Rocco Baldelli, John Smoltz signings are master strokes

Smoltz - y-its-mom (Flickr)
As we all know by now, the Boston Red Sox are on the cusp of signing outfielder Rocco Baldelli and starting pitcher John Smoltz to contracts. These are master strokes by general manager Theo Epstein.

All that's standing in the way of Penny, Smoltz and Baldelli is not ineffectiveness, it's injury. And all indications (considering the Red Sox do their homework on this) is that these players do not have injuries holding them back anymore.

They're ready and able to get Boston that World Series ring in a year where they have two heavyweights on their back in the Yankees and Rays. What the Yankees and Rays may not be counting on, however, is that the Sox, as presently constituted, could be better than them.

As we all know by now, the Boston Red Sox are on the cusp of signing outfielder Rocco Baldelli and starting pitcher John Smoltz to contracts. These are master strokes by general manager Theo Epstein, who also inked Brad Penny to a deal earlier this year along with trading center fielder Coco Crisp for reliever Ramon Ramirez.

Rocco – Samara Pearlstein

Rocco Baldelli

A local product from Rhode Island, Baldelli was hailed as the next Joe DiMaggio and looked to be delivering on that promise, more than holding his own as a 21 and 22-year old in 2003 and 2004.

Baldelli missed all of the 2005 season due to tearing the ACL in his knee and then later requiring Tommy John surgery on his elbow. In 2006, he returned no worse for the wear, hitting .302/.339/.533 with 16 homers (matching his career high)  in 364 at-bats.

He would then pull his hamstring and have the problem plague him through 2007, resulting in only 137 at-bats that year.

Before the 2008 season, it was thought that Baldelli suffered from a mitochondrial disorder which would leave him extremely fatigued even after short workouts. After slowly working his way back, he checked in with 80 at-bats during the Tampa Bay Rays’ American League pennant year, hitting .263/.344/.475, but could not play back-to-back days.

After the year ended, it was discovered he had a form of channelopathy, which is much more treatable than a mitochondrial disorder. While questions still abound if he can play back-to-back days, there is optimism that he can recover to play a full slate of games.

Baldelli will attempt to put these questions to rest by serving as the Red Sox’s fourth outfielder. At just age 27 with clear talent to be an All-Star, this is an amazing signing by the Red Sox. The Red Sox’s fourth outfielder position is one that logs plenty of at-bats, so the opportunity is there for Baldelli to prove himself.

Bill James predicts Baldelli to log 312 at-bats (doable from the Sox’s fourth outfielder position) with a .297 average, 12 homers, a .330 OBP and .465 slugging percentage. I very much doubt any Red Sox fan would take issue with those numbers.

In 2006 and 2007, Baldelli hit over 20 percent of his flies as infield flies. However, his other three years have IF/F around the 11 percent range, with his 2006 BABIP (numbers only available) as .328 with an xBABIP of .310. As best as I can determine, this means that out of his five major league seasons, the one season with the most logical line for us to expect is this past one; 2008.

Signing Baldelli is two-fold. First, it assures us of having the same quality (if not better) out of the fourth outfielder position that the Red Sox had last year in Coco Crisp. When you consider we added Ramon Ramirez as a product of the Crisp trade, the Red Sox easily come out ahead for the 2009 season in swapping out Crisp for Baldelli and Ramirez.

Secondly, it all but assures that the Red Sox will either be signing a fifth outfielder or a utility player like Willie Bloomquist to serve as a defensive replacement should Rocco be unable to go some days. Right now, the bench has one (maybe two, if you consider Josh Bard the starter) openings. In previous years, this position has commonly gone to a1B/LF/DH (with my vote going to Jeff Bailey) but with Baldelli in the fold, the Sox may find it necessary to bring in someone who can be a glove all across the field.

To be sure, Baldelli has been historically injury-prone, even before his latest bout with fatigue. It’s hard to be able to count on him for a full season, but all indications are pointing to an upward slope now that his disorder has been correctly identified and can undergo treatment.

