Varitek and Delcarmen Down, Possible Trade Candidates

May 16, 2010: Boston Red Sox's Jason Varitek (33) during the MLB baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. Tigers defeated the Red Sox 5-1.

The injury carousel keeps turning – and, unfortunately, keeps landing on the Red Sox’ spot.

While Jason Varitek was placed on the disabled list Thursday with a broken foot, Manny Delcarmen was also added on Friday with a strained right forearm.

Reliever Robert Manuel was recalled to replace Delcarmen while catcher Kevin Cash was acquired from the Astros in return for infielder Angel Sanchez. Second baseman Niuman Romero was called up from Pawtucket to assume Sanchez’ vacated roster spot.

With all the injuries and new names flying around, this seems like the perfect opportunity to stress the importance of offseason minor league acquisitions. While these replacement level signings are often glossed over in the newspapers and on the transactions lists, these players are signed for precisely this reason: to provide insurance against the unlikely event of a nightmare scenario playing out — much like the one the Sox are currently in.

Though the replacement level player is most often recognized for their perceived futility, these players, as we have seen, are considerable assets in the right scenario. Though they are taken for granted, perhaps the myth is that they hold zero value for a professional team and that they are “freely available.” When a club is staring at negative VORP replacements with no waiver wire options, replacement level quickly becomes a desired asset.

The Tug Hulett signing was one such offseason acquisition that, while receiving little fanfare, was a perfect exercise of this principle. Acquired on the very cheap, he was expected to provide adequate production as a last resort in the case of significant injuries to the middle infield. Unfortunately, Hulett has failed to live up to these expectations, batting a meager .175/.305/.309 in Triple A.

A great signing, but one that didn’t pan out.

Now, with injuries to Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, and Jason Varitek mixed with a corresponding lack of depth, the Sox are forced to sift through their remaining minor league options – hoping to find one that won’t doom their playoff hopes in July.

Delcarmen and Manuel

Aside from the miserable 5.11 xFIP put up by the reliever this season, Delcarmen has still been a worthy regular, registering a 4.59 ERA. Though his peripherals have been shaky, his production has been adequate — which is what the Sox must replace to stay on track.

Fortunately for the Sox, they don’t have to replace Delcarmen directly with Manuel.

The beauty of a bullpen is that it can be shuffled depending on the game situation and the construction of the staff. In Boston’s case, this means bumping up a notch on the pecking order all the existing, reliable relievers — increasing the leverage of their innings to accommodate Delcarmen’s absence and the arrival of Manuel.

With Manuel, no one will be expecting him to blow hitters away and win ballgames. Rather, he’ll be relied upon to keep runners off the basepaths and keep games from getting out of hand — as is normally the protocol for a team’s 13th pitcher.

Having shown good control (9 BB in 41.0 IP, 2010 Pawtucket) and enough stuff (6.6 K/9, 2010 Pawtucket) to succeed in Triple A, it is not farfetched to envision Manuel stepping into this low-leverage role and pitching adequately in Delcarmen’s absence.

In the meantime, however, while the Manuel finds his footing in the big leagues, Tito will have his hands full reorganizing the roles within the bullpen.

But, this shouldn’t be too problematic.

Without Delcarmen, expect Ramon Ramirez’ usage in medium and high-leverage situations to increase, as well as Scott Atchison and Dustin Richardson to see more close games. Everyone below Delcarmen gets bumped up a rung in the pecking order, while Manuel assumes the bottom of the totem pole.

That’s the beauty of a bullpen: when one guy goes down, the burden of replacing production is spread out over the entire relief corps. Too bad this can’t be said for catcher and second base, where the Sox hold precious little depth.

Varitek Fallout

At the beginning of the season, it would have been crazy to envision a Jason Varitek injury having such a heavy impact on the team’s playoff hopes. Few, if any, could have foreseen the team relying upon the likes of Kevin Cash and Gustavo Molina for the bulk of the club’s production behind the plate.

But, as we’ve been reminded so often this season, things can change quite abruptly.

Now, with Kevin Cash forced into the fold as the Sox’ starter, things look more bleak than ever.

There’s no silver lining to this stormy cloud. Though he’s familiar with the pitching staff –which should help him with game calling and make for a smooth transition defensively — he’s still Kevin Cash with the bat, a career .188/.250/.291 hitter in 646 MLB plate appearances.

A player overmatched as an MLB backup, he is completely miscast as an Major League starter, let alone one on a contending team.

The Sox will be hard pressed to contend without a significant upgrade behind the plate and expect this to be a quick domino to fall in the upcoming days.

Niuman Romero

With utility infielder Angel Sanchez traded to the Astros to acquire Cash, Niuman Romero was the man called up from Pawtucket to assume Sanchez’ spot.

