Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Saturday, October 28, 2006

ROCKIES INTERESTED IN CRISP

Now that the World Series has concluded, the free agency period is set to begin in what is sure to be an interesting, and potentially exciting, offseason for the Red Sox.

According to the Denver Post, the Rockies think the price of acquiring a center fielder through free agency could be too high, which may lead them to explore a trade for a player currently not in that position. The Rockies have a particular interest in Houston's Chris Burke, who hit .276 with nine home runs and 40 RBIs in a part-time role for the Astros last season.

If the Rockies can't acquire Burke in a trade, it's said they'll instead pursue Coco Crisp in a deal with the Red Sox. The Rockies are looking for a center fielder with some power who can hit first or second in the lineup. In an injury-shortened season with the Sox, Crisp batted .264 with 8 homers and 36 RBI in 105 games. Most disappointingly, his .293 on-base average is the lowest among American League leadoff men.

Crisp's poor performance at the plate was largely excused due to missing so much time with a finger injury. However, it's worth noting that Crisp still managed 413 at bats -- more than Alex Gonzalez, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek and Wily Mo Pena.

Despite his down year, Crisp is just the type of player that Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd would like to have patrolling center field next season. Crisp’s current deal has three years remaining, at a grand total of $15.5 million (plus an $8 million club option for 2010). At that price, the Rockies may not be the only interested party. If the Sox seek to move Crisp, almost any team could afford his salary and there could be a number of potential suitors.

WHAT'S NEXT?

With just 83 wins this season, the St. louis Cardinals have the distinction of having the worst regular-season record of any World Series winner in history.

By way of comparison, the Red Sox won 86 games and didn't even qualify for the playoffs. Which goes to show that in baseball anything can happen, and outcomes are often quite unpredictable.

One prediction is fairly certain -- the highly competitive American League will be even more so next year.

Three teams -- New York, Minnesota and Detroit -- won at least 95 games. A fourth team, Oakland, won 93 games and a fifth, Chicago, won 90 games.

That's five teams with 90 or more wins, and two others came close -- Los Angeles (89) and Toronto (87). That means, including the Red Sox, eight teams finished the season with 86 or more victories.

And the Red Sox should be concerned; all of their competitors will likely be just as good next season, if not better.

As Sox skipper Terry Francona said at season's end:  “We have to have an open, honest assessment of where we are. There are some teams in our league that have gotten pretty good and they’re probably not going to go away. We have to find a way to get deeper. It’s not going to be easy because there are some teams out there that can do some spending.”

The Sox will not only have to contend with free spending competitors, but with many of their own issues as well. There are plenty of holes to fill for 2007. Aside from the starting rotation and bullpen questions, of which there are many, the Sox currently have vacancies at shortstop, second base, and right field -- meaning that one third of their starting lineup may be replaced. And if the club accommodates Manny Ramirez's trade request, that would mean nearly half of their nine starters could be in transition.

Without a doubt, any of the moves that Sox GM Theo Epstein makes this season will be under great scrutiny. The honeymoon period from the 2004 World Series Championship is long since over. In retrospect, many of Epstein's decisions since that time were clearly in error.

The trade of Josh Bard and Cla Merrideth is one Epstein would surely like to have back. Both players shined in San Diego while Doug Mirabelli bombed in his return to Boston. Mirabelli didn't even bat his weight.

And after After successive minor-league seasons of .334, .318 and .341 batting averages, Epstein traded Freddie Sanchez to the Pirates in 2003 for the mediocre Jeff Suppan, who was abused by A.L. hitters and didn't even make the Sox playoff roster that year. Meanwhile, Sanchez won the N.L. batting title this season with a .344 average and made his first All Star team.

