How I Would Not Rebuild the Red Sox in 2013

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When Ben Cherington pulled the trigger on the deal sending Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to the Dodgers, it was in effect a commitment to at least a partial teardown and rebuilding effort. As has been much discussed, it left the club a substantial amount of available payroll in a market short on attractive free agent options.

Many, myself included, have offered Cherington recommendations for re-allocating that capital, with the options ranging from tactical to strategic to absurd. Given the seller’s market in free agency, it’s logical that many general managers turn to trade as a more efficient means of obtaining talent. Certainly this is the approach that Alex Anthopoulos took in Toronto, where in a trade with Miami he obtained a frontline starter, backend starter and starting shortstop at a bearable cost both in terms of talent traded and salaries assumed.

And it is to the trade market that co-founder of Baseball Prospectus Christina Kahrl would have the Red Sox turn in 2013 to restock their roster. Specifically, her major recommendation is the following:

Trade to get Alfonso Soriano’s next two seasons and the last year that Matt Garza is under club control, sending Chicago a package of Kalish, Saltalamacchia and minor-league prospects Alex Wilson and Matt Barnes.

On a superficial level, this trade makes some sense. Barnes is at least a year, more likely two, from impacting the roster. The addition of Ross makes Saltalamacchia redundant. Wilson has potential but is far from a dominant prospect, and Kalish’s star has fallen in the wake of shoulder and neck issues, respectively. In return for these assets, the Red Sox would address their left field vacancy for two years and their mid-rotation starter need for one.

This is, however, a poor deal for the Red Sox. To begin with, it’s built on the following assumptions:

  1. That Soriano is closer to the 4 win player he was last year than the 1.5 win player he was the year before or the zero win player he was two years before that.
  2. That Matt Garza is healthy (he was just given leave to begin preparing for spring training a week ago) and closer to the 5 win player he was two seasons ago than the 1.4 wins he averaged the years before and after.
  3. That the Red Sox are a borderline playoff team next season.

Initial projections see Soriano putting up a .770 OPS for the Cubs next year (or, about forty points shy of Cody Ross’ production last season), with Garza throwing around 150 innings with a sub 4.0 ERA – all in the NL Central. Adjusting for the AL East, both numbers would unquestionably represent well above replacement player value, but well shy of elite or even All Star levels of performance.

If we assume for the sake of argument that Garza and Soriano both skew towards the higher end of their projections, however, the last assumption is the real problem for this proposed transaction. Whatever one thinks of the potential of Barnes, Kalish or Wilson, the fact is that each has a chance to be a contributor to a major league club. And more importantly, each represents multiple years of low cost service time in those roles.

Player and prospect value, of course, is contextual. The marginal value of wins added increases the closer the roster as a whole is the playoffs, which is important in considering Kahrl’s trade proposal. The immediate impact of the transaction would be a net upgrade of a few wins in 2013, but the value would drop – potentially precipitously, depending on Soriano’s readjustment to the AL East – thereafter, as Garza is a free agent after the upcoming season.

To make this deal, therefore, Cherington would have to be convinced that the sacrifice of the years of potential service time from the prospects would be offset by the benefit to the club next season alone. Which, given the other holes on the roster, would seem to be a difficult case to make. In discussing his offseason plans, Cherington has been careful to emphasize the need to build for the present without jeopardizing the future; Kahrl’s proposal may satisfy the former, but certainly not the latter.

The Red Sox would also be selling low on Kalish, whose minor league line (.279/.366/.429) is competitive with Josh Reddick’s (.278/.332/.500). It could be argued as well that the Red Sox would be undervaluing Jarrod Saltalamacchia. His .742 OPS in spite of the 25 home runs underscores just how problematic his on base skills are, but in a league in which the average major league backstop put up a .718, Salty’s a two win player. Or roughly twice as valuable as Garza was last year in an injury marred campaign.

Ultimately, prospects are assets, to be used to better the club – whether that’s playing for them or bringing assets in who will. But in general, when multiple years of service time are being traded, it’s important to get either an elite performer or multiple years of service in return. This deal would accomplish neither goal. Exceptions to this approach can, and arguably should, be made when the existing roster is championship caliber, and the marginal value of a few added wins is great. But having gutted the roster in August, such is not the case for the Red Sox.