Smoltz – y-its-mom (Flickr)

John Smoltz

Smoltz is a freak of nature. At 40 years of age two years ago, Smoltz threw 205.2 innings and in his nine years of at least 30 starts or more, every single one has been over 200 innings total.  With that 3.11 ERA in 2007 and his 2.57 fast start in 2008 in 28 innings before going down to injury, it’s clear that Smoltz is far from done.

Smoltz threw off a mound under the watchful eye of longtime Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell.

“I’ve never seen John so fired up about something in my life,” Cox said at the winter meetings. He loves challenges, and he’s got a big one ahead of him. But what I saw for the very first time out off the mound was incredibly good.

“I didn’t think there was anyway he could throw like he did. It kind of brought some bumps on my arm because he was throwing so well, and I wasn’t for sure if he was supposed to be that far ahead or not, but he is…He’s way ahead of schedule.” (WEEI)

One of the best indicators, in my opinion, as to the effectiveness of a pitcher is the opposing batter’s line drive percentage off the pitcher. The best-hit balls are line drives, so if pitchers can limit them, then clearly they are doing a good job.

Here is Smoltz’s line drive percentage dating back to 2004, respectively: 17.7, 22.1, 20.3, 19.9, 13.9. It doesn’t look like a pitcher knocking on the door of retirement, does it?

How about his xFIP? 2.78, 3.58, 3.71, 3.39, 2.85. How many 27-year old pitchers would kill to have this 42-year old guy’s xFIP from the past five years?

Face it: we’re getting a stud.

The Red Sox don’t expect Smoltz to be ready until late May and can clearly afford to be cautious with him. The Sox are very aggressive about making sure their pitchers are
healthy and have no issue with placing any of their pitchers on the
15-day DL for brief respites of rest time. This ensures they are ready
to go in September and October, so nagging injuries that commonly can
be pitched through are used as excuses to get them on the DL.

That said, best-case scenario, with all pitchers healthy and effective out of the gate in spring training would constitute Wakefield going to the bullpen.

Comparison of Sox v. Yankees moves

Look, I know some people are unhappy with the signings of Bard, Smoltz, Baldelli and Penny while the Yankees are going out and grabbing stars such as Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

But keep in mind that the Yankees had far more aggressive holes to fill than the Red Sox while the Red Sox are going after extremely high-reward, low-risk players. If they pan out, we’re golden. If not, we’re still going to compete. I’m sure if the Red Sox had the bottomless reservoir of money that the Yankees do, Mark Teixeira would be in Boston now.

Remember, Theo does best with the “buy-low” strategy. When he has money
to play with to go after anyone, he doesn’t have as much of a history:
Matt Clement, Julio Lugo, J.D. Drew… but buy-low? This guy is a
genius at buy-low. David Ortiz, Mark Bellhorn, Mark Loretta, Bill
Mueller, Kevin Millar…

If you’re one of those people who find it hard to be pleased about the recent moves, consider this: all that’s standing in the way of Penny, Smoltz and Baldelli is not ineffectiveness, it’s injury. And all indications (considering the Red Sox do their homework on this) is that these players do not have injuries holding them back anymore.

They’re ready and able to get Boston that World Series ring in a year where they have two heavyweights on their back in the Yankees and Rays. What the Yankees and Rays may not be counting on, however, is that the Sox, as presently constituted, could be better than them.

Categories: John Smoltz Rocco Baldelli Theo Epstein

Born on the 37th anniversary of the the day Babe Ruth died (1985) which later became the day Jimy Williams was fired in 2001 (a monumental event at the time), Evan was too young to experience the pain 1986 brought, but a deep wound was sowed in 2003. Since then, Fire Brand has become a blog that Red Sox “club officials read,” as per Peter Gammons. Evan enjoys working out, writing, reading, quality television, science fiction and history and being newly married. He is a professional baseball journalist as well as president of a state non-profit and member of the Board of Directors for a national profit. (Twitter.)

