzalez was worth 2.6 wins to us last year, in spite of the fact that he was traded in August).
  • The playing time forecast for new shortstop Stephen Drew is actually relatively positive: ZIPS sees him accumulating 450+ at bats. The problem is that his expected offensive performance (.250/.322/.396) is a far cry from his 2010 peak (.278/.352/.458). Still, given that our shortstops hit .234/.272/.359 last year, Drew represents a considerable upgrade – assuming he’s healthy enough to field the position adequately.
  • David Ross was told that he would play more than a typical backup with the Red Sox, but ZIPS sees him getting fewer at bats, in fact, than last season: 163 versus 196. When he plays, though, he’ll be much better than a typical backup, getting on base 31.5% of the time and slugging .414. Given that our starting catcher (until he’s traded, anyway) didn’t get on base even 30% of the time last year and isn’t forecast to this year, I’ll take it.
  • ZIPS doesn’t love Koji Uehara’s health, calling him for to contribute a mere 39.7 innings, but it loves his performance when he’s on the field, anticipating a 2.72 ERA/2.80 FIP with 49 strikeouts against 6 walks. The fact that he’s the only pitcher ZIPS really likes is the real problem here.
  • One quick aside: ZIPS thinks Jackie Bradley Jr. could put up a .249/.329/.367 line in the majors right now, which would be more than adequate if the reports on his defense are even partially correct. He won’t make anybody forget Ellsbury’s 2011 season, but that’s not too far from what Ellsbury was when he came back last year. Good depth to have.

The Bad

  • Ryan Lavarnway already has questions as to whether he’ll stick at the catcher position – at least outside of the Red Sox organization – and his 2013 ZIPS forecast makes it improbable that he’d have a career at anywhere else on the diamond. Here’s hoping his .243/.311/.388 projection is light across the board, particularly because ZIPS sees him getting 500+ at bats. If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, it seems at least possible that ZIPS is overweighting his major league numbers from last year; Lavarnway’s average on base percentage in five minor league seasons is .376.
  • If you were wondering whether Iglesias would ever hit, ZIPS is not likely to inspire much confidence. Last season, ZIPS forecast an anemic .251/.289/.311 line for Iglesias, which he actually underperformed – subtantially – with a .118/.200/.191 in 77 plate appearances. This season ZIPS expects little change with a .254/.298/.304. Everyone is rooting for the kid because his glove is that good, but the chances that he’ll ever be adequate at the plate are growing dimmer.
  • It’s easy to expect Jon Lester to improve this season, because established major league pitchers of his age do not typically drop off a performance cliff that quickly barring injury. Even if you buy into the regression to the mean theory, however, there are some alarming trends in his numbers that act to throttle expectations. Here are his K/9 numbers the past four years: 9.96, 9.74, 8.55, 7.28. And his average fastball velocity over that same span: 93.5, 93.5, 92.6, 92.0. Add it all up and ZIPS forecasts an improvement, but a modest one: a 3.97 ERA and a 3.91 FIP over 188.3 innings (which would be his lowest innings total since 2007). If Lester doesn’t throw something close to 200 innings, at a better rate than that, we’re likely in trouble.
  • If ZIPS is low on Lester, it’s lower on Buchholz. Which is certainly understandable given his early season struggles last season. What’s interesting about ZIPS is that it holds with Buchholz’ historical ability to outperform his FIP – often substantially so. Five out of his six seasons in the majors, Buchholz has underperformed his FIP. ZIPS continues this trend, forecasting an ERA of 4.16 against a FIP of 4.43. It also doesn’t expect Buchholz to exceed the 150 IP threshold, which he’s done two out of the last three years (2011’s back fracture held him to 82 IP). Like Lester, the Red Sox need him to outperform this projection if they are to contend.
  • ZIPS actually expects Doubront to improve somewhat from 2012. While the left hander started strong last year – and was actually the club’s best starter in stretches – his overall line was impacted by late season fatigue. In 2012, he put up an ERA of 4.86 and a FIP of 4.37. ZIPS expects a 4.59 and 4.36 this season. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s forecasting only 120+ IP from Doubront, down from last season’s 160+. Given the already existing concerns about his innings jump last season and the fact that he reportedly showed up to camp overweight, the ZIPS projected innings mark could be more accurate than the Red Sox would like.
  • One of the few bright spots last season, Junichi Tazawa was stellar after his call up posting a 1.82 FIP over 44 IP with 9.20 K/9 and 1.02 BB/9 rates. It’s hard to expect a pitcher to improve on those numbers, but ZIPS forecasts a substantial regression. Specifically, it calls for a 3.94 FIP over 80 innings, with 74 strikeouts but a spike in walks to 30. Still a useful reliever, but hardly the revelation he was last season.