Hopefully, Cherington – in spite of being from Amherst – will recognize this and avoid it or similar transactions this offseason.

The Real Reason The Red Sox Rebooted Their Roster

Adrian Gonzalez

Returning to Boston in June as the President of the Cubs, Brookline’s own Theo Epstein spoke with remarkable candor about the end of his tenure as the General Manager of the Red Sox. While proud of the club’s accomplishments over that period, his primary regret was giving in to the “Monster.” By which he meant the business, rather than baseball operations, side of the Boston Red Sox. The need to sell tickets, sell out games, and keep the ratings comfortably sky high. Then grow them.

“[If] I have one serious regret, I think that ['The Monster'] grew and grew and grew and then I didn’t do as good a job of [pushing back], clearly, in the later years,” he said. “[I] kind of gave in to [it].”

Two seasons removed from a World Series victory and coming off a sweep in the LDS, the Monster demanded that the Red Sox do something. That something turned out to be the 2009 five year, $82.5M contract to the winner of Game 1 in that series, 31 year old John Lackey, who held the Red Sox scoreless over seven and a third. One season and no playoff appearances later, the Monster landed us not only $142M Carl Crawford but $154M Adrian Gonzalez. Christmas had come early.

Back in 2005, Brian Cashman told George Steinbrenner that the Red Sox “had surpassed the Yankees with the strength of their organization…in their player development and evaluation.” Five years later, with the signings of Crawford, Gonzalez and Lackey, things had come full circle. The Red Sox had become the club that they had been built to beat. They had lost their way.

Which might still have been fine, as it was just John Henry’s money. Except that, a year after Crawford and Gonzalez inked their respective deals, it wasn’t. In November of 2011, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Player’s Association reached a new five year labor agreement. While the new collective bargaining had many implications for the Red Sox, from the amateur draft to international spending, the most important provision concerned the Luxury Tax.

Teams that surpass the luxury tax threshold of $178MM will be taxed 42% in 2012 and 50% in 2013.

If John Henry did not like the previous luxury tax system – and he did not, to the tune of $500,000 – it seemed safe to assume that the new CBA with its more onerous luxury tax provisions would have a substantial impact on the Red Sox payroll and operational structure moving forward. And while the head of the players union downplayed the notion that the new CBA would constrain Red Sox (or Yankee) payrolls as recently as March of this year, the Marco Scutaro trade two months before was proof enough that the times were changing. When the Red Sox trade their starting shortstop for a long relief candidate simply because the trading partner will pay a one year $6M commitment, it’s difficult to argue that it’s business as usual. As Keith Law said at the time, “You don’t dump a 3 win player making $6MM for no return.”

Unless, that is, a Monster bloated payroll was suddenly and unexpectedly about to be charged at nearly fifty cents on the dollar on the dollar over the threshold you’re already bumping up against. In that case, as Cherington demonstrated, you dump a 3 win player making $6M to whomever will pay the freight. And so we come to today’s trade. Enough has already been written on the historical nature of this deal, both in major league talent and in financial commitments. What’s left to dissect is what this means for the Red Sox today and tomorrow.

In the space of a few hours, the Red Sox somehow managed to not only shed approximately $250M of payroll obligations, they managed to acquire some potentially useful pieces in the process. In Law’s words, “The Red Sox got a pair of high-ceiling arms in exchange as well as two useful spare parts, which, considering how much salary they just cleared, is a very strong return.” When you consider that not only were these contracts essentially non-absorbable by any other club, but that arguments could be made that every player in the deal was in decline, the deal appears almost miraculous.

The only player the Red Sox were likely sad to be seeing go was Gonzalez. Apart from being a relative bargain next to contracts like that issued to Albert Pujols this offseason, Gonzalez had more or less rebounded from a poor September and difficult first half. But as Peter Gammons pointed out on Twitter, from 2008 through the All Star Game last season, Gonzalez was a .926 OPS performer who got on base nearly 40% of the time. Since, he’s an .845 OPS player getting on base less than 37% of the time. Still good, but less than excellent. Maybe that will change with a return to the National League: his first at bat in a Dodger uniform was a three run homer. But the fact is that under the new CBA, Gonzalez had become an expensive luxury.

