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January 24, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Winter of Discontent?

by Jay Jaffe

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The 2012 Red Sox are a work in progress, Ben Cherington's unfinished symphony. When I set out to write this article, it was from the vantage point of looking back at the weekend's head-scratching swap, which sent shortstop Marco Scutaro to the Rockies for sinkerballer Clayton Mortensen. In isolation, it was a dismal return for a player who's been worth 5.5 WARP over the past two seasons, but by dumping Scutaro's salary, the Sox created room to fill other needs. As if on cue, they agreed to a one-year deal with outfielder Cody Ross on Monday night, consigning this article's brilliant original lede* to the dustbin of history and serving as a reminder that very few ballclubs are expected to win games in the dead of January.

*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

It's no secret that the Sox got something of a late jump on their winter business. Their gruesome season-ending collapse cost manager Terry Francona his job, and their protracted search for a new manager was complicated by general manager Theo Epstein's departure to the Cubs and subsequent squabbling over the proper compensation (a matter still unresolved) as Cherington took the reins. Cherington’s efforts to upgrade the roster have been further complicated by a desire to keep the team's payroll from reaching the $178 million luxury tax threshold, above which the Sox will not only pay a marginal tax rate of 40 percent for 2012, but an even steeper 50 percent rate for 2013. The situation is not unlike that of the Yankees, which I discussed here last week, in that at some point the team needs to reset its luxury tax clock to avoid increasingly stiff penalties.

Boston's situation already bears similarity to that of their rivals via the decreased roster flexibility produced by high salaries and long-term deals. Thanks to last winter's additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the Sox have more money committed toward some of their future payrolls than the Yankees do, according to the Cot's spreadsheets (all dollar values in millions):

Team

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

Yankees

$198.15

$126.88

$75.13

$68.13

$69.13

$26.00

Red Sox

$155.36

$107.85

$94.36

$55.96

$43.71

$43.71

Included in Boston's 2012 figure above, if not yet on the Cot's page, are the salaries of Ross ($3 million) and the arbitration-eligible Daniel Bard, who split the difference with the team and signed for $1.61 million. Not included are the salaries of their remaining arbitration-eligible players: David Ortiz (player request of $16.5 million, team request of $12.5 million), Andrew Bailey ($4.7 million and $3.35 million), and Alfredo Aceves ($1.6 million, $0.95 million), which together add somewhere between $16.8 million and $22.8 million. Keep in mind that the table above represents Opening Day payrolls, whereas the luxury tax threshold is actually based upon average annual values of contracts on the 40-man roster as well as benefits and medical payments, which may add another $10 million or so. In other words, that threshold in the mirror is even closer than it appears.

With all that in mind, what follows is a progress report on the key areas Cherington needed to address upon taking over.

Right field: While not the highest priority, this is the freshest news, and so we'll start here. Last year, Sox right fielders—mainly J.D. Drew and Josh Reddick, with Darnell McDonald and the desiccated remains of Mike Cameron thrown in—were Replacement Level Killers. They hit .233/.299/.353, for an OPS lower than any team except for the Mariners. Drew departed as a free agent, while Reddick was traded to Oakland in a deal that brought back closer Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney, the latter of whom ranked as the nominal starter until Monday night's signing. Ross is a 31-year-old righty with a significant platoon split, .272/.342/.521 against lefties over the past three years, compared to .258/.316/.404 against righties. Mind you, he's done that while toiling in a pair of pitcher-friendly parks in Miami and San Francisco, though just to confound the narrative, he's hit significantly better at home in that three-year span (.279/.345/.450 vs. .244/.300/.414). He's a fairly extreme fly-ball hitter who stands to benefit greatly from taking aim at the Green Monster, and a decent defender who can spot in center field. He's averaged a hardly remarkable 1.2 WARP per year over the past three years, but should provide a good return for a low price.

The righty McDonald (.236/.303/.401 last year), is likely the odd man out due to Ross' signing. Instead, Ross will likely be complemented by Sweeney, a low-power lefty (.283/.342/.378 career) with better on-base skills than Ross, and perhaps better defense as well. Eventually, fellow lefty Ryan Kalish, who hit .252/.305/.405 as a 22-year-old rookie in 2010, could work his way into the equation. He lost most of 2011 to a bulging disc and a labrum tear in his left shoulder, and needed a pair of surgeries. The latter, which took place in November, won't be healed in time to start the season. Even so, the Sox figure to have come up with a cost-efficient solution that, while not particularly sexy, should improve greatly on the production they got from last year's right fielders.

