Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reality Check for Varitek

This is clearly a moment of reckoning for Jason Varitek. It is also a defining moment, a moment of truth.

Will he or won't he accept the Red Sox formal offer, one that guarantees him $8 million over the next two seasons?

With no incentives for games played or at-bats, the deal is a far cry from the minimum of $10 million he forfeited in rejecting arbitration. It's easily imaginable that the current situation has left a most bitter taste in his mouth.

On the whole, Varitek must be feeling especially humbled right now. Little more than two weeks remain before Major League pitchers and catchers are due to report for Spring Training, and no other team wants the free agent catcher. That's got to smart. It's got to be incredibly deflating.

The truth is, Varitek gambled and lost. He rolled the dice and they just didn't roll his way. He figured that filing for free agency would result in long-term, big money offers from multiple suitors. False.

I don't doubt for a second that Varitek has wanted to return to the Red Sox all along; it's just that he wanted to do so on his own terms. Multiple offers would have given him leverage with the Red Sox and raised his price. That never materialized. Ultimately, he only has himself to blame. And apparently he understands this.

Varitek claims he wasn't aware that teams would have to surrender draft picks, much less a No. 1 draft pick, in order to sign him. He says he takes full responsibility for his decision to turn down salary arbitration from the Red Sox and that he doesn't blame Scott Boras for that. While the agent should have given him better advice, Varitek is right to take full responsibility for this error.

It's bizarre that a veteran ballplayer, one who has filed for free agency in the past, didn't understand the basic rules of free agency. It's not only indefensible, it's unbelievable. Varitek had to have known better; he is a grown man, an educated man, a millionaire. He had to take responsibility for that. Not to have done so would have hurt his credibility and reputation. But his agent also has some culpability for not making all of this abundantly clear to him before the process began.

Now Varitek is left with little leverage, and the bitter taste of humility rolling around in his mouth.

The 11-year veteran is nearly 37, a time when most catchers are well in decline, have moved on to a less taxing position, or are retired. Varitek's skills have declined considerably; the best that can be said about him is that he "calls a good game," and that he "prepares very well."

The truth is, Varitek was only able to throw out 22% of base stealers last season, which is below average. The top ten catchers in the Majors caught between 29% and 44% of base stealers. Varitek was 18th in that category. However, this was the least of his issues.

Though Varitek hit just .220 last season, what's really worrisome is that he batted a mere .187 after May 21. And what some people have forgotten is that Varitek hit .225 after the All-Star break in 2007. This means that over the last season-and-a-half, Varitek has hit just .222, and we shouldn't expect a significant improvement. Last year was not an aberration – it was part of a continuing decline.

Varitek's 13 homers were his second lowest for any season in which he had at least 400 at-bats, and his 43 RBI were his lowest for any season with 400 at-bats. He was an automatic out from the left side, leading many to suggest that he should stick to batting from the right.

None of this should suggest that Varitek is washed up or should retire. He can still play, just not at the elite level he once did.

Last year, Varitek put up the following line: .220/.313/.359

Meanwhile, the league average for AL catchers was: .258/.322/.393

So, Varitek was below average in all categories. This means he should be paid below average. Yet, the Red Sox have given him a better than fair offer, considering his recent performance. They have allowed Varitek to save face and hold his head high. They have not sought to humiliate their Captain; after all, they want him back for at least one more season, perhaps two.

Thirty-eight-year-old Gregg Zaun, a similar offensive catcher at this stage, just accepted a one-year, $1.5 million contract from Baltimore. Varitek should consider himself lucky not to have to play for similar money.

Despite the Red Sox hatred of Scott Boras, they are not trying to stick it to Varitek. They are not being vindictive by offering him a guaranteed $8 million (possibly $10 million) over the next two years. This is not an attempt at humiliation by his employers. This is as good as it gets for Varitek. This is more than fair market value at this stage of his career.

The Red Sox don't need to negotiate any further. They have all the leverage now, and Varitek has reportedly been given a Saturday deadline to accept the offer.

What's in it for the Red Sox?

Varitek is the team Captain. He is a leader. He was behind the plate for two World Series Championship teams – the first in the lifetimes of almost all Red Sox fans. He's also caught four no-hitters for the Sox, and been behind the plate for more games than any other catcher in team history. He can competently and deftly handle a pitching staff comprised of seasoned veterans and inexperienced youth.

He should do the right thing, the smart thing, and accept the Red Sox generous offer. Truthfully, it's the only thing. It's all he has left.

Varitek gambled, and he lost a lot of money this winter. It's time for him to accept it and move on – with the Sox.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

PROSPECTS ARE A GAMBLE

There has been a lot of discussion this offseason about the possibility of the Red Sox trading a pitching prospect for a catching prospect. Most often, these discussions have centered on the idea of exchanging either Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden for Arizona's Miguel Montero, or for one of Texas' young catchers, Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden.