Even so, it’s tough to imagine the Red Sox trading him absent the immense financial relief involved here. Not just because his combination of defense and offense is not easily replicable, but because they have no replacements looming, having traded away first base candidates like Anthony Rizzo, Lars Andersen and Miles Head in recent years, assuming that Gonzalez was the solution for the better part of the next decade. But as the bait in a bigger deal that allowed them to unload the contracts of both Beckett and Crawford, they bit the bullet as they had to and pulled the trigger on what is being called the biggest trade in the history of the sport.

For all that the City of Boston owes Beckett for his role in securing the 2007 title, as Chad Finn wrote, the time had come for Beckett to move on. Forget for a moment the baggage: the chicken and beer incident, the questionable conditioning and his disastrous public relations strategy. The bigger problem is that Beckett isn’t the pitcher he used to be. Here is his average fastball velocity from 2007 through this season: 94.4 (07), 94.0 (08), 94.0 (09), 93.6 (10), 93.0 (11), 91.4 (12). His K/9 this year is the worst of his career, and his WHIP is the second worst in that span. A move to the National League generally and Dodger Stadium specifically should benefit him, but the fact is that he’s unlikely to be worth close to the $30M he’s owed over the next two years. And ok, yes, the fanbase loathes him.

Crawford, meanwhile, has been star crossed since the day he got here. After the devastation of being dropped in the order after two games last season, he went on to put up a .255/.289/.405 line in year one of his seven year deal. In performance terms, he was worth less than a million dollars while being paid almost fifteen. Worse, his performance against left-handers declined for the third year in a row (.704, .696, .566 OPS) to the point that he was bordering on platoon player status. Which is not ideal when the player is still owed better than a hundred million dollars. And is coming off of surgeries to the wrist and elbow.

Add it up, and the Dodgers may have just paid $20 for a gallon of milk, as Dave Camerson says. If Adrian Gonzalez was the cost of subtracting these contracts, so be it. Frankly, this was a deal that Cherington likely had to make if the projected return was a bag of balls. In a single stroke, the Dodgers allowed the Red Sox to recalibrate their payroll to the realities of the new CBA.

But lest you think that this deal is going to be the Batman Begins of reboots, it’s necessary to point out that this deal creates real holes in the short term. If you believe in Morales as a starter, maybe that’s a wash – at least relative to this year’s version of Beckett. But Gonzalez – declining walks or no – is a major loss, and not one easily remedied via free agency or our system. Unless you count Lavarnway in the mix, there isn’t a first baseman amongst our Top 20 prospects. So you need someone at that position, as well as a middle of the order hitter. Assuming, that is, that you can sign Ortiz in the offseason and that he can approximate this year’s production at the age of 37 and coming off a major Achilles injury. If that doesn’t happen, you’re looking at replacing two major offensive cogs in a market light on them and an economic system that just led to the trade of the best you have due to cost. Outfielders under control for next year, meanwhile, are Ellsbury (a free agent after 2013), Kalish, Nava and Sweeney.

There’s a reason that people are saying the real winners of this trade are Ortiz and Ross.

All of that said, Buster Olney’s projection of “years” before the Red Sox compete again for a world title might be a tad pessimistic. For some fraction of the $250M saved, we should be able to find a couple of useful parts – the seller’s market notwithstanding. Particularly if the front office can get back to what Cherington discussed during the press conference today, identifying and acquiring affordable, undervalued talent. Talent like Adrian Beltre, Bill Mueller or David Ortiz. Though that’s admittedly vastly more difficult than it was when front offices were populated by the likes of Ed Wade.

Either way, it seems clear that as much as the Red Sox want to talk about this trade in the context of the club’s record – they’re smart enough to know that that is largely a function of the starting pitching. As Theo put it, “If multiple starting pitchers underperform at the same time, it’s always going to leave you in a stretch where it’s hard to play better than .500 baseball.” That, more than any other single factor is the problem. The solution, at least in the brave new world of the 2011 CBA, is finding a trading partner just desperate enough to give you the breathing room under the luxury tax to repopulate the starting rotation. Which, to his credit, is exactly what Cherington found in Ned Colletti.

