In Case You Haven't Been Keeping Up With Current Events

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(This one’s for pedro: glad you enjoy the blog, sir, and don’t worry: I haven’t retired. – sog)

Seems like I have to report on the subject pretty regularly round these parts, but I am not, in fact, dead. Nor have I given up on the blog: where else would I bitch about Boston sportswriting and run baseball related numbers that no one could possibly care about?

No, a variety of elements have conspired to keep me absent from these parts since…well, let’s not talk about how long it’s been: it’s just good to be back. While some of you (hi ahl!) might argue that the new lady is the reason for my lack of activity here, it’s really been a function of work, travel, a new commute, and, happily, the lady. The same lady that is taking me to Opening Day for the first time in my life and, I assume, hers, just in case you’re questioning her commitment to the cause.

But while there may less time for me to spend in these parts, I fortunately (or unfortunately) don’t have less to say. My recommendation for the three of you that are still around is to invest in an RSS reader so that you don’t have to keep visiting the page to see if I’ve updated, because until I can find office space down in Portland, time is going to be at a serious premium.

Buchholz

What would a post from me be without a few words on one Clay Buchholz? More specifically, words relating to commentary from one of the members of the Fourth Estate on said Buchholz? Nothing, that’s what. So without further delay, here‘s the analysis of the players value from your senior member of the Boston Globe’s baseball staff (Nick Cafardo) as of March 9th:

I make the Clay Buchholz-Jarrod Saltalamacchia deal right now.

Most of you know where I’m going with this by now, but I still can’t fathom how the professional writers come to their conclusions. We’ve already seen how Bucky’s numbers in his first 80 professional innings are better than Lester’s, and it’s not like he’s stunk up the joint this spring. Far from it, actually.

Sure, Salty’s been decent if power challenged in 34 spring training ABs, putting up a .385/.471/.294 line. But Buchholz – whose mound presence Mills went out of his way to praise this week – has given up 1 earned run in 13.2 IP, while striking out 12 and walking 3. Just for comparison, Beckett’s struck out three fewer guys in almost five more innings. Yes, yes, it’s a.) a small sample size and b.) spring training. But you’d still prefer that the numbers be better than not, and Buchholz may have learned something from last year.

Which makes it exceedingly odd that the writers still want to run him out of town. But hey, I’m not a professional writer, so what do I know?

Bullpen

Call me crazy, but for what seems like the first time in Theo’s tenure, I actually like our pen. There are a metric ton of question marks, obviously: can Oki keep it up for another year? Will Ramirez sustain his seemingly unsustainably low HR-allowed rate? Will MDC ever be as consistent as his stuff says he should be? Will Saito – whose numbers in the NL are, dare-I-say-it, Papelbonesque – eventually deliver part of his arm to home plate in addition to the ball? What’s Masterson going to do in his second time around the league? Can Paps stay away from the doc? And so on.

But overall, I like the options that Tito is going to have from both the right and left sides. When the worst K/9 ratio PECOTA projects for your relief staff is Masterson at 6.3, you might have a decent pen. Plus, we have a rising Daniel Bard waiting in the wings for a potential late season audition, pending additional work on his control (command being a bit less vital when you’re throwing a hundred). Obviously, this is good news for anyone who read this space last year: less bitching about our pen, maybe even fewer posts featuring pictures of gas cans.

Catching

Settled as our bullpen might be, that’s how up in the air the catching is. At present, we’re going with a Tek/Kottaras tandem, which either means a.) a trade for another catcher is in the works (as Cafardo argues today), or b.) that Theo’s looked at the splits. Tek’s primary offensive issue at this point is hitting lefthanded: as a RHB in an otherwise dismal 2008 campaign, he put up a .284/.378/.484 line in an admittedly small sample size (95 ABs). Lefthanded, he cratered, with an abysmal .201/.293/.323. Kottaras, as noted in this space in the past, hits from the lefthand side, and his splits show it: career, his OPS is 46 points better vs righties than lefties (.808 to .762).

