Roster Roundup: Infield, Catcher, DH

This has been one of the craziest off seasons in my lifetime of watching baseball. Somewhere in those last couple days of the Winter Meetings, I completely gave up on knowing who was going where, when, and why.

I figure that with the off season winding down a little bit, there’s some value in taking a look at what the heck the Sox have done and where it leaves them.

Infield

We’ll start with the infield, just because it’s the easiest. The Sox had a black hole at third base in 2014, and it hasn’t been a strength for a long time. It should be no surprise, then, that one of the first major acquisitions of the off season was Pablo Sandoval who has been significantly better than average offensively every year since 2010. Defensive metrics are a tad ambivalent about him, but overall, he has a reputation as a solid fielder.

He’s getting a lot of money and he’s older than you’d want in a player you’re paying that much, but at least for the short term, he’s got to be better than what the Sox have had.

The move to Sandoval at third means Xander Bogaerts gets to settle in at short and make the position his for as long as he can hold on to it. It might be a bit generous to say that Xander Bogaerts had an up and down year in 2014—his .595 OPS in July wasn’t even his second worst month (June .426, August .360)—his ups were pretty damn high. He had an .897 OPS in May and looked like he was going to storm into the league and make it his bitch. Of course, that was his best month of the season by far. Encouragingly, though, his second best month came at the end of the season with an OPS of .806 for September and October.

This is the thing to remember about Xander Bogaerts. He’s still 22 and is only a year away from being the second best prospect in baseball. He struggled mightily, and might well struggle more, but chances are, he’s going to be a lot better in 2015 overall.

Dustin Pedroia had his worst season since he became a regular in 2007 and chances are that his peak is behind him, but while he’s not young, he’s not quite old, either. He’s got more above average seasons in him and hopefully he’s manage to play 2015 without having a significant hand or wrist injury early in the season.

Mike Napoli hasn’t really had a bad season in his career. I’m sure he will, at some point, but there’s no particular reason to think it will be 2015. Sure, his hip could explode at any moment, but it hasn’t exploded yet.

Bottom Line: The Red Sox should be getting league average or better seasons from all the infielders.

The infield bench is probably going to include Brock Holt, who is likely to be the primary backup at three positions, and Allen Craig, who is likely to back up first.

Craig is actually a bit of a thing. When he was good, he was very good. Easily starting material. When he was bad, holy crap was he bad. 2015 should represent a chance for him to put all questions of his injury behind him and demonstrate once again that he is an offensive threat.

The problem for him is going to be playing time. The Sox can’t afford to run someone out there every day who is hitting like Craig hit in 2014, and perhaps more to the point, they don’t have to, having better options pretty much everywhere.

Clearly the Sox want him to be what he was before, but the only way to demonstrate that he’s back—not to mention the only way to get back—is for him to play and I don’t see where those ABs are going to come from.

DH

Nothing really to say here. David Ortiz get old and fall off at some point, but he hasn’t yet and it’s a gamble I’m willing to continue to take until it bites me in the ass.

Catcher

Christian Vazquez is the starter. His offense was well, pretty bad in 2014, but that’s not terribly surprising for any rookie breaking in, and especially so with one who has a history of taking a while to adjust to each higher level. He does adjust, though, and that bodes well for his chances of being not terrible. There are a lot of things that impact a team throughout a season that you can’t foresee. One of the things we can foresee is Vazquez. How well and how quickly he makes those adjustments is going to have a pretty big impact on what the Sox do in 2015.

Should Vazquez struggle at the plate, Ryan Hanigan can help, but only so much. He hasn’t had an OPS+ above 95 since 2010 and his last two years he was at 59 and 86. It’s the 59 that looks like the outlier, however, as most of his career has been spent as a slightly less than average hitter.

No, if Vazquez crashes and burns, the real help is going to have to come in the form of Blake Swihart who has had all of 18 games of AAA experience. I don’t think there is anyone who thinks he is going to be ready before mid season at the earliest so, well, I think we all need to hope that Vazquez gets the job done.

Next week I’ll take a look at the outfield, then the rotation, and finally the bullpen, and at that point, truck day won’t be far away.

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What Wade Miley, Justin Masterson, and Rick Porcello Mean For The Red Sox

Remember when you were so bored at the off season you were just dying to have something—anything—happen?

Yeah, me neither.

In the past three days or so, the Red Sox have lost out on Jon Lester, traded Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster for Wade Miley, traded Yoenis Cespedes and a couple spare parts for Rick Porcello, and signed Justin Masterson.

