Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Friday, March 24, 2006

HEE-SEOP'S ABLE

The Red Sox claimed Hee-Seop Choi off waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers today, giving them another first base option as a back up to Kevin Youkilis. Given Mike Lowell's underwhelming performance this spring, it could portend the possibility of moving Youkilis back to third and platooning Choi with JT Snow.

Theo Epstein acknowledged as much by saying, "We have liked Choi for a long time and view this as an opportunity to acquire him when his value is down a bit. We like his power, his patience and his hands at first base. Choi provides depth for us at first base and in a way third base as well, considering Kevin Youkilis' ability to play both positions."

The 27-year-old Choi, a native of South Korea, has a career batting average of just .240, but also has a .349 on-base percentage. In 363 career games, he's hit 40 home runs and 120 RBI. Last year, in a career-high 133 games, he hit .253 with career highs of 81 hits and 42 RBI. He also had 15 homers for the second consecutive season, three coming in one game against Minnesota on June 12.

The Sox clearly don't need another first baseman. Snow is perhaps the finest defensive first baseman in the game today, and Youkilis has played exceptionally well there this spring. So the acquisition of Choi should be a signal to Lowell, who may feel the added pressure. Lowell has to prove that last year was merely an off season, and not the beginning of a downward spiral. It may just be a matter of time before the Sox have themselves a $9 million per year bench warmer in Lowell, with Youkilis returning to his natural position.

"We'll see how our roster shakes out," Epstein said. "But Choi does have minor-league options if we want him to get everyday at-bats in Triple-A for a period of time."

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

SAY HELLO TO WILY MO

The Red Sox had a problem that most teams would love; too much pitching. The question was, what to do with David Wells, Matt Clement or Bronson Arroyo. Wells' age and Clement's price made them prohibitive trade targets. That left Arroyo, and off he went to the Reds, ending a three year reign as one of the Red Sox primary heart throbs. No doubt, today many young female Sox fans are quite saddened. First johnny, now Bronson.

But Arroyo was more than just a heart throb. He was also quite versatile, showing the ability to start or come on in relief, he was dependable and not injury prone, and he was a kid who had big game experience and wanted the ball on any given day. Goodbye and good luck, Bronson. And thanks for your contributions. I'm sorry to see you go. Twenty-nine-year-old pitchers with rubber arms are hard to come by. Arroyo was a perfect four or five pitcher. But apparently the Sox thought they'd seen his best.

The Sox claimed Arroyo off waivers from Pittsburgh before the 2003 season. In 126 major-league games, he's 33-33 with a 4.59 ERA. Last year he was 14-10 with a 4.51 ERA in a career-high 205 1/3 innings.

In return, the Sox got themselves a project. It could be a boom, or a bust.

Wily Mo Pena said he was surprised by his trade to the Red Sox. But he'll be more disappointed than surprised if he finds himself on on the bench instead of in the field.

"I just want to be on a team and play every day," the young slugger said.

After having played no more than 110 games in any of his three previous seasons with the Reds, last year Pena finally got the chance to play left field regularly, batting .254 with 19 homers and 51 RBIs. But four years into his big league career, the unpolished Dominican has just 850 at bats, hitting .248 with 51 homers and 134 RBI.

And once again, at least for this season, he'll likely find himself in a limited role - unless Trot Nixon suffers another injury. The right-hitting Pena will be Boston's fourth outfielder, platooning with the left-hitting Nixon against left-handed pitchers. It's a role he should fill nicely, having fared well against lefties in the past. Last year he hit .291 against lefties, 57 points higher than against righties.

The Sox seem to have a long-term plan in mind with the acquisition of Pena. He may be the heir apparent in right field when Nixon becomes a free agent after this season. What's more, Pena can also play center. However, two scouts say that Pena has added 30 pounds in muscle, and as a result has regressed defensively and doesn't run as well as he used to.

There's also the distinct possibility that if Mike Lowell continues to struggle at the plate, proving that last season was more than just an aberration, Pena could see time at first with Kevin Youkilis moving back to his natural position at third.

The Sox see Pena as a very raw talent with an excellent arm to go with tremendous power potential. They plan to nurture and harness that talent in the coming years, believing that Boston offers just the right environment to continue Pena's development.

"The best thing that happened to him was coming over here," David Ortiz said. "He can learn from all of us."

Particularly, the Sox are hoping that Pena will learn plate discipline and pitch selection.

"This guy has some sick power," Ortiz said. "This guy has some crazy power, man." In fact, Ortiz said the 6-foot-3, 245 pound Pena is even stronger than him. "I've never seen a guy hit a ball harder than that guy... No, not even [me]."

The 19 homers he hit in just 99 games last year are a clear indication of that strength. And in 2004, Pena hit 26 homers in just 110 games. Theo Epstein described Pena as a "physical freak."

"We were talking about hitting a lot during the WBC," Ortiz said of Pena. "He wants to learn. He's a hard worker, good kid."

He'll need to be a hard worker. Apparently there is still a lot Pena needs to learn, and plenty of time to be made up for in his rushed development.

The Reds had to keep Pena in the majors the past three seasons, or place him on waivers, after he ran out of options in 2002 at the age of 20. He was just 17 when he signed a five-year major league contract with the New York Yankees in April 1999.

"He hasn't had time to develop" in the minors, Epstein said. "He's still a really dangerous threat against left-handed pitching."

Pena struck out 116 times in 311 at bats last season - an incredible 37% of the time - while walking only 20 times. But at just 24, the Sox think he has tremendous potential. They see him as a burgeoning middle-of-the-order power hitter with 40-homer potential. Red Sox fans can tolerate, perhaps even love, a true power hitter who strikes out a lot. But a guy who strikes out frequently minus the power (i.e. Mark Belhorn), they will not.

