Ask Nick: Bridge Year Edition

In which Nick channels Theo Epstein c. 2010, champions Saltalamacchia based on one counting stat, and is jazzed to be at "The Fort."

Credit Nick Cafardo’s Twitter page (boston.com)

(Key – Bold w/italic is Nick Cafordo’s opening, Bold is the quesiton asked, italic is Cafardo’s answer, unaltered text is my writing).

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The low expectations for the Red Sox continue to ooze out in this week’s mailbag. There are lots of concerns still about the first base situation where Mike Napoli and Lyle Overbay will man the position with the team hoping they’ll have good power numbers from the right and left side.

People often ask me, “what would you call this season?” I would have to say it’s a bridge season. The Red Sox did not part with their top prospects for established player so they’re obviously going to try to go down that road and slowly incorporate Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Matt Barnes, Henry Owens, Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa into their future plans.

Do you remember when Theo Epstein termed a season a “bridge year” for 2010? Has this been one long bridge? The Ted Williams Tunnel has nothing on this era!

The Blue Jays elected a different approach – they got sick of waiting for their prospects – and trading many of them away for established players. Interesting that two teams in the same division would change course in the opposite direction.

On paper, the Jays are the team to beat, but as we know things always seem to happen up there, particularly pitching injuries which can derail them.

Red Sox beat writer Pete Abraham and I have arrived in The Fort and we’ll begin our coverage for what should be another interesting spring training with lots of new faces, a new manager (again) and lowered expectations, which may work in the team’s favor.

Nothing is more exciting in February than “lowered expectations.”

Here we go:

My question concerns Juan Carlos Linares. We paid pretty good dough to get him and he seems to be able to do the job in the minors when called upon at the plate and outfield when healthy. Why don’t they give him a legitimate look? I think he would adjust well to the big leagues because he has pretty good patience at the plate.
— Artie, Sacramento, California

I don’t know whether at this point in his career that he’s just been typecast as a 4-A player. He seems to have a good bat and plays the outfield well. Every so often there’s that guy who falls through the cracks and Linares just might be one of them. Sometimes guys like that just need to get to a different organization where the talent evaluators view him with a fresh eye.

It is easy to understand what Nicky-poo is getting at here, but does he really think players “fall through the cracks?” It is far more likely that the player does not quite fit the organizational vision, or that he is considered a “second division player” meaning he could help the Astros, but he is not a better fit for the organizational vision thanVictorino, Ellsbury, Gomes, Nava, or even a healthy Kalish. (Though a healthy Kalish has as many rumors as to its existence as Sasquatch, not sure either are real).

It seems to me that Rubby De La Rosa, Franklin Morales, and Alfredo Aceves could all be at least as effective starters as John Lackey and Ryan Dempster. John Farrell keeps raving about Lackey’s potential, but I’ll believe it when I see real results. The three I mentioned all have tremendous upside as starters.
— Ethan, Somerville

De La Rosa, of course is a younger guy who hasn’t be given his shot yet while Aceves has only made nine career starts (4.18 ERA). I agree with you on Morales. That’s worth exploring and he will be stretched out as a starter in spring training. As for Lackey, they’re paying him a lot of money. They have to see what he can do post-Tommy John. And Dempster has had a solid career. Had a great first half last year with a bad team (Cubs) and had a good stretch with the Rangers before a few bumps in the road especially against the tough Angels lineup.

Building a roster is not about having five starters. It is about having 7-8 major league average or better starters plus a starter or two who are near major league ready who has significant potential. That is upwards of ten pitchers that a major league team needs to have in order to be prepared for a season. Please, RSN, stop with the such and such is better and cheaper than the number four starter. Please. We get it, you may be right. But the issue here is organizational depth. Do you remember the Dice-K and AaRon Cook starts last year? Bard went south, Lackey had Tommy John. Problems happen, depth is needed.

Now that the deal with Mike Napoli has been whittled down to a year, and assuming there is not an option for a second year (is there?), whom do the Sox see as their first baseman in 2014? Is Napoli destined to be Adrian Beltre Redux? .
— Jim, New York City

That’s a very interesting question. There’s certainly the possibility they could move Xander Bogearts to third and move Will Middlebrooks to first if they prefer not to spend big money on a free-agent first baseman or deal for some like Justin Smoak. If
Napoli has an injury-free and productive season they probably sign him up again for another year.

This is the interesting question of the day? We are unsure if Middlebrooks can OBP more than .315, and we are moving him to 1b to make way for a guy who has not hit even AA pitching for a full or near full season? Can we see if Napoli even has a good year for us before we project 2014?