Shortstop: For as appealing a player as Scutaro is, he's also 36 years old, and is coming off a season in which an oblique strain and other minor injuries limited him to 113 games. Additionally, his contract had a quirk that made it more costly in luxury tax terms than it appeared; his $3 million player option for 2013 meant that $7.67 million of his salary, not $6 million, counted toward the team's 2012 tax figure.

Jed Lowrie, who was traded to Houston for reliever Mark Melancon in December, would have provided more youth than Scutaro (he's 28 in April), but durability has never been his strong suit; he hasn’t exceeded 341 plate appearances in a major-league season, and has 286 days on the disabled list in four seasons due to wrist and shoulder injuries and a bout of mono. It's fair to wonder if the Sox punted too early on a player who hit .258/.332/.419 through his first 795 plate appearances, but just .221/.274/.345 over his last 125 following a seven-week stint on the DL due to a left shoulder subluxation. On the other hand, Lowrie's ability to carry shortstop is in question, and his struggles against righties (.214/.293/.342 career) are a clear liability.

With both gone, the Sox have Mike Aviles and Nick Punto lined up as a job share of questionable value. Aviles, who will turn 31 in March, enjoyed strong seasons for the Royals in 2008 and 2010, but slumped to .255/.289/.409 last year. His numbers against righties over the past three seasons are nothing to write home about (.269/.294/.380), but not much worse than his numbers against lefties (.271/.315/.408). His value is in his versatility; he can spot at second, short, and third, as well as left and right field. While his defensive numbers were strong at shortstop back in 2008, he has just 61 games there over the past three seasons, because the Royals judged Yuniesky Betancourt to be a better fit for the position and moved Aviles to second. Even if they were wrong—certainly a possibility given Betancourt's defensive numbers—that's gotta hurt.

As for Punto, the 34-year-old switch-hitter was signed to a two-year, $3 million deal, the length of which is as laughable as his bat-breaking prowess. While Little Nicky's 2011 line of .278/.388/.421 looks robust, it came in just 166 plate appearances strewn around three separate trips to the DL for a sports hernia, a forearm strain, and an oblique strain. Thirty-nine of his PA—and 10 of his 25 walks—came while batting eighth, ahead of the pitcher; outside of that spot, he hit .226/.320/.340, which looks alarmingly like his career line of .249/.325/.327. He's shown almost no platoon split over his last three seasons—he has hit .249/.338/.322 against lefties and .237/.339/.311 against righties—so it's not like playing him part-time will mask some of his deficiencies and emphasize his strengths. He doesn't have a ton of shortstop work in his recent past, either—just 39 games over the past two seasons—but his defensive numbers have been consistently strong wherever he has played.

Prospect Jose Iglesias, a 22-year-old defensive wizard whose .235/.285/.269 line at Triple-A Pawtucket is just ghastly, isn’t really in the picture. Unless Cherington has another move coming, this has to rate as a significant downgrade on what the Sox had in 2011.

Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia's overall line (.235/.288/.450) wasn't terribly impressive, but he overcame a dreadful April to finish with a .255 True Average, three points higher than the MLB average at the position. He set career highs with 103 games, 386 plate appearances and 16 homers, threw out 31 percent of opposing basestealers, and showed himself to be an above-average receiver—all the things necessary to assert himself as the catcher of the present. The team essentially ushered going-on-40-year-old Jason Varitek into retirement by signing free agent Kelly Shoppach (incidentally, a 2001 second-round pick by the Sox). Shoppach is coming off two down years in Tampa Bay in which he combined to “hit” .185/.285/.340, but he did throw out 30 percent of would-be base thieves in that span, compared to 16 percent for Varitek, and was about a full win better than Varitek last year according to Mike Fast's framing data. Even with bat-first prospect Ryan Lavarnway providing organizational depth, the team has sorta-kinda left the door open for Varitek to return—we have it on good authority he's sitting by the telephone, still wearing his mask—but Cherington's business is mostly done in this department.

Designated Hitter: Ortiz reversed his decline and hit .309/.398/.554 for a .318 True Average, his best mark since 2008. For as much noise as the 36-year-old slugger has made regarding his contract status, his (in)security and the speed at which the Sox have addressed the matter, he accepted arbitration. It's possible the Sox could come up with a multi-year deal that lowers the average annual value of what either side is seeking; would he turn his nose up at a guarantee of two years and $24 million, say, with a club option for a third year? Cherington might have some room to maneuver here, though this might drag until early February.

