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Could the Sox Be a Player for Pujols?

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock — or enjoying the winter’s break from hardball — you’re aware of the contract standoff between Albert Pujols and St. Louis Cardinals.
If you aren’t, here’s the skinny: Pujols wanted to be locked up long-term in St. Louis before hitters reported to Spring Training. The deadline to reach an agreement was set for Wednesday by the Pujols camp. That time came and went, Pujols vowed not to negotiate during the season, and now it looks like the league’s best player will hit free agency come 2012.
It’s been quite the show.
Now that the gauntlet has been thrown, the rumor mill has begun circulating rumors as to Pujols potential suitors — the Chicago Cubs being the early frontrunners.
While no large market National League club can skirt their incumbent first baseman to pursue the league’s hottest commodity, the Red Sox and a fair number of other American League teams may find themselves unlikely bidders next winter.
And who can blame them?
As long as Pujols would be willing to switch to part-time DH duties, any of the big-market AL organizations could be in on the slugger next winter.
So what if the Yankees have Mark Teixeira manning first? Does anyone think that would stop them from pursuing Prince Albert?
Should the Red Sox extend Adrian Gonzalez contract, is there any doubt they would rule out Pujols because he wouldn’t be able to man first base full time?
Given the alternatives, it would be foolish to consider any powerhouse American League team out of the running, whether they have a first baseman or not. It’s rare that a first-ballot Hall of Famer hits the free agent market, let alone one of the greatest hitters of the last 20 years.
But if the Sox do plan to explore that option, they may have to begin pinching their pennies in preparation. The Sox already have a tight 2012 budget facing them — the team has $100 million on the docket for just eight rostered players, while Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie, Daniel Bard will all hit arbitration for the first time. Factoring in a likely extension for Adrian Gonzalez, and the Sox could have $125 million committed to just nine players (all five current rotation members, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Bobby Jenks, and Gonzalez).
With Ryan Howard commanding a $21 million per annum extension in 2010 and Cliff Lee receiving $24 million per year in free agency, is it all that difficult to imagine Pujols’ value approaching — or even eclipsing — $30 million per year?
The Sox had better hope not. If he were, the club’s 2012 salaries would reach the $150 million range after just 10 rostered players. In that case, John Henry would have to open up the coiffures to an all-time high, exceeding their $168 million in payouts during 2010. With right field open, perhaps only the emergence of Ryan Kalish would be able to keep the team salary below the $190 million range.
That kind of spending will probably be a difficult sell to the Boston ownership, however. With ratings taking a big hit last season and revenue streams drying up, Henry may be wary of large player salaries.
For contracts such as the one Pujols would command, the upcoming season will have a lot to say about the direction of the franchise. If the Crawford and Gonzalez acquisitions become a financial success and reverse the club’s declining ratings, Henry and Lucchino may decide that free agent buzz is the way to sustain interest in the club. If no such rating increase occurs, expect Henry to pull back and refrain from signing Pujols.
So, in the end, it probably won’t be team needs that decides the fate of the Red Sox acquisitions. For the first time in recent memory, it will test the limit of the team’s once bottomless finances.

Bard as a Starter?

During some light Red Sox reading this past week, I stumbled upon a piece by WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford that brought up the idea of moving Daniel Bard. Suffice it to say, it was quite the interesting read.

A little background.

Prospect mavens out there may remember that, at the time Bard was drafted into the Sox organization in 2006, Bard was once a highly touted starting pitcher. After a stellar career at UNC, he looked like one of the steals of the draft after falling to the Sox at the 28th pick.

A disastrous 2007 campaign ended any thought of Bard as a starter. With 78 walks and just 47 strikeouts in 75.0 A-ball innings, Bard was dropped from the rotation — after being dropped from nearly every prospect list.

After a remarkable recovery in 2008 that saw Bard post 107 Ks in 77.2 IP with just 30 BBs, Bard reestablished himself as a premier pitching prospect and a valuable piece of the Red Sox’ future. His touch rediscovered, the prevailing notion recommended leaving Bard in the ‘pen so as not to reawaken his command issues.

Since then, Bard hasn’t started a game — and hasn’t had a case of the yips.

But the notion of moving Bard back into the rotation is certainly an intriguing one – one that could pay big time benefits for the club. Though Bard is an excellent bullpen arm, and is very valuable in that role, starters can contribute far more value to a team.

But two things stand in his way.

One the one hand, there is always the question that Bard’s command issues would crop up if he returned to starting. While it seems a bit unlikely that they would, the causes of his poor 2007 have yet to be determined. Whether they were mechanical or psychological is still debated, making nearly impossible any projection of their future affect.

Secondly — and perhaps more importantly — there is no room in the Sox rotation for the hurler for the foreseeable future. As Bradford points out, all four of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Clay Buchholz are under contract through 2014. Though Daisuke Matsuzaka’s deal expires following the 2012 season, it’s not a likely proposition that the team would groom their prized reliever for that role.

Still, there’s no saying that the move can’t or won’t happen — and, given his talent and track record, such a decision would make a lot of sense.

As unsurprising as it may be, Bard’s numbers translate very well to starting. Accounting for a slight dip in velocity and rise in contact percentages, the righty’s rates suggest a 3.758 ERA with 8.28 Ks per nine and 2.91 BBs per nine.

But that’s not the end of the story. Of course, there would have to be a bit of a change in Bard’s repertoire for him to make a successful transition to the rotation. As it currently stands, Bard is largely a two-pitch pitcher, relying on a hard fastball and slider, while mixing in a changeup.

While that pitch mix is an excellent combination for a power reliever, the fastball-slider combo isn’t necessarily ideal for a rotation member. In particular, Bard would have to improve upon his changeup to face lefties. Fastball-slider starters who lack changeups often run into trouble against opposite-handed hitters and a good change is often the dividing line between a successful starter and a career reliever.
Justin Masterson is a prime example.

Nonetheless, this is all speculation until a move is actually made. But, it would be interesting.

Ranking the Division’s Starters

In preparation of pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Traning, we thought we’d rank the AL East’s starting rotations.

Unsurprisingly, the division has a great cache of starting pitchers, as most hurlers rate average or better when compared to the American League average.

After putting all the pieces together, the Rays narrowly edged the Sox for the top slot. Though the Sox trumped Tampa with superior talent, Josh Beckett’s injury concerns dropped the staff enough to fall to No. 2. The Blue Jays followed closely in the third spot as Brandon Morrow looks to rise into the upper tier this season. The Yankees, with one of their worst rotations in years, take the fourth spot while Baltimore finds itself far in the rear.

Here’s the breakdown:

Boston Red Sox


Proj. ERA Grade

1 Josh Beckett 4.02 B
2 Jon Lester 3.29 A+
3 John Lackey 4.25 B-
4 Clay Buchholz 3.75 A-
5 Daisuke Matsuzaka 4.66 D+

Wildcards can be good or bad. In Beckett’s case, it’s bad since he doesn’t have that “pleasant surprise” aspect that a Drabek or Morrow have. He can still be the Beckett of old, but he’s damaged goods until he proves otherwise.

Lester is as good as it gets. He’s among the best in the MLB and, until Price repeats his 2010 season, he’s the cream of the crop in the AL East. Nothing more to see here.

One of the team’s “big free agent splashes” in the ’09 offseason, Lackey’s splash was a bellyflop. He’s been trending down for years and 2010 was the season where it all caught up with him. We see it continuing, albeit slightly improved from last season.

