Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Yo, Adrian! (Get Used To That, Hopefully)

Have you been left cold by the end of another baseball season? Well, hold your frosty mitts out towards the hot stove. It's throwing some heat already, but we're just getting started. Teams can talk to any free agent starting November 20, and the deadline for arbitration is December 1.

The Red Sox have already engaged in a bevy of minor moves, the most important being the acquisition of one-time top prospect Jeremy Hermida from the Marlins. Hermida has not lived up to the high expectations after being the cover boy for Baseball America's Prospect Handbook in 2006. While it's hard for me to see Hermida as an adequate replacement should Jason Bay sign elsewhere, it's also hard to complain about the trade at all.

Boston dealt two minor league relievers to get Hermida, who's only 25 and has plenty of time to round into the player he can be. The Marlins were so gung ho to rid themselves of Hermida after committing to an absurdly low $36 million payroll for 2010 and his upcoming salary of $3.5 million was just too much to bear (equally absurd for a franchise opening a new park soon and expecting people to show up). I honestly think they could have done better, but again, I won't complain about any of this. The worst case scenario is Hermida gets platooned with a right-handed hitter and the Red Sox get close to Bay's production that way. Hopefully Hermida enters the season as a fourth outfielder with trade value down the line.

I fully expect the team to engage Bay in the coming days about a contract while they still have an exclusive negotiating window. That said, I'll be surprised if he takes whatever offer they come up with before getting the chance to see what else is out there. You can't blame the guy. He's never been a free agent and he's entering a thin market where he's easily the second best position player available behind Matt Holliday. In the end, I have confidence the Red Sox will pull out all the stops to keep Bay. Not a lot of teams can afford him at this point anyway.

The signing of Bay will hopefully not keep Theo Epstein and company from finding additional ways to improve an aging offense with not much in the way of minor league reinforcements. The name that's been mentioned over and over: San Diego's slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. The Sox were a player for Gonzalez at July's deadline, but couldn't get it done. In 2009, Gonzalez hit 40 homers, posted a .958 OPS and played Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base. On top of that, he's signed to the best contract this side of Evan Longoria: over the next two seasons he's owned $10.25 million.

Other team will likely be interested in Gonzalez, but the Red Sox could have the inside edge. The two organizations have long been friendly, and perhaps just got even friendlier with Epstein's former right hand man Jed Hoyer taking over as GM in San Diego. WEEI.com's Alex Speier wrote yesterday this development might actually make a trade more difficult, including this money quote from Epstein: "He's knows all my tricks, and I know his."

Either way, Hoyer knows the Red Sox system in and out, and knows exactly what he'd want from Epstein in trade discussions. I'd love to be able to listen in on potential trade talks between the master and his apprentice. Interesting stuff, to say the least. Based on this report, those talks could come sooner rather than later.

In any case, I want to see the Red Sox make this happen. Gonzalez is an elite middle of the order presence, and at 27 is just entering his prime as a superstar. To facilitate a trade, the Red Sox will of course have to give up quality. If that means they have to include Clay Buchholz, I don't think Epstein should hesitate.

Yes, Buchholz is only 25. Yes, Buchholz showed signs of excellence down the stretch last year and was in line to win his first playoff start before Billy Wagner and Jonathan Papelbon intervened. Yes, he could blossom into a front-line starter at a very low cost.

The operative word there is "could."

Red Sox fans who fawn over prospects need a reality check. Sure, it's tantalizing to think about how good Buchholz could be. But it's even more tantalizing to think of a Red Sox lineup that starts off with Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, Gonzalez and Bay for 2010, with everyone besides Martinez signed beyond that. That lineup will compete with the New York Yankees for the best in baseball and wreak havoc on pitchers throughout the game.

So if the only thing keeping the Red Sox from assembling that lineup is including a 25-year-old starter who might be a very good major league pitcher in the trade, I'd like to think that's a relatively easy decision for Epstein. The trade would include Buchholz, Lars Anderson, and probably three other prospects, at least one of whom would project as a major league starter. I'm not sure who that would be, but I'd think Hoyer knows one or two potentials. Daniel Bard should be left out of discussions unless a deal lands the Red Sox Heath Bell, a proven big league closer.

A trade for Gonzalez would put the Red Sox in position to address at lot of other needs. By adding such a big bat, the team could afford to go with a low-cost stopgap at shortstop to accompany Jed Lowrie (maybe a return engagement for Alex Cora?). They'll be more inclined to deal Casey Kotchman for a reliever. They would have to trade either Mike Lowell or David Ortiz, with Lowell the likelier candidate. Philadelphia nearly signed Lowell in 2007, so perhaps Epstein could deal him there and eat some salary.

They'll announce, by trading Buchholz, that they have every confidence in Daisuke Matsuzaka's conditioning and that he will return to his pre-2009 form as a consistent third starter. Remember, Buchholz might not have gotten his opportunity had Dice-K not struggled so much early on.

It will also open up a rotation spot for a winter acquisition. This could be a high-risk, high-reward type like Rich Harden or Erik Bedard, or the one big ticket FA starter out there, John Lackey. Or they could empty the rest of the farm system for Roy Hallady. It's my opinion that any of those options could be better than Buchholz next year anyway.

But it all hinges on what happens with Gonzalez. Here's hoping the old friends can find some common ground.

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