Marlins vs. Braves

Well, that was quick.

After a slow couple weeks while we waited for the crowning of the new World Series Champion (who, sadly, were the New York Yankees), the MLB hot stove exploded in a flurry of moves including the trades of Jeremy Hermida and J.J. Hardy, the rejection of Alex Gonzalez’s, Jermaine Dye’s, and Jason Varitek’s options, the outrighting of Nick Green and Joey Gathright, the retention of Victor Martinez, and the re-signing of Tim Wakefield and Bobby Abreu.

I’m out of breath.

But man, what a week.

Jeremy Hermida

Though Hermida was just the first pin to drop, coming over to Boston in exchange for Hunter Jones and Jose Alvarez, he is quite the exciting piece. Though he vastly underperformed his prospect billing during his seasons with the Marlins, Hermida used to be quite the prospect, ranking as Florida’s top farmhand from 2004-2006 and the MLB’s 4th best in 2006.

But he has fallen quite far since then, posting a cumulative .265/.344/.425 line in 1708 career at-bats. Though Hermida is a big-bodied corner outfielder, standing 6-3, 222 lbs, his power has yet to come around at the big league level, as he posted a career high of just 18 homers back in 2007.

Of greater concern, however, has been the dissipation of his walk rate since arriving in the Majors. His once begone elite batting eye was the primary reason for his soaring stock in the minor leagues – of particular interest was his prodigious showing at AA Carolina in 2005, where he drew 111 BBs against just 89 strikeouts in 504 plate appearances on his way to a .293/.457/.518 line.

Despite the growing “former prospect” funk surrounding Hermida, he presents Boston with the opportunity to develop a corner outfield pseudo-prospect with considerable potential who is under team control for the next two seasons.

The outfielder also opens up some interesting off-season options for the Red Sox, especially given his propensity for hitting right-handers. With a significant platoon split favoring the right side (Hermida hit .282/.368/.418 v. righties in ’09 against .189/.289/.311 v. lefties), Hermida opens up the possibility for the Red Sox to sign a lefty-killing platoon mate to pair with Hermida should the price of Holliday and Bay prove too costly.

In addition, Hermida affords the Red Sox the chance to package him as part of a larger deal, including the oft-cited Adrian Gonzalez or Felix Hernandez trades. Though he was dealt to Boston for two low-end prospects, it is difficult to believe that Hermida’s value has dropped off to the point where he would not be a valuable piece in one of those trades, especially for a rebuilding team looking for a good, cheap player with considerable upside in a corner outfield slot. There are still many organizations out there that covet the outfielder’s services and upside. He would be a perfect fit for a second-division team looking to catch lightning in a bottle.

In regards to “ ‘positive indicators’ ” cited by the Sox brass that hint toward Hermida’s impending breakout, these evaluations center around his improved plate discipline and swing in 2009, and unfulfilled power potential. After upping his walk rate from 8.7 percent to 11.5 percent in ’09, his plate discipline indicators suggest that this was no fluke, as he made significant strides against swinging at pitches outside the zone while making a bit more overall contact.

When reviewing Hermida’s recent stat lines, 2009 seems to be the middle ground between his two outlier seasons of 2007 and 2008. 2007 was very much a high for the outfielder, but his .870 OPS was fueled by an uncharacteristic .356 BABIP, the result of an impossibly low 1.7% pop up rate. Alternatively, 2008, his worst at the dish as a pro, saw him chase pitches outside the zone with frightening regularity resulting in a very high K-rate.

2009 seems to be the “new norm” for Hermida’s plate discipline, which is a very good sign for his development in the near future, as players with a better handle on the strike zone often see improvements in their overall power. This power increase may be the last chip to fall as Hermida seeks to establish himself among the ranks of “very-good” corner outfielders.

For 2010, if Hermida can resist chasing pitches outside the zone and maintain his contact and swing rates, an improvement of his HR/FB rate to 14% (Hermida’s HR/FB rate stood at 15.7 in 2007, 13.0 in 2008, and 10.1 in 2009) would lift his batting average into the high .260s or low .270s, with an OPS in the low to mid .800s. This, coupled with around 20 home runs, would be a nice return on a cheap left field option. Think J.D. Drew lite.

But in the end, it’s good to remember that this is all prospective, and he could just as easily repeat 2008/2009 – which is why he’s still a risky left field proposition for a team with World Series aspirations. At this point, it’s best to temper your enthusiasm while pulling for either a Holliday or Bay signing – or, at worst, a platoon mate for young Jeremy.

