Conor Jackson: Rapid Reaction

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t get the Conor Jackson trade. Granted, we’re not exactly giving up a ton in Jason Rice, a righthander originally out of the White Sox system. Rice has decent K rates – 9.39/9 and 89 in 85.1 IP this season in Pawtucket – but he walks too many (4.43/9) and 25 year old relievers who haven’t hit the majors yet aren’t in short supply.

That said, I’m not sure what the Sox see in Jackson. His career OPS numbers against LHP are better than McDonald’s – .825 to .789 – but Jackson’s having almost as tough a year as the bat he’ll presumably replace (or at least steal ABs from). His OPS against lefties this year is .686, while McDonald’s – his down year notwithstanding – is .768.

And then there’s defense. Fox’s Jon Morosi says the Red Sox envision Jackson playing a super utility role, bouncing between the outfield and infield. By reputation, Jackson’s not a stellar defender, having spent most of his career in left or at first base. The metrics bear this out, at least for this season. Though it’s foolish to place too much emphasis on single season defensive metrics, let alone partial season, McDonald grades out at 14.9 on UZR/150 this season, against Jackson’s 8.8.

As far as total value goes, WAR doesn’t love either player, though Jackson edges McDonald’s .3 with a .4.

We didn’t give up much, then, but it’s not clear that we got much in return. At his peak, Jackson was a useful 3 win player – a number McDonald won’t touch in his career. But that was three years ago and his decline hasn’t been gradual.

My guess is that the front office has identified something specific they like about the player – recent adjustments, a track record of success amongst possible playoff opponents (lifetime .714 OPS against the Yankees, .697 Texas, .932 Detroit) – something. It may be his versatility as Morosi claims, but I’m not quite sure I understand that; last I checked we’ve got three guys who can play first base, and five who can play the outfield (assuming Drew does come back). Or they know that Drew actually broke his finger and isn’t coming back.

And I’m sure that, as always, they weighed the cost and found it acceptable. Personally, I’m not for or against the transaction; I merely fail to understand it. Either way, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of playing time.

Red Sox Trading Deadling Performance by WAR

Every year the non-waiver trading deadline generates fierce debate on the merits of a given trade. From talk show callers to prospect experts, everyone has an opinion on the winners and losers, the GM’s approach and the wider industry context on what’s being over or undervalued at that particular time.

Post-trade, however, most of the retrospective analysis is superficial and non-quantitative. Rarely do we see coverage of the longer term value differential of a particular trade, let alone the patterns of a particular GM over a period of time.

Curious then about what Theo Epstein’s return was against the trading costs, then, I ran the WAR numbers for the deadline trades made during his tenure. The list of traded parties was obtained from this excellent piece by Alex Speier.

The WAR calculations are derived from Fangraphs and counted the wins accumulated by players only for the teams involved in the transaction; Jason Bay, for example, is credited only for his WAR numbers with the Red Sox. His subsequent performance for the Mets is not considered. This analysis does not take into account the contract status of the players involved, importantly; Manny Ramirez’ entire tenure with the Dodgers, therefore, is considered.

It is also important to note that this is a snapshot; the longer term value of some of the traded assets – Nick Hagadone, for instance – is not yet determined and thus not part of these calculations. 2011 was omitted, in fact, because we have next to no data on the value contributed by either the pieces acquired or those traded.

With those caveats, here’s the data.

Red Sox Net Trading Deadline WAR

It may surprise some to learn that we have traded away approximately thirty wins (to date) in the last eight seasons. But it is actually the most probable outcome: even if we perfectly rate our prospects, we are – with rare exceptions such as last season – buyers at the deadline. Buyers, almost by definition, will be trading more value than they receive in return. The deadline represents the last time to acquire without restriction assets to improve your roster, and the marginal value of even fringe major leaguers can be magnified in tight races for a berth in the postseason. A half a win player could be, in fact, the difference.

This assertion is supported by the data. There is an obvious correlation between traded value and postseason performance; two of the top three years from a value traded perspective coincided with World Series wins. Half of the years where the net WAR total was non-negative, meanwhile, were years without a postseason appearance (2006, 2010).

The only thing that did surprise, ultimately, was the value of some of the players traded. His inability to get on base notwithstanding, Freddy Sanchez was, as Theo said, a pretty good player: he generated almost 12 wins for the Pirates during his time there. David Murphy, meanwhile, has been worth as much to Texas as Manny Ramirez was to the Dodgers, albeit in two more seasons. Erstwhile Red Sox reliever Joel Pineiro generated better than 6 wins for the Cardinals after leaving town, while Matt Murton was just shy of that number with the Cubs before heading for Japan. And so on.

Without comparing his performance to his peers – a task I don’t have time for at present, it’s difficult to quantitatively assess Epstein’s performance in context. And it’s true that it’s facile to point to the results – two World Series titles – because they may obscure fundamental flaws in the process.

But it’s worth observing that with rare exceptions like Justin Masterson (7.8 WAR and counting), the players Theo has resisted trading – but each of whom has been sought – are delivering much higher value than those that have departed.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that Epstein’s performance at the deadline seems more than adequate, the net 30 wins lost notwithstanding.

(Link to the source data I compiled in case anyone’s interested or wants to check it)

Untouchable Ellsbury?

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Confirming the Catch, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

Obviously, we are sensing the proverbial next shoe is about to drop. If it is Adrian Gonzalez (with an outside shot at Miguel Cabrera), which would be a ginormous move by the Red Sox to cap what would be an eye-popping offseason, then what is there not to like? Well, one thing: if one of the players going to San Diego is Jacoby Ellsbury.

If Ellsbury is the hot name from the San Diego side, then Theo Epstein should just say no.

