Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Checking In on NYE

I've just got a few things to cover here before we say goodbye to 2008:

News broke Sunday night of the Red Sox reaching contract agreements with Brad Penny and Josh Bard on one-year deals. I'm a big fan of both moves, as they help the Sox address needs in a low-cost, high-reward fashion, especially in the case of Penny.

As I mentioned last week, the Sox had been "monitoring" Penny with an eye towards bringing him aboard for 2009. He threw only 94 innings last year and dealt with shoulder and elbow pain all along. Penny had several other suitors for his services, but in the end decided to come to Boston because he wants to win.

Penny was coming off excellent back-to-back seasons for the Dodgers, going 32-13 with a 3.64 ERA in 397 innings between 2006 and 2007. After the arm issues, and some problems with LA management, Penny's 2009 option was declined, and now he finds himself coming to Boston for $5 million plus $3 million in potential incentives based on innings pitched.

We've seen the Red Sox take on these types of pitchers before. In 2005, they gave $1.5 million to Wade Miller, and he did admirably in around 100 innings. Last year, they brought in Bartolo Colon on a minor league deal, and when he wasn't breaking the record for most pulled muscles in a single game in Philly, he pitched pretty well.

But the Red Sox are making a more significant investment in Penny than those others, at least in terms of actual dollars. They certainly feel if even relatively healthy Penny could be more than just a No. 5 starter. It also won't preclude them from going after other starters like Ben Sheets or Kenshin Kawakami because they won't know what they have with Penny until spring training.

In short, the Red Sox could be getting a lot for very little, and I like Penny's chances to make 20-25 starts and really contribute significantly to the '09 Red Sox. If not, at least they won't have paid him as much as they paid Curt Schilling to sit out the '08 season.

You may remember Josh Bard as the poor kid charged with catching Tim Wakefield at the outset of the 2006 season, but he just couldn't hang on to Wake's knucklers, and was traded to San Diego in one of the worst deals of the Theo Epstein era. Bard split time behind the dish with Mike Piazza and astonishingly hit .338 with a .943 OPS in 93 games for the Padres. He was also the Padres' primary catcher in 2007 but ran into some injury/ineffectiveness problems last year, batting just .202 and catching only 49 games.

With the catching market so thin, and Kevin Cash gone to the Yankees, the Sox must have felt some urgency to at least have one catcher under their control with significant major league experience. That's what they have now in Bard, whose one-year, $1.6 million contract is not guaranteed, certainly a rarity in major league contracts today. Again, I have to say I'm a big fan of the move.

There's no doubt the Red Sox still want Jason Varitek back. He's the team captain, he knows the pitchers in and out, he still plays terrific defense and it's awfully hard to see this club without him. I am still yet to hear definitively that a team besides Boston has any interest in Varitek. Scott Boras must face the facts: at this point, Varitek only has value to the Red Sox, and no team is willing to give up their first-round pick to sign a catcher who struck out 122 times in 423 ABs last year (I'm beginning to sound like a broken record here).

So if Varitek wants to play next year it will have to be with the Red Sox. By signing Bard, the Red Sox now gain more leverage in negotiations with Boras. They can say they've got a guy capable of being a primary catcher, and they can still sign someone like Gregg Zaun, Toby Hall or Johnny Estrada to split time with Bard. So either Boras can let his client continue to wait for a job somewhere that is highly unlikely to materialize, or he can return to Boston for something much closer to Boston's price. That could still be a two-year deal, but probably not for the $10 million AAV he got in his least deal. It's also possible Boras could wind up looking bad for not accepting arbitration for Varitek.

So what exactly Bard's role will be for Boston next year is unknown until they get another catcher. We know Bard can't catch Wakefield, and I've heard the Red Sox may ask Varitek to catch Wake as he did from 1998-2000 if he were to return. My guess is that if Varitek does sign, he will probably receive more time off in 2009 than he has in the past, and the Red Sox will continue to look via trade for his long-term replacement (Saltalamacchia, Montero, Clement, et al). We'll see where the Varitek talks go from here.

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