Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A MATTER OF PROOF OVER POTENTIAL

Josh Beckett and MIke Lowell for Hanley Ramirez, Anibel Sanchez, and Jesus Delgado.

I like this move. It shows that, even without a GM, the Red Sox organization isn't asleep at the wheel. The Sox had plenty of offense last season, but pitching was their Achilles heel. Their 4.74 team ERA ranked 24th out of 30 teams. They were 15th in complete games (6), 18th in shut outs (8), and 21st in strike out per game (5.9). They needed to get better if they genuinely hoped to repeat as World Series Champions. This trade shows just how genuine those aspirations are.

Sure, there are risks, but there is also the significant likelihood of great reward. The Sox starting rotation was old last year and getting older this year. Everyone knew that changes had to be made. The additions of Josh Beckett and Jon Papelbon to the rotation will make the staff younger in a hurry. And the Sox may not be done yet. They could still pursue someone like Kevin Millwood. The Blue Jays 5-year, $50 million offer to AJ Burnett may have priced him right out of the market, considering that he's a game under .500 lifetime.

Yes, there are some worries about Beckett's reliability. In four big league seasons, he's struggled with nine trips to the DL -- but six were for blisters on the middle finger of his throwing hand. That can be overcome. It's important to remember that in those four years, Beckett averaged 150 K's per season. Though he's struggled to stay healthy throughout his career, he is coming off a year in which he notched career highs in wins (15), starts (29), innings (178 2/3) and strikeouts (166).

The Marlins were concerned enough about Beckett's shoulder to have him undergo two MRIs at the end of the season. If there are any problems, they should be revealed in his pending physical. There probably won't be. If there were any significant issues, they would have been disclosed during trade talks and if so, the Sox would have balked. The good news is that Beckett's shoulder likely didn't suffer from overuse. The 25-year-old righty has yet to make as many as 30 starts or pitch as many as 180 innings in a season. You could say he has low miles.

Beckett proved himself to be a big game performer during the 2003 postseason. At just the tender age of 23, he pitched a complete-game shutout against the Cubs in Game 5 of the NLCS, and then only three days later pitched four innings of relief in Game 7, allowing just one run. He followed up those incredible performances with another complete-game shutout -- a Game 6 World Series clincher against the Yankees -- again on just three days' rest.

In all, he made six postseason appearances that year, going 2-2 with a 2.11 ERA, 47 strike outs, and only 12 walks in 42 2/3 innings. He has proven himself big-game ready, and he is a Yankee killer. Need I say more?

One major league executive said of Beckett, "Everybody in the game would love to have him. He's got a plus fastball, a plus breaking ball, and a plus changeup, and he comes right at you. He's a horse. He's a legitimate No. 1, and I don't know how many of those exist anymore. He's special. He wanted the ball in New York in Game 6. He's a special guy."

The Marlins were so desperate to rid themselves of third baseman Mike Lowell's burdensome contract that they were willing to part with one of the game's finest young arms to make it happen. They weren't trying to get rid of Beckett; they were trying to get rid of Lowell and had to toss in Beckett to make it happen. The Marlins have attendance issues down in Miami and can't afford a competitive big league payroll. They ranked 28 out of 30 teams in home attendance despite three straight winning seasons, including a World Series championship. They deal with oppressive heat plus constant rain outs / delays in South Florida, and the club is threatening to relocate if they don't get a baseball-only stadium with a retractable roof. The Marlins have issues, but Beckett wasn't one of them.

Lowell, an eight-year veteran, was an All-Star for three consecutive seasons prior to 2005, a year in which he still won a Gold Glove. Though he struggled with a .236 average last season, he hit .293 the previous year and is a lifetime .272 hitter. There are baseball scouts and executives who believe that he simply had an off year and will thrive in the friendly confines of Fenway Park - the epitome of a hitter's park. The Monster is only 310 feet from home, and he should take ample advantage of it. There is a reason that Lowell has such a big contract -- he earned it. In 2003, he belted 32 homers and 105 RBI. He followed that up in '04 by hitting 27 homers and driving in 85 runs.

Hanley Ramirez, long hailed for his impressive skills, has been described as a five tool player. But he's yet to develop into a productive offensive force in the Minors. In 2005, Ramirez hit .271 with six homers and 52 RBIs at Double-A Portland. If that's the best he could do in AA, he's clearly not ready for the Bigs. Perhaps Ramirez was the victim of unrealistic hype or excessive pressure, but it wouldn't have gotten any easier if he ever made it to Fenway. He's been in the organization for four years, and at the age of 22 he still isn't ready for prime time. Perhaps he'll thrive in the low-pressure environment of Miami, but if he repeats his 2005 performance his stock will fall considerably by this time next year. That would make a trade like this impossible.

Sanchez, who missed the entire 2003 season due to Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, came back strong the last two years. He opened the 2005 season at Class A Wilmington, going 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA in 14 starts. He was then promoted to Double-A Portland, going 3-5 with a 3.45 ERA in 11 starts. His performance clearly diminished with the promotion, and he obviously isn't even ready for Pawtuckett yet. He's made only 11 starts above Single A, and one high-ranking Sox executive projected him as a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher when he's finally major league-ready. The Sox didn't expect that to be until approximately 2007.

This was the right move for the Red Sox at the right time. Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell are proven big league players. Hanley Ramirez and Anibel Sanchez have proven only that they have potential. I'll take proof over potential any day.

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