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.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Pitcher's Market, Part II

Let's continue our look at the free agent starters still available as we head into the new year...

Oliver Perez - Age: 27 - 2008 salary: $6.5 million
Scott Boras would like you to believe Perez is one of the five best left-handed pitchers in all of baseball, but like most of what Boras says, that's crap. Perez was around average last season, only managing a 4.22 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 194 innings. But he's young, one of the youngest of all free agent starters this offseason, and he has shown flashes of greatness dating back to his debut with the Padres in 2000. The Mets want Perez back, but the price they're willing to pay is not yet known. Boras will try to push for five years, but again, this isn't the kind of winter where teams not named the Yankees are able to dish out that kind of contract length for far from sure-things. I can't see Perez leaving the NL, but if an AL team came calling with something close to what Boras is demanding, they might have to jump on it. I suspect the Mets might be better off with Jon Garland anyway.

Andy Pettitte - Age: 36 - 2008 salary: $16 million
It's been a great career for Pettitte. He was an integral part of every Yankees' team that made it to a World Series during these past two decades. He went to Houston, close to his Louisiana home, and helped them get to a World Series. Even though he was implicated in baseball's various steroid scandals, he was one of few stars to admit HGH use, and escaped that particular scandal because everyone made Roger Clemens out to be the real villain. Pettitte's had two solid seasons back with the Yankees, and they have a $10 million offer out for Pettitte to return as their 2009 fifth starter. They now seem more willing to go with Phil Hughes following the Teixeira signing, but there's still a chance it happens. Should the offer be pulled, it's safe to say Pettitte will consider joining rotation-mate Mike Mussina in retirement. The Astros probably don't have the money Pettitte would want at this point.

Ben Sheets - Age: 30 - 2008 salary: $12.125 million
Has anyone been more frustrating to fantasy owners over the years than Ben Sheets? He always appears so tantalizing, because everyone knows his stuff is still at its 2004 level, when a 25-year-old Sheets struck out 264 batters with a 2.70 ERA and a microscopic 0.98 WHIP in 237 innings. In 2008, Sheets came within two innings of throwing 200 for the first time since that magical '04 season, but an elbow injury crept up at the worst possible time. He tried to gut through it, but was abysmal in a nationally-televised start against the Cubs during the last weekend of the season. That injury likely cost Sheets millions this winter. The Yankees had been linked to Sheets during the winter meetings, but recent rumblings have the Rangers preparing to make a run. Jon Daniels says there's been no offer, but there has been contact between the two parties. It's predictable for the Rangers to go after a pitcher like Sheets, and but if Sheets wants to live up to his potential he sure as hell won't do it playing in Arlington. If the Red Sox are feeling more ambitious than just going after Brad Penny, I don't see why it would hurt to make a play for Sheets. They could give him two years at around $14-$15 million annually and see what happens. Again, it's a tough winter for a guy like Sheets to be a free agent. If anyone gives him more than two guaranteed years, I'll be surprised.

More tomorrow.

A Pitcher's Market, Part I

On the heels of Randy Johnson's new one-year pact with the Giants, let's take a look at some of the many options remaining in the free agent pitching market. As I mentioned yesterday, there's been very little movement in the overall market but especially with starting pitchers, where only CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett have signed out of all the top-tier candidates. Here we go:

Jon Garland - Age: 29 - 2008 salary: $12 million
Garland is coming off his seventh consecutive season with over 190 innings under his belt. He'd probably be in line for a deal like Carlos Silva's or Gil Meche's or even better in any other year. Unfortunately for Garland, the best he'll probably be able to do in 2009 is a three-year pact with an option for a fourth with an average right around his $12 million 2008 salary. Deep in this Heyman article (with a headline that makes me grit my teeth) is mention that the Dodgers, White Sox, and Mets are options for Garland, and Heyman also makes the excellent point that Garland is "two years younger than Burnett with a better lifetime record (106-89)." I believe Garland could trive in the National League as a potential No. 2 starter. Should the Mets lose out on one of Derek Lowe or Oliver Perez, I see them making a play for Garland, and I doubt they'll be disappointed with the outcome.

