Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A scenario or two for July 31

The trade deadline is 10 days away -- which means it'll still be a week or so until the market shakes itself out and teams decide whether they're in or out.

(We'd help them if they asked, and that might speed the process along. Brewers? In. Mets? Out. Mariners? In. Twins? Out. But no one ever asks.)

While Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has a full 25-man roster and no glaring holes to fill, but he also has an offense with an on-base percentage and slugging percentage that has declined every month and a bullpen with an ERA that gone in the opposite direction. He has two of baseball's best starting pitchers but a back end of the rotation featuring three veterans with injury history and a Triple-A phenom pounding at the door.

Even though his team still is in first place, Epstein has some work to do. Here's one way things might shake out between now and July 31:

1. Epstein trades Brad Penny to Milwaukee, Philadelphia or St. Louis for the best deal he can get.
Penny had a 3.45 ERA in 10 starts from mid-May to mid-July before getting knocked around in Toronto on Saturday. Even on Saturday, though, Penny threw a consistent 94 or 95 miles per hour and thus has to be appealing for a National League contender looking to shore up the back end of its rotation.

The trade, of course, opens up a rotation spot for Clay Buchholz -- which can't happen until July 28 because Buchholz has been optioned back to Triple-A and thus can't be recalled for 10 days.

2. Epstein trades Mike Lowell to Cincinnati for Double-A pitcher Travis Wood, eating most of Lowell's salary in the process.
The Red Sox can't keep waiting on Lowell -- and depending upon him when they have no idea if he'll be available. The three-year, $37.5 million contract they lavished upon him after he won World Series MVP honors in 2007 now looks like a mistake, and Epstein has shown a willingness to acknowledged mistakes and rectify them so they don't keep haunting his team.

Lowell's .799 OPS ranks him in the middle of the pack of major-league third basemen -- he's behind Chone Figgins and Ryan Zimmerman but ahead of Mark Teahan, Pedro Feliz and Andy LaRoche. His Ultimate Zone Rating ranks him third-worst in the major leagues, however, and John Dewan's plus-minus system has him at minus-15 runs saved -- 35th in the major leagues. (As Joe Posnanski is fond of pointing out, there are only 30 major-league teams.)

The Red Sox have rectified their defensive situation at shortstop. They need to rectify their defensive situation at third base.

Cincinnati, though, needs offense. Its pitching staff has a respectable 4.27 ERA -- but its lineup is averaging just 4.10 runs per game, worse than all but two National League teams. With the National League Central completely up for grabs, it might just take one or two bats to get the Reds right back into the thick of things. Lowell (OPS+ of 101) could step in for Jerry Hairston (OPS+ of 81) and Edwin Encarnacion (OPS+ of 92).

The Red Sox would have to kick in money to pay for the $18 million or so left on Lowell's deal. Given that their payroll dropped from $133 million last year to $121 million this year, there ought to be enough money for the parting gifts awarded to both Lowell and Julio Lugo.

Wood is a 22-year-old lefty who has taken a gigantic step forward this season, recording a 1.21 ERA in 19 starts for the Double-A Carolina Mudcats. He's done it with a strikeout-to-walk ratio that's almost 3.0 and by inducing more ground balls than fly balls. He's just 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, but Tim Lincecum and Dustin Pedroia ought to have demonstrated by now that you can't dismiss a player just because he isn't 6-foot-2.

3. Epstein trades Ryan Kalish to Toronto for Marco Scutaro.
Once Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi either makes a Roy Halladay deal or gets to the point of no return on a Roy Halladay deal, it's time for him to sell off other expendable parts for prospects with an eye on 2011.

Scutaro, as previously discussed, fits exactly what the Red Sox need. For one thing, he's a leadoff hitter who thrives in the leadoff spot -- he's OBP'ing .383 in the leadoff spot this season -- and takes pitches and works counts and refuses to give away at-bats. On top of that, he's one of the best defensive infielders in the major leagues: He leads all shortstops in plus-minus this season (plus-22), and he was third among third basemen in plus-minus last season (plus-17).

With Lowell gone, Scutaro becomes the Red Sox's everyday third baseman but can play shortstop and second base when needed. He would allow Kevin Youkilis to return to first base, the position where he appears to be far better with the glove.

The Red Sox aren't going to trade Buchholz or Lars Anderson for Scutaro, but the depth they've built in their system would allow them to trade someone like Kalish, a 21-year-old outfielder who OPS'ed .938 at Single-A Salem before scuffling upon his promotion to Double-A Portland. Kalish was the system's sixth-ranked prospect in 2008 but dropped out of the top 10 rankings in 2009. He's a chip the Red Sox value highly, but you have to give up something to get something.

Then again, the Blue Jays might be interested in a prospect in the Cincinnati system that the Reds might be willing to trade for Lowell. If Epstein could broker a three-way deal that involves a prospect or two going from Cincinnati straight to Toronto, he could end up trading Lowell for Scutaro straight up without touching his own prospects.


Mike said...

Brian, you used 2009 Ultimate Zone Rating stats from Fangraphs to suggest that Youkilis is better at first than third, but defensive stats like UZR become less useful over a smaller sample size.

Overlooking the data from 2009 and looking at Youk's defensive career, over a much more reliable sample size, you could make the case he is **better** at third than first.

Besides, if the the Sox acquired Scutaro and jettisoned Lowell, wouldn't the optimal defensive allignment find Scutaro at SS, Youkilis at 1B, and Lowrie at 3B? Putting a premium defensive SS at 3B doesn't make much sense.

Brian MacPherson said...

Your second point is spot-on: You're right, with Lowrie likely a solid but not spectacular defender, it would make sense to play Scutaro at shortstop. Either way, though, it would allow you to play Youkilis at first base.

It is interesting to look at the UZR numbers for Youkilis at first base and third base. Over his career, you're right, he has an UZR/150 of 5.9 at first base but 9.8 at third base. The weird thing, though, is that his numbers at third base very pretty wildly:

2006: Minus-7.7
2007: 6.9
2008: 22.6
2009: Minus-15.3

His numbers at first base, though, consistently are above average:

2006: 0.9
2007: 10.3
2008: 4.0
2009: 11.1

Sample size, with all of these numbers, is an issue. But so, too, is proximity. Youkilis' numbers at third base are boosted by-time by a very impressive 2004 (UZR/150 of 18.7) -- but how relevant is that now?

The great thing about Youkilis is that you're not taking a plus defender and turning him into a minus defender. The only question is where you can best maximize his talents -- and that's what's going to determine whether you go after a Scutaro or a Nick Johnson.

(Well, that and the price tag.)