Much like Cash, Romero seems unfit for his new role as well.

Signed by Cleveland out of Venezuela in 2002, Romero has struggled at nearly every stop in his ascension up the minor league ranks. Aside from his 2005 trip through the Appalachian League (Burlington, .275/.374/.376) and 2008 in the Carolina League (Kinston, .296/.351/.403), Romero has had very little value with the bat. In six minor league seasons, the infielder has compiled a .255/.338/.329 line, complete with just 14 homers in 2102 plate appearances.

Though he has shown good control of the strike zone (0.72 BB: K ratio; 220 BB, 305 K; career, minor leagues), his complete lack of power (.074 ISO SLG) and inability to hit for average drag down his offensive value.

However, if it’s any consolation, his .268/.346/.351 line with Pawtucket this season does leave the door open for him to be more valuable than Julio Lugo. Still, lest we write him off completely, it is worth noting that his plate discipline may give him some value with the big club, so long as it transfers over from Triple A.

Nevertheless, with a bat as punchless as his, he’ll have to be very special with the glove to provide value to the Sox.

Is A Trade the Boston’s Only Option?

At the halfway point in the season, a six-week injury is about the most confounding absence any club can confront.

On the one hand, the injured starter will return before season’s end — meaning that the cost of acquiring a starting caliber player is too high for such a short-term rental. In this case, a team would usually be better off plugging in a temporary fix than selling off a significant piece of their future.

On the other hand, the team must find a way to contend in lieu of playoff-caliber production from that lineup spot. In the Red Sox’ case, this struggle becomes even more desperate in light of the number of key injuries sustained.

While the Red Sox have been surviving in this fashion all year — patching up holes with sub-par replacements — there comes a point when the remaining healthy players cannot cover up a team’s weaknesses any longer.

Especially with the loss of Martinez, Varitek, and Pedroia, and corresponding lack of depth in the minor leagues, Boston seems to be well beyond that breaking point.

Other than tossing a Hail Mary toward the end zone and hoping for a Doug Flutie-esque miracle, the Sox will have to acquire Major League caliber replacements at second base and catcher in order to keep up with the Yankees and the Wild Card field.

Though it may be a stretch to expect Boston to go out and acquire upper echelon talent at both catcher and second base, Victor Martinez’ expiring contract does give them a bit of room to maneuver and get creative.

For once, an expiring contract may be an advantage for an MLB front office, as it gives the Red Sox a valid reason to pursue a starting caliber catcher. If the targeted catcher is under team control beyond 2010, the player would have more value than as a mere six-week rental — justifying their high price tag in a trade. This would have the two-fold benefit of allowing the Sox to replace Martinez for the duration of his injury while also solving the team’s need at catcher for 2011.

For those who meet these requirements, the usual names pop up.

According to MLBTradeRumors.com, the Diamondbacks have already contacted the Red Sox about the availability of Chris Snyder. Though Snyder has some obvious holes at the plate, including a low batting average driven by a propensity for strikeouts, he makes up for it with good power and on-base skills. Snyder also possesses a favorable contract as he is signed through 2011 at $5.75 million with a $6.75 million club option for 2012. Blocked behind the talented Miguel Montero in Arizona, Snyder is a spare piece the out-of-contention Diamondbacks should have no qualms parting with.

Chris Iannetta is another name certain to pop up in the rumor mill. Much like Snyder, Iannetta is a low-average, high OBP guy with good power for a catcher. Also stuck behind a talented starter, Miguel Olivo, Iannetta likewise has a very favorable contract. Signed through 2013, Iannetta costs $2.55 million in 2011, $3.55 million in 2012, and includes a $5 million club option for 2013.

Either of these options would ably fill in for Martinez while he is injured, while also protecting against V-Mart underperforming due to the unpredictable nature of thumb injures. Their contracts make them all the more sweet as they would justify their high price tag by remaining with the team through 2011.

In the same vein, the front office could pursue a similar option at second base.

Expectations should be tempered here, however, as Pedroia’s contract precludes them from persuing a starting-caliber player. However, they could still target a quality utility man who could solidify the bench while providing adequate production for the duration of Pedroia’s absence.

For starters, the Sox may be content to pick off a utility man from a non-contender in order to minimize the trade price.

Kansas City’s Chris Getz or Mike Aviles could be targets, as could Baltimore’s Ty Wigginton, who has been mentioned alongside the Phillies in recent days. The Astros’ Jeff Keppinger could be a name to keep your eye on, while Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell could be an excellent fit in the event the Brewers continue to fall from contention and don’t ask for a significant bounty.

In the end, though the Sox are very precarious position with their long list of injuries, they also find themselves in a curiously strong position when it comes to finding temporary replacements.

Either way, a trade seems to be their only way out of this mess. At least they have some options.

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