Is Clay Buchholz the class of the American League? Some say unequivocally yes, some say unequivocally no. It’s really a lot more complicated than that. His peripherals weren’t any better than Matusz or Lackey, but his plate discipline indicators and ground ball rates put him in Romero territory. We think this is the year he “really” puts it together — and have ranked him as such.

At this point, Daisuke is who he is — a pitcher with good talent who can’t stay healthy. Without health problems he’s probably a C+, but he’s earned this grade until he proves he can stay on the field.

New York Yankees

1 C.C. Sabathia 3.62 A
2 A.J. Burnett 4.40 C
3 Phil Hughes 4.08 B
4 Ivan Nova 4.11 B-
5 Sergio Mitre 4.88 F

Sabathia is the undisputed number one in the Yankees’ rotation, but he’s not quite in Lester’s territory since he doesn’t possess elite peripherals. In terms of likely production in the upcoming season, we like Price better, but Sabathia grades out as equal since he’s been doing it for years.

Burnett had an awful season last year, posting a 5.26 ERA. Up until then, he was an excellent #3 or solid #2. Now, that’s all up in the air. He probably should have been close to a run better in 2010, but we aren’t ready to say he’s set for a full recovery. Key to a rebound will be a bounceback in command. Until then, he’s suspect.

If Phil Hughes had even an average groundball rate, the Yankees would have the best 1-2 punch in the division. Instead, Hughes is more of a solid #2 or very good #3. He’s got the pedigree to add a little more, but in terms of production, the only difference between Hughes and Brett Cecil are the pinstripes.

Nova has a chance to rival Hughes for the #3 role this season — a chance. However, he needs to repeat his performance to win over skeptics, so he’s been graded as such.

Mitre would be better suited to minor league depth or long relief, but the Yankees might have to roll him out there every fifth day. He has the talent to be an MLB average or below average hurler, but he earns the lowest rank in the division because he can’t stay healthy. A liability, pure and simple.

Baltimore Orioles

1 Jeremy Guthrie 4.72 D+
2 Brian Matusz 4.31 B-
3 Jake Arrieta 4.41 C+
4 Brad Bergesen 4.59 C-
5 Chris Tillman 4.81 D

The Orioles enter 2011 leaning heavily on a number of young arms. Though Jeremy Guthrie is the nominal “number one,” he’ll have to finally yield to the youngsters this season. Brian Matusz looks poised to take over that top spot, though his runaway fly ball percentage (45.5 percent, career) will cap his ceiling.

Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta both have good potential, but need work hitting the strike zone and missing bats. Tillman had the uglier ERA (5.87 to Arrieta’s 4.66) but both were equally underwhelming. Arrieta should be solidly average this season. Tillman’s more of a work in progress. Brad Bergesen has always been the awkward, freckled stepchild of the bunch — never getting the respect or notoriety he deserves — but he has a chance to emerge as the club’s second best starter this upcoming year. Ground balls and no walks is always a recipe for success and Bergesen has just that. He’ll improve on an ugly 4.98 ERA this coming season.

Toronto Blue Jays

1 Ricky Romero 3.73 A-
2 Brandon Morrow 3.92 B+
3 Brett Cecil 4.11 B
4 Kyle Drabek 4.28 B-
5 Jesse Litsch 4.71 D+

In a league where the ground ball is king, Romero is one of the leading contenders for the throne. Bringing at 26.5 percent ground ball rate to the mound every night has its benefits. Without a lower Z-Contact rate, it may be difficult for him to walk among the AL elite, but he sits comfortably among the league’s second tier of starters.

Morrow will be a great duke to Romero’s king, but he needs to rein in his BABIP (.342 in 2010) and wildness. Regardless, he has the most room to grow of nearly anyone in the division and with some improvement in command could rival Romero for the number one spot. We like him as a solid #2 right now, with room to improve.

Cecil is very good as number three starters go, as his low-4s ERA is well above average for AL starters. His biggest challenge will be maintaining an excellent 32.8 O-Swing percentage. If he proves unable, he’ll fall a bit but should still be above average.

Kyle Drabek is difficult to pin down, as his three starts and 17.0 innings don’t lend themselves to comparison. He could be good or he could struggle like most rookies. He’s got great stuff though, which should help him make a mark this season. We like him to post a low-4s ERA and just a shade below Cecil.

The Blue Jays round out the rotation with Jesse Litsch at number five. The minor league standout had a breakthrough 2008, but has been poor since. We see the talent to be league average this season, but uncertainty drops him down a notch. His performance will be held together with a good groundball rate and recovery in his zone percentage, but you can do a lot worse at #5.

Devil Rays

1 David Price 3.31 A
2 James Shields 4.38 C+
3 Jeff Niemann 3.99 B+
4 Wade Davis 4.54 C
5 Jeremy Hellickson 3.89 B+

In 2010, Price took a giant leap toward the top of the AL pecking order. Though he didn’t quite pitch up to the level of his 2.72 ERA, he was still among the top in the MLB. Expect that trend to continue in 2011 as he becomes a perennial Cy Young contender. We see a low-3s ERA (3.31 to be exact) — one of the best in the league.

James Shields slides back in at number 2, but he lacks consistency. Though he has the stuff and the peripherals to be a prototypical #2, he gives up too many home runs to be reliable there. We see a slightly above average hurler who could step up a grade if he can avoid the monthly 10-run outings he delivered in 2010.

Jeff Niemann was only slightly above average last season but we see him to be a borderline 4.00 ERA hurler. His K/9 and BB/9 should both improve going into next season and he could emerge as the #2 in front of Shields next year.

Wade Davis had a great season in 2010, but outperformed his peripherals by about half a run. We don’t see that changing a whole lot and should be a shade above league average this year.

Hellickson has a chance to be sensational, as he showed last year in 30+ innings. He’ll be entering his first full season this year and is in a great situation in Tampa. He should have some ups and downs, but, overall, we expect a lot — think high 3.00s ERA.

Can Salty Hack it in 2011?

The Red Sox have a big problem on their hands — maybe.

While the Yankees are staring down the possibility of starting Sergio Mitre as their #5 rotation-mate, the Sox are staring down the barrel of a different gun — that of Jarrod Saltalamacchia beginning the season as the club’s #1 catcher.

No one’s excited about it.

And, this late in the off-season, with so little action coming out of the Boston front office, it seems a near certainty that Salty will assume that role in 2011.

So, now that we’ve gotten the self-loathing and denial out of the way, on to the more important topic of what Salty can do in 2011.

For a few months now, the Sox have been talking the talk, that they are “fully confident” that Salty can hold down a starting gig. While that may seem like a pipe dream, it may not be all that farfetched an idea.
It all comes down to your expectations.

For instance, if you think that a championship team must be composed of 9 elite position players, 5 aces, and a bullpen full of closers, you’d be sorely disappointed in Saltalamacchia. In fact, if you’ve listened to most of the major talk radio stations the past few years, you may have been lead to think that way.

If you’re a little more realistic, and understand that every team has some sort of flaw, you might find yourself a bit more open minded about Salty’s spot in the lineup.

Last season, a league-average MLB catcher posted a .249/.319/.381 line — good for a .699 OPS. An ugly line, for sure, it shows just how poor the catcher position tends to be in the Major Leagues.

I’ve always come from the camp that considers league average to be the baseline for a pretty useful player. And, if your worst player is league average, you’re in very good shape.

Getting back to Salty, the catcher has achieved a .248/.315/.386 line over the course of his career, which is just about average with the stick.

However, Salty’s career has had two distinct acts. The first came pre-2008, when he was a primo prospect and the toast of Atlanta and Texas. In more recent times, particularly 2009 and 2010, he has seen his star fade into oblivion. Posting just a .661 OPS in 2009, he spent all of 2010 in the minors save for 30 short plate appearances.

