Rocco Baldelli, John Smoltz signings are master strokes

As we all know by now, the Boston Red Sox are on the cusp of signing outfielder Rocco Baldelli and starting pitcher John Smoltz to contracts. These are master strokes by general manager Theo Epstein, who also inked Brad Penny to a deal earlier this year along with trading center fielder Coco Crisp for reliever Ramon Ramirez.

Rocco – Samara Pearlstein

Rocco Baldelli

A local product from Rhode Island, Baldelli was hailed as the next Joe DiMaggio and looked to be delivering on that promise, more than holding his own as a 21 and 22-year old in 2003 and 2004.

Baldelli missed all of the 2005 season due to tearing the ACL in his knee and then later requiring Tommy John surgery on his elbow. In 2006, he returned no worse for the wear, hitting .302/.339/.533 with 16 homers (matching his career high)  in 364 at-bats.

He would then pull his hamstring and have the problem plague him through 2007, resulting in only 137 at-bats that year.

Before the 2008 season, it was thought that Baldelli suffered from a mitochondrial disorder which would leave him extremely fatigued even after short workouts. After slowly working his way back, he checked in with 80 at-bats during the Tampa Bay Rays’ American League pennant year, hitting .263/.344/.475, but could not play back-to-back days.

After the year ended, it was discovered he had a form of channelopathy, which is much more treatable than a mitochondrial disorder. While questions still abound if he can play back-to-back days, there is optimism that he can recover to play a full slate of games.

Baldelli will attempt to put these questions to rest by serving as the Red Sox’s fourth outfielder. At just age 27 with clear talent to be an All-Star, this is an amazing signing by the Red Sox. The Red Sox’s fourth outfielder position is one that logs plenty of at-bats, so the opportunity is there for Baldelli to prove himself.

Bill James predicts Baldelli to log 312 at-bats (doable from the Sox’s fourth outfielder position) with a .297 average, 12 homers, a .330 OBP and .465 slugging percentage. I very much doubt any Red Sox fan would take issue with those numbers.

In 2006 and 2007, Baldelli hit over 20 percent of his flies as infield flies. However, his other three years have IF/F around the 11 percent range, with his 2006 BABIP (numbers only available) as .328 with an xBABIP of .310. As best as I can determine, this means that out of his five major league seasons, the one season with the most logical line for us to expect is this past one; 2008.

Signing Baldelli is two-fold. First, it assures us of having the same quality (if not better) out of the fourth outfielder position that the Red Sox had last year in Coco Crisp. When you consider we added Ramon Ramirez as a product of the Crisp trade, the Red Sox easily come out ahead for the 2009 season in swapping out Crisp for Baldelli and Ramirez.

Secondly, it all but assures that the Red Sox will either be signing a fifth outfielder or a utility player like Willie Bloomquist to serve as a defensive replacement should Rocco be unable to go some days. Right now, the bench has one (maybe two, if you consider Josh Bard the starter) openings. In previous years, this position has commonly gone to a1B/LF/DH (with my vote going to Jeff Bailey) but with Baldelli in the fold, the Sox may find it necessary to bring in someone who can be a glove all across the field.

To be sure, Baldelli has been historically injury-prone, even before his latest bout with fatigue. It’s hard to be able to count on him for a full season, but all indications are pointing to an upward slope now that his disorder has been correctly identified and can undergo treatment.

Smoltz – y-its-mom (Flickr)

John Smoltz

Smoltz is a freak of nature. At 40 years of age two years ago, Smoltz threw 205.2 innings and in his nine years of at least 30 starts or more, every single one has been over 200 innings total.  With that 3.11 ERA in 2007 and his 2.57 fast start in 2008 in 28 innings before going down to injury, it’s clear that Smoltz is far from done.

Smoltz threw off a mound under the watchful eye of longtime Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell.

“I’ve never seen John so fired up about something in my life,” Cox said at the winter meetings. He loves challenges, and he’s got a big one ahead of him. But what I saw for the very first time out off the mound was incredibly good.

“I didn’t think there was anyway he could throw like he did. It kind of brought some bumps on my arm because he was throwing so well, and I wasn’t for sure if he was supposed to be that far ahead or not, but he is…He’s way ahead of schedule.” (WEEI)

One of the best indicators, in my opinion, as to the effectiveness of a pitcher is the opposing batter’s line drive percentage off the pitcher. The best-hit balls are line drives, so if pitchers can limit them, then clearly they are doing a good job.

Here is Smoltz’s line drive percentage dating back to 2004, respectively: 17.7, 22.1, 20.3, 19.9, 13.9. It doesn’t look like a pitcher knocking on the door of retirement, does it?

How about his xFIP? 2.78, 3.58, 3.71, 3.39, 2.85. How many 27-year old pitchers would kill to have this 42-year old guy’s xFIP from the past five years?

Face it: we’re getting a stud.

The Red Sox don’t expect Smoltz to be ready until late May and can clearly afford to be cautious with him. The Sox are very aggressive about making sure their pitchers are
healthy and have no issue with placing any of their pitchers on the
15-day DL for brief respites of rest time. This ensures they are ready
to go in September and October, so nagging injuries that commonly can
be pitched through are used as excuses to get them on the DL.

That said, best-case scenario, with all pitchers healthy and effective out of the gate in spring training would constitute Wakefield going to the bullpen.

Comparison of Sox v. Yankees moves

Look, I know some people are unhappy with the signings of Bard, Smoltz, Baldelli and Penny while the Yankees are going out and grabbing stars such as Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

But keep in mind that the Yankees had far more aggressive holes to fill than the Red Sox while the Red Sox are going after extremely high-reward, low-risk players. If they pan out, we’re golden. If not, we’re still going to compete. I’m sure if the Red Sox had the bottomless reservoir of money that the Yankees do, Mark Teixeira would be in Boston now.

Remember, Theo does best with the “buy-low” strategy. When he has money
to play with to go after anyone, he doesn’t have as much of a history:
Matt Clement, Julio Lugo, J.D. Drew… but buy-low? This guy is a
genius at buy-low. David Ortiz, Mark Bellhorn, Mark Loretta, Bill
Mueller, Kevin Millar…

If you’re one of those people who find it hard to be pleased about the recent moves, consider this: all that’s standing in the way of Penny, Smoltz and Baldelli is not ineffectiveness, it’s injury. And all indications (considering the Red Sox do their homework on this) is that these players do not have injuries holding them back anymore.

They’re ready and able to get Boston that World Series ring in a year where they have two heavyweights on their back in the Yankees and Rays. What the Yankees and Rays may not be counting on, however, is that the Sox, as presently constituted, could be better than them.