If only Gabe Kapler weren’t signed to the Rays a couple weeks ago. The right-handed side of a platoon being considerably cheaper, the team could choose to reinvest its money by buying out Hermida’s time against lefties and move that money elsewhere, possibly to arbitration-eligibles, signing Scutaro, or toward a starting pitcher. Those extra couple million would go a long way.

Even so, for 2010 it seems unlikely that Jeremy Hermida will be slated as the Opening Day starter in left. However, with the uncertain nature of the left field starting job, Hermida is positioned as THE pivot point for the Red Sox off-season. Cheap, with latent upside, he could just sneak his way into the starting lineup, given a great Spring Training where he shows off some power and/or the Sox can find a platoon mate for him.

Overall, the trade looks to be a low-risk, high-reward win for the Red Sox. Giving up two low-upside prospects for a bat such as Hermida’s is always a great move. Even if he is unable to fulfill his former prospect status, Hermida would profile as an excellent fourth outfielder, pinch hitter, and depth bat. This one’s a definite plus on the Theo-Meter.

New Developments at Short

Now that the J.J. Hardy trade has played out and the Sox have made their decision on Alex Gonzalez’s option, the team seems to have placed itself squarely in the running to sign Marco Scutaro.

Though a Stephen Drew trade is still a distinct possibility, the Hardy trade, in particular, seems to have limited the team’s options to treading upon the free agent market – whether that be re-upping on A-Gon as part of a Lowrie-Gonzalez timeshare, or signing the better of Tejada or Scutaro.

As an aside, the outrighting of Nick Green shouldn’t change much of anything.

While it would be nice to see the team give Jed Lowrie another chance, it would have to be paired with a big signing in left field, as it would be unnecessarily risky to have two question marks (Hermida in left, Lowrie-Gonzo at SS) when the team has finances to sign at least one marquee free agent at either position.

I still like Scutaro at short for the 2010 team, though a three-year deal for a player of his advanced age is considerably more risky than a two-year deal. Either way, he should provide good value for the next couple years while the futures placeholders take time to sort out who’s the top dog at short.

In the end, expect the team to go hard after Scutaro, with many expecting a three year deal to eventually come out of the negotiation.

The Running of the Bulls in the Corner Outfield

The corner outfield market is shaping up to be by far the most interesting lot of the off-season, as Jason Bay and Matt Holliday jockey for the peak atop both the positional and overall free agent rankings.

And this class runs deep. Though Bobby Abreu was just taken off the board by Anaheim, Jermaine Dye’s new fangled availability will provide teams with an ample replacement for either the left field or DH option they need.

Despite the myriad of options abounding the wire (Rick Ankiel, Garrett Anderson, Marlon Byrd, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Xavier Nady, etc., etc.), this class seems to have become a bit “second-rate”, losing continuity along the spectrum when Abreu signed. He being the so-called “missing link” between the Bay-Holliday megalith and the rest of the pack.

Still, Jermaine Dye presents a very intriguing option for teams looking for a middle of the order bat. Though he has struggled mightily in the field in recent seasons, Dye’s lumber may not be in as bad shape as his post-All Star break line (.179/.293/.297) suggests. His secondary statistics hint that there is still some considerable juice left in that bat.

While the following piece of analysis comes with a serious disclaimer – that of having not seen Dye’s swing in person, having lived on the East Coast this 2009 season – his stat line indicates that he may not, in fact, be the victim of reduced bat speed, the primary killer of twilight careers.

There are a combination of indicators that lend information to a change in bat speed, those being his HR/FB rate, his contact rate, his fly ball rate, and his infield fly ball rate.

When players are behind on the ball, as Dye would often be if his bat speed had slowed, he will swing and miss more on fastballs. Then, later on, he would whiff at breaking balls in an effort to overcompensate against fastballs, starting his swing earlier and missing reads. This would likely manifest itself in decreased contact percentage and increased strikeout percentage. Though his strikeout percentage increased a bit from 2008 to 2009, his ’09 rate very much in line with his career rate. More importantly though, his contact rate was better in 2009 (82.0%) than in any year since 2002. This bodes very well for Dye, suggesting he’s not being blown away by fastballs and, therefore, not cheating on them and being suckered by breaking balls.

Aside from just contact percentage, however, there are other signs to look for such in the way a hitter makes contact with the ball. For instance, when a batter is slightly late on their swing, they will hit the ball to the opposite field more often, usually as a fly ball. This will likely manifest itself in an increased fly ball rate and decreased HR/FB rate, since more opposite field hits mean more fly balls, and more opposite field fly balls mean fewer home runs per fly ball.

In Dye’s case, both his flyball rate (43.2% in 2008 v. 43.6% in 2009) and HR/FB rate (16.0% in ’08 v. 15.6 % in ‘09) remained fairly steady, with only very slight regression in each, more likely due to random fluctuation than any change in underlying skill. In addition, his groundball rate increased, which is more often the result of pulling the ball – also the result of being ahead on a pitch.

