11-12-2011: Papelbon signs with the Phillies

Four years and $50M, that’s what it took for Jonathan Papelbon to bid adieu to the Red Sox. The deal reportedly contains a vesting option for a fifth year at a salary of $13M or so. GM Ben Cherington noted that the Red Sox were not really a match for Paps and what he wanted going forward, but he will be missed for at least the first couple of years, I would think. My suspicion is that the Red Sox shied away from any four year deal because of their ongoing concerns about his shoulder.

Papelbon was just a great, great player for this club at a time when we desperately needed a strong closer. His memorable performances and personality will be missed.

It’s not that Papelbon is irreplaceable – there are a lot of relievers out there who are closer material – but I would rather not be dealing with another unknown quantity coming into 2012. The scouts and the data suggest that Daniel Bard is the most ready option to take the ball in the ninth, and I’m glad that Bobby Jenks should still be around next year as well. We’ll still need two more solid arms back there, though.

The good news? Papelbon did not go to the Yankees or anyone else in the AL. Still, we could very well be seeing him in the World Series one day soon. I just hope that it’ll be later rather than sooner, because he is still a tough, tough matchup. Making a move to the NL is a great move for Papelbon, and he is likely to put up some staggering numbers there if he can stay healthy.

Thanks for the memories, Jonathan, and best of luck to you. At least until the World Series.

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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11-3-2011: Replacing Papelbon

And now for part two of our free agent series. This time, we take a look at Jonathan Papelbon going forward. Paps had a really strong 2011 campaign, and he showed a new commitment to strength and conditioning which I believe reflected in his numbers: a 2.94 ERA and 12.2 K/9 against just 1.4 BB/9. His FIP was a miserly 1.53, easily the best of his career. His velocity did not slip at all from previous years, and if anything his fastball popped just a bit more, and he was able to locate his splitter down out of the zone, making it a hugely effective out pitch.

At the tender age of 30, he already has piled up 219 saves, and is quickly climbing the leaderboard in that category. Here’s what our projections see for him going forward, from ages 31-34:

Year IP HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 WHIP ERA
2012 67.3 0.69 2.95 10.38 1.16 2.95
2013 65.5 0.71 2.99 10.27 1.17 3.02
2014 63.0 0.73 3.05 10.13 1.19 3.11
2015 60.0 0.76 3.13 9.96 1.22 3.21

Papelbon actually looks like a pretty safe signing for the next 3-4 years. The question is, will that be enough? Most players will not outright tell you that they are out to break the bank – Papelbon has done exactly that, comparing himself to Mariano Rivera and insisting at every contract negotiation that he be paid more than any closer in history.

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11-1-2011: Replacing Big Papi

The two biggest expiring contracts we have to deal with this offseason are those of DH David Ortiz and closer Jonathan Papelbon. Even though we can’t imagine a Red Sox team without these two integral players, they are both Type A free agents. Letting them walk and signing a replacement would result in a net gain of one or two high draft picks, which is very tempting. Should they be replaced? Can they be replaced? And with whom should they be replaced are some of the biggest questions facing new GM Ben Cherington. Let’s look at the DH problem first. Paying less for a DH seems like a very good way to drop payroll, as no other team has been paying $12M/year for their DH (of course, no other team has been getting our production from the DH spot, either).

What will we be missing?

Ortiz has become THE definition of a prototypical designated hitter, producing a number of stellar seasons since being signed by Theo Epstein before the 2003 season. In his first 5 seasons with Boston, Big Papi produced slugging percentages around or exceeding .600, but has fallen to earth quite a bit since then. Entering his age 36 season, we face the tough choice of re-signing this face of the franchise, or possibly letting him go to a division rival.

Ortiz had quite a renaissance 2011, slashing .309/.398/.554 and smacking 29 home runs. He cut his strikeouts significantly, becoming a much more selective hitter in the process; he posted a career-best 83.3% contact rate. His .321 BABIP suggests that it wasn’t just lucky hits that inflated his numbers, but it was in large part actual performance. Even with the excellent year, here’s what we see for the aging slugger over the next three seasons:

Year AB HR RBI Avg OBP SLG wOBA wRAA
2012 543 27 97 0.266 0.354 0.488 0.374 29.9
2013 513 23 86 0.258 0.337 0.462 0.356 17.6
2014 475 19 74 0.249 0.320 0.434 0.336 6.0

Looking at these projections, you can see why a lot of people have been warning against anything longer than a two-year deal for Ortiz; it’s thought that he’s looking for three years. There’s a very good chance that his offensive value just crashes in 1-3 years, so I really would not sign him for more than two years plus maybe a team option. Read more of this post

10-31-2011: Sox pick up Scutaro, decision remains on Wheeler

With the World Series over, MLB players have started to declare for free agency. That means the deadline for teams  exercising or declining their options on players is coming right up.

The Red Sox exercised their $6M option on Marco Scutaro yesterday. The 35-year old shortstop had an excellent season, hitting .299/.358/.423 this year and exhibiting the contact (94.7% contact rate) and pesky hitter skills (3.92 P/PA) the Sox valued when they brought him aboard.

Defensively, Scutaro played well (+1.0 UZR/150) at a premium defensive position where Jed Lowrie seems to be proving less and less capable the past two years (-15.4 and -17.4 UZR/150). Scutaro has been about average at the position since he joined the Sox two seasons ago, so it makes a lot of sense to keep him on one more year, with Jose Iglesias still on the cusp of the Majors. A 2013 roster with Iglesias starting and Lowrie as the utility infielder looks pretty good to me.