Derek Lowe, whom Epstein deemed expendable after helping the team win the World Series in 2004, went 16-9 for the Dodgers this season, and finished ninth in the N.L. with a 3.63 ERA, after posting a 3.61 ERA in 2005. Lowe wanted a hefty long-term contract (4 years, $36 million), but instead Epstein gave Matt Clement similar money for three, instead of four, years. Meanwhile, Lowe threw 222 innings for the Dodgers in 2005 and 218 this season. And Matt Clement... well we all know the story by now.

And then there was the trade of the rubber-armed Bronson Arroyo, who at 29 was young, inexpensive, and reliable. Arroyo won 14 games for the Reds this season and finished the year with a 3.29 ERA, fourth best in the N.L. He also led the league in innings pitched.

There were also the regrettable acts of not signing Orlando Cabrera, in favor of Edgar Renteria -- whom the Sox are still paying (in part) to play in Atlanta -- and letting Johnny Damon leave for the Yankees, with whom he had yet another highly productive season. In Damon's case, it was simply the result of a below-market bid. Damon's replacement, Coco Crisp, though injured much of the season, did play in 105 games with 413 at bats, and had a 293 on-base average as a leadoff hitter -- the lowest among American League leadoff men.

The trade of Hanley Ramirez (a Rookie of the Year candidate) and Anibal Sanchez (who threw a no hitter, and went 10-3 with a 2.83 ERA in the weaker NL) to the Marlins can, and will, be debated for quite some time. Mike Lowell had a productive year for the Sox, though he faded in the second half. Meanwhile, Josh Beckett led the Sox with 16 wins, though he also tied Tim Wakefield with the most losses at 11. And among the 40 qualifying pitchers for the American League ERA title, Beckett ranked 36th. Among the 83 qualifying pitchers in the majors, Beckett ranked 75th. For some, the jury is still out on the trade. For others the ruling is in; mistake.

Finally, as of this moment, Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen and Dustin Pedroia do not appear to be future stars in the making. Of course it's still quite early in their careers and all could blossom, but none looked as good as the league's other brilliant rookies this year.

The question is, are the Red Sox a team that is reloading for another World Series run in 2007, or are they a team in the process of rebuilding? Once again, they will send two forty-something pitchers (Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield) to the mound every fifth day. Jason Varitek looked like he suddenly turned 40 himself this year, and he has no proven backup as of right now. Who knows which Mike Lowell will return to Boston next spring -- the one who was red hot in the first half, or the one who managed only one extra base hit in August, highlighting a disappointing second half? Will Coco Crisp ever be the player the Sox envisioned when they traded for him and gave him a three year extension? Will Wily Mo Pena ever be more than a project in development? Will Jon Lester ever return, and if he does, will he return to the promise he showed this season? Where will the Sox find the pieces to fix their beleaguered bullpen, especially since every other team will looking for the same fixes?

In essence, there are many, many questions, and very few answers at this moment. In fact, we may not have all the answers until well into next season. But if the St. Louis Cardinals proved anything on Friday night, it's that anything is possible in baseball.

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

Saturday, October 21, 2006

OUTFIELD OPTIONS

Assuming the Red Sox don't renew Trot Nixon's contract for next season, and that seems quite probable, there will be at least one outfield position to fill for 2007. Of course there is the possibility that the team could choose to start either Coco Crisp or Wily Mo Pena in right, but Pena's defensive liabilities were glaringly obvious over the course of the summer. He's just as likely to cost the team a run in the field as he is to produce one at the plate. Pena revealed himself to be more comfortable in center during Crisp's absence, and shifting the two players may be considered.

But unfortunately, even after four big league seasons, Pena is still viewed as a "project" within the organization, failing to win the confidence of Sox management. Though his plate discipline did improve and he managed to hit .300, at times Pena still swung wildly at pitches well out of the strike zone, and embarrassed himself in the outfield on numerous occasions. The most likely scenario is that the club will keep Pena on the bench, use him as a reserve outfielder and pinch hitter, and hope he continues to develop.