Braden Looper - Age: 34 - 2008 salary: $5.5 million
Looper has been solid in two seasons as a starter for the Cardinals, and he's looking for a multi-year deal heading into 2009. The team most interested in his services appears to be the Brewers, but nothing is likely to get done until after the New Year. A nice two- or three-year deal could be in the works, and the Brewers need all the help they can get after losing Sabathia and potentially Ben Sheets.

Derek Lowe - Age: 35 - 2008 salary: $10 million
There's no question that Lowe is one of a select few free agents the Red Sox have let go in recent years that done very, very well in a different uniform. Lowe was consistently excellent for four years in Dodger Blue, his ERA never getting higher than 3.88 and his IP never getting lower than 199. He's still got that great sinking fastball, and he's one of few starting pitchers in this market likely to get four years, despite his age. The Mets are reportedly deep in negotiations with Lowe, but nothing his imminent, according to Omar Minaya. I've heard the Red Sox are maintaining contact with Lowe, and Lowe would love to come back to Boston, but I'd be surprised if that's the rout the Sox go. Lowe's numbers came while playing in the weakest-hitting division in baseball, and teams must be aware of that while courting him. I expect Lowe to wind up with the Mets on a four-year deal that will pay him around $15-$16 million per year, slightly less than Burnett's deal with the Yankees.

Brad Penny - Age: 30 - 2008 salary: $9.25 million.
Penny only made 17 starts in 2008 while dealing with constant pain in his right shoulder. There's been durability issues with Penny throughout his career, and he's only thrown 200 innings twice. Still, Penny is only a year removed from finishing 3rd in the NL Cy Young voting, and the talent has always been there. The Red Sox were said to be "monitoring" Penny at the beginning of the offseason, and his name has come up constantly as a possibility for that fifth slot in their rotation. I personally would love to see Boston take a flier on Penny and see what happens. He would not cost a lot in money and years. I'm sure plenty of other teams have interest as well.

More to come.

Friday, December 26, 2008

I'm Back...

I'm home for winter break, and I promised myself I'd write more as a result. To update you about my life, I just had perhaps the most fun three months of my college years, working for an amazing school newspaper, getting to cover the two best teams at UNH, meeting tons of new people and making lifelong friendships as a result. I have concluded taking classes and after this brief respite, I'll be doing my UNH journalism internship at the Daily News of Newburyport on the North Shore. My work will be varied and interesting, and hopefully I'll get to cover some high school baseball after the snow melts. Then in May I will get that diploma, and in these uncertain times, we all have to hope for the best when it comes to getting jobs. But that's in the future. Right now, I'm just trying to relax for these few weeks before beginning my life in the work force.

I did get a chance to write about baseball during my tenure at TNH, including this Red Sox post-mordem that would have fit perfectly here at JBB. Take a look if you want to recall the pain of the end of the 2008 season. I know, I'm so good at marketing myself.

Let's head right into the big news of this week, that being the revelation the New York Yankees have pockets deeper than the Mariana Trench. They swooped in at the very last second to sign the crowned jewel of the free agent season, Mark Teixeira, to an eight-year deal worth a reported $180 million. This comes a few short weeks after the Bombers came to agreements with stud free agent arms CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett for $161 million and $82.5 million, respectively. So while the Yankees have committed $423.5 million to their future this offseason, no other team has made what you'd call just a "splash" in the most timid baseball winter in recent history.

The Red Sox, in particular Theo Epstein, were enamored with Teixeira, and badly wanted to sign the slugging first baseman not just for next year but to be their mid-lineup stalwart for several years to come. But they only wanted to sign him for their price, and their reported final offer for Tex was $12 million short of what the Yankees will give him.