Give up Ryan Westmoreland, and include a better prospect or two at the end of the deal. Ellsbury is a special player who hit .301, stole 70 bases, and scored 94 runs last season, and one who plays a very good center field and is just 26 years old.” – Nick Cafardo

Chad Finn and I might not agree on much with respect to a potential trade for Adrian Gonzalez, but we at least see eye to eye on this much: “If you think Jacoby Ellsbury is untouchable in a deal for Adrian Gonzalez, we’re gonna have to fight.”

Which is not to say that I want to trade Ells. Lord knows I love watching the kid play as much as the next guy, because when was the last time the Sox had a guy who was literally fast enough to run down a deer? But he is what he is, as the cliche says, and what he is is a player who’s good, but unlikely to develop into a star.

You might assume a deconstruction of the Jacoby-is-untouchable argument would begin with his defense, which recently become the subject of much discussion after he won an award as the best defensive player in the majors after posting the single worst UZR/150 at his position. But I won’t. Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that his terrible -18.3 UZR/150 in ’09 was statistical noise; he put up a 6.9 at the position in ’08, albeit in less than half as many innings, and the good folks from SoSH at least raise some reasonable questions about the statistical assessments of his play in the field.

But what about his offense? Here’s what Aaron Gleeman, who is very good, said about Ells when the Twinkies were contemplating trading for him as part of a Santana package:

Ellsbury essentially does everything well except hit for power and looks likely to be a very valuable player for a long time, but the question is whether the Twins should build a trade package for the best pitcher in baseball around someone who may never reach double-digit homers in a season. Ellsbury batted .365 with a .157 Isolated Power during his metal bat-wielding college career at Oregon State and has hit .318 with a .116 Isolated Power in 1,282 plate appearances a pro.

At 24 years old Ellsbury will probably develop some additional pop as he matures, but with 29 homers in 1,300 plate appearances dating back to college it’s unlikely that his Isolated Power will rise much beyond .125 or so. For comparison, Luis Castillo’s career Isolated Power is .064, so Ellsbury is far from powerless. On the other hand, major-league hitters as a whole posted a .155 Isolated Power in 2007, which would make it tough for him to possess even average power.

Of course, plenty of hitters with below-average power are still able to be very good players by providing some combination of outstanding defense, speed, and on-base skills. Those are all areas where Ellsbury figures to thrive given that he’s an excellent defensive center fielder who’s hit .300 everywhere he’s gone and has stolen 114 bases at an 81-percent clip in 283 pro games. However, there’s some question about exactly how good his on-base skills can be.

Ellsbury has drawn a non-intentional walk in 8.8 percent of his pro plate appearances, which puts him solidly above the major-league average of 7.8 percent and works out to around 50-55 walks per 600 plate appearances. If he maintains that walk rate along with a batting average at .300 or so, Ellsbury’s on-base percentage would be around .360-.370. That’s well above the MLB average of .335, but is it enough to make him a star when it comes along with a .125 Isolated Power?

If things go well for Ellsbury, he looks capable of hitting around .300/.370/.425 on a regular basis. Toss in good defense with 50-steal speed and that’s an extremely good player. In fact, it’s essentially Kenny Lofton. Like Ellsbury, Lofton is a slight, incredibly fast, lefty-hitting center fielder who was drafted out of a Pac-10 college and made his big-league debut as a 24-year-old. Despite showing even less power than Ellsbury in the minors, Lofton has hit .299/.372/.423 with 622 steals during his 17-year career.

However, while Lofton certainly seems like a good comp for Ellsbury on any number of levels, in reality he’s probably more like a good best-case scenario comp. There’s no guarantee that Ellsbury can maintain his .300-hitting ways in the majors long term, even his modest minor-league power may not fully translate to the big leagues, and walking in nine percent of his trips to the plate could prove difficult if pitchers aren’t afraid to throw him strikes.

At this point Ellsbury looks capable of putting together a Lofton-like career, but with sub par power and non-great plate discipline most of his offensive value is tied to hitting .300. If he instead bats .275 while seeing his Isolated Power drop into the .100 range and walking just seven percent of the time, then Ellsbury goes from Lofton-like to hitting .275/.330/.375. Strong defense and great speed would still make him a solid player, but that’s not someone to build a package for Santana around.

None of us wanted to hear that, at the time, coming off the the kid’s spectacular 2007 late season run, during which he put up a .353/.394/.509 line with his eye popping speed.
But what’s he done since? .291/.346/.405 and an isolated power of .114. Pretty much exactly what Gleeman predicted, in other words. He’s a good player, but he’s not a great player. Even with the steals, which it will be interesting to see if he can sustain.

Some will claim he improved down the stretch, and that’s true: he did. But by how much? He numbers from September on have him at .305/.388/.415 for an .803 OPS. That’s better than his cumulative .301/.355/.415/.770 line, for sure: it would tie for the 5th best CF OPS in the majors, if he could hold that up. But arguments that that represents “improvement” seem to be largely the product of aspirational projections. The simpler explanation, easily, is that it’s a small sample size statistical variation explainable by, say, an influx of September pitching callups.

Nor is Ells a spring chicken at 26. He’s not done improving as a player, but he’s not 24 anymore either. Which the major projections recognize: Bill James has him at .302/.360/.420 (.780 OPS), CHONE .300/.358/.410 (.768 OPS) and ZIPS .290/.344/.398 (.742 OPS). Unless they’re all wrong – and their collective average OPS margin for error last year was .034 (Bill James was the farthest off, optimistically projecting a .843 for Ells) – he’s no star. No matter what Cafardo and his “veteran National League executive” think about Ells being “special” and a “rare talent.”