With Crisp having the ability to play either center or right field, he provides the team with flexibility in their quest to replace Nixon. So who are the top candidates? There are a number of interesting possibilities, to be sure.

At the top of the list is Braves center fielder Andruw Jones. The five-time All Star will turn 30 in April, and is coming off of back-to-back 40-homer seasons. The Sox are known to have long-coveted the talented Jones, who is under contract to the Braves for 2007, necessitating a trade if the Sox are to acquire him. Aside from the player costs in securing Jones, signing him to a long-term deal would be expensive. With that in mind, the Sox may choose to go with a free agent instead.

But another intriguing possibility is Carl Crawford, who is also currently under contract to his present team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Rays are reportedly willing to shop Crawford, who plays left field but could slide into center. Crawford has four years remaining on a six-year, $31 million contract. That's a very reasonable price for a player with his talent and skill sets. The 25-year-old collected 183 hits this year, while batting .305, with 18 homers, 77 RBI and 58 stolen bases. Those are the kind of numbers the Sox thought they'd be getting from Coco Crisp this season, and it's possible that the two players are too similar to be in the same lineup. The Sox would prefer a power bat, so aside from the fact that acquiring Crawford would likely cost them young pitching talent, the Sox would then have to acquire a bona fide power hitter as well. That could get complicated.

Alfonso Soriano will clearly be one of the hottest free agents this winter. Soriano, who made $10 million this season, reportedly turned down a five-year, $70 million offer to stay in Washington. I'll do the math for you; that's $14 million per season, and it wasn't enough. Signing the 40-40 man is going to require some very deep pockets -- like the kind that go all the way down to the ankles. Though he's said he's willing to remain in the outfield and isn't determined to return to second base, it's reasonable to question if Soriano could handle Fenway's tricky right field. It would certainly be a costly experiment.

There have been reports that the Red Sox might be interested in Gary Matthews Jr., who hit .313 with 19 home runs and 79 RBI for the Rangers this year, earning his first All-Star appearance. Matthews is an excellent defensive player, who may earn his first Gold Glove, ending Torii Hunter's streak of five consecutive awards. The 6-3, 225-pound center fielder has a powerful arm, and is also a quality leadoff hitter who scored 102 runs this year. But Matthews is 32, has played 13 seasons, and is coming off a career year. He'll probably be looking for three-year deal at around $27 million, and the Sox may be looking for a younger hitter with more power.

Free agent Carlos Lee would fit the bill, and he'll also be a player of significant interest this offseason. The 30-year-old belted a career high 37 homers, and drove in 116 runs, playing for the Brewers and Rangers this season. But Lee also hit .300 while notching 187 hits and 102 runs, so he's more than just a bopper. Lee played in his second consecutive All-Star game this year and recorded his fifth consecutive season of 25-or-more homers. No doubt, he will have many suitors and will fetch a hefty long-term contract for his efforts. Could the Sox have an interest? If internal scouting reports reveal that Lee could fit comfortably in right, expect them to be a player in the bidding.

As stated, there are a number of interesting possibilities and candidates, and this promises to be yet another exciting and active Hot Stove season for the Red Sox. After such a disappointing summer, the club will surely want to stir things up in the free agent market and give the fans legitimate reason to be optimistic for a better 2007. A more potent and balanced hitting attack will surely be a focus, and the team needs to successfully address that need, among others.


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

Saturday, October 07, 2006

LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD

For a team that was in first place at the All-Star break, and remained there through the July 31 trade deadline, this season was one of great frustration, and regret, for the Red Sox.

The Sox finished the 2006 campaign with a disappointing 86-76 record. It was the first time in five years the team failed to win at least 90 games, after having done so in six of the last eight. They also finished the year in third place, after having finished second to the Yankees for eight consecutive seasons. Most importantly, the Sox failed to make the postseason for the first time in four years.

The reasons for such a fall off were manifold; injuries, a lack of depth, and underachieving players.

