Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

With Trades, Red Sox Attempt to Create Something From Nothing

Since they'll be paying virtually all of his salary for the next season and a half, the Red Sox were able to pawn Julio Lugo off on the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for outfielder Chris Duncan, plus a player to be named later.

For the Cardinals, who lack depth at the shortstop position, Lugo actually represents an upgrade since there is no true backup shortstop on their roster.

The 28-year-old Duncan is the son of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, and the brother of former Yankee first baseman Shelly Duncan.

Papa Duncan was reportedly none too happy that his son was traded. However, he noted that Chris is happy with the move and that his son has always done better on the road than in St. Louis, so he expected the move would benefit him.

The left-handed hitting Duncan is primarily a left fielder, but also plays first base. He batted .227 (59-for-260) with five home runs and 32 RBIs in 87 games for the Cardinals this season, going 4-for-12 (.333) as a pinch hitter. He ranked second on the club, and was tied for ninth among left-handed National Leaguers, with 41 walks.

But, after a strong April, Duncan went into a funk that he's not ben able to shake. In May, he hit .227 and slugged .386, and in June his slugging percentage fell all the way to .289. Duncan is just 1-for-31, without an extra base-hit, since June 29. He'd also gone over a month without an RBI. His poor play earned the scorn of the St. Louis media and the usually supportive Cardinal fans.

Duncan's season was cut short last July 22nd due to a herniated cervical disk that eventually required surgery. This morning, one year to the day later, he was optioned to the Cardinals AAA affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds, before being traded to the Red Sox.

Over parts of four seasons, the 6'5", 230-pound Duncan has shown some power, notching 55 career homers, or one every 21 at-bats. His most productive season was 2007, when he hit 21 homers with 70 RBI. Before being injured, Duncan, a career .257 hitter, had back-to-back 20-plus homer seasons.

After being acquired by the Red Sox, Duncan was immediately assigned to Pawtucket. The fact that he isn't out of options and could be assigned to Triple A made him a perfect fit for the Sox. The team wasn't required to make a corresponding roster move to accommodate him, a significant part of the reason that Lugo was designated when Jed Lowrie was activated.

This was the best possible scenario for the Red Sox; they were able to get something in return for Lugo instead of simply losing him without compensation. And they got a player with options who won't force additional roster moves, allowing the club greater flexibility.

But the bigger news today was the Red Sox acquisition of Pirates first-baseman Adam LaRoche, who , like Duncan, also has a brother with Major League experience (his former Pirate teammate, Andy).

LaRoche gives the Red Sox a power bat and another option at first base, should the team need Kevin Youkilis to spell Mike Lowell from time to time at third. Lowell is still recovering from hip surgery and it is unknown how much he can be depended on in the second half.

One important note to this signing is that is will result in a corresponding roster move. Which player is demoted, traded, or DL'd remains to be determined.

The 6'3", 205-pound LaRoche has swatted 20 or more homers in each of the last four seasons, and with 12 so far this year is on pace to do so again. In that span, he has averaged 25 homers and 85 RBI. A career .269 hitter, his best season was 2006, when he had 32 HR, 90 RBI, and a .285 average.

However, the slumping first baseman is hitting just .109 since July 4. The good news is that he is a consistently torrid second-half hitter whose career OPS after the All-Star break is .901.

The Sox are hoping this pattern continues and that LaRoche can help spark a club that is hitting just .192 over the six games since the All Star break. In that span, the Sox have scored only 2.2 runs per game, resulting in a 1-5 record.

As further evidence of the Sox significant offense needs right now, six of the nine starers in Wednesday's lineup are hitting less than .260 at present.

The left-handed LaRoche has also shown great defensive prowess at first base, with one error in 836 total chances. He ranks second among NL first basemen with a .999 fielding percentage. The Sox can sub him for the Gold Glover Youkilis at any time and not miss a beat.

The incredible part of the story is that to obtain LaRoche, the Red Sox only had to part with two lesser prospects, shortstop Argenis Diaz, and pitcher Hunter Strickland.

Though a slick-fielding shortstop over six pro seasons, Diaz was hitting just .253 with no homers and 24 RBI for Double A Portland. The willingness of the Sox to trade him says a lot about their belief in minor leaguer Yamaico Navarro, as well as the recently-signed Jose Iglesias and Jose Vinicio, as the likely shortstops of the future.

The 20-year-old Strickland was an 18th-round pick in the 2007 draft. He is 5-4 with a 3.35 ERA in 18 games, including 12 starts, at Greenville. The Sox' incredible pitching depth made him easily expendable.

Now in his sixth season, LaRoche is eligible for free agency this fall. The health of Mike Lowell may determine whether or not the Sox attempt to resign LaRoche in the offseason.

In the meantime, he adds more versatility to the Sox roster and adds some much needed left-handed power to an offense that sorely needs it right now. But his at-bats will come at the expense of not just Lowell but also the light-hitting Mark Kotsay.

Both players are said to approve of the move and hope that it will improve the ball club.

We can only hope it does. One way or the other, the Sox have now added two left-handed hitting first baseman with power to their arsenal. That was something that neither Julio Lugo nor Argenis Diaz could provide them.

That makes these moves savvy, and likely beneficial, in both the near and long terms.

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