Hot Stove 2010: Sign Matt Holliday

You’re going about this all wrong. Would it be nice to get an elite slugger or a young ace this offseason? Of course! But at what price? Despite how it looked at times, the lineup is strong, and finished 3rd in runs scored, despite playing Nick Green and Jason Varitek as much as we did. And the rotation already has four strong pitchers if Daisuke Matsuzaka can come back. Trading Clay Buchholz now is the wrong move; he will give you 80-90% of what Hernandez will over the next four years at a bargain price. The Red Sox have talent and should continue to build from within. We certainly need to address that left field vacancy, as well as the lack of pop in the lineup; signing Matt Holliday should be enough on both counts, and we can fill in as needed around these guys. Here’s how to approach the off-season with measured restraint:

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Hot Stove 2010: Trading for Adrian Gonzalez

It seems that an Adrian Gonzalez trade is drumming up the most excitement in Red Sox Nation so far, so let’s formulate an off-season plan revolving around acquiring him from Jed Hoyer’s Padres. Hoyer has noted that a contract extension with Gonzalez is “definitely on the docket”, and he would like to keep him playing for his native San Diego; however with A-Gonz in line for a major free agent deal after 2011, it makes you wonder if the Padres and their $40M payroll will be able to hang on to him much longer (former Padres GM Kevin Towers agrees). Okay, so here’s fantasy off-season plan A (for Adrian):

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ALCS Preview: the Cleveland Indians

Here is the tentative playoff schedule and pitching rotation, as announced today:

GAME ONE, Friday, October 12 — Josh Beckett (7:10 p.m. at Boston)
GAME TWO, Saturday, October 13 — Curt Schilling (8:21 p.m. at Boston)
GAME THREE, Monday, October 15 — Daisuke Matsuzaka (7:10 p.m. at Cleveland)
GAME FOUR, Tuesday, October 16 — TBA (Tim Wakefield if healthy) (8:21 p.m. at Cleveland)
GAME FIVE, Thursday, October 18 — Josh Beckett (8:21 p.m. at Cleveland)
GAME SIX, Saturday, October 20 — Curt Schilling (TBA at Boston)
GAME SEVEN, Sunday, October 21 — Daisuke Matsuzaka (TBA at Boston)

Terry Francona has decided to flip-flop Schilling and Matsuzaka in the rotation, giving us the playoff rotation I’ve been calling for and Dice-K some extra time to recooperate. In the wake of today’s simulated games, it looks like Wakefield will be able to take the mound after all, a huge relief to us all. Wake was able to toss 77 pitches without much discomfort, so it looks like he is on track for the Tuesday start.

There is talk that Beckett could take the mound Tuesday on three days’ rest, then pitch game 7 with the regular four days. If the Sox go down 1-2 or 0-3, we could be seeing this scenario, but I don’t think it’s plan A. Besides, those who pitch on three days’ rest don’t look so hot in recent memory.

Setting the Roster

The roster will look very much like it did for the ALDS, with the exception that Wakefield will likely replace Kevin Cash. In a longer series, we no longer have the luxury of carrying three catchers. With the first game looming Friday, I’d expect that the final ALCS rosters will be released by Thursday afternoon.

Keys to the Series

Cleveland features some talented youngsters and several players in their primes who have signed hometown discounts. The Indians are a young team, and for many of them, this is their first time to the playoffs. That includes manager Eric Wedge. They are built on some strong pitching and a balanced lineup (5 players had at least 20 HR this season). They are good on defense, though they have their weak points too. While Fenway Park had the highest park factor in the majors for runs this season, Jacobs Field was not far behind at #4, so expect to see some fireworks this series, especially the games in Cleveland, where homers are more commonplace.

No need to reiterate that the Indians will pose a much stiffer challenge than the Angels did. C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona are a better 1-2 than Beckett and Schilling, and Sabathia is a filthy lefty to boot. Lefties have given the Sox trouble this year and every year. Stuff rules in the playoffs, and both of these guys are stuff pitchers. The good news is that after these two, Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd do not scare me at all. It’s entirely possible that Wedge might bring Sabathia back on three days rest in order to pitch him three times in this series. From a numbers and experience perspective, the Sox have the advantage here, but for the reasons above, I’ll settle to call this even.

The Indians have two great Rafaels in their bullpen, Rafael Perez (lefty) and Rafael Betancourt (righty). Curiously, neither of them is the closer. Instead, veteran Joe Borowski closes out games with his 87 mph fastball and his 5.07 ERA. Obviously the Indians subscribe to the stathead mantra that anybody can close. And it hasn’t been a complete disaster, as Borowski notched 45 saves this year (and blew 8). They have a rookie, Jensen Lewis, with some pretty good stuff, but beyond that, there isn’t much more to this pen. They do have three lefties they could potentially throw at David Ortiz. I definitely give the edge to the Red Sox here.