But that doesn’t mean that Saltalamacchia is unfit to play in the Majors.

Standardizing his ugly 2009 campaign (his most recent season with 300+ plate appearances) for his plate discipline indicators, Saltalamacchia would be expected to have delivered a serviceable .249/.306/.387 line and a .693 OPS — just about league average.

2010 had its bright spots, notably a .244/.326/.445/.771 line with AAA Oklahoma City before being dealt to Pawtucket, where he went .278/.350/.850. With 12 home runs in 310 total plate appearances, it appeared as though Saltalamacchia was back on the right track.

Unfortunately, he bombed in his 12 total games in the bigs, batting .167/.333/.292/.625.

Fortunately, however, Salty showed a much more discerning eye at the plate in those 30 plate appearances, improving his O-Swing and Z-Swing percentages to their pre-2009 levels.

While small sample sizes put a damper on the good feelings, it’s an encouraging sign that the backstop held his plate approach together after having fallen apart to a large degree in 2009. Being able to find approach at the plate is always the first step toward success and Salty was able to do that, so there is reason to be excited about his prospects for improvement.

If he is able to hold some of those gains, and put together an approach with elements of his 2008 and 2009 seasons, he could be a huge surprise for 2011, with a .255/.321/.393/.714 season in his sights.

With these numbers as a guide, it becomes clear why the Sox envision Saltalamacchia as a stopgap option for 2011. Though he would be a #2 option in an ideal world, it’s hard to be disappointed with a $750,000 option who has room to improve.

With low expectations already in his corner, it will be hard for Salty to disappoint the Boston faithful this season. Expect him to be one of the unsung heroes of the 2011 Boston Red Sox.

The Yankees’ Precarious Starting Rotation

The Yank’s Woeful Rotation

After failing to sign their top priority free agent, Cliff Lee, missing out on trade target Zack Greinke, and facing the possible retirement of Andy Pettitte, the Yankees find themselves scrambling for back-end rotation starters.

The 2011 season could see the weakest Yankee starting rotation in years. If the season were to begin today, they would be forced to plug unproven youngster Ivan Nova and retread Sergio Mitre into their fourth and fifth slots. Though both are talented and can get by in the Majors, they each carry question marks as to their reliablility and fit on a championship caliber team.

Ivan Nova

Turning 24 on Wednesday, Nova has long been touted as a high-ceiling starter but one who has been unable to turn his impressive stuff into results. Equipped with a low-to-mid 90s fastball, a good curveball, and a good change, New York has been waiting for Nova to deliver on his potential for years. Those results haven’t come and, until then, he’ll be merely another guy with potential who is short on results.

In the meantime, it looks almost certain that Nova will begin the season in the Yankees’ rotation — whether that’s as the number four (where he stands today) or as number five, if Andy Pettitte returns. And, unfortunately for Boston, he does seem capable of handling these responsibilities.

Despite New York’s concern, Nova does have a nice skill set. He induces ground balls (at a 51.4 percent clip last season), controls the free pass to an acceptable degree (3.64 BB/9 in 2010), and doesn’t destroy his productivity with poor BABIPs and HR/FB rates.

Furthermore, he put up decent plate discipline indicators, which suggest better performance to come. With average contact rates and good-enough control, he should be able to post a K-rate in the mid 6s and a low 3s BB/9. All told, he looks like a pitcher who could put up a low-4s ERA — his expected ERA last season was a 4.11.

Even with a less-than-stellar strikeout rate, Nova looks like a relatively good pitcher for a #4 or #5 spot in the rotation. The main rub with Nova is that he’s unproven, as New York likes to point out his inconsistent minor league ERAs and subpar K:BB ratio in 2010. He has the tools to succeed, however. And, if he had better strikeout and walk ratios in the minors, he’d seem like more of a sure thing; the kind of young pitcher whom you wouldn’t mind taking his lumps as a #5 a la Clay Buchholz in 2008.

Until he proves himself, however, New York will dread his turn in the rotation and view him as a chink in their armor.

Sergio Mitre

While New York is has a reasonable level of concern in the prospect of relying on Nova, the guy they are really worried about is Sergio Mitre.

If today were 2007, Mitre would be a fine option as a back-end starter. He has good groundball skills, is stingy on the free passes, and has the talent to hold down a middle-of-the-rotation gig.

But it’s not 2007 — and Mitre is not the starter he was just three years ago. While he still has the control and ground ball rates he did three years ago, he has serious durability issues and has reverted to his troublesome HR/FB numbers of years past.

When teams cast a player in a starting role at the beginning of the season, durability suddenly becomes a very important asset to possess. For a team void of depth, it becomes even more important. Given that propensity for injury, Mitre would be a much better fit as a long reliever or reserve starter who could fill in for someone else’s injury.

Performance could be an issue for Mitre, as his potential HR/FB rates have caused some serious volatility in his projections, ranging from a 4.58 to a 5.08. That alone is cause for concern. But, when you have no depth and you’re anticipating injuries in your rotation, the performance of your front five might not be your biggest problem.

In the end, the Yankees will do everything they can to avoid plugging Mitre into the front five. Today, though, he stands as the Yankees’ biggest barrier to making the post season.

Is It Okie Dokie for Okajima?

Something happened to Hideki Okajima last season.

Actually, two things happened to Okajima last season. First, his BABIP went through the roof, catapulting to a shocking .357. Second, his plate discipline indicators all took slight hits, which compounded to create a major deficit in his strikeout and walk rates.

Whether this was the cause of back and hamstring injuries or an overall decline is up for debate.

In fact, Rob Bradford has a great take on the subject over at WEEI.com that is well worth the read.

(http://www.weei.com/sports/boston/baseball/red-sox/rob-bradford/2011/01/01/can-okajima-rebound-tracing-his-decline-and-p)

Before getting into a more protracted analysis, I’ll take the liberty of discussing some of Bradford’s finer points. In the article, Bradford breaks down Okajima’s fastball struggles at length, citing his failures at locating the zone, his struggles with BABIP against righties, and a dip in velocity.

While I concur with most of his points, the single critique I have is the role of fastball velocity and overthrowing on his location struggles. After reviewing the statistics in the article, he didn’t seem to have greater problems with location during pitches with increased velocity compared to those at lower velocities. Okajima’s batting average against righties didn’t seem to have a noticeable rise when dialing up the fastball, nor did it seem as if he located the pitch any worse.

That said, my interpretation of the evidence leads me to believe that overthrowing didn’t have much to do with Okajima’s struggles.

Other than that, I agree with all the other major points. In particular, I throw my support behind the idea that Okajima’s command problems were at the root of his struggle in 2010. Considering that Okajima is a low-velocity hurler, he may have been at greater risk of a regression should his location go in the tank.

The primary advantages of velocity are that it gives a pitcher room for error in the strike zone while putting pressure on hitters to make their secondary pitches more effective.

Though there is no definitive study confirming this theory, there is evidence to suggest that it may have effects on BABIP. In addition, it makes sense that, at low velocities, we may see an increased negative effect of lost location. There is a wealth of knowledge that shows the effect of location on BABIP.

Theoretically, if a pitcher threw at high velocity, they would be able to these location-related hits via whiffs, inducing pop-ups and opposite-field fly balls, or by weaker contact.

If a pitcher threw at low velocities, they would not be able to avoid these location-related whiffs.

Theoretically, they would not be able to induce these pop-ups, opposite-field fly balls, or weaker contact.

Theoretically.

