Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Invisible Man, Soon to be Gone Forever

One member of the Boston Red Sox current roster has been absent from the box scores of all games since June 14, without a whisper of an injury or any other serious issue coming out of the clubhouse. That player has seen no at-bats, no pinch-running, no defensive replacements; a tremendous rarity for an active player during the Terry Francona era.

That player is Julio Lugo. And if the last week and a half has been any indication, his days with the Red Sox appear to be numbered.

Nick Green has firmly entrenched himself as this team's starting shortstop. Green, a career utility man who did not appear in the Majors at all last season, has gained more and more comfort with both Boston and a position that's not his natural one. His walk-off "home run" (if you want to call it that) against Atlanta last weekend provided the high point of his season thus far. At .293/.345/.459 going into Tuesday's action, only Derek Jeter and Jason Bartlett are better offensive shortstops in the American League right now.

Whether Green stays as the primary shortstop depends on how Jed Lowrie performs upon returning from his lengthy DL stint. Lowrie should have had surgery on his wrist last winter, but didn't get it until starting the season 1-for-18. Now on a rehab assignment in Pawtucket, Lowrie should be ready for the Majors very soon.

That makes Lugo, whose defense has completely eroded and offense has shown only light flashes in limited '09 play, the odd man out. The letters "DFA" appear to be in his future. Some other scenarios would include sending Green, who's playing on a minor league contract this year, to Pawtucket and going with Lowrie and Lugo (this is highly unlikely since Green is doing so well and Lowrie might not play everyday initially), or optioning Lowrie to Pawtucket once his rehab assignment ends and continuing with the current arragement. This can't be ruled out, but it's fairly obvious that Lowrie (or anyone for that matter) has more value to the big club than Lugo does now, and when Lowrie is healthy he belongs in the Majors.

When talking about Lowrie on Tuesday, Francona said, "He's got to play. There's no getting around it." At the very least, having Lowrie and Green gives the Red Sox more flexibility since they can both play three infield positions while Lugo is limited to shortstop, which he sucks at anyway.

It's no secret the Red Sox have been shopping Lugo for a long, long time now. Anybody that wants a mediocre shortstop with roughly $14 million guaranteed remaining on his salary could have him. Unfortunately for Theo Epstein, no one's biting, and no one will bite. Even if the Red Sox were to pay the rest of his salary, no team in baseball is willing to give up anything in return.

I see no other reason why the Red Sox would knowingly keep Lugo off the field for this long. Francona is all about keeping guys fresh and making everyone happy in regards to playing time. It's been his MO since showing up in Boston. They obviously don't care about getting this guy on the field because they don't expect him to be on the team much longer.

They will designate Lugo for assignment, giving the club 10 days to figure what to do next. If Lugo isn't traded after those 10 days, the Red Sox will release him, and will be on the hook for that $14 million or so still owed.

It will look bad for Epstein and the Red Sox, who were so high on Lugo for years and threw $36 million at him when there were few other suitors in 2006. Lugo's detractors are quick to forget how much he improved both offensively and defensively down the stretch in 2007 and that he was a key contributor to their World Series run, going 5-for-13 in the Fall Classic.

But that's all in the past. Lugo is a sunk cost, and the Red Sox have resigned themselves to that fact. Lugo's contract is one of the many reasons why Epstein has soured on big deals for non-superstars and why you'll likely never see another one for Boston during his tenure. Case in point: the Red Sox were forced to give up their '07 first round pick to the Dodgers upon signing Lugo. They could not have forseen this happening, but if they had that pick, they likely would have selected Rick Porcello, who should have gone in the top five but fell due to signability concerns. As a Red Sox fan, who would you rather have on the club right now: Porcello or Lugo?