So while it’s entirely possible that a new catcher is on the way, if I were a betting man I’d bet on Kottaras to open the season with the big club. Not only do we need a lefthanded catcher, we need one who can handle knuckleballers, because as Will Carroll observed, “Deal for a catcher and you still have the knuckle issue. Could a new guy learn or would he have to be knuckle-ready?” Kottaras, remember, has experience catching a knuckler in Charlie Zink, and while Wake and the would-be Wake are entirely different pitchers with entirely different knuckleballs, it would seem that the rookie catcher showed enough to get Bard released. Mazz may have been convinced that Bard would be able to handle Wake the second time around, but I never was. And with him gone, it seems like the club wasn’t either.

Whether or not we end the season with the tandem of Varitek and Kottaras, of course, is not something I’d care to project. But whoever is sharing the duties, I expect them to a.) be able to hit right-handed pitching and b.) to get some serious playing time on account of that ability.

With Kottaras out of options and Bard unimpressive with the one pitcher he’d absolutely need to caddy, the choice was probably easier than we think.

Rotation Depth & Lester

Lots of folks seem to be getting antsy about our perceived rotation “problem” – the fact that, by midseason, barring any injuries, we’ll have potentially seven candidates (Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, Smoltz, Penny, Buchholz, maybe even Bowden if you can get by his delivery) for five starter spots. My opinion? Don’t sweat it. As we learned – to our great misfortune – following the exit of Bronson Arroyo, these logjams have a way of working themselves out. And even if no one succumbs to elbow tightness, back spasms or arm fatigue, I’m a firm believer that all of the top three starters – Lester in particular – will be given in-season vacations by the club in an effort to keep them fresh and/or keep their innings down.

You Heard It Here…First?: Josh Bard

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Josh Bard, originally uploaded by ewen and donabel.

For the first time in recorded history, you may actually have heard it here first. The Josh Bard news, that is.

Back on December 4th, I wrote this:

Last I checked, Josh Bard – the catcher we shipped to San Diego after he proved unable to catch Wake – is available. Probably because in 57 games with the Friars, he put up an abysmal .202/.235/.333 line. Not a typo: he really was a .569 OPS player. That said, ‘07 saw him put up a .285/.364/.404 in a tough hitters’ park, and Bill James’ ‘09 forecast is .268/.342/.395. Which may not seem like much, until you remember that Tek’s 08 line was .220/.313/.359. And that Tek’s 09 projection is .238/.334/392. And that Bard is six years younger than Varitek.

Twenty-five days later Sean McAdam has this news for us:

Moving to improve their depth on the mound and behind the plate, the Red Sox have agreements in place with right-hander Brad Penny and catcher Josh Bard, according to an industry source.

I’ll get to the Penny news later – tomorrow if I’m not too lazy – but I’ll be honest: I like the Bard signing.

True, Bard is no Martin, Mauer, or McCann. He’s not even a Flying Molina Brother (at least of the Bengie variety). But there are several things arguing in this deal’s favor, most notably the fact that it’s short money and short term, and doesn’t cost us prospects. Our risk, therefore, is minimized and our flexibility to either deal for or develop a long term solution is preserved.

We’re buying low on Bard because, as mentioned, he had an abysmal ’08. Still, he’s only a year removed from this PECOTA commentary:

After Bard took to being knuckleballer Tim Wakefield`s personal catcher like a duck takes to being repeatedly poked with a fork, the Red Sox panicked and flipped him to San Diego for his predecessor, Doug Mirabelli. They never could have anticipated he`d hit like he did in San Diego, just as there`s no reason for the Padres to expect him to do it again. Still, Bard`s a true switch-hitter, solid against both righties and lefties, and PECOTA expects him to maintain his new-found plate discipline, so he`ll still be one of the better players at his position. Although properly considered the better-throwing alternative to Mike Piazza on last year`s Pads, Bard didn`t surpass him by much. Throwing out only 18 percent of opposing baserunners isn`t very special, but, in Bard`s defense, he`s done better before; perhaps Pads pitchers need to work on holding runners as much as their catchers need to work on throwing.

And – remember, he’s six years younger than Tek – the projections all look ok.

AVG OBP SLG OPS
Bill James .268 .337 .392 .729
CHONE .254 .338 .369 .707
Marcel .266 .342 .395 .737

Like I said: no Mauer. But compared to Tek’s .672 OPS last season, even CHONE’s pessimistic forecast looks acceptable.