Could this have happened to Okajima?

Probably.

More importantly, however, was it the injuries, age-related decline, and/or a temporary, BABIP-sample size glitch?

If I were to put money on it, I would blame the off-year on the injuries and sample size discrepancies. However, injury has always been another word for age-related decline, so the two go hand-in-hand.

That said, the BABIP issue probably has something to do with the injuries. While it always seems impossible for sabermetricians to admit that BABIP is anything other than luck, I, for one, believe that pitchers — at the very least — have the ability to negatively affect their BABIP.

Location is a major contributing factor for hitter’s BABIPs, so it makes perfect sense that a pitcher who struggles with location would post a high BABIP. Hamstring and back injuries would affect a pitcher’s release point, which in turn would affect location. If Okajima was having problems locating a mediocre fastball, he would certainly qualify among those at high-risk of posting a high BABIP.

As is usually the case, everything is interrelated and we arrive at the conclusion that all three factors were at play. Okajima is getting older, which makes him more susceptible to injury, which will decrease the effectiveness of his pitches.

If this analysis is correct, Okajima should be able to bounce back — as long as he is healthy.

Perhaps the one nagging problem I have with this analysis is that there is the possibility part of Okajima’s command issues were by design.

Specifically, this has to do with the fact that Okie had a large increase in O-Swing percentage this past season, rising from 24.6 to 31.8. Many pitchers who see an increase in their O-Swing will also throw more pitches out of the zone, because hitters are chasing. Therefore, it is plausible that Okajima was missing the strike zone because of approach, not because of injuries or general ineffectiveness.

While this would debunk the theory of injury being the prime mover in Okajima’s regression, it would not change the bottom line. In fact, it would be just as easy to rebound from — if not more so.

As for projections for next season, that’s where it gets a little discouraging. Having posted a 4.50 ERA and 0.0 WAR — not to mention a favorable rebound forecast — one would expect a big recovery for Okajima.

Unfortunately, we see quite the contrary. If Okajima were to recover all his lost zone percentages (while losing his O-Swing gains) and BABIP losses, he would still be expected to post just a 4.15 ERA.

Why only a 0.35 gain in ERA against 2010? According to our numbers, Okajima was supposed to have posted a 5.013 ERA last season with a 6.93 K/9 rate and 3.469 BB/9 rate.

In other words, Okajima should be good enough to hold down a middle relief job, but won’t be the late inning stalwart he was in 2007 and 2008. Expect a WAR of about 0.5 and expect a lot of lefty work.

A Closer Look at Matt Albers

July 19, 2010: Matt Albers  for the Baltimore Orioles pitches during a game against the visiting Tampa Bay Rays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. The Rays beat the Orioles 8 - 1.

For all the pain he has caused Baltimore fans in the past few years, it raised a few eyebrows when the Sox inked Matt Albers 10 days ago.
The soon-to-be 27 year-old has endured a relatively rocky Major League career, posting a 5.11 ERA over 317.3 IP. Totaling just 1.3 WAR over a five year career (not to mention a 1.38 K:BB ratio), he doesn’t seem to fit the mold of a Red Sox’ middle reliever.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons to be bullish on Albers, as the righty has a rather intriguing skill set that suggests better performances to come.
While Albers is no stud in the strikeout department (note the 82.8 percent contact rate), his primary and overarching skill is the ability to induce ground balls. Posting a 28.9 percent fly ball rate last season (and 32.3 percent over his five-year career), Albers has been able to control the damage when he is on the mound.
Preventing home runs is often one of the less expensive traits on the free agent reliever market, as many teams have a tendency to overspend on inferior pitchers who generate more strikeouts.
Albers is one of those types, as his ground ball rate is what separates him from being AAA fodder. For example, if we hold Albers’ 2010 peripherals steady, but raise his fly ball percentage to 45 percent — a rate typical of a fly ball reliever — his expected ERA would rise from a useful 4.394 to a damaging 5.011. Without a low fly ball rate, Albers becomes less than ordinary very quickly.
Perhaps the one reason to be cautious about Albers is that his upside is limited. Lacking swing-and-miss stuff, as well as a tendency to lose his handle on the strike zone, Albers will often teeter on the edge of replacement level in any given season.
Of particular concern is his very low zone percentage, which stood at just 38.3 percent last season. While some of that was certainly by design (as evidenced by his 30.6 percent O-Swing rate), it bears watching for the upcoming season. Hopefully, Albers can raise his zone percentage into the mid-40s, while keeping his O-Swing in the upper 20s. If he is able to select his chase pitches more effectively, he may be able to cut his walk rate under 4.00 per nine, while dropping his ERA into the low 4.00s.
One last point of concern about Albers has to do with a factor of his performance that holds a bit of uncertainty. When running through his projections, I arrived at two slightly different conclusions regarding his 2010 expected ERAs. The first result of his expected ERA, the number I often quote, yielded a 4.255 expected ERA.
However, when standardizing for his expected strand rate, Albers fared worse, projecting a 71.8 percent strand rate (compared to an actual rate of 69.1 percent). This strand rate produced an expected ERA of 4.533, right in line with his actual ERA of 4.52.
Unfortunately, much of the reason to be optimistic about Albers has to do with the first ERA projection of 4.25. On the other hand, I am still in the process of gathering data to create a more reliable strand rate evaluation, so there is room for interpretation. Of note, in the studies I have conducted, starting pitchers have almost no control over their strand rate, while relievers have shown a good amount thus far. However, without a concrete reason for this discrepancy, I will seek to acquire more data.

In the end, there is no reason not to be excited about the Red Sox addition of Matt Albers. Besides the possibility of latent improvement, Albers has compiled just three full years of service time, allowing the club to keep him under control through 2013. Steady, cost controlled relief pitching is always a welcome commodity, and Albers adds some flexibility in this department for the next couple years. He’s not a sexy acquisition, but depth is often what separates the contenders from the wannabes.
Just ask the 2010 Red Sox.

Wheeler, Jenks Added to the ‘Pen

2010 JUL 3: Tampa Bay's Dan Wheeler (35) pitches during a Major League Baseball game between the host Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays at Target Field in Minneapolis, MN. Tampa won 8-6.

The Sox continued wheeling and dealing this week, adding relievers Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler to the pen — along with a slew of minor league arms.

Jenks and Wheeler will be welcome additions to the back end of the bullpen. Though Jenks may be coming off a rough season by conventional standards — dropping in a 4.44 ERA despite nailing his key peripherals.

Those peripherals earned Jenks his two-year $12 million deal — and for good reason. With a 10.42 K/9 rate and 3.09 BB/9 rate, the White Sox closer was able to compile a 2.59 FIP to go alongside a 1.5 WAR.

Also of note was the sustained velocity on Jenks’ fastball, which averaged a cool 95.0 mph. Many have speculated that the decline in Jenks’ strikeout rate was the result of a loss in fastball velocity, which fell from 97.0 in 2005 to 93.8 in 2008. This likely played a role, though mechanics and fatigue may have also played a role.

But it isn’t all rosy with Jenks as the Sox’ new setup man. Despite the strong peripherals, there are parts of his performance that don’t add up to stardom. While his control and groundball indicators are still excellent, his strikeout numbers give reason for pause.

In particular, Jenks’ 81.3 percent contact rate needs to improve in order to sustain such a lofty strikeout total. Most notably, his 89.7 percent zone contact rate won’t result in another strikeout rate north of 9 per 9 anytime soon.

Nevertheless, Jenks is a very good reliever who should have no problem registering an ERA in the mid-3.00s, which will be more than acceptable for an AL East team with championship aspirations.

