Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Red Sox May Take a Step Back in 2010, to Take Two Steps Forward in 2011

In my estimation, the Red Sox are in a precarious position right now, and could very well return with essentially the same team next season.

They weren't good enough to beat the Yankees this year, and that may not change next year.

The Sox can only hope for the best from Mike Lowell and David Ortiz. Both player's salaries are essentially $12M in 2010, and both contracts expire at season's end. The Sox will live or die with this pair of veterans. They are stuck with both players, for better of worse, and will have to ride out those contracts.

When those pacts expire after next season, the Sox will have about $25M to play with in next year's free agent market. This year's crop isn't particularly enticing anyway.

The Sox have spots to fill at shortstop and in left field. Beyond that, they have young, affordable, franchise players that they would be loathe to trade (Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis), or overpriced, underperforming players that will be very difficult to trade (Ortiz, Lowell, JD Drew).

Look for the Sox to give Alex Gonzalez a low dollar, one-year deal, with the notion that Jose Iglesias is waiting in the wings.

You can forget the Marco Scutaro talk; he a Type A free agent and, assuming Toronto offers him arbitration, the Red Sox will not surrender two picks for a 34-year-old player of his caliber.

Going after Adrian Gonzalez would gut the Red Sox farm system; Jed Hoyer will ask for the moon and stars, as he should. Clay Buchholz would certainly be required in any such deal, leaving a gaping hole in the Sox' rotation.

Junichi Tazawa and Michael Bowden are not ready for the Majors. Therefore, the Red Sox would need to acquire a free agent pitcher to replace Buchholz. There are few enticing candidates beyond John Lackey.

I'm skeptical that the Red Sox will sign a big star, other than Jason Bay. And if they lose Bay, don't be the least bit surprised if they acquire some lesser player, such as Xavier Nady, Rick Ankiel or Cody Ross, to platoon with Jeremy Hermida.

Prepare yourself for the distinct possibility of a very underwhelming replacement/acquisition. It won't likely be Matt Holliday.

The Red Sox have inquired about the Marlins' Dan Uggla, envisioning him as a potential replacement for Bay in left field. Uggla, 29, projects to earn approximately $8 million in arbitration. In four major-league seasons, he has averaged 30 homers and 90 RBIs.

So, Uggla has Bay-like numbers at less than half the cost. He would give the Sox more leeway to acquire another big-time hitter or pitcher.

One interesting possibility is that the Sox could still acquire the two-time All Star, even if they re-sign Bay. In that scenario, the Sox would move Pedroia, a college shortstop, back to his natural position, and have Uggla play second, his current position with the Marlins.

Expect Bay to be back with the Sox. It would be surprising if any team offers him more than four years, at $15M annually. He can't carry a team by himself, and he was very streaky this year.

Bay is 31, has hit .300 just once, and is coming off a career year. At this stage of his career, he won't get any better. You can only hope that his production remains consistent and that he doesn't decline during the contract.

Even if the Sox retain Bay, that won't be enough to get it done in 2010. It wasn't enough this year. More would still need to be done.

With Ortiz and Lowell aging/declining, plus a fairly weak free agent class, there is a distinct possibility that the Sox might not be quite so close to the top of the American League next season.

The club may choose to ride out the final year of Otiz' and Lowell's contracts and hope to retool after the 2010 season, when Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee might all be free agents.

As much as we love Big Papi, the Red Sox will never again have such a one-dimensional player on their roster; all stick, no glove.

The Sox need a more versatile, multi-dimensional DH/position player going forward. Bay would provide the Red Sox the ability to play DH and the outfield, even if his defensive skills erode slightly during the course of the contract.

One interesting question is whether the Sox would possibly trade Josh Beckett, particularly if contract extension talks stall?

Obtaining a pitcher (like John Lackey) and hitter (Bay) through free-agency would be helpful because the Red Sox could then devote a package of young players toward someone like Adrian Gonzalez.

Becket may seem more appealing than Lackey, but he hasn't quite been the stud that the Red Sox were expecting when they traded Hanley Ramirez for him.

Since arriving in Boston, Beckett's ERA is 4.04, which is good, but not ace-like; his WHIP is 1.20; he's never struck out 200 batters in a season; and opponents have batted .300 against him.

Four years is a pretty good sample size. Beckett has been good, but not great. He's going to want a big-money deal after taking the hometown discount last time, and you have to wonder if the Sox might determine that money could be better spent elsewhere.

Lackey is not as desirable as Beckett, especially since his agent is seeking an A.J. Burnett-type contract (five years, $82.5 million).

Lackey will be an asset to any team's rotation; he has a career 3.81 ERA, all in the AL. He's reached 200 innings in four seasons, and 198 in another.

However, Lackey hasn't come close to 200 the last two seasons, missing a month-plus in each due to arm trouble. In 2008 he made just 24 starts, and this year he made 27.

The big Texan is 31 and has never won more than 19 games. Overall, he has won just 102 games in eight seasons – an average of 13 wins per year. And he has never struck out 200 batters in any season, though he did fan 199 in 2005.

The reality is that Lackey is worth about four years at $15M annually – tops.

Though he is not a true frontline ace, he would be a #1 on most teams and he would be a great #2 on the Red Sox.

Signing Lackey would also give the Red Sox the ability to leverage Beckett in a deal for more offense.

Acquiring Felix Hernandez will cost the farm; Lackey will only coast money, and the Sox have plenty of it since they didn't spend it on Mark Teixeira last winter.

After restructuring Tim Wakefield's contract, which will save the Sox $1.5 million on the competitive balance tax, Theo Epstein made an interesting statement.

"That's important because there's some things we want to do this winter and we don't have a ton of room under the CBT," Epstein said.

The tax threshold for 2010 will be $170 million; the Sox were around $122 million in 2009. Is Epstein really planning that much additional spending?

The club obviously has plenty of payroll space for Roy Halladay or some other superstar acquired via trade.

However, the Red Sox have a long history of going after talented – but previously injured – pitchers still seen as having a strong upside: think Wade Miller, Bartolo Colon, Brad Penny and John Smoltz..

The club deemed these acquisitions "low risk, high reward" since they were all signed to short-term contracts. Yet, not one of them worked out well.

Despite this, expect the Sox in on Ben Sheets, Rich Harden, Eric Bedard, and/or Carl Pavano.

If that doesn't seem inspiring, prepare yourself. This may be a very unexciting winter for Red Sox Nation.

Signing Jason Bay will not put the Red Sox over the hump, and the rest of the free agent field is thin.

While free agents only cost money (which the Red Sox have plenty of), trades will cost prospects, and the Red Sox do not have a lot of upper-level depth in their system.

Acquiring Felix Hernandez, Roy Halladay or Adrian Gonzalez would cost the Red Sox so much minor league talent that it could take years for the system to recover.

The Red Sox may instead wait until next year, when some of their big contracts expire, when the free agent field will be more attractive, and when more of their minor league talent is better developed.

In the meantime, they may look for bargains – the arbitration-eligible players that small-market teams can no longer afford. These types of players will either be traded (like Jeremy Hermida) or simply non-tendered.

Players of that variety may not be superstars or headline grabbers, but they are easily affordable options to a team like the Red Sox, who may take a step back in 2010 to take two steps forward in 2011.

Brace yourself for that possibility.

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