And speaking of Tek, I have to think this pretty much means he’s not back. Not just because McAdam says that the Sox “have all but given up on re-signing” him, but because of the Wakefield factor.

Initial speculation considered the possibility of Bard backing up a resigned Varitek, but while I suppose that’s not impossible, haven’t we tried that before? That would leave us with two catchers that have more or less demonstrated that they cannot catch one of the pitchers we’re throwing every five days.

From this signing, then, I conclude not that Bard will be the unchallenged starter, but that the second catcher will be someone who can catch Timmeh – i.e. not Varitek.

Could it be Kottaras, perhaps? Evan over at Fire Brand had a nice piece looking at this a couple of days ago and built a fairly credible case that Kottaras could be a bigger factor than we might have expected in the catching equation. The signing of Bard, if anything, improves his chances, as he’s now one of the few catchers in the organization with experience catching a knuckleball (in case you missed it, the Yankees signed Cash away from us).

Is a Bard/Kottaras tandem the long term solution to our catching needs? Obviously not. But could it provide us with a credible stop gap until such time as we can find one? Seems at least possible. If both hit only to their James projected OPS, in fact, they would have placed 6th and 7th respectively amongst qualifying catchers last season – such is the state of big league catching these days.

How you deploy them could ultimately be determined by their play, as well as the pitchers’ comfort level with each. If you weight his experience, and think Bard is more the .285/.364/.404 player from ’07 than the .569 OPS of ’08, you could start him four days a week and designate Kottaras as Wake’s caddy.

But given that James projects more offense from the rookie than the vet – an anticipated .765 OPS to Bard’s .729 – it might be wiser to platoon them to some extent. Which could work nicely, because while Bard switch hits, his lifetime OPS is eighty points higher against lefties than righties (.785 to .705). Kottaras, meanwhile, hits from the lefthand side, and his splits show it: career, his OPS is 46 points better vs righties than lefties (.808 to .762).

Are Bard and Kottaras the tandem for ’09? Hell, I don’t know. The point here is that if they are, we might not be in terrible shape.

Rumors of My Death Etc Etc

from the pressbox

So it’s been a while. But hear me now and understand me later, I needed the time off. And whether you know it or not, you did too. Even if you didn’t, what are you going to do about it?

Because either way, we’re back, baby, and a lot has happened since the last time you and I checked in. Which, in turn, begs the question: why are we wasting time talking about how many months it’s been since our last chat? Let’s just get to it.

Now.

Buchholz

In spite of the best efforts of the Boston media (read: Cafardo and Massarotti) to drive me completely insane, it would appear that the front office and I are on the same page with respect to Buchholz. Last week, the MLB.com Rangers beat reporter put it this way:

The Red Sox have made it clear that they aren’t interested in trading Clay Buchholz under any circumstances.

This week, Peter Gammons validated that while talking to our friends from Fire Brand:

I don’t think Texas will trade Teagarden, and their asking price for Saltalamacchia has been either Buchholz or Masterson and Bowden; not happening.

To which I say: thank Jebus. It’s not that I’m unwilling to part with Buchholz under the right circumstances; it’s just that – as discussed – I think trading him now is the very essence of selling low.

Which, fortunately, it seems like our front office is smart enough to recognize. Now if only the media could see the light…

Lowe

As I said in one of the Fire Brand Roundtables, I’m all for bringing our own prodigal son dlowe back.

“Call me crazy, but I say DLowe – provided you can get him at reasonable (for the Red Sox) dollars for three years or less, and that you do your homework on his off the field status. Much as I’d love Teixeira, he’s going to get a massive six plus year deal from someone, and it won’t be us. Ditto for CC, and with him you have overuse/weight issues potentially complicating the back end of the deal. Burnett and Sheets, meanwhile, are terrific pitchers…when they take the field. Which isn’t often. Sheets hasn’t thrown 200 innings since ’04, and Burnett’s done it only twice in the last six years. Plus, they’ll command a significant premium as high strikeout pitchers. Lowe, meanwhile, has thrown 200 four out of the last six (and just missed in ’07), while keeping his ERA since leaving Boston comfortably under 4. Park effects have a lot to do with that, of course, but with his groundball ratio it’s less true than it might be with other pitchers. If you have some assurances that the pitcher wouldn’t spend every available evening at Daisy Buchanan’s, then, and he’s willing to sacrifice either years or dollars to play where he wants, I think you have to consider it.”