And for the Ellsbury defenders that want to point to his admittedly impressive 41.4 VORP score, good for second among centerfielders and 38th in the league, we need to acknowledge that the man he could be traded for – Gonzalez – is the owner of a 57.6 VORP, which would be easily the best on our team and good for 13th in the league.

But if he’s not a star player, Ells is cheap and team controlled, at least. Isn’t he? Well, not really. Here’s Olney:

I would respectfully disagree with Nick [Cafardo] about whether Ellsbury would be a great catch for the Padres. In a vacuum, sure, you’d love to have him. But Ellsbury is going to be eligible for arbitration for the first time after the 2010 season, and in 2011-12, he could make as much or more than Gonzalez will make over the next two seasons. In other words: His salary would become almost an immediate problem for the Padres, and given that he is represented by Scott Boras, the Padres would have to assume there would be no hometown discounts. Ellsbury would be a nice player for San Diego, but he would be a money pit.

So while I certainly wouldn’t trade an asset like Ells for just any player, the notion that he should be untouchable in a transaction for a talent like Gonzalez is absurd. If Hoyer would take him as the centerpiece for a deal, that’s an easy decision to make. Both purely on the players’ merits as well as in the context of our ability to replace Ellsbury on the major league roster.

Unfortunately, however, the Padre’s new GM is much better at player value assessment than Cafardo – who once recommended playing Shelley Duncan over Jason Giambi because of his “energy”, remember – so the chances of us getting Gonzalez for a package headlined by a good but not great player that’s about to get expensive are minimal. Cafardo’s got that going for him, at least.

MARCO…SCUTARO. MARCO…SCUTARO.

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Marco Scutaro, originally uploaded by Dinur.

True, I didn’t believe that Scutaro would end up here. But how likely was it, really, that a 34 year old shortstop coming off a career year would turn down a guaranteed third year from the A’s to come here?

To judge from the press conference this week, more likely than you’d think.

Anyway, it’s all over now but the crying. We’ve got our hundredth shortstop of the post-Nomar era, and at least my prediction that we wouldn’t see Pedroia move west across the diamond is holding up. For now.

The remaining question is simple: is this a good thing? The magic eight ball consensus is: cannot say at this time.

He’ll be better than our shortstop numbers from last year, I’m sure. Our shortstops last year put up a collective .234/.297/.358, so barring a return of his plantar fasciatis, Scutaro should easily better that line. Even with it, actually. Bill James says he’s good for .264/.347/.381 output in 2010. Defensively, he put up an eye-popping 20.3 UZR/150 at short in 2008, then came back down to earth with a 1.0 in 1252.2 innings last season, with his injury plagued August and September likely a negatively weighting factor. For context, Gonzo put up a 10.5 in ’09. Hardly world-beating, but given what I saw us trot out last year, I’ll take it.

In that sense then, yes, the Scutaro signing is a good thing. And the cost – financially – was eminently reasonable. I think Olney mixed up the player and team options here, but the $14 million maximum exposure is cost effective even if, as many suspect he will, Scutaro regresses. But let’s come back to that.

The loss of the pick, on the other hand, is significant. True, it’s offset by the choice we gained when Atlanta ponied up for Wagner, but two picks are always better than one pick. Particularly if the loss of Jason McLeod to San Diego negatively impacts our drafts. Here’s Law:

The worst part of the deal for the Red Sox is the loss of the first-round pick. Yes, the Red Sox got — or stole, if you’re a bitter Met fan — a first-round pick for Billy Wagner, but that pick was theirs whether or not they signed Scutaro or another Type-A free agent. Few teams have been as productive in the draft as the Red Sox have been over the past five years under recently-departed scouting director Jason McLeod, so the value of a first-round pick to Boston should be quite high, knowing how well they’ve converted those picks into assets.

What are we getting for that lost first rounder? Good question.

Edes – bless him – busts out the numbers:

Scutaro fits the profile of what the Sox like in a hitter. This past season, he batted leadoff for the Blue Jays, and he had an on-base percentage during the past two seasons of .362, second among American League shortstops only to Derek Jeter’s .385.

Look at some of the more exotic numbers measuring plate discipline, as calculated by FanGraphs.com, and Scutaro’s attractiveness to the Sox becomes even more apparent. He ranked first among American Leaguers in swinging at the fewest pitches outside the strike zone (12.3 percent), a category in which the Sox had three players (J.D. Drew, Kevin Youkilis and Bay) among the top 17. Scutaro also ranked first in the AL at making contact (93.3 percent), just ahead of Dustin Pedroia (93 percent) and second to Bobby Abreu for lowest percentage of swings taken (34.5 percent to Abreu’s 32.9 percent).

Law’s reasonably optimistic:

Even if Scutaro’s 2009 was — as it appears — a fluke year at the plate, his offensive advantage over Gonzalez well outweighs the small defensive disadvantage, leaving the Sox better off and with a player who, with some regression, will still represent a good value for his salary.

Scutaro did play the second half of the year with plantar fasciitis that required surgery when the tendon finally tore in September, and it’s possible that the injury affected him defensively; he played better with more range in the field in 2008 and the first half of 2009. He also spent time in Toronto working with coach Brian Butterfield, one of the best infield coaches in the game and the man who turned Orlando Hudson and Aaron Hill into Gold Glove winners (deserving ones) at second base. On the other hand, Scutaro is 34 and has never had great speed, so there’s reason to fear that age and loss of athleticism will start to bring his defense down over the life of the contract.

So’s Neyer:

This is a solid move, and the money — whatever it winds up being — is essentially irrelevant because the Red Sox can afford anyone on the market this winter, and anyway Scutaro isn’t going to bust anybody’s budget.