The problem with prospects is that you never truly know what you’re dealing with, what you’re giving up, or what you’re getting in return.

Remember Andy Marte? He was the highly touted third base prospect the Red Sox got from Atlanta in exchange for Edgar Renteria. The Sox then flipped Marte and Kelly Shoppach to Cleveland for Coco Crisp, David Riske and Josh Bard. The move wasn't without great protest in Red Sox Nation. After all, the Sox were believed to be trading away a budding star, a heart of the order hitter, and the third baseman of the future.

But Marte, that once-heralded prospect, now qualifies as a bust. In 513 career Major League at-bats, he’s hit .211 with a .337 slugging percentage. At this point, the Indians have so little faith in him that they traded three prospects to the Cubs in exchange for utility infielder Mark DeRosa, who will now become their third baseman.

The Indians made the trade despite the fact that Marte is out of options and cannot be returned to the minors. He batted only .221 in 80 games last season, and had to hit .291 over his final 34 games just to finish with that meager average. If the guy doesn’t get it together quickly, he could be out of baseball at the age of 25. As a result, this could be a make or break year for the former wunderkind.

Prospects who are considered “can’t miss” clearly can miss – sometimes badly. Many Red Sox fans surely remember Brian Rose; he went from top prospect to journeyman pitcher in a heartbeat.

And, quite famously, Buchholz threw a no-hitter in just the second game of his career in September 2007. He then proceeded to go 2-9, with a 6.75 ERA, in his encore last season. Initially he looked like second-coming of Cy Young. Then he looked like a guy who belonged in the minors. So which is it?

No one knows for sure. It's all guesswork and projection when dealing with prospects. And any Sox fans salivating over the idea of Saltalamacchia, one of the game's premier catching prospects, crouching behind the plate in a Boston jersey, should have realistic expectations.

The following three players were among the most highly touted prospects in baseball over the past few years. Although each is young and still has time to mature and develop, based on previous expectations and projections, each looks like a bust at this point. In each case, the team that drafted and attempted to develop the player eventually gave up and cut ties with him.

24-year-old outfielder Elijah Dukes, Washington Nationals
Two seasons, 460 at-bats, 23 HR, 65 RBI, .235 AVG., .359 OBP, .443 SLG.

23-year-old outfielder Lastings Milledge, Washington Nationals
Three seasons, 873 at-bats, 25 HR, 112 RBI, .263 AVG, .329 OBP, .407 SLG

23-year-old outfielder Felix Pie, Baltimore Orioles
Two seasons, 260 at-bats, 3 HR, 30 RBI, .223 AVG., .284 OBP, .331 SLG

As much as "can't miss" prospects do indeed miss, sometimes overlooked prospects are traded and go on to become stars. Case in point:

Sox fans who are old enough to remember will probably forever lament the August 30, 1990 trade that brought Larry Andersen to Boston and sent HOF-caliber first baseman Jeff Bagwell to Houston.

Andersen compiled a 1.23 ERA in 15 appearances for the Red Sox, who won the AL East by two games over Toronto. The Sox were then swept by Oakland in the ALCS, and Andersen left as a free agent at season's end.

Meanwhile, Bagwell went on to win the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year, 1994 NL MVP, one Gold Glove, three Silver Sluggers, and made four All Star appearances. On the way, he compiled a career .297 average, 449 home runs and 1529 RBI.

But here's what most Sox fans probably don't know; Bagwell was a fourth-round draft choice in 1989 and hit just six home runs in 731 minor league at-bats. Though he did hit .321 while in the minors, he certainly didn't look like a superstar in the making, much less one who would eventually join the elite 400 home run club.

Bagwell will forever be remembered as the one that got away (second only to Babe Ruth, perhaps), but he never showed the raw power he developed in the Majors (perhaps with the help of PEDs).

The point is, the Sox could hang on to Buchholz or Bowden and live to regret it if one or both turns out to be a bust. On the other hand, the Sox could trade for Montero, Saltalamacchia, or Teagarden and live to regret it if he fails to develop as expected – especially if the pitcher they give up in exchange goes on to have a great career.

The bottom line is this; prospects are a gamble. We'd all be well-advised to never forget it.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

There's Got to be a Catch(er)

There were some very interesting developments in the Jason Varitek / Red Sox negotiations on Friday night.

Firstly, it was reported that Varitek personally requested a meeting with Red Sox owner John Henry. Secondly, the owner flew to meet the player in Atlanta, as opposed to Varitek coming to Boston. Thirdly, it was a one-on-one meeting; Varitek’s agent, Scott Boras, was not present.

This begs two questions that are essentially one and the same: How bad is the relationship between Varitek and Boras at this juncture, and how bad is the relationship between the Red Sox and Boras?

