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February 27, 2006
Red Sox, Cubs
Unhappy Campers? One hasn't arrived yet, while the other's conspicuously present. Both have long been rumored as headed out of town and Las Vegas bookies probably aren't taking odds on either making it to opening day in Arlington.
Now, Manny Ramirez isn't the first person to ponder a return to Boston with some ambiguity, unsure of what he really wants to do with his future. The difference is that usually those young folks are returning to Beantown seeking hardware they have produced for them by Herf Jones, not by John Henry. Usually, whether they stay in Boston or leave, they're saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, not collecting $57 million over the next three years.
But if Ramirez were a college student, the answer could be as easy as a summer in Europe, going from hostel to hostel, getting frisky with the ubiquitous Australian backpackers in Prague--you know, the usual trying-to-find-yourself thing. However, since Ramirez is a 34 year-old multimillionaire, that kind of conduct could be considered unseemly. Instead, Manny's taking another few days to get his head together before reporting to Fort Myers. Hopefully, the Sox' newly-reinstalled GM--himself an expert on broadband-speed self-discovery--can help the troubled superstar accept his red-hosed destiny. But what would the Dominican equivalent of hanging out with Pearl Jam be? Chilling with Juan Luis Guerra and 440?
Meanwhile, David Wells isn't in the same sensitive, brooding liberal arts major mode as Ramirez--he's pretty much the frat kid who's sick of the bad weather and sweater-shrouded coeds, and is just thinking about how much harder he could be partying in sunny Southern California.
Given that Wells was the 34th-best starter in the AL last year by SNLVAR, and given that Boston has a crowded starting rotation, you can be forgiven for wondering if this is such a big deal. But the ability of the Red Sox to move Wells will have a direct effect on the more flexibly employed elements in the pitching staff--such as Tim Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo, and Jon Papelbon--who may be asked to adjust to life in the pen to accommodate the unhappy lefty. Since Arroyo and Wakefield are projected to be worth almost twice as much as Wells next season (by VORP), that could be unfortunate.
As for Papelbon, we're of two minds on whether he'll have more value next season than Boomer. On the one hand, we like Papelbon enough to declare him the 36th-fairest prospect in all the land. On the other hand, when PECOTA says you resemble Gil Meche, it's not a compliment.
What? That's not comforting? You're not reassured by Gonzalez's career .292 OBP? Worried that Brian Cashman might be sending a physical trainer to Boston, to help keep Gonzalez healthy and in the lineup? Don't be!
The Red Sox off-season acquisitions around the infield hearken back to the winter before the 2003 season. In case it isn't clear what J.T. Snow may have in common with David Ortiz, or Mark Loretta may have in common with Kevin Millar, think back to Theo Epstein's first offseason as the Red Sox GM. That winter, the Sox had gaping holes at first base, second base, and DH, and rather than fill those holes with star players, Epstein went through the bargain bin, looking for cheap and flexible players, and buying in bulk to be that much more certain. Seeing the first base void, Epstein brought in Ortiz, Millar, and Jeremy Giambi, knowing that if all of them were good enough to stick, Millar and Giambi could play the outfield, Ortiz would fit at DH, and if any of them was an out and out bust, they could be discarded without a single tear being shed.
Getting back to 2006, we see an infield where there is ample opportunity to mix and match. You could have the old Marlins' left side of the infield of Mike Lowell and Gonzalez to go with Loretta and Snow on the right side of the diamond. But if Lowell's a bust, he'll lose time to Kevin Youkilis or Tony Graffanino; otherwise, the Greek God of Walks harasses Snow at first. Gonzalez and Loretta can look over their shoulders and still completely miss 5'8" Dustin Pedroia, our #11 prospect. They'd be foolish to overlook Pedroia, despite all the controversy over our ranking of him, since the former Arizona State standout is ready to play in the major leagues right now.
So don't fret about Snow and Gonzalez, because they are simply two of the many things being thrown at the wall, to see what sticks. It worked out well enough the last time.
It's the start of Spring Training, and optimism abounds. For the Cubs, that optimism predictably focuses on the rotation. Blessed with potentially the most dominant trio of starters of any team in the majors--and given the weakening of the Cardinals--Chicago might be almost assured a playoff berth if Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Kerry Wood can collectively start the majority of Chicago's games.