35 Responses to “Rocco Baldelli, John Smoltz signings are master strokes” Subscribe

  1. Re-Pete January 8, 2009 at 9:09 AM #

    The Red Sox don't expect Smoltz to be ready until late May and can clearly afford to be cautious with him. The Sox are very aggressive about making sure their pitchers are healthy and have no issue with placing any of their pitchers on the 15-day DL for brief respites of rest time. This ensures they are ready to go in September and October, so nagging injuries that commonly can be pitched through are used as excuses to get them on the DL.
    That said, best-case scenario, with all pitchers healthy and effective out of the gate in spring training would constitute Wakefield going to the bullpen.
    The Red Sox are very aggressive about making sure their pitchers are healthy and have no issue with placing any of their pitchers on the 15-day DL for brief respites of rest time. This ensures they are ready to go in September and October, so nagging injuries that commonly can be pitched through are used as excuses to get them on the DL.
    That said, best-case scenario, with all pitchers healthy and effective would constitute Wakefield going to the bullpen.

  2. bottomlinesox January 8, 2009 at 9:15 AM #

    Great write up Evan.
    I think most of Red Sox Nation just wanted to see some kind of action after Teixeria went to NY.
    There are more than a few yahoos ou there that will be ready to pince if one of these guys doens't come out " guns a blazin' " but you nailed it when you said that Theo is very good at buying low.
    David Ortiz might be the best example…

  3. Evan January 8, 2009 at 9:38 AM #

    Thanks, Re-pete. Fixed.

  4. Anonymous January 8, 2009 at 9:45 AM #

    You are just blowing smoke. You came up with two players with not much of a future for not much money. I quess you had to do something to talk about.

  5. Evan January 8, 2009 at 9:48 AM #

    Yeah, that's what they said about David Ortiz. Sorry, dude. No smoke here. All fire. That's why we're Fire Brand!

  6. Anonymous January 8, 2009 at 9:51 AM #

    yeah not much a future for someone named the next di maggio and a future hall of famer your high on something buddy

  7. Gerry January 8, 2009 at 10:02 AM #

    Thanks, Evan. You summarized it nicely, concisely. These signings are terrific. Smoltz and Penny have every reason to pitch like aces this year. We now have 5 starters in the rotation, Smoltz preparing for June, and great talent in the farm. Once again, the Sox have depth in the rotation. And he did the same for the Pen.
    Maybe someone would do a similar piece on the significance of RRammi, Littleton, Gonzalez even McBeth & Traber . . . though maybe it should wait to see if we are really in line to get Saito.
    I think Mazz is planning to stop mourning Teix sometime soon, because he started pushing for Salty today. Maybe someone could analyze Salty vs. TG. vs. Montero vs. Shoppach vs. keeping Tek & Bard, and other alternatives. Each one has his own baggage that is being ignored.

  8. Dave January 8, 2009 at 10:56 AM #

    Love the Smoltz signing, but let's be realistic about Baldelli. While he showed terrific promise at 21 and 22, he never developed into a mature hitter even before the injuries and illness derailed his career. He had only one season that he cracked an .800 OPS, and that was largely based on an uptick in his average (he only walked 14 times in nearly 100 games). Sure, he's got an upside, but there's no guarantee he'll be as good as Crisp and it's not particularly likely that he'll ever be more than a 4th outfielder (no patience at all at the plate and not enough power to play at the corners).
    What the Sox should do is trade for both Brynes and Montero of Arizona. If they use their financial power to eat Brynes ridiculous contract they should be able to get Montero for a B prospect instead of Bucholtz or Bowden. Then they get an over-priced but excellent 4th outfielder and an excellent young catcher.

  9. ManchvegasBob January 8, 2009 at 11:09 AM #

    Nice read Evan – I found about about the signings here first of all places!