Dan Wheeler was the other primo signing by the Sox this past week, inked for $3 million on Saturday. The former Rays bullpen hand is coming off another stellar season — his third consecutive with an ERA under 3.35.

The Wheeler signing is certainly an interesting one, however, as his superb ERAs are largely the product of extremely low BABIPs. In fact, his lowest of the last three seasons occurred this year, with a .243. The other two were .202 and .203 in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

What makes Wheeler so interesting is the fact that he has been able to sustain his low BABIPs. Though examples of pitchers with this degree of control over their BABIP are rare, there are instances of hurlers with some control over BABIP.

Therefore, this signing could be a well calculated move by the Red Sox, as they may have found an inefficiency in the free agent market — signing pitchers who do not fit the sabermetric stereotype of a successful pitcher. It’s difficult to say whether or not Wheeler will be able to repeat his success, but for $3 million it may be worth the risk — especially since Wheeler is a worthy reliever with or without the BABIP boost.

Aside from BABIP, however, Wheeler does have a checklist of to-do items to fix before 2011 kicks off. In particular, he will have to adjust his approach on the mound and throw more strikes.

Wheeler has always been a command specialist, throwing nearly 55 percent of his pitchers inside the zone in his career. That changed in 2010, however, as that rate dropped to just 45.5 percent.

While drops in zone percentage are not always troubling on their own, the fact that Wheeler did not see an accompanying increase in O-Swing percentage is cause for concern. Oftentimes, pitchers will respond to hitters swinging outside of the zone by throwing more chase pitches. This does not seem to be the case with Wheeler, however, as his O-Swing was largely unchanged from 2009.

Though Wheeler remains a very talented pitcher, these rates bear watching.

When Winning Isn’t Enough, Crawford & Gonzalez at the Plate

John W Henry New Owner watches from the stands Liverpool 2010/11 Everton V Liverpool (2-0) 17/10/10 Photo: Robin Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

When Winning Isn’t Enough

Perhaps the biggest take away from the 2010 season was that the Boston Red Sox’ popularity has waned significantly since their 2004 World Championship. Not surprisingly, with the fan base’s angst relieved, the daily fervor and obsession began to fade — taking with it the team’s profitability.

2007’s championship dealt another blow, as success (and, to another degree, championships) became somewhat routine.

The Red Sox’ 2010 campaign hammered that point home as television ratings and overall interest in the team took a considerable hit. Theories as to why this occurred often cite poor performance as the primary culprit.

However, this logic seems to gloss over the fact that, by all accounts, Boston’s following was diminishing even while the club was in the playoff hunt. If the playoff chase is primary mover in team interest, then ratings and team interest shouldn’t have fallen until September. However, they were slumping far earlier as both fair-weather and hardcore fans, alike, dropped out of the running.

This left the organization in a precarious position. In a market big on bite but relatively small on population, that ravenous fanbase was what kept Boston among the elite in profitability and, by corollary, personnel spending and success.

With this new and unfamiliar uncertainty, the organization seems to have mounted a response:

Go out and make headlines.

The Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford acquisitions may be a telling peek into the club’s changing paradigm — one where personnel moves have as much to do about building a winner as they do about generating excitement.

And if this off-season is any indication, the club plans on reviving their lethargic fan base by giving them some news toys — something to get excited about.

And though these acquisitions are, by all accounts, great moves for the team, there is something a bit unsettling about their nature.

In many ways, the departure from the club’s tight-pursed, efficient approach suggests a bit of weakness.

Theo Epstein doesn’t enjoy signing long, expensive deals for free agents. Theo Epstein doesn’t like giving up premium prospects for expiring free-agents-to-be.

Under the Epstein Doctrine, players are merely serial numbers who combine to form a model of efficiency for the rest of the league to follow.

However, this current offseason (the Carl Crawford deal in particular) has been an abandonment of that canon, which begs the question: has the Red Sox’ business model changed?

Are the Boston Red Sox feeling an uncomfortable squeeze from a shrinking fan base?

It may be so. It may be that the team needs to arouse it’s fan base to hit internal sales and profitability quotas. It would make sense, as both players were acquired just days before tickets went on sale to the general public — did we mention the Christmas buying season is in full swing?

Whatever the case may be, 2011 could be setting the stage for some changes in operations over the next few seasons — or they could be setting the stage for more financial uncertainty.

If the Crawford and Gonzalez signings “work” in drumming up interest in the club, we may see more big free agent splashes in years to come; while low-profile, but similarly valuable, deals such as Mike Cameron’s take a back seat.

This is a particularly interesting scenario since there is no telling how long the halo effect of these signings will last. One year? Two years? Several months?

It’s anyone’s guess.

If, on the other hand, they fail to increase viewership and revenue streams, then there is a possibility that the Sox will have to rein in spending over the next few years while they sort out their new position in baseball’s financial hierarchy.

If the decrease in popularity lasts for a prolonged period, this could have dire affects on the team’s on-field success as the front office pulls back from personnel spending. This, in turn, would mean fewer playoff appearances, which may drive down interest, revenue streams, and team spending.

A vicious cycle … and all unfortunate reminders that, at its heart, baseball really is a business.

Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford at the Plate

What a week.

The additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez make the Red Sox’ lineup one of the most formidable in the league. Crawford’s bat profiles very well as a top of the order hitter, while Gonzalez should challenge 120 RBI from the middle of the lineup.

Not surprisingly, both players check out as safe bets for 2011.

Gonzalez’ star looks to rise from the favorable offensive environs (as fellow writer Darryl Johnston pointed out on Wednesday), which should go a long way toward boosting his power numbers. He should have no problem challenging 40 homers in Fenway.

And, if he can, in fact, realize improve his power over seasons past, he may see a slight uptick in his walk totals. Data has shown that home run and isolated slugging percentages have a strong correlation with low zone percentages. Therefore, if Gonzalez becomes a 45 HR hitter in Fenway (as opposed of a 35 HR type in San Diego), he could see his OBP rise over the .400 mark — with an outside shot at a 1.000 OPS.

If there is one knock on Gonzalez, it’s that he may benefit from reigning in his new-found aggressive approach. Had A Gonz managed to keep his O-Swing to a more manageable 26 percent (instead of 31.8 percent in 2010), he could have seen his OBP rise to as .413.

But that’s nitpicking.

Now that he’s in a media market fitting of his talent, he’ll be a household name in no time.

America, meet Adrian Gonzalez.

While he’s a very different hitter than his new teammate, we can make strikingly similar remarks about Crawford’s aggressive approach at the plate. While he has few flaws in his offensive game, perhaps one weakness is his penchant for offering at pitches outside the zone.

With an O-Swing of 35.6 percent last season (up from 31.0 in 2009), Crawford could stand to keep the bat on his shoulder a little more. As a result, pitchers baited him into chasing more often, resulting in a Zone Percentage decrease of six percent.

The Sox may want him to be more patient this season, but it’s anyone’s guess whether or not this will actually matter. While in many cases a rise in O-Swing can take a chunk out of a batter’s OBP, Crawford saw enough of a decrease in Zone Percentage to almost completely offset the effect on his walk rate.

Therefore, if Crawford reverted back to his old level of 31.0 percent O-Swing, two things could happen.

One, he could see an increase in his walk rate to a nine percent — with an OBP north of .375.

The other, pitchers will adjust to the trend and stop throwing out of the zone, resulting a little to no change.

Given the options, maybe an adjustment is worth a shot. With Boston’s philosophy concerning patience at the plate, there’s a pretty good chance of that happening.

