Some people feel that baseball’s winter meetings are an overblown festivity, but I couldn’t disagree more. For a hot stove junkie like myself, the winter meetings are like an early Christmas present. Rumors, mystery teams, big contracts, quotes from GMs, the neverending Scott Boras/Jon Heyman mancrush saga; it’s like crack to me. After watching the Red Sox’s season end on a sour note, and then following it up with two months of reading/listening to the media try out their hand at creative fiction; it’s the perfect antedote to the baseball-free winter blues. For at least a few days, the sports world is focused on our sport, and that’s pretty damn cool.
In honor of the Christmas (or Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Yule, etc.), I’ve decided to put together my wishlist for the Red Sox this offseason. It’s my letter to Santa, if you will.
Right Field – Josh Willingham
For those who follow me on Twitter (if you don’t, this is your queue to follow me), you’ll know that I have a non-sexual man crush on Willingham. Maybe it’s not as bad as the aforementioned one between Boras/Heyman or the one Boston Globe writers have for Bobby Valentine, but it’s still significant.
Willingham is one of those classically undervalued players that does a lot of things well, but nothing spectacularly. He doesn’t hit for average, but he does get on base. For his career, he’s produced a 11.3% walk rate, which means he’s a good bet to get on base even if he’s struggling at the plate. He also has good power, as evidenced by the 29 home runs he hit last season while playing half of his games in Oakland’s pitcher friendly ballpark. As a right-handed hitter, he could do quite a bit of damage at Fenway by taking advantage of the Green Monster’s close proximity. Despite being suggested as a potential platoon candidate, he hits righties (.359 wOBA) nearly as well as he hits lefties (.373).
On the flip side of the coin, Willingham isn’t exactly known for his defensive prowess. He has below average speed, limited range, and an average arm. Considering how expansive right field is at Fenway, he might not be an ideal candidate to patrol the area every day. He could be used in a platoon situation (or even a less strict shared position situation) with either Ryan Kalish or Josh Reddick, while being allowed to soak up some plate appearances at DH. If David Ortiz leaves via free agency, Willingham would ideally slot into the DH slot.
Designated Hitter - David Ortiz
I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not I want Ortiz to come back. From a purely sentimental standpoint, the answer is a resounding yes. My rational side, though, thinks it might be time to let him walk. This is especially true if he expects to receive a three year deal this winter.
My problem with bringing back Papi is that he can’t possibly replicate his 2011 season. Last year, as great as it was, seems like an abberation. After three seasons of hitting poorly against lefties, he produced a .426 wOBA. At a time where more players his age are seeing their strikeout totals increase, he nearly cut his rate in half. His 83.3% contact rate was the best of his career by a full three points. His 2012 season screams regression in the same way Derek Jeter did between 2009 and 2010. I’m not saying Ortiz will be terrible next year, but expecting another 4 WAR season isn’t reasonable.
All of that said, I’m conditionally adding him to my “Dear Santa” list. He still has a strong bat, and I’m projecting him to produce something closer to the 2.5 win season he put together in 2010. I would be fine if the Red Sox either signed him to a one year deal worth $11M with a vesting option for a second year around at a similar salary, or a guaranteed two year deal with a lower average annual salary at around $9M per year. (Obviously, the former is preferable to the latter.) If he’s willing to agree to that, I’d love to have him back on board. If not, then adios.
Starting Pitcher #4 – Hiroki Kuroda
Speaking of non-sexual man crushes, I have a big one for Kuroda. Back in July, I had this to say about him:
“Despite getting little fanfare, Kuroda is one of the more productive middle of the rotation starters in baseball. He doesn’t seem to excel at any one thing, but does everything well. He uses a sinker/slider combination to induce ground balls, and throws a splitter as his strikeout pitch (20% whiff rate).”
Everything I said then, still applies now. This time, he may be even more attractive since the Red Sox don’t have to give up prospects in return for his services. Kuroda has reportedly opened his market beyond Southern California, and is believed to be seeking a deal around one year at $12M. Given the team’s other holes and their proximity to the luxury tax threshold, the Red Sox may not be willing to give that kind of money to a 37 year old starting pitcher. Still, maybe the Red Sox will get clever by offering him an Adrian Beltre type deal that lowers his average annual salary; thereby lessening the luxury tax hit. Signing Kuroda makes a lot of sense as it makes the rotation both stronger and deeper. As a 3 win pitcher, $12M for a single season is more than reasonable.
Starting Pitcher #5 – Daniel Bard
This one comes as a surprise even to me. If you’d asked me who I wanted in this spot two or three days ago, I probably would have reluctantly said Jeff Francis. After reading Marc Normandin’s latest article at Over the Monster, I’m finally on board with the idea of putting Bard in the rotation. We all know that Bard has two plus pitches: a blazing fastball and a wicked slider that darts out of the zone. If he’s going to be a regular part of the rotation, he’ll need to use his change-up a little more often; especially if he wants to neutralize left-handed hitters.
Not much is known about his change-up, but that’s mostly because he’s used it so rarely. According to Texas Leaguers, he threw his change-up 78 times in 2011; exclusively to lefties. While Fangraphs’ pitch value type chart rates his change-up as below average (per linear weight measures), he still managed to induce whiffs 14.1% of the time. Essentially, his change-up has good movement, but the results haven’t really been there. That’s likely due to the small sample size involved.
If Bard does end up going into the rotation for 2012, we shouldn’t expect him to hurl 200 innings right away. After averaging around 70 innings over each of the past three seasons, it’s probably safer to pencil him in for 140-160 innings next season. By putting him in the number five slot, the Red Sox can rest Bard as necessary and keep him on a reasonable innings limitation without adversely affecting his health.
Closer – Andrew Bailey
With Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell locked up, and low cost/high reward options like Joe Nathan and Jonathan Broxton already taken; the closer cupboard is pretty bare. Among the available free agent closer options, each one has an obvious drawback, which will likely give the Red Sox a reason to pause before pursuing them too seriously: Ryan Madson (way too expensive), Francisco Cordero (old and on the decline), Brad Lidge (allows too many walks and homers), and Francisco Rodriguez (general issues). The Red Sox could turn to Bobby Jenks who has had considerable success and experience in the role, but that idea doesn’t sit well with me; especially in light of his forgettable, injury-riddled 2011 campaign.
In lieu of attractive candidates either internally or via free agency, the Red Sox could look to make a trade for Oakland closer Andrew Bailey. Bailey is only 27 years old, and has three years of arbitration eligbility remaining. He has good stuff (FF/FC/CU), and has a productive track record out of the closer role. Like Jenks, Bailey comes with his own injury history. In recent seasons, he’s missed time due to elbow issues, and has even been examined by the most dreaded name in baseball: Dr. James Andrews. Given Bailey’s injury history, it could help the Red Sox cut a cheaper than expected deal with the A’s for Bailey. Provided his medicals check out, he should be someone the Red Sox consider to fill the vacancy.