  10. Bob January 8, 2009 at 11:10 AM #

    Montero would be nice, but if Byrnes comes to Boston I will stop watching games, I'll follow the team, but I can't stand Byrnes, I don't want to see him or hear him speak he sucks

  11. M.A.G January 8, 2009 at 12:00 PM #

    After signing Smoltz, I don't think we are in the race for Saito anymore. Let's not forgett Smoltz represent an upgrade to the rotation AND to the bullpen.
    So, I think the only questions remaining this offseason are about catching and about the possibility of acquiring another bat. With the reluctance of the FO for trading any of the young arms, I hope we make a move for Adam Dunn. If we get him I will be very happy with our offseason.
    And, please, don't re-sign Tek under any circumstance. I just want the draft pick for him. I preffer to sign Zaun or stick with Kottaras.

  12. Paul Testa January 8, 2009 at 12:10 PM #

    I am not sure that these are master signings from Theo. The Red Sox have built a pretty impressive brand since 03. Players like Baldelli and Smoltz would be almost foolish to not want to come here. Baldelli has a chance to prove he can contribute on a big stage, play for his hometown team and be extremely close to his family. Smoltz has a chance to take his time rehab and come and make a difference in a Pennant Race. Not to mention he gets a chance to make 10 million dollars for pitching 60% of a season. Masterful I think not but sure they help our team.
    With that said I am stoked that Rocco is coming here. As a fellow Rhode Islander I can only imagine what it would be like to play in front of a crowd of people you consider "neighbors".

  13. Orange Julius January 8, 2009 at 1:15 PM #

    Evan,if Bard, Penny, Smoltz, and Baldelli work out we can call them "The Junk Yard Dogs!"

  14. JaredK January 8, 2009 at 2:13 PM #

    Bob (post #8), I think the Sox figure they may need 8 starting pitchers this year (assuming Masterson in the pen) given the injury risks of Smoltz, Penny, Beckett (we'll find out about that elbow) and Wakefield. Also, Lester made about a 70 inning jump from 2007 to 2008 (including playoffs) which is never a good thing for a young pitcher and can lead to problems (probably won't but there are reasons for limiting the increase in innings from year-to-year). Not saying a trade won't happen but they could just be hedging their bets.
    Also with Smoltz, Wake and Penny being gone after this year and Beckett likely gone after 2010 we may need some top mlb arms at that point more then a "potentially" great offensive catcher.

  15. Bob January 8, 2009 at 2:31 PM #

    I like how deep the team is, and I sort of wonder if getting Smoltz and Penny is a prelude to trading Buchholz or Bowden for Salty. I say get Dunn, let Tek walk and collect the draft picks, move Lowell and call it an off-season.

  16. Stephen January 8, 2009 at 5:17 PM #

    I'm new to this site. I love stats, but don't know what a good line drive % is, and what is xFIP?

  17. M.A.G January 8, 2009 at 5:50 PM #

    I think the FO simply don't want to trade any of the young arms. So, probably we are going to have to survive this year with mediocre catching.
    And that's another reason to sign Adam Dunn. If we are not gonna get offensive help from the catcher position, I think we need to improve our lineup in another position. Dunn will be a great offensive upgrade, he is young, and even his defensive shortcommings will be negligible in a year or two, when we can move him to LF or DH. For the moment we will be sacrificing some defense in first, and compensating with offense, but in the long run he will be extremely valuable for us, when we can hide his glove under the monster or, even better, as the perfect DH. If Theo can sign him, I think this will be a great offseason to us.
    So, let's start the "sign Dunn" campaign.

  18. Bob January 8, 2009 at 6:43 PM #

    I agree on Dunn, again, on the condition that Bay isn't extended and we move Lowell so we can move Dunn to LF and put Lars at 1b in 2010.
    As far as trading a pitcher, I think that the Tazawa, Penny and Smoltz signing make Buchholz or Bowden expendable. If the sox are worried about pitching then they can use the Tek draft picks (I think someone else will sign him) to draft a high quality pitcher, and there is already plenty of depth lower in the system with Kelly, Pimentel and Huntzinger. They can afford to go year to year on low-cost free agents for the 5th slot in the rotation until those 3 become the new Buchholz, Masterson, and Bowden.

