Monday, May 07, 2007

Counter Point

After one of these Rivalry Signings, the other team often does something to counter. Yesterday's signing of Roger Clemens by the Yankees has me thinking about how the Red Sox could improve their team. This means identifying the weak links on the team, but the Red Sox are 20-10 and lead the division by 6 games. They have the best record in the AL and are close to the best record in baseball. There aren't too many areas of concern right now to pick on. Short of assembling an all-star team, where are the Red Sox going to get better?

There are a few opportunities to improve the team as I see it. The first thing to point out is that there could be (and likely will be) some injuries. The team is almost completely healthy now, but that could change between now and the trade deadline of July 31st. Any injuries between now and then could force an unforeseen and alternate course of action out of necessity.

But, if the team remains healthy,
you need three things to improve mid-season.
1. An identifiable hole on the team
2. Another team with the right puzzle piece to fill it
3. Valuable players to give in return.

All-star players usually don't come free, unless you're dealing with Pat Gillick. The first step is to identify any holes the Red Sox may have. We'll take it position by position:

Position: Left Field
Current Occupant: Manny Ramirez
Potential to Change: None
Notes: Unless he gets hurt, Manny isn't going anywhere.

Position: Center Field
Current Occupant: Coco Crisp
Potential to Change: Medium
Notes: Crisp is signed to a long term low money deal, similar to the one the Sox signed Bronson Arroyo to before they traded him to Cincinnati. Crisp has shown signs of improved play lately, which could either make the Sox more comfortable with him in center or could serve to drive up his trade value. He may be an acceptable bargaining chip to a smaller market team. Bares watching.

Position: Right Field
Current Occupant: JD Drew
Potential to Change: Barring injury, none.
Notes: The Sox just signed Drew to a long-term deal this past off season. They aren't going to replace him (nor should they).

Position: 3rd Base
Current Occupant: Mike Lowell
Potential to Change: Medium
Notes: Lowell is in the last year of his contract, but the Red Sox love his defense and his leadership. His offense has been pretty good this year too, though his power has dropped a bit. Lowell could easily be the third baseman on a World Championship club.

Position: Shortstop
Current Occupant: Julio Lugo
Potential to Change: None
Notes: Like Drew, Lugo was just signed to a long term contract this off season. The Sox aren't looking to get rid of him.

Position: 2nd Base
Current Occupant: Dustin Pedroia or Alex Cora
Potential to Change: From outside the organization, small.
Notes: The Red Sox have two guys who have hit the crap out of the ball recently. Cora has been on fire all season long and Pedroia has picked it up recently slugging over .600 and getting on base at a better-than-40% clip. Cora isn't a long term solution, but Pedroia is. The fact that the Sox have two guys that could play here means they likely won't be in the market for a 2nd baseman.

Position: 1st base
Current Occupant: Kevin Youkilis
Potential to Change: Low
Notes: I don't say zero because of Youkilis' versatility. The Red Sox could trade for a first baseman and move Youkilis to third base if they wanted to. Youkilis' versatility allows the Sox to use Mike Lowell as a bargaining chip in a trade, even if that is somewhat unlikely.

Position: Catcher
Current Occupant: Jason Varitek (Doug Mirabelli)
Potential to Change: Low
Notes: Varitek hasn't looked good at the plate this season, but he is seen as a vital component to the pitching staff and as the Captain of the team he isn't going to be replaced this season. Mirabelli could be replaced, but the Sox obviously think highly of his ability to catch the knuckleball and besides, upgrading at back up catcher isn't likely going to put the Red Sox over the top.

Position: Starting Pitcher
Current Occupant(s): Schilling, Beckett, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, Tavarez
Potential to Change: High
Notes: Baring injury, the top four will stay the same. Tavarez will not be the fifth starter by the all-star break. The Sox have too many young guys, most notably Jon Lester, who would do a better job. The potential to bring someone else in from outside the organization also exists, if the price is right for Boston.

Position: Bullpen
Current Occupant(s): Papelbon, Okajima, Donnelly, Piniero, Snyder, and Timlin
Potential to Change: High
Notes: I say high potential for change because there is always change in a bullpen over 162 games. The guys you start with are very rarely the exact same guys you finish with. Still, the top five up through Snyder have performed admirably so far. Timlin has been more problematic, but the team seems to value his veteran-ness. I love the guy, but right now he's the weak link in this pen.

To sum up, I rated two non-pitching staff positions as Medium: 3rd base and center field. The Sox also have a hole in the back end of their rotation and one in the back end of their pen. Any of the above could be plugged by someone from outside the organization.

Let me take a look at the potential 3rd baseman and center fielders who will be free agents next season or the season after and could be available later in trade.

