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November 11, 2010

GM for a Day

Boston Red Sox

by Jay Jaffe

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Theo Epstein spent a good portion of the winter of 2009-2010 with run prevention as his mantra. Much to the chagrin of a sizable contingent of media and fans who felt what the Red Sox needed was a big bopper and not all of this sabermetric hooey, Epstein raided the free-agent market for four players—John Lackey, Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro, Mike Cameron—who could bolster Boston's pitching staff both directly and indirectly, upgrading a defense which had finished a sorry 13th in the league in Defensive Efficiency in 2009. Alas, the joke was on both Epstein and his detractors. The Sox did improve to seventh in Defensive Efficiency, but the team slipped from third in the league to 10th in runs allowed. Though they survived a wave of devastating injuries to score more runs and hit for a higher True Average than any AL team except the Yankees, the Sox missed the postseason for the first time since 2006.

It's against that backdrop that I assume Epstein's chair as the Red Sox general manager. In doing so, I've got a tough act to follow given that on Epstein's watch the Red Sox won their only two world championships of the past 92 seasons. The natives are restless; six playoff appearances in eight years under Epstein has produced Yankee-level expectations among followers, and if not a Yankee-level payroll, then one that nonetheless was the majors' second highest at $162.4 million this past opening day. Without the added bump of post-season revenue to justify another major increase, I'll keep things in that ballpark, perhaps even trimming some fat.

Luckily, I have considerable room to maneuver given a pair of sunk costs coming off the books in the form of the contracts of Mike Lowell ($12.5 million) and Julio Lugo ($9.25 million). The former retired, the latter was last seen mailing it in at Camden Yards on Theo's nickel. Neither departure from the payroll leaves any holes in my 2011 plan. Meanwhile, I've got more money coming off the books in the form of the contracts of Adrian Beltre ($9 million), Victor Martinez ($7.7 million), Jason Varitek ($3 million) and Bill Hall (the $1.4 million not covered by Milwaukee) which I'll need to spend to fill vacancies at third base and catcher while also bolstering my bench. That's about $43 million to play with right there. I've also got decisions to make regarding the 2011 option of David Ortiz ($12.5 million) and the contract of Jonathan Papelbon, who's headed into his final year of arbitration eligibility and figures to increase last year's $9.35 million salary.

I don't have a ton of options or decisions to make when it comes to a rotation which mixes good news with bad. On the positive side, Jon Lester is locked in at $5.75 million as part of his five-year, $30 million deal, and Clay Buchholz isn't even arbitration eligible yet. The bad news is that I've got about $152 million committed over 10 player-seasons to three pitchers who combined for a 4.84 ERA while missing around 15 starts—nearly half a season between them—due to injuries. Lackey had a mediocre first season in Boston (4.51 ERA, .470 SNWP, 6.3 K/9, his lowest since 2002) and is owed about $64 million dollars over the next four years. Josh Beckett had an even worse season (5.77 ERA, .401 SNWP), and his four-year, $68 million extension is just kicking in. Daisuke Matsuzaka was subpar in 2010 (4.72, .476 SNWP) and has $20.7 million remaining over the final two years of his deal. Luckily, some of those woes were simply bad luck; that trio combined to yield 0.9 homers, 3.5 walks and 7.3 strikeouts per nine. Their combined 4.19 SIERA is much more palatable, and with some better luck on balls in play and homers per fly ball, they should be able to compensate for some expected regression from the young and inexpensive duo up front.

Still, I'm not just going to sit on my hands. Backed by some of Nate Silver's findings, Marc Normandin made the case that Matsuzaka could work better out of the bullpen given both the uptick of his performance with men on base over the course of his MLB career, and the general tendency of starter-turned-relievers to lower their walk rates. I'm at least willing to entertain that proposition, and to fill the gap, I'll look to one of his countrymen. Lefty Hisanori Takahashi had a solid year first year stateside as a swingman with the Mets, putting up a 3.61 ERA and 3.72 SIERA in 122 innings which saw him start and close. He's a free agent after failing to reach a deal with the Mets, and I'll gladly meet his three-year, $5 million demands. I could give him first crack as the number five starter, knowing that I could bring back Matsuzaka or try Felix Doubront if things go awry, then look to upgrade at the trade deadline if that doesn't solve the matter.

As for the bullpen, I'm going to hold on to Papelbon, who's coming off by far his worst season as the Sox closer (2.1 WXRL, 4.33 Fair Run Average). I'll absorb the raise (figure about $12 million via arbitration), hope for some regression towards his 3.30 SIERA, and take the two draft picks when he departs. That leaves Daniel Bard in the setup role, perhaps joined by Matsuzaka as well as Tim Wakefield and lefties Hideki Okajima and Doubront, with Junichi Tazawa possibly contributing late in the year as he returns from Tommy John surgery. I could still use another solid right-handed option; Joaquin Benoit, Jesse Crain and Jon Rauch are all Type B free agents who won't cost a draft pick. None made even $2 million last year, so a two-year, $5 million deal is probably the high end to get something done.