To that point, when asked by a TV reporter on Friday night how his relationship with Boras is these days, Henry replied, "What relationship?” before measuring his words and concluding with, “I probably shouldn't comment."

You have to figure Varitek feels pretty disenchanted with Boras right now, and must feel quite misled by him. With the absence of any market for his services, rejecting arbitration was absolutely horrible advice. The free agent turned down $10-$12 million with that ill-advised decision.

If Varitek feels that he has been poorly represented by Boras, it won’t be the first time a player has felt similarly about the agent; Gary Sheffield walked away from Boras and negotiated his own deal with the Yankees in 2003.

Despite the meeting between Henry and Varitek, word is that the Red Sox continue to explore trade talks with the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks, regarding Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Miguel Montero, respectively.

Sean McAdam, of the Boston Herald, reported, “There are lingering doubts about [both] young receivers and their readiness to solve the team’s long-term catching problems.”

If so, that’s quite interesting.

Naturally there will be concerns about a young catcher handling a staff of young, inexperienced pitchers, coupled with seasoned veterans, on a team that expects to contend. But it would be particularly strange, and quite revealing, if the Red Sox do indeed have "long-term" concerns about the position.

There are inherent doubts about virtually every young player; it's simply part of the game. Projections are all based on guess work and assumptions. Some guys burn out quickly and never fulfill their promise Do the Sox have these concerns about Saltalamacchia and Montero?

Even if Varitek returns this season, he'll be gone in a year or two, making room for a young successor. Someone else has to take over eventually, and it seems that Saltalamacchia, in particular, is about as good a catching prospect as there is in the game today. The prevailing wisdom is that he has more upside, at least offensively, than Montero.

Unless the Red Sox are determined to continually explore the open market and sign the best available veteran free agent (meaning they’ll be paying big money to an aging player), they eventually have to go with a young catcher.

Why wouldn’t they? The Red Sox have entrusted key positions to young, inexperienced players such as Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jed Lowrie. Those decisions have worked out pretty well. And it’s exactly how Varitek came to be the team leader in the first place.

Whomever the Red Sox employ to work in tandem with Josh Bard, be it Varitek, Saltalamacchia, Montero, or George Kottaras, they should be able to get at least league-average production from that duo.

Last year, the league average for AL catchers was: .258/.322/.393

The question is whether the Red Sox feel comfortable entrusting their pitching staff, crafted from a mix of experienced veterans and inexperienced youth, to a relatively inexperienced catcher?

The Red Sox have a lot invested in that deep and talented staff. It is, perhaps, the heart of the team, its greatest strength. Would management go with Bard, plus a young, untested catcher who would essentially be receiving on-the-job training?

Bard's contract isn't guaranteed, so the Sox could still re-sign Varitek and simultaneously trade for his heir-apparent.

So which of these various alternatives will it be?

It won’t take long to find out. Pitchers and catchers report on February 14.

Copyright © 2009 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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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

An In-House Solution at Catcher for Red Sox?

Though Josh Bard is already locked in behind the plate, the Red Sox still need to secure his battery mate.

The speculation has been that the second spot will go to either free agent Jason Varitek, or one of three young catchers: Miguel Montero of the Diamondbacks, Taylor Teagarden of the Rangers, or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, also of the Rangers.

It may well end up being none of the above.

Don't be surprised if the Red Sox go with a catcher already in their organization.

That's because the Sox could probably get league-average production from the combination of Josh Bard and 25-year-old George Kottaras, whom the Sox obtained from San Diego in 2006. The Sox gave up David Wells in the exchange, viewing Kottaras as the catcher of the future.

Well, the future has arrived. The Sox eventually need to give Kottaras playing time in order to find out if they have a big league catcher on their hands. Though his batting average at Pawtucket last summer was hardly inspiring, Kottaras had a fantastic OBP, and his other numbers were respectable as well: 22 HR, 65 RBI, .243/.348/.456.

And 26-year-old Dusty Brown put up the following numbers at Pawtucket: 12 HR, 55 RBI, .290/.377/.471

If the Sox think they can compete with Bard and Kottaras (or possibly, yet less likely, Brown) for the first few months, they may just wait to see which catchers become available when the projected salary dumps begin next summer.

Because of the Rangers insistence on receiving Clay Buchholz in any trade, most of the current speculation has centered on the 25-year old Montero.

Yet, it's tough to get excited about Montero's big league numbers. So far, it's all been about minor league success and Major League potential, which is often the case with prospects. Based on those numbers, Montero doesn't seem like a better alternative to Kottaras, or even Brown.

Montero batted just .239 in 414 career at-bats over parts of three major league seasons, With 15 home runs, he's shown some power, as well as a plate discipline that's resulted in roughly one walk every 10 at-bats. Since he's been shuttled to and from the Majors in recent years, spending relatively little time at Double A and above, the consensus seems to be that he just needs regular playing time and consistent at-bats.

