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January 3, 2010

On the Beat

New Year Update

by John Perrotto

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While everyone debates the merits of Jason Bay signing with the Mets, the Red Sox have already figured out what they are going to do without their left fielder of the past 1 1/3 seasons. Following the trend of so many other teams in the past few years, are building their club with an emphasis on pitching and defense. That is certainly a different tact for the Red Sox, who made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and six of the last seven with some of the best hitting teams in the major leagues. The Red Sox were third in the majors in runs scored, with an average of 5.4 a game last season as they won 95 regular-season games before being swept by the Angels in the American League Division Series.

However, Bay is gone, and taking his place in the lineup is Mike Cameron, who signed a two-year, $15 million contract as a free agent. The Red Sox aren't saying whether Cameron will play left or his natural position of center field, which would force the shifting of Jacoby Ellsbury to left. Regardless of how they align the outfield, the Red Sox will be losing some offense with the switch, though not quite as much as it may seem. Bay had a team-leading 36 home runs last year and hit .267/.384/.537 with a .304 EqA in 638 plate appearances. Cameron, playing for the Brewers, had 24 homers, a .286 EqA and .250/.342/.452 slash stats in 628 plate appearances. Cameron had the better season defensively, as he had a FRAA of 5 as a center fielder while Bay, despite getting knocked for his fielding, finished with -1 in left.

The Red Sox also took a step toward beefing up their pitching, which was third in the AL at 4.5 runs allowed per game last season, by signing right-hander John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million contract as a free agent. Lackey contributed a 3.9 SNLVAR for the AL West-winning Angels in 176 1/3 innings last season, as he got a late start to 2009 because of elbow problems. The Red Sox remember how Lackey sent them toward an early exit in the ALDS by pitching 7 1/3 shutout innings in Game One.

"I feel like we've made two great acquisitions," manager Terry Francona said. "Both of those guys make us a better team."

And a different team. The Red Sox likely won't have anyone putting up crazy numbers like Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz did for most of the decade. However, they will have five players who hit at least 23 home runs last season, led by Ortiz, who hit 28 as the designated hitter in what was clearly the beginning of his decline phase. Third baseman Kevin Youkilis hit 27, Cameron, and J.D. Drew both had 24, and catcher Victor Martinez hit 23.

Francona likes the idea of the Red Sox reinventing their offense to an extent, as they also signed shortstop Marco Scutaro to a two-year, $11 million contract as a free agent after he had a .286 EqA while hitting .282/.379/.409 in 680 plate appearances for the Blue Jays last season.

"Our offense was inconsistent last season," Francona said. "I don't think we were ever as bad an offensive team as we were portrayed, because we scored runs. We ran into times, especially on the road, where we didn't score much. And then we get to the playoffs-and that's what everybody remembers-the way you finish. I didn't think it was a lack of speed. I thought my first year (2004) with the Red Sox, we were slow, and I thought we would go play on artificial turf in Toronto and Minnesota and look a step or two slow. I don't feel like that anymore. Having a guy like Scutaro is only going to help make us better in that regard. He has tremendous on-base skills. He can steal a base. He's not a high stolen base guy, but he's a very good base runner."

Time will tell if the Red Sox's approach to retooling their team will work. They made the playoffs last season, but they still finished eight games behind the 103-win Yankees in the AL East. The Yankees have not stayed inert after winning the World Series in November, trading for Braves right-hander Javier Vazquez and Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson.

"The Yankees have a couple of things that make life difficult for us: A lot of money. and smart people running what they are doing," Francona said. "So you have to acknowledge that. They are not going to go away. I hope they don't get better. But they are there, so we have to deal with them. Now, saying that, we won't have to play them every day. We just need to be as good as we can be and then see where it goes. With the wild card, it changes things a little bit. They won a lot of games, 103. When we won 95, that wasn't even close to being good enough to win the division, but it was good enough to get to the playoffs. If you take care of your business, you'll have a chance."

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The Nationals had the worst record in the major leagues last season at 59-103. It was the second year in a row in which they had the worst record and lost more than 100 games, but that hasn't scared off potential free agents. In fact, players seem more open to coming to Washington than at any time since the Montreal Expos relocated there prior to the 2005 season.

Among the free agents who have signed with the Nationals this winter are right-hander Jason Marquis, closer Matt Capps, and catcher Ivan Rodriguez, plus utilityman Eric Bruntlett and left-handed reliever Eddie Guardado on minor-league deals.

"There's a positive momentum," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "People see what we're trying to do. People see that we're bringing in some veteran presence with a core of some very good young players. They also see these major-league free agents, like Pudge Rodriguez or Adam Dunn, who have the option to go wherever they want to go, have chosen to come to Washington, DC. That makes a statement. I think it's a statement of where the franchise is headed."

Rizzo has also proven to be a good recruiter with his friendly personality. "I was so impressed by Mr. Rizzo when we spoke on the phone for the first time," Capps said. "I could tell he really wanted me to play for the Nationals and he made me feel like it would be the right choice to go play for them."

Marquis, meanwhile, believes the Nationals are ready to become one of the surprise teams of 2010. "I follow baseball. I'm a baseball fan," Marquis said. "I follow teams, what direction they're going in, what moves they make, what they're looking for. They're in a phase where they've gone out and made the improvements they need to become a winning team."

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New Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos is on his way to enjoying a slice of paradise today. The 32-year-old was married Saturday, and he and his bride are headed to Hawaii for their honeymoon. Anthopoulos could use a break, as he has done quite a bit to reshape the Blue Jays since being promoted from assistant GM to replace the fired J.P. Ricciardi with two days remaining in the 2009 season. Anthopoulos traded franchise icon Roy Halladay to the Phillies last month, and he's also been busy restocking the Blue Jays' scouting department.

Ricciardi got rid of all of the Blue Jays' top scouts upon becoming GM following the 2001 season, and drastically cut the scouting staff, instead relying more on statistical analysis to draft players. However, Anthopoulos believes scouting and player development are the only way the Blue Jays can ever hope to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East.

"We talked about maybe changing the philosophy," Anthopoulos said. "Really, competing in the AL East, knowing we're trying to get to that 95-win-and-over mark, and knowing that we want to get All-Stars all over the place, we were going to have to maybe take a little more risk and go high ceiling in the draft."

Anthopoulos believes the Blue Jays received three high-ceiling prospects in the Halladay trade, netting right-hander Kyle Drabek and catcher Travis d'Arnaud from the Phillies. The third player they received in the deal with the Phillies, outfielder Michael Taylor, was dealt to the Athletics in exchange for third baseman Brett Wallace.

"We're on the road to getting back to where we were back in the World Series years," Anthopoulos said, mindful the Blue Jays have not played a post-season game since winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93. "Really, this is the start of it for us."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Even if the Cubs were inclined to deal Carlos Zambrano, those close to the jovial-yet-volatile right-hander insist he would invoke his no-trade clause unless it would be to the White Sox, because he wants to stay in Chicago. However, the White Sox are an unlikely trading partner after their deal with the Padres that brought over right-hander Jake Peavy last July 31. The sticking point with the Cardinals re-signing outfielder Matt Holliday is guaranteed money, as agent Scott Boras is trying to make sure the contract winds up reaching or surpassing the $100 million mark. Francona on if Bay can succeed in New York: "He proved he can play in a market like Boston, and he didn't let anything bother him. He's a very likeable guy and has the type of personality that allows him to fit right in."

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

Related Content:  Alex Anthopoulos,  The Who

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