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

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

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

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

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

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

And Scutaro is worth substantially more than a fringe asset.

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.