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.

Mazz vs the Strawman

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Not My Hat!, originally uploaded by cogdogblog.

If the length of contract was an issue for Bay and the Sox — he wanted five years, they stopped at four — why couldn’t such a clause have satisfied all parties? As it is, the Red Sox will be paying Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida somewhere in the neighborhood of $10.5 million this year when Bay might have cost them $15 million. Who would you rather have?” – Tony Massarotti

I despair for the state of professional sportswriting in this town, I really do. Thank the great spirit that Gammons is back: maybe he could tell Mazz what’s going on.

Anyway, here’s the deal Mazz: you get to pick one from a) criticizing the Sox for paying players to play elsewhere or b) implying that they’re cheap for not going the extra year on contracts. One. You can’t have it both ways. Because the former is the inevitable outcome of the latter, which is what you believe should happen.

The answer to the question of the above is simple: the Red Sox cannot protect themselves from an extra year of long dollars to Jason Bay with an injury clause because they don’t believe he’ll decline simply because of an injury. Their position – and the opinion of a lot of other smart, educated writers out there – is that Bay will not be worth the money he’s owed towards the end of his contract.

The end of the contract that Mazz, conveniently, ignores in his strawman “Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida somewhere in the neighborhood of $10.5 million this year when Bay might have cost them $15 million. Who would you rather have?” nonsense. Bay may or may not be worth more than Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida next year, but last I checked Jason Bay is not looking to sign for one year. So the difference isn’t $4.5M million, as Mazz implies, but – conservatively – probably something closer to $45 million. Bay turned down $60 million, remember, while Cameron’s package is $15.5M and Hermida’s 2010 money is probably something around $3M. But maybe I’m just being uncharitable to Mazz, assuming he’s willfully ignoring the total contract obligations in service of his myopic point? Could be he just misplaced a decimal point.

Sportswriters – particularly the ones that write about baseball – talk incessantly about “accountability.” They expect players to stand up following poor performances and be accountable, and generally argue that it reflects poorly on the player when they do not.

But how many sportswriters hold themselves to that same, elevated standard? How many of the writers, for example, have acknowledged that their calls last winter to sell low on Buchholz were foolish? By the logic above, Mazz is entitled to criticize the club coming and going. If Mazz wants to argue that the Red Sox, as a club with substantial financial resources, should spend more liberally than they do, fine. I disagree, but we can have that conversation. But when Mazz then turns around and docks them for the byproduct of long term contracts, the logic begins to break down.

Do I expect sportswriters, living as they are in the moment, to be perfectly analytical? No. But I do expect them to be, at a minimum, logically consistent in their positions, and that’s just not the case here. As Mazz said the last time he let his emotions carry him away, “I messed up here.”

I think we’re due another one of those any day now.

The Red Sox Offense, Circa 2010

Obviously, the focus has shifted to run prevention. Just as obviously, Jason Bay is a better hitter than Mike Cameron, whatever the latter’s run prevention advantages.

But while I think it unlikely that Theo’s done tweaking the roster, I frankly don’t think the one we have right now is all that bad. It’s not the Yankee’s lineup, to be sure, but neither is it Seattle 2009 lineup.

Here’s Keith Law on our roster construction for next year:

Between the Lackey deal and the reported discussions with Mike Cameron, Boston’s front office appears to have changed its approach to roster construction away from the OBP/slug-heavy clubs around which they won two World Series toward run prevention through superior pitching and defense. We’ve already seen Boston sign Marco Scutaro, an above-average defensive shortstop who was even better than that before a heel injury ruined his 2009 season, in addition to paying heavily for Cuban teenage shortstop Jose Iglesias, a pair of moves they hope will secure the shortstop position for the next seven or eight years.

And here’s Buster Olney on the same subject, today:

The Red Sox have tried to sign Adrian Beltre — widely regarded by talent evaluators as the best third baseman in the majors — but they may not be successful in reaching the middle ground between what they want to pay Beltre and what agent Scott Boras is asking for (an eight-figure annual salary). If they can’t get a Beltre deal done, they will go with Casey Kotchman at first base and Kevin Youkilis at third. Either way, the Red Sox will be in position to fight it out with the Mariners about who has the best pitching-and-defense team in the majors. A rotation of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz could be backed by an infield of Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Marco Scutaro and Beltre (or Kotchman), and an outfield of Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew.

Conversely, the Boston lineup could have the least amount of impact we’ve seen in Theo Epstein’s time as general manager. The Red Sox have posted the following team OPS marks over the past seven seasons, starting in 2003: .851, .832, .811, .786, .806, .805, .806.

These are the OPS numbers of 2009 for what the Red Sox lineup might look like:

SS Scutaro — .788
2B Pedroia — .819
1B Youkilis — .961
C Martinez — .861
RF Drew — .912
LF Cameron — .794
DH Ortiz — .794
3B Beltre — .683 (or Kotchman, .721)
CF Ellsbury — .770

It’s possible that the lineup would be pretty good — if Drew stays healthy, if Cameron continues to be productive at age 37, if Ortiz hits more consistently than he did in the first half of 2009. Keep in mind that the Red Sox (and other big-market teams) always will have flexibility to go out and make in-season deals. Are the Red Sox as good as the Yankees, in the aftermath of the Lackey and Cameron agreements?

Maybe not.

It seems fairly clear, though, with more moves to come, that Boston is one of the four best teams in the AL, with a couple of months to go in the offseason.

Olney, probably for the sake of convenience, ignores the possibility of platoons. But given that folks that will be penciled into the lineup next year have rather pronounced splits, I thought I’d take a quick look at the roster possibilities. Obviously I am not assuming a Beltre acquisition, but have anticipated the signing of Cameron and the acqusition of Max Ramirez for Lowell. A couple of other notes: one, the lineups are obviously unrealistic, because Tito is highly unlikely to platoon his regulars this heavily. Two, we have sample size problems, most obviously with Lowrie and Ramirez. Third, these numbers are career, not last year, so they do not reflect recent declines – or improvements, for that matter – in player performance. Last, the batting order has been given essentially zero thought.

All that being said, I think the roster, even without (likely) further additions, is both flexible and adequate. Unless Ortiz returns to his former level, it’s not going to be a scary offense, it lacks pop and we’re not stellar against lefties, but we should score runs. Again: this is even if we do nothing else. So let’s not all panic about the presumed loss of Bay just yet, shall we?

More on the signings and the front office’s plan later.

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.

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.