11-9-2011: Other areas of need and available free agents

Ben Cherington came out yesterday and suggested that the Red Sox were not likely to be big players on the free agent market this offseason. I think he’s being genuine, but even if they were, what good would it do them to come out and say that?

Here are the problem areas as I see them, and some free agent projections (all numbers assume a transition to the AL East).

1. Starting pitching

With so much money already committed to the rotation, I would be surprised if the Red Sox continued to throw money at this problem. Adding C.J. Wilson or Yu Darvish would be nice, but can we afford another $100M contract here, while our core players will be earning more and more every season? Signing a big arm to a long-term deal like that might mean saying goodbye to Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz once their current deals expire.

Name Age IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA WHIP
CJ Wilson 31 182.1 8.2 3.7 0.5 3.42 1.30
Roy Oswalt 34 161.6 7.1 2.4 0.9 3.93 1.30
Erik Bedard 33 64.2 8.7 3.5 1.0 3.94 1.36
Hiroki Kuroda 37 154.8 7.2 2.4 1.0 4.06 1.34
Mark Buehrle 33 189.1 4.9 2.1 0.9 4.10 1.39
Edwin Jackson 28 186.5 7.3 3.3 0.9 4.14 1.45
Freddy Garcia 35 109.2 6.1 2.7 1.0 4.27 1.40
Bartolo Colon 39 93.8 7.0 2.7 1.2 4.28 1.40
Javier Vazquez 35 167.3 8.0 2.7 1.3 4.41 1.33
Jeff Francis 31 123.2 5.6 2.4 0.9 4.58 1.46
Paul Maholm 30 161.2 5.5 3.2 0.9 4.68 1.54
Tim Wakefield 45 118.8 5.8 3.3 1.1 4.92 1.46

As you can see, bringing back Tim Wakefield really shouldn’t be an option; almost any free agent is likely to be better than him going forward. Erik Bedard has huge injury concerns, and that’s not what this staff needs. Hiroki Kuroda doesn’t seem likely to come out east. I think Roy Oswalt could be a fit if he’s willing to take a two-year deal at good money, and Buehrle would be a solid signing if we can get him for fewer than four years. Edwin Jackson scares me a little bit long-term, so I’d avoid offering him more than three years as well.

2. A closer/setup man (or two)

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1-24-2011: Papelbon and Ellsbury sign, looking at the recent AL East moves, SS controversy?, the farm system

Warning: long post ahead! If you get bored, check out the countdown to the pitchers and catchers report date here.

Sox avoid arbitration with Papelbon and Ellsbury

Never fear arbitration, Red Sox Nation – Theo Epstein is here. Jonathan Papelbon and Jacoby Ellsbury both agreed to new one-year contracts last week, avoiding arbitration despite what were seen to be complex cases. Epstein did the right thing by both players, finalizing the payroll and letting us move on to the more important questions.

For Papelbon, he’s accumulated elite closer stats at a young age, but there are indications that he’s losing his dominance in recent years, and reports that the Sox considered trading him this offseason; that didn’t prevent him from getting a $12M deal for his last year under team control. Should Papelbon leave via free agency after this season, he will almost undoubtedly be a Type A free agent. But those two compensation picks are not guaranteed, since Paps is someone who might actually accept arbitration should the Sox offer it. One look at this year’s reliever deals (apart from Rafael Soriano’s deal), and you’ll see why making $13-15M with the Sox for one season might look better than signing elsewhere, especially if the Yankees (currently with two closers under contract for 2012) are out of the running. Not to mention that several other big-name relievers could hit the market for 2012, including the Dodgers’ Jonathan Broxton and the Padres’ Heath Bell. This has led to speculation by some that the Sox will try to trade Papelbon during this season, so as to get something for him rather than let him walk for nothing. I think that if the Sox do as well as we all think they will, they will keep him on the squad, and he can walk. It’s worth it if he pitches well.

Then there’s Ellsbury, who looked to be on the up and up until the “unstoppable” Adrian Beltre derailed him for basically all of 2010. With a possible rift between him and the team, questions about his toughness and ability to play regularly, some were arguing that the Sox should try to lowball Ells. That would have been a bad move, and will not work with Scott Boras. As it is, he’s satisfied for now and will try to reestablish his value for next year’s arbitration negotiations.

Manny, Damon and Vernon Wells…

The Rays, Jays and Yankees all made some moves recently in what looks like a bid to catch up with the Red Sox. In what seems like a bad joke, Andrew Friedman reeled in both Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez this week. Damon gives them someone who can play left and give Desmond Jennings a chance to take his time, and he can even spell Dan Johnson at first. Manny will probably be the first legitimate DH they’ve ever had.

Name Pos PA AB H 2B 3B HR R RBI BB SO SB Avg OBP SLG OPS wOBA
Damon LF 622 559 151 30 7 13 87 60 61 90 20 0.271 0.344 0.422 0.766 0.351
Ramirez LF 459 397 114 23 3 18 61 65 56 87 3 0.288 0.384 0.491 0.875 0.391

Damon is still a very solid hitter (though the defense is a problem), and with Manny, they may not even feel the loss of Carlos Pena. Both former idiots are aging players and Manny has got his team chemistry issues, but winning solves all ills, so it could work out well for them at a very low cost.