Gammons, meanwhile, relays word of the state of his injury, along with some perspective on his defense:

“In order for that injury to heal properly, it has to tear,” one Red Sox official said. “It finally tore the last week of the season, and he’s ready to play. Allard was very impressed.”

In mid-July, Scutaro’s defensive metrics — according to three teams’ valuations — were the best in the American League. Then the foot began bothering him, and the numbers were affected in August and September.

R.J. Anderson from Fangraphs is less optimistic:

Dave Allen penned a masterful breakdown of Scutaro’s game here, and there’s not much to add. He is 34 years old and coming off what appears to be an anomalous performance. His 2010 wOBA will probably land somewhere below league average and his defense is a mixed bag.

The piece by Dave Allen he linked to is similarly tempered in its enthusiasm:

Scutaro is due for some serious regression to his offensive level, as is anyone who posts 2400 PAs at wOBA of .311 and then 680 at .354. But I think that, because the change is supported by the per-pitch level data, which is not immune from regression itself, we can temper that regression somewhat.

Scutaro can play average defense at second or slightly below average at short, is 34 coming off far and away a career year at the plate.

The net of all of the above? There’s almost no chance Scutaro’s will be as good as he was last year. He’ll still be better – significantly better – than what we ran out there every day last year. This improves the club, and if you can get beyond the loss of the pick, the cost is acceptable. Better, the years are perfect.

For next season, we have a major league shortstop that is assumed to be healthy, unlike Lowrie. The season after, the club will have options. If Lowrie has a healthy season under his belt, they can let the two battle it out for the starting spot with the loser relegated to a utility role. Five million is a bit much for a utility guy, even for the Sox, but it’s not going to kill you. If, by some chance, Iglesias is ready ahead of schedule, they have more options, including a trade.

If it seems like the signing of Scutaro screws Lowrie, that’s because it does, as Peter Abraham notes. You have to wonder whether Lowrie’s window with the club closed this week. It’s reasonable to assume that the front office is in regular contact with Lowrie this offseason, and if they thought there was any chance the wrist would be full speed, I think they would have been more reluctant to cough up the pick. The fact they didn’t speaks volumes about their perception of Lowrie’s current health, and his prospects going forward.

In all likelihood, he’ll be a big part of the Sox bench this year, but that’s well short of the club’s – and presumably his own – one time expectations. How they handle Lowrie’s future will in all likelihood depend on how Iglesias hits in his first professional season. If he shows progress and a reasonable approach, Lowrie’s probably bait. If the Cuban is a hacking mess at the plate, one imagines the Sox will keep Lowrie around as a hedge against a delayed arrival of the shortstop of the future, a decline/injury from Scutaro, or both.

Scutaro’s a bridge, then, to the future, rather than the future itself. And not a particularly expensive one. We’re a better team, defensively and offensively, with Scutaro than we were without him. How long that remains true is open to question, but given that we didn’t hand him an abominable Lugo-esque four year, big money deal, I can’t say I’m all that worried.

Plus, like everyone else, I can’t wait to play MARCO…SCUTARO this summer.

News from the AFL

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Expo on 3rd, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

Cleaning out a couple of Arizona Fall League links I’ve had sitting around for a bit.

  • How Fast Do They Throw? Average And Max Velocities For Everyone In The AFL: Richardson’s the only guy we have on the list. Max velocity was 95.3, average was 92.97. Which is a little harder than I thought he threw.
  • Tanner Scheppers looks like the real deal:
    Speaking of Richardson, here’s what Law had to say:

    Boston farmhand Dustin Richardson could fill one of the lefty spots in the Red Sox’s ‘pen next year, with an average fastball/slider combination that should make him effective against left-handed hitters; he didn’t show a third pitch he could use against right-handers but hasn’t shown much of a platoon split in his minor league career.

  • BA’s AFL Notebook: Catching Roundup:
    The less positive read on Luis Exposito:

    Red Sox catcher Luis Exposito provides a big target behind the plate for his pitchers, and the 22-year-old looks even bigger than his listed height and weight of 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. He threw out just three of 21 basestealers in the AFL, but he generally receives solid marks for his defensive tools. Though he doesn’t swing and miss excessively, scouts have some concerns about the length of his swing, and the scouting consensus is that he’s likely a backup at the big league level, with the potential to work himself into a starting role.

    “Exposito is extremely physical, extremely strong and he has a great arm” said Mesa manager Brandon Hyde, who managed the Marlins’ Double- A Jacksonville affiliate this summer. “He could be a power bat that could be a good catch-and-throw guy behind the plate.”

    Exposito split time behind the plate for Mesa with the Angels’ Hank Conger, a 21-year-old who hit .295/.369/.424 in 123 games during the regular season with Double-A Arkansas. A hodgepodge of shoulder, back, hamstring and hand injuries have limited Conger’s time behind the plate in pro ball, but it’s Conger’s defense that struck Hyde the most.

    “I was really impressed with Hank’s leadership skills and what he’s been doing behind the plate,” Hyde said. “He receives well, he blocks fantastic and he really takes control of the game. He’s a quarterback there and a leader on the field. I’ve been really impressed with his game management skills.”

  • Jason Grey’s AFL position wrap: Catchers:
    The slightly more positive read on Exposito:

    Exposito has a lot of strength and has shown very good power potential in the AFL, and he’s very strong defensively. But his swing gets long, and there are holes in it. He’ll give up the outer half a bit too often by trying to yank the ball too much. His batting average might be iffy at the higher levels, but the 22-year-old does bring some things to the table that should at least put him on your radar screen.

Just in case you were wondering what was going on out in AZ.

Pedroia at Short: Desperation or Due Diligence?

