Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Thursday, November 01, 2007

LET THE HOT STOVE BEGIN!!

IT'S TIME TO LOOK AHEAD. AN OFF-SEASON PREVIEW

As good as the 2007 Red Sox were, changes will be made. Some players are past their prime (Curt Schilling), some youngsters cannot be ignored (Jacoby Ellsbury), and some free agents may be too expensive, or require too long of a commitment (Mike Lowell).

Let’s start with Schilling.

Perhaps Schilling saw the writing on the wall at the end of the regular season when he told the Providence Journal that his house in Medfield would be on the market. That signaled he was pretty sure his days in Boston were numbered.

That was a good assumption. These days, Schilling is a five or six inning pitcher – at best. He wants a one-year deal at $13 million, the same figure he made this season. Sure, there is a thin free agent market this year, but despite this Schilling is no longer worth that kind of money.

Over the last three seasons he's 31-23 - an average of 10-8 each year. In that span his ERA is 4.54. He is clearly in decline, and Clay Buchholz will get his spot in the rotation next year.

Schilling knows this, and that’s why he said goodbye to his teammates after the World Series. He'll be elsewhere next season, and that's why his house is for sale.

For what it's worth, Schilling would like to finish his career with the team that drafted him and says the window for negotiating with the Red Sox will be the first 15 days after the World Series. Apparently, he's already begun initial discussions with three teams.

Given the limited free agent pitching options available, (Freddy Garcia, Tom Glavine, Bartolo Colon, Livan Hernandez, Steve Trachsel), Schilling will certainly draw interest. He brings a great resume and has presence on the mound, as well as in the dugout. He could help instill confidence and pitching smarts in a staff of young, inexperienced pitchers. Perhaps he could even help a veteran team.

The question is how much he has left in the tank. His last six regular season starts resulted a 2-3 record. But his 2.79 ERA over that span, combined with strong October performances, virtually guarantees that he'll have suitors.

The soon-to-be 41-year-old righty is 11-2 lifetime in 19 postseason starts, with a 2.23 ERA. He's been a World Series MVP. He's started a Game 7 in the World Series. He's won elimination games and series clinchers. He will forever be remembered for the bloody sock and, especially to Sox fans, for helping to defeat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and then the Cardinals in the World Series for the team's first Championship in 86 years. For that, all of Red Sox Nation thanks you, Curt, and will be forever grateful.

And then there's the matter of Mike Lowell, one of the most popular players on the team.

Not only was Lowell the World Series MVP, but he was arguably the team's 2007 MVP as well. After career highs in average (.324), on-base percentage (.378) hits (191), and RBI (120), the third baseman is expecting a significant raise.

Lowell will be 34 on opening day and will likely be signing his last long-term deal. He'll be looking for at least a three-year deal and if anyone -- such as the Yankees -- offers four, he may bite.

A fantastic fielder and team leader who speaks both English and Spanish, Lowell will surely attract interest on the open market. However, the Red Sox are hesitant to enter into contract with players past the age of 35.

One possibility; the Sox could offer Lowell a two-year deal with a third year option that automatically vests if certain performance incentives are reached.

For example, if Lowell hits at least .300, has at least 90 RBI, or at least 20 home runs in the second year, the third year is guaranteed. This could make sense for both sides. The Sox aren't concerned so much with having 36-year-old under contract as they in having a declining player under contract. And if Lowell is confident in his abilities, his love for the Red Sox and Fenway Park may keep him in town. Lowell was tailored made for Fenway, hitting 97 points higher, and with twice as many homers, at home as on the road.

Dark horse scenario; Kevin Youkilis moves back to third and Pawtucket first baseman Chris Carter assumes first base. Carter came over in the Wily Mo Pena deal and was in the top five in batting average and top 10 in homers in the Pacific Coast League as a member of the Diamondbacks Triple A affiliate this year. He looks like the real deal.

Expect a new face in center next season. Jacoby Ellsbury batted .360 during the playoffs, third highest on the team. Meanwhile, incumbent center fielder Coco Crisp batted just .188, lowest on the team.

Crisp, who turned 28 on Thursday, had another disappointing year at the plate, batting just .268 with a .330 OBP. During his four years with Cleveland his average improved every year, culminating with a .300 average in his final year – 2005.

Though never a power hitter, his home run total has been halved since joining the Red Sox. And he had a career high in strikeouts this year. All of this points to the obvious; Crisp has been in decline offensively for two consecutive years.

Meanwhile, the scouting reports on Ellsbury have been excellent since he was drafted. He is going to be a star. That means that Coco's days are numbered. The question is this; do the Sox trade him this winter, or at the break next season?

The fact that he hasn't hit a lick in two straight seasons will hurt Crisp’s trade value. However, his stellar defense should earn him a Gold Glove (if there's any justice), and that should fetch a decent return in any trade. Scheduled to make an average of $5.25 million over the next two seasons, Crisp should be viewed as a value by most teams.

Like many teams, the Red Sox also need to address the position of catcher. This is an area of weakness across the minor leagues and internationally.