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Dodgers offer 2-year, $60M deal to Manny?

Under intense public pressure to re-sign his slugger, Dodger GM Ned Colletti may be offering a 2-year deal worth $60M to Manny Ramirez. This is similar to the deal that Los Angeles gave to Andruw Jones last offseason, big money for short years. In contrast, agent Scott Boras has said that his 37-year old-to-be client is looking for a 5-year deal valued at $25M per year, but that’s just not going to happen.

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Done deal: Manny a Dodger

GMs Ned Colletti and Neal Huntington are turning cartwheels right about now. In about as last minute as a deadline trade can be, the Red Sox finally unloaded Manny Ramirez in a three-way deal with the Pirates and Dodgers. He will exchange his red socks for blue, the Pirates will gather a lot of prospects and OF Jason Bay will be headed to Boston to replace Ramirez on their roster. As part of the deal, Ramirez’s two one-year options will be void, and he has agreed to decline arbitration with Los Angeles this winter. Scott Boras is also doing cartwheels over his new free agent-to-be.

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Braves extend an offer for Youkilis?

Peter Gammons reported recently that the Atlanta Braves may have offered Mark Teixeira to the Red Sox in return for Kevin Youkilis and Craig Hansen. I’ve already gone into depth weighing some of the costs and benefits of a Youkilis-for-Teixeira swap. Basically, the upgrade is only necessary if one David Ortiz isn’t capable of coming back.

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Time to explore other options at third base

Now that he’s officially a free agent, Mike Lowell has been offered a number of four-year deals, at least one of which falls in the $55-60M range. It is thought that the Yankees, Cardinals, Braves and Angels have all come calling. The Red Sox have not extended a better offer than their initial 3 years and $36M, and this all but ensures that Lowell will play with a new team in 2008.

It is very sad that we will be without Lowell’s leadership next season, but it’s not all bad. For Boston, this means that:

1) They will receive a first-round pick from the signing team and a sandwich pick for Lowell, who is a type-A free agent. You almost can’t blame Theo for choosing this route, given how well the Red Sox have drafted in recent years. Adding another Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz to the organization would soften the loss of Lowell, yes.

2) We need to explore the free agent market or a trade to fill that hole at third. Here are three possible ways we could choose to fly:

Economy Class
There are a number of options the front office could employ to just plug the hole with what we already have. The Red Sox do not have anyone in their farm system ready to fill this hole. Jed Lowrie, a middle infielder, could be a possibility; but starting a rookie with zero experience AND moving positions on him? Oakland or Minnesota, sure. But I don’t see the Sox taking a risk like that.

The next best option would be to put Kevin Youkilis back at third base, and have Chris Carter and Brandon Moss compete for the first base job. This could work out, but it could also end up flopping big time. I don’t see a World Championship team with our payroll settling for this, either.

There are some third basemen available, but not good fits for our club. Among free agents, there is Mike Lamb (offensive option) and Pedro Feliz (defensive option). Lamb has the stick, but is just barely average at third, and hasn’t played there full-time since being a rookie in 2000. Feliz is a defensive genius and a right-handed batter with some pop, but his lifetime .288 OBP won’t fly in this organization.

Business Class
In a strange free agent year, there are realy no middle-class options at third this offseason, which means that Boston will have to look to trade. With the availability of a lot of big free agents in centerfield this offseason, it may take teams some time to realize that they aren’t going to be able to afford a Torii Hunter or an Andruw Jones. That makes Coco Crisp some mighty tasty trade bait, and he might fetch us one of these middle-of-class guys in return.

Scott Rolen was a perennial All-Star until injury severely limited two of his last three seasons. He’s got 3 years left on his contract at $12M/year (coincidence that this is exactly what the Sox offered Lowell?), which makes him scary to most teams, but not the Red Sox. The Cards are said to be averse to eating any money from his contract, and Theo would oblige if they lower the asking price just a bit. I like Rolen as a good match; he’s a right-handed veteran power bat who plays excellent defense. He’s a bit of a risk, but his lifetime .372 OBP is a nice fit, and he’s actually one year younger than Lowell. The Cardinals want starting pitching in return; would St. Louis take some package including Julian Tavarez, who is locked in for less than $4M, or would we consider dealing Jon Lester?

Some have suggested that Garrett Atkins might be available. While the 28-year old slugger poses an interesting option, at least two writers say that the Rox are not going to trade him this offseason (standard disclaimer here about being blown away by an offer).

The Chicago White Sox have two players who can play third in Joe Crede and Josh Fields, and Crede’s name has come up in trade talks already this offseason. The 30-year old righty plays excellent defense, and has demonstrated some power, though he missed most of last season with an injury. His career .259/.305/.446 line is not that encouraging, but he did have a great 2006 and the White Sox could be interested in Crisp. Crede made about $5M in 2007, is arbitration eligible and under control of Chicago.