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redsox 255, originally uploaded by h8rnet.

The moment Peter Gammons elevated the talk of Pedroia moving from second back to short from rumor to fact via a couple of quotes typical for last year’s MVP, it was on. Cafardo, scooped, effectively dismissed the suggestion. To Mazz, it predictably was read as a sign that the club was a “little desperate“. Edes – and I’ll get to his return to the scene eventually – characterized the conversations as “casual.”

Among the national media, Law was skeptical he could handle the position and Neyer intimated that the Sox wouldn’t consider the move if they didn’t believe – based on the data – that he could potentially handle it. Also, that it meant Pedroia was a great teammate.

Myself? I think this is posturing. Nothing more.

Did the Sox talk to Pedroia? I’m sure they did. Did they consider the option of moving him? Undoubtedly. As they should.

Consider the infielders we’ve been linked to this offseaon: Scutaro, Kennedy, Everett, DeRosa and Crosby. And those are just the ones we know about. Who’s to say how much time Theo’s spent on the phone talking Stephen Drew, Yunel Escobar or someone really cool we don’t even know about.

Point being: the Red Sox are doing, in talking to Pedroia and pretty much every available free agent, what they always do, and what they should always do: explore every option. Every option. Trades. Signings. New training regimens. Coaching staff alterations. And yes, positional shifts.

It doesn’t mean that every option is actually on the table, let alone a probable outcome. Just that the club’s done its due diligence and are aware of the implications of the choices available to them.

This has the obvious benefit is that the front office is not guessing. If the Marlins call and offer Uggla for a reasonable acquisition cost, they know that Pedroia’s game for short if need be. They don’t suspect he is, they don’t think he is, they know he is. Because they’ve been proactive, and they asked. Does that make it likely? Hardly. I’d bet a pretty reasonable chunk of change that when we open next spring, Pedroia’s not at short. But it can’t hurt to ask. If anything, it can only help.

The less appreciated benefit to this news, and likely one of the reasons the front office is probably happy with the interview (assuming it wasn’t a plant), is that it improves their negotiating position. Even if Scutaro’s advisors suspect that the front office doesn’t want to move their second baseman, they can’t be certain it won’t happen. Which improves, if only slightly, the Red Sox negotiating position.

The interesting question, to me, isn’t whether or not Pedroia can play short. I’m sure he could play the position passably, if not at the level he can handle second or one that we’d be happy with.

The interesting question is whether or not Pedroia knows all of the above; that, effectively, his interview was a negotiating tactic. Because if he knows that and was still so genuine, he’s an even better teammate that Neyer and company think he is.

Gonzo's Gone…and You're Panicking? Seriously?

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Look, I liked watching Gonzalez pick it as much as you did. Maybe more. But the angst over his departure? I just don’t get it.

Nobody wants another season of Nick Green starting at short, we can all agree on that. But seriously, this is a career .689 OPS player we’re talking about. For context, Adam Everett, who is even better defensively, carries a .648 career OPS. Did I mention that he’s available?

On a related note, I’ll admit it: the the assertion that Scutaro is a foregone conclusion here, in the wake of Gonzalez’ departure, baffles me.

Think about it: Theo’s on record as saying he believes that Lowrie is a credible option as their starting shorstop, but that he can’t be relied upon given his injury history. He’s also on record as saying that Iglesias – the $8M Cuban defensive sensation – is their shorstop of the future. Why would the Sox then feel compelled to a.) surrender the picks (assuming he’s offered arbitation) and b.) commit to the years necessary (three, from what I’m seeing) to land Scutaro?

Nothing’s impossible, but this strikes me as unlikely.

I think it’s far more likely they go with Lowrie plus a safety net. Much as we thought they’d do all along. And is Everett, as an example, that much worse an option than Gonzalez? Offensively, both Everett and Gonzo are, effectively, outs. Why not get the better glove, then, given the fact that we need to improve our defensive efficiency? Or if you prefer some offense, go get O-Cab, also still on the market (and yes, I’ve heard some pretty sordid details of his off-the-field activities last time around).

Either way, I just don’t see how you build the case that says that this is somehow a disaster for the Sox. If the front office believed that Gonzo was their only realistic option at short, don’t you think they would have signed him already? The front office is many things but stupid generally isn’t one of them. And this club sure as hell doesn’t have problems signing free agent shortstops.

No, most of the reactions I’ve been seeing are over-rotations that ignore both the options we know about – Cabrera, Everett, et al – as well as the ones we don’t (Y Escobar?).

In the wake of the front office’s less than brilliant results in staffing the shortstop position the last few years, I’m not prepared to argue that the plan for next year will be a good one. But the arguments that I’m seeing, that the Red Sox don’t have a plan, well, they just seem foolish.

If Nick Green, or next year’s Nick Green, Tug Hulett, is our starting shortstop next season, feel free to come back and say I told you so. But me, I’m willing to bet that the front office has a better plan than that.

The Cost of and Need for Adrian Gonzalez

Some of you have apparently gotten the idea, from the last two pieces, that I’m against acquiring Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres. Not so.

Far from it, in fact. All that I’m asking for – as always – is some perspective. Some examination of the economics involved, the mechanics of the transaction.

The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn, for example, a writer that I have a lot of respect for, is arguing for an acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez at, essentially, any cost:

If Theo has to part with Casey Kelly (is he closer to the next Frankie Rodriguez or closer to the next Zack Greinke?) or Ryan Westmoreland (are the injuries officially a concern?) or frankly, anyone in the organization with legitimate aspirations of playing in Fenway Park someday, he must do it.