The Red Sox Weren’t a Playoff Team Without Adrian Gonzalez — And That’s Why They Pulled the Trigger

Sep 23, 2010; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Diego Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (23) before the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Photo via Newscom

The Sox finally got their man.

Or did they?

Much like Captain Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick, Theo Epstein landed his own white whale, albeit at the cost of the farm system’s prized jewels and without a long-term contract

It was an expensive move, no doubt about it, but lying beyond the Boston-San Diego “who-wins?” question is a far more interesting angle: what does the timing of the deal says about the front office’s expectations of the 2011 Boston Red Sox?

Needless to say, the early months of the off-season hadn’t gone well for the Red Sox.

The departure of Victor Martinez and the expected flight of Adrian Beltre were leaving the 2011 squad far behind the curve. These two holes, combined with the club’s fragility had made the club very vulnerable to missing the playoffs in lieu of some major changes.

Adding a marquee bat at one of those positions would go a long way toward making the team an AL East contender in 2011 — and it’s possible the front office thought Adrian Gonzalez was the last and only way to make a winner out of the sinking lineup.

How can you tell?

Because in baseball, much like in life, necessity is everything.

Yet no one seemed to be paying attention.

On the surface, a vast majority of the New England and national press seem satisfied in writing off the trade as the Sox “finally getting their man.” In some ways, it’s true. Boston has coveted Gonzalez for years and they have been on the verge of acquiring the slugger multiple times. It’s an easy conclusion to reach and one that no one would question.

But it’s also a vast oversimplification of the team’s predicament and the organization’s need for the slugger.

In a vacuum, the timing of the deal was very poor. The free agent market was far from settling, they could have pursued a far less expensive stop gap at the winter meetings, and Gonzalez was hitting the free agent market in a year anyway.

In essence, the Sox decided to forego any meaningful pursuit of a free agent corner infielder; instead, opting to relinquish three of their best prospects for one year of Adrian Gonzalez .

That’s it. One year.

Please save the comments about him maybe signing a long-term deal before the season begins. It’s stlll a one-year trade because Gonzalez would have hit free agency at the end of the year, signing a long-term deal then instead of now.

With the Yankees all but out of the running with Mark Teixeira at first base, the Sox would have been the odds-on favorites to ink the slugger, going through Hell and high water to ensure they got their man — meanwhile allowing them to keep Kelly, Rizzo, Fuentes, and our PTBNL.

Is that a 100 percent guarantee Gonzalez would be a Red Sox in 2012? Of course not. Is there a chance he would have signed elsewhere or have been dealt to another team at the deadline? Absolutely.

But that doesn’t matter in this organization. Unless the Red Sox absolutely have to, they don’t make moves like this. And unless they were desperate now, they wouldn’t have sacrificed their future.

In the event Gonzalez would be unavailable, the would have moved on to Prince Fielder, another stop gap, or another trade. This team always has options…

… because Theo isn’t stupid and because “Adrian Gonzalez,” to this organization, is just a name. And because the value he brings to the table can be found elsewhere — so long as they aren’t desperate for an infusion of talent.

This Boston GM doesn’t irrationally covet players because he considers them to be “his guys.”

If you know this organization well and are familiar with how it operates, you’d know that such a Gonzalez-in-Boston guarantee carries very little weight. You’d know that the Boston front office — of any team in the league — is proficient at envisioning creative, fluid solutions to its personnel problems.

No Adrian Gonzalez would have been merely a speed bump, as was Alex Rodriguez in 2004. They would have adjusted and moved on like they have so many times.

While in the past we’ve bemoaned plenty of Epstein’s moves in this web space, he deserves tremendous credit for having created an organizational philosophy geared toward the objective valuation of players while making calculated business decisions.

Moving forward, what does it mean when a team historically stingy with prospects makes a blockbuster deal for one-year of a player?

It means they feel the move was absolutely necessary — which, in turn, means they feel the team wouldn’t have been able to compete without his presence.

With the previous state of the lineup, and the poor alternatives on free agency, I couldn’t agree more with their assessment. Aside from a blockbuster trade, the team didn’t have many ways of making up for their losses on offense.

Jayson Werth flew off the board earlier today, and plenty of teams are all-in on Carl Craword. And even then, the team already has three very capable outfielders.

Werth’s five WAR would be whittled down to below a two-and-a-half gain with JD Drew’s 2.6 in right. The same goes for Crawford and Ellsbury and co. in left.

A splash just isn’t as big when there’s no water in the pool.

So where else could the team have turned? Catcher is a historically thin position, and no one is trading Joe Mauer or Buster Posey. First base is mostly barren of short-term free agent candidates, especially with Lance Berkman and Adam Dunn off the board. Third base is even more so.

Had Aubrey Huff been on the market, things may have looked very different, especially considering he signed a two-year deal. Huff for two-years would have allowed the club to shift him to DH next season, putting both Fielder and Gonzalez in play on free agency.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case and the Red Sox were stuck with precious few options if they hoped make a big upgrade. Fortunately, the San Diego route was still available and the front office wasn’t afraid to push their chips into the pot.

So, is it the right move?

Well, that comes down to your own personal philosophy.

If you think it’s necessary for the team to be a contender most every season, then you’d certainly be a fan of this trade. If you advocate for aggressive draft spending, bonus points to you. Gonzalez’ six-seven WAR will be a huge benefit to the team, even when adjusting for Kevin Youkilis’ move back across the diamond. There was no bigger splash the team could have made and it’s hard envisioning an otherwise competitive Boston team without some fancy maneuvering, a little bit of luck, and a lot of health.

If you would rather save for the future, find stop gaps and look for creative solutions, maybe you’d rather the club hold onto what they have. Just don’t expect the team to do a whole lot in 2011.

In the end, it’s difficult to argue against the trade. With the off season shaping up the way it has, the Sox were firing with a six-shooter that had maybe one or two bullets left — and forced into a corner, they opted to take one of the last shots they had.

Fortunately, that blast took down a big bull. And you can rest assured that Adrian Gonzalez’ presence will be felt across the American League come April — which may also be the deciding factor in this city’s 2011 playoff push.

Luis Exposito’s Place as Catcher of the Future

April 11, 2010: Catcher Victor Martinez of the the Boston Red Sox during a game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. The Red Sox won 8-6.

Having been added to the Red Sox 40-man roster on Friday, catcher Luis Exposito’s career prospects earned a significant boost as he climbs up the minor league ladder in pursuit of a full-time Major League job.

Sox Add Lefty Andrew Miller to Stockpile

MLB: Tigers vs Twins June 30, 2007.Tigers pitcher Andrew Miller in the first inning against the Twins. He lost in an 8-5 decision... Chuck Yadmark/ Cal Sport Media Photo via Newscom

On Friday, the Red Sox acquired former top prospect LHP Andrew Miler from the Marlins for reliever Dustin Richardson. Mere hours later, the Marlins completed their organizational purge of the Miguel Cabrera trade, letting loose Cameron Maybin to the San Diego Padres, who was also acquired along with Miller.

Miller is the epitome of a retread prospect, having been drafted sixth overall in the 2006 June Draft by the Detroit Tigers. For those who don’t quite remember, Miller was, for a time, considered the top left-hander in the draft and in contention for the first overall selection. Kansas City must have seen something in him, as he fell out of the top slot to sixth — which Detroit considered to be a miracle.

For whatever reason, Miller was never able to get his career going — managing just a 5.84 ERA and 4.70 FIP 294.1 IP out of his considerable talent.

Injuries can certainly take part of the blame, as Miller has yet to complete a full season without a disabled list stint.

