WTF?

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opening day, originally uploaded by sogrady.

You’re thinking it, I’m thinking it, and you can be damn sure Tito’s thinking it. If I’d known that the only home game we would have won to date would be the one I attended – that’d be Opening Day, for those who haven’t been keeping up with current events – I probably would have made an effort to get to more games.

But seriously, who would – could – have called this? 4-9, 6 games back of the division leading Rays. I sure didn’t. To try to ground the discussion, let’s look at where we are, and where we might expect grounds for improvement.

What’s Gone Wrong?

In a word, everything. And no, that’s not hyperbole. There is quite literally nothing we’re doing right at the moment.

The offense? Being 17th in the league in average is bad enough, being 20th in OBP is worse. Far worse. When the bright spot in your offense is a 9th place finish in slugging percentage, you’ve got problems. Frankly I was surprised we were only 15th in the league in strikeout percentage; Drew and Ortiz are between them striking out in 42.5% of their at bats. As an aside, I do find it interesting that everyone’s written off Ortiz while it’s just a slump for Drew, just as I find it curious that Lester’s just not good early while Buchholz is again being popularly consigned to the bullpen or someone else’s roster. The psychology of player evaluation is a really fascinating phenomenon. But we’ve got bigger problems to look at at the moment.

So the offense is not good. How about the vaunted defense? If anything, it’s worse. We’re 27th in Defensive Runs Saved, 18th in Fielding Percentage and we’re in such desperate shape at throwing out runners that there’s already talk of bringing up Mark Wagner, whose CHONE projected line is .232/.298/.341.

But at least the pitching is good, right? I wish. Our ERA could be worse, I guess, at 18th in the league, and actually our 25th ranking in FIP suggests that we’re actually lucky it isn’t worse. Not surprisingly, given those numbers, we’re bad at striking people out (27th in K/9) but much better at walking them: 10th best team in the majors at issuing the free pass. In case it’s not clear, being good at walking people is not a desirable skill.

Nor was there, as I had hoped before looking, any indications that the above numbers, both offensively and pitching-wise, are flukes. Our hitters’ BABIP is .287, and our pitchers’ is .279. Meaning that we have neither been exceptionally lucky or unlucky.

We are what we are, in other words. Except that we’re not.

What’s Likely to Go Right?

All of the above. The most plate appearances anyone on the club has is Pedroia at 57. That’s not as small a sample as the two games that had the writers penning Papi’s obit, but it’s statistically not significant.

It’s early. I know that’s hard to believe when we’re a few weeks into the season, already back by six games and with our offseason plan looking as intelligent as real estate investing circa 2010.

But before you take a leap from the Zakim, consider the following:

  1. Our hitters and pitchers alike will regress to the mean. For better and for worse. Pedroia’s sadly not going to put up a 1.159 OPS for the year, but neither is Drew going to put up an OBP of .233, V-Mart a SLG of .367, or Youk an average of .238. These things will fix themselves over time.
  2. No one likes to make excuses because of injuries, but remember that that two thirds of our starting outfielders this weekend were bench players. So when you see Hermida butchering balls in left, remember that he is not the starting left fielder, Ells is. And thankfully, he’ll be back because Beltre didn’t kill him. As will Cameron, after his current senior ailment – kidney stones – remedy themselves. Will that fix Scutaro’s jitters or V-Mart’s tendency to sail throws “just a bit outside?” Nope. But again: they’ll regress to the mean. Although in V-Mart’s case that’s not good news.
  3. A couple of folks have bitched that this is all the front office’s doing; if only we signed Jason Bay, we’d be right there with the Rays and Yankees. Setting aside the question of how a single player could fix all that has gone wrong thus far, there is the problem with the numbers. Namely, Bay’s. Thus far in a Mets uniform, he’s putting up a .217/.321/.283 line, while leading both leagues in strikeouts with 18 (narrowly edging our own Drew). Our left-fielders, meanwhile, have put up an unimpressive and still superior .240/.255/.400. So not only is Jason Bay not walking through that door, it probably wouldn’t help much if he did. Like everyone else, he’ll regress to the mean – which in his case means he’ll get a lot better – but in the early going, it doesn’t appear as if he’d be a difference maker.

What’s Not Likely to Improve?

I am worried with a capital W about the pen. The starters, I think, will ultimately be fine. Beckett’s been better, Lester’s history says he’ll be better, Lackey just had a bad start today, and between Wake, Buch and Matsuzaka – throwing well in Pawtucket, from reports – I feel pretty good. One through five (or six), we’ll have a chance to win most days, however much it doesn’t feel that way right now.

Likewise, our offense will hit. It’s looked brutal in the early going, but it is always does when 70% or 80% of your lineup isn’t hitting. Moreover, I think the front office will be aggressive if it looks like that’s a problem, and adding offense in season is always easier than adding pitching.

But we may be forced to give something away to get some help in relief, because there’s no real help available on the farm. Tazawa’s out with Tommy John. Richardson isn’t exactly lighting it up with a 1.80 WHIP at Pawtucket, and Kelly – for all of his poise – was born in 1989 (though I find his innings limits intriguing). I’ve been worried about our pen since the offseason, not least because our PECOTA projections were terrifying. And yes, I’m aware that PECOTA’s had its issues this offseason.

ESPN’s Jeremy Lundblad has the best breakdown of the issues out of our pen that I’ve seen. You really should read it, but the short version for the link averse? Delcarmen’s lost about three miles an hour off his fastball since 2008, and his usage reflects that. Ramirez Uno’s K rate is in sharp decline, and his walk rate is up. Also not good.

Oki’s still great versus lefties, but he’s become mortal versus righties. Which probably explains why he’s given up the 8th inning to Bard. And speaking of, while Lundblad’s not particularly worried about the young fireballer, I am. His K rate is down sharply in the early going, never a good sign, although that could just be a blip. His HR rate is higher as well. Like Keith Law, I’ve struggled to understand how people who watch him pitch right now think he’s ready to take Papelbon’s place. He just doesn’t command well enough yet.

Which brings us to Pap. You might recall that last season I, along with a great many other people, worried about the fact that Pap had basically reverted to a one pitch pitcher. Well, the good news is that he is indeed throwing the split more: 17.9% thus far, well up from last season’s 9.3%. The bad news is that his pitch selection may be impacting his performance – negatively. As Lundblad put it,

Papelbon has issued four walks in four appearances so far this season. In 2008, he didn’t issue his fourth walk until June 22, his 33rd appearance. Factor in just one strikeout, and this is the first time in Papelbon’s career that he has more walks than strikeouts.

Add it up, and I think the pen will be this team’s weakness.

Big Picture?

We’re going to play better, and things will turn around. I’m not going to guarantee 95 wins like a lot of people – the BP guys’ latest simulations are currently predicting an 80 win season and 24% chance of the playoffs, but we’re clearly better than that. Just as we’re better than this.

Will it be enough to make up six games in the toughest division in baseball? Who knows. But we can’t worry about that right now. Our only concern should be getting these guys playing better.

Meaning don’t boo them, it’s not going to help anything.

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.