Frankly, there is reason to be concerned about 1b in the future for the Red Sox, but let us not hurry ahead of this season and then begin moving multiple people off of their developmental positions to answer those questions for Red Sox brass.

Why were the Sox so high on bringing Napoli and Jonny Gomes to Fenway? They will be a defensive liabilites, not something you want to help out a pitching staff that was horrible last year. I think Ben Cherington should have gone after Adam LaRoche, who is great defensively. Living in New York, I watch Mark Teixeira do something every
night with his defense to help the team win. We won’t see that from Napoli or Gomes
— George, Castleton, New York

Probably right on that one George. They obviously hope the offense makes up for the mediocre defense. They feel they can get away with subpar defense at first base and left field. We’ll see.

Did First Base and Left Field become premium defensive positions since last year? Let’s not make those positions shortstop and catcher. These are the two least defensive positions on the diamond. It is a bonus when defense is elite there, yes, but let us not make these positions what they are not.

When do you see the Red Sox coming into the playoff picture?
— Eddie, Waterford

My initial thought as spring training is about to start is they’re a year away. I reserve the right to change my mind. But as I’ve learned covering baseball since 1984, spring training can be deceiving either way. We get into the habit of writing and observing in
what great shape players are in. And usually that’s the norm because they’ve spent the offseason working out so it’s silly to base success of a player or a team on what great shape they’re in. This is an interesting time for John Farrell because he’s going from one train wreck in Toronto to another in Boston. This isn’t like Terry Francona in 2004 inheriting a team that went to Game 7 of the ALCS then adding Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke and making a blockbuster midseason deal. The players will have to
transition to Farrell. New players have to get accustomed to their new surroundings. I just see too many things having to happen for this team to jell enough to be a playoff team.

That is a lot of words to say basically, “I do not think they are good, but I can change my mind if it turns out they are good.” Tremendous punditry.

Listen, chances are bad that the Red Sox win the World Series this year, but there is a very Oakland A’s in the early 2000′s feel to this team. Specialists with sabermetric value that could mean the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is a chance, in a division that is more compelling than it is elite, that things can break right for the Red Sox. There is a chance that 90 wins wins this division as the teams are all good not great. Early projections have the Sox in the mid-80′s in terms of wins. An unusual record in one-run games (a la the Orioles of 2012) or hitting right handed pitching better than seems to be expected could result in 4-5 more wins than expected.

There is a path to the playoffs this year, it is just not a high probability.

I have read “Francona: The Red Sox Years” and think it is as good a baseball tell-all as I have read. Does it match up with what you were aware of the past several years?
— Bob, Penfield, New York

I was certainly aware of some things and not aware of others. It’s a well-written book. I think I would have loved the outtakes which could be another whole book. We knew there’d be blasting of the owners, but the book is more than that. Francona took some
shots at other people in the game at times. I never agreed with his comment that the owners don’t love baseball. In my dealings with them, I think they do.

Was the question answered? “Does it match up with what you are aware of?” Answer: I am aware of some things, not aware of others. The question acknowledged the answer, right? Further, you write about baseball. I know there is stress and deadlines, but shouldn’t a baseball pundit be more aware than unaware?

Any word from the front office about the rumored contract extension for Dustin Pedroia? That story certainly has gone quiet. And do you think keeping the oft-injured Pedroia as the team’s “face of the franchise” for years to come is a good idea? At the very least, he is underpaid and deserves a big raise. But for how long?
— George, Salisbury, Connecticut

This is a great topic. From what I hear there’s still open discussion. Obviously, the Red Sox would extend him for the right price, much as they did when they signed him to his current contract. Is it a good idea to make a second baseman who plays 1,000
miles an hour all the time the “face of the franchise?” For now it is, sure. It’s his team, there’s no doubt about that. He’s taken it over on the field. I resist calling anyone underpaid because he agreed to that contract and he knew at some point in that contract that he might outperform it. Pedroia, with the team option, is signed through 2015. That’s potentially three more years. Question is, do you really need to do it now?

Oft-injured? Perhaps, but he has played more than 139 games in every season he has broke camp with the big club, save one. That does not indicate excessive injury problems. But Nick is likely right here, with three years left, there is no heavy pressure to re-sign a player heading towards his thirties.