Not much has happened to change that opinion: if anything, Lowe has ramped up his “I’d love to play in Boston” rhetoric. I still think it’s a long shot, given what he’s likely to be offered elsewhere, but I take him over Sheets and even Burnett easy. As does Neyer.

Pedroia

What can you say, except: I can’t believe I singlehandedly turned El Caballito’s season around with this post and he’s offered me nothing? Ungrateful little pony…But otherwise, I couldn’t be happier. After what he went through early in ’07, when everyone was burying the tiny rookie with the big swing, this is a veritable storybook turnaround.

As much as I admire his play, however, I’m even more appreciative of his willingness to compromise and share a little risk with the club, sacrificing overall dollars in the process. We are unlikely to see this with our other young kids, with Pap looking to max his dollars and Ells having signed with Boras, but I admit to an unreasonable appreciation for Dustin’s willingness to take a hometown discount in return for security. The $40M+ guaranteed presumably doesn’t hurt, either.

Ramirez

I think we can file this one under a big miss for wicked clevah, since I saw Crisp as gone last…February. But the return here, I don’t think, was awful. A power arm for the middle innings is nothing to sneer at given our bullpen’s regular season struggles last year. Particularly if, as Gammons argues, the market for Crisp was weak overall:

The Red Sox surveyed what was a surprisingly small market for Crisp — Cincinnati was the other club with the most interest — and decided that with Jeremy Affeldt starting out the 2008 free-agent market by signing a two-year, $8 million deal with the Giants, it likely will be easier to find another outfielder than secure a low-cost power reliever.

That said, not everyone’s on board. Law thinks we could be disappointed in the return:

For the Red Sox, they save a good amount of cash by moving a superfluous player and get a cheap arm for their pen, albeit one with some red flags. Ramon Ramirez works primarily with two pitches — a 91-93 mph fastball that he pounds to his glove side and an upper 80s splitter (or split-change) with a very sharp downward movement. He’ll occasionally mix in a slider around 86-87 mph, but it’s not as effective as the splitter, which he throws almost as often as his fastball. Despite some violence in his delivery, he’s had around average control throughout his pro career (just 25 unintentional walks this year) and has a history of missing bats. The surprise in his performance is that he keeps the ball in the park; he doesn’t have great life or sink on his fastball, and his command of it is fringe-average, yet he has given up just 9 home runs in 156 career big-league innings, half of which came in Colorado. Between that and his moderate platoon split, it seems unlikely that he’s an eighth inning solution for the Red Sox.

Ultimately, while I was surprised – I anticipated Crisp being part of a trade with Texas for one of their catchers – I’m not disappointed in the return. Even if Ramirez is not an eighth inning solution, he gives us another useful, controllable arm, some flexibility in trading someone from the pen if necessary, and salary relief for a player we didn’t need – and who may have been less of a good soldier in his second year of not starting.

I’m cool with that.

Tazawa

First things first: the kid’s highly unlikely to make the major league roster out of the gate. And reports that he’s cranking 97+ with his fastball are – apparently – pure exagerration as he sits 90-93, from the more reasonable reports that I’ve seen. All of that said, I – shockingly – concur with Mazz that this Tazawa is, if nothing else, a hedge against the draft pick that we could conceivably lose:

Now that Junichi Tazawa is here, the smart thing to do would be to consider him as the Sox’ first-round selection in 2009.

Viewed that way, the signing makes a lot of sense, and it was at a reasonable expense as well: $3.3M. Here’s Law’s take:

He’s not major-league ready, having only pitched in an amateur industrial league in Japan, but he should be ready to start in Double-A and could see the majors in late 2009 if all goes well. His splitter (or split-change) should give minor-league hitters nightmares, but he’ll need to work on his fastball command. If his breaking ball doesn’t come along, he projects more as a plus two-pitch reliever than as a starter.