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9-29-2011: Papelbon’s conditioning and his bounceback year

One positive thing I noticed last night with Jonathan Papelbon; the guy’s lost a LOT of weight compared to last season. I think Paps was really serious about reestablishing himself as a top closer this season (and top free agent), and with the exception of last night, he did quite well. Other pitchers may have struck out more batters, but Paps’ 87 Ks versus 10 strikeouts was good for an 8.70 K/BB ratio, best among full-time closers and third to only Koji Uehara and Rafael Betancourt this season. Not only did he drop his ERA a full run from last year, he posted the best FIP (1.53) and xFIP (2.16) of his career. Papelbon’s fastball really regained its effectiveness, and his splitter became that much better as a result.

9-29-2011: RIP to the Red Sox

Last night was such a fitting end to the Red Sox’ 2011 season. With the Sox up 3-2 and the Rays trailing New York 7-0, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that, at worst, we’d be playing that one-game playoff today. But one rain delay, a Dan Johnson pinch-hit home run and a Jonathan Papelbon collapse later, it was suddenly gone. I just have no words. How do you explain a season where we were roundly picked as the best team in baseball, and we collapse like this? How do you explain THIS (image taken from FanGraphs.com):

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Links 9-26-2011: Ellsbury’s power surge, Papelbon’s heater and Lackey at Fenway

In winning game 2 of the doubleheader with New York, Jacoby Ellsbury hit his 31st home run yesterday. Needless to say, I and everyone else have been flabbergasted by his power surge in 2011. Baseball Analytics takes an interesting look at how he has been doing it, and in addition to pulling just about everything down the line, their heat maps tell the story that he has just been punishing thigh-high fastballs from righties. His month-to-month SLG and average HR distance has been increasing all year long, so this could be a real change in what to expect from Ells going forward; I’d guess that he goes from being a 10 HR guy to maybe a 18-22 HR guy.

Jonathan Papelbon has had a real renaissance of a season, which has really rescued this overtaxed bullpen and helped it remain as one of the most productive in the AL. Baseball Analytics shows that he’s been using that high heat very effectively this year. The velocity is not changed much from previous years, but I think he’s setting up the pitch much better by mixing in his other pitches. He’s been locating the four-seamer more inside to lefties, and that’s helped.

Bill Petti points out that John Lackey has been especially horrific at Fenway Park this year, where 12 of the 20 HRs hit against him have come. If you believe in mapping ball landing spots onto another stadium, he suggests that as many as 7 of those taters might not have been taters at Anaheim Stadium. Lackey’s FIP would then be a much more respectable 4.18 on the year. FIP is a linear approximation, so it tends to underestimate at the low and high ends of the ERA spectrum anyway, but certainly, we have to be concerned about Lackey as a hittable fly-ball pitcher at Fenway. Those guys typically have to balance those extra homers with more Ks and fewer walks if they want to be successful.

7-18-2011: What to look for at the deadline

The Red Sox are in first place and seem to be a lock for the playoffs. That part is great. And despite the struggles of J.D. Drew, our offense is the best in baseball right now. I don’t see acquiring a big bat to be the priority right now. However, we are facing some major instability in the rotation and other areas, which could require some smaller moves to be made. Looking over our current situation, I’d recommend three moves by this year’s trade deadline. Here they are, in order of importance.

Trade for a 4th or 5th starter. Importance: Medium

Jon Lester and Josh Beckett seem to be on track for now, and John Lackey has shown some signs of improvement, but there is still no timetable for Clay Buchholz to return to the rotation. Andrew Miller has been a pleasant surprise, but we don’t know how long he can keep it up, and Tim Wakefield, who hasn’t gone over 140 IP in a year since 2008, is already at 81.2 IP. Should Buchholz not be able to return, or Miller lose it, or Wake’s body break down, I really don’t want two months of Kevin Millwood up here. He’s fine for a few starts, but that’s it.

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6-2-2011: May wrapup, a great month

The month of May was a good one for the Sox, a really good one. They began the month at just 11-15 on the year, scraping the bottom of the division. The offense was barely average, and the pitching was decent but inconsistent. What a difference a month makes. Now Boston sits at 30-26 on the year, and is in second place, just two games back of the Yankees, despite the recent three-game sweep at the hands of the ChiSox. What have been the keys to this turnaround?

Offense

The Red Sox offense was the most potent in the American League in May, and not by a little. Putting up 126 runs in 29 games (5.38 runs/game) is very impressive by 2011 offensive standards, where league average is just 4.30 runs/game. Just a year ago, the average was 4.45 runs/game, and the year before that, it was 4.82 runs/game. So you probably have to kind of mentally add a quarter to a half run per game onto that figure if you want to compare with previous years.

Month R/G Avg OBP SLG BABIP wOBA BB% K%
April 4.11 0.243 0.331 0.380 0.283 0.319 10.9 21.1
May 5.38 0.287 0.349 0.472 0.317 0.361 7.9 18.4

As a team, the Red Sox put up a .287/.349/.472 slash line and a .361 wOBA (second was the Yankees at .340) and were about 26 percent better than the average AL offense. Looking at the walk and strikeout rates, it looks like the Sox as a team got more aggressive, and it’s been paying off. also, the power is back on. They hit the most doubles with 61 and tied with New York for first with 39 HRs this month. Even the running game got started (along with Carl Crawford), as the Sox swiped 28 bases in May. Some of this extra production comes from that high .317 BABIP in May. With league average at .286 on the year, that’s going to fall back to earth a bit. Still, this offense has moved up to fourth on the year and has the potential to keep pushing up the ranks.

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