  19. M.A.G January 8, 2009 at 7:02 PM #

    One of the things I like about the signing of Dunn is he can give us flexibility for the future. Certainly the most obvious option is letting him replace Bay next year. But we can also consider the option of keeping Bay and replace Papi, if he shows signs of decline. In any case, Anderson will be our first baseman for 2010.
    I also think Buchholz or Bowden are expendable for the right catcher. But apparently the FO thinks differently, because they could have pulled the trigger already. They seem to be determined to retain this kids at all costs.

  20. JaredK January 8, 2009 at 7:24 PM #

    Kelly, Pimentel and Huntzinger are all talented but big question marks at this point as and at least 4 years away (Hagadone is a better bet to get healthy and make a contribution before any of them) and Tazawa needs to pitch in this country before we can legitimately know what he is. Kelly has not pitched at all, Huntzinger and Pimentel have barely pitched above short-season a-ball. Penny and Smoltz will both be gone after this season as will Wake. Next off-season we will have Lester, Dice-K and one more year of Beckett….along with Clay/Bowden/Masterson. Just saying that pitching is more important then a potential offensive catcher with big defensive question marks in my opinion. We could very well see a trade of one of Clay/Bowden/Masterson but if we do I hope like hell that Salty (assuming he is the target) he is able to cut it behind the plate. A good hitting catcher may be the rarest commodity in baseball but good pitching depth is easily the greatest luxury.
    Next seasons free agent market for pitchers is not a particularly good one…you have injury considerations, guys the Sox don't typically offer multiple years or large base salaries too but other teams may in Penny, Harden and Bedard. The safest or best bet appears to be Justin Duchsherer if he makes it to FA.

  21. Bob January 8, 2009 at 8:43 PM #

    Duchsherer probably makes it to FA (wouldn't it be nice to see him in a Sox uni after trading him all those years ago) so does Bedard. My point is that that the rotation can be reloaded via the depth on the farm or through cheap free agents and there is enough in line that Buchholz or Bowden is expendable, thanks for bringing up Hagadone which only strengthens the idea that the lower levels are flush with pitching. concevably Pimentel, Huntzinger and Hagadone could be in AA by 2010 which is where Buchholz is now. I'm not convinced that Buchholz is even an above average Major League pitcher (the straight fastball really worries me) which is why I'd consider trading him for Salty, obviously the Fo has a different opinion and they know more than I do anyways. Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if Bowden has the longer, more sucessful career.
    My personal pipe dream is that we somehow get Joe Mauer mid- 2010 or after that season. That may or may not require a pitching prospect, but at some point all the depth becomes redundant and you have to deal a piece to shore up a weakness on the team.

  22. Daniel Rathman January 9, 2009 at 3:35 AM #

    Now that Kotsay’s signed, I don’t think we’re getting Dunn. That said, Theo’s quote after signing Smoltz is rather intriguing…
    “I think you’ll see us now turn to players who we can take chances on, players who represent potential impact players. We still have some things going on.”
    I’m not sure exactly who Theo could be talking about, but two other names that jump out as possible short-term, low-risk high-reward additions as Saito — as mentioned before — and possibly Mark Mulder. They already have quite a bit of depth in the rotation, but one more rehabbing guy with upside couldn’t hurt, and would make trading one of the young guys for a catcher a little easier.