Another of the FO’s decisions that I’m more than fine with.

Teixeira

To address the question posed by Senor Frechette – what becomes of Lars Anderson should we sign Tex – the answer is: I don’t know. There seem to be three possibilities: 1.) he becomes trade bait, 2.) he’s worked into an infield/DH rotation beginning in late 09 or 2010, 3.) he’s inserted into left field following Bay’s departure after the ’09 season.

Here’s what we know:

  1. The Sox value him highly – he’s Baseball America’s #1 Sox prospect
  2. Anderson’s not projected to be ready until midseason at the earliest, with 2010 as a more likely arrival date
  3. Of the spots he could take on the current roster, Bay is up after ’09, Lowell ’10, Papi ’10 (club option for ’11), Youk ’11 (I think, based on his service time)
  4. We’ve got – potentially – a lot of money to play with this offseason, with $40M or so coming off the books

There’s an assumption amongst media members that we’ll take our current projected surplus and apply that to Teixeira, and this makes sense given the uncertainty and frequent inconsistency of our offense last season – particularly with Manny gone. But it remains to be seen whether or not he’s going to try and break the bank and shoot for $200M, even in this economy. If he that’s the case, I think we bow out. But stranger things have happened.

If he’s not signed, Anderson continues on track, I think, to take Lowell’s place (w/ Youk shifting to third) in the 2010 timeframe. If Tex does come on board, I think Anderson is retained if only to provide insurance depending on whether the Large Father a.) recovers adequately and b.) signs with Boston following the expiration of his contract. Given Anderson’s status as the top prospect in a still top shelf farm system, he’s not going anywhere except for a premium talent in return.

Varitek

One of the things that’s perplexed me this offseason has been the talk of securing Varitek – either via arbitration or a short term free agent deal – to train his replacement, to be obtained via trade. Gammons among others has mentioned this as a possibility, and while there’s nothing intrinsically odd about that, except for this question: who catches Wake? Theo addressed that in his comments today:

“We have to be mindful of the fact that Wake can be a challenge for some catchers,” Epstein said. “At the same time, I don’t know that even Wake feels we should limit our options at catcher because of any one pitcher. We just have to strike the right balance. [Varitek's] caught him in the past. We’ll see. There’s no news on that front. He’s always been an option to catch him. He’s caught him in the past. It’s obviously something that [Terry Francona's] stayed away from in recent years.”

With all due respect to Theo, this strikes me as pure posturing. If Varitek could catch Wake, there would have been no need for the panic deal that sent Bard – more on him in a minute – and Meredith out to San Diego for Mirabelli. Assuming that the Captain can’t catch him regularly, then, that would mean that the job of catching would Wake would either a.) fall to Varitek’s replacement, or b.) Cash, necessitating the extremely suboptimal three catchers on the roster. Frankly, the latter strikes me as a non-starter here in the Big Boy league, meaning that if Tek and a young catcher are acquired, the job of catching Wake is going to be the kid’s.

Not sure about you, but I don’t see that happening. I think either Tek is retained or we get a replacement, not both. Which, I couldn’t tell you, though we’ll know by Sunday whether or not the Captain has accepted arbitration.

Should be fun to watch.

And as a special bonus catching section:

Bard

Last I checked, Josh Bard – the catcher we shipped to San Diego after he proved unable to catch Wake – is available. Probably because in 57 games with the Friars, he put up an abysmal .202/.235/.333 line. Not a typo: he really was a .569 OPS player. That said, ’07 saw him put up a .285/.364/.404 in a tough hitters’ park, and Bill James’ ’09 forecast is .268/.342/.395. Which may not seem like much, until you remember that Tek’s 08 line was .220/.313/.359. And that Tek’s 09 projection is .238/.334/392. And that Bard is six years younger than Varitek.

I’ll admit that a proposed catching tandem of Bard/Cash isn’t all that thrilling, but it could a.) save us from overpaying for the likes of Salty – who may not be able to catch long term anyway (the cat is huge), and b.) give the kids (Exposito, Wagner, et al) another year to develop and tell us whether or not our solution is in house after all.