Bullpen: The Sox elected to let Jonathan Papelbon depart as a free agent, and are planning to move top set-up man Daniel Bard to the rotation. Between Melancon, who emerged as Houston’s closer after Brandon Lyon’s injury, and Bailey, who was good when healthy but limited to just 41 2/3 innings by elbow troubles, they've identified their replacements. Assuming Bard sticks in the rotation (more on that momentarily), their depth beyond those two appears to be a problem, particularly with Bobby Jenks coming off multiple back surgeries and Alfredo Aceves also a candidate for a rotation trial. If they're out of the picture, righties Matt Albers and Scott Atchison and lefty Franklin Morales are the ranking returnees, and while some of the other rotation hopefuls—Mortensen and Vicente Padilla, for example—could find work in the bullpen, that’s not a particularly awe-inspiring bunch. At the very least, Cherington still needs to scare up at least one more pitcher suitable for high-leverage work either via trade or a low-cost free-agent deal. Players like Brad Lidge, Hong-Chih Kuo, Todd Coffey, Scott Linebrink, and even Chad Qualls offer a range of risk/reward levels, and other options abound.

Rotation: Josh Beckett and Jon Lester combined to give Boston 61 starts and 384 2/3 innings of 3.18 ERA ball in 2011. Unfortunately for their playoff hopes, the rest of the unit combined for 101 starts and 555 1/3 innings of 5.40 ERA ball. Of that motley crew, Clay Buchholz, who was limited to 14 starts and 82 2/3 innings due to a stress fracture in his back, is the only other lock for the rotation. John Lackey, who was battered for a 6.41 ERA in 160 innings, is out of the equation thanks to Tommy John surgery.

The team has decided to try converting Bard from the bullpen to the rotation, a possibility that's drawn mixed reviews largely based upon his control woes as a starter in the low minors circa 2007—woes that were founded in the team's since-abandoned attempt to rework his mechanics. If he's the fourth starter, that leaves Aceves, who has nine major-league starts under his belt, as the most appealing fifth-starter candidate from among a group that also includes Carlos Silva (out of the majors in 2011, 5.82 ERA in nearly 300 innings from 2008-2010), Andrew Miller (5.79 career ERA), Aaron Cook (5.49 ERA in 2010-2011), Padilla (two surgeries in 2011, and just 103 2/3 innings over the past two seasons), Mortensen (3.86 ERA in 58 1/3 innings last year, but with a 5.31 FIP), and—come the second half of the season—organizational black sheep Daisuke Matsuzaka, who's currently rehabbing from June 2011 Tommy John surgery.

Given that both Bard and Aceves would likely be subject to innings caps, and that Buchholz has just one major-league season of at least 100 innings under his belt, it's quite apparent the team could use another starter, if only to eat innings. Among the free-agent possibilities, high-end option Hiroki Kuroda signed with the Yankees just over a week ago, and low-end option Joe Saunders re-upped with the Diamondbacks. Of the desirable remaining free agents, 28-year-old Edwin Jackson is a workhorse who has averaged 208 innings with a 3.96 ERA and 7.1 K/9 over the past three seasons, but he's seeking a big-dollar long-term commitment, which would appear to be out of the question for the Sox. Former Astros ace Roy Oswalt has the better pedigree, but he's 34, and coming off a season in which he threw just 139 innings due to a lower back strain and a bulging disc, injuries that might account for his career-worst strikeout rate of 6.0 per nine. The Sox are allegedly planning to make a run at Oswalt, who would likely have to take a significant pay cut from last year's $16 million salary. If that's unsuccessful, a significant upgrade might require Cherington to swing a deal before the season or cross his fingers and hope he can make it to the trade deadline. Either way, his work is hardly done here.

Unlike last winter, the Sox haven't overwhelmed or surprised anybody this offseason, and given their payroll constraints, it doesn't appear they're going to, despite the restlessness of natives fretting over the team's back-to-back third place finishes. Even so, Cherington shouldn't be judged too hastily for the pace at which the team's winter work has unfolded. He's dealt from strength to shore up some needs, and shown creativity in solving others; if either the Bard or Aceves moves to the rotation pan out, it will be a significant coup. Ranking his remaining priorities in the wake of the Scutaro and Ross moves, the rotation and bullpen appear to be tops, with the latter particularly far from game-readiness. A shortstop upgrade will be harder to pull off, and there aren't many ways the team can further trim payroll; everybody making at least $2.5 million appears rather entrenched. Is it enough to win the AL East? Probably not, given the winter efforts of the Yankees and Rays, but then, the AL East has rarely been wrapped up by January 24. 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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