But that doesn't inspire confidence. However, there is speculation that Theo Epstein is simply trying to use Montero as leverage to bring down the Rangers demands for Saltalamacchia, or Boras' demands for Varitek.

No matter, the Sox may have a better alternative in house. To this point, Kottaras has shown more power and a higher OBP than Montero. The following illustrates that point:

Montero - .2006, between Double A and Triple A: .286, 17 HR, 75 RBIs in 117 games

Kotarras - 2008, at Pawtucket: .243/.348/.456, 22 HR, 65 RBI in 107 games

So, why trade for Montero? Perhaps this is just a negotiating tactic by Epstein, but any GM should be able to see right through it.

At this point, it doesn't appear that the Red Sox really want to trade Michael Bowden, much less Buchholz. The club has been stockpiling pitchers because they might need them; Josh Beckett has an injury history, Tim Wakefield is 42, and Brad Penny and John Smoltz both have shoulder issues. If one of them gets hurt, the Sox probably want to be able to turn to Buchholz and/or Bowden. Having options, given the number of uncertainties they have, is a wise choice.

It's for these reasons that the Sox may hold onto Buchholz and Bowden, and finally give Kottaras his shot in the Majors. At the least, it would give them a clear indication of the young catcher's potential as he splits time with Bard. And it would also buy the club time as it waits for a tanking team, with tanking revenues, to make a top flight catcher available at mid-season.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

Monday, January 12, 2009

FINALLY, JUSTICE FOR RICE

For fourteen consecutive years, Jim Rice fell short of qualifying for the Hall of Fame. But this year, Rice, along with Rickey Henderson, finally got the 75 percent voting requisite for induction (76.4%, to be exact).

It never should have taken this long.

Rice had eight seasons of 100-plus RBI, and hit .300 seven times. He slugged 382 home runs, had 2,452 hits, 1,451 RBI, and a .298 average in 2,089 games. He was clearly dominant in his era, perhaps the most dominant hitter of his time, but what he lacked was longevity.

That lack of longevity didn't hurt Twins' outfielder Kirby Puckett. Playing only 12 seasons, Puckett was inferior to Rice in every offensive category, except batting, and yet he still achieved the immortality that induction confers. Either Puckett's induction was a mistake, or Rice was unfairly shut out all these years.

While it's often said that Rice played 16 seasons in the majors, he didn't. Rice was a September call up in 1974, and had only 67 at bats in 24 games. It wasn't enough to qualify him as a rookie, and it's not enough to be considered a season. Furthermore, Rice only played in 56 games in 1989, his final season. That year Rice had just 209 at bats. To be considered for a batting title, a player must have at least 400 at bats. In a typical season, an everyday player might see as many as 600 at bats. So the reality is that Rice played just 14 seasons, and in that time he amassed absolutely phenomenal statistics.

The truth is, if Rice had just sat out those 56 games in 1989 - when his eyesight had long since failed him - he would have finished his career with a magical .300 average. I say magical because many believe that if he'd lifted his average a measly .002 points that he'd have been in years ago.

From 1975-1986 Rice averaged 29 homers, 106 RBI, 91 runs and a .303 average. During this period, Rice led all American League players in 12 different offensive categories, including home runs (350), RBI (1,276), total bases (3,670), slugging percentage (.520), runs (1,098) and hits (2,145), as well as games, at bats, extra base hits, multiple hit games, go-ahead RBI, and outfield assists.

Rice dominated his era, finishing in the top five in the MVP voting six times in an eight-year span. He won the MVP award in 1978, when he became the first American League player to collect 400 total bases since Joe Dimaggio. He led the AL in homers three times, RBI twice, total bases four times, and was an All-Star eight times. He is the only player in major league history with three consecutive seasons of 35 homers and 200 hits. He led the AL in total bases for three straight seasons, tying a record held by Ted Williams and Ty Cobb. And Rice joined Babe Ruth and Jimmy Foxx as the only players in AL history with three consecutive 39 homer, .315 average seasons. Need I say more?

Rice was often perceived as a power hitter because of those three consecutive 39 + homers seasons, and because he hit 25 or more homers seven times in a ten year span. But Rice wasn't a power hitter so much as he was a hitter – plain and simple. Between '75-'86, he collected over 200 hits four times, hit .300 or better seven times, and .290 or better nine times.

First baseman Tony Perez was considered worthy of the Hall after batting .279 with 379 home runs and 1,652 RBI over 23 seasons. He certainly had the longevity and durability, but a lifetime .279 average can qualify one for the Hall? And Perez only averaged 16 home runs and 72 RBI per season. That is not dominant.