Emphasis his. He reiterated this view ten days later, saying:

I’ve explained my feelings on this before, and nothing has changed: It is going to take a bounty of riches to get Gonzalez from the Padres, in part because he is a wonderful, underpaid player in the heart of his prime, and in part because new Padres GM Jed Hoyer probably has as much familiarity with the Red Sox farm system as anyone not named Theo Epstein. But I’ll shout it again: He is worth it. Give them Clay Buchholz, Ryan Westmoreland, Casey Kelly, and another SoxProspects.com favorite or two, and do not look back.

As you probably guessed, I do not subscribe to this view. Candidly, I think at best it’s the kind of pre-Theo regime thinking that led us to win nothing for eighty years. At worst, it’s a panic move.

Every asset has a cost, and not every cost is worth paying.

I’ve looked at Gonzalez twice now, so I won’t rehash my analysis of him. Suffice it to say he’s an outstanding offensive first baseman when he’s facing right-handed pitching, below average otherwise. Defensively, he’s an asset.

What of the other pieces to a transaction, however? What of the cost and the need?

Cost

As should be expected, Finn sets up his at-any-cost acquisition scenario with an ostensible reminder of the unpredictability of prospects.

Make no mistake: Gonzalez will bring, as Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman cleverly called it this summer when his name first showed up in trade rumors, the madre lode. And yet, chances are Gonzalez will prove worth whatever package the Red Sox part with. All prospects are essentially lottery tickets, even the truly elite. In the 2002 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America founder Allan Simpson rated his top 10 prospects this way:

  1. Josh Beckett, RHP, Marlins
  2. Mark Prior, RHP, Dusty Baker’s Arm ‘n’ Limb Meat Grinder Emporium
  3. Sean Burroughs, 3B, Padres
  4. Hank Blalock, 3B, Rangers
  5. Wilson Betemit, SS, Braves
  6. Ryan Anderson, LHP, Mariners
  7. Juan Cruz, RHP, Cubs
  8. Josh Hamilton, OF, Devil Rays
  9. Mark Teixeira, 3B, Rangers
  10. Carlos Pena, 1B, A’s

Joe Mauer was 14th, Marlins shortstop Miguel Cabrera — yes, shortstop; imagine that now — was 31st, one spot below KC’s Angel Berroa, and Gonzalez was 34th, one spot ahead of the Angels’ Casey Kotchman.

So, yeah . . . lottery tickets. Case rested.

Finn may rest his case, but let me have a crack at it. Personally, I look at that and see a pitcher that almost single-handedly won two world series titles ranked one, a pitcher that would have had a stellar career were his arm not abused two, and an eight-nine-ten that anyone would kill to have in their offense. Throw in the fact that Blalock had one .900+ OPS season and three north of .850, the fact that Betemit and Cruz are still playing, and I don’t think the list says what Finn thinks it says.

While it’s ugly and obvious, in hindsight, that Cabrera and Mauer should be near the top of the list and Berroa not on it, better than fifty percenty of the individuals on that list are, or were, successful major leaguers. And most of those performed at an elite level for at least a season in their careers. Not a bad success rate for an organization that knows nothing about the players but what they can glean from their performance and interviews with the staff.

My bet is that Theo, McLeod and co know a bit more than Baseball America about their players than Baseball America. With all due respect to that fine organization, of course.

So yes, prospects are unpredictable. But not that unpredictable. At least relative to their major league counterparts. Here’s what Baseball Prospectus said about Gonzalez in 2005, for example:

Once a Grade-A Prospect in Florida, Gonzalez came to Arlington as part of the Ugueth Urbina trade and is now far from a can’t-miss. He’s still only 23 this season, but he’s at a point where it’s time to pick it up with the bat if he wants to have a career as an MLB starter.

One problem with discussions of “prospects,” in general, is just that: it’s general. Let’s look at a more specific example, closer to home. One in which there was a premium player on the market that we were rumored to be interested in. One Johan Santana.

With the Minnesota Twins insisting on center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury in any trade for pitcher Johan Santana, the Red Sox have altered their offer and have told the Twins they are willing to include the outfielder.

But sources say the Red Sox have also told the Twins they will not trade left-handed pitcher Jon Lester and Ellsbury together in the package they are offering.

The Red Sox included Ellsbury in one of their proposals a week ago, but the Twins asked the Red Sox for two players among the group of three prospects — Ellsbury, Lester and pitcher Clay Buchholz. Boston then offered Lester, center fielder Coco Crisp, minor league shortstop Jed Lowrie and a minor league pitcher.

On the one hand, the article on the other serves to prove Finn’s point: were we really valuing Ellsbury’s 2009 .770 OPS and his -14 UZR/150 equally with Jon Lester?

On the other, it’s an accurate illustration of the cost of such trades. Would you prefer to have a.) Santana, or b.) your starting centerfielder, starting shortstop candidate, #1 and #3 starters and a bullpen arm (Ramirez via Crisp)? I prefer the latter, personally.

Which is why I’m less excited than Finn to give up “Clay Buchholz, Ryan Westmoreland, Casey Kelly, and another SoxProspects.com favorite or two.”

Need

The conventional wisdom says that the Red Sox are in deep shit, offensively. Let’s take a quick look at the projections for next season, assuming a.) no further trades or acquisitions (including no Bay) and b.) Lowrie as the shortstop:

CHONE projects our offense as a collective .274/.354/.441 offense for a .796 OPS. Bill James, meanwhile, is more optimistic, projecting a .280/.368/.462/.831. For context, the Yankees led the league in OPS last year at .839.

Now before you get excited, remember: the above projections are just for starters. They don’t include all the bench, roster filler – or worse, pitcher – at bats. If we just take the starters from last year, as an example, their OPS was .852. The actual? .806.