Another important point of interest, Dye’s pop-up rate, which is a prime indicator of lateness, remained steady in 2009 from 2008, sitting at 12.7 percent in both years. This is especially important because pop-ups are often the result of being late on inside pitches, which would mean death to a power hitter.

Taking a look at his hit chart gives a somewhat conflicting view of Dye’s indicators. On the one hand, he is hitting more balls to the outfield than he has in previous years. However, he is powering a great deal of fly balls to left, comparable to years past, though with fewer overall deep drives. Though looking at Dye’s hit chart should be a good indicator of how he’s hitting the ball, the classifications used are a bit misleading, as they do not make a distinction on batted ball type for hits, do not label line drives, and only label ground balls versus fly balls when an out is recorded. Therefore, Dye’s lack of drives to the pull side could be the result of the fewer overall line drives he hit, or any number of factors. Still, it is worth noting that this chart does hint that he is hitting to the opposite field more – an indicator of slowed bat speed.

Overall, Dye’s decreased effectiveness in 2009 seems to have been the product of an artificially low BABIP, which was a prime factor in his poor 2007. Coincidentally, the two seasons were near identical in output, as he hit .254/.317/.486 with 28 homers and 107 Ks over 508 at-bats in 2007 versus .250/.340/.453 with 27 homers and 108 Ks  over 503 at-bats in 2009.

In particular, Dye’s decreased line drive rate bears watching, as it don’t always recover with old age. In addition, his decreased power numbers after the break are important as well, though a couple more longballs would have put those fears to rest.

Seeing as Dye’s age and production played him out of a contract with the White Sox, he could make some team in search of a DH bargain very happy. The guy can still hit – I think. Remember, take that bit of analysis with a grain of salt, knowing that I don’t get to watch ChiSox games over the waves in Massachusetts. If you want a definitive answer, it lies with the advance scouts in the stands and in video rooms. In lieu of video analysis, Dye’s bat speed is of open debate as it is a very complex issue. The smoking guns, those being a decreased HR/FB rate and Contact percentage are not present at this time. In light of this, the jury is still out, with Dye receiving more of an acquittal than an innocent verdict.

Encouraging given his overall struggles in the latter half of 2009? Yes. A guarantee of a rebound? No.

In the end, every additional, quality name in the left field bargain bin is a benefit to the Red Sox, providing the other “haves” in the leagues with alternatives to the Bay-Holliday bidding, driving down the ultimate price of both. Though the market would be much better for the Sox with Abreu in it, at the very least it removes the Angels from the auction.

And Then There Were Two…

Years left, that is – or two more, if you’re optimistic – as Wake re-upped with the Sox in what may ultimately be his final contract in the Major Leagues. While a positive signing for the Sox, it is still somewhat unfortunate to see the mutual trust between the two sides – so evident in Wakefield’s renewable $4 million option – be whisked away by management in the new deal.

After an up-and-down 2009 that saw the elder statesman finish the year with a matching 4.58 ERA and 4.58 FIP, one thing remains clear: when Wake is still healthy, he can still pitch. Sure, there are more dependable options available on free agency and, sure, he’ll have his days when the game is over by the second inning. But, in the end, a 2 WAR pitcher for $4 million is a very valuable asset.

As long as his back holds out, 2010 should be much like the past fifteen seasons, with league average production and plenty of old-fashioned, family-style fun.

Oh Captain, My Captain

While it may have been better for the team to see Varitek finally put out to pasture (as he hasn’t hit much better than bullet-riddled livestock in the last couple seasons), there are worse uses for $3 million than a backup catcher who can still hit left-handed pitching.

Though the Wakefield deal frustrates the ideal usage patterns for Varitek – as he can’t be used against lefties on the days Wakefield sees the hill – signing a fifth starter in place of Wake will allow the team to use Varitek in a strict platoon against left-handed pitching. Varitek is still a quality batter against lefties, hitting .231/.336/.471 (that’s an .807 OPS for those short on math skills) in 2009 and .284/.378/.484 against southpaws in ’08.

While $3 million is a steep price for a platoon-only backup catcher with no control over the running game, the contract has the added benefit of allowing Varitek to retire in a Boston uniform while still having a useful role on the team. Victor Martinez will thank him, as well, as he will surely welcome the added rest on his knees when it comes time for the playoffs and 2011 free agency.

In all, it was a busy week for the Red Sox. With the rumor mill building steam and front offices and agencies building cases for their clients, the next few weeks will remind us all why its so great to be fans of baseball, especially Red Sox Baseball.