Now that the Red Sox have signed Lyle Overbay it looks like Ben Cherington thinks the Red Sox have addressed their situation at first base. I think this is a dreadful mistake. I hoped the Red Sox would trade for Justin Smoak, and I am disappointed that Cherington has missed the opportunity to obtain him. He might break out in 2013, and if that were to happen Seattle would not make him available again. I understand the reasoning behind Overbay; I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. He gets on base, he’s good to give Napoli a day off now and then, he’s lefthanded and he can DH to give Papi a day off. Smoak could have done all that as well under the right circumstances, and Smoak is young enough that he might have stuck around long enough to be a big part of the team Cherington is trying to build with the prospects on the horizon. Why not take a chance on someone with some potential to be great?
— Dan, Felton, Delaware

I don’t think it’s a huge mistake to sign a veteran player to a minor league deal with the chance to make $1.25 million if he makes the roster. Cherington couldn’t find that first baseman of the future quite yet, so why not go with a veteran platoon and buy yourself some time. Maybe they don’t think Smoak is the answer. After all, his time in the majors so far hasn’t been very good. Sometimes Cherington is accused of not pulling the trigger, but in this case I think he’s prudent in waiting for the right guy to come along and going with a pair of veterans, both of whom hit well at Fenway.

I am on record as to thinking Smoak would be an interesting option, but there is no concrete proof that Smoak is “available.” If he is “available,” Seattle may be asking for a haul befitting his former lofty prospect status and not the reality of his big league career. We cannot just project getting a player, but we also trust the front office to count the cost. Overbay at $1.25m may be of more value to the franchise than the prospect loss in a trade with the Mariners for a potentially bad MLB player.

Do you think Terry Francona will fit in and adjust nicely to Cleveland, with the players and fans?
— Ronald, Sherman Oaks, California

I think he’d adjust well anywhere. I just think he’ll be frustrated there. He’ll have half the payroll on his roster. He had it good in Boston for a long time – unlimited flow of funds. It has to be tough to go somewhere where the financial commitment just isn’t
there. He may be singing the praises of Boston’s owners before this is over.

Good point, Nick. Cleveland has never been good at baseball before (erases all evidence of the 1990′s, 2007).

Williams, Yaz, Rice, Greenwell, Manny, Crawford … Jonny Gomes?I am not impressed, Nick. The Red Sox will hit. At least at Fenway, and Gomes is an okay stick. But left field here? Yikes. Overall, do you think the Red Sox can hang with the big boys, or do feel like me that this team is just too iffy?
— Mike, Milford

They can hang, no doubt about it. I just don’t think they have much margin for error and if they start the injury bug thing again, it’ll be over quickly for them. That’s the risk you take with older players. They’re definitely bridging toward their youth movement, but breakdowns could be rough on them.

Just because there is a long history of great players at one position does not mean that every year can have an elite/star player. Remember Troy O’Leary? This is about building a team, not maintaining legacies at one position. Keeping one or two positions elite is Dan Duquette stuff. Those years were tough to watch.

It certainly feels like the Red Sox want to go in a different direction behind the plate. What are they looking for in return for Jarrod Saltalamacchia? What can they realistically expect to be offered for him? I thought Jason Vargas would have been a fair return, but the Mariners chose to flip him for Kendrys Morales.
— Sonic Boom, Andover

They’re probably just looking for a deal for prospects for Salty at this point. Again, I wouldn’t be too eager to deal him.

Nick Cafordo loves bad defense at premium defensive positions – especially when they can OBP at less than .300!

With that, I remind you to be thankful that Ben Cherington is your GM, and not some newspaper reporter or average fan. Have a great Tuesday.

Categories: Boston Red Sox Daisuke Matsuzaka Jackie Bradley Jacoby Ellsbury Jarrod Saltalamacchia John Lackey Johnny Gomes Jon Lester Juan Carlos Linares Nick Cafardo Mail Bag Will Middlebrooks Xander Bogearts

Thinks Pedro deserved the MVP and that Justin Verlander did not, that Dwight Evans was better than Jim Rice, that Marty Barrett was a worthy choice as favorite Red Sox player when I was a child, that J.D. Drew was very good for the Olde Towne Team, that Fenway Sports group owning Liverpool is not a proper reason to support that loathsome soccer club, that Peter Gammons needs a key lock on his cell phone, still thinks that Nomar Garciaparra is better than Derek Jeter, and that, finally, there is no such thing as being completely bias-free. When not writing about or watching the Red Sox, I moonlight as a father, a husband, a pastor, a doctoral candidate, an infielder and #2 hitter on the church softball team, soccer fan, Disney pass holder, snark manufacturer, and pizza connoisseur. Free time free since 2001.

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