I’m going to take them one at a time, then put the whole thing together thematically at the end, just like they tried to teach you in your high school English class.

It sucks losing Jon Lester, there’s no question about it, but the fact that the Sox brass didn’t move past the 6/$135M offer is probably a good sign. You don’t want your front office to get emotional about these things and the reality is that pitchers rarely age well. Maybe Lester will be one of the ones that does—I hope he is—but it’s really dangerous to put a big wager on that.

That leaves us with a big hole at the top of the rotation, one that hasn’t yet been filled. Of the remaining options, the one I like best is signing James Shields as a free agent. It doesn’t require giving up any of the binky level prospects and it’s a shorter term lesser gamble than Lester.

I don’t particularly like the Wade Miley trade, but I have warmed to it a little after some initial loathing. The Sox came into this off season needing two top of the rotation guys and I just don’t see Wade Miley being one of those guys. He’s better than Kelly, not better than good Clay Buchholz, and a lot better than bad Clay Buchholz. So if things go right, Miley would slot in as the fourth best starter, pushing Kelly to fifth and improving both those slots a bit in the short term.

Of course, in doing so, he blocks the kids from a rotation spot, a fact that is I guess ameliorated by the fact that the kids who are most ready to use that slot just got traded for Wade Miley.

Justin Masterson just doesn’t do much for me. He was terrible in 2014 and whether that was due to injury or messed up mechanics from injury, I don’t really care. He’s the fifth best starting pitcher at the moment in large part because he’s always had big platoon splits.

I’m looking at him as someone who is insurance against Buchholz being unavailable out of spring training. Given Buchholz’ history, I think it only reasonable to build in that insurance and with the trade of de la Rosa and Webster, the in house options for someone coming out of spring training weren’t that great. Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes just weren’t cutting it and both Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez are guys that need to put in some more time at AAA before we think about them in the majors.

I really like the trade of Yoenis Cespedes for Rick Porcello. Cespedes was pretty obviously the odd man out when Hanley Ramirez decided he wanted to come to Boston to play left. He was on a one year deal that didn’t have draft pick compensation attached if he left, his OBP has always been lacking, and his defense has been marginal.

Rick Porcello, on the other hand, is a good pitcher who has always been victimized by bad defenses, and that brings us to the theme that ties this all together.

Porcello, Miley, and Masterson are all significant ground ball pitchers. So, for that matter, is Joe Kelly.

I was reminded of this article from a year ago about the Athletics loading up on fly ball hitters because sometimes fly balls leave the park and in an era when power is at a premium, fly balls that leave the park have a ton of value.

What the Sox seem to be doing is taking advantage of that in another direction. The strike zone has been expanding  in the pitch/fx era and a lot of that expansion has come at the bottom of the strike zone.

The way Miley, Masterson, Porcello, and Kelly get ground balls is by pounding the bottom of the strike zone. Hitters are going to have to swing at those pitches a lot more than they were just a few years ago which suggests the ground ball guys are just getting more valuable.

Then there’s Christian Vazquez. He’s really good at framing pitches and where does pitch framing matter the most? Where the umpire has the worst view of the pitch—the bottom of the zone.

It really looks like the Red Sox are putting a premium on the bottom of the strike zone, keeping balls in the park, putting a good defense on the field—the infield in particular, even if Xander Bogaerts is nothing special—and surprising people with how good they really are.

If the Sox can reel in Shields or some other top of the rotation guy, I think it’s going to be a fun season.

And Now The Sox Sign Pablo Sandoval

So I wake up this morning to the news that the Sox have indeed come to an agreement with Pablo Sandoval on a five year contract that will pay him roughly $100 million.

I have qualms.

In the short term, I think he’s going to be exactly what the Sox need—a competent defensive third baseman who hits lefty (if only part time) and who is a good bet to not be a sucking chest wound in the lineup.

He’s 28 and the contract will run through his age 32 season. That’s fine.

His weight is obviously a thing. I don’t know that there has been any analysis done on such things, but it stands to reason that a guy with his body type is more likely to have a calamitous decline than someone who is more fit.

I’m still mostly okay with it.

I think what the Sox will be getting from Betts and Bogaerts three years from now is likely to be a lot more than what they get from Betts and Bogaerts in 2015 so in a way, there is a built in counter to some anticipated decline from Sandoval.

There’s also Rafael Devers who looks like he is going to be a beast. On a recent soxprospects.com podcast, the crew referenced a scout who is higher on Devers than he was on Bogaerts. That’s pretty high.