As for the offense, my key move is to do what Epstein couldn't: pry Adrian Gonzalez loose from the Padres. I realize it will take a considerable package of players—not to mention an extension of Teixeira-sized proportions—but that's that's the purpose of a strong farm system. I start with the premise that first base prospect Anthony Rizzo, who surpassed Lars Anderson on the organizational depth chart this past year, is part of the package, but that the Pads will also need at least one MLB-ready talent. I'm willing to part with the arbitration-eligible Jacoby Ellsbury, but the Padres may crave an even cheaper outfield alternative with more years under club control such as Ryan Kalish, or a capable middle infielder such as Jed Lowrie given the free agencies of David Eckstein and Miguel Tejada and the questions about Everth Cabrera. Depending upon whom the Pads prefer from that lot, I'll round out the package with a lower-minors prospect or two. No, the Pads won't get Casey Kelly, but they'll find something worth taking a flyer. Drake Britton? Reymond Fuentes? Will Middlebrooks? Those are a few suggestions offered by Normandin, our in-house fan of both the Sox and Padres, and someone with a reasonable stake in a fair deal for both sides.

Gonzalez doesn't add much to my 2011 payroll ($5.5 million), but he'll cost at least $23 million per year beyond that, so I need to be careful about other long-term entanglements. I'm free to shift Kevin Youkilis back to third base (where he played 99 games in 2008-2009 and was more than acceptable according to FRAA, UZR and Plus/Minus) and bid farewell to Beltre, who's coming off a fantastic 2010 showing, but also 31 years old, with too spotty a track record to make a long-term deal seem wise. I'm also going to pass on returning both Martinez and Varitek in favor of a catcher who's capable of shutting down the running game—Sox opponents stole 169 bases last year, at an 80 percent success rate—while contributing something with the stick as well.

So long as I don't get too hung up on low on-base percentages, I've got a few options from which to choose. John Buck, Ramon Hernandez, Miguel Olivo and Yorvit Torrealba each made less than $3 million last year, and threw out baserunners at a clip which equaled or bettered the major league average (28 percent). Hernandez is a Type A who'd cost me a first-round pick, so he's out. As for the rest, they're hardly perfect, but they'll do. I'll offer two years and $6 million with an option for a third year and a $1 million buyout and see who bites; I shouldn't have to spend much more than that.

Hopefully Jarrod Saltalamacchia is healthy enough to serve as a backup and heir apparent. If not, I could take a look at Luis Exposito, who hit .260/.339/.416 at Double-A Portland while throwing out 38 percent of stolen base attempts, or Mark Wagner, whose 2010 at Triple-A Pawtucket was mostly wrecked by a broken hamate but who has thrown out 39 percent of stolen base attempts in his minor league career, and who profiles as a solid big league backup in the making. How much worse could either be than Kevin Cash or Gustavo "No Relation" Molina?

Parting ways with V-Mart and Beltre won't ruffle too many feathers, but my next move might: I'm reversing Epstein's decision and declining Ortiz's $12.5 million option. I've tossed and turned on this one, copped to my own premature burial of him. It's not that he didn't have a good year; with 32 homers and a .304 TAv, he absolutely did. I'm just not in the mood to bank on a repeat performance from a 35-year-old whose value in 2010 (3.8 WARP) was higher than in 2008-2009 combined (3.2), not at that price. For much less money—say $4 million with an option—I'd spring for Jim Thome, who made just $1.7 million including incentives last year while hitting 25 homers in 340 PA. He's 40 and he needs a platoon partner; if I haven't used Lowrie to get Gonzalez, one option would be to play him at third base against lefties (against whom he's hit .324/.403/.541 in his big-league career), and DH Youkilis. Another is to consider Mike Cameron, who's coming off abdominal surgery and under contract for $7.25 million for 2011; he's hit .269/.372/.494 against lefties in his career. If I can't get Thome, lefties such as Russell Branyan or Jack Cust can fill the platoon DH slot at a similarly low price.

By going lean on the retained free agents, I've now got room for a run at Jayson Werth, who will cost a draft pick while commanding a price somewhere in the neighborhood of the $16-17 million per year which Jason Bay and Matt Holliday drew last winter. For 2011, Werth's my left fielder, with Ellsbury (if not traded) or Cameron in center and J.D. Drew in right. When Drew's contract expires after next season, Werth slots into right, with either Ellsbury or Kalish in center, or one in left and one in center if it's Lowrie who goes to San Diego. What I do know is that for the near term, I need to get some power out of my outfield, and Werth's a better fit than Carl Crawford when it comes to that.

Assuming it's Kalish that I've parted with in the Gonzalez deal and that I've still got Ellsbury to play center, and Cameron and Lowrie (who could possibly unseat Scutaro at shortstop, turning him into a utilityman) in bench roles, I don't need to re-sign Hall, whose 18 homers and $8.4 million 2010 salary will likely leave him eying a larger piece of the pie. I've got utilityman Eric Patterson under club control as well as Daniel Nava and Darnell McDonald, with Josh Reddick at Triple-A, too. My bench should be in good shape.

Assuming about $8 million spent on raises for Ellsbury and Okajima via arbitration—and even with my largesse with some of the smaller contracts—that brings me in around $150 million for the 25-man roster, nearly 10 percent less than last year's opening day payroll, and that's without creativity in backloading any deals. I might be able to shed a few million more (but almost certainly not the entire contract) by trading Cameron once he proves he's healthy. That leaves me with about $122 million committed to 2012 salaries, with Papelbon, Drew and Scutaro coming off the books to help absorb Gonzalez's increase.

In Gonzalez and Werth, I've bought the Sox a couple of big bats to anchor their lineup in a post-Papi world, and I've augmented a bullpen which ranked 12th in the league in WXRL, improved the defense behind the plate if not in the infield. I think this team can compete with anything else the AL East has to offer.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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