As for the Sox become Dodgers, fare thee well guys. We hardly knew ye.

You Got to Know When to Hold 'em, Know When to Fold 'em

Coming off of last September, as well as a second consecutive year without October play, it’s easy to understand why the Red Sox front office has been reluctant to acknowledge the inevitable. Particularly given the addition of the second Wild Card slot, which provides the illusion of opportunity for foundering clubs.

But it’s time. Not because the probability of a Red Sox playoff appearance hit its season nadir last night, dipping to 7%. Or at least not strictly on that basis. It’s time because there may yet be an opportunity to salvage something from this trainwreck of a season, if we can finally acknowledge that it’s over.

Forget the why for a minute. Whether you blame the injuries – 25 players on the DL in 29 separate stints, Bobby Valentine, Ben Cherington, the starting pitchers or all of the above isn’t what’s important right now. What matters now is time; specifically, the 18 days between now and August 31st. With the playoffs now a virtual impossibility, it’s time to explore the options for converting some of our current assets into longer term value.

And no, that doesn’t mean the two players most responsible for our record. While the common man wants Beckett moved yesterday, for anything, the reality is that the combination of his contract, injury situation and performance make him immovable. Moving Lester at this point likewise would be the textbook definition of selling low, so he should not be going anywhere.

But otherwise, at this point in the season, the entire roster should be on waivers. And with the exceptions of Buchholz, Lester and Pedroia, all of whom have team friendly contracts and have had performance issues this year that might impact their value, Cherington should be on the phone selling anything not nailed down. Particularly assets that are not locked up for next year.

Assuming he clears waivers and throws one more reasonable game, for example, it’s certainly not out of the question that Cook could fetch something in return. This is why I was mildly upset to see the Yankees sign Derek Lowe. Given that ZIPS expects to Lowe to outperform Cook down the stretch (4.19 vs 4.64 FIP), my hope was that Cherington would sell high on Cook and replace him with Lowe for pennies on the dollar. Granted, selling high on arm like Cook likely means a B prospect at best, but given that Cook’s not under control for next season, that would be a more than acceptable return.

Maybe you’re the Braves, Bucs, Dodgers, Giants, or Reds and not thrilled about facing Gio Gonzalez in the playoffs. This is Cody Ross’ line against lefties this year: .319/.394/.758/1.152. Think he could help?

Perhaps your concern is getting lefties like Cano, Fielder or Hamilton out in tough spots? He may be arbitration eligible next year, bu here’s what lefties are doing against Andrew Miller: .130/.200/.182 (as predicted, please note).

Salty, meanwhile, is controlled by the club for next season, but if the club believes Baseball America that Lavarnway is a major league catcher, might the Rays be interested? Salty’s not much for contact and his on base skills aren’t strong (.229/.285/.478), but at least he does something well. The Rays backstops are the worst in the league at .202/.272/.278. And replacing Salty with Lavarnway – again, assuming you think he could catch – would be a first step towards addressing our roster’s on base deficiencies.

And so on. Because the waiver process is opaque, it’s impossible to know precisely who is openly tradeable and who is not. But it’s time to think less about this season and more about next, because the current roster has given us no other choice. One hopes that Cherington both understands this and has the operational freedom to pursue this necessary course of action. Because it’s time to fold ‘em.

Barnes for Garza?

Matt Garza - Chicago NL - 2011 Home

When it comes to Garza, it’s tough to envision a scenario in which Epstein doesn’t instantly request pitching prospect Matt Barnes…A deal sending Barnes, Brentz and maybe Workman to the Cubs would seem reasonable to acquire Garza.

via Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox both have the pieces to make a trade – MLB – ESPN.

I’d be more than happy to replace, say, Matsuzaka for Matt Garza for the stretch run. And Epstein would be foolish not to ask for Barnes as a centerpiece in a deal for the pitcher, who comes with legitimate AL East credentials and will therefore be in high demand. But this would be the definition of a bad deal for Boston.