Still, Devers is a long way away and a lot can happen between now and then.

The prospect of Sandoval being a $20 million albatross for the last couple years of the contract is, I think, a real one, and as much as guys like Chase Headley made more sense, the Sox pretty clearly zeroed in on Sandoval early and went after him hard. They must either not agree on the downside or not care.

The interesting thing, though, is that this forces Hanley Ramirez to left field which forces Yoenis Cespedes where, exactly?

Noboby knows, of course, unless there are some folks in front offices around the game who have a deal all negotiated pending the Panda and Hanley signings.

The obvious step is to think Cespedes will be traded for pitching, but there has to be at least a possibility that Cespedes stays and Allen Craig and/or Shane Victorino are traded instead, but both of them have injury and performance concerns that Cespedes doesn’t.

Which is to say, someone will one Cespedes.

There’s also the question of Will Middlebrooks. He is, so far as I know, still alive. He also doesn’t have a position on the major league team anymore. He could be sent to Pawtucket, for sure, but is there really any point? He would have to share playing time at third with Garin Cecchini and wouldn’t really have a viable route to the majors save a big injury to Sandoval.

Someone looking for right handed power might look at a combination of Cespedes and Middlebrooks as an enticing tandem and be willing to trade a significant pitching asset for it.

What’s left for the Sox?

Clearly, it’s pitching. There’s a need for two starting pitchers and a lefty in the bullpen. It’s hard to imagine the Sox will be able to sign both Jon Lester and Andrew Miller and stay under the tax threshold.

Of course, with the contracts coming off the payroll after 2015, staying under the threshold in 2015 might not be the priority it has been recently.

Still, if reports are true and Miller is looking for a four year contract, well, that’s a heck of a long contract to give a middle reliever, especially one who has only had the on year of excellence.

On the other hand, it was a phenomenal season, including a .802 WHIP, and six strikeouts per walk. Also it was prefaced by two seasons that, while not quite as good as 2015, weren’t bad.

I think I have come to the conclusion that signing both Hanley Ramirez and Sandoval suggests that the Sox care not a bit about the tax threshold in 2015 which makes the signing of Lester and/or Miller all that much more likely.

Ken Rosenthal Says The Sox Are Signing Hanley Ramirez

If Ken Rosenthal’s report is true, and the Sox are about to sign Hanley Ramirez for something in the neighborhood of 5/$90M, I am completely and totally buffaloed.

I would have bet cash money that Ramirez was going to get something more in the neighborhood of six or seven years and 130-150 million dollars.

It doesn’t happen often, but there are times that I am glad to be wrong.

I don’t need to tell you about his offensive prowess. He’s an absolute stud with a stick in his hand, OPSing .817 in 2014 despite playing half his games in Dodger Stadium.

Thing is, I also don’t have to tell you about his injury problems and defensive shortcomings. If the Sox are going to go with Xander Bogaerts at short and Hanley Ramirez at third, the defense over on that left side is really going to be bad.

But—and if you have been on Twitter today, I also don’t need to tell you this—there is talk that the Sox are also intent on signing Pablo Sandoval, putting Sandoval at third, and Ramirez in left.

Sure, Ramirez would be new to left field, but he would be playing half his games in Fenway Park with the smallest left field in the universe, and frankly anyone who can play short—even terribly—almost has to be athletic enough to play left. It’s less of a quick reaction, quick hands position, and more of a run-for-a-while-and-try-not-to-drop-it position. I’m pretty sure Ramirez can handle that.

My question, and it’s a pretty big one in my mind, is what this does to the Jon Lester negotiations. Some of the fine folks at SoSH have convinced me that the budgetary space is there to sign Ramirez, Sandoval, and Lester. Even if it isn’t, there are contracts that are up after 2015, including Nike Napoli ($16M), Shane Victorino ($13M), and Yoenis Cespedes ($10.5M) which would allow the team to get back under the cap before they get hit with a tax payment that is overly onerous.

One wonders, though, if Lester suggested to the team that they needed to convince him they were serious about competing in the short term. A thirty year old ballplayer doesn’t necessarily want to spend three or four years missing out on the post season while breaking in the kids.

The next question—and it’s almost as big in my mind—is what about the other pitcher? It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Sox were trying to get two pitchers who could slot in at #1 and #2. If the Sox are really going to sign Ramirez, Lester, and Sandoval, it suggests that the second pitcher is going to have to be one who doesn’t cost a ton in dollars. That worries me because the players that don’t cost a lot in dollars are the ones that cost a lot in talent.