But it’s difficult to blame stagnation on injuries alone. While it likely played a role, it’s anyone’s guess as to exactly what happened. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes guys just lose it. Think Craig Hansen, former closer-of-the-future who fizzled out after losing his slider in the minors. Scouts and doctors alike have posited theories from the size of the baseball’s stitches to sleep disorders. The search is ongoing.

The same seems to be happening to Miller. No one has a good answer to what — if anything — ails him. All that anyone can say is he has lost some 3-4 mph on his fastball and slider since draft day, can’t seem to find the strike zone, and needs to develop a changeup to hit the next level.

A spike in fastball velocity and a new changeup would do wonders for Miller’s career prospects. A changeup would give him a formidable combo to throw against righties while a jump in velocity would help his arsenal altogether.

But those are big ifs — ifs that have any number of obstacles standing in the way.

Whatever the case, Miller’s role with the 2011 Red Sox seems likely to be confined to low-leverage bullpen duty — if he cracks the roster at all. Out of options, he’ll have to show something in Spring Training to even make the team as a LOOGY, as he’s found a way to struggle against lefties despite having a slider as his main breaking ball.

Not what the Tigers were expecting when they drafted the lefty in 2006.

Now, 4+ years later, Miller finds himself in his third organization and a significantly faded star attached to his name.

That’s not to say Red Sox fans can’t get excited about his acquisition. Only, they should temper their expectations. At 25, he can still make something of himself, but anything more than low-leverage, cannon fodder arm in 2011 is gravy.

Free Agent Watch: OF Jayson Werth

As the hot stove heats up, we turn our sights to free agent outfielder Jayson Werth, who could add a spark to both the 2011 lineup and rumor mill should he sign with Boston…

Of the top position players available on this year’s free agent market, Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth is arguably the second best hitter, combining a patient approach with the requisite power to man a corner outfield slot for a playoff-caliber team.

Werth makes decent contact, though he is held back by a relative inability to make adequate contact with pitches in the zone. Of any one plate discipline indicator, zone contact percentage has the most affect on strikeout rates and Werth’s zone contact rate of 82.2 ranked 11th worst of 149 qualified batters in 2010 — right behind teammate and strikeout extraordinaire Ryan Howard (10th; 82.0).

This tendency will keep his strikeout rate right around 25 percent, which tends to be the line where strikeouts turn from annoying to detrimental. A rate in the high 20s is damaging to most all, while a rate in the 30s is universally unrecoverable except for elite-level power and line drive hitters. At this point, strikeout rates begin to overwhelm a hitter’s batting average, taking OBP and OPS down with it.

Luckily, Werth lies just below these landmarks, even if he is unlikely to approach .300 again like he did in 2010. Still, a batting average of around .270-.280 is more than adequate, while his .370 OBP and high .800s OPS will bring home the bacon.

While his low zone contact percentage is something to keep an eye on, it won’t prevent Werth from being a star for the Red Sox.

Of more concern is his age in what will likely be a four or five year deal — and therefore the threat of decline in the latter years of his contract. Turning 32 in May of next season, Werth is all but guaranteed to be signed through his age-35 season, with a very real chance of being 36 should he sign a five-year deal.

While Werth’s decline should be slowed by his excellent athleticism, perhaps one area of concern is his height — and therefore the length of his arms. As ESPN’s Keith Law pointed out in his most recent article, Werth is unique in that he likes pitches on the inside half despite being a lanky 6-foot-5. For a hitter that earns his paycheck on the inner part of the plate, Werth is a candidate for accelerated decline as his bat speed slows.

Since his long arms necessitate excellent bat speed to catch up to inside fastballs, any loss of said bat speed could accelerate his decline. There’s a reason why 5-foot-9 Matt Stairs hit six home runs at age 42, while 6-foot-8 Richie Sexson hasn’t hit one since he was 33. Long arms take longer to get through the hitting zone and are therefore more vulnerable to good fastballs.

In Werth’s defense, however, he has shown the ability to hit to the opposite field, which will aid him later in his career. Tall, all-pull hitters aren’t a good bet to age well, so it’s a good thing Werth can go to right field when he needs to.

Admittedly, we’re being a bit nitpicky — and it may be a bit unfair to spend so much time discussing the drawbacks of such a talented player. But we would be remiss not to point out the outfielder’s flaws, especially one whose prime years are coming to a close.

He really does a lot well. He fits the bill for a middle of the order Red Sox’ bat — a good hitter, with a patient approach and plenty of power. He’s a good athlete with speed who can ably man a corner outfield position.

He’s selective at the plate, swinging at around 40 percent of pitches he sees, while being somewhat aggressive — as evidenced by his 21.8 percent O-Swing rate.

At the end of the day, he’s a tremendous hitter who would be a welcome asset to the Red Sox lineup.

Ideally, the Sox would be able to add Werth via a four-year deal — getting two or three excellent years while hoping for the best in the final season of his contract.

Expect the Sox to go hard after Werth, but all the while leaving one foot out the door depending on the availability of Carl Crawford. As good as Werth is, he’s not at Crawford’s elite level, ceding about 1-2 WAR in any given year.

Still, what Werth gives up in raw value he’ll get back in flexibility, as it’s more difficult to find a right fielder than a left fielder. If the Sox find a way to sign Crawford to left field this offseason, they may find there is no adequate right field option on free agency after 2011 when J.D. Drew departs.

Left field is, historically, the easier position to fill due to easier defensive responsibilities. Any outfielder can be shifted to left, while right takes a cannon of an arm. Bottom line is, if the Sox sign Crawford, they get the better, younger player, while leaving open the chance of not having an adequate right fielder in 2012. If the Sox sign Werth, they go with a less-talented (but still very good) option, but one whom allows them to go after any outfielder next offseason. It’s a nice bit of flexibility that any Bill Belichick supporter would certainly enjoy.

Still, perhaps the most interesting component of a Jayson Werth signing — or Carl Crawford, for that matter – is how it would shape the Sox’ 2011 outfield situation, Jacoby Ellsbury’s status with the 2011 team, and thus, the organization’s entire 2010-11 off-season. The signing of either one would give the Sox four starting caliber outfielders (Werth/Crawford, Drew, Mike Cameron, and Jacoby Ellsbury) for three starting positions — a veritable logjam confounded with huge contracts.

While some would (and are currently) advocate for the trade of Ellsbury, the smart money would be to just keep Ellsbury as a fourth outfielder.

It couldn’t make more sense.

1) While Ellsbury and Cameron would vulture one another’s playing time in center, both are terribly injury-prone and require one another as a mutual insurance policy.

2) Drew and Cameron both enter free agency following 2011, meaning that the Sox, if they traded Ellsbury, would be left with just Werth entering 2012.

3) Despite a lost 2010, Ellsbury remains extremely talented, albeit a work in progress. Short of receiving a huge prospect haul (which was made unlikely by his injury-plagued 2010), the club would be best served seeing if Jacoby could recapture his prospect status with a full 2011.

A fourth reason: it would give writers, Boston fans, WEEI, the Sports Hub, and every media outlet an endless supply of ammunition for their daily talk.

Further compounding the situation, what would the team do with an emergent Darnell McDonald, a cheap solution as fourth outfielder?

But I digress.

Though the club would have an expensive logjam in the outfield, and has more pressing needs at catcher and third base, don’t feel guilty in rooting hard for the acquisition of Jayson Werth. An exceptional player, he’ll be worth the $16-17 million per year that he should eventually receive.

However, as Werth will be virtually inseperable from Carl Crawford this offseason, keep your fingers crossed for Crawford, but don’t be disappointed with Werth as an excellent Plan B.