The Sox need to find someone who can help ease the burden on an aging Jason Varitek in order to help extend the Captain's career, and his effectiveness at season's end. Varitek will be 36 in April and is entering the final year of the four-year contract he signed following the 2004 season.

The 37-year-old Doug Mirabelli is not the answer. Though he effectively catches Tim Wakefield's elusive knuckleball, Mirabelli is older than Varitek and is an offensive liability, hitting just .202 this year -- well below his weight.

The soon-to-be-30-year-old Kevin Cash is younger, but he too is an ineffective hitter. In 176 at-bats in Pawtucket this season, he hit just .176, and then in 12 games with Red Sox just .111.

Knowing this was an area that needed to be addressed, the Sox traded David Wells to San Diego for Triple A catcher George Kottaras in 2006. But the 24-year-old Canadian hit just .241 in nearly 300 at bats and is not a power threat. Clearly he needs more time to develop and doesn't appear to part of the solution for 2008. The Sox will have to look elsewhere for help.

The position of shortstop has been a bit of a merry-go-round for the Red Sox these last few years, going from Nomar, to O-Cab, to Gonzo, to Lugo. Makes you wish the Sox had simply re-signed Orlando Cabrerra after the 2004 season, doesn't it?

Last winter, the Red Sox let shortstop Alex Gozalez walk without even making him a contract offer. After watching him play for just one year, the Sox decided that they wanted to go in a different direction -- namely one that would provide them more offense. So the defensive wizard signed with the Reds and the Sox signed Julio Lugo in his stead.

But things didn't turn out as planned. Lugo largely fizzled at the plate in Boston while Gonzalez thrived in Cincinnati.

Playing in just 110 games, with less than 400 plate appearances, Gonzalez hit 16 homers and 55 RBI, while hitting .272 with a .325 OBP. However, never the speedster, Gonzalez had no stolen bases.

Meanwhile, back in Boston, Lugo was a bit of a mixed bag, hitting just .237 with 8 homers. But he also drove in 73 RBI (more than a certain shortstop who plays for the Yankees) and stole 33 bases, which lead the team.

Lugo was steady and fairly reliable in the field, playing in 147 games and making 19 errors. But the normally sure-handed Gonzalez made 16 errors in far fewer games for the Reds.

Though his contract is hard to figure, or justify, Lugo is merely a stopgap. The Red Sox are grooming one of their top prospects to assume the shortstop position in the not-so-distant future.

Jed Lowrie hit .300 in 160 at-bats for Pawtucket this season, with a .356 OBP. Expect to see him at mid-season or, at the latest, as a September call-up. Lugo is scheduled to make $9 million annually over the next three seasons and will eventually be moved to make room for Lowrie. It's only a matter of when.

Eric Hinske is no longer under contract. Though a versatile fielder, after hitting just .204 this year in limited at-bats, and being a career .255 hitter who's been in decline since winning Rookie of the Year in 2002, it's a safe bet he won't be back.

Bobby Kielty, on the other hand, is a switch hitter who made a name for himself in Boston with his critical home run in Game 4 of the World Series. He could be the fourth outfielder in 2008.

Despite his Grand Slam in Game 6 of the ALCS, many fans would still like to bid farewell to JD Drew and his $14 million per year contract. Don't count on it. Drew's offensive struggles are no secret and there's no market for such an overpaid, underachieving player. Drew had never done anything to warrant such a massive long-term deal in the first place, and this season only diminished his value. The Red Sox would likely have to eat half his salary in any deal -- an unsavory choice. So expect him back next year and hope for something better.

Here's a sobering thought; does anyone doubt that either Jacoby Ellsbury, David Murphy or Brandon Moss couldn’t have matched Drew's 11 home runs, 64 RBI and .270 average this past year? One way or another, it would have come at a far lesser expense.

Tim Wakefield will be back for yet another go-around as the Sox elder statesman. Wakefield will still be pitching when Jon Lester retires someday. Julian Tavarez will also be back. Tavarez is very versatile and is a complete team player. Whatever it takes to win, he'll do it. By all accounts, he is a great and selfless teammate. Mike Timlin, if healthy, can still pitch. He'll be 42 on opening day, but is only called upon to pitch one inning at a time. His sinker still sinks and he is a leader with four World Series rings. The head of the bullpen core will back for one more year.

And finally, as for Alex Rodriguez finally coming to Boston…. don’t hold your breath. My bet is that the market for A-Rod will be thin at Scott Boras’ absurd asking price, and he may be left without a suitor. That price could be as high as $300 million, another all-time high for A-Rod and Boras.

But here’s the problem; seven major league franchises are worth less than $300 million, according to April's Forbes. No player is worth that much – especially one with A-Rod’s playoff resume.

Rodriguez may end up going back to the Yanks and groveling for a contract. Who cares about his MVPs when he's the LVP in the playoffs -- when it really matters. Don’t lose sleep over this one, Sox fans.

So there you have it – some changes that will, and won’t, take place this off-season.

The GM Meetings begin this weekend in Orlando. The Hot Stove is just starting to heat up.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

No comments: