Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Red Sox Increase Their Insurance Premiums

Quite a week for the Red Sox. After being very quiet on the signings front all offseason, the Sox threw their hat in the ring by picking up 5 players in the last seven days, four of whom have major injury questions. I'd like to take a moment to welcome back Mark Kotsay, the rock of the group. Mark, it's great to have you and your defensive flexibility back on the roster, and despite the fact that you struggle to hit your weight, knowing that you are our 5th outfielder and will prevent the Sox from being forced to call up Jon Van Every and his remarkable 41% strikeout percentage (Though he also comes with a .263 ISO. He's like a lefthanded Mark Reynolds, only swinging harder. To be fair to Van Every, reports are that he has a good glove in CF, as opposed to Reynolds' routine battles with Canseco-itis) should the plague befall the starting outfield. And considering that, with another of the recent transactions the Sox have hired Rocco Baldelli and his mitochondrial disorder to back up JD 'Iron Horse' Drew on the green grass, the 5th outfielder seeing serious time this year is a very real possibility. And while Kotsay will hardly light the world on fire, knowing that he can back up all three outfield spots and play first, allowing Youk to slide to third when Lowell needs a break (Or if he gets injured again) will certainly help me sleep slightly better at night (UZR does show Kotsay as being borderline-abysmal in CF last year, while showing him as below-average the previous three. If push comes to shove, I'm rooting for last year to be a sample-size fluke). Baldelli is an enormous risk/reward signing, as he could be an absolute steal if he's healthy (Witness his .213 ISO last year), but has a downside of being able to play nothing more than DH for 30 games a year. With minimal money and years being invested in him, this seems like a wise investment by a front office rapidly becoming known for making them (Julio Lugo excepted).

But the more interesting signings are the three pitchers. John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Takashi Saito all were inked this week, and all have been exceptional in the past. The deals are all minimal years and dollars. The reason Theo and co. were able to make this happen is as follows (in order): Shoulder surgery (With irreparable damage found), shoulder surgery, torn elbow tendon with experimental non-surgery treatment. Projecting all three pitchers to bounce back ranges somewhere between wildly optimistic and downright reckless. However, projecting 50 innings each out of Penny and Smoltz and 30 more from Saito at about 80% of the past level of performance from each seems reasonable (Obviously I don't think each hits exactly these numbers. But 130 innings out of the trio seems reasonable). This makes Smoltz/Penny a good fifth starter behind the front four of Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka and Methuselah. However, this puts additional stress on the bullpen to cover the additional innings a fully healthy fifth starter would put up, as well as covering for the projected 20 or so a healthy reliever would pitch over Saito. Tom Tango has done research showing that modern relievers are actually underworked, and their performance does not suffer when their workload is increased. Being a statistically-savvy front office, odds are the Sox are familiar with this work. Perhaps they are planning to implement it. Or they may plan on having some players on the 40-man roster ride the AAA shuttle a bit to keep fresh arms in the 'pen. Or (And this is my favorite possibility), perhaps minor league starter, major league swingman Justin Masterson (Also known as The Angel of Death to right-handed batters) will take on the role of an old school super-reliever, being called on to pitch multiple innings and throwing 120-130 on the season. Either way, the Sox appear to have the flexibility to make this work, and the possibility of any of these pitchers regaining his old form makes these gambles well worth taking, especially as they give the team present flexibility without sacrificing future roster slots which could be better used on young players coming up through the farm system (Buchholz, Bowden and Bard would be the three names at the top of the list).

The most important thing these signings do with regards to the three recently-parentheticalized players is allow the Sox to trade one or two of them to help fill the only positional need the team had going into the offseason, catcher. Miguel Montero is the name being tossed around most at the moment, and would probably come at a slightly lower rate than the most-discussed option (And yeah, I'm about to go there), meaning we would still have Buchholz around to fill in with the big league club should things go wrong (Yes Sox fans, I know some of you have soured on Clay after a season that can only be described as disappointing. However, he is still definitely our top pitching prospect. Deal with it). However, last year Michael Bowden was the MiLB pitcher of the year, and he seems ready to fill the role of emergency fifth starter, a role Masterson could back him up in should he bomb (And both are at least better options than Paul Byrd). This means Buchholz, good as he may become, can be made available for the right piece. And that piece is Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The Rangers have been holding out for him all winter, and now he can be spared. Yes, it hurts to give up a potential future #1 starter like Clay (And there are few true #1s in the majors right now), but frankly a trade is probably going to have to hurt a bit if you want to get something in return (I make no claims of having any idea why the White Sox are reportedly trying to trade for Michael Young, a below-average MLB shortstop making $60 million over the net five years). Salty has held his own against MLB pitching since the age of 21 with excellent power potential, and a good walk rate. If the Rangers will throw in a young power arm with Salty (Wilfredo Boscan, come on down!), then this is a trade that will shore up the Sox roster for the upcoming season, in what should be an absolutely ridiculous three team race in the brutal AL East. There are a couple other things these potential offseason moves bring up questions about, but I'll get into those in a day or two.

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