But Rice doesn't just outshine Hall of Famers Puckett and Perez. Some would argue that it's only fair to compare players by position. For example, second basemen generally don't hold up well against outfielders in terms of offensive production. They generally get into the Hall based on their their defensive prowess and how they compare to other second basemen offensively. But for argument's sake, I think it's fair to compare Rice to other Hall of Fame players of similar offensive stature.

Rice outperformed Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda in every offensive category; runs, hits, homers, RBI, total bases, walks, OBP, slugging, and hitting. Rice also had more homers, RBI and a higher slugging percentage than Roberto Clemente. Rice had more hits, home runs, and total bases than Joe Dimaggio. Rice had more runs, hits, homers, RBI, and total bases than Hank Greenberg.

Rice crushes Ralph Kiner in runs, hits, home runs, RBI, total bases and batting. Rice had more hits, total bases and a higher average than Eddie Mathews - not to mention a nearly identical slugging percentage and RBI total. Rice had more runs, hits, total bases and a higher average than Willie McCovey. Rice bested Johnny Mize in runs, hits, total bases, home runs and RBI.

Rice surpassed Enos Slaughter in runs, hits, total bases, home runs, RBI, slugging percentage and had a nearly identical average. Rice had more hits, total bases, RBI, and a higher average than Duke Snider. Rice had more runs, hits, total bases, and a higher average than Willie Stargell. And finally, Rice had more runs, hits, total bases, homers, and RBI than Hack Wilson.

Only nine players in Major League history have compiled as high a career batting average and as many homers as Rice. They are: Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Stan Musial. Naturally, each of them is in the Hall.

Only 199 former major leaguers have been elected to the Hall of Fame. The numbers bear out the obvious; Jim Rice has deserved to be among them all along. He deserved better than the injustice of this long wait.

Despite the fact that not enough voters got it right for 14 years, the evidence is clear; Jim Rice has always been worthy and deserving of the Hall of Fame. Rightfully, this year the voters finally did him justice.

Simply put, Rice earned it.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Red Sox Pen Now Mightier

The Red Sox' signing of former Dodger closer Takashi Saito is a savvy and interesting development.

The move bolsters the bullpen yet again, as did the additions of Ramon Ramirez, Wes Littleton and Miguel Gonzalez, earlier this offseason.

Having been the Dodgers closer for the last three seasons, Saito brings a ninth inning mentality with him, and gives the Red Sox even greater flexibility. Saito can be an eighth inning bridge to Jonathan Papelbon, or he can finish games himself, giving Papelbon an occasional, and surely needed, rest throughout the season.

Before going down with a partially torn elbow ligament last year, Saito racked up 81 saves over three seasons, including 39 in 2007 when he was an All Star.

Despite his injury, the Dodgers offered him $2 million guaranteed, plus $200K in incentives, which Saito rejected. Though he'll be 39 on Valentine's Day, Saito has been dominant in the past and the Sox expect him to regain that form this year. The Red Sox medical staff put him through extensive evaluations, and he passed them all with flying colors. For his part, Saito says he feels great and doesn't anticipate any limitations this season.

In giving Saito a one-year contract guaranteeing just $1.5 million ($2.5 million if he's on the active roster), plus a club option for 2010, the Sox chose yet another in a series of low cost options on the free agent market.

While many have described the acquisitions of Josh Bard, Brad Penny, Rocco Baldelli, John Smoltz and Saito as "low risk," that isn't necessarily so. It would be better to describe them as low cost since each of them is coming off significant injury or illness. There is a distinct possibility that some, or all, of them re-injure themselves again this year and are unable to play.

The five aforementioned players are each signed to incentive-laden one-year contracts that will cost the Red Sox a base total of $13.7 million, or $2.8 million less than the Yankees will pay the injury-prone A.J. Burnett this year. That just seems like good business sense in a down economy.

With Mark Kotsay also coming back into the fold and serving as both a backup first baseman and outfielder, Terry Francona can now carry 12 pitchers. The 12th spot was originally slated for David Aardsma, but with the addition of Saito, you have to wonder who makes the club now.

The Red Sox bullpen now consists of Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez, and Saito. Whether Justin Masterson will be in the rotation or in the pen remains to be determined. His presence gives the Sox tremendous flexibility.

And don't forget that the Sox also acquired Littleton in a trade with Texas and claimed Gonzalez from the Angels in the Rule V draft. Gonzalez has to be on the major league roster all year, or the Sox have to return him to the Angels. As of now, both pitchers remain on the 40-man roster and Epstein has said he likes their potential.

Assuming that Masterson starts the season in the pen, that leaves Aardsma, Littleton and Gonzalez as the odd men out.

One thing is for certain; the Red Sox have a lot of depth right now, and that will surely serve them well this year.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Red Sox Still Trying to Catch Up

Free agent catcher Greg Zaun has made his feelings clear: he would love to play for the Red Sox.