Revisionist history doesn't really matter now. Lugo is a goner, and the Red Sox will be better for it.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Back of the Rotation Quandary

The Red Sox will look to sweep the Phillies Sunday afternoon, and given how taxed their bullpen has been these past two games, they'll also be looking towards Josh Beckett to continue his dominant ways. Beckett got off to a rough start in 2009, but he's allowed just one earned run in his past four starts and appears to be back to his 2007 form. Jon Lester has overcome an even rougher 2009 outset, with a ridiculous 34 strikeouts in his last three outings.

With quite possibly the best bullpen in franchise history and an offense gaining steam behind some David Ortiz consistency, the re-emergence of Beckett and Lester ought to cement the Red Sox as the team to beat in the AL through the rest of the year. Yet, it's the logjam at the back of the rotation that is creating headaches for the front office.

John Smoltz went to the hill Friday for what could be his final rehab start for Pawtucket. At this time, Smoltz is in a "holding pattern," and he'll pitch somewhere this Thursday. It's not known at this time where that start will take place. Tim Wakefield is scheduled to pitch Tuesday, with Brad Penny set to go Wednesday and Lester on Thursday.

Trade rumors have been swirling around Penny for weeks now. After Monday, they Red Sox will be able to trade Penny without his consent. He had perhaps his best 2009 start on Thursday, lasting six shutout innings against the Yankees and definitely upping his trade value in the process. Penny has about $4 million guaranteed remaining on his salary for the rest of this season. With so few teams able to take on payroll this year, the Red Sox will probably have to pay most of that salary to get anything of value in return. Penny could be the last piece for several NL clubs, including the Mets, Phillies or Cardinals. If they really want Penny, they should be giving up at least one solid prospect for his services.

The Red Sox clearly believe in Smoltz, and they want to give their $5.5 million investment a chance at the Big League level. They believe that a postseason rotation including Beckett, Lester and Smoltz would be relatively unbeatable and give them a significant advantage over every other club. But there's only five rotation spots, and the six-man rotation ideas being thrown out are totally bogus. Routines are essential to starting pitchers, and throwing off those routines could be disastrous.

The question is, who goes? We've already discussed Penny, the most attractive trade candidate. If this were based solely on performance, Daisuke Matsuzaka would be the odd man out. He looked particularly bad Saturday night in an abbreviated outing, getting smacked around like a rented mule. He's complained after his last two starts about some level of physical discomfort. Dice-K is clearly not all the way back, and another trip to the DL seems imminent. Smoltz could slide into the rotation in his place.

But that's only a temporary fix. Hopefully Dice-K would only spend a few weeks then be back to his nibbling self. A move will still have to be made. And we've haven't even mentioned the two aces in Pawtucket, Clay Buchholz (4-0, 1.75 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 59 K in 67 IP) and Michael Bowden (3-3, 2.48 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 42 K in 65.1 IP), and both are proving they have nothing left to prove in Triple-A.

The guess here is Smoltz starts for Pawtucket on Thursday and they give Matsuzaka one more start to prove he's not completely worthless. If that outing goes poorly, the Red Sox will hold off on dealing Penny, put Dice-K on the DL and put Smoltz into the rotation. If Matsuzaka is fine, Penny probably gets shipped off to the NL before Smoltz has to come off the DL.

As for Bowden and Buchholz, it's possible the Red Sox have something big in the offing in terms of a trade for a big bat. However, it would only make sense for them to trade those pitchers if they could get a player back with commensurate MLB service time. At least that's the way the Red Sox rationalize it.

Too much pitching is always a good problem to have. But as we've seen in the past, pitching can dry up in a hurry. The Red Sox should only deal from their surplus if they feel it will benefit the club in both the long and short term.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Trade Talk in June

Let us begin with the big trade of the past week, Nate McLouth unleashed from baseball purgatory in Pittsburgh for a package of young Braves including Charlie Morton, Gorkys Hernandez and Redstone's own Jeff Locke. The trade, which came the same day Tom Glavine was unceremoniously dumped by Atlanta, sent shockwaves up both ends of the East Coast.