First, there’s the club’s record. The AL East may very well be winnable, but entering play tonight we’re a game under .500. Garza’s good, but not good enough to singlehandedly guarantee a trip deep into the postseason (the current Yankees roster has put up a collective .893 OPS against him) – which is the return you should expect for an asset of Barnes’ caliber.

Second, there’s the years of control. Garza’s eligible for free agency after next season, so trading Barnes would mean trading six potential years of control for less than two seasons of Garza. Unless you want to sign him to a big contract in the interim, but the guess here is that we’re going to see less of those in the years ahead. Because big free agent contracts to pitchers are generally bad ideas, and because we have recent first hand experience of that.

Third, there’s the roster. Matsuzaka’s gone after this year. Lackey will theoretically be back next year, but what level he’ll be pitching at is unclear. Beckett is up two seasons from now, as is Lester – assuming the lefty doesn’t finish first or second in the Cy Young voting in the interim, in which case he’s eligible after 2013. Buchholz is the only pitcher currently on the roster that we control beyond 2014. Adding a pitcher who’s done after next year would almost certainly help us over the balance of this season, but it actively damages our long term outlook by removing a potential replacement or replacements for one of the multiple slots in the rotation we’re going to have to fill, and soon.

No harm in Theo asking, then, but if Cherington even entertains the notion it’ll confirm everything that’s been said about the intelligence of Amherst grads.

Unrelated: If the writer really believes this:

The rotation isn’t the main reason the team is currently 32-33, 7.5 games out of first place and four games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the second wild-card spot, but it certainly isn’t a team strength.

I’d be interested in what he believes is more responsible. Who else is there? The bullpen’s been one of the best in baseball over the last month and we’ve scored the fourth most runs in baseball. It seemed (and seems) obvious to me that the rotation is to blame, which makes the above qualifier odd, particularly in a piece recommending an upgrade to the starting rotation.

Don't Believe the Hype: The Scutaro Deal is Mystifying

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In his analysis of the Scutaro trade, Gordon Edes asks “Would you trade Marco Scutaro straight up for Roy Oswalt?” This is at best an oversimplification of the deal mechanics, one that casts the Red Sox and GM Ben Cherington in a more favorable light. In reality, Edes – like other defenders of this transaction – is attempting to link two transactions which should be considered independent of one another. Even should the trade of Scutaro net Oswalt, this is still a poor deal.

The problem isn’t the trade of Scutaro, per se. True, this compromises our lineup, our defense or both, with neither Aviles nor Punto realistic starting shortstop candidates – and Aviles, at least, is already ticketed for time in right field – and Iglesias far from ready [1]. But realistically, as Peter Abraham documents, our roster doesn’t have many movable pieces, either because they cost too much or because they’re paid too little to be worth moving. If we assume that the Red Sox feel that they need to add pitching and have to move payroll to do so, it’s either Scutaro or Youkilis. Given that the latter is coming off injury, the return will be downward adjusted which makes trading him less attractive. Add in the fact that the market for a $12M player is narrower than a $6M player, and you’re trading Scutaro. It’s not ideal, but Cherington’s working within the constraints established by ownership. Fine.

What is less fine is the return. Over the last four seasons, Scutaro’s averaged 3.2 wins per season. By Fangraphs math, this has made him worth around $14M per season. His 2012 option salary? $6M. When you trade an asset worth more than $10M but is paid $6M, you need to get something of comparable value back. As Keith Law put it on Twitter, “You don’t dump a 3 win player making $6MM for no return.” Which brings us to the real problem in this trade, Clay Mortensen, who is – at least on paper – the definition of no return.

Originally a product of the Cardinals system, Mortensen has put up middling numbers at multiple minor league stops – 5.26 ERA in 446.2 innings at AAA with a 6.5 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 – against even worse numbers in the majors. The Red Sox are likely to tout last year’s 3.86 ERA with the Rockies, but when you adjust that for fielding and things like BABIP you get a 5.34 FIP. His K/9 and BB/9 last year, respectively, were 4.63/3.70. Even if you don’t grasp the significance of strikeouts or walks per nine in the statistical sense, it’s easy to understand that it’s probably not good to be walking almost as many people as you strikeout.