"My agent has had ongoing talks with Boston and I would love to see that happen. I would also love the challenge of playing in Boston, where every day you go to the ballpark it's a meaningful game and you're fighting for something. That atmosphere, I'm telling you, there's nothing like it, and to be a part of that would be unbelievable."

However, since the Red Sox are concerned about Jason Varitek's age and offensive decline, Zaun would hardly represent an upgrade. While it's wonderful that Zaun would love to play in Boston, the Red Sox had better have a much better plan in mind; the veteran is an even greater offensive liability that Varitek.

While Varitek will be 37 on Opening Day, Zaun will be 38 at that time. And as a lifetime .251 hitter who has never hit more than 12 homers in any of his 14 seasons, Zaun is not exactly an offensive force.

Despite his age, Zaun says he still feels fresh.

"You have to understand, I spent the first eight years of my career on the bench. I'm not the kind of guy in my mid 30s who is coming off several years of catching 100 or more games a year. Don't have the wear and tear that other guys my age have. My only other hobby other than playing baseball is taking care of myself. I'm in great physical condition and I'm built to catch as much as any team wants me to."

The Orioles have been the most aggressive suitor for Zaun, but the Red Sox remain interested. It's worth noting that Josh Bard's one-year, $1.7 million deal is not guaranteed.

It makes you wonder about the Sox' inside plan. Pitchers and catchers report in just five weeks, and there is still just one catcher with any considerable big league experience on the roster. According to GM Theo Epstein, negotiations with Varitek continue and all options remain on the table.

"There's still some unfinished business," Epstein said. "Jason is still out there. As I said at the beginning of the offseason, he's been a really important guy here to this organization and by no means have we shut the door on him. There's still some unfinished business there."

And Epstein also said that the Sox remain open to the idea of a youth movement behind the plate this season, noting they are "in the pursuit of a younger catcher."

"We have the two young guys who combined to form a pretty good platoon last year at Pawtucket in George Kottaras and Dusty Brown," Epstein said. "And we brought in Josh Bard on a one-year deal, someone that we really trust to run a staff and call a game and has been a significant part of the catching solution for a good team in this league and done a nice job. We see him factoring into the equation for sure."

But does anyone really believe that the Sox will enter this season with some combination of Bard, Kottaras or Brown? I, for one, don't buy it.

Varitek has now lost all bargaining leverage due to a lack of interest on the open market. He will long regret not taking the Sox' offer of arbitration, which would have netted him at least $10 million this year. If he lowers his demands, he may still get a one-year deal, perhaps with an option.

Obtaining Miguel Montero from Arizona, or either Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden from Texas, could be costly. Both clubs continue to ask the Sox for promising young pitcher Clay Buchholz in exchange. Despite his struggles last season, the Sox clearly remain high on Buchholz, or a deal would have been consummated by now.

The Sox are obviously waiting for the price to come down and are more open to trading Michael Bowden or Daniel Bard, in particular. The Rangers are in favor of keeping Teagarden, believing he is the more promising of their three young catchers (Max Ramirez is the other). Yet, they are in need of pitching and have made no additions to a staff that had a league-worst 5.37 ERA last year.

So if a deal is to be made, expect it to be Daniel Bard for Saltalamacchia in the next couple of weeks.

POWER OUTAGE IN BOSTON

The Red Sox wanted Mark Teixeira for a variety of reasons: he's young (29); he's a Gold Glove winning first baseman; he hits for both power and average; he's a switch hitter; and he conducts himself professionally both on and off the field.

While all of these qualities are appealing, the one that attracted the Sox above all else is Teixeira's offensive ability. The truth is, the Sox didn't just want Teixeira – they needed him.

Much has been made of the Sox' desire (or need) to upgrade offensively this offseason. The loss of Manny Ramirez, and his customary 35 homers and 120 RBI, was a deficit the team needed to overcome this winter.

However, the Sox did acquire Jason Bay in the Manny trade, and Bay is no slouch.

Over his five full season in the Majors, Bay has averaged 29 homers and 95 RBI. On the other hand, over the same period, Ramirez averaged 36 homers and 117 RBI. Obviously, Manny's stats are better and that 22 RBI differential needs to be made up elsewhere.

Bay's greatest advantages are that he is younger, less expensive, and more predictable. Jason being Jason isn't associated with any bizarre or selfish behaviors. His athleticism, relative speed, and defensive abilities are also assets. And, as noted, the guy can hit.

Here's a look at the active outfielders under 32 years old with the highest OPS:


Player - Opening Day Age - OPS

Adam Dunn - 29 - .900
Jason Bay - 30 - .891
Grady Siemore - 26 - .861
Carlos Beltran - 31 - .853


Despite Bay's productivity, there is a widespread belief that the Red Sox need to bolster their offense to remain competitive in the ever more challenging AL East. The problem is, there isn't whole lot of juice elsewhere in the Sox lineup. There isn't genuine power at catcher, second, short, center, or right. And who knows what to expect from Mike Lowell and David Ortiz?

