The last thing Boston GM Theo Epstein needs, other than for Richard Griffin to get a job at the Globe, is my advice. But the best game in recent memory got me wondering about what ails this most engaging of teams. I’m not a Sox fan, but neither do I have any particular animus for them, Ben Affleck notwithstanding. So consider what follows a mission of conscience more than anything else. Like it or not, here’s my three-step plan to get the Red Sox to playoffs…
Step 1: Get Derek Lowe out of the rotation immediately.
I don’t need to tell Sox partisans that Lowe has been more noxious this season than this forthcoming cinematic crime against humanity will inevitably be. According to VORP, Lowe has been the fifth-worst pitcher in all of baseball. While it’s not likely he’ll continue to be that fetid the rest of the way, it’s clear he’s not a suitable starter for a team with playoff aspirations.
Lowe’s perceived value has been inflated ever since his aberrant, and excellent, season in 2002. That year, he benefited from a remarkably low .238 opposing average on balls in play. Whether you assign the praise for that mark to luck or nifty defense, it’s not something that Lowe is likely to ever repeat.
He’s also been trending downward in other key areas. In 2004, he’s striking out only 4.26 batters per nine innings, which might be acceptable if Lowe were pitching in a co-ed softball game after the first keg had been floated, or toiling in front of an infield consisting of Ozzie Smith, Spider-Man, and a pair of black holes at the corners. Otherwise, it’s not passing muster. Add to that his appalling K/BB ratio of 1.08 and the fact that he’s logged only two quality starts since April and you have a pitcher who doesn’t belong anywhere near a contending rotation. Lock him away in the dungeon of mop-up long relief and let him out only when you need a double play in the 13th inning and are otherwise out of ideas.
So what to do once he’s been excommunicated? Byung-Hyun Kim is working his way back from a leg imbalance and is presently building up arm strength in Pawtucket. As this juncture, Epstein and company seem to have the bullpen in mind for Kim, but if he’s healthy and able right away, a return to the rotation would make sense. He’s not going to be worse than Lowe, and, after his lengthy convalescence, he might be the productive starter the Sox need.
Here’s the problem. If Kim makes it back to Boston by, say, the weekend, Sox brass will really only have a couple of starts to evaluate him before the non-waiver trade deadline. Even if they do like what they see from Kim, it’s still a risky proposition to pass on adding a starter and rely on the continued health and competence of Kim and sustained adequacy from Bronson Arroyo.
At the very least, the Sox have a reasonable contingency plan in Kim and Arroyo, which means that in dealing for a pitcher, it doesn’t necessarily behoove them to pull off a system-gutting deal for someone like Randy Johnson. (Especially if the Sox are going to do the patently incorrect thing and replace Arroyo instead of Lowe, and especially if it prevents them from addressing other needs.) Something comfortably south of Johnson, both in terms of ability and return swag required, is appropriate.
Making a play for Kevin Millwood could be attempted. The Phillies are frustrated with him and are already talking to the Cardinals about a deal that would bring Matt Morris their way. Are the Phils punch-drunk enough to accept Lowe and a dispensable reliever in return? I dunno. But Millwood makes sense. First, despite the grisly ERA (still a full run better than Lowe’s) his K/BB ratio this season is a fairly strong 2.44, and his homer rate, which is acceptable as is, should come down once he moved out a park that’s (so far) inflating home runs by almost 20 percent. And Millwood’s BABIP of .331 simply can’t last, even with Boston’s somewhat leaky defense behind him.
Whatever Boston decides to do in terms of rotation triage, the key is that Lowe is the one who’s shown the door. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen right away.
Step 2: Don’t worry about trading for a first baseman; all you need is a left-handed DH.
Another left-handed stick would allow the Sox to cobble together highly effective platoons at first base (David Ortiz and Kevin Millar), DH (player to be acquired and Kevin Youkilis or a healthy Ellis Burks) and right field (Trot Nixon and Gabe Kapler) without restructuring the roster–so long as the about-as-useful-as-a-flash-mob David McCarty is punted.
One possibility to fill this role would be Larry Walker of the Rockies. Walker has already said he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause to go to a contender. Of course, Walker has a litany of health worries, but strictly confining him to DH duty in Boston would be a start to solving that problem. He can still hit, and that’s what the Sox would need from him. Walker is owed more than $12 million next season, which is a source of concern. But a willingness to take on that contract would allow the Sox to acquire Walker for very little in terms of a talent outlay–something that should matter to an organization not brimming with quality minor leaguers.
Lately, the Brewers have cooled somewhat on Ben Grieve in favor of Brady Clark. If strictly platooned and DH’ed, he could be a nice addition. Grieve has serious limitations–can’t field, can’t hit lefties–but he can get on base against right-handed pitching, and the Sox have the roster to paper over his weaknesses.
What should be resisted is the temptation to skip down the path of conspicuous consumption to the loving arms of Mike Sweeney. The Royals, now squarely out of contention and in sell mode, may dangle Sweeney as the deadline approaches. But the Sox shouldn’t bite. Sweeney’s been hobbled by back problems for much of the year, and it’s no safe bet that he’ll improve on his underwhelming line to date: .265/.326/.452. Avoid him.
Step 3: Don’t trade Nomar Garciaparra.
Yes, he’s unhappy after the operatic off-season that had him, at various points, headed to the Rangers, White Sox, Dodger and Angels. It’s also possible that his mirthless approach to the game these days is a genuine distraction. Even so, he’s still a guy that, in shortstop terms, can knock the junk out of the ball. He’ll walk at the end of the year, bitter and feeling disrespected, but he’s a boon to the team in the here and now. The reputedly chilly clubhouse aside, Nomar makes the Sox better.
Have a great weekend. I’ll be back on Wednesday, still in the joyous throes of the Cardinals’ forthcoming sweep of the Cubs.