Chicago's trinity combined for 94 starts in the fateful 2003 season, but since then medical issues have prevented the three from ruthlessly ganging up on the National League as they did during that particular pennant drive. First and foremost among those issues is Wood's right shoulder. GM Jim Hendry recently stated he believes Wood healthy and capable of making 30 starts this year. The data indicates that Wood's approaching even that figure would be a major upset, as arthroscopic surgery last fall (addressing both his rotator cuff and labrum) has made his status for the start of the season uncertain. Our PECOTA forecasting system sees the shoulder troubles that limited Wood to 66 innings last year as endemic, predicting 15 starts and 100 innings, with a 90th percentile projection of 20 starts and 133 innings, making it likely the Cubs will end up utilizing their $3 million dollar buyout on a $13.5 million mutual option for 2007. Beyond Wood's problems, the team also has Prior's arm and Zambrano's appearance for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic this March to fret over. However, Zambrano lacks any scars to show for his 647 innings over the past three years, evidence he may have emerged from the same mold as Livan Hernandez.
The list of righthanders with extensive injury histories doesn't end at the beginning of the rotation. The Cubs signed Wade Miller to a one-year, $1 million dollar deal in January, hoping he can recover by midsummer from continuing labrum trouble to fill in if and when either Wood or Prior is shelved. Chicago also picked up its $2 million dollar option on reliever Scott Williamson, who returned from 2004 Tommy John surgery late last season to strike out 33 in 21.1 innings pitched between the Chicago and Iowa Cubs. Although lost in the uproar surrounding Hendry's expensive pursuit and acquisitions of setup men Bobby Howry and Scott Eyre, this move should pay relatively more dividends, as a healthy Williamson would be the best late-inning weapon available to manager Dusty Baker. Williamson has the most overpowering stuff of any pitcher in Chicago's bullpen, evidenced by his career 10.5 K/9, and PECOTA subsequently projects him to have the highest VORP amongst the relief corps. A full year of Williamson and any sort of performance from closer Ryan Dempster approaching his 8.7 K/9 rate from last year will help keep alive the Cubs' four-year streak of leading the majors in strikeouts.
Minor Solution: Could the Cubs look in-house to address Jacque Jones's offense in right field? Christina Kahrl brought up platooning Jones--who sports a career 616 OPS in 779 ABs versus lefties versus 830 in 2713 at bats against righties--with righthanded Michael Restovich. Dusty Baker's affinity for defense and veteran starters makes the suggestion of outfield partners for Jones mostly an intellectual exercise, but Notebook intrepidly forges ahead anyway to consider the candidacy of righty first baseman Brandon Sing:
YEAR TEAM LVL-LG G PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB SO 2004 Daytona FSL-A 122 504 .270 .399 .571 32 84 101 2005 West Tenn SOU-AA 127 508 .276 .404 .538 26 91 110Sing led the High-A Florida State League in home runs in 2004, a feat overshadowed by the 39 bombs that fellow Cubs farmhand and first baseman Brian Dopirak hit in the Midwest League that same season. But then, while Dopirak put up a 670 OPS in Daytona in 2005, Sing again excelled in a pitcher-friendly league. Sing will be 25 this season, and is a bad enough defender that he was passed over in the Rule 5 draft, so he's not a prospect. However, he does have experience in the outfield: 173 games over the past four years, with 13 errors and 12 assists. He played 45 games in the outfield last year, mostly time spent in right, so sticking him there against the occasional lefthander wouldn't be a foreign experience for him. PECOTA projects a .440 SLG and 20 home runs in 479 PA, and that sort of power from Sing would be a welcome addition to a Cubs bench currently comprised of the likes of Jerry Hairston, Neifi Perez, Marquis Grissom, John Mabry, and Henry Blanco. Because of his age, the Cubs needn't worry about stunting Sing's development if a hot start at Iowa draws the big club to his utility as a role player.
Second Chance: While he won't be making an impact with the Cubs this year, second baseman Eric Patterson is a prospect worth following. Barring rebellion against the organization that cycled his brother Corey out with the trash this winter, Patterson has the chance to be a solid regular in the majors. An 8th round pick in the 2004 draft, Patterson made his debut last year at age 22 with Peoria of the Midwest League, hitting .333/.405/.535 in 500 PA. He knocked 50 extra base hits, stole 40 bases (against 11 CS), and, perhaps most importantly, walked 53 times. Eric just might have that elusive plate discipline that Corey hasn't developed. The combination of offensive skills and superior defense that Patterson flashed last year led to a 2006 PECOTA projection favorable enough to rate him better than either Todd Walker or Jerry Hairston. Of course, that forecast is based upon just one season. If the Cubs learned from Corey's experience, they'll make sure young Patterson consolidates his gains before moving him up. His play earned Eric a dark-horse run onto the BP 2006 prospect list, and a similar season this year should have him climbing up that list rapidly.