The Indians hit .268/.343/.428 this season, which doesn’t match up with the Sox’s .279/.362/.444, but remember that Travis Hafner (aka Pronk) has been off his game all year long. He’s a guy who is capable of mashing 40-50 in a good year. As I mentioned, there isn’t a real standout power bat besides Hafner’s, but there are several other guys who can hit, including Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez. They have a very balanced lineup, and Ryan Garko is an underrated bat. They have a very flexible roster, with many guys who can play multiple positions, so they are well set up in case of injuries. Sizemore and Kenny Lofton are the only real basestealing threats, but Cleveland was very aggressive with the Yankees, going 3-5 on the basepaths in the four games. Advantage Boston.

I have to include this because it is a strong plus on our side. Not only does Terry Francona have more playoff experience than Wedge, but our pitching coach, John Farrell, just happens to have been the Indians’ Director of Player Development before he joined Boston (for FIVE YEARS!). That means the Red Sox will know their opposition pretty darn well. Cleveland does have its share of insiders, including Trot Nixon and Kelly Shoppach, but it’s not quite the same, IMO.

Final Thoughts
While Cleveland boasts two aces that trump our top two, their rotation is not as deep as ours. I think if the Sox can go up 2-0, this series is all but over, because then they have to lean on Westbrook for game 3, and probably Sabathia on short rest for game 4. The Indians need to get long innings out of their starters. If not, their shallow bullpen *will* get exposed. I don’t see an easy way to knock out Sabathia or Carmona early; we just need to get quality at-bats from our guys. I would say that Manny Ramirez and Bobby Kielty are key players in game 1 (of course Papi is always a key player), as they are expected to produce against left-handed pitching.

I keep hearing people saying the key for us is the bridge from starters to Jonathan Papelbon. I don’t think that’s the most important thing, though. I think we have to show the Indians early and often that they are overmatched and outclassed. If we can do that, they’ll fold. I think inexperience could play a significant role in this series. With rookies like Asdrubal Cabrera and Franklin Gutierrez expected to produce, they could get shaky if they struggle early on. Should they make an error or start 0-8 at the plate, it could really get to them and drag down the Indians offense.

I can’t wait to see Beckett on the mound again Friday. Did you see him last time? He was pumping 98 mph gas from the first inning. Man, does he ever step it up in the playoffs.

ALDS Game 2: Bullpen, Ramirez come up huge

Bottom of the ninth, deadlocked at 3-3. After surprisingly shaky starts by both Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kelvim Escobar, the Angels got their first look at the Boston bullpen in this series. Both pens pitched well, keeping each other hitless going into the ninth. Despite some unfavorable calls by the home plate umpire, Jonathan Papelbon makes it through 1 1/3 unscathed, bringing us to the bottom of the ninth.

Props to Julio Lugo, who managed to pull an outside pitch between short and third for a single to lead it off, and Dustin Pedroia on successfully moving him over on a hit and run. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. Scioscia brings on Francisco Rodriguez. After Kevin Youkilis struck out, they walked David Ortiz, and you just knew it was gonna happen. Second pitch, Manny Ramirez absolutely crushes a belt-high inside fastball over the Monster, over Landsdowne St, over everything. He throws his hands up as he starts walking to first base; it is a thing of beauty. Good thing we saved all the walk-offs for the playoffs.

Key play of the game: Unknown boy literally grabs a foul ball out of Jeff Mathis‘ catcher’s mitt, extending Manny’s at-bat and allowing the tying run to score in the fifth. He instantly becomes a hero and a lifelong friend of Stephen King, who is sitting right behind him.

You might say that winning like that is “cheap”, but this is the playoffs, and that is what home field advantage should be about, Bartman notwithstanding. I was also not real proud that Vladimir Guerrero had to leave the game after getting smacked in the back by a Manny Delcarmen fastball. He throws 96+ mph. Ouch.

What to say about Dice-K? He totally sucked tonight. I am still a believer in him, but when he’s bad, he’s pretty darn bad. Meanwhile, the hero in the shadow, Hideki Okajima, flashed some wonderful changeups in working out of the seventh and the eighth innings. He looks okey-doke to me.

Going into Los Angeles with a 2-0 lead is the best possible scenario for us. The Angels have been the toughest team in the majors at home this season, but with Curt Schilling on the mound next and more injuries to deal with, something tells me they might just fold.

Oh, and did I mention that the Yankees lost with Joba the Hut on the mound? I believe that’s 0-2 for them.