The Ugly

  • If there was one forecast it would be reasonable to question, it might be Lackey’s. Like all projection systems, ZIPS is based off on performance metrics, and Lackey’s are compromised at least in part by the fact that the last season he was on the field he was pitching with a damaged elbow ligament. It’s reasonable to expect a bit more upside, then, than projection systems will anticipate. The problem is that Lackey’s numbers are so poor, even outperforming them will leave him significantly below average. To begin with, ZIPS expects very little in the way of innings pitched: 127, or twenty starts or so. Over that span, ZIPS expects an ERA of 5.24, a FIP of 4.86 and a K/9 of 5.53 against a BB/9 of 3.19. ZIPS expects Lackey, ultimately, to be worth less than a win, to be less valuable than Rubby De La Rosa, Craig Breslow, Franklin Morales and Brandon Workman. If all of that is true, the Red Sox will have a serious hole to fill in the rotation.
  • The good news for Bard is that ZIPS expects him to throw 65+ innings at the major league level. The bad news is that it doesn’t expect him to throw well. ZIPS sees Bard putting up a 4.50 ERA / 4.68 FIP, which are not the numbers of a premier reliever. And while it projects something of a recovery in his strikeout rate – 8.05 K/9 (8.81 career) – it believes he’ll continue to have a problem with walks. Specifically, it expects him to walk 41 batters over those 66 IP (5.59 BB/9) – an entirely unacceptable number for a high leverage relief pitcher. If true, Bard’s going to be toiling in middle relief if he’s lucky, and more likely to be living in Pawtucket for a few months.
  • There was a great deal of skepticism in the industry following Cherington’s signing of Jonny Gomes, and ZIPS shares it. For the player commonly assumed to be the regular left fielder, ZIPS expects only 391 plate appearances. Which would be a blessing if his line approximates the forecast .240/.332/.423. That’s acceptable if you’re a catcher; it’s not a starter in left field – at least for a contender.
  • Perhaps the player that ZIPS is hardest on is the sophomore third baseman Will Middlebrooks. SBNation’s Marc Normandin, among other writers, believes that Middlebrooks is an anomaly that projection systems are ill-equipped to handle. As written here in December, I’m highly concerned about his approach at the plate. If ZIPS is correct, those concerns are appropriate. ZIPS expects Middlebrooks – whose 2012 line of .288/.325/.509 masked signs the league was adjusting to the rookie – to regress to .255/.292/.434. His defense and a projected 19 home runs make him almost a two win player, but a third baseman who can’t get on base even 30% of the time (the average major league third baseman last year had a .323 OBP) is not a positive. As indeed so little of the 2013 ZIPS projections are for the club.

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.

Whither Clay Buchholz?

Clay Buchholz

There’s really no other way to say this: Clay Buchholz has been a miserable pitcher in 2012. Sunday’s two run, 6k, one walk affair notwithstanding, Buchholz’ 2012 campaign has been a train wreck so far. Aside from Ubaldo Jimenez, he’s been the least valuable pitcher as measured by WAR (-0.3). Among AL starters, only five are giving up more home runs per nine. Among MLB starters, no one has a higher ERA than Clay’s 7.19. Most alarming, perhaps, is his MLB worst (starter) WHIP of 1.83: each and every inning, he’s putting almost two guys on base by walk or hit. Tough to win games that way, though he’s managed to squeeze out four thanks to his MLB best run support which is just this side of two touchdowns per game.