The Red Sox had the fifth-worst team ERA (4.83) in all of baseball this season, and the sixth-worst opponent’s batting average (.278). Only six teams in the American League allowed more home runs. Injuries certainly played a part, as the Sox started 14 different pitchers this season.

The Sox single biggest offseason acquisition didn't quite live up to the hype, or the expectations. While Josh Beckett led the team with 16 wins, he also tied Tim Wakefield for the most losses with 11. Will Beckett develop into a frontline starter? Among the 40 qualifying pitchers for the American League ERA title, Beckett ranked 36th. Among the 83 qualifying pitchers in the majors, Beckett ranked 75th. The powerful righty has to develop more pitches in his repertoire, other than his fastball, and needs to be able to change speeds and locations at will to reach his true potential in the challenging A.L.

The Red Sox hit .269 for the season, which was third worst in the American League. After three straight seasons of leading the majors in runs, they finished sixth in that category. The falloff in production was particularly stark after the All Star break; the Sox ranked last in the league in batting average, 10th in on-base percentage, last in slugging, and ahead of only the Devil Rays in runs. Injuries certainly took their toll, but that doesn't tell the whole story: During the second half, Kevin Youkilis had just three home runs and slugged .379; Mike Lowell hit .252 and slugged .411; Coco Crisp had an on-base percentage of .312; Eric Hinske hit only one home run. All of them are under contract for next season.

David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez accounted for 30 percent of the team's RBIs and 45 percent of its home runs. Papi and Manny became the first pair of teammates to average 40 home runs a season over four seasons. In that span, Ramirez belted 160 homers while Ortiz smashed 173 long balls. While very impressive, it reveals the lack of balance in the team's offense. Other players have got to produce runs. The Sox are lacking a potent, and consistent, number five hitter. They clearly need two more reliable hitters who can produce runs in at least the 25 HR, 90 RBI range.

Changes are a-coming, just as in the last two off-seasons.

After returning from a month-long stint on the disabled list on Sept. 3, Jason Varitek proceeded to strike out 29 times in 61 at-bats, the most K's he's had in any month in his career. Varitek batted a career-low .238 in 103 games this season, 34 points below his previous career average of .272. The Sox captain turns 35 April 11, and there have been questions about the physical toll on his body and his ability to be effective in the final two years of his contract.

With that in mind, and because they have no solid catching prospects in their system, the Red Sox acquired lefthanded-hitting catcher George Kottaras from the Padres in exchange for David Wells. Whether or not Kottaras is ready to jump to the big league level remains to be seen, but the Sox will have high hopes come Spring Training. One way or another, the Sox need a solid and dependable backup up to spell Varitek next year and beyond. Doug Mirabelli is no longer that player.

Kevin Youkilis showed a knack for getting on base, as evidenced by his .381 OBP (Johnny Damon had a .359 OBP), and played solid - sometimes stellar - defense in his inaugural year at first base. It would be nice if the club could count on Youkilis for at least 20 homers, and consistent production in the second half. Another second half fizzle won't work. Look for Youk to make adjustments.

Once again, as it has been for so many years, second base remains in a state of flux and is in question for next season. The middle infield spot has unfortunately been without consistency for entirely too long. Mark Loretta, Mark Belhorn, Todd Walker, Rey Sanchez, Jose Offerman, Mike Benjamin, Jeff Frye, and Luis Alicea have all played the position in succession. Offerman was the last to hold the position for at least three consecutive seasons ('99-'01), and you have to go all the way back to Jody Reed to find a player who held the position longer ('89-'92).

Loretta would like to return, but will be seeking a multi-year deal in the millions of dollars. Meanwhile, heir apparent Dustin Pedroia is as inexpensive as he is inexperienced. The rookie hit just .191 in 31 games, and hardly won the confidence of anyone. Another year of Loretta manning second, with Pedroia as his understudy, would be ideal.