Still, the projections indicate that our offense – even without help – isn’t awful. Last year’s CHONE predictions, for example? .817 OPS.

In other words, we’re giving up 21 points of projected OPS to a year in which we scored the third most runs, had the second highest OBP, SLG and OPS. and hit the fourth most home runs.

Is there room for improvement? Undoubtedly. But neither can you, I think, build the case that we’re doomed absent a Gonzalez type. And yes, that’s even if we don’t resign J Bay.

The Net

Do I hope we can acquire a premium offensive asset, someone like Adrian Gonzalez? Yes indeed. The prolonged offensive slumps were, more than anything else, what held the club back this year. But am I willing to hand over four or five legitimate prospects for the privilege? I am not. Our top two prospects, a past number one prospect / #2/#3 starter (and potential ace at Petco), and another prospect is too rich a haul by far for two years of Gonzalez, in my opinion. Particularly since his value is only likely to decline from here, as he’s a.) unlikely to exceed his current performance levels and b.) he’s getting closer to free agency.

Acquisitions are essentially an equation. A complicated one, to be sure, but an equation nonetheless. Divided by the market conditions, the two sides – Padre’s needs (asset and financial) + Asset (Gonzalez) value and Red Sox needs and Asset Value – need to balance. The proposals I’m seeing thus far skew too far – way too far in my view – towards the Padre side of that equation.

We’ll see if Theo and co. agree.

Cabrera vs Gonzalez: Peter Abraham's Made His Choice, Have You?

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Miguel Cabrera, originally uploaded by Kevin.Ward.

True, he came over from a Yankees blog and seems to fall back into that beat from time to time, but I generally like the work that Peter Abraham is doing for the Globe thus far. Which is why his latest piece “Miguel Cabrera? No, thanks” surprised me.

It’s not that I think Cabrera’s a no brainer trade target for the Sox; the .26 BAC on the last weekend of the season was bad, the resulting domestic incident with his wife horrifying. But Abraham’s case against Cabrera, otherwise, seems weak to me.

Let’s review.

There are assorted rumors out there that Cabrera will be made available via trade and — hey — the Red Sox could play him at first base. It’s not quite Adrian Gonzalez, but it would be an impressive acquisition.”

Why doesn’t Cabrera belong in the same sentence as Adrian Gonzalez, exactly?

Offensively, they’re very comparable. Gonzalez’ 2009 line was .277/.407/.551, Cabrera .324/.396/.547. And before you point to Petco’s BPF of 89, remember that Cabrera’s playing in essentially a neutral park (six year average is 100.16) in the American League, against American League pitching. More, James’ projections show Cabrera being the obviously superior option next year: .318/.394/.569 to Gonzalez’ .279/.372/.516. Oh, and unlike Gonzalez (.770 OPS vs LHP in 2009), he shows essentially no platoon split: .315/.441/.517 vs LHP, .327/.380/.556 vs RHP.

Also? Cabrera’s a year younger than Gonzalez and 72 career home runs up on his older rival (209-137). Not that this is a surprise: in his six full seasons in the majors, Cabrera’s put up wOBA’s over .400 three times, and just missed in a fourth season (2005, .399). Gonzalez, meanwhile, only has four full seasons to his credit, and has exceeded a .400 wOBA just once, last season.

If anything, then, Cabrera is Gonzalez’ offensive superior due to the fact that he’s done it for longer, and is more or less equally effective against left and right handed pitching.

Yeah, but the defense, you’re thinking. Cabrera’s eating his way out of a position. Well, maybe he is, and maybe he’s not: I don’t have data on that. But Gonzalez’ edge here isn’t as big as you’d think. In 2009, Gonzalez put up a strong UZR/150 of 3.4. Cabrera? 3.1. And remember, this was just his second season at the position after moving over from third (where he was, it must be said, pretty brutal).

[Cabrera] also is owed $126 million over the next six seasons.”

True (add in the 2015 figure of $22M). Gonzalez, meanwhile, is owed a mere $4.75M, not including an eminently affordable 2011 $5.5M option.

But if the Sox are going to heavily mortgage the farm for Gonzalez, you have to assume they’d like to extend him beyond 2011. And what do you imagine that cost might look like? Fangraphs says Gonzalez’ 2009 season was worth $28.4M. What do you think Gonzalez’ is going to ask for should he hit free agency?

I don’t know, and neither do you. But that’s the point: you don’t have to wonder with Cabrera, you know. Cost certainty is not the primary concern when the total obligation is north of 100 million, but neither is it valueless.

And speaking of value.

The Tigers are owned by pizza magnate Mike Ilitch and have a pile of money. If Cabrera is being shopped, it’s not for budgetary reasons. It’s because they decided they would be better off without him. That should give teams plenty of pause.”

Maybe. But just because Ilitch has money doesn’t mean that he wants to spend it frivolously on a club that may or may not contend (seriously, look at their roster), and is saddled with expensive and unmovable obligations like Ordonez. Nor does it mean that retaining Cabrera represents the quickest route back to the playoffs for the Tigers; indeed, the best option for them may well be to move Cabrera for the talent he would undoubtedly command in return. He’s a premium offensive player locked up for years at a contract that looks to be market appropriate, and would bring a substantial return even with his market limited by the contract size.

Gonzalez, by comparison, is eminently movable with his currently affordable contract. Meaning that the Padres addressable market is wider, and thus more competitive, at least in theory, than it would be for Cabrera.

Anyway, do I really want Cabrera? Not without some assurances that he’s addressing his drinking problems, no. But neither do I think it makes sense to write him off based on superficial observations, particularly relative to a player who is provably his inferior.