Nor does his stuff allow for much projection. He’s 26, and it’s not like he has a big fastball which the Red Sox hope to better harness: his career average fastball velocity is 89.8. We’re told he’s a sinkerballer, which makes the fastball velocity less unfortunate, but his career ground ball to fly ball ratio is 1.61. Compare that to sinkerballers like Justin Masterson (career 2.07) or Derek Lowe (3.03) and you see the problem. Our own Daniel Bard – who is most certainly not a sinkerballer, in spite of the addition of his two seam fastball – put up a 1.68 last year. For a sinkerballer, then, he doesn’t get too many ground balls. And if you can’t break 90 on the gun and you’re not a real ground ball pitcher, well, what you are then is fringe.

And Scutaro is worth substantially more than a fringe asset.

Which leaves us with two possible explanations. One, that the Red Sox see something in Mortensen that no one else does. Or two, that they assessed the Scutaro market and felt that this was the best they could do. Having looked at the numbers in some detail, the former seems improbable. But if they assessed the market, and Mortensen was really the best they could do, was it worth it?

Even if this nets us Oswalt, it’s hard to defend this deal. We’ve given up three wins for which we were paying maybe 60 cents on the dollar in return for a pitcher whose career win total is -0.2. And yes, theoretically, the opportunity to pay a free agent premium for a pitcher whose averaged three and a half wins over the past four seasons. Oh, and was limited to 23 starts last season because of back issues. Even if the Scutaro deal and an Oswalt signing are dependent on one another, that cannot justify losing the first transaction so badly.

Oswalt or no Oswalt, this is a poor deal. I guess this is what you get when your GM went to Amherst.

[1] As noted on Twitter, ZIPS projections for Iglesias are .251/.289/.311. The career line of Rey Ordonez, the ultimate no hit shorstop who played most of his career for our new manager? .246/.289/.310. That’s too terrifying to contemplate.

Bailing on the Closer Market: The Andrew Bailey Trade

With good but not overwhelming numbers in the NL Central, it never seemed particularly likely that ex-Yankee prospect Mark Melancon (pronounced, mel-AN-son) would be the Red Sox closer next season. Which meant that there were essentially three options for the role. With all due respect to Alex Wilson, it wasn’t likely that the immediate replacement was in the minor league system, so the Red Sox were most likely to trade for a closer, sign a free agent or slide Bard into the role.

Signing Ryan Madson might in other years have been a good option for both parties, but with the Sox up against the luxury tax threshold and dollars at a premium, even a make-good Beltre-style one year deal probably wasn’t the best employment of our remaining resources. Why would you devote your remaining dollars to a reliever who’s going to throw maybe 80 innings with at least one and maybe two holes in the starting rotation? Or did you think it’d be worth Sox paying the “proven closer” premium for a Cordero and his declining peripherals?

In the wake of the Benoit and Soriano deals last offseason and Papelbon’s haul with the Phillies this, it’s been apparent that the market is overvaluing relievers relative to their actual, expected performance. Witness Tampa, who every year builds a Top 3 bullpen with castoffs like Farnsworth. Which is another way of saying that it was almost certainly going to be a.) trade or b.) Bard, and probably in that order.

Given that the Sox apparently believe that Bard can be a starter, then – a notion I am personally skeptical of – the most logical solution to our pitching needs was to trade for a closer. And with a front office highly focused on valuation – buying low and selling high – most likely a trade for a closer whose value was depressed by performance, health or both.

Hence, Bailey, a reliever limited to 41 innings last year and 49 the year before.

As has been well documented, Bailey is a not quite elite closer with significant health issues and problematic home/road peripheral numbers. We’re taking a flyer, in other words, on a kid who may or may not remain healthy but is likely to pitch adequately if he is. And the acquisition cost, while non-trivial – both Alcantara and Head are high ceiling, boom or bust type prospects, while Reddick is probably destined to be a fourth outfielder – is acceptable. In Keith Law’s words, the Sox are “giving up nothing they’re likely to miss,” at least in the short term. The short term that should be our focus, having missed the playoffs three straight years. Oakland, meanwhile, is right to pay the most attention to the long term, because their outlook this season is, well, bleak, having traded away Cahill, Gonzalez and now Bailey.

