Friday, January 8, 2010

Tackling the Sox Offseason

The Red Sox always do a fantastic job stealing headlines away from Boston teams that actually play in the winter. While the Patriots prepare for a playoff tilt with Baltimore, the Celtics keep winning despite missing come key pieces, and the Bruins experience a hangover from the glorious Winter Classic, the myriad moves Theo Epstein and company have made to reshape the Red Sox for a new decade are on seemingly everyone's lips.

I've liked, to varying degrees, every move the club has made this winter. I'll go in depth shortly, but they've added a top-of-the-rotation starter, vastly improved team defense (especially on the left side of the infield), shored up the bench with useful pieces who can play everyday if needed, gotten younger, assured themselves of four picks between the 20th and 53rd choices in the June draft, signed only one player to a guaranteed deal longer than two years and did not dip into the farm system to address any of these needs. They set a goal to improve run prevention and defensive efficiency, and they've followed through on it. During a winter with a depressed free agent market, the Red Sox have done extremely well.

Apparently, lots of people don't share with my feelings. On Wednesday, I drove down to Boston for a Passion Pit concert and listened in to Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti's radio show on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Maybe it's because I'm stuck in my little cocoon in northern New Hampshire, but I had no idea the Red Sox offseason has been so loathed by so many.

I wasn't necessarily surprised by the sour feelings of the hosts; Felger was melting down while Massarotti was a bit more measured in his distaste. That's surprising because it's been more than a year and Mazz still isn't over the failed Mark Teixeira signing, and he couldn't resist tossing in a barb on that while I was listening.

Felger accused the Red Sox of not being truthful about their offseason mission (which is hilarious coming from a guy who's primarily covered the Patriots, surely the most forthcoming of organizations in sports) and being unwilling to spend big money on the bat he feels this offense sorely needs.

He also made the following claim, which would be more astonishing if it wasn't so hysterical: the Red Sox need give out more risky, long-term, bad contracts (yes, he actually endorsed "bad contracts") because they have the financial muscle to do so. I want to analyze this statement in more detail, but I'm afraid it would cause the bursting of multiple blood vessels in my brain. Instead, I'll just say that same philosophy has worked out beautifully for the Mets and leave it at that.

The callers for the Felgie and Mazz "Let's Rip Everyone Whether They Deserve It or Not Power Hour sponsored by Schlitz Beer" were mostly in agreement with the hosts, bitching as usual about the high cost of a potentially disappointing team, its affect on ticket prices, the lack of the one big hitter, how they haven't addressed a bullpen that's now awful because they blew one game in the playoffs, and plenty of other stuff I've blocked out of my memory.

Am I missing something here? All the sound and fury about not spending big money signifies nothing to me. Every argument against the spendthrift Sox of '09-'10 leaves out the John Lackey signing, and I don't recall a time when $82.5 million wasn't big money in baseball.

Lackey coming aboard caught me by surprise, and I think it caught the Red Sox by surprise too. He's had some injuries and some trouble in Fenway Park, but at worst he's an ultra-competitive no. 2 starter who wants to ball in a big game. The Red Sox signed this winter's best free agent starter to a market value contract and solidified a rotation that should rank amongst the finest in baseball in '10. Lackey also protects the Red Sox in case Josh Beckett flees via free agency after this season.

To me, the Lackey signing was unassailable, except that five years may wind up being excessive for a 31-year-old with an injury history. (The Sox even protected themselves here with an unprecedented "conditional" league-minimum option for 2015 if he misses "significant time" due to a preexisting elbow injury. Epstein is always thinking. He's like Omar Minaya in reverse.)

Announced at the same time was the Mike Cameron signing. Cameron's been a premiere defensive outfielder his entire career, and Epstein & Co. decided Lackey would be their "big money" move and went on the cheap to replace Jason Bay. Although no one could consider Cameron offensively superior to Bay right now, the not-overwhelming difference in their OPS over the last three years (Bay: .855, Cameron: .786) tells me Cameron's excellent defense will help make up the difference.

I would not have minded the Red Sox keeping Bay. Unfortunately, all of his value comes from his bat, as he's been abhorrently awful statistically in left field with UZR/150s of -11.4, -18.2 and -11.2 in the last three years. Bay's deal with the Mets should keep him in Queens for five seasons, but after three I'll be shocked if he's still patrolling the cavernous left field terrain of Citi Field.