The Shortstop of the Future is When? On Jose Iglesias

fan

Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures that get you through the day…like watching Jose Iglesias take infield practice.” – Jason Grey, ESPN

That Theo’s had a revolving door at the shortstop position since Nomar left town is well known. What’s far less certain, at this juncture, is when and how that issue will be resolved. Because for all of his efforts this season, a major league team that features Nick Green as its starting shortstop has problems.

The one time shorstop of the future, Jed Lowrie, is coming off two straight injury marred seasons. So while the club would no doubt like to pen his name into the lineup as next season’s starting shortstop, they are undoubtedly working on a Plan B, lest we end up with another year of the aforementioned Green.

Whoever Lowrie’s safety net is, the bet here is that it will be short term. Maybe a discounted return appearance for the shortstop flavor of Gonzalez, maybe an Omar Vizquel, or maybe, in the words of Frank the Tank, it’ll be something cool we don’t even know about. But as we saw when the club decided against outbidding the Twinkies for the forgotten JJ Hardy, the Red Sox seem to believe that our shortstop of the future is already in the fold in Cuban defector Jose Iglesias. Whose father, in case you’re interested, is a Boston fan.

There are better than 8 million reasons to suspect that’s the case, but if you had any doubts, Theo’s been surprisingly – shockingly, almost – candid on the subject.

Epstein said that as they search for a shortstop for this season, it’s with the knowledge that Iglesias is the shortstop of the future.

Two questions occur: one, is this a good thing? Two, if the future isn’t next year, when is it?

The answer to the first question depends on the expectations you have for the shortstop position. Or if you want to be more sophisticated in your approach, the makeup of the roster around the shortstop position: get more offense from other spots, of course, and you need less from the shortstop.

Given the premium that teams have been placing of defensive efficiency of late, however, defense would seem to be the clear priority for would-be candidates regardless of roster construction. Fortunately, Iglesias by most accounts has that in spades.

The BP guys killed him a bit when he hit the market, saying:

Iglesias has a similarly strong tournament record, drawing attention for his flashy glovework at shortstop, with one scout grading his fielding as an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale. His arm is enough to stick at shortstop, but his range is somewhat limited by his fringe-average speed. Iglesias makes the most of his ability, with instincts that enhance his tools and excellent makeup. He bats from the right side and while his overall offensive package leaves a bit to be desired, most scouts agree Iglesias will hit enough to allow him to profile as a big league regular. He has decent pop in his 5’10 frame, at a maxed-out 180 lbs., though he can get pull-happy at times. An international scouting director called Iglesias’ total package, “Ryan Theriot with better hands.” Iglesias is a defensive-oriented overachiever and executives say he would be more of a 2nd-3rd rounder if eligible for the recent draft.

But pretty much everyone else loves him at short.

Here’s his manager in the AFL:

“He’s got great hands—I mean, unreal hands—and they’re quick,” said Mesa manager Brandon Hyde, who managed Double-A Jacksonville (Marlins) this summer. “They’re quick and they’re soft, and his feet work. His footwork is lightning fast, with a good arm. You put those things together and you’ve got a really good shortstop.”

And if that’s not enough hyperbole for you, here’s an NL scout: “He may have the quickest hands I’ve ever seen. Get a closet for his Gold Gloves.” And a Cubs report: “he is the best defensive shortstop to come along in years.”

That’s the good news. The bad news? No, it’s not just that he’s a Cuban, and their track record – Kendry Morales and his 2009 .924 OPS aside – hasn’t been great in recent years. The concern, for us, should be that the bat isn’t generating quite the same reviews.

Here’s Keith Law:

I don’t see the argument that he’ll never hit, but it would be hard to project him as more than a hitter for average and maybe some doubles power. He’s very short to the ball with almost no load and has quick wrists, so getting to the ball and driving it to the outfield shouldn’t be a problem. It’s not a swing that’s going to generate power and he doesn’t square balls up consistently, although the latter could come with time. I could see an Adam Everett downside here unless he proves to be a degenerate hacker at the plate.

And Jason Grey:

$8.5 million or not, the 19-year-old still has to show he’s not Rey Ordonez. He’s the best defensive shortstop in the minors right now, but even when he squares the ball up, it doesn’t really go anywhere. He’s short to the ball with a good eye, but doesn’t get a good load. There’s at least some speed (he’s a 60 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale), so he could eventually be an empty batting-average guy who puts up some stolen bases.

Gammons, for his part, relays the following:

In one person’s words, “hyper,” and will have to work hard at his plate discipline. Like so many young Cuban players, Iglesias swings at almost everything.

For all of the poor reviews, however, it should be noted that he’s hitting in the AFL. Reasonably well, actually. .295/.348/.459 in 16 games. True, the AFL is not generally regarded as predictive – due both to the small sample sizes and the uneven quality of the competition – but it’s always better to play well than not. Less positive than his overall line is the 4 BB’s in 61 ABs, particularly since he’s striking out twice as much.

Am I excited about the potential addition of an Adam Everett-ish bat to a lineup that has been – to put it charitably – periodically anemic the past two seasons? Not exactly. But the world in which a 32 year old Alex Gonzalez – he of the career .689 OPS – is viewed as an attractive option is clearly not a perfect one. I’ll take the younger version if it saves me from having to watch us sadly overexpose a fine utility player at the position, thanks.

If we assume then, as I think is safe, that the club is not assuming that shortstop position will be a substantial source of offense whenever Iglesias arrives, it follows that they’ll be looking to augment our production in some of the other roster spots. Does that mean Bay is going to be back? Maybe. But it certainly means that players who offer substantial offense from a defensive roster spot will be major target should they reach the market. Players like a Joe Mauer, who could be available in 2011.

Right around when Iglesias could be arriving. Hmmm…