Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Sunday, December 02, 2007

SANTANA TICKET VERY EXPENSIVE

Minnesota's asking price for Johan Santana is absurd. The Twins want a king's ransom for what is undoubtedly an outstanding pitcher, but the combination of Coco Crisp and Jon Lester should be enough to get the deal done.

Asking for Jed Lowrie, Justin Masterson and/or Michael Bowden is asking way too much. Unless the Twins are willing to include Joe Nathan, the Red Sox should just walk away now -- and quickly.

The Red Sox are returning their entire pitching staff – the one that just won the World Series -- complete and intact. And they will be adding Clay Buchholz to that rotation. What more do they need?

Buccholz is more than just a top prospect. The kid already has a no-hitter under his belt and is no longer the best kept secret in the Red Sox farm system. Everyone in the game now knows just how good this kid is.

On top of that, Lester will be entering his first full season in the Majors in 2008. Lester didn't pitch in his first game this year until July 23 and made just 11 starts. Next year he figures to make as many as 30 starts. Lester went 4-0 in 2007 and is 11-2 in his brief career. He is a budding young lefty, and perhaps a rising star. The Red Sox have thought so since they selected him in the second round of the 2002 draft. Yes, he needs to work on his control and lower his walk total; perhaps that would also help lower the 4.68 ERA he has amassed over parts of the past two seasons.

Most importantly, over the better part of the next decade Lester and Buchholz -- combined -- won’t cost the Red Sox the $25 million annual salary that Santana and his agent expect to command.

Indeed, Santana is a bona fide #1 starter. Most informed observers consider him to be among the top five pitchers in the game today. Many argue that he is among the top three, and others contend that he is the very best.

Check out this career stat line: 7.3H/9 - 9.5K/9 - 3.8K:BB - 2.5BB/9 - 1.0HR/9

Impressive stuff, no doubt.

The power pitching lefty is a career 93-44 with a 3.22 ERA. By the age of 27 he had won two Cy Young Awards, and will be just 29 on Opening Day. He has been dependable and injury-free to this point, but there are concerns.

Though he has thrown a relatively limited 1308 2/3 innings during his brief Major League career, most of them have come in the past four seasons, when he became a full-time starter. In that span, Santana has pitched 912 1/3 innings, an average of 228 innings each year. Some think that workload is catching up to him.

Over the last three years, Santana’s base runners per nine innings, HR allowed, and BB/K ratio have all been trending upward. And his innings per start have been in decline in that span, down from 7 in 20005 to 6.6 this season. What’s more, this year he allowed an AL-high 33 home runs, and his 1.073 WHIP was his highest since '03.

Santana has won 20 games just once. And he is just 1-3 in five post-season starts, with a 3.97 ERA -- three-quarters of a run higher than his regular season average.

All that aside, there is a reasonable concern about giving $25 million annually to a player who starts just once every five days. And how would this affect Josh Beckett, the team’s #1 starter, and undeniable stud, who is signed to a relatively modest long-term contract? Beckett is arguably the best playoff pitcher of his generation and he would be earning about half of Santana’s annual salary.

Over the past few seasons, the Red Sox and Yankees have competed fiercely over free agent pitchers like Jose Contreras, Javier Vazquez, and Carl Pavano. The Yankees won these battles but ultimately lost the war because of them. In fact, the Yanks haven’t had much success after successfully obtaining other highly-coveted pitchers as well; Jeff Weaver, Randy Johnson, and Jared Wright are fine examples.

The Red Sox may be simply bidding up the price on Santana so that the Yankees are forced to buy high. The Sox would love to see the Yankees part with Joba Chamberlain or Phillip Hughes. It would continue their past trend of giving up on young, homegrown talent in lieu of expensive free agents. It hasn’t worked so far and has only lead to repeated frustration and a bloated payroll – the largest in pro sports.

There is no denying Santana’s greatness, or that he is currently in his prime. Even though his 2007 campaign was considered an “off year” by many -- due to his 15-13 record and 3.33 ERA, his highest since 2001 – Santana was still quite good. He led the league in WHIP, was 3rd in H/9, 3rd in K/9, 2nd in K.

The hard-throwing lefty would represent an immediate upgrade to the Sox rotation. He would certainly be superior to Lester or Buchholz in 2008. But beyond that, who knows? And it would come at an enormous cost – reportedly $120-$150 million over six years.

The Red Sox will need to replace both Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield after next season, and are perfectly poised to do so right now with Buchholz and Lester. And they have Masterson, Bowden and Daniel Bard coming down the pike as well. The pipeline is deep and poised to replenish the rotation over the next few years. These young, homegrown players will give the Red Sox payroll flexibility and allow them to address other needs throughout the lineup and bullpen.

The Sox and Yanks could both call each other’s bluff and hope that Santana is still available on the free agent market at this time next year. According to Ken Rosenthal, major-league sources have indicated that Santana has informed the Twins that he will not waive his no-trade clause during the season, eliminating the possibility of a July 31 non-waiver deadline deal.

The end result would cost some bidder an enormous contract, but without the added cost of prized young players to boot. But such Loto-sized, long-term pacts are certainly risky. Just consider Barry Zito’s $126 million, seven-year deal. Think the Giants would like to take a Mulligan on that one?

Theo Epstein and his staff are constantly trying to negotiate the difficult challenge of playing for this year while planning for the future. Santana would help in the near-term, but his acquisition would create other holes that would need to be filled.

Jed Lowrie is supposed to supplant Julio Lugo in the next year or so, and starting pitching is not an area of need within the organization. There are other needs to address, such as finding a young back-up catcher who can become Jason Varitek’s successor.

Jacoby Ellsbury is the most exciting Sox outfield prospect since Fred Lynn and Jim Rice. No one seems to doubt that he will be an offensive improvement over the disappointing Coco Crisp. Red Sox Nation has already fallen in love with Ellsbury following his brief but exciting late-season appearance and timely playoff success.

Lastly, it is important to consider, as the Red Sox surely are, that in four career games at Fenway Park (three starts), Santana is 1-3 with an eye-popping 6.89 ERA. That’s got to raise eyebrows as well as concerns. In those games he gave up 21 hits and 8 walks in just 15 2/3 innings.

The Twins have a highly coveted star pitcher which puts them in the diver’s seat. But that sense can lead to hubris, as is the case right now. GM Bill Smith is just playing the Red Sox and Yankees against each other in an attempt to drive up the price. But the Yankees have reportedly set a Monday deadline for a deal to take place. The Yanks are said to have offered Melky Cabrerra and Phillip Hughes and plan to stand firm on the offer.

The Red Sox are said to be taking a similar hardline stance, reportedly offering Jacoby Ellsbury in a package. But the caveat is that such a package would exclude Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

The GM meetings are now open for business. As the old saying goes, to the victor goes the spoils. But in such intense and high-stakes negotiations, the Red Sox need to guard against getting a spoiled, rotten deal.

Play for today, plan for tomorrow. A tough balance indeed.

Copyright © 2007 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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