It took a couple weeks for this to be confirmed by the team, but Cameron will be the Red Sox center fielder in '10 with Jacoby Ellsbury shifting to left field. It won't be a permanent move for Ellsbury's career, and his bizarre -18.3 UZR/150 in '09 isn't indicative of the kind of defender he'll become. But with Cameron's defensive toolkit (Felgie made fun of Francona's assertion that Cameron is better suited to play center because of his "long strides," as if that's somehow worthy of ridicule), it didn't make much sense to stick him in left field. Now the Red Sox can sport a starting outfield with three center fielders.

Also, I can't take anyone seriously who claims Ellsbury's offensive game doesn't work for a left fielder. What the hell difference does it make? Because he's playing left that means he can't be a leadoff hitter? Ever hear of this guy? Yikes.

Already armed with the best free agent shortstop available on the market in Marco Scutaro, Epstein set his sights on the best third baseman available. He got his man, Adrian Beltre, whose signing became official Thursday evening. The contract for Beltre is a dandy, one of the best by any team this offseason.

Scott Boras went into the winter expecting a four-year contract for Beltre north of $10 million annually. It didn't happen, especially since his client missed over 50 games due to injury last year and posted a .683 OPS when he was playing. Still, a few teams came in with multi-year offers, including the A's.

The deal he wound up signing for Beltre with Boston was fantastic for so many reasons. First, the one-year commitment at $9 million is exactly the kind of move the Red Sox love. The $5 million player option for '11 is low enough that Beltre will probably decline it. But, there's an escalator clause that bumps the option up to $10 million if he reaches 640 PAs this year. That might be enough to keep him, and if Beltre hits that PA plateau, the Sox will probably want him back anyway.

When healthy, Beltre has proven himself to be one of the best defensive players of his generation. Check out this gushing Dave Cameron post on FanGraphs about him, and this YouTube clip that somehow hasn't been taken down yet. (UPDATE: It's gone.) Seems hard to say this is a bad move, no? Minimal commitment, spectacular defense, potential for strong offense in Fenway; I'm not seeing the downside.

Mike Lowell is still on the Red Sox for now, but he clearly represents what the team used to be. Despite the trade of Casey Kotchman to the Mariners for Bill Hall, the Sox will continue to try and unload Lowell before the season starts. I expect that to happen, as long as Lowell can prove himself healthy in spring training. Perhaps a team will take a chance beforehand.

Hall provides a versatile backup on the left side of the infield and could be the fifth outfielder behind Jeremy Hermida, too. The Sox are only on the hook for $1.25 million of his $8.4 million '10 salary. He hit 35 homers four years ago and Epstein's always liked him. Hall is one of those guys I always expected would end up in Boston, and here he is.

So outside of finding a new home for Lowell, it appears the Red Sox will go into the season with what they have. The starting lineup will be comprised of Ellsbury, Pedroia, Martinez, Youkilis, Ortiz, Drew, Beltre, Cameron and Scutaro. Only Beltre had an OBP in '09 lower than the AL average of .331. Everyone can hit double-digit homers, but no one is likely to hit much more than 30. Will everything work out? Maybe not. But to assume in January this team will stink offensively is at the very least shortsighted.

If the offense does lag, the farm system is still well-stocked because of these moves and they could add that impact bat during the season when the cost won't be so high. But this wasn't the right offseason to add tons of offense. Next winter will be different. With over $50 million coming off the books, and Epstein not showing much effort to keep Martinez from hitting free agency, I firmly believe Boston will be going hard for Joe Mauer next winter.

How's that for an impact bat?

But the Red Sox have done the right thing this winter. Instead of tying themselves down in a bad market to those "bad contracts" Mike Felger so craves, they're trying to stay ahead of the curve by taking the undervalued run prevention route.

Go back and watch that Beltre video again. On nearly every play, Beltre kept those scorchers or dribblers from becoming base hits that could eventually become runs. This isn't rocket science, folks. It's how you play winning baseball, and that's what the Red Sox are going for.

Maybe they aren't doing what many Sox fans want. But no one will remember the bickering of these winter headlines if the Red Sox are holding the hardware in October.

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