  23. JaredK January 9, 2009 at 7:20 AM #

    Certainly see your side of it Bob, I also agree that Bowden is a safer bet to be a very serviceable/solid major league pitcher over Clay. Clay's straight fastball is a bit concerning but since they allowed him to go back to his old arm slot near then end of '08 he was able to sit at 93-94 (instead of 91-92) and he does have the two-seamer which has some good movement, I also feel that they will/should eventually let him throw his off-speed stuff more rather then obsessing with him pitching off or initially establishing the fastball. Bottom line is that he has a plus fastball, a plus-plus change and a plus curve ball as well as a avg. to above avg slider. I think the possibility of him developing into a very good #2 is still very strong although there may be a bump or two along the way. I guess I just see a choice between a young pitcher with huge upside but some question marks and a young catcher with huge upside and plenty of question marks…I always prefer to go with the young pitching. An established all-star, generational talent like Mauer on the other hand…I'd give up a ton for.
    Regarding the other kids, I'm not very big on Huntzinger's upside….yet. Love Hagadone but he is coming off TJ surgery and has never pitched more then 70 innings in a season his life (reliever in college)…between those two factors the organization will probably keep him under 120/140 innings the next couple seasons (or hopefully finishes the season in the Sox pen to limit innings) as they stay away from allowing big increases in innings pitched on young arms. Pimentel, I love and can't wait to see him fill out a bit but he will be in Greenville this year…maybe makes it to Salem by end of the year…if so, will likely start in Salem in 2010 and perhaps Portland by mid/end of 2010. Either way, he is not 19 until next month and I'm sure they will let him move somewhere between slowly and accordingly (merit). I am very excited about these guys, also I am very big on Tyler Wilson's upside and can't wait to see him make his debut this season.

  24. JaredK January 9, 2009 at 7:37 AM #

    Comparing Baldelli to Phil Plantier just ruins any credibility of your argument. Is that the best comparison you could come up with? They are nothing alike in anyway. No one here thinks Baldelli is an all-star, just a 4th outfielder who if healthy could hit .280 with some great defense, some decent pop and swipe a few bags.
    Rosenthal just reported that the Sox are still unwilling to part with Clay for Salty but would still consider Bowden or Bard.

  25. Austin F. January 9, 2009 at 7:59 AM #

    I was joking about Phil Plantier…but props for knowing who he is/was!!! As you can tell, I'm not happy with the moves at all.

  26. Austin F. January 9, 2009 at 8:04 AM #

    Did I get blocked? I've tried posting twice and I've had no luck. Anyway, my point is that Baldelli's physical condition(s) may not even allow him to be a 4th outfielder. How can that possibly be a good pickup?

  27. Austin F. January 9, 2009 at 11:22 AM #

    Look, if Baldelli gets diagnosed with Lupus it would not shock me. They guy is a walking, talking, breathing injury. He may be a great 4th infielder in theory, but when Drew goes down, we really can’t depend on Baldelli to fill in for more than a game or two. I know he’s local…I know he was billed as the next (insert slick-hitting superstar’s name here), but he’s not DiMaggio…he’s not even Ellis Burks (who was suppossed to be the next Willie Mays). He’s Phil Plantier with a better attitude and an unknown auto-immune disorder.
    And I think the John Smoltz experiment will fare slightly better than the Wade Miller experiment a few years back. If anything, we should use him as a set-up man to Paps and give Masterson or Buchholz a shot at the rotation.
    Not master strokes. Wastes of time and money. These moves will go down in Sox history in the same chapter as Byung-Hyun Kim.

  28. Gerry January 9, 2009 at 3:11 PM #

    Your argument re: Rocco would be valid if his disease had not been wrongly diagnosed all this time. It has now been correctly diagnosed, is treatable, and he should see alot more playing time than earlier thought (as in last month). As his disease should offer few problems, his significant upside should make him an excellent 4th OF, using all 5 tools. Have you seen his cannon of an arm?
    Sorry you feel that way about Smoltz. He deserves another shot, and we could be lucky beneficiaries of a great swan song. His rehab is reported to be going great, confirmed by the Sox and Braves. Otherwise we wouldn't have signed him, spending that $$ on Sheets or Lowe. If so, there is nothing to keep him from dominating in the second half. If he doesn't make it all the way back, we have Penny, Wake, Buchholz, Bowden, even Masterson for the back of the rotation to pick up the slack . . . not bad fallbacks.
    Therefore, great signings.

  29. Austin F. January 10, 2009 at 3:15 PM #

    We wouldn't need so many fallback options if we didn't sign old men every year (ala Bartolo Colon)!! ;-) Perhaps the best consequence of signing Smoltz is that the average golf handicap for the team just plummeted!

  30. TantDoodofuff January 19, 2009 at 10:38 AM #

    I think you are thinking like sukrat, but I think you should cover the other side of the topic in the post too…

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