And assuming Ortiz regains his full health and power stroke, just who exactly will protect him in the batting order? Though Kevin Youkilis led the Sox with 29 homers last season, his previous high was 16 in 2007. Which is more likely this year?

Earlier this offseason, even Ortiz weighed in on the idea of the Red Sox acquiring another power bat. "You definitely need to find another guy who can produce here," the big DH said.

Ortiz was drawing attention to an obvious need; the Red Sox were 12th of 30 teams, with 173 home runs in 2008. Just one homer separated them from the middle-of-the-pack. Another power hitter would certainly improve the 2009 team.

The Sox finished third in baseball with 845 runs last year. But as a team long renowned for its power hitting, they played small ball, using their speed to manufacture runs with base hits, bunts, sacrifices, and steals.

That's the good news, and it may lead some to contend that all the concerns about not upgrading the lineup this winter are overstated.

However, outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury (9) and JD Drew (19) combined for just 28 home runs last year. Thank goodness the Sox have Bay; without him, the outfield would be plainly impotent. It's an issue that management needs to address. Even the addition of Rocco Baldelli won't change this. When healthy, he's a good hitter but not a power hitter; at his best in 2006, he hit a home run in every 23 at bats.

It's not just Ellsbury and Drew; one of the Sox' primary problems is a lack of power throughout their lineup. Despite improving on their 2007 home run total (166) last year, the Sox have otherwise been in a power decline for the past six years.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. The Sox gave up on Trot Nixon because of his declining health and offense. JD Drew was supposed to be the high priced answer, a guy who could bat fifth and add some needed pop to the lineup.

But Drew is on the wrong side of 30 and has a long history of injuries. He's a fragile as your grandmother's fine china – and a lot more expensive. After two years in Boston, the right fielder has been an utter disappointment.

Believe it or not, Drew is the highest paid player on the team. And until MVP Dustin Pedroia got his six-year deal last month, Drew also had the longest contract of any position-player on the team.

When the Sox signed Drew to a highly controversial five-year, $70 million contract after the 2006 season, it raised eyebrows for a variety of reasons:

Firstly, Drew had hit 30 homers just once, and had driven in 100 runs just once -- in different seasons. And after two years in Boston, that hasn't changed. Drew has notched a total of 30 homers and 128 RBI (64 both years) during his tenure with the Red Sox.

Secondly, before Drew signed, no Sox player had been given a contract of longer than four years by the current ownership.

And lastly, Drew's career has been marred by a tendency to injury, resulting in repeated stints on the disabled list. Unfortunately, Drew has lived up to his fragile reputation while with the Red Sox, playing in only 109 games last year. And over the course of his 10-year career, Drew has averaged just 120 games per season.

After starting strongly last year, and earning his first All Star selection, Drew cooled considerably and hit a mere .211 in 90 at-bats following the All Star break.

From the beginning, many people, myself included, wrote that signing Drew was a very expensive mistake. Apparently, we were right. The Sox are stuck with Drew for an additional three years, and we'll be watching what I've termed "the most overpaid, underachieving player" for the duration.

As a $14 million-a-year corner outfielder, Drew should be expected to hit 30 homers and drive in at least 100 runs per season; that's not too much to ask. If that were the case, Manny's bat would not be missed. However, such an expectation is nothing more than a pipe dream.

Drew is an enigma, hailed for his "perfect swing" and for allegedly being a five tool player. The truth is, he's a good fielder, throws well, and runs well. But he's never stolen more than 19 bases in any season, and that was 10 years ago. His offense, however, is grossly over-rated. And it's not just the total absence of power either: Drew is a career .284 hitter; has never hit as many as 35 doubles in a season; never totaled 300 total bases (never even 200 w/Sox); has drawn 100 walks just once; and has struck out at least 100 times in four seasons.

Over ten full seasons, Drew has averaged 19 HR and 62 RBI. Apparently, he hits a lot of solo shots. Despite this, he is one of the highest paid outfielders in the game. And it was all predicated on a pretty slim resume.

Let's face it -- he just isn't a great player. One thing's for certain; Drew has always been over-rated, and he's certainly overpaid. Simply put, it's time to stop talking about his potential. He's been in the Majors for a decade and he's now 33 years old. The Red Sox have invested superstar money in a player who clearly isn't a superstar, and never will be. At this point he is what he is; an average player with an out-sized, bloated contract.

So, the Red Sox and their fans are stuck with mediocrity for the next few years. That is, of course, unless the Red Sox are willing to eat some of his hefty salary after convincing some other team to give him more "time to develop."