McLouth had a terrific first half in 2008 but finished with a .276/.356/.497 line along with 26 HR and 23 SB. He was awarded a Gold Glove but probably didn't deserve it, and in February the Pirates signed him to a team-friendly extension buying out his arbitration years for $15.75 million along with a $10.65 million option for 2012 (how they came up with that number probably involved a dartboard). At 27, I think the Pirates gave up on McLouth a bit too soon for a return that leaves something to be desired.

This week, Pirates players like Freddy Sanchez and Adam LaRoche publicly voiced their displeasure with the deal, with Pittsburgh only three games under .500 and 6.5 games out in the NL Central. GM Neal Huntington issued an open letter to fans defending the trade, which is never a good sign. The Pirates have not finished higher than 4th this decade, with zero winning seasons since 1992 (call it The Curse of Francisco Cabrera and Sid Bream). They began last year with a great outfield of McClouth, Xavier Nady and Jason Bay, all of whom now play in different cities. It's amazing to me they have any fans left to fill their beautiful park.

Morton is an OK starter who's probably reached his ceiling as a Quad-A type. This is the second time Hernandez has been dealt before getting to the Majors. And as for Mr. Locke, to me he was the centerpiece of the trade for the Pirates. For the first time in his whole life, Jeff is facing adversity when it comes to getting guys out. His WHIP was an uncharacteristically high 1.60 through 45 2/3 IP with his old team in Myrtle Beach. He's still only given up one HR this year and should benefit from going to a better team in Lynchburg, Va.

I haven't talked to Jeff personally since the deal went down, but I'm sure it must all be a little surreal for him. It's easy to forget, as fans of the game, the emotional and personal impact of trades like this until someone you know is involved in one. He's spent the past three years with the Braves, and forged friendships with teammates and people in the organization. So now his name gets put all over ESPN and he's got to move from one town to another, and will be expected to be pretty good since the Pirates gave up an All-Star to get him.

I believe Jeff will be pitching in the Show someday. That it will probably happen closer to home, and probably sooner that it would have in Atlanta, is a good thing. We're all pulling for you, Lefty. Continue to make us proud.


It seems clear the Red Sox will be making a trade involving Brad Penny in the next couple weeks. John Smoltz is slated to return from the DL on June 16, with Penny's scheduled turn in the rotation coming the next day against Philadelphia. The best guess here is that Penny will be dealt in the days leading up to that. There have been many teams mentioned as potential suitors, and the Red Sox should be able to pick up a decent prospect as long as they're willing to pay a significant portion of Penny's remaining salary. Smoltz has been lighting it up in his rehab starts, and it's exciting to think he'll soon be wearing a Red Sox uniform.

Several members of the Cleveland Indians have to be wondering about their futures. They are a last-place club with plenty of valuable pieces, including Victor Martinez, Cliff Lee and Mark DeRosa amongst others. No doubt DeRosa gets dealt, the Mets could use some depth especially with Jose Reyes likely to miss the rest of June. It will be harder pry away Martinez or Lee, but we saw last year with CC Sabathia that GM Mark Shapiro will pull the trigger if he feels he's getting good value in return. This year appears to be a lost cause for the Tribe, so Shapiro should be listening on his hot commodities.

Out west, the Athletics and GM Billy Beane find themselves in a similar situation. Matt Holliday could be a huge prize of Beane makes him available at the deadline, and Buster Olney mentioned today that Beane's disussed Orlando Cabrera with the Red Sox. The Mariners also have to decide if they're buying or selling, with the rejuvenated Erik Bedard at the center of rumors. It appears the Rangers are for real after taking two of three in Boston this weekend, and if the Angels wake up there ought to be a good pennant race out there through the summer. The other two teams should sell, in my opinion.

Final note: I've added a badge to my Twitter page on the right-hand side, and you may have noticed I've been spending most of my time on that discussing stick and puck instead of bat and ball. There's only, at most, two games left in the NHL season, so hopefully I should be back to writing about baseball both here and there more frequently very soon.