Will the Sox Acquire Adrian Beltre to Replace Lowell?

MLB Florida Marlins vs Boston Red Sox

As the hot stove whisperings grow louder, the eyes of the Boston powers have shifted to Mike Lowell. Rumors have been building in strength over the last few weeks surrounding the future of the third baseman within the Sox’ organization.

Growing in popularity among the potential scenarios involving Lowell is the signing free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre, which would inevitably precede a trade of Lowell. According to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, the Red Sox have been looking to trade Lowell with the condition of paying for $6 million of his $12 million salary in 2010.

Replacing Mike Lowell with Adrian Beltre is certainly an interesting avenue for the home town team. However, such a move itself has a number of roadblocks that could preclude, including teams picking up Lowell’s $6 million and the likelihood of aggressive suitors for Beltre’s services. In addition, such a move would prevent the team from acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, who is coveted by the current front office.

Viewed in isolation, the acquisition of Beltre would seem to upgrade the BoSox at the hot corner. Though Lowell has had the better bat of the two over the last few seasons, his defense took a considerable hit this past season, as the posted his first negative UZR since 2005, ending his string of stellar defensive seasons.

In many ways, Beltre is very similar to the Mike Lowell of 2006 and 2008 – providing decent offensive production while earning his checks with his defense.

But Beltre isn’t quite the hallmark of consistency that Lowell was since coming over from Florida in 2006. The remarkable defense (Beltre has posted a net 104.0 UZR since 2002) is certainly a welcome sign. However, Beltre’s offense comes and goes, as he has posted about as many good years as bad ones at the plate. Other than an MVP caliber 2004, where Adrian posted a .334/.388/.629 line with 48 home runs, he has been quite pedestrian since, topping out with just an .802 OPS in 2007, with a low of .683 just last season.

The injury front hasn’t been too kind to Beltre either, as of late – providing little assurance in that department over Lowell. Missing 49 games between June and September, a bum shoulder in June cost Beltre all of July, a groin issue caused him to miss most of August as well. Still, these issues don’t seem to bother most teams and are not expected to linger, as Lowell’s are, which have gone a long way in corroding the team’s confidence in him.

While Beltre seems to provide the team with about a 1-2 win upgrade over Lowell, the sticking point to any potential acquisition seems to be how much other teams will pick up on Lowell’s contract and the price and number of guaranteed years it will take to acquire Beltre.

For starters, many view it a bit of a longshot that teams will pick up Lowell for even half of his $12 million guaranteed to him in 2010. With at least $6 million hitting the books for Lowell in 2010, any valuation of Beltre’s services would have to include this tag.

Beltre’s free agency is also in a precarious position from the Red Sox standpoint. In a weak third base market with many potential suitors, Beltre stands to receive a quality contract on what many expect to be a 3-year deal. Should the Sox pursue, any deal must be valued with at least $6 million additional dollars tagged on to the first season.

The amount that Beltre could receive is also a subject of much debate. As an upper bound, he could demand a deal in the neighborhood of his close comparable, Mike Lowell, who received a 3-year $37.5 million deal in 2007. A deal of this size is a bit more unlikely due to the declining health of major league revenue streams in the last season and in light of the fact that Beltre struggled significantly at the plate this past season. Though, in the grand scheme of things, a run saved is equal to a run produced, teams generally value hitting attributes more highly when assigning value to players. Therefore, Beltre’s poor 2009 will cost him dearly on the free agent market, despite his sensational fielding.

Another similar contract that Beltre and his agent could point to is that of Casey Blake, who received a 3 year, $17.5 million deal this past offseason. Though Blake was much better than Beltre with the stick in the seasons leading up to his deal, Beltre far surpasses Blake in defensive abilities, reflected in Beltre’s superior WAR totals, which were better by about 1 win per season.

About the worst-case scenario for Beltre would place him in the Pedro Feliz – 2007 category, when he received a 2-year, $8.5 million deal based on exceptional fielding (21.4 UZR) but awful hitting (.708 OPS). Still, his 2.8 WAR made him a veritable bargain – a position Beltre could find himself in this season.

Still, before making any renderings as to Beltre’s incoming salary, we must take into consideration the market characteristics and potential buyers that will vie for Beltre’s services.

With a shallow market that offers little upside after Anaheim’s Chone Figgins, the long list of teams in need of a third baseman will have to vie for the services of such luminaries and retreads including Mark DeRosa (.250/.319/.433; 1.7 WAR), Troy Glaus (missed most of 2009, appearing in just 14 games in September), Pedro Feliz (.266/.308/.386; 1.7 WAR), Melvin Mora (.260/.321/.358; 0.9 WAR), and Beltre.

In light of such options, most agree that the thick field including Philadelphia, Anaheim, St. Louis, and Minnesota (as well as Seattle, Texas, and Baltimore) will likely settle on DeRosa after Figgins, with Beltre following as the third option (Tom Singer of MLB.com provides a great rundown of the development of the third base market).

Given the dearth of reliable options on the market, it is actually a bit surprising that no team would take on Lowell for $6 million, especially given that it is the last year of Lowell’s contract. All of Philadelphia, Anaheim, St. Louis, Minnesota, and Texas will look to contend in their divisions next season, so it would be surprising to see any of them start a question mark at a corner infield spot. What could develop is a veritable secondary market for Lowell’s services, in that, should Figgins, DeRosa, and Beltre all fall through, at least one team will bite on the Sox third baseman.

This puts the Red Sox in quite an intriguing scenario, where they could go one of two ways. On the one hand, they could wait out the market and hope that someone trades for Lowell before any team signs Beltre, while risking him signing elsewhere.

Alternatively, they could preemptively sign Beltre to force the hand of any team considering Lowell as an option. Since Beltre may be the last of the reliable third base options, it could, in effect, increase the market for Lowell’s services, as there will be two to three contending teams competing to sign Glaus, Feliz, Mora, and Lowell, with Lowell assuming the position of the only tried and true option among the four. With at least three suitors hoping to make the playoffs in 2010, the Sox may find that teams are fighting to acquire Lowell, instead of giving him the cold shoulder. Who knows? Maybe some team will take his whole contract, leaving the Sox an “extra” $6 million.

At 30 years old, coming off a down year at the plate with a renowned glove, Beltre stands to receive an above-market contract due to the lack of alternatives in this weak third base class. If the Sox can sign him for somewhere in the neighborhood of $6-10 million, they would be wise to reconsider trading Lowell.

While the team could certainly upgrade over Lowell for the 2009 season, expiring contracts are also very valuable in themselves. They provide the team with flexibility going into future free agent negotiations and allow the team to rid itself of overpriced veterans.

And, while injury has become a serious concern with Lowell, even if he were to go down with an injury in 2010, the team will be adequately covered at the position if they are able to sign a full-time left fielder.

If the team were able to sign a Matt Holliday-type, they could move Jeremy Hermida to first base and create an adequate platoon with right-handed Jeff Bailey in the event of a Lowell DL stint. Though Hermida has never played the position, the “anyone can hold a glove at first base” doctrine states that he will be able to adequately man the spot. Even Jermaine Dye is considering it this offseason.

In the end, the move to sign Beltre fits the Sox best if they are able to shed a few million dollars in the process. Though Beltre seems to be an upgrade over Lowell, his bat took enough of a hit this past season to cast doubt over his future abilities. Even so, if the Sox could sign Beltre to a deal in the $6-$10 million range over two years with a third year team option, the team could consider it a victory, especially given the overall weakness of the 2011 free agent class at both first and third base.

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