The question isn’t whether he’s been bad, however, it’s what to do about it. The talk show shouters, of course, would have us dump him for spare parts. More rational commentators would have him succumb to a phantom injury and get himself sorted in the minors where we wouldn’t need the offense to scare up ten runs to win every five days. That approach might yet be the correct one, but Sunday’s start offered at least some hope that Buchholz will start being Buchholz, sooner rather than later. Looking closer at the numbers, there are a few other signs that he might regress at least towards being league average, which would sadly be a massive improvement over his performance to date.

  • BABIP: Buchholz’s career average on balls in play is .289, which is almost exactly what it should be. This season, however, batters are hitting .342 on balls in play. Which, translated, they’re hitting fifty points better than they should be when they make contact. Unless the laws of baseball have been repealed, this is likely to rectify itself over the balance of the season, which in turn should forecast better numbers from Buchholz.

  • xFIP: If it’s true that xFIP – which controls for defense and expected home run totals – has one of the highest correlations to future ERA of any metric, Buchholz should be happy. His xFIP of 4.97, while still poor, is far more palatable than his bloated (and league worst) 7.19 ERA. Buchholz’s xFIP is actually better than that of teammate Daniel Bard, which is obviously damning with faint praise, since the reliever turned starter has lost nearly five miles an hour of his fastball and is walking as many as he strikes out. Still, xFIP offers some hope that Buchholz may have better days ahead.

  • Velocity: Anecdotally, it has appeared that Buchholz’s velocity has been ticking upwards in recent starts. The odd 94 here, 93 there, offered some hope that his arm strength has been coming back, slowly but surely. The metrics offer some support for this; the last time we looked at his average fastball velocity, he was at 91.8 MPH. Today, he’s up to 92.

  • BB/9 / K/9: This is admittedly grasping for straws, but if you look at the graphs of his BB/9, K/9 and K/BB, they’re beginning to trend in the right direction.

Ultimately, there’s nothing in the data that points to Buchholz reverting to his 2010 form in the immediate future. There are signs, however, that he is trending towards becoming at least a league average pitcher again, which is a start. And while his performance in the number three spot in the rotation has been a major disappointment, it’s been offset to some degree by the emergence of Doubront as an above average number four. In spite of his absymal performance to date, then, I’m inclined to put more faith in his history than his ten starts this season.

I know he’s been awful, but have some patience.

Stop the Middlebrooks Madness

If Will Middlebrooks continues to play a pivotal role in the offense, what will the Red Sox do once Kevin Youkilis ready to return? Youkilis is eligible to return on Monday, although it is unlikely he will be activated that day.

Middlebrooks was a third baseman in high school and has played only third base professionally. Could he play the outfield?

“I don’t know,” Bobby Valentine said. “It’s been tossed around in some quarters.”

[…]

“It hasn’t been a table discussion yet. So I don’t think it even has to enter his domain. That being said, I think he’s a pretty — small sample, my being around him — he’s a pretty mature baseball guy. He’s not going to be flustered by a lot of things.”

Red Sox contemplate using Will Middlebrooks in outfield – Extra Bases – Red Sox blog.

Two things.

First, it’s been four games. Four. It seems unlikely that a 1.361 OPS represents his expected level of performance from here on out, so why on earth would we be making decisions off of it? And if you want to argue that he was tearing it up in the minors before being called up, remember that that was 24 games. It’s early, and he’s been hot: that’s to his credit. But Middlebrooks’ career minor league OPS is .787. Youkilis’s career major league OPS is .878.

In Youkilis is healthy, he’ll probably put up better numbers than Middlebrooks over the balance of the season, the kid’s hot start notwithstanding. If he’s not healthy, play Middlebrooks.

But let’s not go crazy with outfield schemes, or worse, trade Youkilis for pennies on the dollar as Edes would apparently have us do.

Second, it strikes me that if Bobby V didn’t want talk of playing the outfield to “enter [Middlebrooks] domain,” it might be better to not talk to the media about the possibility. You know, because the media might ask him about it, and therefore put it into his domain.

Just a thought.

Some Early Numbers

Three turns through the rotation, with Aaron Cook chomping at the bit and Matsuzaka’s rehab clock rolling, here’s what our rotation’s xFIP numbers look like:

  • Lester: 4.59
  • Beckett: 4.26
  • Buchholz: 5.21
  • Doubront: 3.62
  • Bard: 4.02

The performances of Doubront and Bard, in particular, are making the Cook decision harder. Which is, as they say, an excellent problem to have. One that would have been quite welcome, oh, say, last September.