The net of this deal, then, is that we give up some high risk/high reward long term value for a short term gain while minimizing our present day dollar costs and thereby preserving financial flexibility. The focus on the dollar cost may or may not be appropriate in light of the post-CBA marketplace which is likely to shift resource allocation priorities away from the draft, but for right now, this deal makes sense for both clubs. Probably the A’s get more for him at the deadline if they held – the cost of reliever acquisitions goes up in season – but the risk that he’d get hurt prior clearly offset that marginally higher expected return.

Having avoided high dollar spending in the bullpen reconstruction, meanwhile, Cherington is now free to redirect his remaining dollars to where they are both most needed and where the valuations are not quite as absurd: starting pitching. Yes, the costs are high, but as starters can generally be expected to throw at least twice as many innings as a reliever, it’s at least bearable. Whether the starter is Kuroda, Oswalt, my pick Jackson or even Maholm, Saunders or Harden, isn’t really the issue: Cherington can let the market, to some extent, come to him. Which again, should keep the cost down.

In the meantime, we’re looking at a bullpen that will see two talented young controllable arms added for less than a third of what Papelbon will be paid by the Phillies. While I might argue with some of the valuations – Lowrie, in particular, seems to be have been sold low – that’s not too bad.

Maybe Cherington, in spite of having gone to Amherst, isn’t so dumb.

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.

Defensing the Lowell Trade

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MVP, originally uploaded by BostonTx.

I love Mikey Lowell. You love Mikey Lowell. Even Yankee fans love Mikey Lowell, down deep, because he came out of their system. Probably the only people on Earth that don’t love Lowel are Rockies fans, for whom Lowell is nothing more than bad memories of what could have been.

But if he’s gone – and from what I’m reading, it’s still an if – it’s for a very simple reason: defense. And you know what? I can’t really argue with that.

When the only team in the league worse than you in defensive efficiency is the Royals, as it was for the Red Sox in 2009, you need to make a change. As Gammons said,

We learned a lot watching the Rays go from a bad to an extraordinary defensive team from 2007 to 2008, which took them into the World Series.

Or did we all learn it in 2008? Seems to me that our front office was way ahead of us on that score, as evidenced by the 2004 acquisitions of Cabrera and Mink-alphabet.

Simply put, when the object of the game is to score more runs than the other guys, you need to try and do two basic things: score more runs, and give up fewer. If this was 2010 and Mauer and company were on the market, I think the front office would be trying to do both.

But this is still 2009, and the best hitters on the market are one of our own and a guy who – for his career – has a .250 point home/away OPS split. Which might be less of a concern if he hadn’t called Coors Field home for five of his first six seasons.

So giving up fewer runs it is, by default, because the prospect of paying Holliday Teixeira money makes me physically ill. But while I’m sure they’ll kick the tires on Halladay and Lackey, the cost/benefit on those potential improvements to our pitching staff are likely to be less than attractive, for now and for later.

Which means that the most efficient way for us to get better is to play better defense. Much better defense. Scutaro will help there, but Lowell – as much as any fan hates to admit it – was part of the problem last year.

His UZR/150 went from an excellent 15.6 in 2008 to a -14.4 in 2009. Every range related metric Baseball Reference has dropped off the table last season. Much like we couldn’t wait to find out if Lowrie’s healed enough to hit, we probably can’t wait to find out if Lowell’s able enough to play third. Not as a 36 year old, anyway.

As for the players not liking it? Why would they? Hell, I don’t like it. But Theo’s not supposed to do what we like, and what makes us feel good: he’s supposed to do what’s best for the Boston Red Sox.

And unfortunately, if we want to get better defensively, and we need to, that probably means moving Lowell.

Who’s going to play if he is moved? We’ll tackle that question later. For now, let me just echo Red and say, Thank You Mike Lowell.