However, Ortiz seems unfazed. "Wily Mo is learning. He's going to be a great player."

"When I was 24 the ability that he has right now I didn't have it and I was in the big leagues, just like him," Ortiz said. "Wait until you see him. He looks like a football player. He's huge. He's got legs like nobody I've ever seen."

There will be lots of work to do. Pena has a meager .303 career on-base percentage. That clearly flies in the face of the Red Sox philosophy of the past few years.

"Pena strikes out on a rate basis more than anyone else in the big leagues," Epstein said. "There is precedent for those (type) players developing a little bit more discipline, increasing their walk rate and becoming better all around hitters as they adjust to the big leagues."

Pena is signed to a one-year, $1.25 million contract for 2006, and can't be a free agent until after the 2008 season. The Sox have him in their control for the next three years at a low cost.

Arroyo is just the latest member of the 2004 World Series Champions to have departed. Just seventeen months later, only nine players from that team remain.

With Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, and even Abe Alvarez in their system, the Sox felt comfortable about their pitching prosects in the coming years. But they have a decided lack of power within the system, which made this trade worth its risks.

As happy as he is about the arrival of Pena, Ortiz isn't happy about the departure of Arroyo, who was a very popular member of the Red Sox.

"I don't know, man. That's why I'm always going to look at this game as a business," Ortiz said. "The game is crazy, but that's how it goes."

It is a business, indeed. Players are rented, not owned. So don't fall in love with Wily Mo if he starts clearing the Monster with great regularity. Who knows how long he'll be around? Just ask Bronson arroyo. He never would've guessed.

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

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.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

GUESS WHO'S BACK? LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL!

After much speculation, and an offseason that included a trade demand and various trade proposals, Manny Ramirez finally reported to spring training in Fort Meyers. Whew. Glad that's over.

This offseason Manny continued being Manny, resulting in more of the strangeness and mystery that has become commonplace over the past five seasons. Of Manny's tenure in Boston, the best way to describe it would be, 'what a long, strange trip it's been.' Say what you will, but the man sure makes things interesting.

Truth be told, the Red Sox are better off with Manny in camp and in a Red Sox uniform. He is strange, odd, unpredictable - and a host of other adjectives would apply - but he is not a troublemaker or a clubhouse cancer. He is not a malcontent who puts himself above his team, and every time he takes the field he offers the Red Sox a better chance at winning.

So let's all be grateful that he's back, and hope that this latest episode is over. The issue of a trade may rasie it's ugly head yet again between now and the end of the 2008 season when his contract expires, but until then let's just hope that the marriage of Manny Ramirez and the Boston Red Sox is one of mutual benefit and understanding - if the latter is ever possible.

After telling friends and teammates that he found the environment in Boston suffocating, Manny now says "I ain't got no problems with Boston. I like the atmosphere. I know I'm one of the top guys in the game and there's a lot of people on my shoulders."

In a complete turnaround that testifies to his capriciousness and unpredictability, Manny told reporters yesterday, "I especially like the attention."

After revealing that he was in the best shape of his life due to his offseason conditioning program, he added: "I got a beautiful career going on and I'm not going to let little things like this mess [up] all the things that I accomplished because I think when I finish my career I'm going to be a special player."

Despite his penchant for not making sense, truer words could not be said. Manny is on the fast track to the Hall of Fame, and with just a couple more typical seasons, he'll be donning a Red Sox cap in Cooperstown about a decade from now.

Shortly after the new year, Manny let it be known that he'd apparently had a change of heart regarding his trade request. With some time to reflect during the offseason, somehow his perspective had changed.

"There will be no trade, I'm staying in Boston, where I'm familiar with the system and where I have a lot of friends, especially David Ortiz," Ramirez told ESPNdeportes.com while in Miami on personal business.

"I'm going to take things easy and focus on my career," he said.

Though he said the Sox may still try to trade him, he said he hopes that doesn't happen. "I also want to play for a contender, and I think with Boston I'm assured of that."

Of course what Manny says says and what Manny means may not be the same thing. It's hard to say if Manny even knows what he means, or what he wants. After all, as he noted, he's in a pretty good situation in Boston. Making $20 million a year, as a beloved figure on one of baseball's most consistently competitive teams, would be a dream come true for most big leaguers.

For Manny, who knows? Maybe he's matured somehow this offseason. Maybe we're in for more surprises. But for now we should just give him the benefit of the doubt and let him go out and play. That's what he does best.

Reporters look to athletes for great quotes, as if they were great writers, comics, philosophers or wisemen. That is expecting too much. Most of the time we get the same old stale, trite quotes. On those rare occasions when he actually talks to the media, Manny can occasionally say something hilarious, whether it makes sense or not. So let's just try to enjoy the amusement, not to mention the homers and the RBI.

Perhaps Curt Schilling put it best when being interviewed by Bill Simmons.

Simmons said, "My favorite "Manny being Manny" moment happened in the final game of the regular season -- he had just crushed a home run, the cameras caught you guys sitting next to one another in the dugout, he was talking excitedly about what pitch he had hit, and somewhere along the way, you just started staring at him in disbelief, as though he had just said something like, "I knew it was going to be a slider because I started craving a pork sandwich, and that always means a slider's coming!" And you just kept staring at him, and then he walked away to another part of the dugout, and you started shaking your head in shock like, "Wow, I will never, ever, ever figure that guy out." How many of those Manny encounters happen per season?

To which Schilling replied, "Three to four per day."

That, my friends, says it all.

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