I don’t want to give up much talent. I should be more specific. I am going to be royally pissed if the Sox give up Bogaerts, Betts, Swihart, or Devers. I’m going to be less pissed—but still pissed—if the Sox give up Owens, Rodriguez, Jackie Bradley, Jr., or Deven Marrero.

Yeah, sure, I know, prospects, blah blah, TINSTAAP, blah blah. Don’t care. If the Sox are going to be good for the better part of the next decade and not just for the next three or four years, it’s going to be on the backs of the prospects and not the big free agents.

SoSH is full of suggestions, including the idea that Cespedes could be sent somewhere like Seattle, for Hisashi Iwakuma. I suspect that there would have to be something else going to Seattle in that one, but right handed power is at a premium, and Seattle needs more help scoring runs.

I was going to be happy if the Sox got a third baseman and two pitchers. If the Sox get Ramirez, Sandoval, Lester, and another pitcher, I’m going to get a little bit giddy.

On the Masahiro Tanaka Signing

Usually when the Yankees go out and spend a lot of money on a guy, Red Sox fans such as myself bitch about how they’re able to outspend us by ridiculous amounts. It used to be that the Red Sox had the second highest payroll in the game and were closer to the lowest payroll than to the Yankees. Times have changed somewhat, of course, what with the luxury tax and the winning of of three World Series and all. So today, when the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka, all I could do was laugh and rub my hands together in Mr. Burns-like glee.

Everything is context dependent, and the context in this case is the luxury tax threshold. The tax has an escalation clause so that the first time a team goes over, they pay 17.5% of the amount they overspent. This goes up each year they’re over the tax, maxing out at 50% and resetting if they even spend one year under it. The threshold was $178 million in 2013 and goes up to $189 million. The Yankees have been telling people for about two years that they had a goal of getting under the threshold in 2014 to reset their tax rate and save themselves tens of millions of dollars.

This would be a reasonable business decision. The Yankees have been old for a long time now, and since winning the 2009 World Series, the Yankees have lost the 2010 League Championship four games to two by a combined score of 38-19, lost the 2011 Division Series despite outscoring their opponents 28-17, lost the 2012 LCS in four games by a combined score of 19-6, and missed the postseason entirely. More than that, they have done it while looking not just old, but old and bad.

So if the Yankees wanted to regroup a little, reset their tax rate, let some salaries come off the books, and make another major push in 2015, the only people who would complain are the self entitled douches who try to justify their miserable lives by leeching off the Yankees tit. Well, them and everyone that advertises on Yankee broadcasts.

And it looked like this is what the Yankees were doing. They let Russell Martin go, accepting an OPS of .587 from the catcher spot. When their old players were—shockingly—injured in 2013, they went to great lengths to ensure that the players they brought in would have a minimal burden on the 2014 tax rolls. That’s why they ended up with the desiccated corpse of Vernon Wells patrolling left field.

Time after time after time after time the Yankees would make some penny ante move instead of the big one you knew they wanted to make and all anyone could do was point to the luxury tax threshold for 2014. The Yankees even got the greatest gift they could get when Alex Rodriguez and his $27 million dollar contract were suspended. Salaries of suspended players don’t count for luxury tax purposes.

Then there came an event which, so far as I can tell, is unique in all of history. The Yankees let their best player get away when they could have kept him just by giving him more money. A lot of folks were skeptical that the Yankees really intended to get under the tax threshold, but this convinced a lot of those skeptics.

Then the Yankees started spending money. They signed the most expensive catcher they could. They signed the most expensive center fielder they could. They signed Carlos Beltran, who was too old for them just four years ago.

And some looked askance, but they were still under that tax limit.

And now they have signed Masahiro Tanaka, the most expensive pitcher they could sign, and they have virtually zero chance of staying under that cap limit. To get under, they would have to trade players that nobody wants and get someone to take their salaries. Oh, and they haven’t got much in the minor league system to send to make the deal at all reasonable for anyone to take.

Or, I suppose, they could send the commissioner’s office some dirt and get some of their other players suspended for 2014.