Alex Gonzalez may have earned himself his first, and much-deserved, Gold Glove award. The defensive wizard wowed Boston fans with his splendid glove work but was streaky at the plate, finishing the year with a .255 average and a .299 OBP. The organizational fascination with Julio Lugo is kind of hard to figure (.278, .341 OBP, 12 HR 37 RBI), but the team may make a run at him in the free agent market. If Pedroia gets the nod over Loretta, the Sox may elect to go with a more potent offensive shortstop than Gonzalez, despite his jaw-dropping defensive skills.

Mike Lowell rebounded nicely after an off year in 2005. Lowell made every play at third look routine, and batted .284 with 20 homers, 80 RBI, and 47 doubles. His $9 million salary next year would make him difficult to move, but the Sox should be pleased enough with his performance to gladly bring him back for one more go-around. Lowell proved himself to be a quiet, durable leader who won the respect of the fans, his teammates, and management.

Odds are that the Sox will have a new right fielder next year. Old friend Trot Nixon has likely played his last game in Sox uniform. Nixon's injury woes persisted as his plate performances continued to dwindle. Nixon routinely played great defense in Fenway's tricky right field and possesses a strong arm. That, coupled with his gritty "Dirt Dog" demeanor endeared him to Sox fans throughout the Nation, but expect a new face in his spot next season.

Wily Mo Pena, with his defensive liabilities, hardly seems like the ideal candidate. But if the Sox can acquire the highly coveted Andruw Jones via trade, they may well move Crisp over to right. That is, if they don't trade Crisp first. But knowing that a serious finger injury hindered Crisp's ability to properly grip the bat and hit, the Sox may decide to let the young speedster continue his development in Boston.

The Manny Ramirez saga will continue. With only two years remaining on Ramirez's deal, it's hard for the Sox to claim that they need to "get out from under the contract," for "financial flexibility". With Ramirez's stellar and amazingly consistent production, he earns his every dollar. Replacing Manny in the order will be next to impossible. The Sox should continue to tolerate Manny's eccentricity knowing that we are witnessing a Hall of Fame career before our very eyes. Present day Sox fans will speak of Manny's on-field exploits for generations to come.

David Murphy will probably be given a chance at the big league level over Gabe Kapler, and either George Kottaras, or another veteran, will replace the ineffective Doug Mirabelli (.191, 6 HR, 25 RBI) as Varitek's backup. Alex Cora, who could start elsewhere, will have to be persuaded to come back as the league's best utility player. His ability at a number of positions, his baseball smarts, and his awareness of everything around him, have won the confidence of the Sox brass. Cora rarely makes mental mistakes.

Rebuilding the beleaguered bullpen will require the work of an alchemist, as the task has continually frustrated Theo Epstein and company. The free agent market is thin, but with Jonathan Papelbon slated for the rotation, some big shoes need to be filled. Keith Foulke, for lack of better opportunities, will trigger his option and return. What the Red Sox will get in return is anybody's guess. The Sox may take a flyer on often-injured, but once-brilliant, closer Eric Gagne. Mike Timlin would like to return as a set-up man, but his best years are well behind him now. Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen are still green and, out of necessity, were promoted too soon. One thing's for sure -- the pen needs help badly.

Finally, the starting rotation needs another marquee pitcher, and the bidding will be steep for both lefty Barry Zito, and righty flame thrower Jason Schmidt. There will be many suitors, many dollars, and both cream-of-the-crop pitchers will have no shortage of intriguing choices. But the Sox will be seeking someone to anchor the staff not only for next year, but for the next few years as well, long after Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield are retired.

For a team that has been almost entirely remade and reconfigured since the 2004 World Series Championship, just two short years ago, the 2007 edition of the Red Sox will likely seem much different once again. It's a continuing trend that all of us must get used to. Hopefully, it will be for the best.

Changes are coming, so be prepared. Things are about to get interesting.

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