First, the 3rd basemen and 1st baseman:
1. Alex Rodriguez, NYY - Could be a free agent after the season if he wants to opt out of his current contract, but theres no way the Yankees trade him during the season. He'll be in NY through this season at least.
2. Mike Lowell, BOS - N/A
3. Carlos Delgado, NYM - A free agent after this year, but the Mets are depending on him this season. No way he gets traded.
4. Todd Helton, COL - Signed to a long long-term contract that makes up for its extreme length by being ridiculously expensive. Helton hasn't hit nearly as well on the road in a few years compared to his home numbers, making me think he's a product of Coors Field at this stage in his career. Also, he's been injured a bit recently. If he is healthy he could be an interesting pickup.
5. Richie Sexson, SEA - a free agent to be

Notes: Upgrading at the corners could be particularly difficult for the Red Sox. The best players are playing for the better teams (shocker, I know), so those guys likely won't be available in trade. A guy like Sexson could be, but his contract and production don't fit together, and he would probably be a downgrade over Youkilis at first.

Prediction: I don't see much potential for movement here. Its possible the Sox rekindle their interest in Todd Helton, but its unknown how much of an improvement he would be over Lowell.

Next, Center Fielders
1. Torii Hunter, MIN - a free agent following this season
2. Andruw Jones, ATL - a free agent following this season
3. Carl Crawford, TB - just about to get expensive. He makes $4M this season, $5.5M next, and then $8M and $10M the years following.

Notes: All three are intriguing names. While Tampa and Crawford won't make the playoffs this season, the jury is still out on Minnesota and Atlanta. If either or both of those teams falls out of contention its likely that Hunter and Jones could be dealt.
Hunter is an older player and Crawford is unlikely to be dealt within the division. The price for either would be steep, but the better player by far is Jones. The Red Sox were rumored to have interest in Jones at last year's deadline, and it wouldn't surprise me if they did again this season.

Prediction: The Red Sox will make a push to get Andruw Jones. They have Coco Crisp to give up in trade and they can throw in some minor league pitching at the same time. They have Jacoby Ellsbury in AAA as well, so they could either trade Ellsbury or Crisp. If they could not re-sign Jones they'd have either Ellsbury or Crisp to take over center again next season. (Danger: Pie in the Sky Crap Coming!!) ...or, they could re0-sign Jones and trade Manny this off-season . Then they could install Ellsbury in left and Jones in center. But I'm getting ahead of myself. For 2007, Jones would be a tremendous addition to the Red Sox offense, and
I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Red Sox went after him at the deadline. Can you imagine a 2 through 5 like this:
2. Andruw Jones
3. David Ortiz
4. Manny Ramirez
5. JD Drew
Even the Yankees can't top that.

Starting Pitchers:
1. Roy Oswalt, HOU - Oswalt just signed an expensive extension with Houston this past season which carries him through 2011 (with a team option for 2012). However, Houston is terrible, and they may be looking to rebuild. Its possible that Oswalt could be dealt, though it would likely take a massive amount to get him, and with his contract it seems unlikely.
2. Rich Harden, OAK - Harden has been amazing when he's been healthy. Unfortunately, he's been more unhealthy than amazing. Still, he's young enough and intriguing enough that a team could make a run at him if he proves himself healthy and if the A's fall far enough out of the race. Both are possible, but unlikley.
3. CC Sabathia, CLE - The Indians are tearing it up this season, so its doubtful that they'd trade their best starter.
4. Mark Buerhle, CWS - The White Sox suck this year, and they'll be major sellers at the deadline.
Buerhle has a good reputation, but the thing is that he isn't that good. He'll likely fetch a mint in free agency, but he isn't a strikeout guy, so expect the Sox to have little interest.

Notes: Sabathia and Harden are both studs when healthy, but neither are healthy enough to count on. Both also belong to clubs that are expected to be in the thick of the playoff race at the deadline, making deals all that much more unlikely. Its possible that one or both could be dealt, but it would take the team falling out of the race and a huge package to pry either guy away. Over all, not much to see here.

Relief Pitchers:
1. Joe Nathan, MIN - a free agent after this season
2. Mariano Rivera, NYY -
a free agent after this season, but extremely unlikely to come to Boston, and will not be traded.
Notes: Rivera is out, but Nathan is a possibility if the Twins fall out of the race. I would expect a number of teams to make a run at Nathan at the deadline if Minnesota falters, and I would expect the Red Sox to be one of those teams.

I think the Red Sox are most likely to be able to improve themselves at center field and at the infield corners. There isn't much available at the infield corners, but the options in center field are much more intriguing. Obtaining Andruw Jones would require giving up some quality talent in return, but the emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury in AAA gives the Sox a glut of sorts at center field. Either Ellsbury or Coco Crisp could be expendable in trade, should the Sox decide to attempt a short term rental. Of course, its unlikely the Braves will trade Jones if they are in first place, or close to it by the deadline, but the Braves also know that they probably won't be able to re-sign Jones either. A good package could pick him up.

With all that said, the Red Sox don't need to make a deal. They didn't need Roger Clemens, though it would have been great to have him. While there are parts of the team as currently constituted that are not a strong as others, one of the great strengths of this team is its even talent level. Unlike the Yankees, the Red Sox don't have any players starting who shouldn't be starters. Theo has assembled an evenly balanced high quality team.

The other factor I didn't discuss above is if the Red Sox keep running away with the division Theo might not want to give up a good prospect like Ellsbury, or a good young player like Crisp to get 3 months of Andruw Jones. Not a bad problem to have, huh?

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