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

LOWE BALL

Is Derek Lowe Worth Four or Five Years, at $15 Million Per Season? In a Word; No.

Derek Lowe began his Major League career with Seattle in 1997, and came to the Red Sox later that season.

After working out of the bullpen and spot-starting from time to time over the first few years, he became a full-time stater for the Sox in 2002. He had had a career year that season, going 21-8, with a 2.58 ERA, and looked like an ace in the making.

In 2003, he posted another solid 17-7 record, behind a powerful Red Sox offense that propelled the team to 95 wins. However, his ERA leapt to a worrisome 4.47.

In his free agency year, 2004, Lowe went backward, posting a 14-12 record and a bloated 5.42 ERA. His days in Boston were numbered. Despite going 3-0 that postseason, (all clinching game wins), with a 1.86 ERA, doing his part in the Sox first World Series Championship in 86 years, Lowe's ERA had been going in the wrong direction for two consecutive seasons. And then there were all the alleged off field distractions, to boot. The Red Sox elected to part ways with Lowe without making him an offer.

Lowe landed with the Dodgers that winter, receiving a four-year, $36 million contract. Pitching in the National League, his ERA dropped considerably, averaging 3.59 over the next four years.

And as a result , Lowe and his agent, Scott Boras, are now seeking a 4-5 year deal, at an average annual salary of $15 million.

The question is whether Lowe is worth that price.

The free agent has a career 3.83 ERA as a starter, has made at least 30 starts in each of the last seven years, throwing at least 200 innings in five of them, 199 in another. With his seemingly rubber arm, he is dependable and doesn't break down. He can be counted to take the ball and compete every five days. In fact, he is one of just two Major Leaguers to have avoided the DL for the last eleven seasons (Brad Ausmus s the other). All of this makes for a good upside.

However, Lowe has never developed into an ace, much less the Dodgers ace. Though he was the Dodgers Opening Day starter in each of his first three years in LA, the distinction of staff ace went to Brad Penny, who was the more overpowering of the two. Lowe is not a dominating pitcher; he has never struck out as many as 150 batters in a season, and has won 20 games just once. He consistently allows more hits than innings pitched, and has a WHIP of 1.27 as a starter. When Lowe takes the mound, runners take the bases.

Lowe has never finished higher than third in the Cy Young voting, which he did in his best season, 2002, as a member of the Red Sox. The highlight of that season was his no-hitter against Tampa at Fenway Park, the first by a Sox pitcher since Dave Moorehead in 1965.

The 35-year-old righty, is a two time All Star, both with the Red Sox (2000 & 2002). He finished second in wins in the AL in 2002 (21), and finished tied for first in the NL with 16 wins in 2006 – not a great year for NL pitchers.

In short, Lowe is a good, solid, reliable pitcher. However, he is not a great pitcher. He's had exactly one great season in his career, and that was six years ago. Despite this reality, he is seeking a contract worthy of a great pitcher, one that will take him through age 39 or 40. Perhaps that's why he's still unemployed as of New Year's Day. And the free agent won't likely find any takers at that price, or that many years.

The Mets reportedly offered a three-year deal, worth $36 million, which Lowe and Boras balked at. This would maintain Lowe's average annual salary at $9 million, and seems to be reasonable for a pitcher of Lowe's caliber.

The problem is the out of line contracts given to average, if not underwhelming, pitchers like Carlos Silva of Seattle (four years, averaging $12 mil annually) and Vicente Padilla of Texas (three years, averaging more than $11 mil annually) etc. These kinds of contracts, given to mediocre pitchers, have completely distorted the market. Lowe isn't getting better; he's getting older. Perhaps he's only worth $10 million per season, especially in a recessionary period like the one we're in.

Undoubtedly, Lowe is more dependable and predictable than AJ Bunett, who was granted an absurd five-year, $82.5 million pact by the yankees. What are the odds that he'll fulfill that obligation? They're certainly not good, and the Yankees investment will likely come back to haunt them in the next couple of years. Once again, that is a contract that distorts the market. Baseball executives realize this, and that's why Lowe may not find a better offer than the one the Mets have given him. And he doesn't deserve better.

If the Red Sox could get Lowe at three years, $30 million, they just might bite. A longer contract for a 35-year-old pitcher would be out of character for the Sox, as would more money for one who is good, but not great.

Lowe says he has finally matured and is a different person than the one who left Boston following the 2004 season.

Then again, there was his 2005 affair with Fox Sports anchor Carolyn Hughes, leading to a divorce from his then-wife Trinka, with whom he has two children. That was after he left the Red Sox. Well, at least the affair led to a marriage between Lowe and Hughes just weeks ago.

Who knows if the off-field distractions will ever end for Lowe? But we do know that he is not worth the contract he is seeking, and the Red Sox are better off sitting on the sidelines and observing these negotiations as they play out.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.