Some other things that interested me from our early season numbers:

  • Vicente Padilla has the highest K/9 rate on the tea (10.8), and his BB/9 is a reasonable 2.16. Unfortunately his HR/9 is also 2.16, but some of that may be a function of being somewhat unlucky on balls in play (.375 BABIP).

  • Clay Buchholz has been a bit unlucky (.329 BABIP, 5.21 xFIP against an 8.87 ERA), but he’s just not pitching well. He’s not striking anyone out (4.43/9), he’s walking a ton (4.03/9) and he’s giving up more homers per nine than Padilla (2.42). Part of it might be fastball velocity: this season’s 91.9 MPH would be the lowest since 2007. He’s also using his cut fastball a lot more – last year he threw he 13% of the time, this year it’s 24%. Buster Olney of ESPN has speculated that he’s still hurt, or adjusting from the injury, because he’s nearly abandoned the two seamer that was key to his original resurgence. Either way, he needs to start pitching like he can.

  • Jarrod Saltalamacchia has never been a big on base guy – his lifetime OBP is .305 – but in the early going he’s even worse than that. His .275 is the lowest of all of the starters, and unlike Youkilis (.292 OBP), he’s probably not going to recover all that much. That said, like last season, he’s been stinging the ball when he does make contact. His isolated power number (.306) leads the club, and his .551 slugging lags only Ortiz and the surprising Ryan Sweeney. The net? A wOBA that is fifth on the club among players with at least 50 ABs. Even with Shoppach’s good start – he’s slashing .308/.419/.500 at the moment in 31 plate appearances – Salty’s been adequate for the catcher position. WAR has him exactly as valuable, in fact, as the Tigers’ Avila or the Yankees’ Martin. Though I wonder if the pitchers would argue that, given the emerging research into pitch framing as a skill. For those wondering about Lavarnway, by the way, he’s at .286/.408/.413 down in Pawtucket. He’s getting on base at a good clip, in other words, but not hitting for quite as much power as in years past.

  • Like many, I was disappointed in the Marco Scutaro transaction. But while I was skeptical of Mike Aviles‘ ability to play the position as a regular, the more problematic part of that trade for me was the lack of a return for the asset. That part still bothers me, but Aviles performance thus far hasn’t been a problem. While Peter Abraham calls him a “Major league backup” type, he’s played like a starter. He and Ortiz are the only players on the roster who’ve already been worth a win, and Aviles is actually the only shortstop in the American League to be that valuable. Among AL shortstops, in fact, Aviles is 1st in ISO, 2nd in SLG and tied for 2nd in wOBA. And unlike Derek Jeter who’s gotten off to an incredible start – putting up a .386/.421/.591 line – Aviles hasn’t really been that lucky; his BABIP is .306, while Jeter’s is an unsustainable .405. His fielding numbers, meanwhile, are a positive, not a negative. It’s still early, of course, and just because Aviles is playing well doesn’t mean that the Scutaro transaction made sense, but shortstop thus far hasn’t been an issue.

  • Speaking of David Ortiz, he’s obviously been on fire. As Abraham said today, it’s remarkable to think that in 2010, Ortiz was probably weeks away from an outright release. You don’t need to know his BABIP’s .435 to know Ortiz will come back to earth in the weeks ahead, because it doesn’t take a genius to understand that he’s probably not going to hit .400 for the season. Still, one encouraging sign have been his L/R splits. Consider his OBP versus left-handed pitching in the 2007-2010 stretch: .390, .308, .298, .275. It’s no wonder, in fact, that Francona was reduced to pinch hitting Lowell for Papi that year, because Ortiz had become helpless against same sided pitching. Last season, however, he rebounded, putting up a robust .329/.423/.566 against lefties. This year, most predicted a regression towards his former levels of performance. Which may still happen, because it’s early. But thus far he’s at .440/.462/.680. If he can repeat even last year’s performance, he’ll be in great shape at the plate.