Yet another player that has been mentioned is Texas’ Hank Blalock. The Rangers are seeking a good return on the 27-year old, who has one year left on his contract at $6M, and a $6.2M option for 2009. Blalock has a .273/.337/.462 career line and has been about league average on defense the past three years. Texas is another team that has shown a lot of interest in Coco.

First Class
Then there are the big names, the ones who will cost us, either now or in the future.

Alex Rodriguez needs no introduction. The guy has said so many things about what he wants and who he wants to play for that I don’t care what he says anymore. The only thing that hasn’t changed is his egomaniacal need to become the highest paid athlete ever. First the Yankees wouldn’t touch him, but then neither would anyone else at $350M, so the Yanks have come crawling back on their hands and knees. Word is he’s nearly ready to sign a new 10-year, $275M deal with a lot of incentives to stay in pinstripes. If the price had come down to 8 years and $225M or so, I think the Sox should have got him. But, I’m also kind of relieved he won’t be playing here.

Then there’s Miguel Cabrera, the 25-year old phenom who hits everything and eats everything in sight. He’s got two more years under control (at about $11M and $15M), and then would become a free agent. The Marlins are asking for four premium prospects in return for Cabrera, and they’re likely to get two and a half or three from either the Angels or the Dodgers. Cabrera is a butcher at third, and would play at first base if he came to Boston. However, with the Fish asking for Buchholz, Ellsbury AND Lester, I am not optimistic.

Outside the box
If the Sox choose, they could pursue first basemen with the idea of shifting Youk to third. This opens up a huge realm of possibilities, including Richie Sexson, Carlos Pena, Conor Jackson and some old Epstein favorites, including Todd Helton and Ryan Shealy.

UPDATE: Could Lowell come back?
Multiple reports have surfaced suggesting that all those four-year offers never really were offered, and with the Yankees ready to re-sign A-Rod, Lowell could indeed come back to Boston. The Yankees say that they would consider putting Lowell at first base if they sign him, but I don’t see why they want him that badly. I think they are just trying to up the price for the Red Sox.

Cuckoo for Coco Crisp?

With the emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury this season, the Red Sox are sitting pretty with Coco Crisp as a fourth outfielder. Crisp is too good to be a fourth outfielder, but the Sox have the budget to carry him as such if they can’t get the price they want in a trade. His manageable salary makes him attractive to a lot of smaller market teams, and with so many centerfielders hitting the free agent market, his name has come up early and often. The list of suitors includes (but is not limited to): Atlanta, Minnesota, San Diego, Texas and Washington.

What do the Sox want/can they get in return? Let’s look at a team-by-team breakdown.

Atlanta Braves
With the loss of Andruw Jones, the Braves are getting hit doubly hard. They lose their top defender AND a huge bat. They’ve addressed the offense by getting Mark Teixeira at the 2007 trade deadline, but they need someone to step in and cover centerfield. Atlanta has always liked Crisp, though John Schuerholz is out now as GM. There was some talk of the Sox being interested in Kelly Johnson, though I’m not sure where he would play. The Sox more likely would be interested in a plus bullpen arm; they were said to be going after Mike Gonzalez last year, though I’m not sure the Braves would give him up now.

Minnesota Twins
Torii Hunter had a career year in 2007, and the Twins made a run at the playoffs before flaming out. Now they need to move on and try to squeeze every penny if they want a shot at extending Johan Santana past 2008. The consensus is that they’d like to try for either Crisp or Rocco Baldelli, but the price has been too high, especially with so many bidders. Look for them to reconsider once the big free agents start to get situated, and the pressure gets on to find a starting centerfielder. What could the Sox want from the Twins? Epstein has inquired about Jesse Crain in the past, but maybe they’d like to get someone like Pat Neshek or Matt Guerrier. Maybe even Kevin Slowey or Glen Perkins.

San Diego Padres
With the pending departure of Mike Cameron, the Pads need to sign someone who can cover the vast expanse that is PETCO Stadium. Who better than someone like Crisp? I know that Chase Headley must have come up, but even I would be shocked if they’d give him up. What about getting a solid setup guy, like Heath Bell?

Texas Rangers
The Rangers need someone to man centerfield for them, and they have some good spare parts to offer. The Red Sox are said to have inquired about Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Gerald Laird, both capable of starting at catcher at the big league level. Texas will likely stick with Salty, leaving the 27-year old Laird, who has a great arm and is a good catcher, though inconsistent at the plate. Looks like perfect protege material for Jason Varitek, if you ask me. The other name that’s being bandied about is Hank Blalock, who has been on again and off again of the trading block for a couple of years now. He’d only make sense if we can’t sign Mike Lowell to a reasonable deal.

Washington Nationals
The Nationals tried out a string of players in center this past season with no luck. Failing to sign one of the big names to a one-year deal, acquiring Crisp from the World Champion Red Sox would help them stabilize this team somewhat and start on the road to credibility. Without a doubt, relievers Chad Cordero or Jon Rauch are in this discussion as a return for Crisp.

Epstein will keep asking for a lot; it’s still very early in the offseason. Once Andruw, Torii and Mike find homes, it’ll be easier to gauge what we can get for Coco. Who knows? Other bidders may emerge as the offseason goes on. Then it’s just a matter of who is the highest bidder.