Free Agent Spotlight: SP Zack Greinke

With San Fran taking a commanding 3-1 series lead over Texas, the rumor mill heats up as the remaining 28 teams focus on 2011…

At first glance, Greinke seems like a tough nut to crack. He was stellar in 2008, posting a 3.47 ERA in his first season back from an anxiety disorder that cost him much of 2006 and 2007. He followed that up with a brilliant encore performance in ’09, finishing the year with a 2.16 ERA, 9.50 K/9 rate and 4.75 K/BB ratio.

The sky was the limit… until his 2010 curtain call proved to be a major disappointment, as his ERA skyrocketed two full runs to 4.17, while his K/9 went south nearly as far to 7.40 K/9.

For the Royals, Greinke’s disappointing 2010 put him on the fast track out the door from Kansas City. As his salary is set to nearly double next year to $13.5 million, the rumor mill has already begun churning out trade scenarios — opinions that should only pick up steam at the conclusion of the World Series.

But as the public speculates on Greinke’s possible landing place come April, perhaps the more important question is what version of the Royals’ ace will be the one that takes the mound next season: the Cy Young Award winner of ’09 or the solid innings-eater from 2010?

While the answer follows the somewhat predictable sabermetric mantra of “somewhere in between,” the unfortunate fact is that Greinke leans rather heavily toward his 2010 line than ’09. An excellent talent, yes, but simply not the Cy Young-level starter of yesteryear. And the fact is, he never was of that caliber.

There were two great upsets that produced Greinke’s otherworldly 2009 campaign. One was an artificially suppressed ERA. At 2.16, that’s no surprise.

The other was his inflated strikeout rate, which, at 9.50, was substantially higher than the expected 7.93 K/9 rate that his plate discipline indicators suggested.

Accounting for a drop in strikeouts, a rise in the HR/FB rate, and some regression in his ERA, Greinke would be expected to turn in a 3.88 ERA.

A coveted asset, but a far cry from a Cy Young candidate.

2010 was much the same his underlying 2009 campaign, though a rise in his contact rate dropped his strikeouts even further, resulting in an expected ERA of 4.15.

So where is the disconnect between the numbers and the perception?

On the one hand, Greinke’s stellar 2009 inflated expectations to an unrealistic level. Anyone not named Koufax, Johnson, or Gibson would have no hope of sustaining that level of production — and certainly not in the (post?) steroid era.

On the other, Greinke was miscast as the classic strikeout power pitcher he portrayed in ’09. His contact rates have never been low enough to sustain a K-rate anywhere above the high 7.0’s and low 8.0’s per nine. He’s a control pitcher with good swing-and-miss stuff — a Roy Halladay without the ground balls or a lesser Dan Haren.

The bottom line for Greinke — and the organization that trades for him — is that the pitcher cannot be viewed as a potential ace. He’s a talented workhorse who, in his better seasons (’08 and ’09), will be a legitimate #1 but, in his worse years (‘10), will be a #3. He isn’t a Felix Hernandez, Roy Halladay, or Tim Lincecum who can put a team on his shoulders and carry them into the post season.

That’s not to say he isn’t worth the price of admission. Rather, he’s an extremely intriguing asset under control for two seasons at a very favorable price. At 5-6 WAR per season, he’ll far and away exceed the monetary cost of his contract. The real question is the level of prospects he will command — and whether or not he’ll waive his no-trade clause, especially to a high-pressure market like Boston.

As for fit, the Red Sox just aren’t in a position to add another expensive starting pitcher without first finding a new home for one of their expensive veterans. Though Greinke’s cost makes him a better fit than Cliff Lee, the presence of Daisuke and Lackey make the hurler’s acquisition exceedingly risky without a sound exit strategy — and who would realistically take on a contract the likes of those two?

While the Boston media may clamor for an upgrade in the rotation (and rightfully so), it just doesn’t seem terribly likely without some fancy maneuvering by Theo and company. Sure, the landscape could change in the upcoming months. But, like we recommended with Lee, don’t put any money on it.



Free Agent Spotlight: SP Cliff Lee

Texas Rangers pitcher Cliff Lee throws during batting practice before Game 6 of their Major League Baseball ALCS playoff series in Arlington, Texas October 22, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

With the rumor-mill beginning to heat up on the impending 2011 off-season, we turn our sights on free-agent-to-be Cliff Lee, who has been tied to the Red Sox in recent days…

Since his 22-win breakout season in 2008, Lee has consistently ranked among the top pitchers in the MLB. And though he has achieved higher marks in the BBWAA stats in past years, 2010 may have been his best yet. Sporting an off-the-charts 0.76 BB/9 and 10:1 BB:K ratio, Lee has looked every bit the ace baseball fans have come to expect.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Cliff Lee is his approach: pound the zone all game, every game. His stellar 56.6 zone percentage and 69.8 zone percentage are at the core of his success, leading to his miniscule walk rate.

Though there is little in the Pitch FX annals to use as precedent, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that Lee can keep up this trend for as long as he wishes. Since command is his overarching skill, and he doesn’t rely on terrific velocity or a high K-rate, his skill set does seem vulnerable to the typical age-related decline of decreased velocity and lost strikeouts.

His contact rate has never been particularly good — below average, even — so even if he were to lose some of his raw stuff, he wouldn’t necessarily lose his effectiveness. Taking his 2010 contact rates as a baseline (72.0 percent O-Contact, 88.4 Z-Contact, 84.1 Contact percentage), even if his overall contact rate shot through the roof to near 90 percent, he still wouldn’t lose more than about three-tenths of a run from his ERA.

When considering that a 90-percent contact percentage would rank near the worst in the league, Lee seems to be about as fail-proof as any Major League pitcher around. So long as he can pound the zone, he should remain effective.

That’s a nice, replicable recipe for success.

There’s just one catch though.

Given a closer look, Lee doesn’t seem to be the perennial Cy Young contender he’s portrayed these past three seasons. Rather, he looks more like an excellent #2 starter on a playoff-caliber team — contributing quality starts on a regular clip, but with a 3.50-3.60 ERA instead of a 3.20-3.30.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this type of pitcher. In fact, he’s quite the catch. It’s just a bit unlikely that he’ll continue registering HR/FB rates of around 6.0 while overshooting his K/9 rate by about a batter per nine frames. His ~6.0 HR/FB rate should rise a bit in the coming seasons, while his K/9 rate should fall back below 7.00 in due time. Given these adjustments, his 2010 line translates to approximately a 3.57 ERA.

Good. Great, even. But not a Cy Young contender with the likes of Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, and Jered Weaver in the hunt.

As for the Sox’ prospects of signing Lee, the club should not tread lightly. With Lester, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and John Lackey locked in, and Clay Buchholz improving by leaps and bounds, there doesn’t seem to be any room for another starter — even one with Lee’s tremendous talent. Given the organization’s enormous financial commitment to those first four starters, the front office would have to either cut Buchholz from the rotation or trade one of the veterans. Given their price tags, the former seems far more likely. Unfortunately, the Sox could be doing more damage than good, as Buchholz seems primed to take that next leap toward the top of the rotation. His 2011 should prove that last year was no fluke.

Nonetheless, the Red Sox should never hesitate when given the chance to improve the club with a talent like Lee’s. They just need to be sure they have a reliable exit strategy and/or trade partner ready should they do so.

In the end, a major push for Cliff Lee doesn’t seem all that likely… or prudent. Don’t root for his acquisition unless the Sox can be assured of moving Daisuke or Lackey. Translation: don’t count on it.

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