When Epstein, Larry Lucchino and John Henry flew to Texas to meet with Teixeira and his agent Scott Boras, I was fairly confident the latter two would be joining the former three on their way back to Boston. Of course, this wasn't the case. Boras played his typical game, telling the Sox he had much bigger offers on the table for Teixeira, and Henry chose to call his bluff by publicly proclaiming the Red Sox would "not be a factor" in the bidding for Teixeira's services.

I felt like the major media outlets got it all wrong when they claimed the next day that the Red Sox were out of running entirely for Teixeira. The wording of Henry's statement did not close the door at all. But maybe in the end they were right. I wonder if Teixeira was put off by the often off-putting duo of Lucchino and Henry, and instructed his agent to do whatever it took to get him into pinstripes.

Until Tuesday, it didn't seem like the Yankees were really seriously considering signing Teixeira. They'd already brought on two huge contracts this winter, traded for Nick Swisher, and their glut of corner outfield/first base/DH types seemed to keep them out of the running. Well, looking back, it's clear they wanted Teixiera all along, and were willing to wait for all the other offers to come in just so they could trump them by about $10 million or so. The Nationals may have had the biggest offer on the table, but there was no reason to believe Teixeira, who wanted to play for a winner, that he'd actually sign with either his hometown Orioles or Washington.

There's still a lot we don't know. Murray Chass (who somehow has a blog even though he remembers the McKinley Administration) believes Teixeira and his wife didn't want to live in Boston, and chose New York instead. This might be true, and if so it makes me feel better about the situation. But I can't help but feel for a measly (to the Sox) $2-$3 million more per year, they might have been able to convince the Teixeiras to set aside their reservations about Boston. Then again, maybe it was Teixeira's desire all along to play for New York, and the Yankees' interest was stoked as soon as that fact became apparent to them. Maybe the Red Sox never really wanted Tex as much as what had been reported all winter. It's hard to say right now.

The Red Sox are not screwed for the 2009 season because of this. They will cross their fingers and hope Mike Lowell, David Ortiz, and J.D. Drew have fully healthy seasons, Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis replicate their 2008 successes, and Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia become the game's best 1-2 punch. Signing Teixeira would have taken a considerable amount of pressure off all those players, and Lowell would have been playing at a different address. I've heard Lowell felt betrayed by all the Teixeira talk, which is unfortunate considering Lowell is probably the best guy in baseball and doesn't deserve to be jerked around like this. Hopefully this will motivate him to come back stronger than ever from hip surgery. Also, Youkilis will likely be the everyday cleanup hitter for the Sox, a role he seemed to thrive in down the stretch and in the playoffs. If they want a bona fide mid-lineup star, they will have to wait until next offseason to go after Matt Holliday, or maybe Albert Pujols in two years.

Don't get any ideas in your head that the Sox might go after Pat Burrell, Adam Dunn, Jason Giambi, or Bobby Abreu. They were either going to sign Teixeira or have a relatively quiet offseason as far as signing free agents. This article by Sean McAdam points out how futile the Red Sox view the free agent market. The current Red Sox administration will never spend half a billion dollars on free agents in one offseason, and it's hard not to respect them for that. Epstein refuses to get into bidding wars with his rivals, and he won't let the Yankees dictate his own moves the way Dan Duquette and Lou Gorman did.

The Sox need to focus now on their catching situation after the Yankees pilfered Kevin Cash the same day they yanked Tex off the market. Boras is having a tough time shopping Jason Varitek to other teams, mostly because the Red Sox offered Tek arbitration and no team wants to give up their first round pick for a soon-to-be 37-year-old oft-injured catcher who sported a .672 OPS last year. Conventional wisdom would say Varitek comes back to the Red Sox on a two-year deal that will pay him around his $10 million salary from last year. Because neither party has much of an option elsewhere, this should be the way it goes down. Needless to say, Boras is a slippery fuck. So anything can happen.

That's all I've got for today. I'll be back soon with thoughts on the still-vast free agent pitching market, and how frugal teams like Boston, Tampa, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Arizona could come up with some big bargains by waiting. I hope everyone had a good Christmas.