Yankee's Hideki Matsui bats during game 5 of the world series in Philadelphia

Hideki Matsui as a Red Sock?

(Left: While not the best “action shot” out there on Matsui, it would offend our sense of decency to have pictures of Yankees high-fiving or trotting around the bases on our site. Therefore, we felt a picture of Matsui being brushed back by a fastball was much more appropriate.)

Yesterday, the Red Sox official website announced a rumor linking the team to Hideki Matsui. According to sources at nikkansports.com (don’t even bother with the link, unless you can read Japanese),  the website expects the Red Sox to tender Matsui a contract at some point this offseason.

Though Matsui proved this season that he is still a force at the plate, the real question is whether or not he can effectively man left field.

Since arriving from across the Pacific in 2003, Matsui has consistently been among the lesser defensive left fielders in the league – having never posted a positive UZR, including a -21.7 and -25.4 total in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Fortunately for the Yankees, they found a way to keep him off the field in the last two seasons, allowing him to man DH all year in 2009.

Though his hitting still makes him a valuable major leaguer, Matsui’s defense takes a considerable chunk out of his overall value. If we expect his hitting to tail off somewhat after his resurgent 2009, he is still likely to be just a 2-3 win player in left field. Given that he will likely garner in excess of $11 million, his free agent contract will be at best a financial wash.

Therefore, it’s a good thing for Matsui that he rediscovered his swing last season. After a very poor 2008, where he hit 9 home runs in 337 at-bats, he enjoyed perhaps the best power output of his career, with 28 long balls in 456 at-bats – good for a career high 17.4% HR/FB rate.

And the gains weren’t a Yankee Stadium mirage. In fact, Matsui hit considerably better on the road than at home, with a .286/.383/.567 line away from New York, versus a .265/.354/.462 line in the Big Apple. He showed considerable power away from home as well, slugging 15 homers in 203 at-bats.

However, there are some downward trends that suggest Matsui’s bat is aging.

First, his contact percentage is beginning to wane, as his 83.4 percent rate was his lowest since 2004 – down 2.5% from 2008.

Second, his IFFB% has been trending upward for the past four seasons, sitting at 13.0% in ’09 – up 4% from ’08.

These declining indicators are likely to pick up steam next year and another significant drop in Matsui’s contact percentage could really hinder his production at the plate. As Matsui’s contact rate declines, his strikeout rate will rise, meaning a lower batting average, fewer home runs, and a lower OPS. In addition, Matsui will find himself in more pitcher’s counts, making it more difficult to sit on pitches, reducing his power and causing pitchers to challenge him more in the zone – which will deplete his walk rates.

Sure, this pattern is not unique to Matsui, as many hitters age this way. However, when investing in a low-upside, aging slugger with poor defense, the team may be better off looking elsewhere.

Still, the left field market gets very shallow after Holliday and Bay, so offering a short-term contract – two years at most – to Matsui is certainly an option worth considering. Marlon Byrd, anyone? Too bad Mike Cameron wants to stay in center field.

‘C’ for Contract

As mentioned earlier, Jason Varitek exercised his $3 million player option and will return to the team for 2009. The contract includes four $400,00o escalators  for each landmark achieved at 80, 90, 100, and 110 games started.

More interesting that Varitek’s salary is the reference the Red Sox team site makes to Varitek’s ‘C’, that it is now threatened by his status as a backup and could be removed. Writes Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com,

So, now the question is whether the veteran backstop – now a 37-year-old backup – will keep the heralded “C” he has sported on the top left of his Red Sox jersey for five seasons.

While the suggestion carries added weight for being published on the official Red Sox website, it would certainly be surprising if the team forced Varitek to relinquish his captain status. Since Varitek’s contract expired at the end of the 2008 season, the team has been very cognizant of treating the veteran with respect. At this point, it seems unlikely that they would insult him in such a manner. Should Varitek lose his captain’s status, it would more likely be the result of him giving it up of his own accord than of any coercion on the part of the front office.

Though Gonzalez makes a good point in assessing the catcher’s value to the team, he has earned the ‘C’ through years of hard work and service to the team, and is under no obligation or moral imperative to give up his position. This is hopefully the last time that such a suggestion will be brought up in Red Sox Nation. Sure, Varitek is not the player he once was, but this kind of indignity is below our beloved Boston club.