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August 23, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies

Tufte Takes on the Red Sox

by Nate Silver

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Are Red Sox fans really in the mood for another post-mortem? I am not certain about that, but this is the rare instance of a Sox-Yankees storyline that really is worth talking about in parts west of Buffalo. Aside from the inherent drama of a five-game sweep, this turn of events begs impolitic questions about the relationship between the twin goals that each baseball team faces: making money, and winning ballgames. So let's go Tufte on the Red Sox, looking at what might be in 2007--and what might have been.

infield chart

The first bridge the Sox will have to cross this winter is just what to do about their middle infield. Both Mark Loretta and Alex Gonzalez have performed about as could be expected, but neither is under contract for next year. Dustin Pedroia--yes, he deserves his green ranking--will take one of their jobs, but the Red Sox will need a free agent to handle the other.

The big question is whether the Red Sox will go after Julio Lugo. Lugo will be expensive after a career year, and with few other credible shortstops on the market. In spite of this--and in spite of the fact that they need arms more than bats--I think Boston does need to make a pitch for Lugo. After Pedroia, there are no other middle infielders in the system who are likely to become major league regulars. Adding someone like Ray Durham at second base--or bringing back a 36-year-old Loretta--is the other alternative, but would contribute to the team's nexus of age and injury risk, and perhaps leave them facing this same dilemma in a year's time.

The Sox also need to be concerned about just how much more they're going to get from Jason Varitek. Prior to this season, PECOTA expected a gentle decline for Varitek, and so I've kept his ranking in the green. But what it will do after an injury-plagued season in which Varitek is hitting just .243, I don't know.

outfield chart

In theory, the Sox should be good to go in the outfield through the end of the 2008 season. Popular as Trot Nixon might be in Beantown, there's no incentive to bring him back at $8 million per with Wily Mo Pena ready to inherit his job. But in practice, the Sox have some decisions to make here too. This is a defensively-challenged group, especially with Pena due to replace Nixon, and there's an obvious inefficiency in having two players who should be full-time DHes in your everyday lineup. This is one reason, of course, why the Manny Ramirez trade scenarios have so much legs (so many legs?).

But the easier thing to do might be to retain Nixon, let David Ortiz handle first, and shift Kevin Youkilis to third base, perhaps picking up a good middle reliever for Mike Lowell in the process. A lineup of…

CF        Crisp
3B        Youkilis
1B        Ortiz
DH        Ramirez
LF        Nixon
RF        Pena
SS        Lugo
C         Varitek
2B        Pedroia
…would be very interesting.

There's also the question of just what Coco Crisp will contribute. Ordinarily, when a 26-year-old with a robust and athletic skill set has an off year, it's really just an off year. But it's interesting that, from 2003-2005, Crisp had a .684 OPS while playing center field, but a .829 OPS while playing left. We've yet to do any serious work on just what effect playing a more difficult position can have on a player's bat, but I imagine it can't help Crisp that Red Sox fans expect him to be Johnny Damon in center field when he doesn't have Johnny Damon's jump. So moving Crisp to left field, Ramirez to DH, and picking off one of a relatively deep crop of free agent center fielders, would also make some sense. Either way, the Sox need to be willing to let the dominoes fall, and for Ortiz to play the field.

pitching chart

The Red Sox began the year with a rotation that featured two 39-year-olds, a 43-year old, Josh Beckett, and Matt Clement. You think we couldn't see this coming? They were fortunate enough to have Jon Lester develop on schedule, but that still wasn't enough. Their pitching portfolio was simply not well hedged.

It's a foregone conclusion that the Sox are going to add pitching talent this winter. I'd put the over/under at two and a half pitchers--two 30-start guys and perhaps a Cory Lidle type who can serve as a swingman. I think it's worth paying the extra buck for a power pitcher like Jason Schmidt, who can shut down powerful offenses like the Yankees, White Sox, and Blue Jays, and gambling on an inconsistent-but-durable guy like Jeff Weaver, rather than settling for two #3s. Yes, the idea of having a "true ace" can be overblown, especially considering how few true aces there are around the league. But the Sox are years away from developing an ace from their farm system--Lester looks like a #4 to me, and Jonathan Papelbon absolutely should not be moved from the closer's role--and the Wild Card era playoff structure lends itself to top-heavy rotations.

Should the Sox have added pitching talent at the deadline? After the slaying they took at the hands of the Yankees, it's easy to answer that question in the affirmative. But Theo Epstein's hands may have been tied. With so many teams retaining pennant hopes into July, this market was nearly dead for starting pitchers--the idea that the A's would move Barry Zito was patently absurd. And the Sox don't have enough of the high-quality prospects that a team like the Marlins might be looking for. Dustin Pedroia is their best prospect who hasn't yet graduated to the big leagues, but he'll have a job in Boston next year and, doesn't generate much scouting buzz. Moving Lester wouldn't have made any sense when the Sox' immediate need was quantity rather than quality, and Craig Hansen's pitching wasn't turning enough heads after all the screwing around that the Sox have done with him this year.

I do wonder why Nixon's name was never mentioned in trade rumors, with an unusually active market for corner outfield talent. Nevertheless, the lesson is that it's risky to go into the season with a plan that is likely to require a lot of retooling in July, particularly when you're disposed to the kind of ambitious, complicated trades that Theo Epstein and crew like to make.

org chart

There's nothing wrong with the Red Sox that money won't solve. Heading into next year with only minor upgrades would make Boston a 90-win team; adding a Lugo and a Schmidt would make them a 100-win team.

As much of a bonus as reaching the playoffs can provide, that bonus is probably larger to a team like the Yankees, who have 50,000 seats to fill, or to a team like the Tigers, who are desperately trying to restore its credibility, or to a team like the White Sox, who are trying to steal Chicago's heart from the Cubs, than it is to the Red Sox. The warm fuzzies from 2004 are going to last a long, long time, and the Sox have a compelling product full of compelling storylines. We performance analysts are pretty good at evaluating the job that players, managers, and general managers engage in. We are not so good at looking at anything above the general manager level, and particularly at the budgeting decisions that ownership makes. If there is blame to go around, it is not on Theo Epstein's hands, but on Mssrs. Werner, Henry, and Lucchino.

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

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