If they were going to go over the limit, why didn’t they sign Robinson Cano? The Yankees have often said that getting under the cap was a goal and not a mandate and that they would be willing to go over it for the right player. Are we really supposed to believe that Tanaka is the right player while Cano is not? Cano is a marvelously talented player at a premium position who has already demonstrated the ability to perform at a high level in New York. If we believe the scouting reports on Tanaka, he should be one of the top 25 pitchers in the game but it is much more likely that he’s in the 10-25 range than the top ten. He’s younger, and that’s certainly an argument, but the Yankees also signed the thirty year old Jacoby Ellsbury, thirty year old etiquette enforcer Brian McCann, and thirty six year old Carlos Beltran.

But wait, you say, they desperately needed pitching. After all, the only finished slightly better than league average at 4.14 runs allowed per game last year, almost two thirds of a run worse than the best in the league. True, but they also finished tenth in runs scored at 4.01 per game, a full run and a quarter less than the league leading Red Sox.

And sure, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran will help them score runs. But if they don’t make any other moves, they’re relying on a forty year old Derek Jeter to play more than 17 games and the thirty four year old, Mark Teixeira to play more than 15. Meanwhile it is utterly unclear how they intend to get offense at second or third. They have Kelly Johnson who may be able to be average somewhere but that leaves the likes of Brendan Ryan, Brian Roberts, and Eduardo Nunez. It’s pretty ugly.

Should, by some strange quirk of fate, one or more of their old guys get hurt, they have precisely squat to replace them with.

Oh, and did I mention that Mariano Rivera retired, CC Sabathia just had his worst season ever, and if he’s not exactly old, he certainly isn’t young. The Yankees clearly think they can compete in the short term, but they really have to have just about everything go right for that to be the case.

Were I them, with resetting the tax rate a vanished dream, I’d give Derek Jeter a nice watch and sign Stephen Drew. He would be a massive upgrade on defense, and probably a big upgrade on offense as well.

Of course, the Yankees won’t do that. If they weren’t willing to move Jeter off short when they got Alex Rodriguez, they certainly aren’t going to send him to the glue factory for Stephen Drew.

The bottom line is, I think, this. Unless the Rays end up dealing Price—which is certainly possible—the Yankees are going to be fighting for third place unless they get very lucky om the injury front.

2013 Red Sox Preview: DH/Catchers

The Red Sox are pretty much the last team that uses an everyday DH. That’s simply because they have an excellent one. David Ortiz is central to the team in 2013 to the point that if he loses any significant amount of time to injury, the Sox’ chances of making the playoffs plummets to almost nothing. There simply isn’t a hitter of his caliber in the system at the moment. Ryan Lavarnway is highly regarded as a hitting prospect, but mostly because he plays catcher.

The catcher thing is a bit of a mess. When David Ross was acquired, a lot of folks, myself included, thought it mean that a trade of Jarrod Saltalamacchia was imminent. It hasn’t happened yet, and may not.

If it doesn’t happen before the end of spring, it suggests that Lavarnway will open the season in AAA despite having nothing left to prove at the level.

One complicating factor might be Christian Vazquez. He has established himself as a strong defensive catcher with an inconsistent bat. If he achieves some consistency, it might be Lavarnway who ends up on the trading block.

My personal preference would be to use Lavarnway at first at times. It may be unfair to ask him to learn a new position–one where his value would be significantly less–after all the work he has put in to make himself a decent receiver, but the fact is the team has very few options at the corners should the major league incumbent go down.

As with everything else Red Sox, the catching position looks to be a lot different a year from now.

2/23/12 Rays 4, Sox 3

Box Score

I don’t intend to post about every spring training game because that would be tedious for everyone involved. This was the first televised game of the spring, through, so I’m going to post away.

Don and Jerry were in midseason form, laughing it up and neglecting to tell us who was batting–before the fifth inning and everything got screwy. I rather suspect this is going to be a terrible season in that regard.

John Lackey looked like a guy who hasn’t pitched in a year and a half. His arm didn’t fly off and hit someone in the stands, so it was a positive outing.

Pretty much all the Red Sox pitchers looked rusty save Alex Wilson who struck out three. Methinks he wants to make the big club out of spring training. I rather suspect he will be disappointed in that, but he’s definitely one of the guys who should get called up when injuries strike.

All three Red Sox runs were driven in by shortstop prospects, which was interesting. Don and Jerry said that Jose Iglesias put on ten pounds of muscle in the off season. He may look a little thicker around the middle, but he’s still pretty scrawny. Still, he hit a two run homer on a nice high fat pitch. Progress, as we say, is progress. Xander Bogaerts drove in the other run with a nice hard single in the ninth.

Other than that, pretty boring game, but baseball is back and all is well with the world.