Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Saturday, March 18, 2006

A SEASON IN THE BALANCE

When it comes to the weather in New England, like it not, just wait a while. It'll surely change. The same goes for the Red Sox. Every season sees the addition and subtraction of various players, some more talented and and more well-liked than others.

Professional baseball isn't always marked by loyalty. Just ask Mark Belhorn, Alan Embree, Kevin Millar or Bill Mueller. You can be a key part of a World Series Championship team and within a year, or less, be out of a job.

But it cuts both ways. Players often show just as little loyalty to their teams. Free agents usually follow the money, chasing the contract offer of the highest bidder, in search of what they believe will be greener pastures.

As such, this will be a critical year for the Red Sox longest-tenured position player.

Selected by the Sox in the first round of the 1993 draft, added to the roster in August 1995, and playing regularly since 1999, Trot Nixon has been with the Red Sox organization longer than any other player. But if he is to continue that distinction he will have to stay healthy, and be at his best, this season.

Nixon is coming into the final year of a 3-year, $19.5 million contract he signed in the winter of 2004. But the first two years didn't go nearly as well as he'd hoped. Because of various injuries in each of those seasons, Nixon saw his playing time, and his performance, decline considerably. Playing in just 48 games in 2004 and 124 in 2005, Nixon dealt with a herniated disc injury, a quadriceps problem, a strained oblique, and an injury to his left knee that required arthroscopic surgery this offseason. But, as usual, the right fielder kept his mouth shut about the injury and gamely played through it for much of last season.

While Nixon has proven himself a solid solid hitter, as evidenced by his 3-year OPSs of .974, .887, and .803, he's also shown an inability to consistently hit left-handed pitching. As a result, the Sox have found it necessary to platoon him with another outfielder who fares better against lefties. This has limited the club in some ways because it creates the need for a specific type of fourth outfielder.

There is no question that Nixon can hit. He had a terrific year in 2003 when he batted .306, smacked 28 homers, and knocked in 87 runs. However, last year those numbers fell considerably to .275, 13 HR, and 67 RBI. But what concerns the Sox the most is the dramatic drop off Nixon experienced during the second half of 2005. He started the year strongly, hitting .296 with a .377 on-base percentage and a .484 slugging percentage before the All-Star break. But his numbers fell to .241/.326/.386 after the break.

Determined to be in great shape and return to form, Nixon showed up at camp on February 1 - earlier than any other Sox position player. If he can once again become the player he was from 2001-2003, it would add some much needed pop to the middle of the Sox order, making him, and the team, quite happy. During that period, Nixon averaged 26 homers, 90 RBI, and a .370 on base percentage.

So far this spring, he's showing signs of his former self. Nixon is hitting .417 (10 for 24) with a homer and 6 RBIs. But the Sox still have their concerns. Manager Terry Francona has tried to avoid putting Nixon on a bus this spring, so as not to aggravate his cranky back. Asked Francona rhetorically, ''Is it preferential treatment? Yeah. He looks so good this spring. He looks healthy. He looks like he's having fun. He feels good. I don't want him limping around."

Realistically, this could be Nixon's final year in a Red Sox uniform - no matter how he plays. Under his present contract, Nixon earns $6.5 million per season, and if he returns to form will surely seek a raise under any new deal. But with a number of talented and inexpensive outfielders in their system, including Adam Stern, David Murphy, Brandon Moss and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Sox may choose to go younger, and cheaper, next season. And of course if Nixon is injured again, or otherwise performs like an aging player with his best years squarely behind him, the Sox probably won't even offer him a contract. Though he turns just 32 next month, Nixon has been around for so long that some fans might think he's older. And though he should still be in the prime of his career, he'll be playing for a contract and will have to prove it.

It's hard to imagine the original dirt dog not patrolling right field at Fenway, an area he negotiates with such great expertise, but it's a possibility that bears consideration. Red Sox fans have come to love and respect Nixon's rugged and determined style of play. He never leaves the field with a clean uniform. His no nonsense, blue collar ethic has been tailor made for Boston. But one way or the other, we may be seeing the last of Trot Nixon in a Red Sox uniform in 2006.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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